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.

(click to enlarge)
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. 

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Lucia di Lammermoor

17 September 2017

There’s been a few grumblings around recently about operas being set in museums. Chicago’s new Elektra, if one’s to trust the reviews, is a case in point. Closer to the land of Walter Scott’s Lammermoor, one thinks back to John Fulljames’s faintly ridiculous Harris Tweed-sponsored Donna del Lago at Covent Garden. I saw a few more examples mentioned on Twitter, too.

Pretty Yende as Lucia at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
The Deutsche Oper’s Lucia, however, is a genuine museum piece. It dates from 1980, but Filippo Sanjust’s designs seem already to have been deliberately old-fashioned even then. Tromp l’oeil curtains frame the stage, and a drop curtain features an illustration of a waify stray with windswept hair and white dress rushing across some barren landscape.

The stage itself for the first two scenes is pretty rudimentary: a backdrop with a distant castle, a couple of unimpressive two-dimensional outcrops of rock, one featuring a static waterfall. Things get a little more concrete in subsequent scenes as we get into some impressive-looking interiors, but there’s no escaping the essential fustiness of it all. 

The costumes continue the trend, with flouncy frocks and ringlets for the ladies and, for the men, austere period outfits whose manifold details, I suspect, could be named only by historians of dress. (There were hints of tartan, but at least no anachronistic kilts.)

The edition used, too, was a period piece, with the loss of both the Enrico-Edgardo scene at the start of Act 3 (we went straight into the ‘D’immenso giubilo’ chorus) and a final scene that began with ‘Tombe degli avi miei’. Fans of the glass harmonica will have been a little disappointed, too, since Lucia’s mad scene was accompanied by the then traditional flute (excellently played, though, by Robert Lerch). Ivan Repušić conducted straightforwardly and dutifully, and certainly could have done more to enliven the recits.

Then again, with direction at the basic end of the spectrum – it was notable how Pretty Yende’s Lucia manoeuvred herself to prime centre-stage position for the start of ‘Quando repito in estasi’ – this was Donizetti less as drama than as bel canto showcase. It was also a showcase for the 2011 edition of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition: Yende and her Edgardo, René Barbera, shared the top prize that year. 

Happily they both delivered the goods. Yende’s voice is pearly and seductive, bright but never strident, and beautifully controlled. It also extends with apparent ease right to the very top of the range – she tossed in a few top notes beyond the standard embellishments. Dramatically she doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths, and I wondered even if her irrepressible likability as a performer and the inherent sunny optimism of the voice actually detracted from the tragedy. I suspect that a strong directorial hand in a less somnambulant production would have helped a great deal in that regard, though.

Barbera was similarly left to deliver a stock dramatic performance. But it’s a pleasingly clean voice, light in both colour and size, and he sang with real elegance, focus and lovely legato. His great final scene was beautifully delivered – with some fine work from the orchestral soloists. There was an impressive, suitably unstinting Enrico from Noel Bouley, a Deutsche Oper ensemble member with a notably stentorian top range. Riccardo Zanellato deserves a mention, too, for his consoling tones as Raimondo, about the only even half-decent male character in the whole show.

Pretty Yende as Lucia at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
The last production I saw of this work had been Katie Mitchell’s for the Royal Opera House in London, a staging I disliked but which was at least interesting for attempting to give the opera’s heroine some agency, to make her more than simply a passive victim. This production, though, presents her as just that, in pretty frocks that only pick up the merest hint of blood in the dainty off-stage murder of her husband. 

It underlines the irony, too, that the character’s passivity was traditionally contrasted with editions of the score that placed her musically centre-stage, at the expense, particularly, of Edgardo. As such, though, this museum piece does at least offer an interesting glimpse into the operatic past. It also just let its cast get on with it, offering a great showcase for some outstanding singers of the present – and future.



Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Gundula Janowitz: 80th birthday Interview

‘Is it halfway drinkable?’ Gundula Janowitz interrupts herself to check I’m happy with the tea she’s made, particularly worried that it might not be up to an Englishman’s exacting standards. Go back an hour earlier, and I’m hovering nervously outside in a quiet street in Vienna’s Wieden district, south of the famous Naschmarkt and west of Schloss Belvedere, plucking up the courage to press the ‘Janowitz’ buzzer...

[read the full interview on the Gramophone website]

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Bayerische Staatsoper: Die Frau ohne Schatten

2 July 2017

In his semi-serioso “Ten Golden Rules” for conducting dating from the early 1920s, Richard Strauss suggested that Salome and Elektra should be conducted “as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy Music”. He didn’t make any similar public pronouncements about Die Frau ohne Schatten, which is, of course, Fairy Music, if not exactly in the Mendelssohnian mould...

Read the full review at Bachtrack