Thursday 31 May 2007
Johan Botha is Otello at the Vienna State Opera. He has the required vocal skills, fills the auditorium effortless with great top notes on pitch and a voice under excellent technical control.
What is the problem with Botha then? Quite simply, that I find him entirely uninteresting as a performer. First of all, he is simply too large to successfully impersonate any character on an opera stage. Secondly, Botha appears static and is unable to create any chemistry between him and Barbara Frittoli´s wonderful Desdemona. Or Falk Struckmann´s Iago. Johan Botha´s Otello appears naive bordering on stupid. The vocal characterization does not improve on the physical. You wouldn´t be needing much of a brain to fool this Otello..
Falk Struckmann plays Iago with wonderful consistency as he (as always) plays himself. Earlier this season is was Telramund, now it is Iago: More friendly than menacing, but nevertheless unpredictable. Vocally he was in great shape, much better heard live than on record.
The Vienna State Opera orchestra played wonderfully for Daniele Gatti.
Christine Mielitz´ 2006 production is very spartan and very blue. This Otello cannot adjust to a world without war, and thus kills the only person that dares contradict him.
However, Otello without an Otello is a hard-sell. Botha is no Plácido Domingo and it would be unfair to expect him fill the Otello-vacuum left by Domingo. However, what Johan Botha offers as Otello, simply is not enough to make it worthwhile. I´d rather take Domingo on DVD than Johan Botha live..
Friday 25 May 2007
Manon. Berlin State Opera. April 29th 2007, Premiere. Production: Vincent Paterson. Cast: Anna Netrebko (Manon), Rolando Villazón (des Grieux), Christof Fischesser (Comte des Grieux). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim.
Vincent Paterson, whose earlier works include music videos and concert tours for Michael Jackson and Madonna among others, directed this Manon production at the Berlin State Opera, previously shown at Los Angeles Opera. In the German press, he was heavily criticized for making Manon look like a prolonged pop music video. To a certain degree I completely agree: In a way this production does look like a stylized, smooth neverending video. Simple sets, elegant, colourful costumes, good-looking participants etc. And what exactly is wrong with pop music videos?
And was Rolando Villazon/Anna Netrebko worth the money? Depends on how much you payed for your ticket, I suppose, as I am not sure I would have found any spectacle to be worth the 1000 Euros some people in the audience had payed for their seats. However, the short answer to the question is: Yes. They were worth the money.
Anna Netrebko is just as superb a stage actress as everyone says she is and she is entirely believable as Manon. Her Manon is a glittering movie-star Manon, never less than glamerous, even when she suffers. That her fleeting voice was quite large and easily over-powered Rolando Villazon was more surprising.
Rolando Villazón is an equally convincing singer-actor, playing up to his strenghts as a stage performer being shy, naïve and slightly submaniac, with suits a des Grieux just fine. With his warm voice added on top he is simply an excellent des Grieux.
That Christof Fischesser managed to hold his own in this company is no small achievement.
Daniel Barenboim was predicably excellent in what I believe to be both the first and last time he conducted Manon. Apparently the originally contracted Bertrand de Billy withdrew for personal reasons.
In theory, one would imagine there to be plenty of relatively young, good-looking opera singers around able to convincingly portray these characters, but I am not so sure. I still wouldn´t pay 1000 Euros to go and see these two (I wouldn´t pay 1000 Euros to see anyone) though they are definitely worth traveling to see.
This Manon production is released on DVD autumn 2008
Photographs: Monika Rittershaus
Wednesday 23 May 2007
Being a huge admirer of Harry Kupfer´s stagings of Richard Wagner´s works, I had high expectations for this Salome, playing for a sold-out Berlin State Opera on the evening before the big Anna & Rolando show.
However Harry Kupfer´s take on Salome was strangely disppointing: The set depicts a prison yard of sorts, encircled by high walls with small windows. The libretto is being meticulously adhered to, with Jochanaan in chains and Salome fluttering around him.
None of the vast depths of Salome are revealed and/or explored in this Harry Kupfer production. Very disappointing. For insightful and revelatory Salome productions, David McVicar or Jürgen Flimm seem to be the ones to turn to.
Mark Delavan is a large man with a large, wooden and uncharacteristic voice. On stage, he is simply stiff and uninteresting. On the other hand Janice Watson is a fine singing-acting Salome, moving vividly on stage and hitting all the notes on pitch.
The Staatskapelle played well for Philippe Jordan. But somehow it doesn´t strike me as a genuine Richard Strauss orchestra, perhaps due to a certain lacking in transparency (or perhaps I am just imagining things...). Undoubtedly a consequence of Daniel Barenboim´s conducting style. Fine with me as long as they continue to play as magnificently as they do at the moment in the Wagnerian repertoire.
Sunday 20 May 2007
Mussorgsky´s Khovanshchina is a favourite opera of mine, for strange reasons not staged very often. Or perhaps the reasons are not that strange: It is in Russian, there are no heroes or heroines, no love story and it is very long..But the music is some of Mussorgsky´s most beautiful and the plot focuses on universal themes such as the struggle for power and the conflict between religion and power.
A new production, like the present by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Bavarian State Opera is not something which happens every season. Or even every fifth season.
In the very interesting young Russian director Tcherniakov´s staging the focus is on the conflict between Zar Peter (who does not appear in the opera) and The Opposition consisting of autonomic warlords (primarily the Khovansky´s). With the superimposed conflict between the old faith (Khovansky and the priests) and the new faith (Zar Peters supporters).
The set consists of 5-6 vertical rooms, where the main characters go on with their life, whether actually singing or not. In a naked concrete set-up the name of each rooms inhabitant is written with laser at the beginning of each scene.
In brief: The staging is no less than brilliant. Rarely does a director succeed in bringing new insights into heavy subjects such as the nature of power and organization of society as Dmitri Tcherniakov.
For the right bass, Ivan Khovansky is a fantastic part. The late danish bass Aage Haugland (on Claudio Abbado´s recording) brought an unsurpassed ominous stage presence to the part, at times yelling more than singing, which suits this role fine. I wonder if this is something René Pape would ever consider? Realizing the part is too low for him and on paper not suitable for his voice at all, I am nevertheless convinced he would make a smashing Ivan Khovansky.
Here at the Bavarian State Opera we have Paata Burchuladze, who is way past his rather short prime which seemed to occur more than 10 years ago. Though he brings a certain refreshing sophistication to Ivan Khovansky, vocally he is anything but fresh.
On the other hand Klaus Florian Vogt as his repulsing son Andrei was in excellent voice with the air of a crazy serial killer.
Kent Nagano is conducting, a bit too passive for my taste, though no less than competent. Again the inevitable comparison is with Claudio Abbado, whether fair or not. But Dmitri Tcherniakov is definitely someone to watch out for in the future.
Photograph from http://www.staatsoper.de/ (Bayerische Staatsoper 2007)
After his thrilling Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera last month, I rather looked forward to seeing Dmitri Hvorostovsky´s take on Simon Boccanegra at the Bastille Opera.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky has said, that as Eugene Onegin he more or less acts like himself. I am not informed of his sayings on Simone Boccanegra, however, based on his performance in Paris, he more or less acts as in his Met Eugene Onegin minus the sparkle – that would be: Distanced and cool. And while suitable for Eugene Onegin, it doesn´t really suit the multifacetted Simone Boccanegra.
Furthermore, Dmitri Hvorostovsky´s distanced and cool Simone Boccanegra combined with Olga Guryakova´s equally distanced and cool Amelia adds up to something very frosty indeed, needless to say without interpersonal drama.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky´s voice is extremely beautiful with a very individual timbre, and the ability to produce exquisitely beautiful and sustained legato-lines. His voice is not the largest, and very wisely, he doesn´t force it. That said, I don´t think these Verdi barytone roles (Posa apart) are ideal for him. According to an interview he will be repeating his Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera, which doesn´t really sound like a good idea to me. And Giorgio Germont and Rigoletto as well. With his dashing looks, why chose roles where he has to be made up to look like an old man?
When the other characters grow older in this Boccanegra, they get grey hair. Obviously this doesn´t work with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, so they give him glasses…which he conveniently looses a couple of times in the third act. Good for us as the glasses didn´t really suit him.
Franz-Josef Selig is in strong voice as Fiesco – though he seems a bit distant, perhaps at the request of the director. Same applies for Evan Bowers as Gabriele Adorno.
Johan Simons´ production is very spartan with huge posters of Boccanegra and Fiesco placed in front of a background consisting of a golden carpet. According to present fashion (Konwitschny´s Lohengrin, Mielitz´ Parsifal), Simons choses to let the final scene play out on the naked stage with full view of the backstage. A symbol of emotional nakedness, I suppose.
Saturday 19 May 2007
In young Polish director Krysztof Warlikowski´s new production of the Makropoulos Case at the Bastille Opera, the undying Emilia Marty takes the shape of Marilyn Monroe as well as of several other iconic movie stars, who live on "eternally". According to Warlikowski he is mainly interested in the specific immortality associated with femininity and these movie icons.
It is a very well-thought out and intelligently executed production, centered around a movie theater showing movie-clips with iconic divas from the 20s and 30s on a background screen. When Emilia Marty/Marilyn Monroe/Lana Turner etc.. finally dies, a new Marilyn Monroe /Lana Turner etc. is ready to take over. A King Kong figure (shown above) plays a central part in the opera, and at 12 meters he/it is the largest-ever theater requisite built for the Bastille opera. Why other parts of the opera take place in a public toilet, seem less obvious.
The detailed exploration of Emilia Marty´s character and the realistic dialogue in the opera are trademarks of Janacek and one of his major strengths as an operatic composer, also cornerstones in works such as Jenufa and Katya Kabanova.
Angela Denoke was very convincing as Emilia Marty, one of her best roles and deservedly received massive applause. Thomas Hanus (unknown to me) created a glittering, dense sound world, greatly contributing to this excellent evening.
Friday 18 May 2007
Peter Konwitschny represents a lot of the things I appreciate in opera directors, most importantly the courage and insight to re-interpret standard repertoire with no regards to conventional concepts of opera staging. His productions of Tristan and Isolde,The Flying Dutchman and Elektra range among my top operatic experiences. On the other hand I don´t understand his Parsifal. This is not the problem with his Lohengrin: I understand it just fine, I just don´t like it, for the reasons outlined below.
This production originated in Hamburg approximately 10 years ago with Inga Nielsen as the original Elsa and has also travelled to Barcelona, where it is released on DVD from Barcelona Liceu. In Copenhagen performances took place in the new waterfront Copenhagen Opera House.
Peter Konwitschny´s Lohengrin takes place in a class-room: Elsa is the Miss-Perfect-slightly-irritating-girl, King Heinrich is the teacher, Telramund and Ortrud are naugthy pupils. Everyone throws chalk and sponges around the class-room and play with tree swords. Elsa hides in the closet because Ortrud teases her. Lohengrin appears through the floor as the only adult and when he eventually kills Telramund with a real sword, everything falls apart and the kids suddenly have to grow up. Peter Konwitschny has explained that he, based on Wagner´s text, finds the characters (inter)act in childish ways, thus this classroom setting.
And why it doesn´t work, in my opinion? I am no fan of traditional performances and have no desire for knights, swords and a swan in Lohengrin. But all this frenous stage activity simply moves the focus away from the music. This is Wagner for people who do not like Wagner. Furthermore, I miss the interpersonal drama in this institutional set-up.
Musically, it was a huge success for all involved.
Stig Andersen is a fine Lohengrin. Fine acting, emotionally believable, though he has to struggle for the top notes. Matched by Ann Petersen´s touching Elsa, changing from schoolgirl to adult.
Susanne Resmark was voted best opera performer of the season for this Ortrud. She has the ability to project her voice into the auditorium, but I don´t find her voice particularly beautiful and being quite a large woman severely limits her possibilities of creating attractive female roles on stage. Though she makes up for much being a superb actress, as her DVD-Erda clearly demonstrates, making the maximum identification with her parts.
Friedemann Layer had great success with the orchestra, creating a beautifully transparent sound.
In summary: If you don´t like Wagner, this is a good place to start...
Tuesday 15 May 2007
The Gods have escaped into a tunnel after the nuclear war has destroyed the world. This tunnel is a constant feature in the cycle serving as backdrop of the end-game of the Gods: The end is like the beginning, and the bomb detonates once again in the end of Götterdämmerung, sending Alberich scrambling for the gold once more.
The relatively bare stage brings a certain mythologic quality to the work, although I find the whole set-up dusty and the direction of the singers uninteresting (difficult to say if this was the original intention of Götz Friedrich since he died in 2000).
I suspect that Donald Runnicles may actually be a quite competent Wagner conductor, although his style is a bit too passive and distant for my liking.There were glimpses of fine playing by the orchestra, but generally it was close to disastrous: Imprecise to an embarassing degree combined with odd changes in tempi not followed by the singers. Worst in Rheingold, gradually improving however, with Götterdämmerung the absolute highlight, after 12 hours rehearsing, I suppose. To Runnicles´ defence I must add, that it was the first time he conducted the orchestra and being a revival production, rehearsing time probably was limited. But there is no doubt, that in Wagner, the leading orchestra is at the Berlin State Opera, especially when Daniel Barenboim is on the podium.
The singers were the usual suspects: Evelyn Herlitzius (Brünnhilde)-very lively and engaging, Eva Johansson (a fine, though neurotic Sieglinde), Robert Dean Smith (quite moving as Siegmund, making excellent use of his not too large voice), Alfons Eberz (vocally a fine Siegfried, but otherwise rather stiff ). And Terje Stensvold as a vocally magnificent Wotan. Voc. Impressively how this man´s international career seems to have started at a time where most others´ end.
But the most impressive performance was Matti Salminen´s excellent Hagen, stepping in for an indisposed Hans Peter König. Moving in and out between magnifying glasses, showing his face in grotesque proportions, he was the absolute center of Götterdämmerung, personifying evil and with subtle irony as well. And vocally – no problems at all with Hagen´s Call. Incidentally, Matti Salminen also sang Hagen, when this production premiered in 1984 and is the most convincing Hagen I have seen since the late Aage Haugland in Aarhus in the late 1980´s.
This is in fact, a relatively visitor-friendly Ring Cycle scheduled in one week only. However, the Deutsche Oper is not a very attractive venue, especially when compared to competing venues such as the State Opera, not to mention the Dresden Semperoper, only 2 hours away.
Although the staging still holds a certain interest, as well as serving as a historic doument of Friedrich´s work and being an important production in the history of Ring stagings, I´d say that for artistic reasons a new Deutsche Oper Ring would not be out of place, but for monetary reasons this looks not very realistic.
Sunday 6 May 2007
Parsifal. Bavarian State Opera, April 2007. Production: Peter Konwitschny. Cast: Nikolai Schukoff (Parsifal), John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz), Luana DeVol (Kundry). Conductor: Kent Nagano.
I suspect I may not be the only one not always capturing the intentions of German Regietheater exponent Peter Konwitschny. While I found his Don Carlos, Elektra, Flying Dutchman and Tristan all to be rather brilliant, I didn´t appreciate his classroom Lohengrin, though I did understand it. With his Parsifal I neither appreciate nor understand it....
A monolithic tree dominates this post-nuclear production, which emphasizes the duality of the work (I think): Amfortas appears as a reflection of Klingsor, and Parsifal (entering like Tarzan on a grapevine) is attracted to Kundry from the beginning. Peter Konwitschny has many ideas, and I do not question their relevance for the work as such, I just don´t understand them.
Curiously, this is the first Parsifal I have seen where Kundry actually dies, crushed by the grail knights. Konwitschny´s explanation : Even though Wagner does not state so directly in the text, the music clearly indicates her to die. An excellent argument as such, thus a bit surprising to hear from Konwitschny, director of Lohengrin, the class-room drama.
Musically the evening was rather strange: Being music director Kent Nagano´s Wagner debut at the Bavarian State Opera, expectations ran high in the packed auditorium. It did not start well though, with a first act plainly below description. The brass lacked precision, tempi were unpredictable and generally much too fast and coordination between stage and pit seemed non-existent. If I hadn´t been familiar with Nagano´s Baden-Baden Parsifal, I would simply have thought him unfamiliar with the work. Things improved vastly in the last two acts, though I found Nagano´s reading bordering on the (too) passive.
The singers were unfortunately not in top form either: Sir John Tomlinson is a great presence on stage, but he is wobbling intolerably almost all the way through Gurnemanz. The same, in short applies to Luana DeVol´s Kundry. On the contrary Nikolai Shukoff seemed rather light-weight as Parsifal, physically as well as vocally, though he did look the part.
Saturday 5 May 2007
Macbeth. Dresden Semperoper, March 2007. Production: Philip Himmelmann. Cast: Paolo Gavanelli (Macbeth), Nadja Michael (Lady Macbeth), Georg Zeppenfeld (Banquo), Wookyung Kim (Macduff).
The Dresden Semperoper Macbeth is directed by Philip Himmelmann, also responsible for the excellent, though controversial Don Carlo in Berlin. His rather unspecific Macbeth concept seemed to evolve around Macbeth´s role as a soldier and leader of a paramilitary group located in a concrete tunnel with built-in doors serving as entry and exit points. If there was more to the production concept than this, I didn´t get it. Compared to his innovative Don Carlo in Berlin, this seemed rather tame.
Paolo Gavanelli is a competent, though by no means exceptional Macbeth, very static on stage and presenting a rather one-dimensional take on the character.
Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth is vastly more interesting, but also highly problematic: Starting out as a mezzo-soprano, she switched to the soprano fach a couple of years ago, and her tone is now marred by a heavy vibrato, not present 5-6 years ago in the mezzo fach, where I remember her as an excellent Brangäne with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. A pity really, with this vibrato, since in almost every other way she is perfect: She looks fantastic, she´s very agile on stage and she is a great actress.
Of the supporting cast, Korean tenor Wookyung Kim as well as bass Georg Zeppenfeld were excellent as Macduff and Banquo, respectively.
Photo from www.semperoper.de