Wednesday 30 April 2008

Berlin: Fascinating production of The Magic Flute in the subway

Magic Flute in the underground- the auditorium...

The Magic Flute in the subway/Die Zauberflöte in der U-bahn. Berlin, April 27th 2008 (second performance of the run - opened April 26th)
Concept, director and conductor: Christoph Hagel. Berliner Symphoniker. Cast listed here.
Full information on the production here.

The concept for this production of the Magic Flute is fascinating: The location is the new subway station Bundestag, not scheduled for use until 2009, located in the center of Berlin next to the new Parliament (Bundestag in German). The concept apparently is evolving around the subway being the center of an expanded web/labyrinth of the city and is directed by Christoph Hagel, previously associated with similar events in Germany.

The ”auditorium” is in fact the entire railway station (see photographs below), the rail tracks on one side filled up by seats – on the other side the tracks serve as entry and exit points for the various characters. No decorations are present other than the original subway interior complete with vending machines, directories etc.

The updated and rewritten story goes as this: We are in a subway (!) in present day Germany, as indicated by the rewritten contemporary dialogue including jokes about Angela Merkel etc. but with Tamino seemingly arriving from the past. Several of the arias were re-texted as well, but I didn´t understand what they were actually singing. In brief, Pamina is apprehended by railway officer in a break during the overture and led to Sarastro (a businessman?). Papageno is a punk-type living within the subway station where the Queen of the Night (and other characters apart from the three boys, who arrive on skateboard) appear from the railway track. In the end the Queen of the Night with followers are swallowed by the railway.

Not only is the production set in a subway station, it also successfully manages to involve the subway and subterranean city life in the staging concept. One may argue whether jokes about Angela Merkel are really funny in this setting. Personally, I don´t think so, but clearly a large part of the audience thought otherwise.

The primary reason to see this is the concept and atmosphere of actually being in the subway. That said, particularly the performances of Tamino (which I belive, based on the picture in the programme, was sung by Michael Müller, but no information was available regarding which of the alternating cast we heard), Monica Garcia Albea (Pamina) and Sascha Borris (Sarastro) were good. Also well played by 30 members of the Berliner Symphoniker, located at the far end of the subway station, halfway hidden behind concrete pillars with the conductor pacing back and forth on the platform to coordinate the singing with the orchestra. All singing and dialogue was amplified, probably a necessity due to the acoustics of the place, which were expectedly not of ordinary opera house standards.

That better performances of the Magic Flute in terms of strict musical quality may be heard both in Berlin and elsewhere seem besides the point here and does not really detract from the unique concept and experience, which makes this well worth seeing.

Tips for those planning to attend any of the performances: Gallery left side tickets are located right above the rail tracks where characters are entering and exiting – it seems better to opt for the right side gallery. There is free seating in the galleries and the entrance opens approximately one hour beforehand. It is quite warm inside – no need to bring additional warm clothing.

Tuesday 29 April 2008

It´s now official: Wolfgang Wagner retires from Bayreuth Festival leadership

It is now official, that Richard Wagner´s grandson Wolfgang Wagner retires as leader of the Bayreuth Festival "latest end of August" this year after more than 50 years.

Thus, Wolfgang Wagner wrote in a letter to Toni Schmid (president of the Board of the Bayreuth Festival) today. A representative of Wolfgang Wagner furthermore stated that "he does not want to block the road anymore". All involved parties (the Friends of Bayreuth, the official representatives of Bavaria etc.) seem satisfied with his decision to volunarily step down.

The Board of Directors of the Bayreuth Festival are meeting today to decide on the successor to Wolfgang Wagner. Favourites are Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier (running as a team).

Wolfgang Wagner´s retirement is fixed and unconditional, but a representative states that "he is convinced that the solution with his two daughters succeeding him is the best one" and hopes it "will be confirmed by the Board of the Festival" later today.

Full story in Kurier.

This is episode 19 of the mostly opera docusoap "The Bayreuth Succession".

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

Monday 28 April 2008

Berlin Don Giovanni with René Pape: My final words...

Don Giovanni, Berlin State Opera, April 25th and 27th 2008. Director: Peter Mussbach. Cast for both performances: René Pape (Don Giovanni), Annette Dasch (Donna Elvira), Anna Samuil (Donna Anna), Jeremy Ovenden (Don Ottavio), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Leporello), Arttu Kataja (Masetto), Sylvia Schwartz (Zerlina). Conductor: Asher Fish. Further details here.

I have now attended four performances of this Peter Mussbach production of Don Giovanni at the Berlin State Opera including the first two back in December. So, until further notice, these are my final words:

While René Pape was sleepwalking his way through the performance on Friday in addition to using the first 20 minutes to warm up his voice, he was right on spot and from the beginning as well in Sunday´s performance. Otherwise, not much may be added to my previous postings on his Don Giovanni: I still find him the ideal interpreter of the Don, though clearly among the heavy interpreters, both regarding voice (he is a high bass) and presence. However, there is something strange about René Pape in this production, which he does not seem to be at ease with, a fact I strongly suspect may be attributed to Peter Mussbach´s production concept, or rather: Lack of concept, as I´ve decribed previously.

Of the remaining singers, Annette Dasch was truly grandiose. What a voice and what a dramatic presence. She seemed an entirely different singer compared to the initial performances in December, whether due to a genuine change or an initial oversight on my part is obviously not for me to say. I wouldn´t be surprised if she goes on to have a major career. She will, by the way sing Donna Anna in the new Salzburg Don Giovanni production this summer.

Jeremy Ovenden was also fine in the thankless part of Don Ottavio and the others were largely as I remembered them from December´s performances (where they varied between fine and excellent).

Obviously, many in the sold-out house, including myself, were disappointed not to have Daniel Barenboim conduct as he cancelled this run only weeks ago.
While Asher Fish, a both sympathetic and fine conductor, is no match for Barenboim in the heavy-Mozartian respect, he definitely does not serve period-style Mozart light, either.
Som may find Fish´s approach both fresh and exciting. I rather found it too fast, and furthermore Fish does tend to let the tempi carry away with him and accelerate during the fast arias and ensemble pieces, worst during the Champagne Aria - had it been much longer he would have lost René Pape (who tried not to accelerate but eventually had to) completely.

Generally most of the singers set a slower tempo than Fish, which I wish he would adjust to, but obviously that is his call. Only in Deh vieni was he forced to keep the slower tempo set by René Pape, but his eagerness to set a quicker pace was obvious.

Compared to the premiere, the April audiences were much more benign. And, one may add, probably far less critically inclined on average, since many were tourists and all around me people were deeply absorbed in the English translation of the plot summary.
My neighbour initially confused Leporello with the Don, and couldn´t understand why the Don was singing the Catalogue aria (the only piece the knew). The people sitting right behind me had trouble distinguishing Donna Anna from Donna Elvira and while admittedly not helped by the production, it doesn´t exactly reflect on an overly familiarity with the piece either.

However, for what it is worth, the atmosphere in the audience was light and for once it felt like people actually were there to be entertained.

Entertaining Berlin duo recital: Röschmann and Kozená with Barenboim

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano), Magdalena Kozená (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Barenboim (piano). Berlin State Opera. April 27th 2008.

Despite the slightly antisocial scheduling of this recital at 11 am on a Sunday with the most superb weather seen as of yet this year, the Berlin State Opera was sold out for this duo recital of 19th century songs.

The concert was divided in two, with each half consisting of two duo sections and one solo section (programme listed below).

And I can report that both ladies both looked and sang superbly with Magdalena Kozená looking at least 7 months pregnant.

Magdalena Kozená represents the exquisite and delicately elegant singing style combining a perfectly controlled voice over the entire range with sensitive phrasing and immense varieties in word colouring. For her solo section, she unfortunately chose a selection of songs by Duparc, where she, in my opinion, fell short in terms of expressive power, though nevertheless exquisitely sung. Not surprisingly these songs are also commonly performed by Karita Mattila, having the sort of voice I´d find optimally suited to Duparc´s expressivity.

Dorothea Röschmann represents a more expressive singing style, with storytelling and declamation her first priority, not always opting for the beautiful sound, although she indeed has a beautiful voice. Her solo section consisted of songs by Wolf, performed with plenty of character and humour.

Their voices blended eloquently together, again with Dorothea Röschmann emerging the characterful and Magdelena Kozena the elegant, though with a tendency of Dorothea Röschmann to vocally overpower Magdelena Kozena. Both visibly enjoyed themselves, and in general the atmosphere of the entire recital was joyful, with the artists receiving far more applause than usual in Berlin (I suppose most of the audience were foreigners as well).

Accompanist was Daniel Barenboim, of whom can be said that he played exquisitely and with grace, never drawing attention to himself but providing a solid platform for the two ladies to shine. Furthermore he looked in very good health indeed (for those speculating on the reasons behind his cancellation of the current run of Don Giovanni performances, one of which is indeed scheduled later this afternoon).

Recital programme:

Ich wollt´, meine Lieb
Abschiedslied der Zugvögel
Maiglöckchen und die Blümelein

HUGO WOLF (Dorothea Röschmann)
Nimmersatte Liebe
An eine Äolsharfe
Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens
Denk es o Seele
Im Frühling
Gesang Weylas

Die Schwestern
Es ging ein Maidlein
Och Mod’r, ich well en Ding han
Weg der Liebe



D’un coeur qui t’aime

Puisqu’ici-bas toute âme

HENRI DUPARC (Magdalena Kozená)
L’Invitation au Voyage
Chanson triste


V dobrým sme se sešli
Holub na javore
Zelenaj se, zelenaj

Saturday 26 April 2008

Pierre Boulez - on audiences, composing in Bayreuth and generating controversy

[Pierre Boulez] says little has changed in the music world since he started out, in that "20% are very interested in new things, 50% can be persuaded and 30% are in their coffins before their time."

Excerpts from a fascinating interview with Pierre Boulez in today´s Guardian.

DVD: Gala concert at the Vienna State Opera

Gala for the 50th anniversary of the reopening of the Vienna State Opera. Vienna State Opera, November 5th 2005
Excerpts from: Don Giovanni, Rosenkavalier, Aida, Meistersinger, Frau Ohne Schatten, Fidelio

Artists include: Agnes Baltsa, Plácido Domingo, Thomas Hampson, Bryn Terfel, Violeta Urmana, Edita Gruberova, Angelika Kirchschlager. Conducting: Daniele Gatti, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Christian Thielemann, Franz Welser-Möst. More information here.

No matter how high the quality of the individual performances, these galas, in my opinion, tend to border on the tedious. Not the least due to the excessive applause between the contributions, at several points outlasting these in time. At least you get an impression of the atmosphere in the packed house, I suppose. During these applause session the camera repeatedly lingered on selected guests, of whom I only recognized Christa Ludwig, seated next to the entrance of the soloists and greeting many as they passed.

Is it worth watching? Definitely yes. Is it worth owning? I suppose that depends your affinity for this sort of thing and degree of liking for the individual performers.

Of particular note:

Bryn Terfel, despite a beautiful voice, is (still) not at his best in the Wagnerian repertoire (here as Hans Sachs).

Violeta Urmana - a really fine dramatic soprano. Couldn´t she be an option to resolve the much-talked-about Norma crisis at the Metropolitan Opera? I am sure she´d be great (here as Aida).

Agnes Baltsa - an immense presence on stage. She must have been completely mesmerizing to experience live in her prime, and was in impressively fine voice here (as Amneris).

Plácido Domingo - in very fine voice (as Radamés).

Angelika Kirchschlager - perhaps the ideal Octavian of today? (here as Octavian).

Christian Thielemann - does have a rather attention-seeking way of conducting (whether intentional is not for me to say), but the orchestra played gloriously with him (Meistersinger and Rosenkavalier).

Angelika Kirchschlager and Genia Kühmeier in the final scene of Rosenkavalier, Thielemann conducts:

Sunday 20 April 2008

MET HD 2008-9 schedule

UPDATE 22/4: The MET has now officially confirmed the schedule posted below (link here) without alterations. In addition the opening night is also transmitted, but only in North America.

Saturday, October 11, 2008
Franck; Mattila, Komlósi, Begley, Kaiser, Uusitalo

Saturday, November 8, 2008
Dr. Atomic
Gilbert; Cooke, Arwady, Finley, Fink, Owens

Saturday, November 22, 2008
Le Damnation de Faust
Levine; Graham, Giordani, Relyea

Saturday, December 20, 2008
López-Cobos; Fleming, Schade, Hampson

Saturday, January 10, 2009
La Rondine
Armiliato; Gheorghiu, Oropesa, Alagna, Brenciu, Ramey

Saturday, January 24, 2009
Levine; de Niese, Murphy, Blythe

Saturday, February 7, 2009
Lucia di Lammermoor
Armiliato; Netrebko, Villazón, Kwiecien, Abdrazakov

Saturday, March 7, 2009
Madama Butterfly
Summers; Gallardo-Domâs , Zifchak, Giordani, Croft

Saturday, March 21, 2009
La Sonnambula
Pidò; Dessay, Flórez, Pertusi

Saturday, May 9, 2009
La Cenerentola
Benini; Garanca, Brownlee, Alberghini, Corbelli, Relyea

I must admit I was surprised, that they are not (as yet) broadcasting the first Ring Cycle (the matinée cycle playing over four Saturdays). Still room for changes, I suppose, though the programme does look splendid, indeed.

Saturday 19 April 2008

Ken Russell´s Faust on DVD

Faust. Vienna State Opera 1985. Production: Ken Russell. Cast: Francisco Araiza (Faust), Ruggero Raimondi (Mephistopheles), Gabriela Benackova (Marguerite). Conductor: Erich Binder. More information here

This is British film director Ken Russell´s staging of Faust from the Vienna State Opera dated 1985. Apparently, the production was judged controversial at the time, despite it being in essence a traditional staging in both conception and presentation. The controversy mainly related to Russell´s departure from the libretto on the following main points: Making Marguerite a nun, and focusing on her punishment (showing a guillotine at the end of the opera) instead of her redemption.

The sets are largely realistic, opening with the old Faust in his study, receiving the dead body of a young woman, whom he unsuccessfully tries to revive. Towards the end of the opera, Faust is back in the study, this time in front of Marguerite´s casket. Mephistopheles appears in a puff of smoke, and apart from parts of the action revolving around nuns and priests, the story is told pretty straight-forward.

Though I am undecided on the idea of Marguerite as a nun (does this really add realism to the Faust-Marguerite love story, as Ken Russell claims in the booklet notes? - I would tend to say no), Ken Russell´s symbolism, in my opinion, adds spice to the story, and it is entertaining viewing indeed, despite the occasional dark sets. Not too surprisingly, the production has a distinct filmic quality, which suits the work well.

Unfortunately, the Walpurgis night scene is excluded as it has some of my favourite music (as was also the case in the recent MET production).

The singers range from fine to excellent, with the deservedly biggest applause to Ruggero Raimondi as Mephistopheles: He is in superb voice as well as elegant and funny.

Also fine performances from Francisco Araiza and Gabriela Benackova. The State Opera orchestra is conducted by Erich Binder in a fine performance, though a bit more intensity wouldn´t do any harm to the work.

This production was replaced by a new production by Joël autumn 2008 at the Vienna State Opera.

While waiting for the ideal Faust to appear on DVD, this one may not be a bad option.

The final scene (Benackova, Raimondi and Araiza):

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

Francisco Araiza: 4
Gabriela Benackova: 4
Ruggero Raimondi: 5

Ken Russell´s staging: 4

Erich Binder: 4

Overall impression: 4

Superb Thomas Hampson in Busoni´s Doktor Faust on DVD

Busoni: Doktor Faust. Zurich Opera House, 2006 (released 2008). Production: Klaus Michael Grüber. Cast: Thomas Hampson (Faust), Gregory Kunde (Mephistopheles), Sandra Trattnigg (Duchess). Conductor: Phillippe Jordan. Details here.

Doktor Faust was unfinished at the time of Busoni´s death in 1924 and the version used in this recording is the one completed by his pupil Jarnach presented at the world premiere in 1925. The work has been slowly gaining recognition and has long been regarded a cult opera, along the lines of Palestrina and Cardillac. Only in the 2000´s was Doktor Faust performed at the Metropolitan Opera and this season it may be seen at the Berlin State Opera.

Busoni worked on Doktor Faust for more than twenty years, and deliberately aimed at distancing himself from Goethe´s version. In Busoni´s version, Faust is a university professor, despairing of live, looking for a higher meaning. Three students present Faust with a magic book. He then conjures up several serving spirits and amongst them chooses Mephistopheles. In exchange for his post-mortem services, Mephistopheles gets rid of Faust´s creditors as well as Gretchen´s (whom he seduced before this opera starts) brother.

All this may be seen as a prelude to the real story of Busoni´s Doktor Faust, which in essence starts when Faust turns up at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess and by conjuring up images from the Old Testament (such as Samson and Dalilah, Salome and Jochanaan) seduces the Duchess and eventually leaves her. A year later he receives notion of her death and Mephistopheles presents him with her (and Fausts) dead child, turns it into straw - sets fire to it - and Helen of Troy appears from the ashes. Faust now acknowledges the meaninglessness of everything he has strived for. But too late. The students reappear and claim the book, while predicting Faust´s death that same evening. At night a beggar appears with a child - Faust recognizes her as the Duchess. Faust accepts the child and his spirit is transferred to the child before he dies.

Klaus Michael Grüber´s staging is both simplistic and aesthetic, underlining the static quality of the work as well as smoothing the transitions between the various scenes. The protagonists often wear extravagant costumes, contrasting with the austere background.

The cornerstones of this performance are Thomas Hampson as well as conductor Philippe Jordan. Many ideas are presented in this work, and Faust´s character is vastly complex, but the complexity seem to be grasped by Thomas Hampson, in one of the finest performances of his entire career. Vocally secure, dramatically convincing. Easily the best performance I have seen (of many) by him.

In a bonus interview Thomas Hampson, who also performed the role at the MET some years ago, furthermore discusses the work in detail calling it a masterpiece in impressively good German.

To my knowledge this is the only DVD version of Doktor Faust.

Promotional video:

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

Thomas Hampson: 5
Gregory Kunde: 4-5
Sandra Trattnigg: 4

Klaus Michael Grübers staging: 4-5

Phillippe Jordan: 4-5

Overall impression: 4-5

Thursday 17 April 2008

Oslo Opera Opening Gala: René Pape with Ella giammai m´amo

From the April 12th opening gala at the new Oslo Opera House - René Pape with Ella giammai m´amo:

Originally posted by operaduets on youtube.

Renée Fleming drowned by Thielemann (or possibly the acoustics) in otherwise magnificent Strauss programme in Munich

Renée Fleming with Christian Thielemann, April 13th 2008 in Munich

Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, Munich, April 13 2008
Christian Thielemann (c), Renée Fleming (soprano)

Pfitzner: Ouverture from "Käthchen von Heilbronn"
Richard Strauss orchestral songs: Freundliche vision, Verführung, Winterweihe, Zueiningung
Richard Strauss: Scene from Ariadne auf Naxos
Beethoven: Symphony no 7

Pfitzner, Richard Strauss and Beethoven are typical programming choice for Munich Philharmonic chief conductor Christian Thielemann. This Sunday matinée programme was repeated twice this week and next week will feature another three concerts with Renée Fleming singing Richard Strauss orchestral songs and an opera scene (this time from Die ägyptische Helena).

No doubt, Renée Fleming has the exact right voice and expression for Richard Strauss´ orchestral songs, and the way her voice blended in with Thielemann´s gloriously beautiful orchestra sound came close to perfection. The only, and unfortunately not minor, problem was, that she was barely audible. What we heard was Richard Strauss orchestral pieces with the occasional soprano adding beautiful sound to the woodwinds and strings. According to the locals we spoke to this was a problem regardless of seating. The lyrics were understood by no one, not because Flemings diction is substandard, but because she simply was not heard. Even in the big scene from Ariadne (accompanied with a reduced 30-man orchestra) she was not heard properly.
I do not, based on previous live experiences with Fleming, believe the problem lies mainly within the size of her voice. I was told by regular Munich concertgoers that this may be blamed on the acoustics of the Philharmonic Hall, but I do not believe Christian Thielemann to be an entirely innocent bystander either.

Christian Thielemann is no accompanist in the sense that with him the orchestra does not simply accompany, but takes on a role at least equivalent to that of the soloist. And, in my opinion, he is right to do so, particularly in Richard Strauss, where the orchestral textures are essential in creating a successful performance. And indeed, the sheer beauty and colours he extracts from the orchestra are just marvellous. However, one must expect a conductor of Thielemann´s caliber to be well acquainted with the acoustics of his own house and to be able to control the orchestra accordingly, thus I strongly suspect he could diminish the orchestral volume if he wanted to. Furthermore he has previously been known to drown out singers with considerably larger voices than Renée Fleming, such as René Pape last year in the same hall, believe it or not. On the other hand, in the Parsifal, I just heard him conduct in Vienna, all singers went through fine, even the very small voiced Mihoko Fujimura as Kundry. So, I guess the jury is still out...

Back to Renée Fleming, I seriously doubt whether Ariadne is a right role for her, although, by all standards she would perform it more than well should she decide to take it on. She seem to focus on producing a very beautiful sound with endlessly floating notes, entirely right for the Strauss song selection, but for Ariadne, I felt a lack of vocal projection and drama.

Christian Thielemann is a Pfitzner-champion to a degree that he conducts the Ouverture from Kätchen von Heilbronn without a score. Or maybe it´s just very straight forward to conduct, since the piece seems relatively monodimensial. I seriously doubt that the quality of Pfitzner´s music, at least based on this piece, deserves this much energy from Thielemann´s side. But it´s always appreciated to hear a non-standard repertoire piece in a concert like this.

Thielemann´s Beethoven was exactly as I expected it would be (and conducted without a score, of course): His primary focus also seems set on creating a glorious sound, which sweeps anything and anyone away. And it is indeed glorious, but at some points I´d like to take a look beneath that beautiful surface. The orchestra played with great enthusiasm and he is obviously well liked by both the orchestra player. And by the audience. Deservedly so. And I am certain a potential Strauss recording with Fleming and Thielemann will be marvellous, especially since the sound balances may be regulated...

All photographs by me from the concert in Munich

Tuesday 15 April 2008

The Bayreuth Succession part 18: Götterdämmerung on the Green Hill - Nike refuses to give up

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

Nike Wagner (daughter of Wieland) and thus cousin of Eva and Katharina understandably feels side-tracked by the recently announced partnership of Eva and Katharina to bid for Bayreuth Festival leadership.

She tells the respected German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine that she learned of the new partnership via a journalist on a German television channel, but she was aware that Eva Wagner-Pasquier had spent Easter in Bayreuth with Wolfgang and Katharina.

Furthermore, Nike Wagner refuses to give up, claiming that she and Eva already have submitted a proposition for Bayreuth Festival leadership to the Board of Directors on March 31. According to the newspaper Kurier, this proposition is however invalid, since it lacks Eva Wagner-Pasquiers signature.

Nike furthermore says to Berliner Morgenpost, that the Eva-Katharina partnership is in her opinion a pseudo-partnership, since she claims that Eva will retire in a couple of years, leaving Katharina in charge alone.

Whatever way one chooses to look at it, there cannot be much doubt that Nike Wagner is out. Not that she was ever really "in" in the first place.

The influential "Friends of Bayreuth" organization, on which the Festival rely on a certain degree for economical support, are very positive towards the Eva Wagner-Pasquier/Katharina Wagner constellation.

Renowned German conductor and Chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonics Christian Thielemann is still very much a member of this team. In an interview with Tagesspiegel yesterday Christian Thielemann says:

"What is closer than his solution? You could at a maximum bring forward the accusation that they had not come together much sooner. Both Eva and Katharina are Wolfgang Wagner's daughters. It may be that over time one or another wedge has been driven into their relationship. But the sisters are not so different."

He continues: "With Eva, we must first talk. I, for example, would be interested to know by what criteria the singers were cast for the "Ring" of the Berlin Philharmonic in Aix-en-Provence for which she is responsible." [I would be even more interested to know by what criteria the singers for his own Bayreuth Ring were selected..]

"First of all, this whole unworthy dispute must end", he says.

Sunday 13 April 2008

Robert Dean Smith debuts as Tannhäuser in Berlin

Tannhäuser, Staatsoper Berlin (Unter den Linden), April 12th 2008

Harry Kupfer (p), Philippe Jordan (c). Cast: Robert Dean Smith (Tannhäuser), Roman Trekel (Wolfram), Anne Schwanewilms (Elisabeth), Michaela Schuster (Venus), Christoph Fischesser (Hermann). Details here.

Robert Dean Smith (last seen in movie theaters as Tristan in the MET HD transmission) made his debut as Tannhäuser in this Berlin State Opera revival of Harry Kupfers 1999 Tannhäuser staging. And, no doubt he is a fine Tannhäuser. And with curly hair he looked vastly better than in the Tristan live transmissions from the MET. His voice is warm, but not large, which is however not a major problem in the relatively small house of the Berlin State Opera. But even here, he seemed occasionally exhausted. He has, however, fine and clear diction, a necessity in a house where Wagner performances are never texted. As the only non-German singer in the main cast, Dean Smith was in fact the singer I could understand the best. A fine performance from him, however I doubt it would be advisable for him to try this role out in a much larger house.

Michaela Schuster is apparently set to take over Waltraud Meier´s repertoire in the major German houses – Kundry in Berlin last year, Venus this year and Ortrud next year in the new Lohengrin production. And while she does inhabit her character on stage and her voice cuts through the orchestra, she seems rather shrill with a unpleasant vibrato particularly in the high register. Anne Schwanewilms is a more mature and independent Elisabeth as usual seen, but while she convinces dramatically, I continue to hear a dryness in her voice which has never really taken to me. In fairness, she received major applause, and my neighbor asked repeatedly to borrow my binoculars several times to look at her…Roman Trekel seemed quite simply to have an off night.

Christoph Fischesser has the dubious honor to be a Wagnerian bass in René Pape´s house, meaning he is largely scheduled to sing René Pape´s roles when the latter is not available. Such as Hermann in this production and (even worse comparison-wise) King Marke in May. Fischesser is actually a quite good singer (as well as being the best-looking of the cast by far) who in fact does not deserve to be endlessly compared to Pape. Though quite young he is authoritative on stage and with a quite flexible voice as well.

Philippe Jordan´s reading of the score seems to be more focused on precision and rhythm (particularly in the string section) as opposed to Barenboim´s more fluid approach usually heard here (as most readers will know this is Daniel Barenboim´s house). But it seemed a well-thought reading and the orchestra sounded fine.

The sets are simple and aesthetic, based around a petrified piano (in the Venusberg scene), a normal piano recital with an audience (the singing contest) and a bare stage (Act 3), everything updated to around present days. The time zone change apart, Kupfer seemed to adhere quite closely to Wagner´s libretto (ie. the characters, which Wagner intended to die, do indeed die here).

Though a good performance, it was not, by any means an exceptional one. In truth, I find it difficult to be overwhelmed by Tannhäuser – I´ve always found the opera to be one of the lesser of Wagner´s works, both dramatically and melodically, despite some magnificent orchestral and chorus passages. Nevertheless the massive applause (including several curtain calls after each act) somewhat surprised me. But much preferred to the obnoxious booing practice (of which there was none today).

Saturday 12 April 2008

Don Carlos in Berlin: René Pape and then the rest....

René Pape with Nadja Michael (Eboli of the initial run of performances in 2004)

Don Carlo, Berlin State Opera, April 11, 2008. Production: Himmelmann. Conductor: Salemkour. Cast: René Pape (Filippo II), Andrew Richards (Carlo), Norma Fantini (Elisabetta), Alfredo Daza (Rodrigo), Ildikó Komlosi (Eboli), Kurt Rydl (Inquisitor). More details here.

I believe I have mentioned before, that René Pape is probably the greatest exponent of King Filippo to have ever existed. Although my knowledge of historical singers is far less than complete, I simply cannot imagine anyone beating his performance in this part. And among the current interpreters of the role, I believe very few will disagree with me (one of those who does, unfortunately, is the director of the upcoming Don Carlos production at the London Royal Opera).

Just the "Ella giammaiamo" is worth the entire evening. If I lived in Berlin, I may well have tried to turn up after the intermission for all the performances (which is just before the Ella giammaiamo) and see if I could get in for free. I could write an entire book (well at least a short one) on the brilliance of René Pape in this part, but after giving it some thought, I guess I will save my unsuspecting (or maybe not so unsuspecting after all....) readers a lengthy ramble, trusting the point has gone through...

The problem with yesterday´s Don Carlos performance was that René Pape outclassed the other singers to an almost embarrassing degree. Only Ildikó Komlosi showed some occasional sparkle as Eboli. So it was no surprise, that the very selective Berlin audience only applauded these two singers after their solo arias. But strange to see a Don Carlos performance where neither Posa or Elisabetta were applauded after their areas. In my book, Kurt Rydl is cult. His voice may not be pleasant, but his highly individual singing style with deep inhalations of breath is unique, he is never boring, and he may well make an effective Grand Inquisitor next to anyone but René Pape. The rest, I will spare mentioning, including the conductor.

As opposed to my visit last year, no-one left their seats mid-performance and no-one protested (not loudly at least) against Himmelmann´s staging, which may be described as advanced Regie theater. Although the Spanish couple next to me did leave their seats after the intermission, which was a major relief since they were talking loudly throughout the first two acts when not chewing loudly on what seemed to be endless pieces of chewinggum. And quite a few young people were present in the audience as well and it was my impression (based on conversations in the drinks queue and the subway after the performance) that they received the staging very well.

As did I. In my opinion, it is one of the most convincing stagings of Don Carlos, I´ve seen: Based on a thorough analysis of the text, Himmelmann places Filippo in the center of the production, with focus on the contrast between his troubled family life and the public facade, he has to keep up. The question is whether this concept will work without René Pape, which will be revealed soon anyway, as Peter Rose takes over the part for the rest of the performance run.

For most people, the most shocking element were the nude bodies (pictured below) in the auto-da- scene. I won´t go into further detail here as I have described the production in detail in my review from last season.

Sir Simon Rattle shines in Pelléas and Mélisande with highly pregnant Magdalena Kozená in Berlin

Pélleas and Mélisande. Berlin State Opera. April 10, 2008. Production: Ruth Berghaus. Cast: Magdalena Kozená (Melisande), William Burden (Pélleas), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Golaud), Robert Lloyd (Arkel).Conductor: Sir Simon Rattle Details here.

This was indeed Sir Simon Rattle´s evening. It just took a couple of seconds of the prelude to realize, that his take on this score is exceptional: The unending flow and the myriad of details of melted into orchestral playing that I simply cannot imagine being bettered. He literally made the interludes the highlights of the performance.

And my expectations were not even that high: Based on my previous knowledge of Simon Rattle, I´ve always found him a somewhat disengaging/uninteresting conductor, but with an interesting choice of repertoire.But in Pélleas, his enthusiasm lifted the entire auditorium and he, deservedly, received massive applause. The orchestra literally shone, in what was in fact Sir Simon Rattle´s debut at the Berlin State Opera, apparently switching podium for the evening with Daniel Barenboim, who simultaneously conducted the Berlin Philharmonics over at the Berlin Philharmonie.

Now why does it just not sound like this when Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonics? Seriously, if it did, I don´t think any German music critic would question his leadership of that orchestra (as they do more than occasionally, as it is).

The production is the old Ruth Berghaus staging from 1991 - very abstract and simple in the outlook, with basically one single set, as pictured above. Undoubtedly, Hanno Müller-Brachmann was the most convincing of the singers, with a beautiful rendition of Golaud´s part.
Magdalena Kozená has an exceptionally beautiful and even voice - she is just not a very convincing actress, to put it mildly Changing at random between her two (maximum three) facial expressions throughout. A semi-dramatic moment arrived, when the highly pregnant (with Sir Simon Rattle by the way) Kozená rolled down the hill at the right side of the stage, but luckily it seemed intentional. But, admittedly, she is not helped by Mélisande´s heavy bubbly costumes and the fact that she, in her heavily pregnant state, continuously has to walk up and down a small hill on stage. She would have been more than justified to cancel, but luckily for us, she didn´t and, in my opinion, deserves major credit for going through with this engagement.

I thought William Burden (not previously known to me) a rather anonymous Pélleas, while Robert Lloyd, with his strange nasal sound, was dramatically convincing, as always, as Arkel. Perhaps the most touching scene of the evening: The boy soprano (from the Tölzer Boy Chorus) singing the role of Yniold.

Now on my wish-list: To hear Sir Simon Rattle conduct more opera. And in places more accessible than the Salzburg Easter Festival or Aix-en-Provence Festival (where he is currently in the middle of Ring Cycles).

The pregnant Magdalena Kozená as Mélisande

The Bayreuth Succession part 17: Wolfgang Wagner hints at retirement and suggests a joint leadership between Katharina and Eva

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

After a long break, the docu-soap on the leadership to the Bayreuth Festival seems to continue.

Festival Manager (and grandson to Richard Wagner) the 88-year old (and ailing, judged on the photographs from his wife´s funeral last year) Wolfgang Wagner has now for the first time hinted that he might retire as head of the Festival. He suggests a joint leadership consisting of his two daughters Katharina Wagner (29) and Eva Wagner-Pasquier (63).

In contrast to previous reports from the two ladies, in which they strongly denied any possibility of teaming up for the Festival leadership, they now state that cooperation may be possible "under certain circumstances". In this leadership structure there may still be room for both German star-conductor Christian Thielemann and ex-Salzburg Festival Intendant Peter Ruzicka. Apparently Wolfgang Wagner has presented this suggestion to the State of Bavaria, who, through Minister of Culture and Science Thomas Goppel, in a letter to Wolfgang Wagner has supported the suggestion (according to Katharina Wagner).
Peter Ruzicka comments: "I think this is the best solution. The two ladies may start immediately. I will then concentrate on composing and look forward to receive honorary tickets for the Festival productions".

This is surprising news indeed, and I may only interpret it as a combination of 1) that Wolfgang Wagner is indeed not capable of continuing to run the Festival, 2) that Wolfgang Wagner is unsure whether the Katharina Wagner-Christian Thielemann-Peter Ruzicka bill may gain sufficient support at the Board Meeting, 3) that Eva Wagner-Pasquier is equally unsure of her own victory, and (maybe most importantly) 4) that the Board are working on options that completely exclude the Wagner Family from Future Festival leadership.

So in order to keep the business "in the family", this is the secure option. And it looks like a winning ticket, indeed. But, as events during the last year have shown, nothing is certain, and new players may emerge at any time.

The meeting of the Board of Directors to (allegedly) decide on future Festival leadership will take place on the 29th of April. At this meeting it appears that Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier will present their visions for the future of the Bayreuth Festival.


Die Welt, Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Kurier, Abendzeitung (all in German). Also covered at Sounds and Fury (in English).

Tuesday 1 April 2008

The Konwitschny class-room Lohengrin on DVD: Higly recommended for those who do not like Wagner....

Lohengrin. Teatro Liceu, Barcelona. 2006. Production: Konwitschny.Cast: John Treleaven (Lohengrin), Emily Magee (Elsa), Luana DeVol (Ortrud), Hans Joachim Ketelsen (Telramund). Conductor: Sebastian Weigle. Detailed information here.

On several occasions I have successfully recommended this DVD to acquaintances, otherwise not appreciative of Richard Wagner´s work. They typically respond with "so much went on at stage, that we did not have time to get bored". Which is the exact reason for my general disapproval of this production: So much goes on on the stage, that I lose all perspective of the music. How can you concentrate on the music when Ortrud throws pieces chalk in Telramunds face in the back of a classroom? I have tried. Several times, in fact, having seens this production in the theater in both Hamburg and at the Royal Danish Opera, as well as on this DVD from the Teatro Liceu, Barcelona recorded in 2006.

According to Peter Konwitschny the concept of this production is the result of a thorough analysis of both libretto and music. In his opinion, the characters interact much like children, making it a logic step to stage this Lohengrin in a classroom.

Opens Act 1: We are in a class-room. King Heinrich is the teacher, Elsa is the model-pupil, Ortrud and Telramund throw chalk around in classroom. They tease Elsa, who hides in a closet. Lohengrin then arrives and they fight with wooden swords. But Lohengrin, in essence, is a grown man, and when he kills Telramund in the third act with a real sword, the children's world fall apart and they are suddenly forced to grow up - their confusion and insecurities laid bare on the open stage.

It is a well thought out concept indeed. And Konwitschny convincingly communicates his message to the audience, and I even got it the first time, which is far from always the case. Indeed, I am not averse to such experiments with Wagner. Nevertheless, I must admit to not liking this production, the main reason being that all the action on stage completely move the focus from the music to the theater. This staging tells a story in itself. I am not sure it is Lohengrin´s, but that is less important. What is more important is, that Wagner´s music does not seem to fit in here, or even be an important element in telling this story. Which probably explains this productions success with audiences otherwise not drawn to Richard Wagner´s works. But I´ll have to admit to knowing several people with great love for Richard Wagner´s works who also love this production.

The work receives a fine musical performance and the singers fit well into the production concept led by Emily Magee´s nice (and slightly irritating) Elsa, Luana DeVol´s naughty Ortrud and John Treleaven´s somewhat out-of-place (intended) Lohengrin. Sebastian Weigle conducts a fine performance, though the orchestra expectedly does not match Abbado´s Vienna Philharmonics on a competing DVD.

Unfortunately, Lohengrin is not particularly well represented on DVD. I personally prefer the Lehnhoff/Nagano Baden-Baden staging. But I may not be representative of most potential Lohengrin DVD buyers, since my interest in Lohengrin primarily lies with the Ortrud-Telramund scenes, where Waltraud Meier/Tom Fox are unbeatable in the Lehnhoff production.

For the more traditionally inclined, the Vienna production conducted by Claudio Abbado with Plácido Domingo and Cheryl Studer as Lohengrin and Elsa is musically superb, although the medieval staging is dark and sinister.

Confrontation in the class-room: Zurück, Elsa (Luana DeVol and Emily Magee):

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

John Treleaven: 2
Hans Joachim Ketelsen: 3-4
Luana DeVol: 4
Emily Magee: 4

Konwitschny´s staging: 2-3

Sebastian Weigle: 4

Overall impression: 3

Tristan on DVD: Kirchner´s unexciting Barcelona production

Tristan and Isolde. Liceu, Barcelona 2002. Production: Kirchner. Cast: Deborah Polaski (Isolde), John Treleaven (Tristan), Eric Halfvarson (Marke), Lioba Braun (Brangäne), Falk Struckmann (Kurwenal). Conductor: Bertrand de Billy.Detailed information here.

Ironically, director Alfred Kirchner states in the accompanying leaflet that "the main strength of the drama derives basically from the people on stage. Drama is, and will remain, the experience of human behaviour". Well said, but apparently easier said than done: The overwhelming weakness of this Tristan production, in my opinion, is exactly the lack of drama between the protagonists.

The sets are simple: The grey interior of a ship with a quadrangular view of the sea, where a Loch Ness-like monster curiously appears during the Love Potion scene in Act 1; a disintegrated room (symbolizing the lovers state of mind?) in act 2; and a similarly bare room with concrete walls in Act 3. Kirchner tells the story relatively straight forward as stated in the libretto, with a couple of minor exceptions, most notably that both Tristan and Kurwenal kill themselves and the opera ends with Isolde gazing out into the black night.

The problem here, as well as in his recently released Götterdämmerung from Bayreuth is that there are no apparent interactions between the protagonists. Admittedly, neither Deborah Polaski nor John Treleaven are the most engaging of stage personalities, and particularly Polaski seem rather dry-voiced and unengaged. Treleaven visibly makes an effort, it just doesn´t amount to much. Lioba Braun infuses some life into the production with her both well sung and well acted Brangäne, but unfortunately the Tristan-Isolde relationship has to work on some level to make this opera work as a whole. Eric Halfvarson is dramatically convincing, but vocally unconvincing as Marke, which also applies to Falk Struckmann, not caught in his best voice. But then, Falk Struckmann´s voice has always been significantly better in the theater than on record, which unfortunately does not help the potential buyers of this DVD. Bertrand de Billy furthermore conducts a respectable, though not spectacular performance.

Whether inclined towards traditional or non-traditional performances of Tristan and Isolde there are several other DVDs on the market, which I´d recommend before this one, most notably the 2007 Chéreau/Barenboim production and the Barenboim/Müller production from Bayreuth 1995. For the more traditionally inclined, the Barenboim-Ponnelle 1982 Bayreuth production is very beautiful and with superb conducting and singing as well. The 2007 Glyndebourne Lehnhoff production may be worth taking a look at, with fine performances, though in a static production.

Promotional video:

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

John Treleaven: 2
Deborah Polaski: 3
Lioba Braun: 3-4
Falk Struckmann:3
Eric Halfvarson: 2-3

Kirchners production: 2-3

Bertrand de Billy: 3

Overall impression: 2-3
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