Wednesday 30 January 2008

Herbert von Karajan: Telling it like it is..

As a follow-up to my previous Karajan post (here), below an excerpt from an interview with Daniel Barenboim (full source here):

Question: You met two conductors associated with Nazism: Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. Did you talk to them about this?

Daniel Barenboim: I met Furtwängler when I was 11 years old. I did not have the courage and even less the understanding to talk to him about this issue. But I believe he never really identified himself with that horror. With Karajan, it was different. I summoned him and he told me: “I had artistic ambitions, I wanted to work in Germany, and for this I had to associate myself to the Nazi Party. That is what I did.”

This is of course, a second-hand source and Barenboim is by no means a neutral player in this game, so one should carefully consider the reliability of the statement. In my view, it makes completely sense. And I believe that many would have done the same, today as well, though it´s nothing to be exactly proud of.

Understandable, from a musical point of view, that Barenboim wants to rehabilitate Furtwängler, but is that warranted? A very good and not easy question to answer, which I´ll nevertheless try to do in an upcoming post - after having chewed my way through the 400+ pages Furtwängler biography "The devil´s music maker".

Tuesday 29 January 2008

Herbert von Karajan in the Third Reich

Photo: Karajan´s Nazi party membership card.

I am no Karajan-basher - I recognize his immense contribution to classical music and admire his superbly conducted performances of many of my favourite works.

But I find it entirely unacceptable, that he has never been willing to publicly explain his activities during the 1930´s and 40´s: I am no self-righteous purist - I realize the complexity of the situation in Germany at that time, and to be completely honest, few os us would probably have been heroes in similar situations. The problem is not what he did, as I don´t think he is a worse person than most, but his lack of understanding, that as a public figure he has a responsibility to help explain the nature of the issues and conditions in these years.

I have translated a fascinating article from yesterday´s Berliner Morgenpost´s Karsten Kammholz on Herbert von Karajan and the Third Reich:

"Three minutes airtime was what the host Reinhold Beckmann recently gave his guest, the conductor´s widow Eliette von Karajan on this unpleasant topic: No, on the Nazi era she never talked with Herbert, said Eliette. Then Helmut Schmidt appeared: "Karajan was obviously not a Nazi. He was a follower". And thus the issue was wiped off the table. Karajan himself, who would be 100 years old on April 5, never spoke publicly about that time.

And the exact role of the conductor in the Third Reich is still somewhat of a mystery. Previously, many saw him as apolitical, but documents from his early past speak a different language: There is evidence that Karajan joined the Nazi Party as early as April 8, 1933 in Salzburg. He has always claimed that he automatically joined in 1935 upon being made General Music Director in Aachen. Experts however, doubt such automatic membership allocation.

Karajan became a very early member of the Nazi Party in Salzburg, at a time when the party was still far from power in Austria. Karajan´s membership may thus be be seen as a conscious political step - or as calculated, career opportunism.

His unique career would have been impossible at that time without the good will of the party: Karajan´s big breakthrough is still considered to have taken place at October 21th 1938, where he conducted a performance of Wagner´s "Tristan and Isolde" at the Berlin State Opera. Afterwards the journalist and music critic Edwin von der Nüll wrote a review with the famous headline "The Miracle Karajan" in the magazine "BZ". This positive criticism at once raised the young Austrian to the level of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the powerful chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. However, evidence indicate that this article on Karajan was a politically commissioned work.

Hermann Göring, then Prime Minister of Prussia, was overseeing the Berlin State Opera and Joseph Goebbels as the chief of the Reich Chamber of Culture was responsible for Furtwängler. Probably both Göring and Goebbels had an interest in Karajan. He fitted well into their world view since he was young, extremely good-looking as well as being a perfectionist and aesthete.

Peter Uehling, whose book "Karajan" (Rowohlt, 2006) is the latest of nearly a dozen biographies on the conductor, said: "All of this made him attractive to the Nazi leaders." Göring would have been proud to work with this new conducting star.

Karajan knew how to exploit this awareness by the party peaks. Because up to the "miracle"-article, he was "just" a provincial conductor: Previously stationed at Ulmer, he was appointed general music director of Aachen in 1935.

Karajan conducted Wagner's "Tannhauser"at Hitler´s birthday in 1935 and played the Horst Wessel song (the official anthem of the NSDAP) several times during his career.

"There are stories that despite of all this, Hitler despised Karajan," says Misha Aster in his book "The Imperial Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic and National Socialism" (Siedler Verlag, 2007).

Apparently Hitler considered it presumptuous that Karajan, before the eyes of the leader, conducted Wagner's "Meistersinger" by heart at the Berlin State Opera. After that performance, Hitler allegedly said that he would no longer go to the Staatsoper when Karajan was on the podium.

Karajan remained in Aachen, Germany, as general music director, until he was dismissed in the 1941/42 season allegedly because he was there too rarely. He was informed of this decision while in Rome on a tour with the Berlin State Opera.

Karajan now tried to offer his services to the regime in other ways: The conductor wanted to be a fighter pilot. But he was rejected because he was too old. Henceforth, he led the Staatskapelle Berlin. Only the end of the war suddenly interrupted his career. After that Karajan apparently had some difficulties explaining his past.

There are documents that show that Karajan even entered the Nazi party twice. By the previously mentioned Salzburg membership in 1933 he received membership number 1607525. It has been argued that this membership was not valid since Karajan only payed the administration fee, but not the membership fees he was supposed to. In March 1935 the conductor joined the Nazi party again, this time in Aachen where he received membership number 3430914. After the annexation of Austria the competent "Reichsschatzmeisterei" of the NSDAP in Munich discovered Karajan´s dual membership and declared the initial membership invalid. The second membership was then retrospectively dated as May 1, 1933.

His denazification moved very slowly forward in the occupied Germany. Karajan was forbidden to work, the Allied kep interrogating him and remained negative. The Federal Archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde still keep the records to document this. There it is documented, that as late as April 1949 in a letter from the Zonal Office of Information Services in Hamburg, the office of the Cultural Relations Branch explicitly stressed that Karajan´s denazification, which was completed in 1946 in Austria was not valid for Germany.

Thus Karajan was not under consideration for the conducting post with the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Three months later, von Karajan in an exchange of letters between the Zonal Office of Information Services and the American Veterans Committee in New York was described as an "ardent Nazi".

Only the young Federal Republic of Germany helped Karajan to his 1950 comeback. And suddenly he was no longer held back: He got engagements in Vienna, Salzburg, Milan, London and Berlin. Sporadic attacks of his Nazi past, he dismissed as being envious.

Misha Aster was puzzled , "that in the 50s and 60s nobody intensively worked with a Karajan biography ." Maybe not in Germany, but in the United States they did, which Karajan got to feel in 1955 when he as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic went on a tour to New York with the orchestra. Jewish organizations demonstrated against Karajan in front of the New York's Carnegie Hall with placards: "They helped Hitler murder millions". Karajan noted the protests with demonstrative disinterest.

In the 1960´s the conductor and his Philharmonics planned a concert tour to Israel. But the Israelis were clear: The orchestra could come, Karajan could not. Only when he died in 1989 the way was paved. In 1990 the Berlin Philharmonics were in Israel for the first time."

DVD: La juive

La Juive. Vienna State Opera 2004. Production: Krämer. Cast: Neil Schicoff (Eleazar), Krassimira Stoyanova (Rachel). Conductor: Sutej. Further information here.

The only DVD option for Halévy´s grand opera La Juive is this 1999 production by Gunther Krämer from the Vienna State Opera, also seen at the Metropolitan Opera a couple of years later.

In all honesty, I´ll have to label this release among the "fine DVD releases of operas I don´t really care for". Though, at face value, it is a fine addition to the DVD catalogue: A simplistic production placing the action around the year 1900, quite literally dividing the stage along a horizontal line in an upper section (for the ruling class and Christians), leaving the Jews below.

Superb performance from Neil Schicoff as Eleazar, an ideal role and an absolute career highlight for him. Just see below, how his "Rachel, quand du Seigneur" brought down the house. This was definitely his evening.
Also a convincing performance from Krassimira Stoyanova as Rachel, though she doesn´t fit my idea of a young Jewish girl in this plot which has certain elements of Trovatore on top of the unevitably heavy politicol-religious drama.

As the Vienna Philharmonics played superbly under Sutej, this release is highly recommended.
Neil Schicoff brings down the house with "Rachel quand du Seigneur":
The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Neil Schicoff: 5
Krassimira Stoyanova: 4-5

Krämers staging: 4

Sutej: 4-5

Overall impression: 4

Monday 28 January 2008

DVD: A streetcar named desire

A streetcar named desire. San Francisco Opera 1998. Cast: Renée Fleming (Blanche DuBois), Rodny Gilfry (Stanley Kowalski), Elizabeth Futral (Stella), Anthony Dean Griffey (Mitch). Conductor: André Previn. Further information here.

André Previns´s opera A streetcar named desire was given a near-optimal performance in this 1998 world premiere production from the San Franciso Opera.

As expected, the quality of the Previn´s score has been widely discussed, and in short, I very much enjoyed it. Together with librettst Littell, Previn succeeds in capturing the undercurrents and lingering tensions of Tennesse Williams drama. Indeed, the opera comes across rather like spoken recitatives supporting Tennessee Williams´ drama than as an individually composed piece, and I suspect it would be considerably less interesting without the visual element. However, with protagonists as these, it is quite a moving experience.

Rodney Gilfry was genuinely scary as Stanley, with that touch of unpredictability makin one sit on the edge of the chair. Renée Fleming was just wonderful as the worn, but still attractive Blanche, here in her undisputed prime, bringing her overearthly beautiful voice to maximal expressive use with entirely straight-forward and natural singing. Accompanied by a very convincing Elizabeth Futral as Stanley´s subservient wife and Blanche´s ever-sweet sister, Stella.

Strongly recommended viewing.

Renée Fleming "I can smell the sea air":

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

Renée Fleming: 5
Elizabeth Futral: 5
Rodney Gilfry: 5

André Previn: 4

Overall impression: 4

Parsifal + an unfaithful conductor + Seth, the Egyptian chaos-god =

= "The twilight of the Gods" = the direct translation of the title of Danish author A.M. Vedsø Olesens new novel.

This is in short a strange novel of a breath and scope rarely published by Danish writers, and also a very entertaining read, which have left me with much to reflect on.

I wouldn´t presume to fully understand the messages in this work, since they come in several layers, but in short it is the story of the internationally renowned German conductor Martin Seeber, preparing to conduct Parsifal in a small German opera house. Incidentally, the Egyptian chaos-God Seth, having survived since ancient times, lives on a castle nearby and takes interest in Martin. Martin, on the other hand, is fascinated by the liberal life-style advocated by Seth, and embarks upon an affair with one of Seth´s followers, Sophie.

At the same time, the reborn Egyptian God Horus (Seth´s eternal adversary) is the center of a British cult, with the sole purpose to defeat Seth. The cult members eventually turn up close to Seth´s castle in search for an ancient weapon (surprise: a spear!) needed to defeat Seth. At the same time, the premiere of Parsifal draws closer, and myth and reality gets increasingly intertwined..not to be revealed here, how it all ends.

Is it just about a man being unfaithful to his wife? Or rather about guilt and atonement? Or is it an in-depth analysis of Parsifal with human applications? Probably a mixture of all of the above. In summary, it is a highly entertaining read, not for purists and kept in a clear language, which definitely deserves an English translation. A fascinating and highly unlikely mixture of Richard Wagner, Egyptian mythology and general human emotions. Not to be missed for those interested in Richard Wagner related issues (who are able to read Danish, as well!).

Translated excerpts from the novel may be read in English here.

Homepage of the author here.

Inga Nielsen - more than 50 years of recording

Inga Nielsen - Voices. Live and studio recordings 1952-2007. Further information here.

Inga Nielsen (1946-2008) was the leading Danish Soprano of the past 30 years. With an astonishing freshness to her sound she moved from lyric to dramatic soprano in the 1990s, and I remember her superb live performances as Salome (on CD as well) and Elsa at the Royal Danish Opera. Other major achievements included The Empress (Die Frau Ohne Schatten), Chrysothemis and Erwartung, roles she performed in all the major opera houses.

At times, she also performed at less stellar venues: I vividly remember a performance of Strauss´ Vier letzte lieder at my local town hall in Gentofte, Copenhagen around 1985 with a local youth orchestra in which I was playing second violin. How we got through the Strauss score alive I don´t know. And why she accepted to sing with us at all still surprises me.

The present double-CD is a more than overdue documentation of her work, and spans a period of more than 50 years of recording, beginning with "This year´s at the spring" in 1952 accompanied by her father Arne Nielsen (she was 6 years old).
Among the highlights is a complete performance of Erwartung, conducted by Gerd Albrecht, in which her clear and fresh soprano shines eerily throughout. Also the excerpts from Die Frau Ohne Schatten ( "Wehe mein mann") and Elektra ("Ich kann nicht sitzten") shows her at her best. And on top, Plácido Domingo appears in the duet "Toi! Vous! Oui...c´est moi" from Manon.

To hear Inga Nielsen in a complete role, the recording of Salome with Michael Schönwandt and the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra is among the finest on disc and strongly recommended.

Saturday 26 January 2008

Capriccio: All shine in elegant Paris production

Capriccio. Paris Palais Garnier 2004. Production: Robert Carsen. Cast: Renée Fleming (Countess), Dietrich Henschel (Count), Anne Sofie von Otter (Clairon), Rainer Trost (Flamand), Gerald Finley (Olivier), Franz Hawlata (La Roche). Conductor: Ulf Schirmer. Further information here.

Whether one actually likes Capriccio or not, I find it hard to argue against this close to ideal production by Robert Carsen set in the elegant Palais Garnier in Paris 2004.

A theater within the theater production transferring the action to the time of the composing of the opera (1941), though the Nazi presence is very small in this very elegant look into upper-class Parisian lives at the time. Perfectly suited for DVD, the action is played out at parts before an empty auditorium with the Countess and her brother as spectators from the balcony. At other points it seems a genuine live performance.

Everything in this production just oozes elegance: Carsens staging is accompanied by the equally elegant and sophisticated conducting from Ulf Schirmer.

And the singers are simply first-rate over the entire line: First of all, obviously, Renée Fleming as an entirely convincing Countess. Whatever one may feel about Renée Flemings vocal technique, including her heavy use of portamento, her Countess is both vocally and dramatically entirely convincing and is on par with the greatest in the discography.
Virtually all the others stand out as well, beginning with Anne-Sofie von Otter as a slightly mad Clairon, Franz Hawlata as a not overly ridiculous La Roche, Gerald Finley as a half-desperate Olivier, Rainer Trost as Flamand and Dietrich Henschel as a rather confused Count.

One of the finest DVDs on the market, though traditionalists may prefer the only alternative on DVD, from the San Francisco opera with Kiri Te Kanawa and conducted by Donald Runnicles, in a completely traditional staging (read: including plenty of dust). While this musically is not a bad choice, I find Renée Fleming clearly superior to Te Kanawa as well as von Otter to Troyanos.

Renée Fleming in the Final Scene:

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

Renée Fleming: 5
Anne Sofie von Otter: 5
Dietrich Henschel: 5
Gerald Finley: 5
Rainer Trost: 5
Franz Hawlata: 5

Robert Carsen´s staging: 5

Ulf Schirmer: 5

Overall impression: 5

Wednesday 23 January 2008

Video clips: Wagner performances in The third reich

I have been asked by several people, why admirers of Richard Wagner´s music often seems to ignore the role his music played in The third reich (I am not sure this is true), though the exact nature of this role is still the focus of much debate. As a follow up to my previous post, the following video clips may help explain the association by many of Richard Wagner´s music with Nazism.

Below: Furtwängler or Abendrot conducting Meistersinger in Bayreuth 1942

Below: Speech by Göbbels and performance of Meistersinger at Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Böhm and with Vilhelm Rode as Hans Sachs in 1935:

I must admit, these clips make my blood run cold, and on a personal level these associations are the main reason I have avoided the Meistersinger for 20 years, only starting to listen to it last year although I admit, that from a logical point of view it probably doesn´t make sense to separate Wagner´s works like that, since I´ve been listening to the all his other works for more than 20 years.

Information for readers not extensively familiar with Richard Wagner: RW himself was not a nazist and did not personally know Hitler, since he died in 1883, but he was clearly antisemitic and several books have been written on the influence of RW´s music on later political events in Germany. However, several of RW´s descendants (including daughter-in-law Winifried and son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain) WERE personally acquainted with Hitler and supported his political views. As far as I know, Wagner WAS NOT Hitler´s favorite composer (allegedly that was Beethoven), but Wagner´s works were performed at several official occasions and among Wagner´s operas Meistersinger was Hitler´s favourite. It doesn´t look like RW generally was a "favourite Nazi composer" since most Nazi party members apparently preferred lighter entertainment such as cabarets etc..

The Wagner Clan

Highly recommended: Jonathan Carr´s book The Wagner Clan (more here) telling the story of Richard Wagner´s descendants and the (eternal?) struggle for power in the family (read: Struggle for control of the Bayreuth Festival). Very entertaining reading with essential background information for those interested in Wagner related happenings.
Although, it´s always difficult to say with certainty without having access to the original sources, the writing appears to be both honest and objective.

Only at one small point does the author seem a bit unfair: He brings forward some private gossip about Katharina Wagner (which I do not intend to repeat) and does seem to favour Nike Wagner and her proposals for the Bayreuth Festival. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but I cannot help feeling that the last chapter in the book (which covers the last 10 years) may be lacking in objectivity with regards to present day family members. On the other hand, his coverage of the elder generations, which takes up 95% of the book, including Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Friedelind, Cosima,Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner etc. is excellent and appears to be very balanced. And with an unsentimal view of the Bayreuth Festival and the future. Even for those not particularly interested in Richard Wagner´s works, this is a fascinating tale of power, history and politics.

And one of the few books related to Richard Wagner, that I have actually read in full myself, since my main interest has always been the music by and not the person of Richard Wagner. For the last 10 years I have had ambitions of reading Cosima´s (Richard Wagner´s wife) diaries, but they are still unopened on my shelf (as James Joyce´s Ulysses by the way...).

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Vienna: Major triumph for Christian Thielemann in Meistersinger

Meistersinger von Nürnberg. DVD. Vienna State Opera 2008. Prod: Otto Schenk. Cond: Christian Thielemann. Cast: Falk Struckmann (Hans Sachs), Ain Anger (Pogner), Johan Botha (Walther von Stolzing), Adrian Eröd (Beckmesser), Ricarda Merbeth (Eva), Michael Schade (David), Michaela Selinger (Magdalena).

This is a so-called traditional production of Meistersinger, recorded live in 2008 at the Vienna State Opera, which for obscure reasons decided to revive Schenk´s 1975 staging of Wagner´s Meistersinger under the label "new production", referring to a socalled "musical reinterpretation" by German conductor Christian Thielemann. We already know Otto Schenk´s Meistersinger from the DVD from the Metropolitan Opera. This Vienna production is not quite as sumptuous, in fact it is rather austere and dusty at times, especially in the first act.

I remember well that in 2008 Thielemann was unanimously praised by the Austrian press for these performances, labelling them the best conducted Meistersinger in Vienna in decades and five hours of pure pleasure - referring mainly to the orchestral performance.  I am well acquainted with Thielemann´s mighty way with this score: Light, yet not too light, and with this inherent understanding of Wagnerian phrases, including in Thielemann´s case some very unconventional phrasing slowing the orchestra down at decisive points. Such as the much-debated major pause he always takes between "wach" and "auf" in the 3rd Act, It is still there. Egocentric or courageous? Probably both.

That Christian Thielemann favours traditional productions is no secret and not a problem as such. A traditional production may be as good, or better than a modern. That entirely depends on the individual characterization by the singers. However, too often, traditional sets are combined with a lack of personal direction + a not negligible amount of dust. Which is the case here.

It is understandable that Thielemann likes Johan Botha´s voice as it is both glorious and solid. But.. this is not a CD, and excuse me, the man is simply too heavy and cannot act his way out of a paper bag.
But Ricarda Merberth? Really she is quite disappointing as Eva: Matronly, wobbly and unexquisite, she is the stand-up-and-deliver type of singer. One shouldn´t think Eva would be that hard a part to cast?
She looks rather like the superb Ain Angers mother than his daughter. And with Michaela Selingers feisty Magdalena looking ten years younger and feistier than Eva. Michael Schade as well makes a rather mature, but however well sung David.
Falk Struckmann´s rather metallic voice with a certain lack of warmth may not be to everyones liking, however he is in better shape here than otherwise around that time.
Best is Adrian Eröd as Beckmesser: Funny as well as well sung and the scenes between Beckmesser and Sachs remain among the few infusing some life into this otherwise rather un-dead production.
However, we already know Otto Schens Meistersinger from the Metropolitan Opera released on DVD, with a vastly superior cast. Christian Thielemann´s Meistersinger is worth preserving Otto Schenk´s Vienna State Opera production with the current cast really is not.

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

Johan Botha: 2
Ricarda Merberth: 2
Falk Struckmann: 3
Adrian Eröd: 5
Ain Anger: 4
Michael Schade: 3

Otto Schenk´s production: 2

Christian Thielemann: 5

Overall impression: 2

Monday 21 January 2008

First-rate Tristan and Isolde in Madrid: Love through the centuries...

Tristan and Isolde, Madrid Teatro Real. January 19th 2008. Production: Lluis Pasqual. Cast:
Tristan: Robert Dean Smith, Isolde: Waltraud Meier, Marke: René Pape, Brangäne: Mihoko Fujimura, Kurwenal: Alan Titus. Conductor: Jesus Lopez-Cobos. Production previously shown at Teatro San Carlo, Napoli .

Director Lluis Pasqual´s main concept for this production of Tristan and Isolde centers around the theme of eternal love: Act 1 takes place in the middle age aboard a viking ship (semirealistically moving with the waves). Then follows Act 2 in a 19th century garden, in which we see the captain (Tristan) in love with the beautiful wife of his General. Act 3 takes place in a present day desert military camp scenario with Tristan in a lazaret and his men surrounding him in camouflage...
Curiously, I have never seen this idea realized in the theatre before (though as an after-thought it seems rather obvious), and it works surprisingly well. Spreading the story over centuries adds to the eternal aspect of the story. Personally, I would have preferred a more detailed stage direction of the singers (the Chéreau style), but others may well disagree. Many will probably appreciate that Lluis Pasqual makes virtually no alterations in Wagner´s story-line, although Tristan is just about to kill Melot in Act II, when he drops the sword and lets himself be wounded.

The soloists are genuinely top-class, a major achievement for the Teatro Real and over-all I don´t think a better cast can be assembled for this work today: Above all, Waltraud Meier and René Pape, both of whom I find entirely unsurpassed as Isolde and Marke, as I´ve written extensively about earlier (to spare regular readers the repetition of my virtually unending praise for those two, see my review of Tristan in Munich and at La Scala, both earlier this season).

Slightly disappointing performance from Robert Dean Smith (Tristan), whom I found rather uninvolved in his acting, but he sang the part beautifully, and made it in full voice and no troubles through the third act, which I believe not many of his contemporaries could do more convincingly.

Mihoko Fujimura has an exquisite beautiful voice with a beautiful dark timbre, and in many ways she is ideal for the part of Brangäne. However she seems to lack a certain dramatic quality, and her phrasings are rather "square" and pointedly regarding the rhythm (as opposed to Waltraud Meier´s more floating style). I cannot help thinking she might be ideally suited for Mozart. Fujimura´s style is quite distinctive, and I am seriously wondering how her relatively small voiced Kundry will stand up to Christian Thielemann´s mighty Vienna orchestra in March...

Jesus Lopez-Cobos´ conducting would have been one of the highlights of the performance with any other casting than the above, and judged on it´s own, he did a brilliant job with a beautiful, balanced orchestral sound, which boasts in particular a strong string section. At times, there was a lack of synchronization with the singers, especially Waltraud Meier, but in this respect I guess it´s merciful conducting Wagner: If it had been Don Giovanni 9 of 10 people would have noticed it, here I suppose 9 of 10 didn´t notice it...

It really seams unfair to point out that the quality of the orchestral playing doesn´t quite match that of Barenboim´s with the Scala or the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, or maybe Thielemann in Vienna, but compared to anyone else, this orchestra is in for a tight race. A genuine top-class achievement, which they should definitely be proud of in Madrid.

As everything else in Spain, opera also starts relatively late: Beginning at 7 pm, this performance was scheduled to end at 00.15 - a timing I much prefer to the 4 pm sessions in Bayreuth. And for the first time, I noticed that wide-screen monitors were put up at several sections of the gallery to show the action on the stage. Whether this is disturbing or actually helpful for those people with restricted view of the stage I am not sure, since I was seated below, but the idea seems interesting.

Sunday 13 January 2008

Rued Langgaard´s Antikrist on DVD

Antikrist. Copenhagen 2002. Production: Staffan Valdemar Holm. Cast includes: Camilla Nylund, Susanne Resmark, Helen Gjerris, Poul Elming, Sten Byriel. Conductor: Thomas Dausgaard with the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Further information here.

Danish composer Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) grew up in a strictly religious family, which influenced him throughout his life and career. Antikrist, an operatic oratorio, by many considered his key output, was completed in the final version in 1930, however not readily put on stage. Indeed, the first staged performance only took place in 1999. When Langgaard died in 1952, he was entirely unrecognized as a composer.

This first staged production of Antikrist in Denmark was played in the atmospheric old stables of the Christiansborg castle in the center of medieval Copenhagen. Thus, a seemingly perfect atmosphere for presenting this strange work: Not a conventional opera, but a prologue and 6 scenes depicting the influence of Antichrist on this world. This production is set within a society of fundamentally religious Christians. The claustrophobia, temptations and rigid moral codexes are excellently conveyed, each allocated a distinct scene.

The true revelation of this production. however, was the music: Entirely compelling, it has a definite fin-de-siécle atmosphere reminiscent of the late-romantic Schönberg, but most of all of Richard Strauss, who was loathed by Langgaard´s parents for his superficial compository style.

Beautiful, densely romantic playe by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard I cannot see how this production may be bettered.
Furthermore, all soloists were fine, in what is genuinely an ensemble opera: 10 parts, almost equalling the number of scenes, no key roles - Sten Byriel, Camilla Nylund, Susanne Resmark, Helene Gjerris and Poul Elming all stood out.

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

All soloists: 4-5

Staffan Valdemar Holms staging: 5

Thomas Dausgaard: 5

Overall impression: 5

Friday 11 January 2008

DVD: Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo shine in Met Otello

Otello. Metropolitan Opera 1995. Production: Moshinsky. Cast: Plácido Domingo (Otello), Renée Fleming (Desdemona), James Morris (Iago). Conductor: James Levine. Further information here.

Moshinsky´s Metropolitan Opera production of Otello is a rather traditional affair, not overly spectacular, however not excessively overstuffed. In short a production fitting for a standard "bread and butter" opera, where the cast is bound to change continuously for years to come. Though I do not think a better cast has been assembled for this Otello, than the present one.

Renée Fleming has stated that Desdemona fits her voice so well, that it in fact could be written for her. And she is indeed extremely well-suited to this part with her blooming, creamy voice, here in her absolute prime. I have never seen a better performance from her than this. Furthermore, she has superb stage chemistry with Plácido Domingo, who appears (as of now) on three Otello DVDs: The 2001 Scala production with Barbara Frittoli and Riccardo Muti and the 1992 Covent Garden production with Kiri Te Kanawa and Georg Solti.

Something may be said for each of those versions. Focusing solely on Plácido Domingo, I´d say that he is in better voice than in 2001 and has more poignancy to the interpretation as well as infinitely more chemistry with the Desdemona here than at Covent Garden. So often has it been stated the Plácido Domingo is Otello, that it seems rather redundant to repeat.

Of James Morris´ Iago I am slightly uncertain as of what to say. He can sing the part and he is sly and cunning, but somehow he doesn´t really seem vocally at ease.

Superb performance from the chorus, and an engaged performance from the orchestra under James Levine.

Many may prefer this as their favourite Otello DVD. Personally I may narrowly prefer the Scala version due to the slightly more inventive staging. Again, among the Domingo versions some may chose the Covent Garden Otello, though the lack of interaction between Domingo and Te Kanawa is a major liability in my book.

Renée Fleming "Ave Maria":

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

Plácido Domingo: 5
Renée Fleming: 5
James Morris: 4

Moshinsky´s staging: 4

James Levine: 4-5

Overall impression: 4

Monday 7 January 2008

For those not allowed to live

Ilse Weber (1903-1944) was primarily a poet, writer of children's books, and producer of programs for the Czech Radio in Prague. Weber and her husband saved the life of their oldest son when they sent him to Sweden on a Kindertransport prior to their own deportation to the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp in 1942.
At Terezín, Weber worked as a nurse in charge of the children's ward where she often accompanied herself on a guitar while singing for the children. When her husband was summoned for to Auschwitz in the fall of 1944, she volunteered to accompany him together with her young son Tommy. Her wish not to break up the family resulted in the execution of Ilse and her son in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, while her husband survived her by some thirty years. Wiegala, one of her works, a simple lullaby is rumoured to have been sung by her when she accompanied the children into the gas chamber. More here.

Wiegala and other works by composers imprisoned at Theresienstadt (and all but one executed in Auschwitz) may now be heard on the incredibly moving CD Terezín/Theresienstadt by Anne-Sofie von Otter together with Forsberg, Gerhaher and Hope. Recordings like this do not appear every year. More on the disc here.

Sunday 6 January 2008

Villazon comeback in Vienna as Werther: Live report and reviews..

For Rolando Villazon´s 2010 March comeback go here. The post below covers his 2008 Vienna comeback.

I have been looking around for a live report from Rolando Villazon´s come-back as Werther yesterday at the Vienna State Opera, and here is is - from the poster Severina from Vienna at the Tamino Klassik Forum (full text in german here - in my translation below):

Dear Villazon fans!

Actually, I had really hoped to report today of our favorite tenors brilliant comeback as Werther, but at least from my perspective, it wasn´t. Measured by the cheers and final standing ovations alone it was, but at the Vienna State Opera that means little. Once the Viennese love someone, they love them forever, and we love Rolando Villazon very much. He knows that as well and that is definitely why he wanted his first opera appearance after nearly 7 months break to be here in Vienna. He would have been much better advised to have started in a small, or at least smaller house. I love him as well, but I do not belong to the fans who leave their ears in the cloakroom. Now I will try and be specific:

First, the good news: Regarding the beautiful timbre, Rolando is completely like he was before. The voice shimmers again in all the colors of the rainbow and does no longer sound so pale and dull as in the Berlin Manon. However, the voice is very, very, very small. Now, he has never had a big voice, but it was always very viable and also filled our giant auditorium easily. Today, however, I heard (was it just me?) a Werther in a continuous piano, which is also beautiful in the phases, but there are also dramatic passages in the opera- and especially top tones. Now, I am truly not a C-fetishist, but occasionally it's quite nice if a high tone is recognizable as such, and it just wasn´t for me. "Oh nature" he sang already transposed, but with beautiful phrasing in the final tone - that is OK, but then it went gradually down from there. In the 2nd act he used some impressive "sighs of desperation" around most high notes - something I also wouldn´t expect from a Rolando Villazon, and at "Traduirre ..." in the 3rd act I almost didn´t hear the phrases in the aria at all. And, furthermore with Marco Armiliato on the podium, Rolando was lucky to have one of the most supporting conductors available who conducted almost a chamber Werther to not overshadow Rolando completely. The final scene of the opera was almost perfect thoug: Because he fitted the "dying voice" perfect, and he, in the truest sense of the word, separated his voice and soul from the body.

Artistically RV was obviously a wonderful Werther from the beginning, but that alone is just too little on an opera stage, but then the end of the opera was simply indescribable. So moving - I would almost say "authentic" – have we never before seen a Werther die in Vienna. There was not one single false gesture, no-melodramatic stumbling around, no pathetic eye-rolling - Rolando produced maximum effect with a minimum of movement. It cannot be done a any better (yes I am really curious about the reviewers: Araiza was once criticized badly because of the final scene, which he played like Villazon did today).

As I said, the applause was huge, and from the bottom of my heart I am happy for him, because that may give him the necessary security. In many passages I had the feeling that he simply did not dare trust his voice yet. Might be that he also sounds even better on Tuesday, which I really hope. At least, RV did not make the mistake to push his voice, which would immediately have been his ruin. He gave what he could give today. And since it nevertheless is the first attempt at ”walking” after 7 months, I just hope that in addition to the beauty of the voice he will have the power to return.

What I find so sympathetic with RV is his ability to be happy, just like a small child. As he showed on his first solo curtain with indescribable applause (as I said, I really give it to him, but he could ......), where he then stood with lowered head for a long time, crushed a few tears, and then he jumped into the air, yelled (the loudest sound I heard from him this evening), and made his usual funny moves. And, of course, as always, he animated his colleagues at the ensemble curtains to "La Ola".

Conclusion: The hope is alive, but today at least, I still see little reason for celebration. And believe me, I would be very happy to be proven wrong by others, if it it generally believed that Rolando returned at the top of his powers.

Reviews (this post will be updated with reviews when they arrive):

AP (Associated Press) was also there, and the reviewer displays similar concerns on the power of the voice, but otherwise found his performance very moving (more here).

Der neue Merker (link here - in German) - basically feels the power of RV´s voice is gone, but he may work that out to his advantage!

Der Standard (link here - in German) - also praises RV´s acting. Does not write about the voice!

Or check out Opera Chic who has also published some live reports.

So - what to make of this comeback? Simply impossible to say without having heard for yourself. With so much hype around the whole thing, it´s hard to know who or what to believe. Including this post! In addition, RV should be given some time to fully recover before being "scrutinized". So this is the last RV post from me, until I actually hear him sing myself or something significant happens...Looking forward to the Verdi Requiem in Berlin - am actually trying to reschedule a meeting in Berlin so I´ll be able to see this (assuming I´ll get a ticket).

Friday 4 January 2008

DVD: 1982 Met Tannhäuser

Tannhäuser. Metropolitan Opera 1982. Production: Otto Schenk. Cast: Richard Cassilly (Tannhäuser), Tatiana Troyanos (Venus), Eva Marton (Elisabeth), Bernd Weikl (Wolfram), John Macurdy (Hermann). Conductor: James Levine. Further information here.

This Metropolitan opera 1982 production of Tannhäuser is, for once, rather easily described: It is quite simply traditional from A to Z, aiming at realistically and meticulously depicting the story of Tannhäuser exactly as stated in the libretto. The team of Otto Schenk and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, responsible for staging virtually all of Wagner operas at the Metropolitan Opera do what they are reknowned of doing: A Tannhäuser I would not have been surprised to see 100 years previously in Bayreuth.

Detractors will call this an opera museum, admirers will call it a staging faithfully to the intentions of the composers. Your choice. However, regardless of tastes, I suspect most will agree that the setting of the third act is simply stunning.

Of the singers Tatiana Troyanos lush Venus (she looks great as well) and Bernd Weikls beautifully sung Wolfram stand out.
Eva Marton is heard in her rather short prime as an Elisabeth with refreshingly punch, though she has always been a stand-up-and-sing performer. Richard Cassilly is disappointing as a stiff and vocally strained Tannhäuser, though as most will know it is a virtually impossible part to sing.

Engaged and brisk performance from James Levine and the orchestra.

Wagner does not get more traditional than this.

Arrival of the guests in Wartburg:

The bottom line:

Richard Casilly: 2
Tatiana Troyanos: 4-5
Eva Marton: 4
Bernd Weikl: 4-5
John Macurdy: 4

Schenks production: 3

James Levine: 4-5

Overall impression: 3

Posted by 18gianni79 on YouTube

Wednesday 2 January 2008

DVD: Zurich colonial Aida with Nina Stemme and Salvatore Licitra

Aida. Zurich Opera 2006. Production: Nicolas Joël. Cast: Nina Stemme (Aida), Luciana d´Intino (Amneris), Salvatore Licitra (Radames), Juan Pons (Amonasro), Matti Salminen (Ramfis), Günther Groissböck (The King). Conductor: Adam Fisher. Further information here.

No question that Aida is a tremendously difficult opera to stage. On one hand there are the directors opting for recreation of the old Egyptian splendour, which almost invariably end out looking ridiculous or overstuffed. On the other hand, there are the directors updating Aida, which also more often than not fail, due to the very tight period-specific connection of the plot.

A recent staging in Berlin successfully updated Aida to take place in an 19th Century Egyptian museum around the time of its creation.

Also French director Nicolas Joël opts for setting this Zurich Aida around its time of creation in colonial Egypt to "attempt to give it back its true signification of bourgeouis and exotic drama" according to NJ from the accompanying booklet, who continues "bringing Verdi´s masterpiece closer to the historic beginning of this movement [imperialism of the Middle East] allows us to better understand this opera, but also, we hope, to give life to the characters that the composer´s genuis places far above comic books and photo stories".

Does it work? Not really, I have to say. Even the colonial sets seem overstuffed and old-fashioned. But neither does it ruin the piece entirely.

For those not bothered by Nina Stemmes vibrato, as I am, she will undoubtedly make a great Aida: Warm, engaged and with the required vocal heft.

Salvatore Licitra is passable as Radamés, but no more than that. Luciana d´Intino is a true Verdian spinto mezzo, and had she been a more compelling stage actress she would have been a really great Amneris. Juan Pons unfortunately he is way past his prime as Amonasro.

Undoubtedly, quite a few will be irritated by the split-screen images used throughout, without apparent reason, as the Zurich stage is small enough to be incorporated into a single frame.

Nina Stemme with O patria Mia:

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

Nina Stemme: 4
Luciana d´Intino: 4
Juan Pons: 2
Salvatore Licitra: 3
Matti Salminen: 4

Nicolas Joëls production: 3-4

Adam Fisher: 3

Overall impression: 3

Video by GrandTierBox on YouTube

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