Monday, 13 March 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: Ariadne auf Naxos

11 March 2017

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Hans Neuenfels’s Berliner Staatsoper staging of Ariadne auf Naxos is its apparent pervading sense of gentleness, if that’s the word, even at times a sort of neutrality.

Katrin Lea Tag’s set is essentially a white half-box, with moveable walls and backdrops (one in the Prologue features a cash dispenser). The main feeling is one of pared-down abstraction: there’s no sense of being backstage in the Prologue, not much feeling of being on stage in the Opera, where Ariadne weeps on a chaise longue surrounded by the antique rubble that tumbles down from the back at the end of the Prologue.

Around her, Harlekin and his troupe try to rebuild something from this. Ariadne’s mistaking Bacchus for Hermes is spelled out when the latter arrives in the form of a golden statuette as part of a strange, macabre procession. Bacchus himself stage-manages his appearance, with Najade, Dryade and Echo becoming his assistants.

The three attendants begin the act like the Norns at the start of Götterdämmerung, the Composer—who reappears at various points—having furnished them with a ball of three threads, which they then use to lift Ariadne, puppet-like, from her torpor. During her main arias, meanwhile, an actual puppet artist, dressed in black with ‘Das Schicksal’ on his back, weaves around her with a bare head on each hand—Ariadne and Theseus, one might assume.

Ariadne has one of those Strauss-Hofmannsthal happy endings that is only half-convincing: Hofmannsthal talks of transformation, but Strauss doesn’t allow his music in this work, or even less in Die Frau ohne Schatten (which follows both in their collaboration and in the Staatsoper’s 16/17 Spielplan), to jettison the pain of what’s come before. Happiness, the implication seems to be, is contingent on living with and gradually processing that memory.

Here, though, Neuenfels denies us that: Bacchus does his best to persuade Ariadne, his performance, it struck me, slightly reminiscent of the unsuccessful mating dance of some rainforest bird. And he’s about as troubled by his failure, too: he has given up by the close of the duet, which he sings with generalised anguish from the orchestral pit. Ariadne, in the end, prefers to die. As the synopsis in the programme puts it: ‘She thus fulfils the words of the Composer: “She wants to die! No, she really does die.”’

Out goes the lesson that, according to Hofmannsthal, Ariadne should learn from from Zerbinetta, which maybe explains why their opposing attitudes are presented in bald opposition during the latter’s aria, where each inscribes the essence of their Liebesphilosophie in chalk on one side of the stage.

It's a bold ending, and one that's perhaps also surprising given that Zerbinetta is presented with rare sympathy, smartly-dressed, grown-up and unusually sensible, and sung with real spark here, if not quite an ideal level of pinpoint coloratura, by Elena Sanch-Pereg. 

You’d maybe expect the production to undercut her message, but she’s allowed to get it across clearly; and rarely have I seen the burgeoning feelings between her and the Composer—the ardent, youthful and soprano-ish Katharina Kammerloher—in the Prologue presented more touchingly, without any hint of caricature. 

There was something especially touching, too, about Kammerloher’s interactions with the excellent Music Master of Arttu Kataja, whose own youth suggested perhaps more sympathy than usual with his charge’s dilemma.

In fact, the comedy was underplayed throughout, not least by the strange Haushofmeister(in) of Elisabeth Trissenaar, about as Viennese as the staging, and hardly less abstract in her deliberately pulled-about delivery—as a character, she seemed situated somewhere between circus ringmaster and cabaret MC. The excellent quartet around Gyula Orendt’s touching Harlekin kept clowning refreshingly to a minimum, a strap-on dildo each at the end of the Prologue notwithstanding.

The streamlined staging felt matched to an extent by the conducting of Eun Sun Kim, which was a little business-like on occasion, despite a great deal of flexibility in the Prologue. She didn’t dig deep as some in the Opera itself, either, and perhaps the tragedy of Neuenfels’s vision might have gained greater depth if she had done so.

Such an effect, though, was undoubtedly hampered by Anna Samuil’s bold-as-brass Ariadne. Unstinting on the vibrato and the convoluted German, she sang the notes but offered little sense of trying to explore this most complex of roles, ploughing through her arias and failing to offer something to match the delicately prepared cushion of sound Kim proffered her her ‘Gibt es kein hinüber’ (below, by way of totally unfair comparison, is Gundula Janowitz showing how this can be done, in the live recording I picked as top choice when I did a Gramophone Collection on the opera a couple of years ago) 

The production rather underlines the bluster to which any Bacchus is prone, but Roberto Saccà nonetheless sang with admirable security and emotional grandeur—or was it here, in Neuenfels's eyes, mere grandstanding?

Finally, a mention of the playing of the Staatskapelle, a marvel of eloquence and delicacy. And what a pleasure to here this score in a theatre the size of the Schillertheater, a couple of hundred seats smaller than the Stuttgart Staatstheater for which the work was originally conceived—in its first 1912 version at least. 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Semperoper Dresden: Otello

26 February

Only a couple of days after this performance, the new season at the Semperoper was announced, in which Christian Thielemann is to conduct not a single of the new productions. He’s busy with plenty of Wagner (there are a couple of Rings), as well as a starrily cast Tosca, but it might seem surprising, after this Otello and a Simon Boccanegra a few seasons back, that he wouldn’t have bagsied next season’s new Forza del Destino for himself (that goes to Mark Wigglesworth).

Sofia Pintzu ('Ein Engel') in the Semperoper's Otello (Photo © Forster)

That said, this performance suggested that Forza might not be quite up his Straße these days. While he brought an appropriate dark grandeur to Boccanegra and certain moments in Otello, the more visceral nature of the latter’s drama seemed on occasion to elude him.

The playing of the Staatskapelle gloried in the band’s characteristic cushioned sheen, and Thielemann can elicit some thrilling edge and bite from them too—and certain key orchestral outbursts were stunning in their power. But it seemed like the conductor also felt the need to place several episodes of moment by moment drama within longer quasi-symphonic arcs: the results were always interesting, but not always compelling.

Perhaps things would have worked more powerfully had the production, making its Dresden debut after being unveiled at last year’s Salzburg Easter Festival, been more interested in offering us red-blooded drama too. 

Instead, as tends to be the case in my experience of their work, the team of Vincent Boussard (director), Vincent Lemaire (sets) and Christian Lacroix (costumes) offered something stylish but slightly anonymous: period-with-a-modern-twist costumes, shiny dark floor, minimal boxy sets and a recurring motif of wafting material (a reference both to the sail mentioned in the opening chorus and Desdemona’s handkerchief) both on stage and in the atmospheric if slightly screensaverish video projections.  

We also had the dubious bonus of an ‘angel’ (played by the actress Sofia Pintzou), who stalked the stage throughout much of the evening, and whose black wings started to billow smoke and flame up at the big orchestral outburst ahead of ‘Dio! mi potevi’. 

Dorothea Röschmann (Desdemona), Sofia Pintzu (Angel) and Stephen Gould (Otello) (Photo © Forster)

This allowed for some impressive images, but also seemed symptomatic of a staging that felt weirdly reluctant to get its hands dirty with this most powerful and direct of dramas, in which we had little sense of where we were, who the main characters were, why they were acting in the way they did and, ultimately, why we should really care about them.

Stephen Gould (Otello), Dorothea Röschmann (Desdemona)
& Andrzej Dobber (Iago) (Photo © Forster)
This effect was somewhat exacerbated by a cast that never really coalesced. The casting of Stephen Gould as Otello seemed to take us back to an earlier age where Tristans and Siegfrieds were regulars in this role, but also demonstrated that its challenges are very different from those of Wagner. Gould was stretched at the extremes and his tone was exposed as short on sap and the necessary trumpety squillo. He has the stamina, though, and saved the best till last in a moving death scene. 

Andrzej Dobber was a perfectly decent Iago, but the combination of his reluctance to really use the words and a smooth, rather benign timbre held the characterization back. 

Dorothea Röschmann was an unusually forthright, strong-willed Desdemona right from the start, and certainly no mere shining paragon of female virtue and purity (somewhat in contravention of Verdi’s own conception of the role). There a couple of rough-edged moments, but her Willow Song and Ave Maria were a highlight—it’s just a shame that the characterization was left isolated within the production as a whole.

The singers making up the rest of the cast, including Antonio Poli’s mellifluous and pleasingly bright-toned Cassio, Georg Zeppenfeld’s authoritative Lodovico and Christa Mayer’s moving Emilia, were excellent. There was an awful lot of quality on show, then, but this was an Otello that never really caught fire. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Lulu

24 February

I’d gone to Hamburg’s new Lulu vaguely forewarned: this new production from Christoph Marthaler was going to offer a novel solution to the problem of the opera’s unfinished status (if there is indeed still a problem, over 35 years since Friedrich Cerha’s completion was first performed).

Barbara Hannigan as Lulu and Veronika Eberle as 'Eine Violistin' (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

I’d steered clear of reviews, but had heard the evening was to conclude with the Violin Concerto. When the programme made no obvious mention of the fact, though, I wondered if that was indeed going to be the case: I embarked upon the evening in a state of mild confusion.

(Click to enlarge)
What an essay in the programme did explain was that, in this edition (credited to Marthaler, Kent Nagano, assistant conductor Johannes Harniet and dramaturg Malte Ubenauf), the music for Act 3 would be presented to reflect the state of Berg’s unfinished particell score, performed by two pianos (one on stage, the other in the pit) and violin (on stage). The music Berg did actually orchestrate was not included.  

It all served to make an already elusive work even more elusive. It also seemed to be of a piece with Marthaler’s staging, in which all characters themselves seemed to be presented in incomplete form, sketched out in somewhat abstracted terms, delivering lines with studied lack of emotion, moving with stilted, stylised awkwardness.

In a sequence right at the very start, the Theatre Director’s assistant, Auguste, brings each character on, placing them in position. A microphone on a boom is present throughout, while Acts 1 and 3 seem to take place backstage. The natural state of the production, to which it felt as though it was continually trying to return, seemed to be precisely the provisional incompleteness that was communicated in that final act, both musically and in terms of the staging and drama.

The whole show has a undeniable seriousness—which by no means excludes some surreal humorous touches—and an austere, cool beauty to it. Marthaler is unstinting in creating his own theatrical universe of post-war beiges, painstakingly and stylishly realised through Anna Viebrock’s designs and Martin Gebrecht’s precise lighting, which an excellent cast inhabit with total commitment.

Act 1 of Christoph Marthaler's Lulu in Hamburg (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

There’s a sense with Barbara Hannigan’s Lulu that much of what she does here—some repeated backward flips off a table, long stretches of jerky gesturing—she’s been asked to do largely just because she can; and the voice remains more adept at ethereal flights into the stratosphere than projecting mid-range intensity.

She’s still a compelling stage presence, though, and an actress of fearless commitment: her physical submission to Ivan Ludlow’s hunky Athlete, allowing herself to serve as some sort of numb ersatz dumbbell, was both unsettling and strangely impressive. Her totemic, symbolic status in the production was further underlined by the presence of four further female figures, named in the cast list as characters from Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box.

Anne Sofie von Otter (Countess Geschwitz), Marta Świderska (Gymnasiast), Barbara Hannigan (Lulu), Ivan Ludlow (Athlete), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Doktor Schön), Matthias Klink (Matthias Klink) (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

Anne Sofie von Otter was a buttoned-up, glamorous and moving Countess Geschwitz, singing with considerable heft as well as the trademark class. Jochen Schmeckenbecker was a gruff, forceful Alwa, and Matthias Klink made a strong impression as Alwa. In the other roles, Sergei Leiferkus’s coal-toned, darkly comic Schigolch deserves special mention.   

Nagano conducted with a clear-sighted sense of purpose. He’s not one to imbue a score such as this with much warmth, however, and his interpretation, like Marthalar’s staging, stayed relatively cool. The conductor seemed most fired up when inspired by Veronika Eberle’s terrific playing—as soloist in the concerto, and the vaguely-defined ‘Eine Violinistin’ in the disintegrating drama—in the final 25 minutes.

And the edition? It seemed like an interesting experiment, but one that stretches a long evening out to a length, with two intervals, of over four hours. To have the drama unravel just at the stage when one’s used to have it tighten and intensify, to leave just a resurrected Lulu and her four companions, gesturing forlornly as the Violin Concerto came to its rapt conclusion, was memorable. It was intriguing, too, to have a thematic link drawn between that work, written in memory of the ‘angel’ Manon Gropius, and the protagonist of the opera whose composition was broken off for Berg to complete his commission.  

I wouldn't say it was a satisfying solution to the problem that Nagano and Marthaler had created for themselves. But I doubt, to be honest, that that was what they were setting out to achieve.