Sunday 30 March 2008

Tristan and Isolde at the Vienna State Opera

Of course it doesn´t make sense to compare a Tristan performance at the MET with one at the Vienna State Opera. But it´s difficult not to make some sort of mental comparison when listening to broadcasts of two live Tristan performances from March 28th less than 12 hours apart.

What I thought of the MET performance, I wrote here.

Casting and schedule details of the Vienna State Opera Tristan performances here.

At the Vienna State Opera the main strength of the performance was the absolutely glorious orchestra with conductor Leif Segerstam. He applies that exact sense of drama to the opera, which I feel Levine falls short of. If I had known he would show such mastery with this score, I would probably have attended one of the performances...

The cast in brief: Evelyn Herlitzius was a fine Isolde (once you ignore her sometimes excessive upper level register vibrato and fluttering), completely without the nasal sound that Deborah Voigt exhibits. John Treleaven´s Tristan will never be a favorite of mine, but he kept up the intensity until the end in an honorable performance and seemed in good voice. Stephen Milling was a superb, sonorous King Marke and Boaz Daniel and Janina Baechle fine as Kurwenal and Brangäne.

I´d appreciate comments from anyone present at any of the performances in Vienna.

Ljuba Welitsch: The definitive Salome

I must admit, that after hearing Ljuba Welitsch as Salome, I hardly listen to anyone else: She has everything, this role requires: A piercingly clear tone with an almost indecent quality as well as an inherent sense of drama. The intensity of her singing is unbelievable.

Ljuba Welitsch (biography here) was born in 1913 and apart from Salome she is best known for her portraits of Donna Anna (also recorded for Furtwängler in Salzburg) and Tosca.

But Salome was her major role, making her debut with it at the Metropolitan Opera in 1949 in a performance now considered legendary and resulting in front-page coverage in the New York Times and a reputation as the worlds leading Salome, which is almost undiminished today. She also sang the role with Richard Strauss himself on the podium for his 80th birthday.

She is, by most, considered the ultimate Salome. The YouTube clip (audio only) of her performing the Salome Final Scene clearly shows why (click here).

For a full recording I highly recommend her 1949 Metropolitan recording conducted by Fritz Reiner, as opposed to the 1951 recording, where signs of vocal decline are already apparent.

Unfortunately her vocal prime was very short, ending before she was 40 years old and by the mid-50´s she started a secondary career in acting. But in her prime, she was glorious indeed.

Parsifal on DVD: Lehnhoff´s end-game in a post-atomic wasteland

Parsifal. Baden-Baden 2004. Production: Lehnhoff. Cast: Waltraud Meier (Kundry), Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Matti Salminen (Gurnemanz), Tom Fox (Klingsor), Thomas Hampson (Amfortas). Conductor: Kent Nagano. Further information here.

Recorded live at the Baden-Baden Festival House in August 2004, this Nikolaus Lehnhoff production has also been seen at the English National Opera, Liceu Barcelona, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera, Chicago.

Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff, a former assistant to Wieland Wagner, presents a both fascinating and original interpretation of Parsifal: We are in a post-apocalyptic world. Living within bare concrete walls, pierced at one point by a meteorite, the "Knights of the Holy Grail" symbolizes a closed (religious?) community - originally perhaps intending to do good, but now rotten to the core. They do not venture into the sun outside, where creatures like Kundry (a feathered bird) and Parsifal (sun-burned in ragged clothes) come from. In fact, the outside sun here serves as symbol of the Holy Grail.

Personally, I imagine these Grail Knights to represent a closed community surviving in a post-atomic wasteland, where venturing outside equals dangerous exposure to the sun due to the diminished size of the ozone layer. In this context, it makes sense that the shell-clad Titurel (old enough to have been outside) appears from beneath the ground to implore the small community of survivors to reveal the Sun. Many interpretations are possible, I suppose.
Where exactly Klingsor fits into this picture, I am not sure: He appears within the bone structure of a human pelvis, indicating a metaphysical as opposed to real presence. Subsequently the Kundry-bird gradually sheds a giant shell to seduce Parsifal, who in the end has a real fight with Klingsor involving a real wooden spear. In Act 3 we are back in the concrete wasteland, the Grail Knight Community is dying from within, the members wearing white and grey bandages. After curing Amfortas in the end, Parsifal chooses to leave this sickening community (by a railroad appearing on stage) led by Kundry and followed by some of the knights, while the remainder of Knights gather around Gurnemanz, the apparent new leader.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff writes in the program notes: "After the mass destruction the last survivors, and thus the last humans, slowly begin to communicate across the ruins. Just like Parsifal and Kundry, they try to find, feel and share love and compassion once again".

A very strong cast was assembled for these performances: Waltraud Meier remains an astonishing Kundry, having brought this role to an entirely new level during the last 25 years as documented on several CD- and DVD-recordings. Matti Salminen is a commanding presence as well as vocally secure as Gurnemanz. Christopher Ventris, a both physically and vocally convincing Parsifal, is matched by Tom Fox´ fine Klingsor. Thomas Hampson may seem a bit underpowered as Amfortas, who is portrayed as weaker than often seen, but at repeated viewings, his portrait has grown on me and I find it quite fitting to portrait a leader of a sickening cult.

Kent Nagano draws a fine and lucid performance from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, which also continue to gain weight after repeated listening.

A relatively tedious 30 minute documentary accompanies the DVD explaining the storyline with clips from the production. For those unfamiliar with the opera, it may be worthwhile, though.

In summary, an innovative Parsifal staging of high musical quality. For the moment, probably my favourite choice among commercially available Parsifal recordings on DVD, although those inclined towards more traditional stagings may opt for the 1982 Wolfgang Wagner Bayreuth production or the Levine-conducted, though dusty Metropolitan production (also with Waltraud Meier), both of fine musical quality.

But the search for the optimal Parsifal DVD is still not over. I continue to hope for a Barenboim release.

Waltraud Meier and Christopher Ventris in Act II:

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

Waltraud Meier: 5
Christopher Ventris: 4
Matti Salminen: 4-5
Tom Fox: 4
Thomas Hampson: 3

Lehnhoff´s staging: 4

Kent Nagano: 4

Overall impression: 4

Tristan on DVD: Py´s teenage suicide vision from Geneva

Tristan and Isolde. Geneva Opera 2005. Production: Olivier Py. Cast: Jean-Michelle Charbonnet (Isolde), Clifton Forbis (Tristan), Mihoko Fujimura (Brangäne), Albert Döhmen (Kurwenal), Alfred Reiter (King Marke). Conductor: Armin Jordan. Further information here.

Young French director Olivier Py has a surprisingly original take on Tristan and Isolde: In the bonus documentary we learn that the opera is about death, more precisely ”two teenagers committing suicide”, a concept clearly transformed to both sets and stage direction.

Everything in this production simply oozes of death. It is black and austere. In Act 1 we are on a sort of black bridge/terrace. In the particularly well-thought out Act 2, Tristan and Isolde pass through several rooms, reflecting on their state of mind, until they try to commit suicide together by (once again) drinking together, however they are caught in the act by King Marke. In the third act we see how people from Tristan´s previous life (his mother) and even himself as a boy passes before him.

Unfortunately, due to the exceptionally bad videography (shaky camera, odd close-up angles) viewers get no impression of what the staging was like for those in the auditorium. From the documentary we learn that a ship slowly traverses the backgound of the stage for the duration of Act 1 – something DVD-viewers got no impression of at all.

Musically the performance was lead by veteran-Wagnerian Armin Jordan (conducting the soundtrack to Syberberg´s Parsifal film in the early 80´s), who clearly has good understanding of the structure of the piece, but with a somewhat passive approach.

Fine performances from Jeanne-Michelle Charbonnet (Isolde) and especially Clifton Forbis (Tristan), who also managed to look the part. Also good performances from Mihoko Fujimura´s beautiful, but small-voiced Brangäne, Albert Döhmen´s Kurwenal and Alfred Reiters lanky and lethargic King Marke.

The main downside to this DVD is clearly the substandard videography. Unacceptably bad for a professional release. If you only plan on owning one (or two) Tristans, this one may not be among them, but it makes for interesting watching, not least due to the original and well-thought out staging.

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

Jean-Michelle Charbonnet: 4
Clifton Forbis: 4
Mihoko Fujimura: 4-5
Alfred Reiter: 3-4
Albert Döhmen: 4

Py´s staging: 4

Armin Jordan: 4

Overall impression: 4

Saturday 29 March 2008

DVD: Chereau/Boulez with the definitive From The House of The Dead

From the house of the dead. Aix-en-Provence 2007. Production: Patrice Chéreau. Cast includes John Mark Ainsley, Gerd Grochowski and Olaf Bär. Conductor: Pierre Boulez with the Mahler Chamber orchestra. Further information here.

This DVD release of Patrice Chéreau´s superb staging of Janacek´s opera From The House of The Dead, conducted by Pierre Boulez, is one of the very few examples of an opera performance, which I simply cannot imagine being bettered in any way.

This is Janacek´s last opera, premiered in 1930, two years after the composers death. It is based on Russian author Dostojevski´s autobiographical novel of four years spent in a Siberian prison for illegal political activities in the mid-19th century. Janacek almost exclusively used Dostojevski´s test as libretto with the addition of a maximum of 10 paragraphs of his own.

The opera, in short, is about the conditions in the prison, and as such may be viewed as an ensemble piece for male voices. There is no protagonist, and no conventional plot, but we follow the lives of a handful of prisoners, who one at a time tells their life story. The starting point of the opera is the arrival of an aristocratic prisoner (sung by Olaf Bär), who in the end is released, while life for the other prisoners goes on as usual.

Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez received ravishing reviews for this production, including several "opera performance of the year" awards when it opened at the Wiener Festwochen 2007 and it is a co-production with venues such as Wiener Festwochen, Aix-en-Provence and Metropolitan Opera, where it will appear in future seasons.

Patrice Chéreau succeeds in penetrating the layers of this story, showing the multi-faceted aspects of prison life while staying close to the text: The sets are by his usual set designer Richard Peduzzi, creating a gloomy concrete environment alluding any prison anywhere. We see the hierarchy of prisoners, the loneliness and desperation of the individual characters but also the strong sense of brotherhood and unity. Touching, depressing, but also in a weird sense, uplifting.
As usual Chéreau´s trademark is the detailed instruction of the singers, who simply displays superb and moving acting of a quality rarely seen in opera. All were good, but especially John Mark Ainsley and Gerd Grochowski stood out by their convincing portrayal of two of the prisoners. Chéreau has indeed succeeded in bringing this work to another level.

No less impressive is Pierre Boulez bringing out myriads of facets of Janacek´s score with the transparent sense of detail he is so famous for: Never sentimental or sloppy and never less than accurate. He stated that this was the last opera he would conduct, choosing to concentrate on composing in the future. I sincerely hope he changes his mind, as he has done before..

In addition this DVD contains 45 minutes of rehearsal footage and insightful interviews with Chéreau and Boulez.

I cannot imagine any better production of this opera and this DVD is a must for those interested in operatic theater.

Act 1 - Petrovich arrives:

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

Everyone including general impression: 5

Friday 28 March 2008

DVD: Enjoyable L´Elisir d´Amore with Netrebko/Villazon from Vienna

L´Elisir d´Amore. Vienna State Opera 2005. Production: Otto Schenk. Cast: Rolando Villazón (Nemorino), Anna Netrebko (Adina), Ildebrando d´Arcangelo (Dulcamara), Leo Nucci (Belcore). Conductor: Alfred Eschwé. Further information here.

Whether one is a particular admirer of the Netrebko/Villazón couple or not, this is a most enjoyable performance of L´Elisir d´Amore. Though, Otto Schenk´s production dated 1980 is realistic, basically depicting a courtyard in Southern Europe, it isn´t too dusty, and provides an acceptable background for the plot.

And the story of how a shy country boy (Villazón) gains the necessary confidence to win his beloved (Netrebko) after having purchased a (fake, obviously) love potion from a con-man (d´Arcangelo) is actually quite well-suited to be put on stage, even today - funny and touching, but avoiding the ridiculous.

The main selling point of this DVD obviously is Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. And, though nobody may live up to the hype surrounding these two, they show in this DVD that all this hype indeed does not come out of nothing, both convincing with a high-quality performances vocally as well as dramatically.

First, Nemorino is an ideal role for Rolando Villazón in every way. He simply is that clumsy, shy and naive village boy, believing that a fake love potion will get him his Adina. 5 minutes applause after his big aria Nella Furtiva Lacrima even resulted in an encore. And justly so, the lyrical part bringing out maximal expressivity in his voice, without pushing it to the limit. Though his acting does in some ways remind of Mr. Bean, he genuinely seems to be in his right element here. So does Anna Netrebko with her lofty, though warm Adina.

Also Ildebrando d´Arcangelo (as the potion-seller Dulcamara) and Leo Nucci (as Nemorino´s rival Belcore) are very convincing, although they probably would have been even more convincing had they switched roles, leaving the younger, and quite handsome d´Arcangelo to play Villazon´s rival.

Do not expect this DVD to profoundly change your life or to provide new insights into the remotest corners of the human mind. But do expect to be splendidly entertained for two hours.

Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón:

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

Anna Netrebko: 5
Rolando Villazón: 5
Ildebrando d´Arcangelo: 5
Leo Nucci: 4-5

Schenks staging: 4

Eschwé: 4-5

Overall impression: 5

The Barenboim/Kupfer Meistersinger revival - again...

Meistersinger, Berlin State Opera, March 24th 2008. Kupfer (d), Barenboim (c).

With: James Morris, René Pape, Dorothea Röschmann, Roman Trekel, Burkhard Fritz.

This is almost a replica of the Meistersinger performance I saw last week (same production, same conductor, same cast), so no reason to repeat my write-up from last week (see here).

The major difference from last week was the audience reaction: That James Morris was not booed this time, but instead received a deservedly warm applause. On the contrary one (only one) very loud person booed Dorothea Röschmann - really, what kind of person decides to stand up alone in a theater and just yell? It is completely beyond me.

René Pape was quite demonic as Pogner, the glances he shot at Beckmesser resulted in most of the audience fearing for their lives. Over-all Kupfer´s individual characterization of the Meistersinger´s is far more detailed than the group portrayal often seen, here with Sachs and Pogner firmly together and Kothner clearly following them, although he does not understand what is going on.

Nothing to say of Daniel Barenboim´s excellent conducting, that I haven´t said numerous times before, including at last weeks performance.

It was also interesting to note how much better the acoustics are when you are seated at the 2nd level of the theater, as opposed to the floor section. Especially since the tickets up there comes at a fraction of the floor ticket prize.

James Morris, René Pape and Roman Trekel (center from right):

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Excellent new production of The Gambler at the Berlin State Opera

The Gambler - main set- photographed 15 minutes before the performance started

The Gambler, Berlin State Opera, March 23th. Tcherniakov (d), Barenboim (c).
Cast: Opolais (Polina), Didyk (Alexej), Ognovenko (General), Toczyska (Babulen´ka). Detailed cast and information here. Co-production with La Scala opera house.

In short, this was an excellent performance of Prokofiev´s opera The Gambler. Interesting sets, very interesting stage direction, a fabulously well-playing orchestra, good singer-actors. What more can you possibly want from an opera? And besides, this had attracted a significantly younger audience, than usually seen at the opera - most of whom (at least the ones we talked to and over-heard talking) seemed to share my opinion of the performance.

Dmitri Tcherniakov is a very interesting stage director, also responsible for the excellent Boris Godunov at the Berlin State Opera (more here) and Khovantschina (more here) in Munich last year. He also designs the sets himself, which this evening, consisted of a hotel lobby, which transformed into a gambling room in the last act.
But first of all, he is eminent in his detailed direction of the singers - the interactions between them become clear and interesting - as well as funny. Plus, he has an affinity for creating several rooms on stage, in which you see the parallel actions of characters, not currently singing, which greatly contributes to the understanding of the underlying motives of the characters. Tcherniakov seemd to follow the libretto quite closely, though placing the action close to the present day. An atmosphere of nouveau riche Russian lives were tangible.

You have to admire Daniel Barenboim for his versatility and constantly taking up new repertoire, where he could easily play it safe and stick with Wagner. This Prokofiev was simply grand - I have rarely heard this orchestra play any better (or louder, for that sake).
And with excellent soloist, especially Misja Didyk (Alexej) and Kristine Opolais (Polina), but also Stefania Toscyzka (Babulen´ka) was very convincing.

Again, my only complaint this performance relates to the outrageously high Festival ticket prizes..But rumours has it there will be a run of performances at ordinary (which are very reasonable) ticket prices this autumn. Not to miss, if anywhere near Berlin. Or La Scala, for that matter, where it will be shown later this season.

Curtain call photos:

Monday 24 March 2008

Wonderful Rolando Villazon recital at the Berlin State Opera

All photos from Berlin State Opera, March 22th 2008.

Rolando Villazón (tenor), Daniel Barenboim (piano),
Berlin State Opera, March 22th 2008.

Recital program:

Schumann: Dichterliebe
Duparc: Chanson triste /Lamento/Le manoir de Rosamonde / La vie anterieure
Liszt: Tre Sonetti di Petrarca -1. Pace non trovo 2. Benedetto sia ‘l giorno 3. I vidi in terra angelici costumi

It was obvious to everyone present at Rolando Villazón´s wonderful recital Saturday at the Berlin State Opera, that heis an artist who gives everything to his audience. He literally poured his heart out in this recital programme with songs by Schumann, Duparc and Liszt. There is just such a sympathetic aura around him that you really want him to do well. And on top, Villazon seemed unusually relaxed and calm on stage, as opposed to the hypomaniac presence I´ve seen him exhibit quite a few times in the past. Which was not at least due to the presence of Daniel Barenboim, who was a wonderful accompanist, precise and expressive, but never pushing himself forward. Villazon quite visibly leaned on his solid support the entire evening. Needless to say, the Berlin State Opera was packed, and extra seats had been placed on the podium.

Rolando Villazón is such a sympathetic artist that I genuinely wish I could report that he delivered a perfect recital in every sense and was back with full vocal power. Which, however, wouldn´t be a quite honest note of my impression.

First of all, Villazón was wonderfully expressive throughout the programme, creating infinite colours with the voice alone and with a minimum movement on stage. Regarding expressivity and insightfullness he definitely has never been better.
Vocally, however, there was a thin veil over most of his middle and in particular the high register, where he had trouble with the high pianissimos. He started out carefully with the Dichterliebe and placed more and more weight behind his voice as the evening progressed, but he never quite accomplished an unstrained sound in the top. In particular in the Liszt songs, requiring force in the top register, he didn´t quite have the necessary power.

Does this detract from the enjoyment of this recital? In my opinion, not really. However, I found myself worrying about his upcoming Don Carlos at the Royal Opera more than a few times. He has already cancelled his Cavaradossi in Berlin next season in favour of a Lenski, which seems to be a step in the right direction. It would be a genuine loss to loose an artist of his caliber.

Good Friday Parsifal in Dresden: A long night indeed...

Photo taken during the final applause

Parsifal, Dresden Semperoper, Good Friday, March 21th 2008.
Theo Adam (d), Peter Schneider (c). Cast: Klaus Florian Vogt (Parsifal), Kurt Rydl (Gurnemanz), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Franz Grundheber (Amfortas), Eglis Silins (Klingsor)

It is Good Friday, the day where you would expect most Parsifal performances to be concentrated. In fact, very few houses run Parsifal performances on this exact day, concentrating performances on the day before and on Easter Sunday.

The Dresden Parsifal (more info here) in short: This is not a Parsifal production worthy of the Dresden Semperoper. And I am referring mainly to the staging of Theo Adam dated 1988: With a few exceptions it genuinely looks like something from Wagner´s own productions in Bayreuth: Dull and gloomy with the singers basically standing passive on stage and singing to the audience with no interaction apart from the demonic energy Kurt Rydl infused into the scenes with Gurnemanz. No traces of personenregie here.

It seem like this production adheres to most of Wagners stage directions (except that Amfortas in stead of Kundry dies in the end) and thus should be ideal for those adverse to the new tendencies of Regietheater. But I suspect, based on the unenthusiastic applause and sporadic boos, that even more traditionally inclined operagoers were not impressed by this staging, despite the realistic representation of the various symbols such as the Spear and Grail and placing Klingsor on top of a castle build on skulls, shaking in its foundation (not intended) whenever he moved.

In short: It was a long night. As I am opposed to booing, the only thing left was to have some drinks (several needed) during the intermissions. It was still a long night.

On the positive side, Klaus Florian Vogt is fabulously secure and with a beautifully clear voice as Parsifal. I cannot remember the last time I´ve heard this part sung with so much ease. He did not seem strained at any point at all. And, not unimportantly, he is definitely no wimp to look at. There is, however, a certain eeriness to his appearance, which I´ve also noted in other productions, making him dramatically completely unconvincing as an innocent boy. However, the same eeriness suited him quite well as Walther in Bayreuth last year and as Andrei Khovansky (who is in fact a maniacal killer) in Khovanschina last year in Munich. As well as in the Lohengrin production from Baden-Baden (also on DVD). If I met this guy with (or without as a matter of fact) a bow in his hand, I would most likely fear for my life.
However, Kurt Rydl may not have had such concerns since he is probably the most demonic Gurnemanzve yet to see. If I was Parsifal, I would genuinely fear for my life with this guy. Although not quite at ease with the top notes, he was the only of the main characters successfully infusing some life into this production. Whatever you may think of his vocal abilities, he is definitely not boring. Which also goes for Franz Grundheber´s Amfortas – convincingly acted but vocally he was clearly under pressure.

Most dismaying, Katarina Dalayman is just not a good Kundry – she has the kind of regal quality to her singing which may make her a fine Brünnhilde and Isolde – but Kundry is no disengaged Queen: Dalayman does have the top notes, but she is no compelling presence on stage, to put it mildly. The second act scene between her and Parsifal was completely disengaging – both standing on each side of the stage delivering their monologues.

And what happened with the orchestra? I know Peter Schneider as a more than competent conductor in this repertoire, but this was just not good. There was no flow, the music sounded fragmented, it didn´t keep together at all.

Curiously, I had expected this to be a house in which there was no applause after the 1st act (like in Munich) or at least an attempt not to applaud after the 1st act (like Vienna and Bayreuth): But no. There was applause as well as curtain calls after the first act (like Berlin State Opera).

Now, this production is 19 years old and is almost revived every year, Semperoper being one of the oldest and most esteemed Wagner houses in the world. It would do the house (and the unsuspecting public) good to have a new Parsifal production. As soon as possible.

Curtain-call photo from left: Kurt Rydl, Franz Grundheber, Katarina Dalayman, Klaus Florian Vogt

Sunday 23 March 2008

Christian Thielemann conducts a sublime Parsifal in Vienna

Standing ovations for Christian Thielemann at the Vienna Parsifal curtain calls.

Parsifal, Vienna State Opera, March 20th 2008. Mielitz (d), Christian Thielemann (c).
Cast: Stephen Milling (Gurnemanz), Thomas Moser (Parsifal), Mihoko Fujimura (Kundry), Falk Struckmann (Amfortas). Information here

How do you describe a truly sublime orchestral performance? I am not religious, so religious metaphors will not do. Even so, I had a strange feeling during this Parsifal, that this is the musical equivalent of being in heaven and seeing all the stars spread out underneath you. At other points I had distinct reminisces of long gone relatives or of travelling into a star-covered eternity.

The ethereal beauty of Christian Thielemann´s Parsifal is indescribable. We made the trip to Vienna on the strength of him conducting, and our expectations were ridiculously high. But they were indeed surpassed. There is no doubt that Thielemann gives everything he has to this music: He is not afraid of pathos or grandness and masterly uses the entire range of orchestra volume from long passages of the tiniest pianissimo to the earth-shattering fortes particularly poignant at Titurel´s funeral. The details of the score are laid completely open, the strings shimmer as flickering stars while the slow rumble of the basses arise from underneath. Has there ever been a more masterful interpreter of this score? I seriously doubt it.

I saw this production last year, and commented thoroughly on the Christine Mielitz´production at that point (read it here), so I´ll limit myself to saying: I still don´t understand it. It was probably not helped by the fact that I had my eyes closed for the majority of the performance, but I did open them with regular intervals, to check if anything new was happening (mostly there wasn´t).

For once, the balcony standing room was as popular as the floor standing room spaces, and the reason quickly became clear to me: You cannot really see Christian Thielemann from the floor spaces, and this was indeed the reason most people came this afternoon. The massive applause greeting him even before the performance at least equalled the reception James Levine gets at the Metropolitan. I had opted for a cheap balcony seat, with a good view of the stage (which I hadn´t expected), but damn....I could not see Christian Thielemann properly (which I had expected to be able to) - only when he stood up could I see the tip of the stick. But the acoustics at these spaces are great - almost to great, in that you can hear every ruffle of paper even from the opposite side of the auditorium.

Stephen Milling is a superb Gurnemanz. He as the exact physical authority on stage to make Gurnemanz an interesting character as opposed to the old, lifeless man so often seen. He was a bit pressured at the top, but nothing that seriously impacted on his excellent performance. He received the most applause of the soloists together with Mihoko Fujimura´s Kundry. I had expected Thielemann to drown Fujimura, who has a rather small, but very beautiful voice, but surprisingly he didn´t. Though very beautifully sung, I don´t think that Kundry suits Fujimura well: While singing precisely and with impeccable intonation, she almost completely lacked the drama associated with Kundry. It was just too nice. I´ve previously had the same problems with her Brangäne and Waltraute, and honestly think she may be dramatically better suited in some of the lighter repertoire. Thomas Moser did not make any particular impression with his Parsifal, and indeed were booed by some. Whenever I see Falk Struckman on stage, he always seems to play himself - which luckily works quite well for characters as diverse as the Dutchman, Amfortas, Rangoni and Iago. Struckmann definitely is at his best in the theater. While his recorded voice often sounds dry and wobbly, he sounds much fresher in live performances.

But, no doubt, this evening belonged to Christian Thielemann.

For those not able to go to Vienna, Christian Thielemann´s magnificent live recording of this production from 2005 is available on DG with Plácido Domingo and Waltraud Meier.

Curtain call photos. Stephen Milling and Christian Thielemann:

Curtain calls: Chorus and (from left) Thomas Moser, Falk Struckmann, Mihoko Fujimura and Stephen Milling.

Vienna State Opera: La Forza del Destino

La Forza del Destino. Vienna State Opera, March 19th 2008. Production: David Poutney . Cast: Nina Stemme (Leonora), Salvatore Licitra (Alvaro), Carlos Alvarez (Carlos), Alastair Miles (Marchese and Fra Guardiano), Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla). Conductor: Zubin Mehta

Due to my arrival 3,5 hours before the start of the performance, I got standing room ticket number 11, which secured me a place at the first row of the Japanese-tourist-filled standing room space with the best view in the house for this evenings performance of Forza del Destino at the Vienna State Opera. The heavy Japanese standing room presence at the Vienna State Opera is in fact very positive, since it´s my impression based on several visits, that the Japanese visitors are dead-quiet during the performance as well as polite and observant of the rules which is more than may be said for quite a few others. And many were visibly impressed by the auditorium and surroundings (I even spotted my standing-room neighbor taking a high-resolution picture of her cake and cup of coffee during the intermission – I do agree they serve beautiful cakes here by the way…)

To the point: David Pountney´s stylish new production of La Forza del Destino, which only opened a couple of weeks ago, is based on the idea of coincidences as phenomenons, which make people come together and with unforeseeable consequences. This point was made clear from the beginning of the ouverture with a video projection of a butterfly basking it wings, setting a wheel in motion which finally leads to a bullet, led astray by coincidence and shooting the Marchese di Calatrava so the blood splatters down the screen. This video section is shown several times during the opera on a semi-transparent screen in front of the stage, meaning that even I, for once, got the point without having to read the programme notes…. Furthermore, Pountney sees this opera as a mixture of tragedy and comedy, the comic aspect being the glorification of war present in the scenes with Preziosilla (this I did get from the program notes, however). The main visual element of the production was a declining white wooden platform making it up for the initial as well as last scene. Sets were very simple, only adding a few white constructions on top of the basic ones for the war scenes. Soldiers were dressed up as red-clad cowboys led by Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla) showing she can do splits as well as sing.

As a courtesy to the two male leads (allowing Alvaro and Carlos a longer break between their two duets) the order of the Act 3 scenes were reversed. Furthermore Guardiano and Marchese Calatrava was sung by the same singer (Alastair Miles), allegedly to imply that both figures act as fathers for Leonora.

I actually find Pountney´s point of coincidences quite good: Does any opera have an equally unlikely course of events? In my opinion, this beats even Trovatore. I mean: Of all the cloisters in medieval Europe, Alvaro chooses to settle at the one where Leonora is living as a hermit in the woods? And of all possible places to duel, Carlos and Alvaro choose the place precisely outside her hut? Not to talk of them running into each other with Alvaro saving Carlos´ life during the war. And I am not even mentioning the bullet issue. But then, on a purely personal level, I met my brother in a completely deserted back alley of Vienna walking back from a Parsifal performance last spring – and none of us even knew that the other was going to be in Vienna at all. How likely is that? The point being: Coincidences do happen….

Unfortunately I feel that Nina Stemme´s voice is currently developing in a unfortunate direction: During the last couple of years it has become increasingly strained, and as tonight's Leonora she displayed a quite obtrusive wobble in her middle as well as high register. It is genuinely a shame, since she has such other fine qualities, such as the ability to generate vocal drama and a convincing stage presence. But she was warmly received by the audience. Nadia Krasteva, despite looking really good and doing some awesome splits, didn´t seem completely at ease with Preziosilla either. Alastair Miles was a rather dry-voiced Guardiano/Marchese di Calatrava. On the positive side, the male leads did really well: Salvatore Licitra was light-years better than in the miserable Ballo di Maschera-broadcast this January from the MET: He both sang and acted convincingly and with plenty of warmth. And perhaps the biggest applause of the evening well-deserved went to Carlos Alvarez as a vocally secure and dramatically convincing Carlos.

Now to the Vienna State Opera Orchestra: I simply don´t think they played up to their best. Zubin Mehta obviously took a lighter, less fluently approach to the score, but even then the orchestral sound at several points sounded just shallow and forced…

In the monthly Vienna State Opera magazine, Zubin Mehta talked about the superstition associated with Forza del Destino and was quoted as saying that Pavarotti didn´t even allowed him to play the Forza ouverture in their concerts together for superstitious fears of evil, not the least since this is the opera on which baryton Leonard Warren died on stage at the Metropolitan Opera. Both Pountney and Mehta stated that they did not believe in fate.

Standing room tickets at the Vienna State Opera

Opera is serious business in Vienna (and in Germany as well for that case). And one of the most positive consequence of taking opera very seriously must be the extremely well-organized standing room ticket sales at the Vienna State Opera: - an experience in itself:

There are more than 500 standing room spaces at the Vienna State Opera available for every performance and only sold on the day of the performance:

The standing room spaces are located at three levels:

1) The floor level – parterre just behind the 18th row (prize: 3,50 Euro) – with presumably the best view of the entire house. Photo here of the floor level standing room area:

The view from the floor/parterre standing room row 1 is seen below (it is worth noting that people on the floor just in front of you have significantly poorer view than you have due to the almost negligible slope of the floor and in addition they have payed 120-80 Euros for their tickets):

2) Further standing room spaces are located at the balcony and gallery level (which due to 3 levels of boxes between the floor level and the balcony constitute levels 4 and 5 in the house), which have the best acoustics in the house. Prize: 2,50 Euro. Photo of the balcony and gallery level standing areas here:

View from balcony standing room row 1:

The concept: You start queuing for the standing room tickets outside the opera house on the left side at the area marked ”standing room” (see photo below). Exactly at what time the queue starts obviously depends on the popularity of the performance. Most people start queuing 3-3,5 hours before the performance. I started queuing 3,5 hours before the performance of the new production of Forza del Destino and got ticket number 11 = a space on the first row in the parterre standing area. People arriving 80 minutes before the performance also got tickets. I got an equally high number queuing 3,5 hours in advance for the new Arabella production (with Adrianne Pieczonka and Thomas Hampson) last year.

Exactly 3 hours before the performance starts, they let you inside the building (see photo below). As long as you are queuing outside the theatre, you may mark your space with a bag, small stool etc. and wander around in the city. Once you are inside, there is no mercy. You are not allowed to leave your space. And believe me, this is serious business. At least 5 ”veteran” Viennese queuers seem to be present in the queue constantly vigilant that nobody cheats. If thus suspected, the traditionally uniformed queue attendant will be called immediately. Last time I was there, a Japanese-looking lady was trying to get her friend in beside her (without the friend having queued for the spot, obviously), but this was immediately spotted by the ”guardians” and the woman was almost forcibly taken away from her place. On the other hand you may be certain, that nobody cheats you or takes your space as long as you play by the rules.
Exactly 80 minutes before the performance begins, the tickets are sold – STRICTLY one per person. You then go from the ticket area directly inside the house, where you queue up (strictly in pairs) just in front of the entrance to your designated area. When there are enough people in the queue, you are let in the auditorium – so that exactly the same number of people are let in from each side at the time (see the parallel organization of the parterre standing room). Then you find your spot, which you mark with a scarf. When the parterre standing room has filled up an official will make a short speech ”Welcome to the Vienna State Opera” etc. in both German and English. You may then leave the theater and return at the start of the performance. You may be virtually 100 % sure that nobody steals you space, since you will be a known face in the queue by now, and fellow queue members will help expose the "offender".
At the Forza performance this Wednesday a 10-year old child had secured a very good place in the queue (number 8) and then tried to persuade the guards to let her be accompanied by her parents (with queuing numbers around 100) at the first row, which of course meant pushing some legitimate queuers away. Needless to say, it didn´t work. The guards initially gave way, but the people protested so vehemently, that in the end she was allowed to be accompanied by one parent in a total of one space….
I have personally never had any problems with the Vienna State Opera standing room tickets, and indeed they are excellent value. The only downside is that you actually have to stand up…

Photo below of the outside and inside queuing area:

All photographs in this post are taken before the performance or during the intermissions at the performance of Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera, March 20th 2008.

Saturday 22 March 2008

Pierre Boulez with Mozart and Alban Berg in Paris

Ensemble Intercontemporain, Salle Pleyel, March 18th 2008

Actually, it is a quite good programming choice mixing the Alban Berg Chamber Concerto with Mozart Gran Partita for 13 woodwind as was done in this concert with the Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Pierre Boulez and with soloist Christian Tetzlaff and Mitsuko Uchida this Tuesday at the Salle Pleyel, Paris (more information here).

There is no doubt that the majority of the audience came for the Alban Berg piece, so this was definitely not an attempt, as seen so often before, to sneak in a "modern" piece within a concert drawing in the audiences via a traditional "classical" piece. Actually quite a few of the audience only arrived after the intermission.

On the contrary, the classical structures of the Alban Berg Chamber Concerto were highlighted by the preceding Mozart piece - "Alban Bergs conflict between expressionism and classical structure" - as Pierre Boulez stated in the program. And Pierre Boulez conducted the Alban Berg concerto with immense clarity and sense of detail and precision, with the brilliant soloists Christian Tetzlaff (violin) and Mitsuko Uchida (piano) providing the expressionism, so to speak. And making it quite clear, why this Chamber Concerto is indeed a master-piece, exposing layer after layer of colour in the music.

And I even continued to save money - buying a last-minute ticket from an Irish woman just outside the door for more than half the prize..

Photographs from the intermission:

Thursday 20 March 2008

The new Parsifal at the Paris Bastille Opera: Challenging, but very rewarding production

Parsifal, Paris Bastille Opera, March 17th 2008. Warlikowski (d), Haenchen (c). Cast: Stig Andersen (Parsifal), Waltraud Meier (Kundry), Franz-Josef Selig (Gurnemanz), Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor), Alexander-Marco Buhrmester (Amfortas).

Polish director Krysztof Warlikowski´s new Parsifal staging was already deemed ”controversial” at the opening a couple of weeks ago, mainly due to the use of a clip from Rosselini´s film ”Germany year zero”. Why this is considered so controversial by the otherwise quite open-minded-as-long-as-the-production-is-aesthetic Paris audience is somewhat puzzling. I happened to be surrounded by three people whistling quite loudly (directly into my ear, it seemed) as well as booing, during the approximately 2 minute long sequence, which ended with a French gentleman (sitting 2 seats from me) shouting: Silénce! (no translation needed) so it resounded throughout the auditorium. The boos and whistling immediately were followed by applause, which I´d definitely say won out though.

The staging in brief:

Act 1: Kundry with Gurnemanz and a knight

Act 1: The prelude is played to a white screen on which a finger emerges painting words like fou and esperance. Furthermore a short clip from Kubricks movie 2001 is shown (a man eats while another old man is lying in a bed). Most of the first act is played out on transparent chairs in front of that white screen, which is lifted a couple of times to expose a surgical auditorium reminiscent of Wagner´s time, with doctors/students occupying the seats while a team of surgeons work on Amfortas. Apparently the surgery goes well and Amfortas later manages to walk into the auditorium on crutches to perform the ”Grail ritual” pouring drinks from bottles placed next to a large table (the last supper?) in front of the auditorium. Kundry arrives sitting on a gymnastic horse, dressed in green and with long curly red hair. In all scenes a small boy is present in the periphery.

Act 2 "flowermaidens"

Act 2: We immediately see that Klingsor´s power over Kundry is a purely physical one as he forces her down on the bed. The beautiful 1920ish clad women then undress Parsifal to his underpants and tie him down to a chair, from which Kundry eventually releases him. The whole Act is played out in front of this surgical auditorium, and when Klingsor appears, the spear is substituted for a cross-formed red laser ray.

Act 3: Parsifal with Kundry

Act 3: Opens with the major controversial point of the production (judged by press and audience reactions): A 2 minute clip from Rosselini´s film ”Germany year zero” showing a young boy committing suicide by throwing himself from a building. A small garden with green grass and plants are present in front of the auditorium. Everyone, especially Kundry, looks a lot older. Parsifal arrives with an old lump of wood (presumably the spear analogue), Kundry washes his feet and he baptises her. In the end, Parsifal relieves Amfortas, and the opera ends by the table of the last supper, presumably with a family dinner: The mother Kundry, the father Parsifal, their child (the omnipresent mute child of the production) and the uncle/grandfather? (or is he maybe the father?) Amfortas (whom Kundry hugs for a long time). The faith of family bonds. Quite an original review of Wagner´s ending and a fresh take on the work.

Does it work? Over-all I think it does. Warlikowski seems to want to demythologize Parsifal - making it a tale of family relations. Kundry is at the center of the production. It´s a staging, which leaves the spectator with many things to reflect on and even two days after the performance I have a distinct feeling that there may be several other layers to the production than those apparent on the surface.

Danish tenor Stig Fogh Andersen, a last-minute substitute for Christopher Ventris, was an excellent Parsifal. As a regular operagoer in Copenhagen, I have followed Andersen´s career for about 25 years, and it has been fascinating to see how he has developed from the Tamino´s of the 1980´s to the Siegfried, Tristan and Parsifals of today. And mightily impressive, how he´s learned the staging (which is quite complicated) in such a short time.
Waltraud Meier was at her magnificent, radiant best, vocally not strained at all and throwing the top-notes out into the auditorium with seemingly ease. And in addition, she looked devastatingly beautiful in Act 2. She was both the intended and actual center of this production. Deservedly the biggest applause of the evening went to her. Evgeny Nikitin´s Klingsor also stood out for his secure voice and convincing character portrayal. Franz-Josef Selig does by all standards make a solid Gurnemanz, but I feel he lacks the smooth vocal lines necessary to optimally get through his long solo passages.

Conductor Hartmut Haenchen is really fast with the score. With timings of 1:40, 1:05 and 1:05, the over-all performance being 3:50. Initially, he didn´t seem fast, since he took the prelude at a conventional pace, but then he slowly sped up.. In comparison I´d say Barenboim normally is about 20 minutes slower in the first Act alone. Haenchen was hugely applauded by the audience and it was by no means a badly conducted performance. He clearly understands the score, and presents a well-thought reading of it, but I lacked some depth and tension. And I prefer a much slower paced conducting, though slow tempi by no means automatically guarantees a successfully conducted Parsifal. Interestingly, some of the trombones in Act 1 was placed off-stage with excellent effect (though they almost deafened a co-reviewer..)

Even apart from the whistling and booing, the audience around me was generally quite badly behaved. Probably due to the fact, that by some smaller miracle I actually had a 1st row seat (which I hadn´t noticed until I actually sat there) and the people on these rows seem among the more conservative in the audience (for obvious monetary reasons, perhaps) – or at least that has been my experience in quite a few cases. This Monday evening I sat next to a group of 5 Spanish tourists, who obviously thought this opera was a bit long, judged on their incessant scuffling of paper and noisily eating lollipops. Two of the ladies even used the border between the auditorium and the pit to hang their coats on in Act 3!

The white screen of Act 1 as it looked from my 1st row seat!:

Waltraud Meier and Stig Andersen applauded after the Second Act:

And Act 3 curtain calls:

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Berlin Meistersinger revival- in which James Morris was unjustly booed as the Sachs René Pape should have sung...

Meistersinger. Berlin State Opera, March 16th 2008. Director: Harry Kupfer. Cast: James Morris (Hans Sachs), René Pape (Pogner), Dorothea Röschmann (Eva), Roman Trekel (Beckmesser), Burkhard Fritz (Walther). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim.

You may or may not like James Morris´ long legato-lines and somewhat passive approach to Hans Sachs, well known from the Metropolitan Opera, on DVD as well. However, in this Meistersinger at the Berlin State Opera he was in excellent voice, much better than in anything I have heard of him from the Met in at least 5 years: No wobble and with a secure, firm tone. Part of the explanation probably being the small size of the house, but I also suspect he may quite simply have been in fine form. In brief, an excellent Hans Sachs with plenty of worldliness and wisdom. And for those reasons, though I fully understand that some may disagree with this assessment, I was genuinely surprised that anyone (luckily only a few, but they were quite loud) would disagree to the extent of booing him. The majority, however, did applaud.

Whenever the subject of Morris´ Sachs came up during the intervals, people kept voicing their disappointment that René Pape had cancelled his originally scheduled Sachs in this production. As well as disliking Morris diction (which I honestly think is quite good) and accusing him of lack of understanding of the character (with which I simply do not agree).

And as regular readers will know well, few bigger admirers of René Pape exist than myself, however since he cancelled this Sachs almost a year ago, even I have managed to get past that disappointment, and accordingly I found the treatment of Morris quite unfair. But then - what do I know? Sachs is a German national icon, and as a non-German, my opinion, of course, counts for very little.
But I´ll have to add that sometimes, some of the operagoing public in Berlin really are among the worst in the world.

Biggest applause among the singers (of course) went to René Pape as Pogner, quite justified, as he was simply excellent.

Excellent also, was Daniel Barenboim on the podium. A magnificent, dense reading of the score. With him, the Berlin Staatskapelle is a first-rate orchestra, and as they played here, they have few (if any) rivals in the world in this repertoire.

Dorothea Röschmann made her debut as Eva, her first lead Wagnerian part, and her background in Mozart-singing was clear from the straigh Mozartian style, which which she approached the notes. Her voice is immensely beautiful, though I sincerely doubt if moving into the Wagnerian repertoire (Elsa is upcoming in 2009) is the right thing, based on the visible strain particularly in the Act III Quintet, where she seemed to have reached the maximum of her vocal capability. Furthermore she looked rather uneasy on stage, though after all, it was her first time with the part.

Among the others, Roman Trekel made a fine Beckmesser. I must admit, I´ve never quite taken to Burkhard Fritz, but that may be blamed on my ears alone, and he did seem better suited to the part of Walther than of other parts in which I´ve seen him previously (Parsifal, Benvenuto Cellini). Katharina Kammerloher was excellent as Magdalene. Florian Hoffman as David simply looked like a teenage-boy and has a very small, lyrical voice. I suppose it is a matter of taste, which type to prefer as David, but I found him a bit out of place here, though not by his fault.

This is one of the least exciting Kupfer-Wagner productions: The theme seems to be the conflict between new and old, illustrated by a vertical column of a wooden structure set upon a background of a projected modern city sky-line. And (very unlikely of Kupfer) the Personenregie seems very weak, leaving us this tableaux with a period-costumed cast for the entire opera. I suppose this production offends very few, but I´d be surprised if many found it innovative or exciting.

The only thing that genuinely bothers me about this Meistersinger, is that the company charges up to 260 Euros (Festival ticket prize) for this old Kupfer-revival, which they have played countless times before at ordinary (up to 80 Euros) prizes. I concede, that this was probably planned around René Pape´s Hans Sachs and that the company had to go forward with the schedule for logistic reasons after he cancelled, but I was not surprised to see so many of the expensive seats empty.

Photos from the Berlin State Opera website.

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