Thursday, 31 July 2008

Stefan Herheim, Daniele Gatti Bayreuth 2008 Parsifal: A very slow journey through Germany´s recent past (UPDATED WITH REVIEWS)


Katharina and Wolfgang Wagner at the Parsifal premiere.
Parsifal. Bayreuth Festival July 25th 2008. Director: Stefan Herheim. Cast: Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Mihoko Fujimura (Kundry), Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Diogenes Randes (Titurel), Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor). Conductor: Daniele Gatti.


UPDATED 31/7 WITH REVIEWS BELOW
Though nothing beats a live review (any readers actually present at this premiere are most welcome to comment), I suppose the below post combining my impressions from the live radio transmission including a description of the staging accompanied by plenty of the photographs surprisingly posted on the Bayreuth Festival webpage, gives a crude impression of what to expect.

As I have not actually seen the staging (yet, I hope), I obviously may not offer an actual opinion on it (though it does seem mighty interesting...).

The audio part, however I will offer a brief opinion on:
First of all, I found Daniele Gatti rather superb: A slow interpretation, but with a grand scope and only occasionally did the tension drop. Furthermore he applied some unconventional and very rapid shift of tempi, which however worked rather well. Some of it was notoriously slow though, such as the end of the 3rd act transformation music with the slowest chords I have ever heard...
The word Italianate comes to mind, but seems rather too obvious. Of recent Bayreuth Parsifal conductors he seems closest to James Levine.

However, none of the singers were exceptional, ranging from Kwangchul Youn´s generally wobbly and inexpressive Gurnemanz (though he vastly improved in the third act), Detlef Roth´s equally shaky Amfortas to Mihoko Fujimura´s beautiful, but very smallvoiced, placid and inexpressive Kundry sung in Mozart-style. Mihoko Fujimura honestly should not be singing this repertoire as she would be stunning in Mozart. Clearly, the best singer was Christopher Ventris with a fine, dark-voiced and espressive Parsifal, though slightly under pressure in the top. The flower-maidens hopefully sounded better live than on the radio...

Difficult to judge the level of applause from the radio, but clearly there was massive applause for Stefan Herheim and his teams´s solo curtain call, entirely unusual for a Bayreuth premiere..


Reviews:

International:

New York Times -
"Most startling was to hear straight-faced, seasoned Bayreuth fans during intermission express surprise at the sight of Wehrmacht soldiers and Nazi banners during Act II, recalling old days at the festival. It all seemed so inevitable."
Associated Press - "a welcome assault on the senses"
Agence-France Presse - "a learned and scholarly exploration of the history of "Parsifal" itself..[Daniele Gatti] gave one of the slowest-ever readings of Wagner's longest opera, stretching the score out to four hours and 40 minutes"
Financial Times - "The performance works on so many levels that you emerge challenged and stimulated: Bayreuth at its best."
Corriere della Sera - "the Wagnerian rites were seduced by Daniele Gatti"
International Herald Tribune - "A Parsifal that revels in its novelty"
Der Standard - "Angela Merkel gave the director red roses" (!)
Le Figaro - "A politically correct Parsifal"

A reasonable selection of the German reviews:

Der Westen - "a historical-political, but also fragile and emotional evening"
Schwäbischen Zeitung - it looks like they left after the first act...
Süddeutsche Zeitung - "In Stefan Herheim´s staging, the stage technicians work more than anyone else, pushing the singers into the background"
Die Welt - "convincing throughout"
Abendzeitung - "superficial storytelling with no time for individual characterisations"
Tagesspiegel - "Stefan Herheim destroys the Bunker-mentality of the Bayreuth Festival"

Frankfurter Allgemeine - "At this point, with young directors such as Stefan Herheim in Bayreuth, it is about time that the Festival officially comes to term with it´s own past. Winifried Wagners diaries must not necessarily be released immediately. A small inscription on the sculptures in the Festival Park would be a fine start"
Frankfurter Allgemeine - "A drama without the phi.osophical-dramatical aspects. Are you allowed to do that?" written by René Kollo
Der Spiegel - "a grandiose show"
Berliner Zeitung - "a moving production, of a kind not seen to often in Bayreuth lately"
Crescendo - "finally an evening to remember in Bayreuth"
Merkur-Online - "five hours too little for Stefan Herheim´s phenomenal journey"
Nord-Bayerische Kurier - the opinions of the VIP premiere guests..
Nord-Bayerische Kurier - "the Grail is a globus"


A 16-pages supplement to Kurier with all sorts of information about this Parsifal (in German) here.

A short video clip from the performance may be seen here.

A photo-gallery here.
Stefan Herheim´s concept in brief: A time travel through the history of Germany, from the unification (1871) to the wirtschaftwunder (economic miracle of West Germany after 1948). A historical and political Parsifal.
Heike Scheele is the set designer. In an intermission interview, Daniele Gatti explained how they had worked very closely together during rehearsals, how Stefan Herheim knew the entire score and had a very musical approach to the work (he originally trained as a cellist).

The following description of the staging are based on reports from Bayern 4 Klassik Radio (where the reviewer was quite enthusiastic) illustrated with photos from the Bayreuth Festival website.

Act 1:
Herzeleide´s death is played out during the prelude. Then we are inside as well as in the garden of Villa Wahnfried (here serving as the Castle of Monsalvat) just after the unification of Germany (1871). The setting is that of dream-theater - a mix of reality and phantasy with a surrealistic air to it. Kundry ís a dark bird of the night. Parsifal´s alter-ego is a child, emerging from the swan, if I understand it correctly. The Grail Knights in the end were soldiers marching towards the first world war.

In theory, audiences in Bayreuth do not applaude after Act 1. However, both this and last year they did.


Gurnemanz:


Parsifal:
Klingsor:
Kundry:


Act 2
- Klingsor´s Castle is a lazaret. Klingsor appears a Lucifer with black wings, apparently neither man or woman. The flower-girls initially are nurses tending the wounded soldiers, transforming into seductive 1920 showgirls. Kundry appears a Marlene Dietrich look-a-like. When Parsifal rejects her, we suddenly are in the Third Reich, with Klingsor as a Göring- look-alike. Parsifal´s defeat of Klingsor is a victory over the Third Reich, with mighty Nazi banners as well as marching Nazi soldiers falling lifeless to the floor as Parsifal points his spear at them.



The flower maidens as nurses:









Act 3: Set immediately after the end of World War 2 in the ruins of Villa Wahnfried, where Gurnemanz is asleep in the garden. Water springs from the well when the black-clad Parsifal touches it with the spear. In the transformation scene the light goes on in the entire auditorium and the audience sees themselves reflected in giant mirrors onstage in front of the the Bundestag (German Parliament) in the 1950´s in front of which the opera ends. Kundry is, as always, alive..









Stefan Herheim during rehearsals:

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Celebrated Ariadne with Pieczonka and Damrau in Munich



Adrianne Pieczonka (above) and Diana Damrau (below) in Robert Carsen´s new Ariadne in Munich
This years Munich Opera Festival featured the premiere of Robert Carsen´s new production of Ariadne Auf Naxos last week, a spectacular success judged by responses by audiences and critics alike.

The cast featured Adrianne Pieczonka as Ariadne and Diana Damrau as Zerbinetta. Kent Nagano conducted. Burkhard Fritz was Bacchus, Daniela Sindram the Composer.

Both lead ladies, Pieczonka and Damrau received stunning reviews. Also much praise for Carsen´s stylish production and for Kent Nagano, who to many´s suprise turned out a fine Straussian.

This production will play at the Deutsche Oper Berlin next February featuring Michaela Kaune/Violeta Urmana as Ariadne and Jane Archibald as Zerbinetta.
Reports in English from Financial Times, Boulezian and in German from Die Welt, Merkur, Abendzeitung (rather critical) and Kurier among others.

A promotional video with highlights from the production here:

Bayreuth 2008 Meistersinger - great success for free public live transmission in revival of Katharina Wagner´s controversial staging



Approximately 38.000 turned up for the free live transmission of Sunday´s performance of Katharina Wagner´s Meistersinger from the Bayreuth Festival to a public square in Bayreuth - undoubtedly helped by the spectacular weather as well.

Opinions of the success of the not exactly free online streaming seemed to vary (I opted out of buying a ticket since the weather was spectacular and I saw this production live in Bayreuth last year). This Sunday July 27th performance is NOT the one to be released on DVD later this year, which was recorded before the Festival started.

Selected impressions of the 2008 Meistersinger revival:

Associated Press: "Whether you love it or hate it, there's no denying that there's never a dull moment in Katharina Wagner's uproarious production of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg",, "Katharina's staging of Wagner's only comic opera is hugely entertaining and has some bright and striking ideas".

Frankfurter Allgemeine: "Bayreuth is pop and Katharina Wagner is the princess" .."the staging tends to be too explicit".

Abendzeitung: Praising Katharina Wagner´s detailed work with the singers especially Michaela Kaune and Klaus Florian Vogt.

Netzeitung: "The Bayreuth audiences are still divided over this staging"

Based on the radio transmission: Sebastian Weigle was fine, though not exceptional, with a rather placid reading without the contrapuncts making this score really exciting. Futhermore the coordination with the singers was rather shaky during the ensembles. Best among the singers were Michaela Kaune (Eva), Klaus Florian Vogt (Walther) and Michael Volle (Beckmesser). Franz Hawlata is not a bad Sachs, but seems rather stretched by the part.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Bayreuth 2008 Tristan (updated with reviews)




Tristan and Isolde. Bayreuth Festival, August 26th 2008. Production: Christoph Marthaler(from 2005). Cast: Irene Théorin (partially indisposed as Isolde), Robert Dean Smith (Tristan), Michelle Breedt (Brangäne), Jukka Rasilainen (Kurwenal), Robert Holl (Marke). Conductor: Peter Schneider.

My own review from the August 16th performance is here.

Again, any readers actually present at this revival premiere of Christoph Marthaler´s 2005 Tristan are most welcome to comment.
I will offer a brief opinion on the radio transmission:
Robert Dean Smith is a wonderful Tristan, especially on radio/video transmissions as also seen earlier this season when he stepped in at the MET for the ailing Ben Heppner. The only issue I have with RD Smith is that he occasionally is hardly audible in the house (I have heard him many times), however whether also an issue here in Bayreuth obviously I cannot tell. On the radio he was excellent.

For this revival Irene Théorin has taken over Isolde from fellow Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. It was announced that Irene Théorin was partly indisposed due to the cold, which also made the Festival Managment close the dress rehearsal ealier this week, so no comments on her performance, other than she obviously has lost a lot of weight since her 2006 Copenhagen Brünnhilde, now available on DVD and looks great (se photos below).

Michelle Breedt was a rather unspectacular Brangäne. However, Robert Holl was simply awful as Marke. In an immensely uninteresting intermission interview, he stated that 60 was the optimal age for a singer to sing Marke. For some, maybe, but generally I don´t think so.

Peter Schneider is a fine conductor, audibly well acquainted with both the special acoustics and the score, though his reading was not overly individual and relatively static.

At the premiere in 2005, Financial Times wrote of Christoph Marthaler´s staging:
An ordinary man and woman fall for each other. Theirs is an all-consuming love - compulsive, illicit and ultimately futile. It not only undermines their will to live, it poisons all the relationships in their orbit.
This is the scenario proposed by Christoph Marthaler in his new production of Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuth festival. Wagner's great hymn to romantic love is not about sex or passion. Nor has it anything to do with metaphysics or the cosmos. No, it is about the destructive loneliness of love, an obsession that can lead only to extinction.
On these terms Tristan und Isolde is a modern story. But do we need to go to Bayreuth to experience it? Marthaler, a Swiss director who staged a controversial Figaro in Salzburg three years ago, has done his usual thing of showing opera characters as everyday types, but there was nothing revelatory about Monday's performance.

The staging received largely negative reviews in 2005: "From hero to zero", "many lamps- no enlightment", "Bayreuth's Barren Tristan und Isolde"

Reviews of the 2008 Tristan performances (selection):
AFP (English) - "There's no overwhelming passion or no electrifying eroticism. The stage, by Anna Viebrock, is all drab browns and yellows typical of the former communist East Germany or German Democratic Republic (GDR).".."Marthaler's reductionist reading is so uncompromisingly bleak that the evening dragged interminably"..[Irene Théorin] was disappointing as Isolde, sounding mostly shrill and squally, particularly in the famous closing "Liebestod".."mediocrely sung Tristan of US tenor Robert Dean Smith or South African mezzo Michelle Breedt as a rather drab and housewifely Brangaene"

Tagesspiegel - "[Irene Théorin] a voice like a hurricane ..[RD Smith and Holl] had deserved better than being trapped in Marthalers boredom".

Die Welt praiese RD Smith´s nuanced Tristan while they found Irene Théorin "virtually impossible to understand".

HNA Online - "Major applause for Iréne Théorin´s Isolde..virtually unlimited vocal ressources" "a static staging without emotion"

RP Online


Irene Theorin and Robert Dean Smith, Act 1:
Act 3:
Robert Dean Smith:

Irene Théorin:


Tristan and Isolde, Act 2:


Isolde and Brangäne, Act 2:

The 2008 Salzburg Festival opens today (including information on the opera transmissions)



The 2008 Salzburg Festival 26/7-31/8 officially opens today under the theme "Denn stark wie die liebe ist der Tod" (death is as strong as love). A rather lengthy and (over)-intellectual essay on this subject may be read here (in German). Jürgen Flimm is Festival Intendant.

I will be reporting intensively from the Salzburg Festival, as I will spend most of my summer holiday there (from 17-25/8) hopefully seeing all the operas (with the possible exception of Romeo&Juliette) as well as Riccardo Muti & The Vienna Phil in Ein Deutsches Requiem with Peter Mattei and Genia Kühmeier at the slightly antisocial hour of 11 am...
Finally, I´ll be attending a sort of workshop with Gustavo Dudamel, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Símon Bolívar Youth Orchestra.

Complete Salzburg Festival programme 2008

The 2008 operas (with links to radio transmissions when available):

Don Giovanni - staged by Claus Guth. With Dorothea Röschmann, Annette Dasch, Christopher Maltman, Erwin Schrott et al. Conducted by Bertrand de Billy.
Premiere 27/7. No information on radio transmissions, but Don Giovanni will be transmitted to a giant screen on the Kapitelplatz in Salzburg (free) on 16/8 as part of the Siemens Festspiel Nächte

Otello conducted by Riccardo Muti, staged by Stephen Langridge with Aleksandr Antonenko (O), Marina Poplavskaya (D), Carlos Alvarez (I). The premiere on 1/8 will be transmitted live on ORF and Bayern 4. I am going on August 21.

Otello will be transmitted live on 3sat (August 10th) as well as to a giant wide-screen on the Kapitelplatz in Salzburg (free) on 10/8 as part of the Siemens Festspiel Nächte

Romeo & Juliette, staged by Bartlett Sher with Rólando Villazón and Nino Machaidze. The premiere on 2/8 will be transmitted live on Austrian television as well as on ORF radio, and on 13/8 on Bayern 4.
Romeo&Juliette will be transmitted to a giant wide-screen on the Kapitelplatz in Salzburg (free) on 17/8 as part of the Siemens Festspiel Nächte. Romeo & Juliette is confirmed for DVD release by DG in January 2009.

Duke Bluebeard´s Castle, staged by Johan Simons, conducted by Peter Eotvös with Michelle DeYoung and Falk Struckmann. The premiere 8/8 is transmitted live on ORF. I am going on August 18th.

Rusalka, staged by Wieler/Morabito, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Camilla Nylund, Emily Magee and Piotr Beczala. The 17/8 premiere is transmitted live on ORF and Bayern 4.

Magic Flute, Pierre Audi´s production, conducted by Riccardo Muti. From 13/8. No information on transmissions. This production was released on DVD in 2006. I am going on August 22nd.

The complete 2008 Salzburg Festival transmissions from Bayern 4 Klassik may be downloaded here.

Full schedule for the Siemens Festspiel Nächte here.

Friday, 25 July 2008

DVD: Flimm/Barenboim with modern Otello from Berlin

Otello. Berlin State Opera 2001. Production: Jürgen Flimm. Cast: Christian Franz (Otello), Emily Magee (Desdemona), Valeri Alexejev (Iago). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

For some reason Otello is very hard to update successfully from 15th century Cyprus. In that regard, Jürgen Flimm´s 2001 Berlin State Opera production celebrating the 100th anniversary of Verdi´s death is one of the most successful I have encountered.

The sets are both striking and original, based on abstract steel and glass structures, thematically focused on fire and water.

Apart from the Requiem, Daniel Barenboim is a rare conductor of Verdi, something that may change with his increasing commitment to La Scala. One would expect Barenboim to be excellent with Otello, which he is. Clarity, precision, explosiveness are keywords. And unsurprisingly: Rather slow.

While Christian Franz does not exactly kick Plácido Domingo into oblivion, he makes a reasonable effort communicates well enough as this far from heroic Otello. Except in the high register, which fails him exposing pitch problems as well. Emily Magee´s Desdemona is a strong woman, not a victim. Vocally she is rather straight-toned, lacking somewhat in both floating expressivity and dynamics. In comparison Valeri Alexejev makes a rather weak and wobbly Iago.

For a modern version of Otello, this is perhaps the best choice on DVD.

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

Christian Franz: 3
Emily Magee: 4
Valeri Alexejev: 3

Jürgen Flimm´s production: 4
Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: 4

Monday, 21 July 2008

Kenneth Branagh´s Magic Flute on DVD

The Magic Flute. Film by Kenneth Branagh 2006. Cast: René Pape (Sarastro), Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Lyubov Petrova (Queen of the Night), Amy Carson (Pamina), Benjamin Jay Davis (Papageno), The Chamber Orchestra of Europe is conducted by James Conlon. Further information here.

Set in the trenches of World War 1, the main theme of Kenneth Branagh´s 2006 Magic Flute film is no less than World Peace. The conflict between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, here a "complicated, but not evil woman" is central to the story. The war provides a backdrop of creating a meaningful relationship beween the two and all references to masonry etc. are eliminated in favor of this pro-peace approach.

This apart, Schikander´s plot is followed quite closely. Sarastro is a wealthy man whose castle is a hospital for the wounded. The Three Ladies are nurses and the Queen of the Night makes her entrance on a tank..

Kenneth Branagh´s Magic Flute is a curious hybrid of realism and fantasy, drama and comedy. Initially the cameras sweep the battle fields, however soon comic strip elements such as floating red hearts and lips are introduced. Interpretatively, Branagh seems to stand between two chairs, undecided as to whether his Magic Flute is epic and poignant or light and witty. Though, in theory not an uninteresting approach, the world-peace vision seems rather overinflated and sentimental, to a degree that I must admit to bailing out.

As a soundtrack alone this simply does not work either as the casting is notoriously uneven.
Rene Pape's Sarastro is arguably the greatest alive and his singing sets him vastly above his colleagues, who for the majority sound like light-voiced conservatory students (Joseph Kaiser´s Tamino excepted), though they do look their parts especially Lyubov Petrova as the Queen of the Night.

Non-German speakers may not care about this and normally I wouldn´t either, but Stephen Fry has adapted the libretto mainly by rewriting and shortening the spoken dialogue, which works moderately well and then by translating everything into English, which approximates a disaster. His lack of experience in dealing with singers does show when he butchers several of the arias rendering them virtually un-singable.

For English-speakers the lack of subtitles on this DVD in theory should pose no problems. To be brief: It does.

As I´d predict responses to this film to vary widely, potential buyers are well adviced to take a look for themselves. The below two clips may be considered representable of the film.

An example as to why I bail out: The tacky world-peace concept at it´s worst combined with the butchering of "O Isis und Osiris" by Stephen Fry. René Pape is Sarastro:



A selection of clips from various parts of the film:



Luc Bondy Salome DVD with Malfitano, Terfel, Silja and Riegel

Salome. Royal Opera Covent Garden 1997. Production: Luc Bondy. Cast: Catherine Malfitano (Salome), Bryn Terfel (Jochanaan), Anja Silja (Herodias), Kenneth Riegel (Herodes). Conductor: Christoph von Dohnanyi. Further information here.

Luc Bondy´s production of Salome has traveled around the world, and to be completely honest, I fail to fully understand why.

Luc Bondy intended to create a fin-de-siécle thriller cum family saga. To this end he applied a darkly expressionistic set mimicking the interior of a Victorian house only allowing for minimal lights to penetrate the french curtains. At one side a concrete ramp leads to Jochanaan´s basement as well as to the exterior. Thrown in are the odd few slaves. Salome´s tragedy is subsequently acted out around the dinner table in an interpretation of the work I simply do not find coherent.

Admittedly he is not helped by his Salome either. A signature role for Catherine Malfitano, I nevertheless find her Salome inadequate - vocally as well as dramatically. And vastly below the standard of her own previous DVD Salome from Berlin as well. Malfitano attacks the notes fearlessly and hits most of them as well, but the gleam, presence and character essential for a great Salome simply is not there. And a great actress she is not, in my opinion, though in fairness I should add that opinions on her Salome vary widely. Furthermore, a thrilling Salome depends on the chemistry between Salome and Jochanaan, which is simply not there.

Admittedly there is no better Jochanaan on DVD than Bryn Terfel. Nevertheless I do not think he is the truly great Jochanaan many have made him out to be. For the same reasons I do not think he is a great Wotan or a great Dutchman. Lack of majestic presence and commanding noble voice are some keywords. Not that Bryn Terfel´s voice is not both commanding, powerful and beautiful. It surely is. But his true strenght as a performer, in my opinion, lies in the edgier characterizations of less noble or haughty chatacters. As such he is a much better Leporello than Don Giovanni. And he would be among the truly greats as Alberich as well. His Johanaan has the presence of a nice fatherly priest as opposed to the commanding mysterious mytic. Nevertheless, his qualities place him vastly above virtually all his present, if not past, competitors in this, as in most of his other parts.

Kenneth Riegel and Anja Silja are both great as Herodes and Herodias. While Dohnanyi is by no means substandard, I miss sparkle and energy in a rather too anonymous performance.

Catherine Malfitano and Bryn Terfel in the confrontation between Salome and Jochanaan:



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

Catherine Malfitano: 2
Bryn Terfel: 4
Kenneth Riegel: 4
Anja Silja: 4

Luc Bondy´s production: 3
Dohnanyi: 3

Overall impression: 3

Simon Boccanegra on DVD: Almost saved by Claudio Abbado and Karita Mattila

Simon Boccanegra. Teatro Comunale Firenze (Maggio Musicale Fiorentino) 2002. Production: Peter Stein. Cast: Carlo Guelfi (Simon Boccanegra), Julian Kostantinov (Fiesco), Karita Matila (Amelia), Gabriele Adorno (Vincenzo La Scola), Lucio Gallo (Paolo Albiani). Conductor: Claudio Abbado. Further information here.

Peter Stein´s production of Simon Boccanegra was recorded at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 2002 and is a coproducton with the Salzburg Easter Festival.

In brief: This is a production memorable for the presence of Karita Mattila and Claudio Abbado.

In other words: Peter Stein´s staging is rather unspectacular. Simple, dark and aesthetic, yes. But interpretatively I have no idea what his messages are. We look at projections of pillars, houses and mosaics in the background of the mainly blue sets, in which the only contrast seem to be the predominantly red period outfits worn by the singers. Any individual stage direction or concept does simply not get through here.

Except for Karita Mattila, the singers are very anonymous and not to be remembered (or mentioned any further, at least not by me), and only with the entrance of Amelia does the stage seem to lighten up.
A pity really for Claudio Abbado, whose superbly conducted Simon Boccanegra need fear comparison from no-one in history as already documented on his bench-mark audio recording.
Unfortuntately, Karita Mattila and Claudio Abbado cannot entirely save this production.

Karita Mattila with "Come in quest´ora bruna" :
The bottom line:
Carlo Guelfi: 2-3
Julio Konstantinov: 2-3
Vincenzo La Scala: 2-3
Karita Mattila: 5

Peter Stein´s production: 2-3
Claudio Abbado: 5

Overall impression: 3

Simon Keenlyside and Dorothea Röschmann shine in Covent Garden Magic Flute DVD

The Magic Flute. Royal Opera Covent Garden 2003. Production: David McVicar. Cast: Will Hartmann (Tamino), Dorothea Röschmann (Pamina), Diana Damrau (Queen of the Night), Simon Keenlyside (Papageno), Franz-Josef Selig (Sarastro). Conductor: Sir Colin Davis. Further information here.

David McVicar plays it relatively safe with this Magic Flute production for the Royal Opera. The stage is virtually bare and dark surrounded by occasional pillars and fractions of black marble walls often covered in a mysterious mist. Costumes are eclectic, ranging from the 17th century until present day and includes glitzy gala dresses as well as workingman outfits. The occasional moon or stars pop up in the background as well as semi-imaginary applications like a red tree with blue leaves. Elements of children´s theater, such as a bird being moved by an actor and a mâche dragon contribute to the overall exquisite and fairy-tale impression of this elegant and underplayed staging. Almost too polished and smooth, one may argue, but otherwise hard to criticize.

None of the principals are less than good (well maybe one is) and some are frankly outstanding, mainly Simon Keenlyside and Dorothea Röschmann.

Simon Keenlyside´s Papageno is a weary working man (bird-catcher) and not the ridiculous figure he is often made out to be. Instead he is rather awkward. His dry voice and excellent physical acting makes him ideal for this part, the best I have seen him in. Will Hartmann is a rather stiff actor and seems strained vocally as well in the thankless part of Tamino, who furthermore suffers by being completely upstaged by Simon Keenlyside.

Dorothea Röschmann is a superb Pamina, mainly because she is stylish and unsentimental. And apart from having a beautiful voice, she sings and acts with a firm character unusual for the often wining Paminas.
I belong to what I suspect is a minory not particularly taken with Diana Damrau, finding her voice uninteresting and her presence rather irritating. However to say that vastly better Queen of the Nights walk around out there, I cannot do either..

Franz-Josef Selig is simply not a very good Sarastro. That he lacks the majesty and gravitas of the truly great is one thing. Worse, however, he is rather wobbly and has trouble in both ends of the register.

No doubt that Sir Colin Davis is a fine Mozartean with a rather transparent and elegant approach, not unlike Claudio Abbado. As someone still swearing to Otto Klemperer´s dense interpretation, I´d personally prefer Riccardo Muti from the 2006 Salzburg production. being the most direct competition on DVD as well. Cases made be made for owning both productions, especially for fans of the Magic Flute.

Simon Keenlyside as Papageno:

The bottom line:

Simon Keenlyside: 5
Dorothea Röschmann: 5
Diana Damrau: 4
Will Hartmann: 2-3
Franz-Josef Selig: 2-3

David McVicars production: 4
Sir Colin Davis: 4

Overall impression: 4

DVD: Anja Silja in The Makropulos case

The Makropulos Case. Glyndebourne Festival 1995. Production: Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Cast: Anja Silja (Emilia Marty), Kim Begley (Gregor), Andrew Shore (Kolenaty). Conductor: Andrew Davis. Further information here.

When this was recorded in 1995 Anja Silja was about 55 years old (her exact age remains obscure). Though still young compared to the 337 years of her character Emilia Marty, it is still the problematic issue of this production: Despite her dramatic grip of the character and commanding presence on stage, Anja Silja simply both looks and sounds far too old to convince as the eternally young and sexually irresistible Emilia Marty. Since this opera stands or falls with Emilia Marty, it does not help much that all the secondary characters are superb as well as Andrew Davis´ orchestra.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff´s production tells the story in a relatively straight-forward manner set around the time of the composition (1923-5). Anyone not familiar with the plot may have a look here.

This is still worth watching for Anja Silja, the great singing actress. However, when Emilia Marty looks like a grandmother rather than a seductress, the entire point of the opera may not be easily conveyed...

Presently this is the only DVD available of The Makropulos case, to my knowledge.

Anja Silja as Emilia Marty revealing her secret:


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

Anja Silja: 2-3
Nikolaus Lehnhoff´s staging: 3
Andrew Davis: 4

Overall impression: 3

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Waltraud Meier - a portrait

I follow a voice within me - a 2002 documentary on Waltraud Meier

This is a portrait DVD of acclaimed German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier including a live performance of Das lied von der Erde.

Considering, this is supposedly an introductory portrait DVD, the selection of clips are rather curious, though. Virtually all video footage on this DVD is otherwise not commercially available, and as such is interesting for those already familiar with Waltraud Meier. As an introduction to the artist Waltraud Meier, I´d have thought extended clips from staged performances more appropriate. However, the choice of material was no doubt limited by contractual issues.

Rather surprisingly, we don´t see Waltraud Meier in her signature role as Kundry. Admittedly she appears twice (Metropolitan and Baden-Baden) on commercially available DVDs, however a clip from an otherwise not available performance, or even a clip from one of these DVDs would have been most welcome. However, I suppose contractual issues are at play here, as well.

Waltraud Meier´s second signature part as Isolde, we see during brief rehearsals of the Heiner Müller production in Bayreuth, now available on DVD. Admittedly, Waltraud Meier´s Isolde is not exactly underrecorded as it is available thrice on DVD - the aforementioned Heiner Müller production as well as her later Munich Isolde and the Chéreau/Barenboim Scala production from 2007.

Her Sieglinde we see in piano and orchestra rehearsals of the (not commercially recorded) Jürgen Flimm Ring, with Plácido Domingo in Bayreuth. For some entirely unimaginable reason, her Sieglinde (or Domingo´s Siegmund) is not commercially available on DVD, despite them turning out the most convincing Wälsunge twins of countless years.

Waltraud Meier´s dashingly brilliant Ortrud we again see only briefly from a rehearsal of the old Vienna Lohengrin production. For the complete Ortrud, one has to seek out the DVD of the Lehnhoff production from Baden-Baden.

Outside of Wagner, Waltraud Meier is (or at least: 5 years ago she was) a great Fidelio-Leonore, here seen rehearsing the rather boring Mussbach production in Munich (with Matti Salminen).

Of her non-Wagnerian parts we get a brief glimpse of Amneris (with René Pape) from Berlin and the Ariadne-Composer (Vienna). The only clip from a commercially released performance is that of her Marie in the Chéreau Wozzeck production from Berlin. Among her other non-Wagnerian repertoire, Waltraud Meier is, by the way, also a great Santuzza. Obviously selections have to be made but I would have been particularly interested in seeing her as Carmen.

Otherwise we see her at Tannhäuser recording sessions (with Peter Seiffert and Daniel Barenboim) as well as in Rückert-lieder rehearsals (Daniel Barenboim at the piano) in Chicago

All clips are interrupted by short interviews with Waltraud Meier as well as colleagues.

The second half of the DVD includes a fine, but unexceptional complete live performance of Das lied von der erde with tenor Torsten Kerl and Semyon Bychkov.

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

4-5

René Pape: Mein herz brennt

Dresden native René Pape´s first solo-CD "Mein Herz Brennt" (tr: My heart burns), released 2003, is a symphonic song cycle based on songs by Rammstein - a German post-industrial gothic metal band I used to listen to excessively during my metal-phase some years ago.

Composer Torsten Rasch has taken nine of Rammstein´s songs and given them an early 20th century expressionistic treatment for symphonic orchestra, most notably influenced by more than a touch of Schönberg´s Verklärte Nacht as well as by Alban Berg. Yet his musical language remains individual and the result is very beautiful.

Torsten Rasch spent two years and numerous auditions looking for a singer for this cycle, until someone suggested René Pape, actually a friend of his from their childhood days in the Dresden Kreuzchor. René Pape is accompanied by actress Katharina Thalbach, whose guttural, Gollum-like voice is a stunning contrast to his own, simply gorgeous voice here.

Torsten Rasch sums it up pretty accurately: "René's voice is just beautiful. It goes from the finest pianissimo to the most shattering power. He has an amazing range in transmitting a certain state of mind, be it sadness, anger, joy, whatever."

René Pape: "It's not music I would listen to every day, but it's very interesting - and I really liked the idea of turning Industrial metal music into contemporary orchestra music."

René Pape and Katharina Thalbach will perform Mein Herz Brennt with the London Philharmonic Orchestra May 2009 in London.

Highly recommended. The below comparative extracts will give an idea of what to expect:

Mutter
(Rammstein):


Mutter (René Pape):


Mein Herz Brennt (Rammstein):


Mein Herz Brennt (René Pape):


Ariadne dies on Naxos

Ariadne auf Naxos. Zurich Opera House 2006. Production: Claus Guth. Cast: Emily Magee (Ariadne), Elena Mosuc (Zerbinetta), Roberto Saccá (Bacchus), Michelle Breedt (Composer), Michael Volle (Music teacher). Conductor: Christoph van Dohnanyi. Further information here.

For those familiar with Claus Guth´s staging of Nozze di Figaro in Salzburg 2006, it should come as no surprise that his Ariadne auf Naxos is to be taken very seriously. It is, in fact, a tragedy.

The prologue is acted out in front of a massive grey curtain, from which the singers appear and disappear. Theater within the theater... The blind music master tries to find his way around, the major-domo yells his orders from the balcony box and the Composer gets increasingly desperate and eventually shoots himself through the head. Though there are no decorations, it´s nevertheless very interesting and alive, due to the detailed and intelligent direction of the singers, all in modern dress.

The second act (the real play) takes place in a restaurant. In fact, the restaurant is an exact replica of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant, located a few blocks from the Zurich Opera House.This seemingly strange setting fits surprisingly well with Hugo von Hofmannsthal´s libretto. Ariadne is sitting alone at a table in the virtually empty restaurant waiting for her lover. The nymphs are servants. The dead composers ghost appears from time to time. Very fittingly, Zerbinetta is at another table having a party with her friends, trying to cheer Ariadne up. But Ariadne is inconsolable, and eventually commits suicide with an overdose of pills and sings her final duet with Bacchus as she is dying.

Emily Magee is simply a superb Ariadne. She has everything this part asks for: The looks, the acting skills and the necessary dramatic vocal expression as well as a beautiful tone. Probably the finest performance of her career.
Elena Mosuc isa wonderful Zerbinetta, fuller in tone than most of her colleagues, perhaps not so sharp in the coloratura, but dramatically convincing.
Michelle Breedt is dramatically perfect as the desperate Composer, though her voice is not particularly beautiful and tends to be shrill at times. Another fine performance from Michael Volle, this time as the blind music teacher.

The orchestra with Dohnanyi was quite forceful and energetic in accordance with Claus Guth´s interpretation: This is no Strauss light.

Presently the only modern Ariadne production available on DVD.
A most refreshing and intelligent approach from Claus Guth. Highly recommended.

The bottom line:

Emily Magee: 5
Elena Mosuc: 4
Roberto Saccá: 4
Michelle Breedt: 3-4

Claus Guth´s production: 5
Christoph van Dohnanyi: 4

Overall impression: 5

Superb Figaro: 2006 Salzburg Guth Harnoncourt DVD with Netrebko, Röschmann, Skovhus, Schäfer, d´Arcangelo

Nozze di Figaro. Salzburg Festival 2006. Director: Claus Guth. Cast: Anna Netrebko (Susanna), Ildebrando d´Arcangelo (Figaro), Bo Skovhus (Count), Dorothea Röschmann (Countess), Christine Schäfer (Cherubino). Cond: Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Vienna Philharmonics. Further details here.

I´ve never understood exactly why this Claus Guth production of Nozze di Figaro is widely labeled one of the most controversial stagings of recent years. It does present a different take on Mozart´s opera, which may not be to everyone´s liking, but to find this genuinely shocking you´ll have to spend quite some time in the past tense...
Claus Guth´s production is an antidote to all those productions that think of Figaro as a proto-Rossini comic opera. All the light, bright and sparkling is eliminated and replaced by melancholy and poignancy. Nozze di Figaro is no light-hearted comedy, but a weighty drama of Strinberg´sk proportions.

The set consist of the interior of a Victorian house with two staircases.
The Count is neurotic and guilt-ridden and seems genuinely to be in love with Susanna. Susanna does not know whom she loves and is genuinely attracted to the Count as well. Figaro is rather introverted and distraught. In comparison the Countess appears more conventional, though she does seem to have the affair with Cherubing she is accused of having. Cherubim a character invented by Claus Guth is a sort of love catalyst following everyone around as well as sitting on the Count´s back during his aria. Occasionally the characters appear frozen in time.

In my opinion this is a superb reimagination of Nozze di Figaro. But then I´ll have to admit not really being able to sit through a conventional Figaro production either.
Claus Guth´s new production of Don Giovanni will open at this years Salzburg Festival.
Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt attracted almost as much attention as Claus Guth. Yes, he does set some slow tempi. But not nearly as slow as Pierre Boulez´ Wagner is fast. And not nearly controversial enough to justify the debate about it, in my opinion. And despite the tempi, he is far from the poignant Mozartian of Böhm and Klemperer that he has been made out to be. Lovers of period performances may still prefer to look elsewhere though.

There is not a single weak link in the stellar cast:

The normally very dashing Danish barytone Bo Skovhus is an agonizing and neurotic Count, earnestly in love with Susanna. Anna Netrebko´s is entirely convincing as a rather dark-toned and confused Susanna. Ildebrando d´Arcangelo is a rather grumpy Figaro. He looks great, and sings with character, which almost overshadows that fact that I really do not care for his voice. Christine Schäfer is superb as Cherubino looking exactly right, unusual casting as she is as a high soprano in this traditional mezzo part. Dorothea Röschmann is a stylistically elegant pure-voiced Countess in the most traditional interpretation of the cast.

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

Bo Skovhus: 4-5
Anna Netrebko: 5
Dorothea Röschmann: 4-5
Christine Schäfer: 5
Ildebrando d´Arcangelo: 4-5

Claus Guth´s staging: 5
Nikolaus Harnoncourt: 4

Overall impression: 5

DVD: Waltraud Meier in David Alden Tannhäuser from Munich

Tannhäuser. Bavarian State Opera, Munich 1995. Production: David Alden. Cast: René Kollo (Tannhäuser), Nadine Secunde (Elisabeth), Waltraud Meier (Venus), Bernd Weikl (Wolfram), Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Hermann). Conductor: Zubin Mehta. Further information here.

David Alden has created a Tannhäuser most reminiscent of a painting of Salvador Dalí - a vast desolate landshape populated with strewn pillars and all types imaginary as well as real shapes and creatures. The costumes are eclectic, ranging from modern, formal evening gowns to medieval suits of armor and even nothing at all. Tannhäuser is a traveller in this eerie world, best described by watching a clip from the production:


At least half of David Alden´s many symbols I do not understand. How about the GERMANIA NOSTRA on the wall in the second act? The Freudian doors opened by Venus inviting Tannhäuser to the table of excess in the Venusberg seem easier.

René Kollo is way past his prime here, almost intolerably wobbly and looking far too old for the part. Nadine Secunde has a large voice, though curiously stretched and does in fact not make a very good Elisabeth. On the contrary Waltraud Meier is a superb Venus, by far the best of this cast (and on DVD).
All accompanied by a sufficiently energetic performance from Zubin Mehta with the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra.

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

René Kollo: 2
Waltraud Meier: 5
Nadine Secunde: 3
Bernd Weikl: 4
Jan-Hendrik Rootering: 3

David Alden´s production: 4
Zubin Mehta: 4

Overall impression: 4

Anna Netrebko shines in MET Puritani DVD

I Puritani. Metropolitan Opera 2007. DVD release of the HD telecast. Production: Sequi from 1976. Anna Netrebko (Elvira), Eric Cutler (Arturo), John Relyea (Giorgio), Franco Vassallo (Riccardo). Cond: Patrick Sumners. Further details here.

Imagine being one of those potential Metropolitan Opera audience members intrigued by opera via the HD telecasts and outreach marketing strategies initiated by new MET manager Peter Gelb. Curious to know more about opera one then decides to buy an opera DVD and choses this Puritani since the only singer one has heard of is Anna Netrebko, thus imagining this to be a good introduction to opera as the contemporary art form, one repeatedly is being told that it is....

Even those unfamiliar with this Puritani production may have guessed the point I am slowly trying to make here: This is a production truly worthy of an opera museum. Opera as a contemporary art form? Not here. Even Anna Netrebko has publicly stated this to be a very dull production.

Anna Netrebko´s engaging Elvira is the only real reason to watch this as she shines in a truly engaging performance. She literally kicks the dusty sets alive. At this point bel canto afficionados tend to compare her with Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland as well as critizing her lack of true bel canto style. Just a quick glance at the more than 100 comments accompanying the video of Anna Netrebkos Mad Scene ensures that this is not a subject to be taken lightly. I´ll refrain from commenting, as my knowledge on the subject is even less than my interest in it...

The remainder of the cast tends to stand still and deliver their lines, no doubt as intended by the director:
John Relyea´s appearance however, deceives. He looks good and is a fine actor. These two points seem to overshadow the fact that his voice indeed is rather unappealing. Of the others, Eric Cutler is as fine as any in the thankless role of Arturo.

May this be recommended? For fans of Anna Netrebko, yes.

Anna Netrebko in the Mad Scene - first part (second part may be seen here):



Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Barcelona DVD: Otello with Cura and Stoyanova

Otello. Barcelona Liceu, 2006. Director: Willy Decker. Cast: José Cura (Otello), Krassimira Stoyanova (Desdemona), Lado Ataneli (Iago), Vittorio Grigolo (Cassio). Conductor: Antoni Ros-Marbá. Further information here.
Willy Decker has a tendency of picking one major symbol around which to center his productions. In La Traviata it was a clock, in Boris Godunov a chair, in Don Carlo a mausoleum. In this Otello it is a cross as religion is the main theme of Decker´s staging.

Otello is both weak, insecure and touching. A Christian by convenience, a Muslim by conviction. The drama is about the cross-cultural and religious identity of Venice. Otello, the warrior is no hero as Venice is not his native city. On the contrary, he is simply a mercenary and traitor, hired to kill his fellow-Muslim compatriots. He has adopted the Christian faith to further his career in Venice. Towards the end, Otello symbolically breaks the cross. Having returned to his roots, he feels no guilt in killing Desdemona. Desdemona, on the other hand, who is Christian by belief, treats the cross with reverence.

The modern, minimalistic sets could have been considerably more aesthetic in the execution. However, I must admit to being rather impressed with this characterization by Decker, which for once provides new insights into the characters their motivations in one of the major repertoire operas.

Jose Cura's voice is sometimes quite strained, but his acting and commitment is captivating and he looks the part as well. The competition on DVD is however rather towering, as most will know. Lado Ataneli is not a Machiavellian Iago, but rather Otello´s jealous friend.
The major problem with Krassimira Stoyanova´s Desdemona is that she is off-pitch for most of the part and doesn´t quite seem to achieve that floating quality essential to lift off the part. Otherwise she is fine. Antoni Ros-Marbá and the orchestra play well, though not riveting.

As a modern Otello it works rather well, though I find the Flimm/Barenboim Otello (also modern) more captivating.

José Cura with Krassimira Stoyanova - Il fazzoletto- duet:
The bottom line(scale of 1-5, 3=average):

José Cura: 3-4
Krassimira Stoyanova: 3
Lado Ataneli: 3

Willy Decker´s staging: 4

Antonio Ros-Marbá: 3

Overall impression: 3
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