Sunday 30 December 2007

DVD: Aix-en-Provence Falstaff tragedy with Willard White

Falstaff. Aix-en-Provence 2001. Production: Herbert Wernicke. Cast: Willard White (Falstaff), Geraldine McGreevy (Alice Ford), Marcus Jupither (Ford), Yann Beuron (Fenton), Miah Persson (Nannetta), Charlotte Hellekant (Meg Page), Nora Gubisch (Mrs. Quickly). Conductor: Enrique Mazzola with Orchestre de Paris. Further information here.

Fist of all, this Falstaff is no comedy. For once, Falstaff is not the laughable, fat figure.
Willard White´s Falstaff is a virile, somber man, being ousted by society. Why, the staging does not reveal, though the accompanying booklet states this to be racially motivated, as Willard White is the only black man on stage. Though the racist angle is not obvious from watching the minimalistic staging, which take place in a single room lined with wooden walls with the characters wearing period costumes. Admittedly, there is a certain 19th century Southern State feeling to this production, though I may not have had this impression had I not read the racism comment in the booklet.

Willard White is a superb stage actor, who plays Falstaff like he was Filippo of Spain. Though his voice is rather dry, it doesn´t really detract from his fine performance. Small wonder Charlotte Hellekant´s fine Meg has an affair with him.
Of the others, Miah Persson shines as Nanetta, while her upcoming husband is more anonymous. Geraldine McGreevy unfortunately does not make a good Alice Ford, being rather shrill and devoid of charm.
Neither does Enrique Mazzola really make the orchestra bubble, though bubbly may not be an aim to this almost tragic Falstaff.

The DVD direction is of unusually low quality, often the camera focus on singers not relevant to the action. Distinctly similar to the appallingly poor filmed Zurich Tannhäuser, and as it turned out, the DVD director was the same: Chloe Perlemuter.

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

Willard White: 4
Geraldine McGreevy: 2
Marcus Jupither: 4
Miah Persson: 5
Yann Beuron: 4
Nora Gubish:4
Charlotte Hellekant: 4

Wernickes staging: 3

Enrique Mazzola: 3

Overall impression: 3

DVD: Glyndebourne Lehnhoff Jenufa

Jenufa. Glyndebourne 1989. Production: Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Cast: Roberta Alexander (Jenufa), Anja Silja (Kostelnicka), Philip Langridge (Laca), Mark Baker (Steva). Conductor: Andrew Davis with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Further information here.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff has created a psycho-analytically orientated Jenufa for Glyndebourne in 1989: Closed spaces, primary colours. Clarity and aesthetism by simplicity are primary concerns here, as always with Lehnhoff, an old pupil of Wieland Wagner. Set in the claustrophobig environment of the closed society of a 19th century village, the sets provide the ideal background for Janaceks glorious music.

The incomparable Anja Silja is the strongest Kostelnicka one may imagine, dominating the stage whenever she appears. Next to her, Roberta Alexander can hardly avoid to seem a bit anonymous, though her Jenufa is fine sung and genuinely moving.

Superb performance from Andrew Davis with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a sumptuous, dark reading.

The only alternative on DVD is the Tambosi production from Barcelona 2005. It may be a matter of taste, which production to prefer, as both have strong points.

Roberta Alexander and Anja Silja in Act 1:
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Roberta Alexander: 4
Anja Silja: 5
Philip Langridge: 4

Lehnhoffs staging: 4

Andrew Davis: 5

Overall impression: 4

Posted by CzarDodon on YouTube

DVD: Barcelona 2003 Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Barcelona Liceu 2003. Production: Stein Winge. Cast: Nadine Secunde (Katerina), Christopher Ventris (Sergei), Anatoli Kotscherga (Boris). Conductor: Alexander Anissimov. Further information here.

After having seen the only alternative Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk DVD on the market, the superb Martin Kusej- production from Amsterdam, it is hard to be overly enthusiastic about this Barcelona production. Though this was the first on the market, and the first one I saw as well.

Stein Winges approach is rather traditional and semi-realistic set on a spartan stage, the main focus being on the relationship between Katerina and Sergei on a pure human level.
Does it work? As such, it is not too bad. However, it fails to explore the depths of the score. As does conductor Alexander Anissimov: It may be unfair to compare him to Mariss Jansons mighty Concertgebouw, however this is what he is competing against.

Nadine Secunde gives her all in a convincing portrait of a not overly sympathetic Katerina, though she quite audibly is past her prime. Smashing performance, however from Christopher Ventris as a roughly attractive Sergei, also to be seen in the Amsterdam DVD.

Those not in favour of Martin Kusej´s more abstract interpretation may prefer Stein Winge. However, I cannot imagine anyone to favour Anissimov to Mariss Jansons. And after all, Lady Macbeth is as much a conductors opera than anyone elses.

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

Nadine Secunde: 3
Christopher Ventris: 5
Anatoli Kotscherga: 3-4

Stein Winges staging: 3

Alexander Anissimov: 3

Overall impression: 3

Saturday 29 December 2007

2007 mostly opera awards: The best, the worst, the funniest, the most boring......

Top 5 operatic performances of 2007:

1. Tristan and Isolde, La Scala, Milano (review here)
2. Tristan and Isolde, Munich (review here)
3. Parsifal, Berlin State Opera (review here)
4. Don Giovanni, Berlin State Opera (review here)
5. Meistersinger, Bayreuth (review here)

Top 3 non-operatic performances of 2007:

1. Wagner Gala in Munich (review here)
2. Renée Fleming in Thaïs (review here)
3. Pollini recital in Salzburg (review here)

Worst performance: Hans Neuenfels´ staging of the Magic Flute at Komische Oper in Berlin. I´ve tried to forget it, but at times like this, it just pops up (review will follow soon).

Best opera on CD:
Testaments release of the complete 1956 Keilberth Ring from Bayreuth. It beats every other version out there, even Solti. Link here.

Best opera on DVD: The complete Kupfer/Barenboim Bayreuth Ring. It´s also top of my Ring DVD list now. Link here.

Best recital disc: Karita Mattila´s Helsinki recital. More here.

Best singer: This will have to be split between René Pape and Waltraud Meier. René Pape for: Filip, Boris Godunov, Gurnemanz, Marke, Hunding and Don G. (link here) Waltraud Meier for these Isoldes. And Ortrud as well. And Sieglinde (link here).

Best conductor: Daniel Barenboim. For the unparallelled intensity he generates conducting Wagner live. And Mozart as well. For: Parsifal, Tristan and Don Giovanni (link here). With Christian Thielemann a close runner-up for that magnificent Bayreuth-Ring.

Best director: Patrice Chéreau. For this. With Dmitri Tcherniakov as a runner-up. For this and this.

Best opera seen on TV/in cinema:
Eugene Onegin from the MET. More here. Searing. Unbelievably moving. (Chéreau´s Tristan has moved to the "live opera" category or would otherwise probably have won this category).

Biggest disappointment: To have to close my ears to the awful singing in Siegfried Act III in Wagner´s own theater in Bayreuth, while at the same time listening to Thielemann´s magnificent conducting. More here.

Biggest surprise: To suddenly find myself on stage in Carl Nielsen´s opera Maskarade at the Royal Danish Opera. More here.

Most misunderstood: Katharina Wagner´s staging of Meistersinger in Bayreuth. Claiming that she is an exceptionally radical stage director is simply far off the mark, and is due to the fact that almost nobody has actually seen her work, which lies plainly within the ”modern” German staging tradition and not the slightest radical. More here.

Most ridiculous: The whole game of succession regarding the leadership of the Bayreuth Festival. More here.

Strangest and most amazing: Being in Bayreuth and attending the performances in the Festival House. More here.

Worst behaviour: Bryn Terfel canceling the ROH Ring at almost no notice. More here.

Best behaviour: Reading here about how Plácido Domingo took time to go backstage between acts and meet his fans at the Royal Opera Walküre and apparently was very pleasant as well.

Most generous: When a stranger gave me a free first-rate ticket to the Pollini recital in Salzburg immediately before the performance. More here.

Most irritating: Sitting almost in front of Daniel Barenboim at a Pierre Boulez concert in Berlin, where he was continuously shuffling some papers very noisily around for the entire concert..only to find out that the day after we were sitting right beside him at another Pierre Boulez concert (with the same paper shuffling going on…) .

Most boring: Regardless of excellent productions, and performances of the highest musical quality, baroque operas just are very long…. (no link, since it´s really not the performers fault that baroque opera doesn´t appeal to me)

Most funny: Attending Hoffmann´s tales ath the Royal Opera in Copenhagen an evening where both the tenor lead and substitute were ill and were substituted by….the conductor! More here.

Most disappointing statement: That René Pape has canceled Hans Sachs in Berlin 2008. More here.

Most exciting statement: That he will sing Wotan at La Scala 2010. And Waltraud Meier will be Brünnhilde. More here.

DVD: Nina Stemme in Jenufa

Jenufa. Liceu Barcelona, 2005. Production: Olivier Tambosi. Cast: Nina Stemme (Jenufa), Eva Marton (Kostelnicka), Jorma Silvasti (Laca). Conductor: Peter Schneider. Further information here.

This is a DVD of the same Olivier Tambosi production of Jenufa, that played earlier this season at both the Los Angeles and Metropolitan opera houses and has previously been seen in Hamburg and Barcelona, where this DVD was recorded live in 2005.

The center of the production is a stone symbolizing Jenufa´s troubles/baby: Just appearing from beneath the earth in Act one, mighty overshadowing everything in Act two and shattered to pieces in Act three. Anyone with a basic course in psychoanalysis may join in here.

Otherwise the sets are simplistic and make a fine backdrop for the action and highlights why this is a masterpiece: Janacek´s detailed characteristics of the protagonists both in words and music are almost unrivalled.

The protagonists are first-rate with Nina Stemme (Jenufa), Eva Marton (Kostelnicka) and Jorma Silvasti (Laca).

There is something in the colour of Nina Stemme´s voice, which has never appealed to me, though this should take anything away from her performance, which was both deep felt and moving. And she has excellent chemistry with Eva Marton´s both well-sung and excellently acted Kostelnicka, a prerequisite for a successful performance of this opera. The first really good performance I´ve heard from Eva Marton since her voice started to deteriorate almost 20 years ago. Just as long as she stays with Kostelnicka and doesn´t return to Ortrud.

My main problem with this DVD lies with the Peter Schneiders orchestra, which is unfortunately rather unspectacular and no math for Andrew Davis London Philharmonics on the only alternative Jenufa DVD from Glyndebourne 1989.

Which of the two versions to prefer is, as always, a matter of taste: Lehnhoffs Glyndbourne production is fine, though psychoanalytically claustrophobic and Roberta Alexander may not match Nina Stemmes engagement, though she is a fine Jenufa.

What I would really wish for, however, is a version with Karita Mattila and a first-rate Janacek conductor. I suppose this DVD release unfortunately precludes the release of the Metropolitan production with Karita Mattila and Anja Silja as it is the same production.

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

Nina Stemme: 4
Eva Marton: 4
Jorma Silvasti: 4

Olivier Tambosi´s production: 4

Peter Schneider: 3

Overall impression: 4

Friday 28 December 2007

The Bayreuth Succession part 15: What is going on?

Previous episodes of this Wagnerian docu-soap may be read here, and for new readers the background of this unique Wagnerian docu-soap is written up here.

The answer to the above question: Not much....

Gudrun Wagner death was acknowledged with a public ceremony in Bayreuth on December 13th (more here)

Christoph Schlingensief claims never really having liked directing theater and now he intends to focus on opera. And he wouldn´t mind running the Bayreuth Festival together with some equal-minded friends (not an option).

The Intendant of the Stuttgart Opera claims not to be interested in running the Bayreuth Festival (ehhh. good to know I guess...more here)

The protagonists (Katharina Wagner/Thielemann/Ruzicka vs. Eva/Nike Wagner) are supposed to be delivering written-up Festival management strategies to the Board of Directors in the near future.

Christian Thielemann by the way is conducting the Meistersinger revival at the Wiener Staatsoper in January (more on that later).

DVD: Henze´s Boulevard Solitude

Boulevard Solitude. Barcelona Liceu 2007. Production: Lehnhoff. Cast: Laura Aikin (Manon), Tom Fox (her brother), Pär Lindskog (des Grieux). Conductor: Zoltan Pesko. Further information here.

Another excellent DVD just came my way: Lehnhoff´s production of Henze´s first opera, the Manon Lescaut-story Boulevard Solitude from 1952, here in a 2007 Lehnhoff production from Barcelona, also seen a couple of years ago at the London Royal Opera.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff´s simplistic staging evolves around a waiting hall with people continuously passing by, which sets the right backdrop for Henze´s score, of which the inspirations range from 12-tone music to jazz. Fine performances from protagonists Laura Aikin (Manon), Tom Fox (her brother) and Pär Lindskog (des Grieux).

Also nice to see Henze walk to the brink of the orchestra pit to receive standing ovations after the performance.

An excerpt with Laura Aikin:

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

Laura Aikin: 4-5
Tom Fox: 4-5
Pär Lindskog: 4

Lehnhoff´s staging: 4

Zoltan Pesko: 4

Overall impression: 4

Royal Danish Opera Maskarade DVD

Maskarade. Royal Danish Opera 2007. Production: Kasper Bech Holten. Cast includes: Stephen Milling (Jeronimus), Johan Reuter (Henrik), Susanne Resmark (Magdelone). Conductor: Michael Schønwandt. Further information here.

This new DVD release of the unofficial Danish national opera Maskarade is a most welcome addition to the Maskarade discography, which previously consisted only of Pountney´s Bregenz production.

Kasper Bech Holten´s production is definitely modern in the outlook and may not appeal to all. I must admit I find it both very refreshing and very funny and have previously described it in detail. I actually participated in one of the performances of this 2006/7 season run of Maskarade at the Royal Danish Opera, though unfortunately not the performance seen in the final DVD release.

There simply is no point in producing Maskarade if you do not have the right singer to play Jeronimus, the conservative archetype and main protagonist: Until his death Aage Haugland literally owned this role, which he also recorded on the brilliant 1998 recording with Ulf Schirmer and Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Now the torch has passed on to Stephen Milling, who has the exact combination of commanding stage presence and vocal strength to convincingly play this anti-hero with the exact balance between comical talent and dignity, a prerequisite in a great Jeronimus.

The entire cast is very strong, especially Johan Reuter as Henrik has a very convincing comical talent as does dramatic mezzosoprano Susanne Resmark as Jeronimus´wife Magdelone.
Superb playing from the Royal Danish Opera orchestra and Michael Schönwandt . Compared to Schirmer´s 10-year old recording, Michael Schönwandt has a slightly more heavy approach to the score, which suits it rather well.

There are moments of both Falstaff as well as Rosenkavalier and Meistersinger in Carl Nielsen´s score, though Carl Nielsen has succeeded in combining the above qualities with a wide public appeal in a way that none of the above composers (perhaps with the exception of Verdi) succeeded in doing.

The camera angles are switched very frequently with many shots of the orchestra players and conductor during the performance. Does it work or is it irritating? I am not sure.

Excellent bonus section with a behind-the-scenes view of the preparations as well as an interview with Michael Schönwandt explaining the plot.

Also a very informative booklet with an extensive information on the history of Maskarade. Perhaps some of the biographies would benefit from an update, such as the otherwise very detailed biography of Stephen Milling, which seems to stop at his performances at La Scala in 1999 in a secondary role, with no mention of his later Metropolitan performances (Hunding and Sarastro) or those at Covent Garden and Wiener Staatsoper (Parsifal), his career highlights so far.

Johan Reuter, Foerst kommer fael og fus:

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

Stephen Milling: 5
Johan Reuter: 5
Susanne Resmark: 5

Kasper Bech Holten´s staging: 5

Michael Schønwandt: 5

Overall impression: 5

DVD: Outstanding Die Gezeichneten from Salzburg 2005

Die Gezeichneten. Salzburg Festival 2005. Prodution: Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Cast: Robert Brubaker (Alviano Salvago), Anne Schwanewilms (Carlotta Nardi), Michael Volle (Count Vitelozzo), Robert Hale (Duke Adorno). Conductor: Kent Nagano with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Further information here.

Die Gezeichneten (tr. "The marked ones") is a dark and disturbing opera written by Franz Shreker in 1918. A late-romantic work with lingering, unreleased harmonies and an eerie atmosphere not unlike Verklärte Nacht.
The plot is both rather stupid as well as lenghty to explain, but involves a hidden grotto, kidnapping, a secret brotherhood, a woman who will die if she loves a man, a rich Duke and a hunchback.

As I am concerned, this is probably veteran director Nikolaus Lehnhoffs best production to date and was rapturously received at the premiere at the 2005 Salzburg Festival: Staggeringly beautiful as well as eerily atmospheric, devoid of the static impression often associated with his productions. Dark and brooding, like Shrekers densely textured score making excellent use of the intrinsic arches of the Felsenreitschule, the set is one gigantic, reclining female statue, under which the hidden grotto is to be found. Transvestism explains Alvianos outsider status in society, and Lehnhoffs exposure of pedophilia, upon opening the grotto is tremendously gripping, even by today's standards.

Those familiar with the score may note that some cuts, most notably in Act 3 of about 20 minutes have been made, allegedly to simplify the story-line.

Wonderfully played by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano. Fine soloists in Anne Schwanewilms, with a cool soprano perfectly fitting as Carlotta. Michael Volle is a rugged Vitelozzo and Robert Brubakers Alviano is both pathetic and moving.

Indeed this is one of the best opera productions of the entire DVD catalogue.

Kent Nagano conducts the superbly dark and brooding prelude:

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

Robert Brubaker: 5
Anne Schwanewilms: 5
Michael Volle: 5
Robert Hale: 5

Lehnhoff´s staging: 5

Kent Nagano: 4-5

Overall impression: 5

Posted on YouTube by TheGreatPerformers

Saturday 22 December 2007

Walking around La Scala with a camera....

Above: La Scala opera house, Milano taken a few minutes before this performance:

Walking to the opera through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II:

Piazza della Scala with the opera house in the background around midday:

Piazza della Scala seen from the Opera with the entrance to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in the background:

And the mighty Milano Cathedral, only five minutes away by foot:

Busking in the shadow of the Cathedral:

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II around midday:

And, below the Scala Opera around noon. The sense of history around this house is unlike anything I´ve experienced before, possibly equalled by the Vienna State Opera.
Next to the opera is a small museum, through which you may enter one of the balcony boxes of the Scala Opera: Only when I saw the theater workers mounting the sets for the first act of Tristan at 3 pm in the afternoon of the performance, I became entirely convinced they would actually be playing..The records shop within the actual opera house is excellent and displayed several items I have not seen anywhere else, particularly by historical singers associated with La Scala.

And the inside of the theater: Beautifully renovated (in 2002-4) with some excellent seats, particularly in the stalls section. However, the ticket prices for quite a few of the seats in the second (and third) row of the boxes with visibility close to zero and extremely uncomfortable seating pods are far too high considering the inferior quality...And like everywhere else in Italy you have to queue twice at the Bar: Once for paying at the counter and then again fighting for the attention of the bartenders to actually get served. But all are very polite indeed!

Friday 21 December 2007

Tristan at La Scala: Pure magic

Tristan and Isolde, La Scala, Milano, December 20th. Production: Patrice Chéreau. Cast: Waltraud Meier (Isolde), Ian Storey (Tristan), Michelle DeYoung (Brangäne), Gerd Grochowski (Kurwenal), Matti Salminen (King Marke). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here

Miracles of every size happened at La Scala yesterday evening: Beginning with my barely adequate seat in the second row in a box being transformed into a first-rate seat, when the people seated at the first row left after the first act. As it seemed, quite a few people don´t seem to go to La Scala to actually see the opera, in which case it is perfectly understandable that 5 hours and 30 minutes of Wagner may seem a bit excessive for showing off your clothes in the two 40-minute breaks. Just before the third act, I counted 11 completely empty boxes in the opposite half of the auditorium – slightly annoying, considering this entire Tristan and Isolde run was sold out in less than 2 minutes.

In brief: It a was a truly magical evening of the kind I´ll probably only experience a handful of times during my entire lifetime, if I´m lucky. The combination of Chéreau, Barenboim and Waltraud Meier was profoundly moving and even exceeding my wildest expectations.

First, Waltraud Meier: She simply doesn´t have any rival in the world as Isolde. I could try objectively to describe some of what has by other been described as her vocal shortcomings, however once she appears on stage and starts to sing, all these things cease to matter: Her committed acting and profound understanding of the part is immensely moving, overriding whatever vocal issues one may have with her - she simply commands the stage from beginning to the end completely without competition today – just listen to Isolde´s Narration and Curse from the 1st act. Or the intensity of her Liebestod, which paralyzed the entire house. I´ve never experienced anything like it. I actually managed to walk into a mirror on my way down from my box seat (well, it DID look like the staircase).

And Patrice Chéreau´s production was completely breathtaking: The sinister walls, the ship and the simple clothing provided the perfect neutral backdrop for this tragedy. For Chéreau´s true strength lies in making the characters come alive, in creating those grand emotional tableaus. The scenes between Siegmund and Sieglinde in his 1976 Walküre comes to mind, since basically it is the same thing he does here: Create tremendous emotions by the detailed stage direction in which scenes of epic beauty filled with real human emotions are the cornerstones. And his take on the story is the only way it makes sense: There is, of course, no love potion. By believing to be dying from the death potion, Tristan and Isolde admit to their feelings to each other, present (just as in the text) from the start.

Chéreau´s images just lingers on for days: The way Tristan touches Isolde's hair when she asks for revenge - the way Tristan grasps Isolde´s dress after drinking the potion - how the sailors remain frozen when Tristan and Isolde embrace - how Tristan and Marke embrace after the discovery of the couple - Marke desperately holding Isolde back when Tristan is fatally wounded - the blood trickling down Isolde´s chin during the Liebestod – I could go on. Moving beyond words. And by not making this a chamber drama, but placing additional non-speaking characters around the protagonists, Chéreau adds an extra dimension to the drama.

Last in this magical trio, Daniel Barenboim – both epic and dynamic conducting, never loosing the structure of the piece. The Scala orchestra doesn´t (yet) react with the same precision as they do in Berlin, but the sound was glorious. Interestingly, Barenboim´s approach here seemed more Italianate (emphasizing the grandness of the score rather than the usual string dynamics) than I´ve heard him do previously. Curiously Barenboim chose to place all brass and woodwind in the right side of the pit. I was sitting right above the brass section, but the acoustics seemed to balance out nicely. Of course, you´d be tempted to say, he conducted without a score. And is so familiar with Waltraud Meier´s Isolde (they probably have performed it more than 50 times together) that he´d sit down and drink a glass of water while she was singing and saved the standing up and clearly marking the beat for Ian Storey´s passages (where it was clearly needed).
For quite some stretches Barenboim doesn´t even mark the beat and just lets the orchestra play, pointing at various groups of players at a time. Amazingly, the first thing he did after both the 2nd and 3rd act was to immediately go down to one of the string players to have a lengthy discussion with him about some aspects of the score.

Since every new Tristan seems to be judged by Lauritz Melchior standards, British tenor Ian Storey obviously fell somewhat short in the reviewers eyes, and I don´t particularly care for his voice either, but he has one very important advantage: He actually looks and acts like someone Waltraud Meier´s Isolde could fall in love with. Particularly his third act was moving. And I cannot readily think of any of the contemporary Tristan´s that would have been as or more convincing physically. For that, I´ll gladly accept his vocal shortcomings.

At least when René Pape is not around, Matti Salminen is the optimal King Marke. He has exactly the right mixture of a both grand and sorrowful presence, as well as a voice in fine shape making a quite touching monologue. Gerd Grochowski was fresh-sounding as Kurwenal, but his voice seemed rather small. The only one that actually did disappoint was Michelle DeYoung´s shrill sounding Brangäne. But she could not take anything away from the magnificent achievements of the others.

A truly grand operatic evening. I sincerely hope I´ll live long enough to experience something like it again.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Berlin: René Pape is still a superb Don also with support from Barenboim

Don Giovanni, Berlin State opera, December 18th 2007. Production: Peter Mussbach. Cast: René Pape (Don Giovanni), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Leporello), Anna Samuil (Donna Anna), Annette Dasch (Donna Elvira), Pavel Breslik (Don Ottavio), Arttu Kataja (Masetto), Sylvia Schwartz (Zerlina). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim.

After the December 15th premiere of Peter Mussbach´s production of Don Giovanni at the Berlin State Opera, which I reviewed here, this Tuesday performance was the first performance of the run with a cast almost identical to that of the premiere, the only difference being the indisposition of Christoph Fischesser as the Commandant, replaced by Andreas Bauer - both fine.

In brief, this was simply a far superior performance. Especially since the tempi issues between especially Daniel Barenboim and René Pape had been sorted out, and the nervousness of René Pape, which affected the entire cast at Saturdays premiere was gone. Especially Annette Dasch, who disappointed in the premiere, delivered an excellent performance, on a level entirely different compared to four days ago: Vocally secure as well as dramatically captivating.

That these orchestral timing issues, which plagued the premiere, may be fixed so rapidly, confirms my suspicion that this Don Giovanni was indeed under-rehearsed due to Barenboim´s La Scala commitment. Principally I don´t see any problem in having your assistants run the rehearsals, but when the tempi then turn out to be radically different when the maestro is on the podium, then you get the result you got Saturday: An unsynchronized performance. Apart from that, Daniel Barenboim really does conduct the Mozart of my dreams as described in my report from the premiere.

Disengaging Elektra in Berlin

Klytämnestra looking down on Elektra in her pit.

Elektra. Deutsche Oper Berlin, December 14th. Production: Kirsten Harms. Cast: Jeanne-Michelle Charbonnet (Elektra), Claudia Iten (Chrysthemis), Jane Henschel (Klytemnestra), Alfred Walker (Orest). Conductor: Leopold Hager.

Intendantand director Kirsten Harms´ concept for her new Deutsche Oper production of Elektra, which opened earlier this month was simple: A dark sand-covered deep pit, surrounded by concrete walls. Elektra lives here surrounded by skeletons. People communicate with her (including throwing her food bits) through small openings in the walls.

Basically it looked well and may well have worked, not at least since any staging of Elektra basically works, if the musical ingredients are there. Which, unfortunately they weren´t in this production:

Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet did not convince me as Elektra. I found her expression too mellow, her vibrato too large and her acting disengaging. Admittedly this part is hard to cast, but Eva Johansson´s electrifying Elektra in Copenhagen last season, as well as in Zurich comes vividly into mind.
Jane Henschel had some of the right temperament and voice for Klytemnestra but seemed well lulled into the mellow atmosphere on stage. More lively was Claudia Iten as Chrysothemis, a fine voice, though slightly shrill at times. Alfred Walker´s Orest was the vocal highlight with a firm and solid bass-barytone.

Most importantly, however, Leopold Hager´s conducting was decidedly "un"-electrifying and tedious, and for once this opera was almost boring to listen to.

Photo from

Berlin: Hansel und Gretel at Deutsche Oper

Hänsel und Gretel. Deutsche Oper Berlin, December 16th. Production: Andreas Homoki. Cast: Fionnula McCarthy and Ulrike Henzel.

In brief: If you have kids, take them to see this. If not: Take somebody elses kids. It is a kids performance - and a good one at that. The auditorium was filled up with kids between 3-10 and their parents for this Sunday afternoon performance at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.

Andreas Homoki´s staging is simple and effective. The kids screamed of fear when the witch appeared and adequatly booed him at curtain calls. Fresh singing and convincing acting of the siblings by Fionnula McCarthy and Ulrike Henzel.

Aida in Berlin: The Egyptian Museum comes alive..

Aida. Berlin State Opera, December 7th 2007. Production: Pet Halmen. Cast: Norma Fantini (Aida), Anna Smirnova (Amneris), Frank Porretta (Radamés), Andrzej Dobber (Amonasro), Dmitri Ageew (Ramphis). Conductor: Dan Ettinger.

Did you ever walk around the Egyptian section of a museum such as the Metropolitan, the British Museum or even the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, looking up at the massive sarcophagi and statues, imagining them comimg alive? This is exactly what happens for Radamés in Pet Halmen´s production of Aida at the Berlin State Opera:

The opera is set in Verdi´s time: Radamés is the typical British official temporarily assigned to Egypt. While lingering at an Egyptian museum with fellow upper-class British citizens, he clasps a sarcophagus (which in the end will contain himself and Aida) and Amneris and the King step out of golden statues. The whole spectacle is Radames´ dream. Very aesthetic and accompanied by beautiful set designs, also by Pet Halmen.

Aida is a difficult opera to stage: It often doesn´t come out well ”modernized” and more often than not, attempts to recreate Egyptian splendor look plainly ridiculous. In this respect, this production is rather successful and the idea of Radamés dream worked out well. What is lost is the interpersonal drama, perhaps also to be at least partially blamed on the casting. While no-one fell through, none was exceptional either.
Conducted by Dan Ettinger the Staatskapelle sounded hollow and without subtlety. I suppose there just is a major difference between when Daniel Barenboim is here (conducting) and when he is not.

Major applause for Anja Harteros and Piotr Beczala in Traviata at Deutsche Oper Berlin

La Traviata. December 17th, Deutsche Oper Berlin. Production: Götz Friedrich. Cast: Anja Harteros (Violetta), Piotr Beczala (Alfredo), Markus Brück (Germont pére). Conductor: Renato Palumbo.

The biggest applause I have yet seen at the Deutsche Oper went to Anja Harteros and Piotr Beczala in Götz Friedrich´s old La Traviata production Monday evening.

Anja Harteros without doubt is a first-rate Violetta, tall and dark with a clear voice and unstrained coloratura. She looks the part and act convincingly as well. She does however have a tendency to hit the notes rather sharp and her vibrato is too large especially in the middle register for someone as young as she is. But I do not think her Violetta may be matched by many others today.

Matched by Piotr Beczala, simply an ideal Alfredo with his clear warm voice and appealing stage presence. Not to forget Markus Brück´s fine Germont pére.

Also a well-deserved success for the resigning (and much critiziced) musical director Renato Palumbo. He did have some trouble synchronizing with the singers, but so they did over at the State Opera, where Daniel Barenboim had more than average trouble synchronizing the Don Giovanni with René Pape a couple of days ago, making Palumbo keep rather good company here..

Castorf´s Meistersinger at Volksbuehne Berlin

Meistersinger, Volksbuehne Berlin, December 16th (more information here)

From the outside, the massive, towering Volksbuehne Berlin at the Rosa-Luxembourg Platz looks like the ultimate neoclassical theater. However, as soon as you´re inside and greeted by staff wearing t-shirts with supposedly printed socialist symbols, reading the posters "we are all terrorists" or watching a black-white movie in the small cinema in the foyer (!) you realize, that this is not anymore the ultimate conservative East Berlin theater it was undoubtedly built to be during the Cold War.

Tonight's production is not what you´d ordinarily call a production of Wagner´s opera "Meistersinger". It is an arrangement of Meistersinger for piano and 5 woodwinds with one opera singer (playing Wather v Stolzing) and the rest of the cast being played by actors. Created by Intendant of the Volksbuehne Berlin since 1992, Frank Castorf, by long (in)famous for his deconstruction of classic pieces with the stated aim "to destroy the unidimensional, to disrupt the meanings...". Scenography by the young german artist Jonathan Meese.

As a staging of Wagner´s "Meistersinger" it is of course radical to have Hans Sachs pumping milk out of a wooden cow and splashing it around stage while 2-3 others run around screaming at some other people in a car shooting at random bypassers. While a guy is shouting next to the piano and another one jumps into the orchestral pit. And it is funny at points, but ultimately the whole thing seemed a bit tedious: The unexpected in a way becomes expected. And, considering, this is a theater piece, it is not really that shocking. In theory, it may not be such a bad idea to deconstruct a piece to build something new. And Castort definitely deconstructs the Meistersinger. I just don´t see what he is building or what the main purpose of the staging is. But of course it frees the Meistersinger from any association with medieval Nürnberg, cosy cobblers or the Nazi rallies in the 1930´s.

Below inserted a youtube video with clips from this production, which much better than words illustrates exactly what this production is about:

Monday 17 December 2007

Berlin premiere: Superb René Pape in underrehearsed Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni, Berlin State Opera, December 15th 2007. Production: Peter Mussbach. Cast: René Pape (Don Giovanni), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Leporello), Anna Samuil (Donna Anna), Annette Dasch (Donna Elvira), Pavel Breslik (Don Ottavio), Arttu Kataja (Masetto), Sylvia Schwartz (Zerlina). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim.

That this Don Giovanni was underrehearsed may surprise few, considering Daniel Barenboim is conducting the La Scala season opening production of Chéreau´s new Tristan and Isolde simultaneous with this Berlin State Opera premiere of Peter Mussbach´s Don Giovanni. That La Scala obviously received the major number of orchestra rehearsals with the maestro is understandable, though to sit through this rather uncoordinated affair in Berlin was nevertheless frustrating.

Particularly as this production has a virtually perfect protagonist in René Pape as Don Giovanni. René Pape has everything a great Don Giovanni needs: Beautiful, unrestrained singing, dramatic punch, semi-diabolic as well as lofty stage appearance and perfect diction. Here, in addition, he was visibly nervous, fully understandable as Daniel Barenboim repeatedly set different tempi than Pape did, worst in the Champagne Aria, where Barenboim was way, way too fast. As it now seems that the La Scala Tristan performance tomorrow (December 16th) is cancelled, may I suggest Barenboim uses this unexpected spare time to sit down with René Pape and agree on the tempi?

Precision issues apart, Daniel Barenboim´s Don Giovanni is shattering. For once, no Mozart light. Instead we are treated to the full-bodied Mozart orchestra in the 1950´s Salzburg tradition of Furtwängler and Böhm complete with heavy strings and slow pace. With the poignant death-scene being the absolute highlight.

Of the remaining singers Hanno Müller-Brachmann´s Leporello was excellently sung as well as providing fine dramatic contrast to Don Giovanni and especially Pavol Breslik stood out as Don Ottavio. Anna Samuil was a fine Donna Anna, with a clear,very distinct soprano and effortless coloratura and Arttu Kataja and Sylvia Schwartz made a fine Masetto/Zerlina constellation. To me, though judged on the audience response I hold a minority opinion, Annette Dasch disappointed as Donna Elvira: I found her sound very nasal, at points shrill and hardly audible in half of her entrances. Though she is a superb, dynamic stage actress.

Peter Mussbach´s production was shown last year at La Scala and the booing and bravos more or less equalled out each other at this Berlin premiere.
Admittedly, Peter Mussbach´s concept is not overly inventive. It is, however, both stylish and simplistic: Black walls moving on a blue background. And nothing further, except for the occasional scooter, on which Donna Elvira makes her entrance.
That the music is not overshadowed by all sorts of irrelevant stage actioni is a definite plus. However, at no point was it clear what exactly Peter Mussbach wanted with the piece as the characters seemed left to their own devices running around the set. Almost like a concert performance. Though it did look great.

In the programme notes you may read that Mussbach´s Don Giovanni is not an evil person. On the contrary this Don has been living an egoistic and thoughtless existence for a long time and his life changes when he (accidentally?) kills the commander, thus entangling himself into more and more complex situations, which in the end lead to his downfall. Somehow, a few additional ideas would have helped lifting the on-stage drama. As well as some additional rehearsing time with Daniel Barenboim.

Photographs from the company website

Saturday 8 December 2007

Haitink conducts Parsifal at the Royal Opera, London

So why is the Royal Opera staging this not-very-short-and-undemanding piece after the equally not-very-short--etc. Ring? Simply because when asked, in what and when to make his return to Covent Garden, Haitink had said "Parsifal. 2007". More information on the performances here.
Earlier this year in Zürich, Bernard Haitink conducted a fine Parsifal. Also the London-reviewers (list below) universally praised Haitinks conducting an the singers, especially Sir John Tomlinson and Petra Lang. Though not much praise was allocated to recently deceased Klaus Michael Grübers staging..

Tremendous success for Barenboim´s Tristan in La Scala season opening

Tristan and Isolde, La Scala, December 7th. Chéreau (p), Barenboim (c). Isolde: Waltraud Meier, Tristan: Ian Storey, Marke: Matti Salminen, Brangäne: Michelle DeYoung, Kurwenal: Gerd Grochowski. Further information here.

Tremendous success especially for conductor Daniel Barenboim in the premiere of Patrice Chéreau´s staging of Tristan and Isolde, which opened the season at the Scala opera in Milano this evening. Major Italian newspapers La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera report on 13!minutes of applause, particularly for Barenboim. Before the performance started, one minute of silence was held to commemorate the death of 4 workers in a recent accident in Torino.

Also a prime social event, where the Presidents of Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece and the Emir of Qatar were present as well as 19 foreign government ministers, 3 Italian ministers and several high-ranking church officials were present (according to Corriere della Sera).

A small group of theater workers apparently protested outside the theater.

Several of the VIP guests were interviewed by Corriere della Sera ( my translation):

For President of the Republic (Italy) Napolitano it was "an extraordinary performance, truly sublime. A magnificent spectacle." An Italian Minister Rutelli has stressed the "very high level" of the work. Enthusiasm also from the Chairman of the Region, Roberto Formigoni, calling the work "spectacular" and said he was sure that this was supposed to be yet another "business card" for the candidacy for the World Exhibition of 2015.

Some, however, criticized the set design: The Senator for Culture in Milan, Vittorio Sgarbi, described the sets as "inappropriate, unjustified and communist". Even former Public Prosecutor in Milan, Francesco Saverio Borrelli, releasing a comment at the end of the first act, saying he was "very pleased, but he must emphasize - only from the point of view of the music. The set design he did not understand: What the Aurelian walls were about, and that ferry. Also the final rolling around of Tristan and Isolde is not according to Wagner, where love is essentially spiritual."

After the performance, the Municipality of Milano according to tradition had organized a reception for 900 people at the Palazzo Marino.

Friday 7 December 2007

Berlin Philharmonics: Music in the Third Reich and Dvorak´s Requiem

Poster from a National-Socialist exhibition 1938. From

Dvorak: Requiem. Berlin Philharmonics, Luisotti (c). Soloists: Harteros, Surguladze, Sabbatini, Prestia. Berlin December 6th, Philharmonie.

Entitled "The suspect saxophone" (link here)- the foyer of the Berliner Philharmonie shows an interesting exhibition of music in the Third Reich. While those with particular interest in the subject will find nothing new here, all these photographs of Richard Strauss and Furtwängler with high-ranking Nazi officials still make for an after-thought..Obviously Richard Wagner is quite well represented too (with his anti-semitic essays from the 1850´s), together with Winifried Wagner and her (suggested?) relationship with Hitler. And Houston Stewart Chamberlain, husband of Wagner´s daughter Eva and a fierce Anti-semitic himself.

The main reason I was here, however was for the Dvôrak Requiem: The Berlin Philharmonics conducted by Luisotti with soloists Harteros/Surguladze/Sabbatini/Prestia. In a simply brilliant performance by this orchestra, which definitely still is among the very best (despite malicious rumours to the contrary): Just listen to the marvellous woodwind soli (Emmanuelle Pahud is playing the solo-flute), the perfectly intonated brass, the soft and yet precise strings. All cleverly balanced by conductor Luisotti. Combined with the superb acoustics of the Philharmonie it made for a memorable performance.

The soloists were curiously all placed behind the orchestra on the left side, which would have been fine had I had a seat on the right side of the auditorium...As it was, half of the auditorium (including myself) could not see them, a decision I find more than slightly odd. They did however deliver a fine collective performance.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Vienna: New Walküre in which Uusitalo looses his voice

A nightmare for Finnish bass-barytone Juha Uusitalo: At the premiere of Walküre, the first installment of the new Ring at the Vienna State Opera , Uusitalo was apparently singing with a cold and lost his voice during the Monologue. In the third act he could only whisper, and Oskar Hillebrandt, seemingly in the process of eating a pizza at the Westbahnhof, was brough in to sing the remainder of the part. Terje Stensvold, an excellent Wotan, is scheduled as Wotan in the next performance on Thursday.

The production is by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. Franz Welser-Möst conducts. The cast: Nina Stemme, Eva Johansson, Juha Uusitalo, Johan Botha and Michaela Schuster.


Der Standard thought the staging to be uninspired and naive in the conception. However particular praise to Johan Botha and Nina Stemme as the Wälsung twins.

Financial Times also was rather unimpressed with Bechtolfs staging, but even less impressed with Holender´s tackling of Uusitalo´s lost voice. Quote:

"Holender was greeted with storms of boos, a reception not inappropriate for a man who had failed to organise an understudy for the opera’s heaviest role. He held up both hands and talked. When he had hired Uusitalo four years ago, the man had been in fine voice. He has sung the role well in other houses. He was fine at the dress rehearsal. He, Holender, had advised Uusitalo to be more careful with his voice in the last rehearsals. Oskar Hillebrand had answered his mobile phone and agreed to sing the part from the pit, while Uusitalo acted his role silently on the stage, a solution that he, Holender, did not especially like, but what else can you do with such a production?The boos were tamed, but the cost was high. Uusitalo was just having a bad night. It can happen to anyone."

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Who is Ian Storey?

Interview in The Guardian today with the British ex-Furniture Designer now Wagnerian heldentenor Ian Storey who will make his debut this Friday in the Chéreau/Barenboim Tristan and Isolde opening the La Scala season.


Storey arrived in Milan this spring to rehearse the role of Steva in Janácek's Jenufa. He discovered that La Scala had a problem: with eight months to go before the prestigious Wagner season opener, their chosen tenor had withdrawn. They were looking for alternatives. Might Storey be willing to fly to Berlin to sing for Barenboim?

Barenboim told Storey that a singer normally needs a year to learn the role, which is one of the most demanding in the repertoire. "He said to me, 'Look, you have five months before we start rehearsals.' And then he said to La Scala, 'Give him whatever he needs, an apartment, whatever. Because we have to get him ready.' Since then I've worked with James Vaughan from their music staff almost every day - nine or 10 hours a day as the rehearsal period got nearer. Since the start of April, I've only been home for four days. I've hardly seen my wife. "

Incredibly, Storey has never seen a performance of Tristan und Isolde. "I don't think I could sit still for long enough," he says.
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