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

Monday, 29 May 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: Don Carlo

26 May 2017

Any opportunity to see Don Carlo(s) is difficult to resist, and happily it’s possible in Berlin to allay any sorrow at missing the Royal Opera House’s latest revival with the fact that both the Staatsoper and the Deutsche Oper have it on their Spielpläne this season. This was the penultimate performance at the former, and I'm already eyeing dates at the latter—although Anja Harteros’s planned appearances there in the Deutsche Oper’s Verdi-Tage next May are likely to also be on several people’s radar already.



At the Staatsoper we had the standard four-act Italian version. Philipp Himmelmann’s 2004 production is an austere, concentrated affair with one main idea, as far as I could tell, that it sticks to with admirable persistence: domesticating the grand world-historical forces that define the drama (or at least as Verdi and Schiller portray it).

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We opened then with a tableau of an awkward family meal—and this is certainly a family with a few reasons for awkwardness—that reminded me in passing of the opening tableau of Philipp Stölzl’s Forza del destino in Munich. This table remained central throughout the evening, the other elements of the drama often having to work around it.

Eating, drinking and even ironing played a constant role: Elisabeth feeds the Comtesse D’Aremberg a slice of consolatory cake during ‘Non pianger, mia compagna’; in a clever little touch we get a hint of Philip’s philistinism as he merrily over-salts a dish before tasting it; the whole evening climaxes with a distraught Elisabeth having to pour tea for the Grand Inquisitor.

Eboli is perhaps most interestingly developed in this new take on the piece, portrayed as a voracious vamp in the Veil Song, at the head of what looks like the militant wing of St Trinians. She often appears in striking silhouette at the back of the stage—Johannes Leiacker’s set, helped by Davy Cunningham’s lighting, makes powerful use of sliding panels—and features, to powerful effect, at the start of the introduction to ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, finishing off a clearly joyless sexual encounter with Philip.
 
Marina Prudenskaya performs the role magnificently, turning in an impressively agile Veil Song and an impassioned, powerful ‘O don fatale’ and throwing herself gamely into all the challenges of the production. René Pape’s Philip also gains in complexity as a character from the encounter at the start of his big scene. He sings in powerful, smooth phrases throughout, but achieves touching melancholic grandeur here, the scene leading into a compelling encounter with Mikhail Kazakov’s implacable, bitingly sung Grand Inquisitor.

Fabio Sartori’s Carlo is tirelessly sung, offering real ringing power if the occasional rough edge. Massimo Cavalletti (one of two late replacement Posas) has a pleasingly grainy and Italiniate sound. He was a little inconsistent at the top of the voice early on, but settled down for a potent account of the death scene. Lianna Haroutounian remains a very decent Elisabeth and sings with commitment and, especially in the impressively focused top of the voice, technical security. but for me doesn’t quite command the regal quality—vocally or theatrically—that the role demands.

Similarly, Massimo Zanetti’s conducting here failed for some of the evening to capture the dark grandeur of Verdi’s score, occasionally feeling a little efficient. There was some terrific playing from the Staatskapelle (to which one can add the pleasure of hearing this opera in the relatively modest Schillertheater), though, and Zenetti’s account seemed to gather accumulated weight as it went along.

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Schubert Symphonies II

Franz Schubert
Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, D.485
Symphony no. 4 in C minor, "Tragic", D 417
Symphony no. 6 in C major, D.589

Pierre Boulez Saal, 25 May 2017

There are pros and cons when it comes to the programming of cycles. And sometimes doing so seems little more than an excuse to smuggle in yet more performances of works we already hear too often under the cloak of completism. But if Schubert’s final two symphonies hardly need a helping hand, the first six rare visitors to the concert hall in my experience. Daniel Barenboim’s Schubert cycle with his Staatskapelle Berlin at the Boulezsaal, which reached its midway point with this second concert, is making as eloquent a case as possible for them.

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: L'elisir d'amore

23 May 2017

Repertory houses are full of surprises, or at least gems hidden away in their Spielpläne. In the autumn it was Anja Harteros’s Tosca for a couple of performances at the Deutsche Oper. And here it was the first of two performances of L’elisir d’amore with Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak as the lovers (the second is on May 27).

L'elisir d'amore at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Monika Rittershaus)

It was a performance to restore some faith in humanity on a day when such a thing was sorely needed—an opera, too, that in its own joyous, honest and moving way, celebrates life and love, as well as humour, mischief and the qualities of a good (or even bad) Bordeaux.

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Irina Brook’s staging does a pretty good job of communicating all that, despite rather than because of its main Konzept. It sees Adina recast as the leader of a travelling troupe of actors (think a female Canio, without the temper) that is putting on a dramatic performance of the Tristan and Isolde story. Noëlle Ginefri’s set consists of a rickety stage, surrounded by the troupe’s trailers. It’s all kind of modernish dress (costumes by Sylvie Martin-Hyszka), but it’s difficult to tell—many of the chorus mill around in their medieval Cornish outfits, and this far into the Italian countryside clearly no one’s up with the main trends of the fashion world.

Some of the troupe warm up before the show begins, and there are a couple of times when they rehearse during the evening, before, at the close, Adina and Nemorino take to the stage in costume—presumably as the ill-fated Cornish couple—at the close. The Tristan references are of course a clever little joke that Felice Romani took from Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Le Philtre, one given even greater piquancy by Wagner’s subsequent treatment of the subject, but Brook seems to take it onto another meta-level that Donizetti’s little opera can’t quite sustain.

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It also raises questions. Nemorino seems to be some sort of cleaner, but does he travel around with the actors? Is he there to clean this rustic piazza? Do Belcore and his regiment follow them around as well? Wouldn’t a troupe of cynical and, by definition, well travelled actors prove a tough audience for Dulcamara’s shtick, or be unimpressed by the magic, here, of his assistant, ‘Nick’?

I didn’t let such questions detain me for long: they and the Konzept itself could happily be tidied away into the background and ignored, not least because of the sheer sense of fun brought to the piece. And at least the production did allow for plenty of impressive tomfoolery from Alagna, who threw himself into his characterisation with infectious glee. His singing, too, was filled with sunlight. The tone is a little looser these days, and he seemed to have a bit of a frog in his throat in ‘Una furtive lagrima’, but it’s still a voice of rare Italianate warmth and a pleasure to hear, especially in this lighter repertoire—although he did unleash a Manrico-esque top note or two, and occasionally wandered a little from the the conductor's tempo.

L'elisir d'amore at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Monika Rittershaus)

Kurzak’s Adina is hardly less enjoyable, her bright, creamy timbre employed in a performance of quick-witted verve and bounce, her coloratura despatched with applomb. Her new role in this production risked turning her into an unlikeable diva. But she struck that balance well, retaining more than enough of the character’s original charm. Her ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’, for me far and away the most beautiful moment in the score, was exquisitely done—and it was accompanied with the utmost sensitivity by the orchestra under Moritz Gnann, whose conducting was a model of bel canto fluidity and flexibility throughout.

Mikheil Kiria was a terrific Dulcamara, mixing clean articulation with a bright, lively baritone; and Thomas Lehman was suitably strutting and handsome-sounding as Belcore. Alexandra Hutton’s Giannetta was a constantly vivid presence, not least in gamely leading a couple of dance routines.

A few things to argue with in the production then—not least its basic premise—but this was a gentle, joyous and memorable L’elisir, in which everyone on stage seemed to be having at least as much fun as I was.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Oper Leipzig: Cinq-Mars

20 May 2017

You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Cinq-Mars – either Gounod’s 1877 opera or the historical character who gives the work its title. The 11th rarity to be revived by the Centre de la musique française at Palazzetto BruZane, and recorded with their support, it now follows Felicien David’s Herculaneum (staged at Wexford last year) in also receiving a first production since the 19th century. Oper Leipzig, whose Generalmusikdirektor and Intendant, Ulf Schirmer, conducted the recording, has done it proud...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]


Sunday, 21 May 2017

Andsnes; Berliner Philharmoniker/Orozco-Estrada: Strauss, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich

Strauss R., Macbeth, Op.23
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor, Op.40
Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5 in D minor, Op.47

Philharmonie, 18 May 2017

This concert, as the programme told us, featured composers who all were hits, one way or another, with their public – and, I suppose, other subsequent publics. But Strauss tone poems and Rachmaninov piano concertos hardly come less popular than those we heard here.

Strauss’s Macbeth (composed 1886-88) seems at least to be witnessing a small upsurge in its fortunes, and this concert’s conductor, the Colombian Andrés Orozco-Estrada, has recently recorded it with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he has been chief conductor since 2014...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 15 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Andrea Chénier

13 May 2017


I should admit I’ve always had a bit of a troubled relationship with Andrea Chénier, not least because, when I’ve seen it in the theatre, it’s never really caught fire.

I should also admit that that’s only been on a couple of occasions. The first time was in Vienna, in a Wiederaufnahme of Otto Schenk’s lavish production 15 years ago. It starred Violeta Urmana, Johan Botha and Lado Ataneli (with Elīna Garanča, I notice now, as Bersi). There was some impressive singing, obviously, but it left me a little cold.

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I felt similarly about David McVicar’s also-lavish production at Covent Garden (admittedly seen live only at the dress rehearsal, but later also watched on Blu-ray). In Vienna Urmana and Botha didn’t really set the world alight dramatically, I remember, or even in terms of fiery singing. In London, Jonas Kaufmann’s poet struck me as a touch too subtle and sophisticated, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Maddalena heartfelt rather than incandescent.   

It was a joy, then, to see the Deutsche Oper’s staging, with a cast that threw themselves thrillingly into roles surely designed primarily as vehicles for exactly that. Chénier and Madelenna, at least, should sound indeed as though they know they’re for the chop, should sing their hearts out as though it might be for the last time. And that’s exactly what it felt like here.

Marcelo Alvarez’s voice still carries the traces of its more lyrical origins—it’s pleasingly soft-grained rather than excitingly steel-bladed—but he sang Chénier throughout with unstinting generosity and ardour, a slight patch of uncertainty at the start of the final duet notwithstanding. His acting was rudimentary, admittedly, hands and arms moving about in a series of stock tenorial gestures, but it hardly mattered. This was big-hearted singing served up in big, hearty dollops.

Maria José Siri’s Maddalena was nicely acted, and she conveyed particularly well the transition from the mischievous girl of the first act (especially so in this mischievous 1994 production from John Dew) to tragic figure. She channelled a good deal of grandezza and sang in a voice of unmistakably Italian colour: a slight edge to the warm sound, a care for words and a broadness of phrasing that was only slightly compromised by some shortness of breath. She rose brilliantly to a moving, noble ‘La mamma morta’ and matched Alvarez in the unrepentant fireworks of ‘Vicino a te’.

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George Gagnidze was a powerful Gérard, the voice impressively focused and forward, the characterisation broad-brush but persuasive. The were excellent performances in the smaller roles from a raft of Deutsche Oper singers: a strongly sung Bersi from Judit Kutasi, a fantastic cameo from Ronnita Miller as Madelon, a handsome sounding Mathieu from Samuel Dale Johnson.

Once we got past a couple of dodgy moments early on from the orchestra under Paolo Carignani (a late stand-in), the players and conductor hit their stride with big sweeping phrases and a grand, thrilling sound. Musically this was performance was straightforwardly but enormously pleasurable.

Dew’s production stands up well, too, striking the same sort of balance that I described in Götz Friedrich’s slightly later Traviata: a smart, interesting show but a sensible, eminently revivable one too. And Dew’s Chénier, though never undermining the piece, also gives the impression of not ever taking it too seriously.

Act One, therefore, is a riot of grotesquely exaggerated froufrou (José Manuel Vázquez clearly had a lot of fun designing the costumes), its action taking place on a platform beneath which the underclass grumble away threateningly. The act’s conclusion, which sees one side of the platform rise up and these preposterous aristos slide helplessly off it, is a brilliant touch. The same set remains, in various configurations, and there’s another neat touch at the very end, where panels come across and down gradually to enclose Chénier and Maddalena in the shape of the blade that’s shortly to do its worst. A witty end to a rousingly enjoyable evening. 

Gautier Capuçon; Berliner Phllharmoniker/Bychkov: Shostakovich, Strauss

Shostakovich, Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107
Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

Philharmonie, 12 May 2017

For this programme with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov chose two works in E flat major, the traditional key of heroism. But it’s hardly possible to imagine two more different treatments of that favourite musical mode.

Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto is often described as presenting an anti-hero, a fruitless struggle against insuperable forces in which we nonetheless see glimpses of defiant humanity. The grandiloquent surface of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, by contrast, suggests an image of conceited triumphalism...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]


Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Der fliegende Holländer

7 May 2017 — Premiere

Berlin already has a Wagner opera staged by a choreographer in the guise of Sascha Waltz’s Tannhäuser at the Staatsoper. With that work, at least, one can see the justification, even if of course there’s a great deal more to Tannhäuser than the Venusberg—which happens, indeed, to be one of the opera’s primary messages.

Samuel Youn as the Dutchman in the Deutsche Oper's new Fliegende Holländer (photo © Thomas Jauk)

For a choreographer to stage Der fliegende Holländer certainly seems less obvious. But any fears of a riot of dancing sailors and seamstresses were entirely unfounded; concerns that the stage would be flooded with additional dancers, too, were unjustified. This was that rare beast: an opera staging by a choreographer that didn’t feature much dancing at all—or any dancers.

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This is all perhaps to admit my ignorance regarding Christian Spuck (resident choreographer at the Stuttgart Ballet), who already has a handful of opera productions behind him. And this Dutchman indeed felt like the work of an experienced operatic hand: dark, monochrome (with one exception), concentrated and, on the whole, theatrically very effective.

But my heart did sink early on. During the overture a figure sat on the stage, hugging himself in desperation beside a model ship. A misty cloud hung above him, from which rain tinkled very audibly into a shallow rectangular pool  at the back of the stage. Such effects don’t always suggest a director with much interest in the music.

But, though this was distracting in the quieter passages of the overture, it was turned off most of the time during the opera itself, and proved, along with virtually everyone having to make their entrance through the pool, important in helping cement the production’s heavy, wearily dank aesthetic.

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It soon became clear, too, that the crouching figure was Erik, onstage all evening and acted fearlessly by Thomas Blondelle. We were invited to view the whole action from his perspective, events on stage intermittently going into freeze frame as he silently expressed his exasperation or ran from one position to another. 

The only character dressed in colour (in the dull green jacket of the hunter), Erik here stood out as perhaps the one sane—and human—person on stage. And his remarkable dream narration, beloved of early psychoanalysts, here became the whole work’s central pivot: it does indeed sit at the centre of the piece, in the middle of the second of three acts, performed here in their elided, proto-music drama form.

It’s a striking idea, and was realised with striking effectiveness by Spuck, who kept the rest of the production darkly focussed around him. In addition to its paddling pool, Rufus Didwiszus’s single set consisted of black walls with two large doors barely visible at the back. A large mass, later revealed as a phalanx of sewing machines, was hidden under a dust sheet and was ‘sailed’ around the stage by Daland and the Steuermann during Act 1’s final chorus.

Ingela Brimberg as Senta (photo © Thomas Jauk)

This was unveiled as we moved into Act 2, when an off-white tent-like enclosure with a few daubings to suggest an interior was hoisted above it. At the start of Act 3 that was brought down and replaced with a grand black awning. It was an economical, if relentlessly monochrome, way of dealing with the scene changes quickly—but an effective one.

Daland’s crew were dressed in dark greys and blacks, and came traipsing on into the gloom with torches at the start. The Dutchman and his crew arrived through the mist in a black hooded cloaks, and Samuel Youn’s performance was one of intense, concentrated angst and desperation, emphasised by a narrow-bore bass baritone that only ever seems to function at a high level of intensity.

Tobias Kehrer’s Daland was in many ways outstanding, the voice wonderfully rich and rounded in its middle and lower registers. But both he and Youn struggled at the top of their ranges, as indeed did Blondelle in the tricky Helden-bel canto of Erik.

Ingela Brimberg’s Senta, by contrast, only improved as the evening went on, her soprano, initially a little spread in its timbre, achieving terrific focus and thrilling volume by the end, which was pessimistically, unpredictably but not entirely satisfactorily staged in the absence of any ships to sail off in or cliffs to jump off. Ronita Miller dusted off her gloriously fruity mezzo as Mary, and Matthew Newlin was an eloquent, appealing Steuermann.

Ingela Brimberg (Senta) and Thomas Blondelle (Erik) (photo © Thomas Jauk)

The expanded chorus was outstanding, and this is perhaps where Spuck’s direction was at its most impressive, bringing a choreographic unity to their movements, often suggestive of them being blown one way or another by the wind, or tossed from side to side by the waves—the Spinning Chorus and mocking of Senta were directed with a sharp wit, while the chorus’s reactions to the Ballad helped make Brimberg’s fine performance of it all the more gripping.

Keeping the whole thing afloat, though, was the grandly surging sea of sound provided by the Deutsche Oper orchestra under Donald Runnicles. The playing was bracing and rich in tone, the brass burnished, the strings incisive and the wind plangent. Runnicles whipped up the storms thrillingly, as well as bringing bounce and lightness to to the more Weberian passages. Most impressively of all, he managed to tie the whole thing together with an inexorable sense of forward movement, justifying his decision to perform it without any breaks. 

Not perhaps an evening, in Spuck’s dark production, to offer much consolation or redemption, but this was an exciting, concentrated couple of hours of music drama.  

Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle: Bruckner, Holt

Holt, Surcos
Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor

Philharmonie, 5 May 2017

Simon Rattle has often opted to preface his performances of the great edifices of the Austro-German symphonic repertoire with much shorter works. I remember him bringing the Berlin Philharmonic to London’s Royal Festival Hall six years ago and programming miniatures by Brahms and Wolf ahead of Mahler’s Third. On this occasion, though, it was new music that preceded Bruckner’s Eighth: the latest in the ‘Tapas-series’ Rattle and the orchestra have commissioned, none longer than six minutes, to spread around various programmes as unintimidating tasters of the contemporary scene.

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 8 May 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Die Frau ohne Schatten; Mahler 8

Die Frau ohne Schatten, 29 April 2017, Staatsoper Hamburg
Mahler Symphony No. 8, 28 April 2017, Elbphilharmonie


The sources and influences that helped shaped Die Frau ohne Schatten are countless, creating a complex web that criss-crosses between cultures, centuries and genres. In his writings, though, Hugo von Hofmannsthal hinted a clutch of works by Goethe that were of fundamental importance to his ambitions as a librettist generally and his plan for Die Frau specifically. One of the most important of these was Goethe’s Faust II, which in an essay from 1913-14 he described as ‘die Oper aller Opern’the opera of all operas.
The links between Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s most ambitious opera and Mahler’s grandest symphony, whose second part sets the final stages of Faust II, would therefore seem well worth exploring. Indeed, in a book chapter from 1992, the Germanist Harry E. Seelig noted the common ground in the apotheoses of Mahler’s 8th and Die Frau ohne Schatten, pointing also to the similarity between the winds’ melody at the start of the Mahler’s second half and the melody of Barak’s ‘Mir anvertraut’.
On paper, then, the juxtaposition of both works in Hamburg felt like an important opportunity. My hopes were raised by the fact that among the credits for the performances of the Mahler in the Elbphilharmonie were those for a Dramaturg (Johannes Blum) and ‘Lichtskulptur’ (by rosalie, perhaps best known in operatic circles for providing designs for Alfred Kirchner’s 1994 Bayreuth Ring). To what extent would the Mahler be ‘staged’, and would any attempt, either in the performances of the symphony or in Andreas Kriegenburg’s new staging of the opera, be made to explore any of the possible parallels between the works?
The answers: not at all, really, and no. For the Mahler, the dramaturg credit had seemed to have been dropped from the programme by the time of the performance itself. We just had seven vast rectangular light panels hung from the hall’s ceiling above the stage, on which appeared slowly rippling patterns shifting between blues, purples and greens—essentially the standard screensaver, media player visualiser sort of stuff, presumably realised at considerable cost. Otherwise, despite the lighting being very low (chorus and orchestra relied on lamps to see their scores), this was pretty much a straightforward concert performance.
rosalie's 'Lichtskulptur' for Mahler 8 at the Elbphilharmonie (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
And straightforward not least in the conducting of Eliahu Inbal, stepping in for the indisposed Kent Nagano. The veteran maestro, now over 80, presided over an efficient, sensible account of the score. He marshalled his forces (some way off the 1,000 of legend, but, with an orchestra of some 150 musicians, still an impressive complement) with considerable skill. I detected an understandable pragmatism in his approach, too, and a sense of what was achievable in terms of interpretation in the circumstances: Inbal was announced as Nagano’s replacement only three days before the first of three performances (I was at the second).
He certainly didn’t stint on the big moments, but this was nevertheless a reading characterised by swift tempos, with little feeling of trying to explore the depth of feeling that the two texts—the Catholic ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ of the first half and the pantheistic allegory of the Goethe in the second—inspired in the composer.
In some ways this felt as much a test for the acoustics of Hamburg’s new hall (and it was the first time I’d been in it) as anything else. As such, it passed impressively. The orchestral sound was silky, rich and transparent, the choruses (the Hamburger Alsterspatzen, the Latvian State Chorus and the Chorus of the Hamburger Staatsoper) direct and rousing, their diction coming across well. Even the soloists, marooned between orchestra and chorus, weren’t as drowned out as one might have expected.
The outstanding contributions came, in particular, from Daniela Sindram’s rich, sensuous (Mulier samaritana); Heather Engebretson soaring as Mater gloriosa (her ‘Komm! Hebe dich zu höheren sphären’ delivered from high up in the hall); Kartal Karagedik, a Hamburg ensemble member, as an ardent Pater ecstaticus; and Wilhelm Schwinghammer impressive as Pater profundis. Burkhard Fritz, alas, seemed to be having a bad day in the demanding tenor music.
Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Hamburg (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
There were some signs of tiredness in the Staatsorchester, and one imagines a good number players had been in the pit tackling Die Frau ohne Schatten less than 24 hours earlier (this was a Mahler matinée). There again Nagano had been forced to withdraw, replaced at a late stage by Axel Kober, who conducted a reading – presumably as much dictated by Nagano’s work throughout the preparation period as by Kober’s own interpretation—that was similarly swift and efficient, but none the worse for it.
Certainly there was plenty of care and attention lavished on the score. The voicing of Act 1’s final chords struck me as especially well balanced—a small point, no doubt, but one that seemed to underline the difference in care between Nagano/Kober here and Zubin Mehta’s disappointing conducting of the piece at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Nor did the overall swiftness preclude generous phrasing or warmth, and rarely did the music feel pushed. This wasn’t a reading to explore the score’s extremes, but it was one that emphasised its coherence and dramatic effectiveness.
The performances of Claus Guth’s staging in Berlin were still fresh in the mind, and Kriegenburg’s Hamburg production was interesting in being built on a contrasting, if somewhat counterintuitive premise: whereas Guth had concentrated on the action as existing in the Kaiserin’s mind, Kriegenburg chose to emphasise the Färberin’s development. (As an aside I feel duty bound to quote a letter to Strauss from Hofmannsthal from July 1914, which certainly suggests, for what it’s worth, that the librettist wouldn’t have approved. ‘I would like to draw all your attention to the character of the Empress,’ he wrote. ‘She has not a great deal to say and yet is actually the most important figure in the opera. You should never forget that. It is all about becoming human; she—not the other one—is the woman without a shadow.’)
Lise Lindstrom (Färberin) and Andrzej Dobber (Barak) (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Here the Färberin  had the stage to herself at before the music began, mumbling about wanting to be taken away, and concluding with the Kaiserin’s own words—‘Ich will nicht’—before the orchestra thundered in with the Keikobad motif. She, or a body double, mirrored the Empress a great deal throughout, and she appeared in both forms for ‘Mir anvertraut’, one singing separate from Barak, the other, apparently unwell, being attended to by him.
It was a general feature of the production, in fact, to have many different characters witnessing scenes they’re not involved in. It’s not a bad idea per se, but a recipe for some very cluttered stage pictures: the comings and goings of different characters, doubles and extras in the Emperor’s and Empress’s scenes in Act 2 were a case in point.
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This too seemed to reflect Kriegenburg’s lack of concern for the clear delineations laid out in the libretto. Harald B. Thor’s set consisted of two two levelsthe upper sphere antiseptic and featuring a series of white angled poles, the lower dark and dingy and clutteredwhich were raised up and down. This allowed for fluid movement between spheres, but surely too much of it: the Empress and Nurse not only made their way down to the human world, via the central spiral staircase, but Barak and his Wife were able to wander up to the spiritual realm whenever they fancied. 
Within this context, the members of each realm were nevertheless well differentiated, those from the spiritual realm in wafty white, often accompanied by a similarly dressed group of extras, against whom the Gabriele Rossmanith’s Falke, in bright red, stood out in sharp relief. I also liked the way the Emperor’s stony trajectory was conveyed by his increasing infirmity. The human world featured grubby costumes, with the occasional appearance of a posse of masked businessmen.
The Konzept had some major casualties, however, not the least of which was the Empress, whose own trial and triumph were reduced to a sideshow. This sense was further emphasised by the fact that there was no apparent attempt to deal with or portray the presence of Keikobad, whatever or whoever one might view him as being. This also meant a more general lack of concern for any possible deeper meanings in the work, which reached its apogee in a disappointingly glib and trite take on the finale, staged—without irony, apparently—as a straightforward happy ending. Those businessmen reappeared, then unmasked and partly disrobed to reveal themselves as colourfully dressed children who proceeded to play ball games and pat-a-cake. The Emperor and Empress played along  before joining the Barak and his wife on a pair of park benches at the front for the quartet.
The finale of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Hamburg (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Despite my misgivings about the production, Lise Lindstrom was impressive in her newly expanded role as the Färberin (and even distantly reminiscent visually of Barbara Hannigan’s omnipresent Lulu in Christoph Marthaler’s production at this house earlier in the year). She’s a fearlessly committed actress and has a striking stage presence. Her voice is a slow-burning lyrical instrument that can take a while to display its steel, but that only helped give the character the extra humanity that the staging demands.
Relegated to also-ran status, Emily Magee’s Empress perhaps unsurprisingly failed to make anywhere near as strong an impression as she had in the role for Guth’s staging at Covent Garden. There’s never doubting her commitment, though, and her gleaming voice still delivered the goods once it had warmed up. The outstanding performance perhaps came from Andrzej Dobber as Barak. The Polish baritone sang in generous, well-filled phrases and with powerful tone, and he acted with a moving sincerity. Though perhaps not strictly a bass baritone (the big Verdi roles are a speciality), Dobber lacked some richness and warmth of tone, but the voice has a directness and honest beauty—not to mention easy volume—that suit the role well.
Roberto Saccà had all the Emperor’s top notes, but struggled with the cantilena that links them together. Linda Watson, who has often sung the Färberin herself, was a powerful Amme here, although not always one with the necessary verbal incisiveness. Among the smaller roles, Bogdan Baciu’s imposing Geisterbote stood out. Some fine things musically, then, but a disappointing staging from Kriegenburg. 


Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Ottensamer; Berliner Philharmoniker/Jansons

Sibelius, Symphony no. 1 in E minor, Op.39
Weber, Clarinet concerto no. 1 in F minor, Op.73
Bartók, The Miraculous Mandarin, Op.19: suite

Philharmonie, 27 April 2017

The programme booklet gave an immediate clue as to the main linking element of this concert: a clarinet stood proud on the cover. Inside, an essay explored the instrument’s associations with the human voice – distant, longing or longed-for. That is how it appears in the ‘bardic’ solo that opens Sibelius’s First Symphony, it argued, while noting that the dedicatee of Weber’s F minor Concerto was renowned for his voice-like sound and flexibility on the instrument. The girl in Bartòk’s Miraculous Mandarin is embodied – or envoiced – by the clarinet...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

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 the full review 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.
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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.
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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]