Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Staatsoper Hannover: Der junge Lord; Der fliegende Holländer

19 October; 20 October

The Staatsoper in Hannover has, over the past few seasons, presented several of Hans Werner Henze’s stage works. Last season it was Die Englische Katze; this season it’s another opera with an English element, his sharp comedy Der Junge Lord, premiered up the road at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper in 1965 and set to a clear-sighted and quick-witted libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann—based on a parable taken from an 1827 collection of stories by Wilhlem Hauff.

Henze's Der junge Lord at the Staatsoper Hannover (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
In brief: an English nobleman, Sir Edgar, wows then increasingly insults the inhabitants of the small German town of Hülsdorf-Gotha, before presenting them with  nephew’, Lord Barrat. This young lord impresses them with his refreshingly direct and unorthodox manners, even setting the local beautys heart a-flutter, before, as his behaviour gets increasingly wild, being exposed as an ape Sir Edgar has procured from a visiting circus. As a tale of hypocrisy, suggestibility and gullibility, it is surely as relevant as ever. 

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Half a century on, Henze’s score retains remarkable sense of freshness, at least as conducted here by Mark Rohde, whose incisive work was matched by precision and virtuosity by the orchestra. Ostensibly inspired primarily by bel canto—and benefitting from that genre’s clarity of texture as well as some relatively grateful vocal writing—it’s a work that throws in a variety of other influences, too, all bound together expertly. 

The director here, Bernd Mottl, offers up a staging that is every bit as sharp. Hülsdorf-Gotha and its inhabitants are in stylised, exaggerated black and white (costumes by Alfred Mayerhofer). In Friedrich Eggert’s designs, the stage floor is chequered squares, the action contained and variously focused within a series of black, frilly-edged panels.

Colour is reserved for the English interlopers, led by the threateningly mute Sir Edgar, here given real menace by Franz Mazura. The contrast is further underlined through the uptight, preening manner of the Hülsdorf-Gotha residents and the louche way of the visitors, epitomised of course by the young lord Barrat himself, played here as rubber-limbed, gold lamé-suited Michael Jackson, c. 1985.

Hannover’s large ensemble cast was impressive, with outstanding performances in particular from Stefan Adam, focused and authoritative as Sir Edgar’s Secretary, and Sung-Keun Park, fearless both physically and vocally as Lord Barrat. Rebecca Davis unveiled plenty of secure, beautiful tone as Luise and Simon Bode sang mellifluously as her (moderately interesting) initial love interest. Tichina Vaughn gave her all as the Jamaican cook Begonia—a broad caricature that perhaps dates the work more than any other element.

Franz Mazura (Lord Edgar), Sung-Keun Park (Lord Baratt), Rebecca Davis (Luise) in Der junge Lord (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
The Romantic subplot arguably adds little to the drama, too, though it does offer Henze the opportunity for some seductive harp and celesta writing (a subconscious nod to Der Rosenkavalier?). But Luisa’s aria, the only freestanding number of the work, is less memorable than it should be—hovering uncertainly between sincerity and irony.

The piece’s undeniable freshness and wit also has to be pitted against the sense one has that it’s just a little bit longer than it needs to be, the premise that little bit too slight for its two hour-long acts. Nevertheless, given a staging as witty and sharp as this, one is in no doubt as to Der junge Lord’s theatrical viability and, one hopes, continued longevity.

Der fliegende Holländer at Staatsoper Hannover (Photo © Thomas M. Jauk) 
One would never have guessed that Hannover’s current production of Der fliegende Holländer, new last season, had come from the same director. A ruined shopping mall is not a natural choice as setting for the work, to put it mildly, and Mottl’s production never really managed to persuade me that it was a good choice, either—or to offer any reason why the Dutchman should have ended up there.

The Spinning Chorus became a jolly routine for a female chorus kitted out in fur coats, blond wigs and sunglasses, with Senta, it seemed, a goth rebelling against commercialism and occasionally seeking solace in the piles of dirt that surrounded the set.

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Mareike Moor’s Mary is kitted out in something like simple 19th-century garb; the Dutchman wears black leather; Erik, dressed in some sort of camouflage with crop-sprayer’s backpack, seems to work in pest control. The Steuermann (a clean-toned Edward Mout), sings his early song to a mannequin. Senta joins the object of her obsession at the close in a fire that gets ignited during the big Act 3 party—turned into a big nautical-themed song-and-dancein the shopping centre’s lower level.

Happily, at least the musical performance was on a very high level. Ivan Repušić conducted an account of Wagner’s score that felt all the more powerful for being a little reined-in and controlled. Gale force was unleashed only at key moments, and the work’s sheer musical craftsmanship was underlined throughout. The playing of the orchestra was very fine, too, mixing impressive clarity with dramatic punch.

Krszysztof Szumanski stepped in as a late replacement as the Dutchmann, singing with a pleasingly relaxed, expansive timbre, and with none of the hectoring that one often hears in the role. Kelly God made a terrific Senta, utterly secure and excitingly fearless, and Shavelg Armasi, though vocally on the smaller end of the spectrum, brought plenty of character to her father, who might or might not have been the owner of the mall itself. A special mention should be made, too, of Robert Künzli who, though announced as indisposed, still sang Erik with a reliability that can’t always be taken for granted in this tricky role.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Theater an der Wien: Wozzeck

17 October 2017

When asked what the essence of Wozzeck is in his booklet interview, Robert Carsen answers that ‘It presents a great hopelessness.’ His view of the work, as presented in his new production for the Theater an der Wien, is unremittingly bleak then, made all the more so for its military minimalist aesthetic.

Florian Boesch as Wozzeck at the Theater an der Wien (Photo © Werner Kmetitsch)
Gideon Davey’s set consists of three camouflage walls encompassing the stage, those on either side with multiple high openings. Wires slung between them allow for sheets of material—also camouflage—to be efficiently pulled across to delineate the space and cover up changes of the largely minimal scenery.

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When the space is opened up, we get the sense (amplified by the characteristically atmospheric lighting by Carsen and Peter van Praet) of exaggerated perspective, especially effective as we watch Wozzeck drown in the blue-green distance. As you’d expect from Carsen, it’s a production that has a few moments of such poetry, of simple means creating powerful effects.

But Berg’s opera and his version of Büchner’s brilliantly drawn characters don’t always benefit, it seems to me, from the conceptual open spaces of this particular aesthetic. The costumes see women and even children, as well as the men, kitted out in military garb: here is a uniform world without contrasts; we could be anywhere in time or place in the last half century. 

There’s no flinching in the portrayal of this rogue’s gallery: the Captain (a sturdy, forthright John Daszak) is relentlessly hectoring, the Doctor (an impressive Stefan Cerny) relentlessly cruel, the Tambourmajor (Aleš Briscein, less heroic than many in the role) charmless and unremittingly sadistic. 

The misery of Lise Lindstrom’s strongly and often beautifully sung Marie is complete—and requires the occasional alleviation through drugs—and one gets little sense of any joy whatsoever derived from her child, portrayed with a heartbreaking sense of isolation at this performance by Samuel Wegleitner. The only hint of respite in this world of misery comes in Benjamin Hulett’s relatively breezy Andres.

Lise Lindstrom as Marie (© Werner Kmetitsch)
At the heart of it all is an impressive Wozzeck from Florian Boesch, who, as we know from his Lieder-singing, is never afraid to put expressionistic directness first; vocal beauty—and this is not a voice of honeyed tones and rich colours in any case—is subordinated to dramatic truth. Unlike with his Lieder-singing, though, here he seemed to have been encouraged to draw from just one side of his broad expressive palette. 

There were a handful of moments of hushed intimacy, admittedly, but a predominance of raw, visceral roar. This was Wozzeck as beefy brute, his animalistic qualities further emphasised at the start of his scene with the Doctor: he sits downstage with his back to us blithely producing a stool sample, wiping his bare backside before delivering his offering for inspection.

As a demonstration of the character’s humiliation and loss of dignity it was undeniably effective. And I won’t forget in a hurry the moment, at the height of Wozzeck’s paranoia, that Boesch made his way to the front of the stage to eyeball us and unleash the full power of his voice. But reducing the character to an animal risked reducing us in the audience to viewers of some sort of nature documentary rather than spectators of a drama—and a deeply human one at that.

Aleš Briscien (Tambourmajor) and Florian Boesch (Wozzeck) (Photo © Werner Kmetitsch)
Wozzeck’s murder of Marie, conveyed with unblinking directness, was shocking; but neither that nor his final stumble through a field of bodies (dead, one presumed, but it wasn’t entirely clear) moved me on an emotional level. The child’s forlorn ‘Hopp, hopp’ at the close, a rifle repurposed as hobbyhorse, was also less touching than it can be in stagings that cover more of the spectrum between the human and the animal. In focusing powerfully on the dehumanising effects of military life, Carsen was making an important point; but he also, it seemed to me, lost some of the work’s richness, blunting its tragedy. 

Arguably the work’s richness was also what was primarily lost in the orchestral performance, with Leo Hussain conducting a new version of the score by Eberhard Kloke—largely a matter of compression of the instrumentation so that the Wiener Symphoniker could be squeezed into the Theater an der Wien’s modest pit. 

Sinewy and raw, conducted with a powerful sense of focus, it nevertheless complemented Carsen’s forceful vision wella vision given yet greater force by  fearlessly committed performances from the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the well-drilled cast.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker: The Cunning Little Vixen

Philharmonie, Berlin, 12 October 2017

Simon Rattle has over recent years established himself as something like the Staatsoper’s resident Janáček conductor here in Berlin, having been at the helm of performances of both From the House of the Dead and Kátya Kabanová during that company’s stint at the Schillertheater. Here, though, was a chance to hear him put his own orchestra – or one of them, at least – through its paces with the work that is generally agreed to have put the Czech composer on the map in Germany.

[read the full review at Bachtrack]

Friday, 6 October 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: 'Zum Augenblicke sagen: Verweile doch!' – Szenen aus Goethes Faust

3 October 2017

The Staatsoper unter den Linden on the night of its reopening

So, finally... seven years and over €400m later, the Staatsoper unter den Linden has reopened. At least temporarily – it closes again for a couple of months after this week’s celebrations before the season kicks off again for good in December.

These reopening celebrations were supposed to have centred around a new Saul by Wolfgang Rihm, cancelled when the composer fell seriously ill. After scouting around for an alternative Intendant Jürgen Flimm plumped for Schumann’s Faust-Szenen, bolstered by segments of Goethe’s play...

[read the full review at Bachtrack]

Staatsoper Hamburg: Der Freischütz

1 October 2017

There has been something of a flurry of new Freischütz stagings in my adopted corner of Germany over the last few years, with recent new productions in Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig. Of these I only saw the latter, earlier this year, but I can now add the 1999 Hamburg staging by Leipzig’s former Intendant, Peter Konwitschny, to the list—a list whose UK section includes only concert performances.  

(l. to r.) Ännchen. Agathe and viola-playing Samiel in Peter Konwitschny's Hamburg Freischütz (Photo © Jörn Kipping)

Now something of a classic (the next performance after the matinée I attended was the 50th in the house), Konwitschny’s staging is getting now getting its final run at this address. I’m very glad to have seen it, for it’s a characteristically intelligent, questing and mischievous, iconoclastic affair.

Max’s insecurities are the basis of the whole plot, but are too easily explained away as acceptable in traditional world of thrusting horn-calls and the casual killing of innocent beasts. Not here, though, where the production, at least as seen on this revival, exposes and almost mocks his weakness. He is unsure and jittery throughout, memorably harangued by a confrontational group of motley stage musicians in the opening scene; too easily led astray; more than ever, one feels, undeserving of his last-minute reprieve.

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The focus, emotional and dramatic, is put squarely onto Agathe, played serenely here by the terrific Iulia Maria Dan, and sung in a voice that offers exciting hints of the dramatic through its velvety lyric surface—this member of the Hamburg ensemble is definitely a name to watch.

The character seems better than the situation she finds herself in, not least because Konwitschny, in a characteristic fourth wall-breaking touch, reveals the Hermit (a resonant Tigran Martirossian) as a suave audience member watching her, with a mixture of paternal concern and infatuation, from the front row of the stalls. 

The opera itself, in as much as it exists here as a self-contained work, is shown as coming to a close before the Hermit’s final intervention, at which point a puzzled stage manager tries to work out what’s going on before all the cast and chorus come back onto the stage for a celebratory glass of bubbly.

The primary feature of Gabriele Koerbl’s set is a elevator door, stage right, the indicator lights above which hint at mysterious ascents and descents, including, for the Wolf’s Glen, to the realm of Samiel. (S)he is represented in that scene by a suave Otto Katzameier, but turns up as a slinky viola-playing she-devil (Naomi Seiler) in Ännchen’s ‘Einst träumte meine sel’gen Base’—a touch that was strangely reminiscent of the violin-playing ‘angel’ at the close of Christoph Marthaler’s Lulu here earlier in the year.

Katharina Konradi’s sparky, mischievous Ännchen was excellent here as throughout, and the four Bridesmaid’s deserve a special mention, too, each minutely characterised as they presented their song as a nervous series of individual performances.

The Wolf's Glen scene is itself brilliantly realised, too, Samiel’s voice resonating through speakers as Caspar manufactures the magic bullets above a television, with moral support from malfunctioning mechanical owl. Whether deliberately or not, the scene also became reminiscent of Mime cooking up his broth for Siegfried, as seen at least in many recent stagings, meaning that I heard forest murmurings in Weber’s score that I’d not really noticed before. Malfunctioning, sinister technology is present throughout, even in the interval, where the theatre's foyers are filled with the continued eerie tick tock that brings the second act to a disquieting conclusion.

As a repertoire revival there were some rough edges musically here and there, but conductor Christof Prick paced the performance well. Burkhard Fritz seemed to be having a bit of an off day as Max, too, but his underpowered vocal performance was arguably of a piece with Konwitschny’s characterisation of the role—a characterisation that, along with its corollary in the elevation of Agathe, was central to the director’s compelling rethinking of the whole piece.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Parsifal

30 September 2017

Before being persuaded to direct the Ring for LA Opera at the beginning of the decade, Achim Freyer had apparently decided to abandon directing opera to concentrate on painting. Now, however, he also gives a new Parsifal. And he’s staging Hänsel und Gretel at the newly refurbished Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin in December as well—that glorious work by a composer, Humperdinck, who was of course intimately bound up with Parsifals early history in Bayreuth. 

Parsifal at Staatsoper Hamburg, with Wolfgang Koch (centre) as Amfortas (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

In Hamburg his take on the Master’s great Bühnenweihfestspiel is a serious, often enchanting piece of work, and a staging that is refreshing for its patience, its willingness to take its time and its singlemindedness. His set, a dark semi-circle with multiple walkways set behind a gauze stretched right over the orchestra pit, feels like its own self-contained galaxy.

Numbers and hieroglyph-like objects are dotted about it as if set free from both weight and significance; an adjustable mirrored semi-circle hovers above, as does a big metal structure resembling the mixing attachment of a food processor.

Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel))

Swirls and various Parsifalian keywords are projected (video by Jakob Klaffs and Hugo Reiss) at various moments onto the gauze, though were difficult to take in from my seat in row 4 of the stalls. The players, their expressions frozen in semi-grotesque face paint, drift in and out during the Prelude and seem barely to be in command of their own destinies thereafter.

Kundry flies in, with the help of naïve stage effects (not always fully realised), at her various entries; Parsifal bounces in and out and rolls about like some malfunctioning children’s entertainer; Amfortas, stretched across some sort of yoke, his body represented by a painted cloth, is manhandled from side to side by a couple of hooded retainers hovering in a state of semi-invisibility. Titurel consists, in two dimensions, of little more than two arms, a wheelchair and what, to me at least, looked like stubby telescope.

Gurnemanz, a crude papier-mâché face suspended in a haphazardly spiralling frame above his head, glides around with little sense of purpose. Squires and grail knights arm themselves in moments of threat with arbitrary objects: an oversize spanner, a stuffed rabbit, a dismembered arm. At the climax of the grail ceremony a small white figure with oversized head and an underlit lampshade for a skirt makes its way slowly across the stage.

On one level it’s a magical mystery tour de force from Freyer, who works with the music, surfing its slow-moving waves to sometimes hypnotic effect. There are plenty of telling little details, too, not least in the grotesque costume for Vladimir Baykov’s powerfully-sung, leering Klingsor: an enormous tie covers a bright red patch in his groin, the site of the self-mutilation we see acted out wittily—if that’s the word—at the appropriate point Gurnemanz’s Act 1 narration. I liked the bulbous, punky voluptuousness of his Flower Maidens, too, who manage to combine, like so much of the production, playful irreverence with an underlying seriousness. 

Claudia Mahnke (Kundry) and Vladimir Baykov (Klingsor) (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

As the show progresses, though, it becomes a case of diminishing returns. Having cast everything into a state weightlessness, Freyer has no interest, it seems, in tethering it back onto anything as the gravity of the final act’s drama kicks in. 

The first half of that act, with only the merest hint, through Sebastian Alphons’s lighting, of Easter greenery, resorts to a somewhat conventional rehearsal of Wagner’s stage directions. And Wolfgang Koch, sounding slightly under par, was unable to give specific meaning to his suffering as a bedraggled, lank-hared Amfortas. With the action never having been allowed too fully take root, the final redemption amounted simply to a further clearing of the decks, with the set pulled down and whisked away. We are left with an emptiness both spatial and conceptual.

Andreas Schager (Parsifal) in Klingsor's magic garden (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)
Part of the sense of dissatisfaction here might also have been down to Kent Nagano’s conducting. The orchestral playing had some wobbles, but I enjoyed his streamlined but largely persuasive account of the first two acts—are the conductor’s plans for a period-instrument Ring with Concerto Köln already affecting his approach? The third act, however, felt almost evasive in its swiftness. The winding lines of the Prelude came across as dogged, while elsewhere things remained somewhat earthbound, without conjuring up enough of sense of anything, however difficult to define, being at stake.

None of this helped the cast, either. Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz provided superbly resonant and authoritative foundation for the drama, but  was left unable, in the circumstances, to plumb the depths in Act 3, or really to make much of the text. 

Andreas Schager (Parsifal) at the close of Act 3 (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)
Andreas Schager’s Parsifal, dressed in asymmetric black-and-white, sang powerfully and acted, as usual, with total commitment, but both he and Claudia Mahnke’s impressive Kundry (rich in the lower register, seductive in the middle if stretched at the top) struggled to convey their passions and sufferings through the make-up and, in Mahnke’s case, industrial dreadlocks.

In a statement in the programme, Freyer talks, apparently unironically, of being obliged to save the essential works of our time from the mistakes of interpretation. That represents quite a lofty stance, and what he’s offered has its own special beauty and conviction. It doesn’t, however, really offer the compelling alternative he seems to be after.