Monday, 26 May 2008

Essential things I´ve learned from opera:

Don´t talk to (or kiss or…) someone in the dark, since they are most likely not the person you think they are.

If you talk to someone you supposedly know, and they don´t answer you back or speak in riddles, again: They are probably someone else in disguise. Or it is actually your wife…

If you want to leave someone, just leave. Do not make appointments to say a”last goodbye”, since this will most likely result in you or the other person getting killed or severely injured.

Do not trust a person:

Who has already once betrayed you and gotten you arrested.
Who offers you a song for free use in a song contest, especially if that person is a cobbler from Nurnberg.
Who claims to be your mother, especially if she is a gypsy…
Who claims to be your father, especially if you grew up in a small house in the woods.
Who claims to be the Devil.
Who claims he wants to marry you after having known you for ten seconds.
Who claims to be the last descendant of the old royal house of Radbod.

Try not to marry/fall in love with/have an affair with:

Your brother, your fiance's father, your fiance's murderer, your husbands brother, your husbands nephew, your own nephew, your husbands boss, your husbands servant, a prophet, a Moor, a Dutchman, a Duke, a fisherman, someone hanging around with the Devil, someone who´s had affairs with more than a thousand women before you, a runaway soldier, a poor soldier, an American officer, a Roman General, a Trojan hero..

In brief: Do not have extramarital affairs and stay away from family members and soldiers of any kind..

If you want to kill someone, including yourself, essential tips include:

Taking an extra look if you intend to throw someone into the fire (or you may risk killing the wrong person).

Do it right away without hesitation and long speeches, or someone may prevent you from doing it (or kill you instead!) while you tell the victim how much you hate him/her.

Do it right away, or you may realize that your reasons for doing it are based on simple misunderstandings.

Making sure your father is not around to disturb you if you intervene in other peoples murdering business.

Try to avoid killing your lover´s father at all means. Better to just escape the scene.

Do it yourself. Do not trust anyone else to do it for you or you may risk inadvertently killing your own daughter. Unless you may command the services of the Devil, though it´s generally not recommended to do business with the Devil.

Do not hang around to watch the person die after you´ve killed him/her. Leave right away or you´ll very likely get caught.

Don´t tell anyone. Really. Don´t tell anyone.

If you are the kind of person likely to develop a guilty conscience afterwards: Don´t do it….

In summary: Going to the opera is far from useless....

Johan Botha too fat for Vienna..

Vienna State Opera Intendant from 2010 Dominique Meyer, has stated that he finds tenor Johan Botha "too fat" and that he "cannot move on stage".

In the Neue Kronenzeitung Botha replies (my translation, not available online, but excerpts in German here):

Botha is annoyed:"I hardly know any thin Wagner tenors. A singer must eat and drink after long, stressful singing.. I will not apologize. But I try not to gain more weight. Botha cannot move, that is an empty phrase! "

Since his relocation from South Africa to Vienna, Botha has always been associated with the Vienna State Opera.

"I am happy director Holender was available. At least I understand one thing: For Holender and Klaus Bachler, I was good enough. I think in my fach, I have set a standard of singing and interpretation in Vienna. Both Christian Thielemann and Semyon Bychkov has confirmed this."
And what will Botha do in the Wagner (and Verdi) year 2013 at the Wiener Staatsoper? Botha: "Don´t ask me. I guess I am not wanted. But I am happy and I am contracted years in advance - even at the Met until 2015. Ask Mr. Meyer!"

Well. No disrespect to Johan Botha, who based on public appearances seems a both very pleasant and hard-working guy. And one has to respect him for working his way up from the 1990 Bayreuth Festival Chorus to land the biggest Wagnerian parts on all the major stages.

But I have also seen him live, and I will have to agree with Dominique Meyer on this one...

DVD: Domingo in Covent Garden Solti-conducted Otello

Otello. Royal Opera Covent Garden 1992. Production: Moshinsky. Cast: Plácido Domingo (Otello), Kiri Te Kanawa (Desdemona), Sergei Leiferkus (Iago), Robin Leggate (Cassio). Conductor: Sir Georg Solti. Further information here.

The Prince and Princess of Wales (Princess Diana) was present at this Otello-performance to celebrate Sir Georg Solti´s 80th birthday in what turned out to be their last official public appearance together. And as some will know, Sir Georg Solti and Princess Diana died within the same week some years later.

On Moshinsky´s production it can be said that it is traditional, however on the minimalistic side avoiding the excesses of a Zeffirelli.

On Plácido Domingos Otello I offer nothing which hasn´t been put in writing numerous times already: In my opinion, Otello is his best part, in which he has been unrivalled for about thirty years and his performance here could not be bettered. A superb singing-actor with Shakesperean singing and acting. Opposing him is Sergei Leiferkus, who presents a vocally convincing characterization of Iago, however with a weak stage presence entirely without menace.

While Kiri Te Kanawa vocally is fine as Desdemona, though without the bloom or vocal expressiveness of a truly great one, she is, in my opinion, among the most boring singing-actresses to have had a major career. There is no chemistry between her and Plácido Domingo, something I am not inclined to blame on him. She is far inferior to both Barbara Frittoli at La Scala and Renée Fleming at the Met on the competing DVDs featuring Plácido Domingo as Otello.

Sir Georg Solti, on the contrary, is inferior to no-one being typically explosive and dramatic. Furthermore, he manages to shape the lyric phrases as well and creates thrilling dramatic intensity in a way Riccardo Muti may only dream of. It may be his 80th birthday, but he conducts as if he was half that age.

Plácido Domingo aso Otello is the way to go on DVD with the choice between this version, the MET and Scala. Personally, I´d opt for the Scala version.

Plácido Domingo and Kiri Te Kanawa, Gia nella notte densa:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Plácido Domingo: 5
Kiri Te Kanawa: 3
Segei Leiferkus: 4

Moshinsky´s production: 3
Sir Georg Solti: 5

Overall impression: 4

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Cardillac - elegant art deco production from Paris

Cardillac. Bastille Opera. Recorded 2005. Director: André Engel. Cast: Alan Held (Cardillac), Angela Denoke (his daughter), Christopher Ventris (the Officer). Conductor: Kent Nagano. More details here.

Apparently this was the most expensive production of the season when it opened at the Paris Bastille Opera in the fall of 2005. And it is indeed spectacular: Set in Paris around the time the work was written (1925), the overall impression is art déco, with sweeping scene changes from glamorous hotel foyers to city roofscapes and then on to the rooms and hotel suites of upper class Parisian life. Immensely stylish and glamorous. With more than a touch of Alfred Hitchcock. And with the typically French sense of underplayed elegance. Just take a look at the DVD cover (pictured above).

Premiered in Dresden in 1925, this is a psychoanalytically-influenced short (90 minutes) opera about the goldsmith Cardillac, who murders his customers, but is caught in the end. Hindemiths music is light, bordering on the neoclassisistic, and receives a transparent reading from Kent Nagano.

Alan Held convinces as the murderous gold smith Cardillac, as well as Angela Denoke as his daughter and Christopher Ventris as her future husband.

Superb Robert Carsen production of Dialogue des Carmelites on DVD

Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmelites. La Scala 2004. Production: Robert Carsen. Cast: Dagmar Schellenberger (Blanche), Laura Aikin (Constance), Barbara Dever (Mére Marie), Anja Silja (Mme de Croissy). Conductor: Riccardo Muti. More information here.

This 2004 La Scala production of the Dialogues des Carmelites is simply close to ideal. And the aesthetically beautiful and simplistic Robert Carsen production was deservedly elected opera DVD of the year by the BBC music magazine last year.

Poulenc´s music is simple and beautiful as well as tonal and easily accessible, though not without disturbing undertones, effectively underlined by the Scala Orchestra superbly conducted by Riccardo Muti.

The opera takes place during the French revolution, and is the story of the young aristocratic woman Blanche, struggling with a fear of death, who joins the Carmelite Order. Through her meeting with the old prioress and the other nuns, Blanche overcomes her fear of death to a degree that she volunteers to follow her fellow sisters to the guillotine when they are apprehended by the ”revolutionary” forces at the end.

The stage is empty, all wear 18th century dress, and Robert Carsen emphasizes the human drama with contrasts in light and colouring as the only stage effects.

All the (predominately female) cast are excellent, in particular Dagmar Schellenberger as Blanche, who delivers a compelling portrait dramatically as well as vocally, as well as Anja Silja (the old prioress) who dominates her scenes by strong presence. The scene between Blanche and the old prioress as well as the death of the old prioress are the absolute highlights of this production. Also strong performances from Laura Aikin and Barbara Dever in a cast without weak links.

Anja Silja is shattering in Mme de Croissy´s death scene:

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Dagmar Schellenberger: 5
Laura Aikin: 5
Anja Silja: 5

Robert Carsen´s staging: 5

Riccardo Muti: 5

Overall impression: 5

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Berlin: Compelling Tristan with Barenboim, Meier, Storey and Salminen

Waltraud Meier as Isolde (here with Christian Franz)

Tristan and Isolde. Berlin State Opera, May 12th, 2008. Production: Harry Kupfer. Cast: Waltraud Meier (Isolde), Ian Storey (Tristan), Matti Salminen (King Marke), Michaela Schuster (Brangäne), Roman Trekel (Kurwenal), Reiner Goldberg (Melot). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

The original cast for this performance was Peter Seiffert, Katarina Dalayman and Christof Fischesser. We heard Ian Storey, Waltraud Meier and (as a last-minute replacement) Matti Salminen. I have not heard anyone complain about these substitutions yet...

Much may be (and is) said of Daniel Barenboim. And whatever one may think about him or his accomplishments in other fields, or with other composers, there is general agreement that it is with Richard Wagner, that he truly excels.

While all his Wagner interpretations are genuinely top-class, Tristan and Isolde may represent the sum of his achievements: The electricity he generates from this score, in my opinion, is unmatched by any other conductor alive today.
In other repertoire, he may sometimes give the impression of going for the superficial effects. Not here. He completely masters the structure of the piece – the endless waves of the music, pushing forward relentlessly. Never loosing the big picture it was simply a thrilling performance. I suspect there to have been next to no orchestra rehearsals for this performance. Barenboim may not need it, but the brass section could have used some coordination of their entries, to put it mildly.

The advantages of the Berlin State Opera acoustics to the Bayreuth Festival House with regards to Barenboim´s interpretation of Tristan are obvious: In Bayreuth, the sound generated by the covered orchestra pit softly emerges from underneath blending uniquely with the singers, but you do not get the explosions in the orchestra possible here in Berlin.. This was a more edgy interpretation from Barenboim, compared to the Scala performances earlier this season, and he seemed to be experimenting with the woodwinds as well, leaving some of the rounded, ”Italianate” sound of the Scala performances behind. The result was completely compelling.
I believe I have stated so previously, but I have never heard better conducted live Wagner performances in my entire life than the ones Daniel Barenboim conduct at this house. Not even by Christian Thielemann, who sometimes does get close, though.

Of course, this performance was sold out. Apparently due to practical staging issues related to the company´s previous tour in Japan, this was a presumably one-time performance of the old Harry Kupfer production, as it was thought the new Herzog production would be back next season (which now doesn´t seem likely).

Waltraud Meier. I have never seen her deliver a performance that was anything less than completely compelling. Her interpretative powers, acting skills and pure presence on stage is of a magnitude that whether or not she exactly does hit all the notes precisely on pitch becomes completely irrelevant. The Narrative and Curse was probably the highlight of the entire opera. The variety in acting and word-colouring, the way she and Daniel Barenboim within micro-seconds adjust their tempi to each other was thrilling to watch.
And though irrelevant, she did in fact hit all the notes, the Cs somewhat more briefly than usual, and she was slightly sharper than usual in her high register. But the Liebestod, as always, completely on-pitch and with heart-breaking intensity. In the middle of a European recital tour, she understandably was cautious with her voice at the beginning, and only in the third act did she give the usual 100%, she would doubtless have given here from the start had she been able to plan her schedule around this performance.
As I´ve said before, in my book, she delivers the definitive interpretation of Isolde and I genuinely have no desire whatsoever to see anyone else in this part. Except for maybe Karita Mattila.

I heard Ian Storey´s Tristan earlier this season at La Scala, and his interpretation clearly benefits from this smaller house. Unfortunately (for me) there is a certain vibrato in his middle voice, that I genuinely dislike, but compared to the issues most of his Tristan-singing colleagues have, he has plenty of assets: He is an excellent actor. He convinces dramatically in the part. Furthermore, he looks quite good, and vastly better than most other Tristans around. He does have the high notes. He didn´t seem too tired i the third Act. He could go on to have a major career with this part. And those issues apart, he had superb on-stage chemistry with Waltraud Meier.

As the King Marke you would normally expect for this kind of performance is in New York, and the scheduled Marke Christoph Fischesser was ill, Matti Salminen was flown in from Zurich at the last minute. Matti Salminen´s interpretative powers as King Marke are of a magnitude, that he even after singing several bunches of completely wrong notes in the Monologue he delivered a compelling portrayal.

Michaela Schuster iwas a fine Brangäne. Not a beautiful voice, but effective and ways better than her dry and wobbly Venus last month. Though is´s still not obvious to me why she has to move on to Ortrud now (in both new Lohengrin productions in Berlin and Munich next year).

Roman Trekel as Kurwenal did not seem in very strong voice, and I wonder if these dramatical barytone parts really suit him?

And a curious thing: There was a lot of Chéreau in this production. In particular when Ian Storey covered Waltraud Meier´s eyes at the beginning of the "O sink hernieder" in Act 2. Unless, that of course was Kupfer´s orginigal intention? Also in several situations in Act 1 it seemed (fully understandably) like Ian Storey had imported Chéreau´s (excellent by the way) concept.
I don´t remember the last time I´ve seen standing ovations like this at the Berlin State Opera. Most were for Waltraud Meier, Matti Salminen and Daniel Barenboim.

If Daniel Barenboim doesn´t conduct the Tristan and Isolde next year in Berlin, one almost have to consider visiting the Metropolitan Opera to hear him there. Without Waltraud Meier though…

Monday, 12 May 2008

Superb Konwitschny production of The Flying Dutchman in Munich

Anja Kampe as Senta

The Flying Dutchman. Bavarian State Opera, Munich. May 11th, 2008. Production: Peter Konwitschny. Cast: Alan Titus (Dutchman), Anja Kampe (Senta), Peter Rose (Daland), Robert Dean Smith (Erik). Further information here. Cond: Philippe Auguin.

In brief, Peter Konwitschny has succeeded in creating a superb production of The Flying Dutchman for the Bavarian State Opera. Not only has he successfully updated the action to present day, but in so doing, he manages to provide new insights into the motivations and relations of the main characters. Together with his Tristan and Elektra, I wouldn´t hesitate to judge this one of his finest works. Furthermore, Konwitschny communicates his points clearly and precisely to the audience (read: I actually understood what he was trying to say without having to read the accompanying booklet!), which is far from always the case (read: Just have a look at his Parsifal production).

This Flying Dutchman production opened at the Bavarian State Opera in 2006, a theater by now quite accustomed to Peter Konwitschny´s quirky Wagner stagings, with both his Parsifal and Tristan in the current repertoire. This didn´t prevent one spectator from booing extremely loudly just seconds before the curtain fell yesterday. And this production, with specific attention to the controversial ending, has indeed divided audiences, though most end up on the positive side.

Even for those not previously familiar with Konwitschny´s work, a quick look at the cast list revealing An Angel indicated not all to be as in the Dresden 1843 world premiere.

The core elements of the piece (ie. the doomed Dutchman stepping ashore once every seventh year to search for redemption through faithful love) remains intact with Konwitschny, who essentially follows the storyline as Richard Wagner himself would recognize it.

There is not much controversy in Act one: The gangways from the two ships are lowered successively from each side of the stage amidst a heavy storm. The Dutchman and his crew arrive directly from the 16th (or somewhere close) century into Daland´s world of today. I suppose, if countless women have been damned as the failed to be faithful to the Dutchman, some time must indeed have passed...

On stage we look at painted rocks and bending naked trees on a backdrop of the raging sea. So traditional, that you intuitively know that it will not last. The Dutchman with his crew (with more than a slight touch of Pirates of the Caribbean not least when he opens a trunk filled with golden treasures) meet with Daland in plastic chairs on the shore. The character ”An angel” already entered during the Dutchman monologue (Die frist ist um) at the exact point where the Dutchman mentions the bargain attained for him in heaven by the angels. Throughout the opera, An Angel follows the Dutchman and Senta at decisive points and silently tries to influence the action (ie. help the Dutchman).

On to Act Two, which takes place in…a fitness center – more precisely in a spinning class, each woman spinning on her bicycle (anyone who doesn´t get the word play?). But there is more to this scene than the dual meaning of the word spinning: It somehow seems fitting that contemporary women would meet in this way. Senta arrives late, carrying with her a painting of the 16th century Dutchman. In effect, it might as well have been George Clooney she was infatuated with. The Dutchman, of course, is completely out of place in the fitness center and he carries with him a 16th century bridal gown for Senta to wear. How can this last? Of course, Senta is not interested in Erik, arriving in a bath-robe directly from the shower, it seems.

Act Three opens with the locals partying in the harbour with a clear view at the looming sea in the background. The Pirates of the Caribbean are sulking alongside several long tables at one side of the stage, finally chasing the locals off, who then return a bit later, armed and prepared for fight (to no avail, as it turns out). After overhearing the conversation between Erik and Senta (he claims that she has broken her vows to him), the Dutchman then decides to leave. What does Senta do? Well, in her advanced state of exaltation, she then fetches a barrel, rolls it onto center stage, sets it on fire and virtually blasts everyone (including the audience) away in a quite impressive demonstration of special effects risking temporary (at least) hearing impairment for those sitting in front of the auditorium, not to mention the cast and chorus.

Musically, the evening was more bland. Anja Kampe basically has a lyrical voice and interprets Senta accordingly. Her voice is somewhat fluttery near the top, but she nevertheless convinces in the part, dramatically as well. Does she really have the middle register to support the Isolde she will be singing in Glyndebourne next year? That remains to be seen, I suppose…

Apart from the dress, Alan Titus does not have much in common with Johnny Depp´s Caribbean Pirate. With all due respect I found him in rather dry voice and he didn´t seem to catch on interpretatively either. Now where is Juha Uusitalo, who usually sings the Munich-Dutchman? (a rhetorical question, since I am well aware that he is in Vienna for the Siegfried-Wanderer). Next season offers the opportunity to see what kind of pirate Bryn Terfel will make. Also not a particularly memorable performance from the otherwise fine British bass Peter Rose as Daland. Robert Dean Smith, also essentially a lyrical singer, for once managed to sound rather large-voiced as Erik..obviously the company is rather more thankful here than when I heard him (or rather almost didn´t) next to Waltraud Meier in Madrid.

The orchestra played well under Philippe Auguin, but unfortunately with almost no intensity.

In summary, it all adds up to a highly successful production in which Konwitschny manages to take a fresh look at the work without loosing the perspective. It would be a most welcome addition to the DVD-Dutchman catalogue, provided some adjustments are made in the cast.

Berlin: Busoni´s Doktor Faust

Doktor Faust (Busoni). Berlin State Opera, May 10th, 2008. Production: Peter Mussbach. Cast: Roman Trekel (Faust), John Daszak (Mephistophéles), Christof Fischesser (various parts), Carola Höhn (Duchess). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

Peter Mussbach´s stagings are never less than aesthetic and beautiful, achieved mainly by a keen sense of mixing appropriate colors and light projections on a relatively neutral background. In this respect Doktor Faust is among his most successful productions, originally seen at the 1999 Salzburg Festival and also presented at the Metropolitan Opera 2000-1 season: The spare, sometimes hilly stage is populated with various figures in dusty matching colours and fairy-tale costumes including a Duchess in golden dress surrounding the trench-coat clad Faust, who seems perpetually on the move.

Visually, the production is absolutely compelling. Otherwise, I simply lack some theatrical energy. The production presents itself as dreamerish and fleeting, but then that would seem to be Peter Mussbach´s point. According to the program notes (without the notes, the point of the production would have escaped me) Faust undertakes a "virtual journey'' like a ''daydream without reality.'' And that dreamish, unreal quality is certainly captured here.

Dreamerish and docile are not words I´d normally associate with Daniel Barenboim, though this is how his reading of this score appeared. The textures in Busoni´s music shift between the dense and delicate, and it was indeed played delicately here. I never thought I´d attribute lack of energy to Daniel Barenboim either, but it did seem like he was sleepwalking his way through this performance. In the spirit of Mussbach´s staging, I suppose.

Roman Trekel´s characterization of Faust was obviously not helped by the production, having him endlessly pace the stage in his black trench-coat, occasionally lighting small fires in the ground. He has a fine voice though, and none of the manners, that sometimes tend to make Thomas Hampson (a superb Doktor Faust in the Zurich production by Grüber, as well as in the previous MET performances of this staging) irritating. John Daszak was quite simply superb as Mephistophéles, and the only one to infuse some real energy into the performance.

The auditorium was only half full, and I suspect quite a few of those not deciding to skip opera altogether and enjoy the fabulous weather, went for the Lohengrin revival premiere over at the Deutsche Oper. I would normally have been there as well, but you never know when another opportunity to see this staging comes up again, which considering the present situation at the Berlin State Opera, may well be never.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Not all cancellations are bad news: Waltraud Meier to appear as Isolde in Berlin next week

Earlier it was announced that Ian Storey is to replace Peter Seiffert in the upcoming Tristan and Isolde at the Berlin State Opera.

Today another cancellation was announced as Waltraud Meier replaces Katarina Dalayman as Isolde. No disrespect towards Katarina Dalayman whose Isolde I was quite curious to hear, having accepted that Daniel Barenboim initially chose to cast this Tristan with his upcoming Metropolitan Opera debut Tristan and Isolde pair Katarina Dalayman and Peter Seiffert (now: Ian Storey and Waltraud Meier as in the Chéreau La Scala Tristan earlier this season).

But I´d be lying if I said I was disappointed by this last cast change, which is almost too good to be true: I almost didn´t buy a ticket for this sold-out performance since Waltraud Meier wasn´t singing Isolde....
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