Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Komische Oper: Petrushka / L'Enfant et les sortilèges

19 February 2017

I should admit that I went to the Komische Oper’s new Stravinsky-Ravel double bill in the strange position of not having seen 1927’s earlier widely-travelled Zauberflöte—entirely my own fault, since it’s been around this season already, plus has a couple of further performances scheduled.

In a programme interview, though, Suzanne Andrade, one of the group’s masterminds, says that the Mozart took them back to an earlier stage in their development, while this new staging of Petrushka and L’Enfant et les sortilèges is rather closer to what they’ve been doing more recently.

Petrushka and Ptitschka in 1927's Stravinsky-Ravel double bill at the Komische Oper (photo © Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de)

Among that recent work was The Golem, which I did see at the Old Vic in London. Certainly much of what we saw here was reminiscent of that show: the wit, the imagination, the sheer theatrical spark and fizz, animations with a sort of Heath Robinson/Terry Gilliam sense of the absurd mixing cleverly with real-life action.

The big splash of colour and character conjured up at the start of Stravinsky’s Shrovetide Fair, with a heavy dash of Russian constructivism, was dazzling. The magician was represented throughout by large animated hand, prodding and poking the action as required.

Petrushka, played with puckish mischief by Tiago Alexandre Fonseca, becomes a clown. The original ballerina becomes the acrobat Ptitschka (Pauliina Räsänen), while the Moor is recast as Patap the muscleman (Slava Volkov).

It’s less a ballet per se, then, than a mixture of mime and acrobatics, engaging and entertaining, but also ultimately, I felt, a little inexpressive and, ironically for this work, lacking in humanity. Petrushka’s heartbreak and death counting for little among the visual razzle dazzle.

The Ravel struck me as a great deal more successful, not least because there we still had the expressive potential of the singing more or less intact, even if a number of the roles were delivered invisibly from offstage. Indeed, the Child begins life in animated form before, as the magic kicks off, appearing in the form of both the mezzo Ruzan Mantashyan (on mellifluous, stylish form) and a double, Martina Borroni: both are dressed in identical padded-out cub-scout uniform and swap over at various stages to keep the action fluid and the eye alert.

The other people, creatures and objects appeared variously as singers on stage, animations with voices heard off-stage or, as in the case of the brilliantly shrill Ivan Turšić’s M. Mathe, a mixture of both. The animation, meanwhile, allowed for the surreal action of Colette’s libretto—so brilliantly matched by Ravel’s witty and urbane score—to unravel with a trippy and enchanting unpredictability and humour.

A certain ambiguity, especially regarding the role of the Mother (the classy Ezgi Kutlu), was a result of the group's professed aim to underline the closeness between Petrushka's nearly omnipresent father figure (the Magician) and L'Enfant's nearly omni-absent Mother. This was compounded by a slight ambivalence when it came to whether or not the Child in the end really learnt from his escapades. 

The Child encounters M. Mathe in L'Enfant et les sortilèges (photo © Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de)

The extended cast, in a true virtuoso ensemble effort, was outstanding, and the Komische Oper’s orchestra played both scores with lucid flexibility for Markus Poschner. I’ll have to catch the Zauberflöte, but also am intrigued as to how 1927 might develop their aesthetic further to bring yet more to whatever operatic work they tackle next, and whether they can create something more substantial beneath the always glittering surface of their theatre. 

The Golem had had me wondering about what lay beneath, as here did PetrushkaL'Enfant, though, provided something more rewarding and spiritually nourishing. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Landestheater Coburg: Fidelio & The Cunning Little Vixen

Last week I took a little trip to Franconia. I was there to see the opera company of Landestheater Coburg perform two of its new productions under its dynamic music director Roland Kluttig. Having made his name primarily as a new music specialist, Kluttig was appointed Generalmusikdirektor at the start of the 2010/11 and is clearly bringing a new sense of ambition to this company across the repertoire.

Interior of the Markgrafentheater in Erlangen
First stop was Erlangen, where the Coburg company was performing their Fidelio at the town’s beautiful Markgrafentheater, the oldest functioning Baroque theatre in South Germany, Wikipedia tells me, but one that in the 300 years since it was built has undergone quite a few facelifts. The exterior is modern, and inside the boxes have been knocked through (if that's the term) and a fair amount of detailing has been smoothed over.

Still it’s a lovely little place, as is the town itself, centred around an elegant 18th-century university complex and a famous botanical garden (maintained by the university, but inevitably looking a little triste in mid February). 

The theatre produces its own plays, in the main building and couple of other venues in the town, as well as hosting concerts and Gastspiele from the Coburg—a 50-mile whizz up the autobahn. For me on this occasion it was Fidelio, in a production (new in the autumn) by Rudolf Frey, whose work in the UK has included a not-much-loved Maria Stuarda at Welsh National Opera in 2013.

There were a few textual novelties: the apparently ever-problematic dialogue was replaced by texts from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte; and, unusually, we had Leonore III as the overture (performed with real vigour by Kluttig and the orchestra in the theatre’s tiny pit), chosen possibly in part so that its greater length could provide more scope for the dumb-show Prologue it accompanied.

This Prologue, as I read only afterwards (having assumed no need to revisit the opera’s synopsis), set up the premise for the production. Florestan is a journalist who has discovered some nasty secrets about his old friend, the prison governor Pizarro. Leonore passes the material to the Pizarro unawares, and he then locks Florestan up. Time passes, until Leonore, denied the opportunity to visit him in prison, discovers that Florestan has died. She ‘sinks down in shock and mourning,’ we are told, and ‘before her inner eye unravels the following story: …’.

Landestheater Coburg
I’m reviewing the production in opera so will essentially leave it there, only to add that it seems that Fidelio remains as tricky as ever, and this framing device, though freeing the production from certain burdens and responsibilities, also seemed to relieve it from the necessity to make a great deal of sense on its own terms—or, at least, to feel responsible for conveying that sense to those watching. I was left scratching my head much of the time.

The next evening’s Vixen (directed by Alexandra Szemerèdy and Magdolna Parditka, and sung in German) was a great deal more persuasive. It was a fiercely uncompromising reinterpretation that imagined the work as a dark, entirely unredemptive tale of human trafficking and prostitution, and which ends in multiple deaths at the hands of the Game Keeper. It paid little attention to Janáček’s score, admittedly, but had at least an impressive conviction and internal coherence. (Again, I'll be reviewing this in operaso will leave it there.)

Alexandra Szemerédy and Magdolna Parditka's Cunning Little Vixen at Landestheater Coburg
(Photo © Henning Rosenbusch)
Sitting across the Theaterplatz from the imposing and beautifully preserved Schloss Ehrenburg (whose 1810s façade was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel), the Coburg theatre is delightful. A 550-seat gem of sober classical lines, it opened in 1840 and built up a reputation as a Wagner theatre throughout the second half of the 19th-century; its resident set-painter Max Brückner was recruited, along with his brother Gotthold, by Wagner for Bayreuth, not far down the road.

Landestheater Coburg
Recently it has started to re-establish its Wagner repertory, having had something of a hit, it seems, with its 2014 Lohengrin—Kluttig told me that Wagner outsells everything in the theatre, opera, plays or musicals; he is constantly getting stopped in the street, on the other hand, by people asking for more Brahms in the concert series he runs with the theatre’s orchestra. 

After other successes with Der Rosenkavalier and, particularly, Pelléas et Mélisande, the decision was made to stage Parsifal too, which will therefore be seen there in April.

Later this season the theatre also stages a double bill of the first German performance of Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven and Poulenc’s La Voix humaine. That, the productions I saw, and the fact that the beginning of the season they revived another double bill, this time of Dido and Aeneas and Riders to the Sea, give an idea of quite how adventurous this operatic arm of the theatre is.

I hope to return soon, not least to see the wonderful town in slightly less wintry conditions.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Lohengrin

Buoyed by the Deutsche Oper’s rejuvenating and invigorating Tannhäuser, and still buzzing from the Semperoper’s terrific Siegfried, I perhaps in retrospect went into this Lohengrin with expectations set rather too high.

Kasper Holten's Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Marcus Lieberenz)

Some of the casting, on paper at least, had a couple of surprises. But not, of course, in the title role: Klaus Florian Vogt performed with the seraphic mien, boyish tone and apparently tireless stamina we’ve come to expect from him. It seems increasingly that this is a marmite voice and technique: some love it, others hate it. He remains unique, though, and certainly impressive as Lohengrin, the role to which he is possibly best suited.  

Sung Ha, a late replacement, showed off a lovely smooth bass voice, if not the requisite authority or gravitas, as Heinrich. Dong-Hwan Lee was an impressive Heerrufer and John Lundgren a forthright if somewhat relentless Telramund (he lost some of his vocal bite as the evening progressed).

There can’t be many, meanwhile, who can sing Ortrud as well as Elena Pankratova (last heard by me as a fearless Elektra in Dresden, as well as an outstanding Fäberin in the Royal Opera’s Die Frau ohne Schatten). Pankratova’s voice is unusually beautiful for these roles, never really running the risk of souring or fraying, it seems, and she sings with a bel canto-like musicality.

I wondered, in fact, whether she might have made a better job of Elsa than Manuela Uhl, a utility Straussian (last year I saw her at the DOB as both Salome and Danae) whose qualities include stamina and a large jugendlich-dramatisch basic sound, but do not extend, alas, to much vocal beauty or stability in terms of intonation—pre-requisites for Elsa.

(Click to enlarge)
She seemed more at sea dramatically than many of her colleagues, too, in what were already rather choppy under-rehearsed waters. In addition, she made very little of her words and tended to drag things down, in pitch and often tempo, at many of hear appearances. She’s a very useful singer, but this was not wise casting.

Donald Runnicles and his forces—so compelling a week previously in Tannhäuser—were having an off night, too. The conductor’s tempos dragged in the first two acts (the second act given in a very full version), but then tended to rush in the third. The playing only intermittently found sheen and polish, the choral singing was often rather raw and untidy.

In the circumstances it seems unfair to judge Kasper Holten’s production. Of his Personenregie, one suspected, there remained little trace in this hastily thrown together revival (the 22nd performance since it was new just under five years ago), making a poor case for his ideas. Nevertheless, even factoring in such theatrical atrophy, it still felt worryingly confused, and an in-depth programme interview did little to help unravel its knotted strands.

Holten had directed the work in Moscow four years before this staging opened and seems to have brought certain ideas from that production (a thinly-veiled allegory of Putin’s rise to power, by all accounts) while adding several new ones. We have Lohengrin as dubious media savvy politician, then, and choreographer of his own rise to power, but we are also in the aftermath of war—not a war, but just war in general—with the male chorus as soldiers from a variety of eras.

Kasper Holten's Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Marcus Lieberenz)

One of the more interesting ideas involves Elsa as guessing at what this Lohengrin is up to before anyone else, suspicious of his motives from the start—although little of that remained in this performance. But the attempt to create a sense of transhistorical universalism left us rather with a sense of jumbled-up, unrelated specifics. And the stagecraft, particularly during a clunky Act 2 that sent us unexpectedly into false-proscenium meta-theatrics, was also at times worryingly shoddy and ill thought through. 

In the end, while I had come away from Tannhäuser newly convinced of its glories; this performance made me think that Lohengrin (admittedly probably a far less interesting work) was worse than it is. And that’s never a good thing. 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Semperoper Dresden: Siegfried

29 January 2017

This was the final individual Ring instalment to be presented by Christian Thielemann at the Semperoper ahead of his tackling the whole lot next season (in January and early February 2018). Die Walküre was last January (or at least that’s when I saw it) and Das Rheingold in the Autumn.

It’s a shame that there won’t be a chance to experience Götterdämmerung individually ahead of the complete cycles, not least because judging by Thielemann’s approach—grandly conceived, bold, often almost fierce in its sheer sound—I suspect it will be something properly shattering.

Stephen Gould (Siegfried) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) in Siegfried at the Semperoper (Photo © Klaus Gigga)

 His Siegfried certainly points that way, since it was it’s most successful in the post-Tristan ardour and pre-Götterdämmerung portentousness of Act 3. It was there, too, that we were allowed to witness the thrilling spectacle of a totally secure Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) and Siegfried (Stephen Gould) soaring over the Staatskapelle in full flow. At this point Willy Decker’s production—a co-production with Madrid and first seen here in 2003—opened up as well to reveal blue, cloud-specked skies.

Before that, the action had often felt rather hemmed in, with the meta-theatrical conceit of the production, clearly and often cleverly presented in the first two instalments, becoming somewhat muddled. The recurring motif of theatre seats—and associated emphasis on the idea of spectatorship—turned up only at a late stage.

Here, instead, we had Mime giving lessons on a blackboard, Siegfried bringing a teddy bear in from the forest, a pretty unimpressive staging of the forging of Nothung and a confusing young Siegfried double as the Forest Bird—clearly his unconscious on one level, but also, it seemed on a rather more banal level, his dogsbody. One clever touch, though, was Fafner, Mime’s crude chalk drawing of which of a dragon coming to life impressively.

(Click to enlarge)
Musically many things were excellent in the first two acts, with Thielemann managing to get detail as well as grandeur and gravitas from his players. Dramatically things could have been tighter, though, and Gould is more persuasive as Siegfried abandons jolly japes for more serious undertakings; the voice is rock solid throughout, and, though perhaps a little utilitarian in timbre at full tilt, is capable of some lovely honeyed phrases in more reflective moments.

He had a more than worthy vocal adversary in the first two acts from Gerhard Siegel’s Mime, whose finely focused tenor would give many a Siegfried a run for his money (though happily not this one).

Gerhard Siegel (Mime) and Stephen Gould (Siegfried)  at the Semperoper (Photo © Klaus Gigga)

Albert Dohmen was a powerful Alberich, and one who, as a former Bayreuth Wotan, rather put Markus Marquardt’s Wanderer in the shade. Marquardt did a decent job as a smoothly sung Walküre Wotan, but lacked true vocal authority and presence here, as he had done in the Rheingold. Christa Mayer and Georg Zeppenfeld made up the cast impressively.

It’s the rapturous second half of Act 3 that will stick in the memory, though—the unspeakably tender winding violin line as Siegfried ascends to the Walkürenfels in particular (a match, as far as I remember, for Barenboim and the other Staatskapelle down the road at the Proms), and the stunning burst of orchestral warmth at Brünnhilde’s awakening. Moments like that—and much else we've heard so farsuggest the whole cycle could be something special.