Friday, 19 December 2014

Un ballo in maschera and Tristan und Isolde at the ROH

Ever since the announcement was made that the Royal Opera House would entrust a new production of Un ballo in maschera to Katharina Thoma, whose 2013 Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne had been widely disliked, there had been a certain amount of speculation as to, first, what she'd done to deserve a new Covent Garden production and, second, what she'd make of Verdi's tricky middle-period work. Would we get another dubious concept? Would the cast--a big-voiced bunch, but hardly the most willing or adventurous thesps--be happy to play along with what she'd come up with? More generally: should a theatre like Covent Garden should be entering into a morganatic marriage with an outfit like Theater Dortmund (and I don't mean any offence to Dortmunders there), where the production was unveiled in September?

In fact, it's interesting to read in Der Westen's review of the Dortmund premiere how the fact that it was co-produced with a major house was held responsible for it being, according to the reviewer, 'backward and ridiculous'. 'Because Covent Garden is a star-theatre and a fossilized/frozen theatre as well ["Star-Theater und starres Theater dazu"]. If you want to have the Netrebkos and Garancas, the Grigolos and Callejas as nearly daily visitors, to fill the house with tourists, you're not going to take risks.' (You can read the piece -- auf Deutsch -- here.)

Un ballo in maschera at Covent Garden with (centre, left to right) Serena Gamberoni (Oscar),
Joseph Calleja (Riccardo) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Renato) (Photo © Catherine Ashmore)

It's an unfair view, perhaps, and it's difficult to know to what extent Thoma was indeed trying to pander to what she perceived to be the requirements of Covent Garden. What she delivered achieved perhaps one notable thing -- it wasn't booed at the curtain call as a string of the Royal Opera's new productions have been. That, in itself, is perhaps no great achievement, however, and reflects, if anything, the production's convictionless conservatism. (I've maintained before that the Covent Garden booers have in the past reacted to quality rather than simply booing anything 'modern', but this seemed to prove that I have, after all, being giving them too much credit.)

But what we saw had no place on the Royal Opera's stage: a fusty, half-hearted compromise conceptually speaking, marred by stagecraft more inept, I think, than anything I've seen on the Royal Opera Stage--certainly for a long time. As with her Glyndebourne Ariadne, Thoma chose to update the action to the eve of war, in this instance positioning Riccardo as, I think, a Habsburg on the eve of WWI, the conspirators as Balkan troublemakers. As at Glyndebourne, however, the updating had little to do with the opera in question, and seemed, once more, like a somewhat crass attempt to syphon some gravitas off from an historical moment (of the most monumental significance) to bestow profundity on her own concept (which is of rather lesser significance). The final gesture of giving Oscar an army coat and tin helmet, presumably ready for him to be shipped off to the trenches, struck me, in this regard, as in very poor taste.

Other ideas came an went, with the set (by Soutra Gilmour) -- the main feature was pair of wobbly chunks of scenery on castors, which contained the action in between them while offering rooms for additional unnecessary details on their outer sides -- moved and removed into various configurations. One feature was human statues (we were metres from Covent Garden piazza, after all) in the sort-of graveyard of the 'Orrido campo'; this tendency to memorialization (a fetish of the Habsburgs, of course) was emphasized by Ricccardo being manhandled onto a large marble-ish plinth (wobbly once more) for his death.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia (Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
There were dodgy dancing (choreographed by Lucy Burge), dodgy costumes (designed by Irina Bartels), and plenty of superfluous bits and bobs. During Riccardo's 'Forse la soglia attinse' there was some fussy business with him imagining a confrontation with the human statues; a little boy, the son of Renato and Amelia, made several distracting appearances. The whole thing was so poorly thought through, though, that a central gauze had to go up and down in the middle of scenes and lackeys were required to stroll on and off to remove bits of furniture and push the set around. Worst of all, it all looked several decades old: it felt like the umpteenth revival of a dusty production that a company has been itching to ditch for years.

This impression was reinforced by conducting from Daniel Oren that was crude and insensitive and which--as when chorus and orchestra parted company for several bars in the final act--sometimes flirted with something closer to basic incompetence. Big moments passed for nothing, much was rushed and messy--there was little sense that the conductor liked the music at all. This seeped through into the playing, much of which was depressingly brash and unrefined.

In this context, the big-name cast seemed like it was left to fend for itself. Joseph Calleja's unusual tenor always walks a line between strange bleatiness and glorious freedom and expressiveness, but seemed here more firmly rooted in the former category, the very top, in particular, showing a rasping quality I'd noticed when he sang Faust earlier in the year, but which I'd hoped was down to temporary indisposition (I hope those 'Nessun dormas' haven't taken their toll on this essentially lyrical instrument). His phrasing was lumpy and foursquare, he often rushed, and, without much direction, his acting was exposed as almost comically rudimentary.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky did his usual thing, but the loss of sap in the middle of his voice is more noticeable now, even if the top remains generous and burnished. There was plenty of quality in Liudmyla Monarstyrska's Amelia, the quiet singing in particular, but her top is rawer than it once was, and there wasn't much acting from her either. Marianne Cornetti chewed the scenery enthusiastically as Ulrica, but her vocalism was pretty rough and ready. Arguably the most charming performance was that of Serena Gamberoni as Oscar, sparky and engaging and sung in a voice with ping and also some appealing lyrical beauty. There was some good work in the supporting roles, but this was an unequivocally grim evening at the Royal Opera.

Certainly it was difficult to believe that this was being presented by the same company that had performed Christof Loy's Tristan the evening before (I'd been away so was only able to catch up with it then). I'll be brief, but I should admit I was left unmoved by the performance -- perhaps something to do with my seat, at the front of the amphitheatre round to the right, perpendicular with the wall stage-right, which seemed to amplify the singers' voices rather unpleasantly -- but at least there was quality and conviction in spades.

But I'm still unconvinced by Pappano's conducting of this piece, which remains, I feel, more physical than metaphysical, and am never going to like Loy's production, even if I think I admire parts of it more now than I did first time round. The singing of the leading couple is astonishing, though: Nina Stemme's Isolde, although the voice (from my seat at least) is losing some of its allure, is imperious; Stephen Gould's Tristan is tireless and musical. I particularly enjoyed Iain Paterson's Kurwenal, too, but--as others have noted--Sarah Connolly's big moment (Brangäne's watch) was somewhat undermined by her positioning on stage. Plenty of quality in the rest of the cast, too. I'll hold my tongue regarding John Tomlinson's King Marke.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Falstaff and Turandot at the Deutsche Oper

I'm currently on a quick research trip in Berlin, during which time I've taken the opportunity to pay a first visit -- or, rather, two -- to the Deutsche Oper. The repertoire I sampled was central; the productions were more left-field. With the Falstaff it was good to be reminded that Christof Loy can do comedy; there won't be much of that when I catch up next week with his Royal Opera Tristan. (He's a director whose work I have generally not greatly enjoyed: after a first encounter with the Royal Opera Ariadne, I really didn't like the Tristan first time round, missed the Lulu, but really took against his cop-out 2011 Salzburg Frau, which, along with his po-faced and drearily ernst Barcelona Entführung, I have seen only on DVD.)

Christof Loy's 'Falstaff' at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

Anyway, his Falstaff, new last November, makes a fascinating comparison to Damiano Michielletto's production from the 2013 Salzburg Festival. Both take the same starting point, with a reference to the Casa di Riposo in Milan that Verdi set up for retired singers and musicians. Michielletto's production deals unimaginatively with this idea, letting it -- and a fixed single set -- constrain the drama. (There's a disapproving review from me in a forthcoming Gramophone -- I can't say I thought much of it), Loy lets the action run riot on an open stage. Bits of minimal scenery come and go, the exception being a large, grand wall that appears (then is whisked up) at the start of Act 3, separating a disconsolate Falstaff, left nursing his wounds in a suitcase-strewn wasteland at the very front of the stage, from the rest of the 'cast', dressed up and clinking glasses in the bright, clean space on the other side.

Production details
I put 'cast' in inverted commas, because it's a production that constantly suggests multiple levels of performance. It also seems to pick away at its own central concept, questioning and even undercutting it. The evening starts with from a witty film (accompanied by Victor Maurel's 1907 recording of 'Quand'ero paggio') in grainy black and white, which dissolves leaving Kiril Manolov's lank-haired Falstaff singing the same arietta at the piano before the opera proper kicks off.  The singers are at first dressed up to look like Casa di Riposo residents, then remove wigs and fusty outfits to show their more youthful selves beneath. The action is presented as part performed, part lived, the line between the two entirely porous. During the final ensemble, everyone -- chorus included -- finds wigs, slacks and cardis in the suitcases that have been lying about. By the final curtain, as a Verdi portrait is brought on (much as it had been, if memory serves, in Michielletto's staging), everyone's back to being 'old' again.

I'd admit I'm not entirely sure what Loy's point is, and it was inevitable that, in the context, the magic of Herne's Oak was somewhat lost, but I'd much rather this looser approach to a concept that Michielletto's straitjacketed one: the fluidity, the unpredictability and, even, the slightly chaotic bafflingness of it all appealed to me. Here's a trailer to give an idea:

It helped, of course, to have a good musical performance. Stefan Solyom conducted a straightforward account of the score -- slightly tentative tempos in the zippier ensembles was perhaps due to a lack of rehearsal time in the house's busy repertoire system. As London heard in Salome at this year's Proms, the orchestra is a very classy band, producing a rich sound but capable of necessary agility and lightness of touch.

There was a fine cast, with Manolov (a name new to me) combining a big, leonine baritone and larger-than-life, bear-like physical presence -- only a hint of old-world charm was lacking. Elena Tsallagova was a charming, slightly geeky Nannetta, well matched by Alvaro Zambrano's Fenton. Maria Pia Piscitella's rich soprano made her a fine Alice, and Dana Beth Miller was an impressively fruity Mrs Quickly. John Chest's Ford was well focused, if a probably a size or two too small, and Marko Mimica's resonant, powerfully-sung Pistola stood out among some fine performances from the rest of the cast (click the thumbnail right for a full list).

Turandot at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Bettina Stöß)
Another name new to me was that of Lorenzo Fioroni, a protégé of Ruth Berghaus and Götz Friedrich, who provided the production of Turandot, dating originally from 2008. His view is a brutal and cruel one, in which much of the action seems choreographed by the aged, almost benign Altoum (Peter Maus, dressed in the grey suit favoured by some dictators). He appears, along with a handful of other doddery dignitaries to watch from a rectangular viewing gallery set into a wall. In front, the oppressed, cowering 'Popolo di Pekino' sing his praises -- at one powerful moment, one woman stood defiantly looking the opposite way, only to be beaten into submission as the paean recommenced.

Turandot becomes a slightly petulant princess, her riddling with Calaf played out down stage as a face-off (shades of Minnie vs Rance, without the poker) over a small table. Once she finally succumbs to love, she murders her father; Calaf, in turn, dispatches poor old Timur. It's all pretty heartless in the final act, where the scope for mischievous humour seems to be exhausted -- much of it stemming from Ping, Pang and Pong, here (in a touch coincidentally reminiscent of Loy's Falstaff) repeatedly dressing up to play their roles in the 'entertainment'. Again, I'm not sure it amounted to anything terribly coherent, but it certainly had its compelling moments.

Musically speaking, the greatest pleasure probably came from the magnificent Deutsche Oper chorus, and there singing was matched by fine playing once more from the orchestra -- even if Ivan Repušić's conducting was pretty broad-brush and four-square. Kamen Chanev was a stentorian Calaf, the voice impressively ringing and trumpety, although lacking in much Italianate honey; a certain unflinching machismo in his stage manner was not unsuited to Fioroni's conception.

Catherine Foster, Bayreuth's current Brünnhilde and a British singer who's carved out an impressive career in Germany, had quite a lot of dodgy moments intonation-wise as Turandot, and the voice seems to take some time to warm up -- both during the course of an evening and, strangely enough, during the course of some notes. In full flight, though, it's an impressive sound, and the lack of steely edge is in some way made up by a softness in the timbre that suggests this Turandot's heart has gone some way to thawing from the start. Heidi Stober brought a highly attractive, gently lyrical voice to her sympathetic Liù, and Simon Lim an impressive, powerful if also rather soft-grained bass to Timur.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Suor Angelica & Gianni Schicchi - Royal Academy of Music

Having been away last week, I was able to catch the RAM's Puccini double bill only at its final performance. I'd heard great things and was not disappointed--for this college to be able to field two different casts (I saw the second, on November 24) for such an undertaking was extremely impressive, while what one imagines was a generous rehearsal period meant that Schicchi, in particular, came across with a tack-like sharpness to match the brilliantly tacky costumes of William Kerley's cleverly updated production. Jason Southgate's economical design kept Suor Angelica kept simple and clear, its sort-of apotheosis all the more moving for its modesty of means; Schicchi became joyously cluttered, with a smart central idea of making Buoso an art collector, the individual elements of his legacy various artistic depictions of what the libretto--loosely and colloquially translated in the surtitles--specifies.

There were some great performances. Emily Garland was a brave and moving Angelica, Anna Harvey (who I last saw as an alarmingly convincing Ariodante) was here transformed into a steely, evil-librarian Zia Principessa. Ed Ballard made a convincingly cock-sure Schicchi, while Eve Daniell deserves a special mention for her transformation from a chastely giggling Suor Genoviefa to a tottering, tarty Nella--others also made the switch from the first work's sorority to the second's money-grubbing family.

Peter Robinson conducted both pieces lovingly, and in turn made me realise afresh what masterpieces they are. Richard Jones's staging of Suor Angelica as part of his Royal Opera Trittico in 2012 was, I'll admit, the first time I'd seen the work staged, having missed ENO's staging from a decade earlier. It cured me for good of my slight squeamishness towards that work's conclusion. It's a kitschfest on paper ('The miracle begins,' the stage directions tell us, 'The little chapel is flooded with light. The door opens slowly to reveal the church filled with angels ... The Queen of solace appears in the doorway, and in front of her, a blond child, all in white, etc. etc.'), but Jones staged it as an almost unbearably moving drug-induced hallucination as part of a production that had at its centre a potent criticism of institutionalised religion (and religious institutions). I was hoping to find a clip from YouTube, but it seems like the Royal Opera and Opus Arte have managed to enforce their copyright -- I can't imagine for one moment that no one's tried to upload it. Get the DVD/Blu-ray, though, if you don't own it already.

Anyway, it's strange, perhaps, but I rarely find Gianni Schicchi any less moving. Perhaps it's all to do with watching A Room with a View as a teenager.

I don't need to bang on about 'O mio babbino caro', but the moment when that melody seeps into Rinuccio's earlier little aria is even more moving, I find -- more spontaneous than Lauretta's calculated, manipulative appeal to her father. Certainly, however, the Florence Tourist Board must feel a little indebted to Puccini for both.

Finally a word for the odd one out, Il tabarro, the first panel of the triptych, and the one whose requirement for verismo big guns makes it an inadvisable prospect, one can safely assume, for student voices. London can look forward to a staging of all three at Opera Holland Park next summer, though. In the meantime, here's the great duet for Georgetta and Luigi, made especially great for the fact that it deals less with idealised love than love that grows, with powerful psychological realism, out of a mutual desire for escape from the dank drudgery of life on a Parisian barge--which, Puccini's score makes clear, is actually far less appealing than it might sound.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

ENO: The Girl of the Golden West; WNO: Mosè in Egitto

[From The Spectator, October 11]

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is one of those works that, one suspects, some modern audiences struggle to keep a straight face through. The hero, for a start, decides to call himself Dick Johnson. The piece’s Wild West trappings, long since staled into Hollywood cliché, still also seem a strange fit for the operatic stage (it was performed here as The Girl of the Golden West, with Kelley Rourke’s translation delivered in a variety of American accents). The redemptive, into-the-sunset conclusion takes for granted a belief that capitalism in its most primitive, brutal form could leave the hearts of a group of hardened Gold Rush miners capable of forgiveness. That it might have done, ENO’s programme told us, is not actually that wide of the mark, historically speaking. But we still rely heavily on Puccini’s score—so bracing in its wide-open vistas, but also so warm, melodic and irresistibly seductive—to shoot down our cynicism and string up our disbelief.

[continue reading here

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Freeing the Imagination: An Interview with Brigitte Fassbaender

[From OPERA, July 2014, pp. 829-835]

©Marc Gilsdorf
An interview with a retired singer might normally consist primarily of reminiscences, talk of foundations, teaching and the like. Things are a little different with Brigitte Fassbaender, who turns 75 this month. The former mezzo—whose singing career started with her engagement (aged 21) at the Munich Staatsoper at the beginning of the 1960s and lasted until her retirement in 1995—has now been directing opera for well over two decades, including a 13-year stint as Intendant at the Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, where she produced some three dozen shows. 

That appointment came to an end in 2012, but further directing engagements are proliferating, many of them with a distinctly Straussian flavour: next year she’s in charge of a new Rosenkavalier in Baden-Baden, a Capriccio is planned for 2017 at Oper Frankfurt (where she staged a new Ariadne in the autumn); plans for Arabella in Leipzig in 2016 had to be abandoned—postponed rather than cancelled, she hopes—because of a clash with another of her duties, as director of the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a post she has held since 2009 and which is contracted to run until at least 2017. To that we can add masterclasses and a week-long Lieder festival, the Eppaner Liedsommer, which she runs in the South Tyrol. She’s also recently served as presiding artistic spirit over a recording, using hand-picked singers, of all of Strauss’s songs and melodramas (for which Fassbaender herself is the reader). She describes it as a ‘personal gift from me to one of my life-long most beloved composers’; the box set (released on TwoPianists Records) was launched in Garmisch on the composer’s birthday, June 11. 

©Marc Gilsdorf
All in all, Fassbaender’s workload would keep someone half her age busy; and she speaks 
longingly about a time when she might be able to pursue her painting more, if something akin to retirement ever materializes. When she was profiled in these pages (August 1981, pp. 789-794), Susan Gould described her as a ‘cornucopia of paradoxes’, and it’s one of these paradoxes that seems to play some role in keeping her so youthful: an irreverence and an acute sense of the ridiculous bubble on the surface during our conversation, but do nothing to mask the fierce intellect and deep seriousness—and love of her art—that lie beneath. Added to this are an openness, and an absolute lack of snobbery, pretentiousness or any trace of the grand manner one might justifiably expect from someone who was, after all, one of the great singers of the second half of the 20th century. 

She loves being as busy as she is, but gives a characteristically self-deprecating answer when I ask what she liked best about her Innsbruck post. ‘I could sleep in my own bed for 13 years! Because, as a singer, you are two thirds of the year travelling and living in hotels, and this is horrible. My contract was for two productions a year, so I had a lot to do there.’ Besides opera, this included directing musicals (she also wrote the books for two, Shylock and Lulu), operetta and plays. ‘I had to take care of the ensemble, and I coached the singers technically—lots of them—and it was an enormous challenge to run such a theatre with 400 personnel.’ The discussion soon reveals a perhaps unexpected passion for a composer, Britten, whose operas she never sang in but which she clearly loves directing. ‘I did lots of Britten in Innsbruck—Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Albert Herring. It was unknown there, but they were amazed that it’s so wonderful: I think Britten is one of the greatest opera composers in the last century.’ 

In fact, there is not much that Fassbaender didn’t direct there. She singles out a production of Les Troyens as an example of the theatre’s level of ambition, but adds, ‘Strangely enough, I didn’t do very much Mozart: only Die Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni and Lucio Silla. I would love to do Così or something like that, because it’s so difficult. But what is more difficult? Everything is difficult in a way!’ She certainly speaks from experience regarding Lucio Silla: her 1998 touring staging of that work for the now-defunct Opera for Europe was, by her own admission, not a great success: ‘It didn’t go very well, because it was technically very difficult. In London [at the Shaftesbury Theatre] they didn’t get it together, so it was a disastrous performance.’ Her only other UK staging was Der ferne Klang for Opera North in 1992. ‘It went quite well,’ she says. ‘I love the opera and would love to do something like that again, but it’s very difficult in terms of audience: if you run a theatre you have to think of the “Auslastung” [the ticket sales]. It would be a dream to direct something else here. But I think it will stay a dream,’ she adds with a laugh: ‘one must have unfulfilled dreams in life!’ 

Either way, she’s happy to continue to be kept so busy after Innsbruck. ‘Especially at my age, it’s not so common that one gets asked. I just did this Albert Herring in Vienna, this Ariadne in Frankfurt. And there are interesting things coming, too.’ These include a new Rigoletto in Regensburg in the autumn, Yevgeny Onegin in Kiel early in the new year, La Bohème in Coburg next June and a Freischütz at Jennersdorf next summer, as well as a Paul Bunyan, already scheduled for Frankfurt in autumn 2016. But it’s next Easter’s Rosenkavalier at Baden-Baden, her third production of that work, that will perhaps be her highest-profile directorial engagement to date. It features a starry cast headed by Anja Harteros and Magdalena Kožená, and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle—‘a wonderful musician’.  

There are few works with which Fassbaender is more closely associated than Strauss’s Komödie für Musik. Long before her Octavian became legendary, this was the piece with which she had what she describes as her first high-profile international engagement, a Covent Garden revival with Sena Jurinac, Lucia Popp and ‘this wonderful Ochs here, Michael Langdon’. (Of her performance on 11 November 1971, Harold Rosenthal wrote succinctly: ‘Brigitte Fassbaender, very young, gamin-like, handsome, sensual, and with a lovely rich, dark mezzo’.) How does she approach a piece that she has such a famous history of singing in herself? ‘I waited a long time before I felt I could direct it, because your imagination is so occupied with these old, traditional productions, which I had done all these years all around the world. But then something happened that freed my imagination. I saw Ruth Berghaus’s [1992] production in Frankfurt. This was a shock, but a very healthy one.’ She’s especially pleased that Berghaus’s designer for that production, Erich Wonder, has been lured out of retirement to work with her on the Baden-Baden production.

‘I could leave behind all these traditional obsessions and think totally freely about it, feel free from this traditional way of doing it, without betraying the piece. I come from that tradition, but I maintain that you must have new ideas and that it’s legitimate to have new ideas—without destroying the piece.’ But it’s clearly also about balance: ‘there was the tendency, especially in Germany, to make everything like trash. And that I don’t like: you don’t need to. But they’re turning back the wheel in a way. They want to see the piece again, and not just ugliness on a rubbish heap, or in a station. Der Rosenkavalier Act 2 in the Bahnhof? That’s not for me!’ 

At the beginning of her career, she was lucky enough to have worked with several people who were close friends and colleagues of Strauss himself: Karl Böhm, Rudolf Hartmann—‘all those old Nazis!’. But when asked which directors she particularly enjoyed working with, she begins with Günther Rennert, the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Intendant from 1967 to ’76, when Fassbaender’s career arguably reached its apogee—she was made Kammersänger there in 1970, at the time the youngest singer ever to receive the title in Germany. ‘He was wonderful, and I loved to work for him. And I knew and worked with all these famous directors in my time, real opera directors, like Ponnelle and Götz Friedrich. And the young Otto Schenk.’ 

She also speaks highly of Kurt Horres, and describes his Munich Werther as ‘still valid, still very acceptable’ (a recording of her incandescent performance in it, opposite Domingo, is available on Orfeo). ‘But I missed working with people like Neuenfels and Konwitschny—I would love to have worked with him. We know each other, and he asked me if I would come back on stage under his direction: just a small part which he wanted to do as a main part, in Jenůfa or something, and I said, “No, I can’t come back.” Also, Vienna asked me for the old Countess in Queen of Spades. But I never wanted to get old on stage. Sure, you can sing at 80 like Mödl did, but that’s not for me.’ 

When asked about conductors, she mentions three: ‘Giulini, Kleiber and Kubelík—he was a wonderful conductor. But they are only examples of this great league of conductors I was happy to work with. There are others, I worked with them all. Even with Stokowski. It was only once and it was funny, because he looked like a very old woman; he was deaf and blind but still very keen. And when I got introduced to him, he said, “Fassbaender, Fassbaender … didn’t we work together in 1911?” There had been a famous singer in Munich called Zdenka Mottl-Fassbender, and he’d worked with her as a young young Korrepetitor in Munich.’ 

On the whole, however, Fassbaender’s feelings towards conductors might best be described as ambivalent, and when I ask if her new role means a new attitude towards conductors, her answer is brief, and accompanied by a big laugh: ‘It hasn’t changed a lot, my impression of conductors, no.’ She continues: ‘There are some very nice ones. But, nein nein, it is still notable that conductors don’t understand a lot about voices, so their ideas of how a singer is cast or shall react or sing is far away from my ideas. So, there we have to fight together always.’ Does she feel that this contributes to the difficulties facing young singers? ‘There are so many young singers around today, for many it seems it’s not worth taking care of one, because ten others are waiting. So people use them and throw them away. Only very rarely does a singer have the responsibility for himself, and the concentration and the discipline to say “no” to totally false offers. It’s the singers’ mentality in a way, because they always think they’ll never get asked again if they ever say “no”. In a way it’s right to think like that. But if you have a rare talent and a wonderful gift, then you have to wait for your time.’ 

In her own career, when did she learn how to say ‘no’? ‘I had my father [the baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender], who was a teacher, and he knew what it meant to make a solid career. He always told me that it takes ten years in a fixed position in an ensemble to build up a career step by step. Not singing the main parts immediately at 21 or 22. And I started at 21, so I sang every Page and every Magd, whatever there was, together with bigger parts coming up. But the main parts, like Octavian or Eboli or Carmen, I sang in my late 20s or early 30s, when the voice was totally matured.’

There were still plenty of offers that Fassbaender did turn down. ‘There was a time when I could have sung the Italian parts all around. Like Amneris, and Eboli. I sang Eboli a lot, but for Amneris and Azucena I said “no”.’ She recorded Azucena in the studio with Giulini, of course, and did tackle Amneris—‘only once in Munich, with the young Muti: a wonderful, very successful experience’ (also captured on Orfeo, also opposite Domingo). She discovered afterwards that Giulietta Simionato had been in the audience: ‘A horrible, horrible moment! If I’d known beforehand I wouldn’t have sung a note. But then I got asked to sing it all over. But I stopped it, because I felt it’s not my way of working, to jump in every other night somewhere else in this really challenging part; and I wanted to keep the voice fresh and young for the Lieder singing. They offered me Kundry and Ortrud and all this, and I always said “no”.’

Having grown up watching her father on the stage, did she ever envy other voice types their roles? ‘There are two soprano roles I’d love to have sung: Tosca and Fidelio. They are two poles of a woman’s life, in terms of character and emotions. But I’m not a soprano; I’m a mezzo-soprano and am very content with all the parts I sang. In a way I would love to have been a tenor, but I was content. A part is what you make it.’ And the fact that Fassbaender’s mother was the actress Sabine Peters also clearly influenced her artistic make-up: ‘I always felt more a singing actress on the opera stage than a singer. I didn’t want to be called an opera singer; I was always ashamed to be called an opera singer. I was not interested in singing a Marschallin; I was much more content with Octavian, because, acting-wise, it’s much more interesting. And I didn’t want to sit around in the dressing room for a whole act!’ 

At this point I bring up something Fassbaender said in an earlier interview: ‘We Octavians get some very peculiar fan mail.’ She elaborates in somewhat forceful terms. ‘Some of these fans … first of all, they are not fans: they are freaks. They get confused between the private person and the person on stage. They think what one does on stage in this travesti, this must be something interesting in your private life as well. So you get obscure offers,’ she says with a laugh, ‘and many, many invitations for lunch, love letters and even people threatening suicide when they don’t get a response. So I had a lot of this, and after performances, some would follow my car when I went home, and I’d have to do like they do in the films to shake them off. They came to my house in the night, surrounded my house, walked through the fence and looked into the windows. Even once, they pinched something from my garbage and sent it back in the mail. Or they broke into my car—one year when I sang in Bayreuth—and pinched my score. But really, it’s strange, these things—spooky, horrible. But it’s over. Although there are still one or two! But I bet it happens to every Octavian. And it happens a lot to singers.’ It’s not all bad, though: ‘some of them are really nice and intelligent and not burdensome,’ she takes care to add. 

When the conversation gets on to the state of opera today, Fassbaender doesn’t mince her words either, even if those words are leavened by a humour and warmth that is difficult to translate onto the page. ‘No, it’s not in a healthy state,’ she says unequivocally. The first problem regards casting. ‘Could you imagine a career like Margaret Price’s or Sutherland’s these days? And this is something unhealthy. You must not look like a model on stage. Singers are not made looking like models. They must have a certain physiognomy. The dramatic singers, for example, they must be like that. I don’t like the “perfection” and the superficiality: only the packaging is interesting now. And that’s how most young singers sound now. I can’t immediately recognize a singer any more. They lose their absolute vocal personality, their timbre, because they want only to be as beautiful as possible—or as loud as possible or as high as possible. And this is a pity, although it has always been the same in a way.’

Second: ‘Now I also feel when I work with young singers, as a director or in masterclasses, that they’re not disciplined, they don’t have the concentration. They play around with their Handy and they sit at night surfing the Internet. They don’t have any time to concentrate on the profession and learn. Young singers are not prepared enough when they arrive at a rehearsal, because they don’t have time for it, and they don’t get enough sleep because until four o’clock in the morning or whatever they’re on Facebook.’ 

The third problem on the list is perhaps less expected. ‘They all drink water—by the litre, only water—which can’t be healthy, because every second young singer I know has something called reflux. This is the modern singer’s disease. And I’m sure it comes from drinking water all the time.’ And what did she drink as a singer? ‘Not water,’ she answers with a laugh. ‘Water too, but not only! We didn’t drink such a lot. It wasn’t necessary. Now they do it on the concert platform and they put it on their chair. This looks awful; this was unthinkable in my time.

‘I’m also playing with my phone and looking on the Internet,’ she admits, ‘but I’m not obsessed with it: it’s not my whole life. And this I miss a bit: the real knowing about the seriousness of this profession. It’s not hard work to get an opera singer: to get an artist is hard work, to become an artist. And if it’s a fantastic talent, I really try to influence and take care of somebody like that. I don’t give private lessons. I have only a handful of young colleagues who I sometimes coach. Most of my work is done in the masterclasses.’ A formal teaching position is something she tried and didn’t like: ‘I was for eight years at the Musikhochschule in Munich, but it was not my way of teaching. I’m no civil servant.’ 

As the conversation comes to a close we come back to directing, and what her further ambitions in that regard are. A return to Salome is one, to revisit and develop the concept she explored when staging it in Innsbruck. But finally it’s back to Britten: her ultimate dream is to tackle one of his works at Glyndebourne, where she sang only once (Clairon in Capriccio in 1990)—‘but my father was there very involved at the beginning of Glyndebourne, and that was something life-long for him: he loved it’. If someone at the East Sussex festival is listening, maybe that particular dream won’t remain unfulfilled. 

Friday, 26 September 2014

WNO: Guillaume Tell; ROH: Barbiere

[From The Spectator, September 27]

Is there a fundamental, insuperable problem with staging Rossini’s Guillaume Tell on a budget, without the resources to conjure up the sense of scale that was part of grand opéra’s appeal and raison d’être? Take away the special effects, whip away the phantasmagorical curtain, and, as with any Hollywood blockbuster, you are left with a modest little plot whirring away at its centre. In Tell, this involves the love between Arnold and Mathilde across a national divide. It’s the struggle of the Swiss — in a time before neutrality and cuckoo clocks — against their Austrian oppressors that, along with the Alps, forms the backdrop.

[continue reading here]

Friday, 19 September 2014

ENO: Otello

Benjamin Britten, when seeing his Peter Grimes at La Scala, wrote with a touch of glee that performing the work in Italian made it sound like Otello. It’s interesting to wonder what Verdi would have made, then, of David Alden’s new staging of his penultimate opera at the Coliseum, performed, of course, in English. Certainly, with Alden’s Grimes—also starring Stuart Skelton—still fresh in the mind from last season, the parallels seemed unavoidable. And even Jonathan Summer’s Iago shared a leather coat, if not quite the genuine sinisterness, with Matthew Rose’s chilling Claggart in Alden’s 2012 Billy Budd .

On this occasion, though, neither the set (by Jon Morrell)—moveable blocks of imposing, run-down grandeur with hints of a rubble-strewn wasteland beyond—nor, more broadly, the setting seemed much suited to the work in hand. For a start, as I understand it, Otello is primarily about emotional battles being fought once military battles have been won: the attendant peace and lack of activity making for the idle minds that Iago’s devil can exploit; the delineation between Otello’s nobility on the battlefield and his emotional immaturity and insecurity off it is at the heart of the drama. Here he stumbled out of battle less victorious than already broken, and seemed strangely unconcerned by the chaos that—Alden's almost dystopian setting suggested—persisted around him. His essential otherness, meanwhile, seems to insist entirely of a certain awkwardness in his manner. 

Disconsolate and nervy, Skelton's Otello was an unconvincing military leader, and, as a result, his fall from grace lost much of its wider resonance. (Was that why ‘Ora e per sempre addio’ was sluggish and internalised?) Without any initial composure, this Otello had nowhere to go, resorting to strange contortions, furniture throwing and the like. Similarly, with all the loss of pomp and grandeur surrounding him, his fall lost context; and I’m not entirely sure what was being said by having the chorus in Act 3 appear as regulation uptight-community scowlers and tutters—were they to be understood as somehow complicit in Otello’s downfall? Although they play an important role (and the ENO chorus was here on terrific form), this mass is surely there more to set the scene for the drama than to participate in it. 

Stuart Skelton in ENO's new Otello (photo: Alastair Muir)

Summers's Iago was shot through with the same run-down weariness that seemed to characterise the whole thing, often, it seemed, going through the motions joylessly and without much of the sadistic glee that we often see. His voice is in good nick, but is smooth in timbre, without bite. Skelton's voice—magnificent though it is—is similarly short on required edge, making for a slight lack of definition between them. Otherwise Skelton made a very decent stab at the role, taking its challenges largely in his stride, even if his interpretation was held back, I feel, by the production. It will be fascinating to hear how he grows into the part; and I, for one, can't wait to hear him tackle it in Italian. His enunciation of Tom Phillip's workmanlike translation here, though, was impeccable. 

Funnily enough, it was Leah Crocetto's Desdemona (the character's name incidentally retaining its stress, as in Italian, on the second 'e') who brought some vocal edge to proceedings. The American soprano sang the role in a big, vibrant voice that could be exciting, even if it made for a distinctly unangelic heroine. She seemed the least comfortable with singing in English, though, and, like her husband, was robbed of nobility by the production—particularly in a final act that couldn't make up its mind between realism and stylisation. Allan Clayton was excellent as a Cassio reduced, after his initial fall, to an alcoholic. As, respectively, a half-fop, half-spiv Roderigo and a tweed-clad, bespectacled Emilia, Peter Van Hulle and Pamela Helen Stephen could easily have wandered in from the nightmarish Borough of Alden's Grimes

The qualities one expects from Edward Gardner were there in abundance. There was precision and conviction in his conducting, and and a very high standard of execution from an ENO orchestra that has improved immeasurably during his tenure. But, like the production, it was a reading of Verdi's score that seemed to lose the depth, delicacy and grandeur, and which was also short on nuance at times (the introduction to Act 4 struck me as rather unloving). Although this team always brings a certain high standard to what it does, on this occasion I couldn't but feel disappointed by the result—an Otello that, worryingly, failed to leave me as moved, let alone poleaxed, as it should.

[Finally, if you'll excuse me, a plug for the new ENO/Overture Guide to 'Otello', for which I wrote a performance history. It's currently available only in the Coliseum foyer before the shows, and in the Royal Opera House shop, but will be available from the usual other outlets soon.]