Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Schubert I

Franz Schubert
Symphony No. 1 in D, D82
Symphony No. 3 in D, D200
Symphony No. 2 in B flat, D125

Pierre Boulez Saal, 22 April 2017

As anniversaries go, a 220th isn’t perhaps the most eye-catching. Nonetheless, Daniel Barenboim and the Pierre Boulez Saal are choosing to mark the eleven-score years since the birth of Franz Schubert with a broad-ranging Projekt, featuring all the songs (spread over a few seasons), the piano sonatas (with Barenboim at the piano) and the symphonies (with Barenboim on the podium).

But within the modest proportions and egalitarian in-the-round configuration of Berlin's newest classical venue, this concert, the first in one of two complete symphony cycles, was every bit as much about the Staatskapelle as the Staatsoper’s Generalmusikdirektor...

[Read more at Bachtrack]

Monday, 24 April 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: La traviata

21 April 2017

I missed out—entirely through my own fault—on catching the final appearance of Götz Friederich’s Ring at the Deutsche Oper. Catching instead the latest revival of his La Traviata (by comparison a mere stripling at 18 years old) might seem a little like second best.

La traviata at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bernd Uhlig)
The two events can hardly be compared, though, and Friedrich’s take on Verdi’s evergreen tearjerker is a characteristically smart piece of work. And, as with so many Friedrich productions, it seems to contain many ideas since adopted to various degrees in subsequent stagings. 

Friedrich’s was here being performed for the 135th time, and I couldn’t help but compare it to Richard Eyre’s Royal Opera production, five years older and which has notched up around 170,* a good dozen of which I must have seen.

Eyre’s is classic, with period frocks and plenty of glamour, both in the grand, oversize set and the feel of luxury: it’s as if the Royal Opera’s gilt and velvet has encroached onto the stage. Friedrich’s doesn’t quite meld into the utilitarian grandeur of the interior of the Deutsche Oper’s in the same way, but it certainly reflects the house’s ethos more generally.

And it does have its own imposing grandeur, with Frank Philipp Schlößmann’s single set consisting of a huge room, with multiple huge doors set in each of its walls. Those walls, like the shiny floor, are black. A spartan metal bed is on stage throughout, a long white sheet spilling off it like a bridal train. Violetta starts off there in the Prelude, dragging herself from it with apparent reluctance as the party guests spill in. And of course she ends up back there for the final act; at the end of Act 2 scene 1 (the interval came between scenes in the second act), though, Alfredo curls up with his misery onto it.
Click to enlarge

Costumes are interwar chic, or thereabouts, less as part of any updating than simply as part of the production’s aesthetic, their colour (enhanced by Ulrich Niepel’s lighting) playing off well against the dourness of the dark set. There are a few additional touches that seem typical Friedrich, including jaunty exaggerated dancing from the party guests and the appearance through the back doors at the back of giant nightmarish, puppet-like figures (like commedia dell’arte cousins of Fafner and Fasolt) during Act 3’s carnival music.

During the rest of Act 3 we see what looks like an old graveyard through those doors—perhaps a little too obvious a signifier of Violetta’s impending demise. In the first scene of Act 2, it’s bare tree trunks and a hint of the countryside beyond; Germont’s daughter appears here too, but watches from behind the tree trunks. It’s a canny, clever show, then, and one that gently tugs at the opera’s fabric without distorting its drama and without, either, presenting the sort of updated specifics that can too often entirely undermine the characters' motivation—we still believe here in the society that destroys Violetta.
Click to enlarge

And why the comparison with Eyre, a stalwart show that does the job stylishly and effectively? I suppose it’s because Friedrich’s production, though it paradoxically looks both older and newer, shows that you can have a Traviata that negotiates a middle ground between questioning and refreshing an old warhorse while still functioning as a clearly revivable staple. It’s no doubt the sort of balance, if you'll excuses a moment of anglocentricism, that the Royal Opera in London are hoping Richard Jones’s new Bohème will strike.

Not all revivals themselves feel that fresh, though, and this one took some time to settle down. Giampaolo Bisanti, stepping in to conduct as a late replacement, was occasionally a little brusque, and the playing of the Deutsche Oper orchestra, particular in the first act, was at times alarmingly scrappy. Happily things improved markedly as the evening progressed.

La traviata at the Deutsche Opera (Photo © Bernd Uhlig)

My pick of the principals was Antonio Poli, singing with sunny, forward tone as Alfredo. There’s still a slight lack of robustness in the technique, it seems, that makes him tire a little quickly, but this was lovely, big-hearted and tender singing (his ‘Parigi, o cara’ was a highlight), with every word audible. Dong-Hwan Lee was an impressive Germont, too, even if his baritone, clean and clear in timbre, strikes me as on the light side for this repertoire.

It took me a while to warm to Patrizia Ciofi’s Violetta, not least because the voice itself just can’t fill out the character’s phrases with the youthful warmth and lyrical generosity one wants: the middle-to-lower register is muddy and doesn’t project well, the upper reaches of the voice are often somewhat thin and wiry. She’s a good actor, though, and was properly moving both in the magnificent Act 2 duet with Germont and the final scene, where her quiet, unshowy sincerity won through. 

*My Royal Opera programmes are all in a cupboard in SW9, so I have the operatic Twitter community, and especially Ruth Elleson (@RuthElleson), to thank for furnishing me with this figure. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Landestheater Linz: Die Harmonie der Welt

11 April 2017

There aren’t, as far as I’m aware, many operas with links to Linz. Indeed, the Upper Austrian city is probably best known in musical circles for having been home to that most unoperatic of composers, Anton Bruckner. Nevertheless, the Landestheater Linz has made the most of the fact that the Imperial mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler was resident there from the second decade of the 17th century. They commissioned Philip Glass’s Kepler for the city’s stint as European Capital of Culture and premiered it in 2009...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Berliner Festtage: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Staatsoper im Schillertheater, 9 April 2017

Five years after first being seen at La Scala and three years after hitting the Covent Garden stage – where it remains one of the most successful imports of the Holten era – Claus Guth’s Die Frau ohne Schatten has made it to the Staatsoper in Berlin as the new production for this year's Festtage. The cast is new (with one exception); so too is the conductor.

Semyon Bychkov was prevented at the last minute from presiding over the La Scala opening, but achieved wonders with the Royal Opera House Orchestra in London. It was his absence that was perhaps most keenly felt at this performance (particularly by anyone who saw the production in London)...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Berliner Festtage: Parsifal

Staatsoper im Schillertheater, 8 April 2017

Making its third consecutive appearance as part of the Staatsoper’s Festtage, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s remarkable Parsifal looks ever more destined to become a staple of the Berlin Easter calendar. Its return next year to Unter den Linden, with slightly modified cast from this year’s, has just been announced. This means, too, that this was the chance to have the rare luxury of hearing the piece, with that world-beating Wagnerian team of Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle in the pit, in the relatively intimate space of the 1,060-seat Schillertheater...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Berliner Festtage: VPO/Barenboim

Mozart, Symphony No. 35 in D, 'Haffner', K385
Schoenberg, Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major, Op. 9
Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C, 'Jupiter', K551

Philharmonie, 7 April 2017

The Staatsoper Berlin’s 2017 Festtage got underway with a visit of the Vienna Philharmonic and a characteristic Daniel Barenboim programme. The two Viennese schools – First and Second – were juxtaposed, unapologetically big-boned Mozart symphonies either side Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1.

Mozart is too rarely the focus of a modern-instrument symphony orchestra concert in a hall the size of the Philharmonie, and Barenboim showed persuasively that this music can, and arguably more often should, benefit from such an approach. At least, this was certainly the case in a terrific account of the "Haffner" Symphony…

[read the full review at Bachtrack]


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.