Sunday, 30 September 2007

Alison Balsom on trumpet and Schönwandt with Beethoven 5 in Copenhagen

I suppose I´ll have to admit to being one of these "people-of-only-superficial-insight", who are influenced by glittery promotion and presentation of a classical artist: The first I heard (or rather saw) of British trumpeter Alison Balsom was on the cover of Gramophone, after which I heard her album Caprice, noticeable by a wonderfully clear and precise sound. And again, this is why I spend this evening at the Old Royal Danish Opera, where Alison Balsom was visiting together with Collegium Musicum (an orchestra made up by professional musicians from the orchestras in Copenhagen) and conductor Michael Schönwandt (Chief Conductor of the Royal Danish Opera).

First of all, the Old Stage at the Royal Danish Opera (now primarily used to stage baroque operas) after the new Opera was completed a couple of year ago, is a wonderful concert venue. As audience, you are sitting quite close to the musicians and from many seats you have excellent views of both musicians and conductor.

Secondly, the program was very intelligently put together - starting with Jean Francais´ arrangement for orchestra of three piano pieces by Poulenc.
Alison Balsom then played as soloist (together with the orchestras English horn player) in Copland´s "Quiet City" and then in the trumpet concerto by Hummel. "Quiet City" is a very beautiful piece and Alison Balsom played beautifully on the trumpet contributing to the general mood of solitude and peace of this piece. Differently with Hummel´s classic trumpet concerto (written in 1903) - trills, runs and everything you could do with a trumpet these days were shown off. I have heard people supposedly with trumpet knowledge claim, that much more technically capable trumpeters than Balsom are around, they are just not exposed to the media as she is: If true or not-I don´t know - but she definitely has a cool stage presence combined with the essential "star quality". And judged in itself, the performance she gave tonight in Copenhagen, her technique seemed first-class to me. I could just have wished for her to be a little less restrained in her expressions at times - I had the feeling that she was not playing up to maximum all throught the concerto.
And then Beethoven 5 - no introduction needed. Schönwandt´s Beethoven is first-rate, and I would actually like to hear him conduct it with an (even) better orchestra (I actually have, but it is so many year ago that I´ve forgotten about it!). I had, based on his Richard Strauss conducting (which is genuine top-class) expected a more restrained, objective Beehoven from him, which, luckily, it was not. In terms of interpretation: He has excellent command of the long lines of the music and the overall dynamics, with a good drive in the string sections who do not, however make the center of the interpretation with Schönwandt but are nicely balanced with wooden wind and brass. In that respect, I didn´t think the brass section had an exceptionally good evening. But everyone in the audience, I believe, had. Wishing that even more symphonic concerts will be scheduled in the Royal Opera.

Season opening in Copenhagen with Hoffmann: Introducing the conductor as....Hoffmann!

Contes d´Hoffmann. Royal Danish Opera. September 2007. Production: Yannis Houvardis. Cast: Timothy Richards/Johnny Van Hal/Marc Soustrot (Hoffmann), Kjeld Christoffersen (The Villains), Tina Kiberg (Giulietta), Louise Fribo (Olympia), Anne-Margrethe Dahl (Antonia). Conductor: Marc Soustrot.

The Royal Danish Opera opened the season at the Copenhagen Opera House with a unintentionally hilarious new production of Offenbach´s Contes d´Hoffmann.

Just before curtain-up, artistic director Kasper Bech Holten appeared in front of the curtain with the following statement:

That Johnny Van Hal singing Hoffmann unfortunately was ill, and the cover Nikolai Schukoff was available for all other evenings....except this one.
That after phoning all of Europe, a tenor capable of singing the role (Timothy Richards) was found in Berlin and all was well....but then Scandinavian Airlines cancelled all flights from Berlin to Copenhagen.... however in the last minute he got on another plane and arrived in time for the production, but... it appeared that the version of Hoffmann he could sing was not the one used in Copenhagen, despite repeated promises from this agent to the (and hold on here..):
Some of the part Timothy Richards could sing in French, some of it he could only sing in German... and some of it he couldn´t sing at all.... - and these parts would therefore be sung by the conductor Marc Soustrot (!!) Johnny Van Hal would be acting the part and Timothy Richards would be singing from the pit.

Absolutely hilarious. In fact, the audience were offered their money back/tickets for another performance if they chose to leave, which only 5-10 people did. Ín fact, the unintentional hilariousness apart, that there was no reason to do so either.

Yannis Houvardis presented an interesting stage concept portraying Hoffmann as an essentially lonely man, estranged from women and incapable of deeper feelings. The opera is staged as a peep-show - we are inside a cinema, we see the various characters on stage and realize that the three womens´ tales essentially are a copy of one another. Depersonalized, the women only exist for viewing pleasures. In fact, Hoffmann is the actual killer of all three women, delivered to him by The Villains.

The mix of Timothy Richards, Johnny Van Hal and the conductor Marc Soustrot as Hoffmann worked out surprisingly well . In fact Soustrot didn´t actually sing much - it was my impression that Johnny Van Hal sang a couple of lines as well - and thus overshadowed Soustrot, whom I´m sure I heard at least once. Difficult to judge Timothy Richards, but he had a pleasant voice. But true enough - after 20 minutes of French singing, he suddenly said something in German. And this repeated itself throughout. Johnny Van Hal was moving around stage piping up when both of his substitutes (Richards and the conductor Soustrot) gave up.

The former musical actress Louise Fribo was excellent as Olympia with clear on-pitch coloratura. Tina Kiberg was, as always, capable of generating drama on stage, though her vocal line is not what it has been. Fine Villains from Kjeld Christoffersen, though in this staging, the real villain is Hoffmann.

All this unintentional hilariousness was practically worth double the entrance ticket...

The Bayreuth Succession - episode 6: Nike Wagner teaming up with Eva Wagner-Pasquier?

Previous episodes may be viewed here, and for new readers the background of this unique Wagnerian docu-soap is written up here together with the first epdisode.

Episode 6 sees the beginning of new family alliances against Katharina Wagner/Christian Thielemann.

Nike Wagner, gave an interview yesterday to the German radio station NDR, saying that:
"I can very well imagine myself leading Festivals together with my cousin Eva Wagner- Pasquier" and warned the Board of Directors not "to waste this unique chance for a new beginning in Bayreuth".

Katharina, on the other hand, has been giving approximately one interview per day this week, but not divulging any substantially new insights since her first interview (published here), except for a very slight hint to Kurier that Rienzi and Feen may be considered future Festival repertoire, as also reported here.
Unfortunately, Christian Thielemann hasn´t been giving any interviews yet - he usually manages to say something politically incorrect at least once during a long interview (to be reported here immediately, of course) unless he wisely decides to keep a low profile.

Gottfried Wagner, brother of Eva, seems to be maneuvring around a bit himself too. He apparently appeared in a television show yesterday on family and heirs, but no reports, as yet, regarding the contents of the show. He is however, a very unlikely future Intendant of the Bayreuth Festival.

1966 Katerina Ismailova on DVD

Disliked by Stalin at the premiere in 1934 and thus banned from the repertoire, Shostakovich was given an opportunity to revise his opera Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk in the 1960´s, which he did whilst prudently giving the impression that he had learned from the criticism. This revised version was named Katerina Ismailova. In effect, it is the same opera, though a bit shorter, the major changes consisted in shortening of the erotic scenes between Sergei and Katerina and deleting the scene with the drunken police officers.

As part of the rehabilitation process, Mikhail Shapiro directed this "Katerina Izmailova" film in 1966, using Russian actors for all the operatic characters except Katerina, who was both sung and acted by the radiant Galina Vishnevskaya.

Not a staged opera, but a film set in the 19th century on a country estate. The impression of pre-Revolutionary Russia is excellently conveyed and views of the estate with surroundings provide for insights into Katerina´s life, which are difficult to achieve in staged performances. Especially in the last act, which is the strongest section of the film: While transporting the prisoners to Siberia, the filming of countryside and surroundings convey the increasing despair felt by the characters in a way different to that of staged productions.

The lip-synchronizing is not without odd moments, but I wasn´t particularly bothered by it.

Shostakovich specifically wanted to emphasize the positive aspects of Katerina´s character in this film, apparent in the music as well with clear, melodic lines for Katerina as opposed to both Sergei and in particular her father-in-law - all portrayed as grim figures in both music and acting.

Galina Vishnevskaya is brilliant as Katerina, being a genuine singing actress. Her very sympathetic portrait of Katerina´s development from bored housewife to convicted murderess is very convincing. Shostakovich´ music is both deeply moving, profoundly shocking and eerie at the same time and Lady Macbeth/Katerina Ismailova is probably the closest thing to an operatic thriller available.

As both a historic document and alternative view of Lady Macbeth this DVD is definitely recommended. For a staged performance, Martin Kusej´s 2006 Amsterdam production with Mariss Jansons and Eva-Maria Westbroek is highly recommended.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Katharina Wagner´s Lohengrin

Since most haven´t had the opportunity to actually see Katharina Wagner´s work, below I´ve posted two video clips from her Budapest Lohengrin from 2004. In particular the Final Scene gives a good impression of her style (as I gathered from her Meistersinger which I attended in Bayreuth a month ago).

Warning: Eva Marton is terrible as Ortrud - I´m amazed she´s still singing the part - already when I saw her Ortrud 6 years ago in Hamburg it was obvious that she was way way past her prime...almost as bad as Gwyneth Jones in Paris 1996 (if you don´t believe me check her clips out on youtube).

2nd act 1st scene:

Final scene 3rd act:

Cast: Ortrud: Eva Marton, Elsa: Sümegi Eszter, Lohengrin: Kiss B. Attila, Telramund: Béla Perencz Conductor:Juriz Szimonov. Budapest Opera House 2004

Friday, 28 September 2007

Barenboim: Complete Beethoven piano sonatas on DVD

Recorded live at the Berlin State Opera 2006, this DVD-set contains four DVDs with the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and two additional DVD´s with masterclasses from Chicago.

Heard live as here, Daniel Barenboim´s Beethoven is close torevelatory. Authoritative, dynamic, precise, with a razor-sharp technique. And with perfectly controlled tempi and dynamics over the long ranges as well. Just listening to the presto of the "Moonlight" sonata is almost worth the price of the entire set. The sonatas are not played chronologically, and often a sonata from the earlier vs. middle period are played next to a late-period sonata.

A handful of wrong notes are thrown in occasionally, however with no implications for the overall impression. Combined with the electric atmosphere in the packed Berlin State Opera, these performances are close too unbeatable.

The concluding masterclasses include several younger pianists, among those Lang Lang, who actually listens to what Barenboim has to say. As was also my impression of him in Salzburg, Barenboim comes across as a high-carate teacher: Polite, considerate - and most importantly: Always helping the students to achieve the interpretation they desire as opposed to the interpretation he may prefer himself.

And does he play as he teaches? Yes, almost all the time....

Daniel Barenboim with an excerpt from the Appasssionata:

Thursday, 27 September 2007

"The Bayreuth Succession" - episode 5: Wagner/Thielemann welcomes a third person on board ...

New followers of this docu-soap are advised to start by clicking here

Katharina Wagner just gave her first interview since her declarating her candidacy to run the Bayreuth Festival with Christian Thielemann...

Below the full interiew from Frankfurter Rundschau (my translation):

Mrs. Wagner, you have announced that you want to lead the Bayreuth Festival together with Christian Thielemann. What makes the couple of you irresistible?

It is not about being irresistible or not, but about presenting a concept, which is both artistically and economically founded in reality. Both Thielemann and I already held administrative positions beside our artistic work and consider ourselves capable in that field as well. However we would not in principle oppose a third person who supports us, in the leadership team.

What qualities should this third person have?

It would be very helpful for both Christian Thielemann and me, if a third person focusing entirely on the economic aspects of the festivals was part of the team. That could be something like a commercial managing director, a position which have been filled successfully in other opera houses. If it were practically feasible, we would not oppose such a construction.

Could you imagine that person to be Eva Wagner-Pasquier or Nike Wagner?

Only with difficulty [in german: Das kann ich mir nur schwer vorstellen]. This third person would have to occupy a strictly administrative role, because the artistic side would be taken care off by Thielemann and me.

What about someone like Peter Ruzicka[german composer and previously artistic director of the Salzburg Festival]?

That is one name, but there are also others - look for example at the opera house in Frankfurt, or look the model Thielemann has applied in Munich, which he has Mr. Müller at his side.

In your concept you are very clear: In Bayreuth only the traditional 10 works of Wagner will be played?

That is not completely correct. A new management can not decide alone whether it wishes to expand the repertoire. It is against the Festival Foundation- for such projects you´ll need a majority in the Board of Directors as well. Apart from that, it would be totally irrational to play things in Bayreuth which do not benefit from the special acoustics of the Festival House. Therefore Thielemann´s suggestion for public "listening auditions" in order to examine these issues are needed. But this is a rather marginal issues - the core concept is much more important.

But exactly in Bayreuth it is close to being a core issue. Which visions are possible with only one premiere a year and a fixed repertoire?A more boring director job is hardly available?

But that is exactly the attraction and challenge of Bayreuth: That there is only ten works and a limited Festival period. We want to preserve the “myth of Bayreuth” in all its complexity and contradictoryness, not uncritically but neither seeking to destroy, rather to examine its relevance for our time. On the one hand we seek to preserve, on the other hand we seek continuously to develop. It would be a lie to promise: “I´ll make everything completely differently.” A new leadership cannot promise that without placing everything in danger.

It is however not entirely clear, which changes you actually want to make? Or is everything to basically remain the same?

Bayreuth must assume the role of artistic pioneer with daring interpretations again. We have, as you correctly state, only one production a year - but we must get simply the best artists. Of course it is also about arranging the run of performances according to dramaturgic considerations. On the other side we need a new public structure. We cannot assume unfortunately that the Bayreuth Festivals is sold out constantly for the next 50 years . Therefore we urgently need a new marketing concept.

How is that supposed to look?

Without getting too much into detail, I would nevertheless like to say that it is important us to make the Bayreuth Festival more accessible, also for those not being able to personally attend the Festival. It is about making the Bayreuth Festival accessible to a broader public.

But that doesn´t that contradict your main purpose, the keeping of the myth? Which is nevertheless also based on the uniqueness and exclusivity of the Festival.

Of course, but it also raises the question again and again, by which means should I my goals? And regarding the transmission we have today far more possibilities than in earlier years. We should use those, we live in 21st century. The “real” performances remain those in the Festival House of course, which are the basis of everything else. But even if we have an interested public and a sold off house in the future, we must reach the people,“at home” where they are - and cannot be done anymore without DVD and Internet. You may induce curiosity only if you give people a sample.

Mrs. Wagner, that all sounds beautiful, but the vision cannot alone be to open Bayreuth to the multi-media?

No, that is only one means [of obtaining funding]. We understand that the public donations cannot be increased further. Thus we need concepts in the futures capable of attracting a new clientele. We are concerned to reach additional sponsors, besides the for many years faithful Friends of Bayreuth in order to obtain the artistically best performances, without however completely commercializing The Festival. I favor a sophisticated and balanced middle course.

We nevertheless talk about the art. Although you were praised for your “Meistersinger”, there were criticism at the artistic achievement - at singers and orchestras. How do you want to guarantee that the Festival also musically belong to the front?

With Christian Thielemann we without doubt have the presently best musician in this fach. And regarding musical quality, the hasty criticism of the artists disturbs me. A conductor like Sebastian Weigle, who conducted led the “Meistersinger”, is definitely among the best - and he has previously been selected "Conductor of the year" by the renowned periodical Opernwelt. I find it hasty to jugde so quickly [he got very bad reviews for his conducting in Bayreuth this year]. Wait for the repremiere next year, and you´ll see. We plan to get the absolute best and most prominent conductors to Bayreuth, with whom the singer´s will love to work. Naturally you must do this intelligently, and not alone go after large names.

At the same time however, you brought amazingly old names into play: Barenboim, Harnoncourt, Neuenfels. The departure point of the recent generation probably looks different.

Now, the names mentioned are not completely insignificant and in any case they have much valuable experience. Should we leave this unused? But we think naturally at the same time also of clearly younger artists, such as Andres Nelsons from our generation. Young artists are not easy to find, and one must also observe their development. And that is also one of our major tasks, because the seasons are to a large extent preplanned until 2015. Therefore we also contract certain people from early on to the house, in order to develop ourselves together with them. It is perhaps also necessary to say to a young conductor at times: “Assist nevertheless one year here with us, even if at other houses you have already conducted the Ring - we still intend do do more work together in the future.” Only so may another “myth” develop, the one of a musical family.

The daring family is in the meantime quite blown up. Bayreuth threatens to lose the interpretation sovereignty. Each province theatre plays his works…

It unfortunately often happens that one brings strong conductors together with weak directors, or vice versa. I believe, Boulez and Chéreau with The Centennial Ring should not be a unique case. We must make that the normal case and achieve a scenic and musical level in Bayreuth which you do not have in other places.

But Wagner has now become a house-hold name..

And since more theaters play Wagner´s operas, talented artists are easier recognized. One must hear and see.

Why did you actually apply by an interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine for the leadership and not by a letter to the donation advice? How is your relationship to this Board of Directors?
All are interested in a peaceful solution to these issues. Since this is a situation we find ourselves in for the first time in the entire history of the Festival story, of course it is a difficult process, that cannot be expected to be complete without some problems and discussions. Surely everyone understands that. For Christian Thielemann and me, it is neither about personal vanities nor about any questionable “power”, and we feel jointly responsible for Bayreuth and would gladly take more responsibility for the Festival. We do not have push ourselves in front of others. We consider the Festival too important and necessarily and unique - why should we lie - we love it. We went to the public, because already many assumptions and speculations had begun, but since the Board of Directors had not introduce the procedure for the follow-up yet, we cannot apply officially.

Do you become open to attack by having made this public application?

Perhaps, but that never interested me that so much, because as an artists worst thing you can do is to be tactical or make work in order to please. Open to attack are probably everyone who present with ideas in public, we probably may be, but the public has is a right to know what we think and what we stand for. And neither me or Christian Thielemann want to keep our plans in secret - also, because we are of the convictions that we do not benefit at all from shying away from public scrutiny.

My comments:

ehh..I am a bit baffled of this opening up to a third person. She seems to dismiss E W-P since the position will be only administrative, but welcomes a reknowned German composer and former artistical director of the Salzburg Festival? In a purely administrative capacity??!! Nevertheless I still see this as the opening for Eva W-P as a suspected would happen yesterday..

..and I fail to see the acute need for marketing strategies based on the assumption that one obviously cannot expect the house to be sold out in 50 in Bayreuth, I´d say you can exactly expect that...what she is going about is probably new ways to finance the Festival independent from the Friends of Bayreuth....

the seasons are to a large extent preplanned until 2015 an argument against her older competitors Eva Wager-Pasquier and Nike Wagner. I simply do not believe that. Perhaps the 2013 Wotan and Brünhilde are slated, and other key figures in major productions but I´d say not much more that that. Would be very surprised if the 2014 Kundry, Gurnemanz, Parsifal, Ortrud has been hired yet... or even the 2009 Siegmund. Or the directors for these performances.

Nice of her to stand up for Weigle - it did sound like he could use some more time to get used to the unique Bayreuth Festival acoustics

And this repeated statement that Chéreau/Boulez was a unique case - what about Kupfer/Barenboim or Heine Müller/Barenboim or Jürgen Flimm/Sinopoli...As high quality as The Centenary Ring I think....

And finally: They want to attract the best singers and conductors. And what about Wolfgang Wagner? Didn´t he want to attract the best singers and conductor? Or his stated goal was perhaps just to created a mediocre festival... Just saying that it will require a good deal more than relatively cheap talk to turn this Festival around.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Maskarade – my debut at The Royal Danish Opera

Maskerade. Royal Danish Opera, January 2007. Production: Kasper Bech Holten. Cast includes: Christian Christiansen, Johan Reuter, Susanne Resmark. Conductor: Michael Schønwandt.

The most memorable performance at the Royal Danish Opera last season was definitely the new production of Maskarade, directed by Kasper Bech Holten. Not because I am particularly fond of this operatic civic treasure of Denmark, however much I value Kasper Bech Holten´s production, but because I was in it…

Kasper Bech Holten unsurprisingly went for a modernization of Maskarade, the first modern version of this Danish National Opera at the Royal Danish Opera, now at the new waterfront main stage The Copenhagen Opera House. As expected, the production caused some controversy, but also a received a fair share of positive responses.

Maskarade is updated to the near-present and follows of the old story of masters, servants and young love, which predictably conquers all. There are several inventive aspects to the stage design such as odd geometrical settings and shapes, a horizontally moving stage, a lineup of outdoor beds in the nocturnal Act II and so on. Very, very entertaining. Not to mention the acrobats appearing towards the end of the opera, in the Act 3 masquerade - where I appeared as well..

Having bought a last-minute 50% discounted ticket, I had a 1st row seat just behind the conductor. Leaving the auditorium for drinks in the 1st intermission, I was approached by a member of the production team, asking me if I would like to be part of the production. The point being, that Jeronimus (the main character – an old man who likes young women among other things) during the final masquerade was to climb off stage, through the orchestra pit, appear next to the conductor, grab a girl from the audience and bring her on stage….and that girl happened to be me.

So towards the end of the opera, Christian Christiansen (Danish bass, who made a very fine Jeronimus), appeared right beside conductor Michael Schönwandt (also excellent), grabbed my arm, ran with me along the 1st row, further on backstage and then onto the stage, where I was to stand at the center of the stage, while he was dancing a bit around me. This all lasted for a maximum of 5 minutes and was incredibly entertaining. Just looking out at the sold-out auditorium from center stage was an amazing experience.

Everything was black, I saw the conductor in front of me, but almost nothing else. Afterwards I watched the final 15 minutes of the opera from a backstage position, really interesting as well.
First of all, I had no idea how much noise there is backstage during a performance. The production team making sure everybody enters the stage at the exact time they are supposed to, video screenings of the orchestra pit and the stage, people running about. Rather funny to have several people from the audience coming up to me afterwards thinking that I knew somebody from the production team and deliberately was placed in the 1st row…

On my way home, I talked to a member of the chorus, who told med that initially they just grabbed a girl without asking beforehand, but after a situation a couple of weeks earlier where the chosen girl refused to come along and Jeronimus had to pick one of the violinists, they had decided to ask potential “subjects” in the 1st intermission for permission. Furthermore I got a mask with Christian Christiansen´s autograph.

This production was released on DVD December 2007 - unfortunately without my participation.

Photo from:

Wagner operas are long indeed....

I´m bringing this hilarious post by former opera singer J Venning, initially posted on the discussion forum some weeks ago:

"I have to tell this anecdote from my past experiences with the English National Opera (ENO). As you may all know, the ENO used to tour round the country 10 weeks a year with different productions, and Mastersingers was occasionally taken on tour while I was there (yes, it was Alberto Remedios who sang Walther, and his younger brother Ramon sang David).

Those of us in the Chorus who weren't Apprentices could actually get changed to our street clothes after the church scene in Act 1 and go to a restaurant to enjoy a sumptuous meal *and* go see a full-length feature film in a cinema, and still have some time to wait after returning and getting changed for the end of Act 2 to do the fight scene !

Here at the Danish Royal Opera, I actually managed to sing a full-length concert outside the Theatre after the end of Act 1 and return in time for our entrance at the end of Act 3."

No kidding....That is just hilarious...

Monday, 24 September 2007

Introducing "The Bayreuth succession" - a new docu-soap written by mostly opera. Episode 1

Since the docu-soap, which I am now officially entitling “The Bayreuth Succession” will be running regularly for the next couple of months on this blog, here follows a short presentation of the protagonists, background and main plot (with the clear warning that new plot elements and protagonists may appear from nowhere at any time point without further notice...)


The control over the Bayreuth Festival was transferred from the Wagner Family to the Richard Wagner Foundation in 1973. The leader of the Festival is chosen by the Board of Directors of the Richard Wagner Foundation (see below). Wolfgang Wagner has been appointed Festival Director for life and has been running the Festival since 1951. A vote on the matter of Wolfgang Wagner´s successor in 2001 favored his daughter from his first marriage Eva Wagner-Pasquier over Wolfgang Wagner´s own candidate, his wife Gudrun. After this defeat, Wolfgang Wagner invoked his right to hold on to his post for life. The Board of Directors will meet on the upcoming November 6th where “the matter of succession” will be discussed. The Bayreuth Festival has been increasingly criticized in both German and International press for both musical and artistic stagnation in recent years, and it is frequently suggested that new artistic input are needed in order to uphold the Festivals´ leading position.

The main plot

On the surface: Who will succeed Wolfgang Wagner as Festival Director?

The core issue: What kind of Bayreuth Festival do we want in the future?
Obviously, one of the highest quality. The points of dispute on how to achieve this goal are among others: Traditional vs. revisionist stagings?, should works of other composers be performed in Bayreuth?, should Richard Wagner's early operas (pre-Dutchman) be shown here, should the Festival aim for more performances per year for example by extending the summer season or staging an additional winter festival?

The protagonists:

Wolfgang Wagner: Current Artistic Director, grandson of Richard Wagner. Born 1918. Brother of Wieland Wagner (who died in 1966). Has been running the Festival since 1951. Father of Eva Wagner-Pasquier (first marriage) and Katharina Wagner (second marriage). Married to his former secretary Gudrun Wagner, since 1976, who is currently employed in the Festival Management. Is appointed Festival Director for life. Is strongly supporting Katharina Wagner´s candidacy.

Katharina Wagner: 29-year old daughter of Wolfgang Wagner. Has directed a few operas, most notably the Meistersinger at this years Bayreuth Festival. Being the first modern version of the work seen in Bayreuth, it was widely criticized in both German press and public, a large part of whom had not actually seen her production (I, on the contrary did see the production and wrote an extensive review here).

Nike Wagner: Daughter of Wieland Wagner, niece of Wolfgang Wagner. Critical of the current Festival Management, and publicly quoted with such statements as “Both the institution of Bayreuth and its director are going senile,” and on Gudrun Wagner “We all know that she owes her position to her place in the marital bed, rather than any understanding of art and culture”. Expansions of both performances numbers and repertoire make part of her visions for the Festival. She has written a very critical book on the Wagner family as well. She seems to have side-lined herself in the power struggle for the above reasons. Runs the Weimar Kunst Festival.

Eva Wagner-Pasquier: Daughter of Wolfgang Wagner (first marriage) and half-sister of Katharina. Currently employed in the management of the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Has publicly declared her candidacy this July, but otherwise not spoken to the press. Estranged from her father since she sided with her mother (who died in 2002) in their divorce in 1976. Was elected Wolfgang Wagner´s successor in 2001 by the Board of Directors, but he side-stepped her choosing to remain on the post himself.

Christian Thielemann: Protagonist in the drama since September 22, where he teamed up with Katharina Wagner to make a bid for the future Festival leadership. 48 years old. Principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonics since 2004 after leaving a similar position with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Renowned for his interpretations primarily of Wagner, Strauss and Schumann. Conducted a musically highly successful Ring this year in Bayreuth. Highly regarded by the German public as a guardian of traditional German values and seen by many (including himself) as carrying on the German conducting traditions in the footsteps of Furtwängler and Karajan. Was involved in the power struggle for new artistic leadership earlier this year at the Vienna State Opera – what exactly happened is unclear, but he apparently withdrew his candidacy at the last minute.

The International Association of Wagner Societies (IAWS): Approximately 140 Wagner Societies all over the world, with members counting “ordinary people” with interest in Wagner´s music. The Wagner Societies are currently very visible in the German press, since the President of the IAWS Josef Lienhardt publicly supported Katharina Wagner´s candidacy this July. Several very outspoken Presidents of local German Wagner Societies highly disagree with Lienhardt on K. Wagner´s candidacy, which is excessively debated in the German press at the moment. However, the Wagner Societies do not have any direct say in the matter, since they are not represented in the Board of Directors (as opposed to the Friends of Bayreuth).

The Friends of Bayreuth: Influential organization of individuals and companies contributing financially to the Bayreuth Festival. Represented in the Board of Directors. The exact influence of this organization on Festival matters is difficult to assess – but probably not negligible, since several of the members contribute with large donations to the Festival. It has been speculated why Wolfgang Wagner, for the first time this year was not present at Friends´ annual meeting which took place in Bayreuth during this years Festival.

The Board of Directors: Executive body of the Richard Wagner Foundation. Will meet on November 6th where the succession to Wolfgang Wagner will be discussed. The Board of Directors consist of 24 members representing the Republic of Germany, the State of Bavaria, the district of Upper Franconia, the city of Bayreuth, the society of the Friends of Bayreuth and members of the Wagner family.

Some of the relevant issues:

Can´t The Board just fire Wolfgang Wagner?
In theory yes, if it can be proven he is not de facto doing his job (e.g. if his wife Gudrun does it for him). There is no publicly available proof on this, however members of the Board of Directors have publicly insinuated this to be the case. Politically, it wouldn´t be so easy to get away with and something I´d believe they would avoid at almost all cost.

Can´t Wolfgang Wagner just chose to stay on?
Probably yes, but it seems like he is trying to push for clarification now, which makes sense, his advanced age taken into consideration. As to his health status: Only rumours exist. He was seen in public during this years Festival and looked fine.

Does the Festival have to be run by a descendant of Richard Wagner?
No. But the Foundation of the Festival states, that preference should be given to a family member, if equally suitable applicants apply for the job. Many, if not most Germans, however, feel the Festival should be managed by a descendant of Richard Wagner, if at all possible. And since most of the Board members hold public offices, this is no small consideration.

And now I´ll stick my neck out with my opinions on some of the most controversial issues:

Is Wolfgang Wagner a good Festival Director?
Basically I think he is. Or at least he has been. I find the accusations of him being artistically stagnant unfair: After all, it was he who brought both Chereau, Kupfer and Schlingensief to Bayreuth. And Barenboim, Boulez, Waltraud Meier and Placido Domingo as well. That this years Ring is relatively uninteresting is not entirely his fault, since the initially chosen director Lars von Trier pulled out of the project. Had he directed The Ring of The Century, things would have looked very different indeed.
However, in the past 5-6 years the quality of singing and conducting seems to have been dropping in Bayreuth, which together with Tankred Dorst´s uninspiring Ring has accelerated the debated on his resignation. If this singing crisis can be solved by any new administrator, remains to be seen. I am not convinced it´ll be so easy. But, of course, not impossible. After all, I´d say, he´s done a good job.

Will Nike Wagner make a good Festival Director?
Nothing indicates she will. An opinion I base on: Her wish to include more of Wagner´s work in the canon (which I disagree with, finding the proposed works of insufficient quality to be performed in Bayreuth, which Richard Wagner himself also agrees with me on), include works of other composers (which I disagree with, finding that the exclusivity of the Festival would suffer), open the Festival year around (again I disagree since I feel that the exclusivity and special atmosphere would be lost) and having read her book.

Will Eva Wagner-Pasquier make a good Festival Director?
I have no idea. I haven´t been able to find any recent statements regarding her plans for the Festival. That she avoids giving interviews at this time point and doesn´t slander other family members speaks in her favor, but other than that I´m blank.

And now I am seriously sticking my neck out giving my opinion on this:

Will Katharina Wagner/Christian Thielemann make good Festival Directors?

The short answer: I seriously don´t know.

The long answer:
My impression of Katharina Wagner is largely positive - based on interviews in German magazines, she seems a both thoughtful, modest, intelligent and courageous woman. I am a strong proponent of introducing experimental theater in Bayreuth, but I don´t share the public opinion, that Katharina Wagner´s productions represent advanced experimental theater at all. While her Meistersinger may be modern in the outlook, it is in no way shocking to audiences used to attend spoken theater performances or operatic performances elsewhere. She seems willing to continue the development of new productions in Bayreuth - and so far so good. Based on my very limited knowledge, I don´t have any serious reservations regarding Katharina Wagner´s candidacy. And, after all, Wolfgang Wagner is living proof that you don’t have to be a particularly admired stage director to run the Bayreuth Festival.

However, regarding Christian Thielemann..: I am a huge admirer of Thielemann, the conductor as I´ve written previously. However, he is a notorious opponent of advanced modern stagings and a proponent of upholding traditional musical values.
Now, are these desirable qualities to lead a modern opera house? Normally, I´d say no. However, regarding the Bayreuth Festival, I feel that some traditions are important to keep and I do agree with him on the issues of repertoire and season length and I would expect him to be a guarantor of a high musical quality. And those issues are also of major importance to me. Normally one would expect him to have the upper-hand in any partnership with Katharina Wagner, but I suspect deals have been cut here, that make the entire issue unpredictable.

So I really don´t know what to think about this, but when I find out, I will publish it here immediately (and regularly check in on AC Douglas in case he finds out before me..).

What will happen at the Board of Directors meeting in November?

Just guessing: Neither Wolfgang Wagner nor Christian Thielemann can publicly afford to be on the losing side here. So if people in the know do not expect the Katharina Wagner/Christian Thielemann constellation to succeed, I wouldn´t be too surprised if a triage including the two of them plus Eva Wagner-Pasquier would be proposed since I´d expect Wolfgang Wagner to back Eva Wagner-Pasquier if the alternative would be a candidate outside the family. But that, of course, remains to be seen…

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Latest episode (no. 4) of the Bayreuth docu-soap: The gloves are off!

Katharina Wagner´s aunt and contestant to the leadership of the Bayreuth Festival, 62-year old Nike Wagner (daughter of Wieland) gave an interview to the Nordbayerische Kurier in response to Katharina´s declared partnership with Christian Thielemann. Predictably, she was not too pleased [my translation below]:

"It´s about power, not arts" she was quoted as saying. And continued "For conservative Wagnerians, Thielemann is the guarantor of tradition against the wild Katharina Wagner"... “Balance” - not artistic vision of the future - is popular with politicians and probably with the Board of Directors as well".

Seems like she accepts defeat (not that her chances were ever that good. Eva Wagner-Pasquier is definitely the strongest candidate of the two of them).

I have furthermore had the dubious pleasure of reading Nike Wagner´s book entitled "The Wagners - The dramas of a musical dynasty" which in short is a mix of third-rate analysis of Richard Wagner´s works and malicious gossip about the rest of the family. That she would ever think this book would further her ambitions to run the Bayreuth Festival speaks for itself...

To be continued here....

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Katharina Wagner and Christian Thielemann present their visions for the Bayreuth Festival (aka. The Bayreuth Succession - episode 3)

Yes - it´s a soap opera (literally speaking..) - but nevertheless entertaining to follow from the sideline....

Below follows my translation of the entire interview given to the Frankfurter Allgemeine by Katharina Wagner and Christian Thielemann, where the two announce their candidacy to take over the Bayreuth Festival once Wolfgang Wagner retires, and explain their views on the future of Bayreuth.

There´s actually quite a few interesting statements to be found here:

„The wonderful obligation to continue the tradition “ - Thielemann and Wagner interviewed by Eleonore Büning in Frankfurter Allgemeine September 22th 2007:

Mrs. Wagner, history repeats itself: You want to lead the Bayreuth Festival together with Mr. Thielemann just as the widow Winifred did [in the 1930´s] together with another citizen of Berlin, conductor and director Heinz Tietjen?

Katharina Wagner: Yes, this is correct. We have decided, as a team, to declare our candidacy for running the Festival.

Then you, Mr. Thielemann, should maybe also aim for a Musical Director position in Berlin, so as to keep up with the historical comparison [with Heinz Tietjen]?

Christian Thielemann: No, thanks. I am very happy in Munich with the Philharmonics. I would not even give up or neglect Munich for Bayreuth either. But Katharina and I have been speaking together frequently and a lot of our discussions were about the future of the Bayreuth Festival, and then we suddenly realized, that we completely agree on all the major issues concerning the future of the Bayreuth Festival.

Can you date the beginning of this harmony exactly?

Christian Thielemann: When I first came to Bayreuth in the 80´s as an assistant to Daniel Barenboim, Katharina obviously was still much too young. I cannot remember when exactly we first met. But since I started to conduct in Bayreuth, in 1996, I´ve had very close daily contact with her, because she at that time worked as an assistant director at the Meistersinger production. And now the obvious question in front of us is, how we would like things to continue in Bayreuth. We are both able to imagine ourselves exchanging and mixing up ideas together. Since we know each other so well, we can also be mercilessly honest with each other. In addition we both have the right age for a new era to be launched in Bayreuth.

Katharina Wagner: Regarding the new era, one must realize several things: Artist contracts already signed with the current festival management run until 2015. If one does not want to risk loosing a considerable sum of money, the present contracts should be honoured, if at all possible. That means: For the first eight years, basically we´d only been administering the estate of Wolfgang Wagner. I do not want to be uncharming, but it is nevertheless a fact that my cousin Nike and my half sister Eva would not have the possibility of developing their own Festival profile, for reasons of age alone. Before they would have their hands free for their own planning, they would be far beyond the retirement age...

...because of the fact that your father had negotiated himself a lifetime contract. Wolfgang Wagner is at the same time Partner and Managing Director of the Festival. One of the reasons, why the Bayreuth Festival have cornered itself artistically in such a way as it has..

Katharina Wagner: This image of the Bayreuth Festival as being closed-up must be broken. The Festival is financed with public funds, which obligates one to seek openness.

Christian Thielemann: I find it shocking how common it is today, in the various cultural enterprises, to waste public funding, which arises from taxpayers money, because new managers of theatres or orchestras assume everything must be done differently. One changes the leadership, destroys everything that came before you, breaks contracts, dismisses employees. We do not intend to do that in Bayreuth. We want continuity.

That is, you want to hold on to the canon of the ten "main works," from "Dutchman" to "Parsifal" which have remained since Cosima´s days?

Christian Thielemann: Yes, definitely. At the Wagner Festival, you play Wagner, what else? But we do not oppose new ideas. For example, we think that it would be about time to organize a public "listening event" in the Festival House in order to examine, how the legendary acoustics of the Festival House really work [for which type of music]. Renowned as amazing, this house would probably be ideal for the works of Schönberg or Stockhausen. The acoustics here do probably not make the same difference for Richard Wagner´s early works [before the Dutchman]. My Bayreuth experience as a conductor suggests to me that a piece with a very thick instrumentation probably does not come through here at all or at least sounds differently. Richard Wagner knew that as well. The original version of the Dutchman differs considerably from the later version.

Katharina Wagner: It does not make sense to play pieces in Bayreuth which do not benefit from the acoustics here.

Christian Thielemann:Even Wagner himself made changes to the instrumentation of The Ring after it premiered here. Now, to make a general statement, that the acoustics in Bayreuth are so wonderful and suitable for all kinds of music, is dishonest, as long as there is no proof to sustain it.

Will you produce operas together? The Ring? Tristan? Which piece?

Katharina Wagner: We sit here together on this couch coming from very opposite positions. If you put the two of us together, definitely something interesting would come out. I can say so much: Mr. Thielemann is not an opponent of innovative staging ideas.

Christian Thielemann: Exactly, and particularly because we live in a visual age, we need a very strong musical handwriting/mark. But nevertheless, a strong performance develops only if two strong partners work together. For me, as a conductor in the pit, it is wonderful if I know, that what comes from the stage is beautiful. The director and conductor must work together as equal partners.

What piece would you like to stage together?

Katharina Wagner: I would love to make Tristan with you….

Christian Thielemann: … I with you also. But not in Bayreuth, since the planning there does not allow for it.

What do you plan to do about the current Wagnerian singing crisis ?

Christian Thielemann: In Bayreuth there is the additionally problem that voices, which sound magnificent in Vienna or Berlin do not carry through to the audience in the Festival House. This has to be tested on the spot. Thus, in the future, auditions should only take place in the Festival House. Also, several experiments have been conducted with the orchestra: While conducting his Meistersinger, Barenboim tried several times to reposition the musicians in the pit, something which Karajan already tried out with his Tristan - and in the end the musicians were positioned exactly as they were from the beginning. This is the attraction of Bayreuth! This beautiful obligation to continue the tradition! I suspect that many new ideas in Bayreuth fail simply because of the conditions of this special house. On the other hand we must ask ourselves the question: What is left to do?

Katharina Wagner: Under no circumstances do we want to destroy the myth which is Bayreuth. In Bayreuth only a limited selection of Richard Wagner´s work is to be played. Another cornerstone of our concept is that we think the Festival should be a pioneer in the staging/performance of Wagner's work.

Bayreuth is today farther away from this vision than ever. Also the exclusivity is no longer given, and from Kiel to Ulm one may today at the city theatres hear both better sung, better played and more excitingly produced Wagner operas. You want to preserve Bayreuth as a myth, preserve the exclusivity and at the same time create avant-garde productions of the operas. Is it really possible to achieve all this? And how?

Christian Thielemann: Step by step. First of all, we will get major conducting colleagues to come to Bayreuth, who were never here before: Simon Rattle, Zubin Mehta, Kent Nagano. And so on. It is true, that Wagner´s operas are played everywhere today. But there is also a crisis in Wagner conducting. Because Wagner operas were politically suspicious after the war, the tradition of the Wagner conductors in Germany broke off to a large extent. We want to try to redevelop this conducting tradition in Bayreuth, starting from scratch.

Katharina Wagner: It would be wonderful, if Barenboim came back. Also I could very well imagine introducing myself to Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Bayreuth.

This idea would have been highly original twenty years ago. And which directors do you want to see in Bayreuth? Hans Neuenfels?

Katharina Wagner: A combination such as Chéreau and Boulez may not have been a mere coincidence. Only aiming to be original always comes second to the artistic quality. To "release" strong artistic personalities should be a further characteristic of the new festival line. Of course there will be conflicts if you match a strong director with an equally strong conductor. But one knows that only through conflicts and risks will you achieve the highest quality. And above all: If hired by the Bayreuth Festival, one must accept to leave all personal pride at home.

Christian Thielemann: We do not come to Bayreuth because of money or pride. We come because of "the Festival Idea". And that idea has remained intact since the founding of this House. In Bayreuth, the receptionist sits beside the tenor in the cafeteria, which is just one of the small things contributing to the unique atmosphere of this family business. And one must also be able to simply hang around in Bayreuth, listening to the rehearsals of others. I believe, there is such a thing as a prototype Bayreuth conductor: Those succeeding here, have always been the experienced conductors with additional theatrical experience.

"Children, create something new!", Richard Wagner said. Where are the contemporary pieces? What about the "art of the future “?

Katharina Wagner: Obviously we could, as my cousin Nike, throw around clichèes like: "We want to open Bayreuth to new ideas." It is exactly like in politics: Promises are made, which cannot be kept. To change the actual pieces played here, one would also have to change the donation statute. We not only want to engage top-quality artists for the productions, but we are also very interested in the future. We intend to create a Festival Academy for conductors, composers, singers and directors. This Academy should focus on the future of music theater.

Christian Thielemann: In a time, where young talents are easily burned up and record making play the major role in the business, it is important to firmly oppose this development. It will be the task of Bayreuth to clarify: What is Wagnerian singing today? What is Wagnerian conducting today? How does one plan a whole „Ring “? How does a singer work with the director? I am one of the very few conductors, who have been conducting certain works again and again - and for that I have been criticized and insulted because of my allegedly too small repertoire. But Bayreuth is very special. If a conductor arrives here and does not really know the piece he is conducting, then it is like fighting fifteen battles at the same time.

Katharina Wagner: Anyone wanting to work in Bayreuth, has to pass on knowledge to the younger generation. In this way we intend to create new quality in the Wagner performances. That is going to be more expensive. And therefore we must find ways for growth of the Festival, without relying on public funding. Marketing strategies are part of our concept as well. We already have ideas in the drawer, which will make the Bayreuth Festival administration more effective.

Does this Academy work for the duration of the Festival or for the whole year?

Christian Thielemann: In the beginning, only in the summer, later all year round. There are older singers, singing Gurnemanz for fifteen years, like René Kollo [?] and Hans Sotin, who should definitely pass on their knowledge here. That applies to the conductors as well. An assistant like Christoph Meier, who worked for many years in Bayreuth, can take over „Tannhäuser within two days “. This idea is actually an old one. Also Horst Stein began as an assistant to Knappertsbusch and I began as an assistant here as well. This Festival Academy is only a natural development of this tradition. Katharina and I are more or less the first graduates of this academy.

Does contemporary music have a place in your academy?

Katharina Wagner: Not yet. Initially, the Academy is to offer practical apprenticeship positions relating to dramaturgy, public funding and marketing.

Christian Thielemann: Everything that takes place in the Festival House apart from the actual music of Richard Wagner, must be first clarified and defined. Before these baseline conditions are in place, we will not start anything new. One of these conditions, as I said, is the examination of the acoustics. That will take place immediately in the first season. Afterwards, we may then begin the discussion on what is to be created at this house.

Has the Board of Directors already been informed about your application and your concept?

Katharina Wagner: No, it doesn´t work that way at all! The Chairman Toni Schmidt has explained again and again publicly that the Board of Directors will discuss the Festival Management succession at the next meeting. But, as yet, no follow-up procedure for my father has been introduced, therefore there is also no application procedure. My father has not yet handed in his resignation though...

and he will not do so, before you are ready to succeed him. However, your father knows about your proposition?

Katharina Wagner: Yes, Mr. Thielemann and I spoke to him about our ideas. For him, this would be a basis on which to build an acceptable solution. We are declaring our candidacy to the public, because this is a public position. The Board of Directors must then decide the value of our candidacy. Our concept is public and may be read by everybody. And in 2015 we will have developed a new profile for Bayreuth for the subsequent years. But let us be quite clear on this: Our decision to work for the Bayreuth Festival will naturally limit us both in our artistic possibilities elsewhere. We are available now, but we will not wait forever.

Christian Thielemann: I have occupied leading positions in the music business for twenty years and I never had the ambitions to run a theater. But Bayreuth is not any theatre, Bayreuth is Bayreuth. I am passionate about this idea.

The drama continues here..

Katharina Wagner and Christian Thielemann teaming up to run the Bayreuth Festival (The Bayreuth Succession - episode 2)

AC Douglas just reported this from AP Berlin (quotes below):

"BERLIN (AP) — A great-granddaughter of composer Richard Wagner is teaming with star German conductor Christian Thielemann to bid for the leadership of the Bayreuth festival, the pair announced in an interview published Saturday.

"We have decided to run as a leadership team," Katharina Wagner was quoted as saying in an interview with Thielemann, published by the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Wagner said that she and Thielemann, 48, had laid out their ideas to Wolfgang Wagner, who has a lifetime contract, and that "this would for him be a basis on which to find an agreed solution."
"We know each other so well that we can tell each other our opinions without holding back," Thielemann was quoted as saying. "Apart from that, we would be exactly the right age for a new era."
In Saturday's interview, Katharina Wagner noted that the current festival leadership has already signed contracts with artists as far ahead as 2015 — meaning that, for the next eight years, any new leadership essentially would be administering the legacy of the Wolfgang Wagner era.
"I don't want to be uncharming now, but it is a fact that my cousin Nike and my half-sister Eva would, on grounds of age, have no possibility under these circumstances to develop their own profile," she was quoted as saying.
"Before they had their hands free for their own planning, they would be well above retirement age," she added. Both women are 62."

I have published a complete translation of their interview to the Frankfurter Allgemeine here... not uninteresting..

This is a very good tactical move indeed. Christian Thielemann is immensely respected for his traditional values throughout Germany and combined with the fact that most Germans still prefer a direct descendant of Richard Wagner to run the Bayreuth Festival, I´d say they have a very decent chance of succeeding Wolfgang Wagner.

This has the makings of a docu-soap, which is continued here..

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The Stockholm Ring - success for Götterdämmerung

Götterdämmerung opened on September 15th at the Royal Swedish Opera as the last of the four in Staffan Valdemar Holms Ring Cycle.

According to Swedish newspapers, to major success.
Music Web International:

"From the fairy-tale optimism of development in Das Rheingold with its colourful settings, its technical evolution and the building of Valhalla, the new Stockholm Ring des Nibelungen has step by step moved in time from Wagner’s own days closer to present times and in pace with this transportation grown ever more sparse, even bleaker. In Götterdämmerung we are well into the twentieth century, around World War One and the world is mainly in black and white. The moving images of the cinema have conquered the world and essential parts of the opera take place in a movie theatre, where flashbacks are shown to remind the audience of what has gone before. The model is Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen films. Even on other occasions filmed sequences – in black and white – accompany the proceedings. Thus the three Norns – dressed in black and white like waitresses - sing and act on an empty stage against a backdrop with three mime artists impersonating the Norns of bygone days. Now they see only a withered trunk of the World Ash and then their thread entangles and they can no longer foresee the future. So much else is also withering. Both Gunther and Gutrune are crippled, Gutrune even bound to her wheel-chair in the beginning and attended by two nurses. Wotan is recurrently shown in close up, grieved, mourning the world of the Gods falling in pieces. There is even interaction between the present and the past when Brünnhilde at the end throws the ring back to the Rhine and on the screen it is caught by Flosshilde. The Rhine overflows its bank and on the screen we see actual pictures filmed during the spring flood. Götterdämmerung (or Twilight of the Gods) is of course permeated by a sense of doom but also by a hope for a new and better world and since there is little in the way of sets and props, focus is on the individual characters.....
[The Royal Orchestra].. contribute greatly to the general success. They have been impressive throughout this Ring and in Götterdämmerung, where the orchestra play an even more active part than in the preceding operas, they grow in stature to challenge even Barenboim’s Bayreuth players. ....Gregor Bühl has shown increasing understanding of Wagner’s scores and in Götterdämmerung he fired his forces to playing that was overwhelming in its dynamic potency.
It may sound chauvinistic but I don’t think many opera houses in Europe can muster a cast of such excellence with mainly home-grown singers. There was hardly a weak link. ...Hans-Peter König’s Hagen was the most formidably sung since Gottlob Frick’s time.......Lars Cleveman was the young Siegfried a year ago and he was scheduled to sing his older incarnation at some later performances but due to illness he was called to step in at the premiere with only six hours’ notice. Small of stature, he created a lively, cheerful and carefree boyish Siegfried and the brutality of his murder became even more disgusting than usual. He seems to have lungs of steel and vocal cords of the same material, allowing him to produce heroically ringing high notes. His stamina is also admirable....
On top of all this excellence Stockholm has a Brünnhilde probably without peer in the world today. Katarina Dalayman showed her credentials in a superb reading of the title role in Die Walküre a year and a half ago... she was deeply involved and expressed the character’s contradicting feelings with lyrical sensitivity, razor-sharp vehemence and on top of that a nobility and warmth of tone that made her humanity stand out. At her curtain call she was deservedly greeted with standing ovations.
There will be several performances of this Götterdämmerung during this autumn and later this season three complete Rings will be given. This is a cycle worth any Wagnerian’s money and considering the overall excellence it is only to be hoped that some record company will grab the opportunity to make it available on discs and preserve it for posterity. Swedish Radio have broadcast all the parts."

Monday, 17 September 2007

Valencia: Palau des Les Arts Reina Sofia

The Palau des Les Arts Reina Sofia (the opera) seen behind the "hemisferico"

In Valencia the opera season hasn´t started yet. All you can do at this time a year is take a walk around the opera "Palau de les arts Reina Sofia" which is absolutely stunning.

Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and inaugurated in 2005, it is set within a Calatrava-designed "city of art and sciences" in the middle of an 8 km dried-up riverbed, which now is redesigned into park running from the north to the south of Valencia City Center.

The contrast with the Valencia sky-line:

And with a highway just outside the back entrance:

Looking at the front entrance:

And the umbraculo (a sort of garden set within concrete arches) next door:

Walking through the dried-up riverbed-park to the opera:

And looking down from the Opera at the hemisferico, home of a cinema:

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Here, time becomes space - the return of Haitink to opera

And while we´re waiting for Haitink´s ROH Parsifal this december, this is where I spent part of the Easter 2007:

"Zur raum wird hier die zeit" (Gurnemanz, Parsifal 1st act) - the self-proclaimed "motto" of Hans Hollmann´s Parsifal staging at the Zürich Opera. Hollmann works with "rooms of thought" and contrasting colors and lights: Black vs. white - black/the fool (reine tor) - red/blood/flower-maidens. Light vs. darkness. Understated designs, austere in conception. He seems to have transferred the simple dark sets with superimposed colorful geometrical figures from his Die Frau Ohne Schatten in Dresden to his Parsifal in Zürich. The images are beautiful and simple and allows you to focus on the music. And does Kundry die? Of course not ...

And musically, this evening was top-class:

First of all, Matti Salminen is an excellent Gurnemanz – while he does not have the voice of René Pape (OK nobody has, really), he has an equally convincing stage presence, and brings a dignity and power to the figure of Gurnemanz, which was the absolute highlight of the evening and which I´ve previously only seen with Pape. And he uses his voice very cleverly – there is no wobble at all and he has a way of convincingly delivering the top notes despite of them probably being a little above his maximum comfort zone. As he also demostrated very convincingly earlier this season as Hagen in Berlin. And, for once, a convincing Parsifal in Christopher Ventris - vocally his top-notes may be a bit strained, but he has the right physical presence (he is no wimp!) and is a convincing actor. Good news for both the ROH and Bayreuth, where he will repeat the part in the upcoming season. Yvonne Naef has a beautiful creamy elegant voice, which I´d think better suited to a role like Fricka, even though she is a fine Kundry. And a strong Amfortas in Michael Volle completed a very strongly cast production.

After leaving the Royal Opera Covent Garden in 2002, Bernhard Haitink claimed, that his operatic career had ended..but after 5 years he´s now returned to opera with this Parsifal in Zürich. I must admit, I´ve never been a huge fan of his symphonic work, but here in Parsifal, he was in superb shape. Brilliant playing from the orchestra (strings in particular), never loosing the pace throughout the 4+ hours. Attention to detail, without loosing the general picture. And with excellent precision and coordination.

This is really good news for the ROH, Covent Garden, where he will conduct Parsifal this december. Not only is this Parsifal "the bargain of the season" in terms of ticket price per minute of music - it may actually turn out a high-quality performance as well.

Photos by: anton cupak

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Feminine psychoanalysis - Parsifal in Wien

Christine Mielitz seems to to have applied psychoanalytic tools in what appear to be a feminine analysis of Parsifal, premiered in 2004 at Wiener Staatsoper: For her, Amfortas with his suffering is the main focus. The knights of the Grail appear a closed group of men, marked by the system, which suffers from a lack of insight into feminine values. Which Parsifal gets from Kundry. And since Parsifal is not branded by this system, he is able to release Amfortas. And through these insights, the close male circle of grail knights may be enriched. Or at least that´s my gathering of the staging. Does Kundry die? I´m not sure. Mielitz herself seems ambiguous on this point as well, stating in the programme that Kundry "voluntarily leaves the masculine society of knights after having been released by Parsifal".

When this production premiered in 2004, Thomas Quasthoff was Amfortas (in his only second operatic role apart from the Minister in Fidelio), and he was the center of attention in the production as well as in the German-language press, which hardly commented on the rest of the production.

This Easter Sunday the role was sung by Falk Struckmann who seems to always look the same on stage – edgy, irritated and jumping around. Regardless of the part he´s singing. I´ve seen him do this here in Vienna as Telramund, Rangoni and Iago as well as the Dutchman in Berlin. This time he did it as Amfortas. And, luckily for him, he is definitely one of these singers who sounds vastly better live than on record. While his recordings ao. of Wotan find him in shrill voice he comes through all right in the theater, fine in both voice and characterization.
I was disappointed by both Thomas Moser (Parsifal) and Deborah Polaski (Kundry) for the same reason: They were incredibly boring to watch (and listen to)..Vocally they had no problems with their respective parts – but both voices seemed flat and emotionless. Had I not heard René Pape as Gurnemanz a couple of days previously in Berlin, I would say that Peter Rose makes a fine Gurnemanz. Period. He has some excellent low notes, and keeps his singing up throughout the opera. And it´s probably unfair to point out that he has neither the stage presence or vocal power that Pape brings to this role. And it´s definitely unfair to compare him to Pape in the first place - however as long as René Pape sings the same role at the same time virtually around the corner (by US standards) and people come to Vienna specifically to see Parsifal, it´s only fair to point out, that in my opinion the Berlin Staatsoper Parsifal is vastly superior to the one in Vienna - at least in this season.
Not only because of Pape: Donald Runnicles conducted, and while the quality of the orchestra playing was immensely higher than in his Ring in Berlin earlier this season, I still find him impassive and restrained with this music – particularly with an eye on the competition in Berlin (Barenboim) and here in Vienna next year (Thielemann, who just completed a magnificently conducted Bayreuth Ring).
I seem to have caught this production in the wrong year: Two years ago Thielemann was conducting and both Placido Domingo and Waltraud Meier were singing and next year Thielemann is conducting with Stephen Milling and Mihoko Fujimura singing..

I wouldn´t mind going to Vienna to see this production again with Thielemann - his live recording here from Vienna released last year is incredibly beautiful. And on level with the greatest on record. It must be quite amazing to hear him conduct Parsifal live.

I attended the performance on Easter Sunday 2007.

To watch a videoclip from this production, open this page and click on "videobeispiel".

Photo from:

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