Tuesday 30 September 2008

Mesmerizing Maurizio Pollini recital in Tivoli, Copenhagen

Maurizio Pollini, piano. Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen. September 14th 2008.

I may as well make my position clear from the start: Maurizio Pollini is quite simply the greatest pianist alive.

Last year I was lucky enough to get a free ticket to his all-Chopin recital in Salzburg. This year I missed his Salzburg recital by one day, chosing to attend the Bayreuth Parsifal instead. Which, of course, was a mistake. In the Copenhagen Tivoli Gardens Pollini played Beethoven and Liszt (programme below). Maurizio Pollini has a reputation for turning out performances of widely varying quality, though when everything clicks, as it did here, it is a truly revelatory experience.

It has repeatedly been brought forward, also in the Tivoli programme notes, that Maurizio Pollini shares his concert fees 50-50 with his piano tuner. Really? 50-50? That must be one billionaire piano tuner..

From the start it was clear thatPollini was top-motivated. And the handful of wrong right-hand notes in The Tempest strangely enough only underscored how superb he was. The Appassionata was staggering. I have never heard such powerful Beethoven, on CD or live. That is, powerful without ever loosing grip of the underlying structure of the music, emphasizing the contrapunctual structures. It is simply grandiose. I was rather suprised, though, at how much he uses the pedal, especially in The tempest to make almost atonal harmonies.

There is nothing cold about Pollini´s interpretations. Luckily, there is nothing sentimental about him either. He simply swipes away all the dust from whatever pieces he is playing so only the core remains. I´ve always discarded Chopin as a sentimental composer. Until I one day stumbled upon Maurizio Pollini´s recording of some of the Ballades. In Copenhagen, he only played Chopin in the encores, with a shattering performance of The Revolutionary Study, an encore he also played last year in Salzburg.

Maurizio Pollini simply has a piano technique to die for. In a way it´s rather encouraging that this 65-year old is still able to play all the 20-something piano miracles under the table. Not only because he is a superior interpreter. But his core qualifications - i.e. the technique - is better as well. I´ve never heard so perfectly smooth runs as the ones he made in the Appassionata. Though technical virtuosity has never been a goal for him, just a necessary means to convey the deeper meaning of the music. It´s one of his most distinctive qualities, that he just seems to know how a piano works. If Pollini would ever performe the complete Beethoven sonatas in 1-2 weeks it would be worth travelling across the world to hear (unfortunately he won´t do that ).

I would think someone who plays the piano like this would be a superb conductor. Perhaps he is ultimately not extrovert enough to conduct. But then, Carlos Kleiber, not exactly famous for his informative interviews, seemed to do just fine...

Rather unusual for Danish audiences, he was greeted with immediate standing ovations after the Liszt sonata.

Absolutely mesmerizing. One of the handful of best performances I have ever attended. I even forgot to take photographs...


Beethoven: Sonata opus 31 no 2, "The tempest"
Beethoven: Sonate opus 57, f-minor, “Appassionata”
Liszt: Nuages gris
Liszt: Unstern
Liszt: La lugubre gondola – 1st version
Liszt: R.W. – Venezia
Liszt: Sonate, b-minor

Chopin: Prelude (forgot which)
Chopin: Revolutionary Study
Liszt: Trandenscental study no. 10

Overall impression (scale of 1-5, 3=average):


Sunday 28 September 2008

Berlin Eugen Onegin with Barenboim, Villazon, Pape: A pantomime with puppets

A clown among the clowns: Rolando Villazón with the chorus

Eugen Onegin. Premiere. Berlin State Opera, September 27th 2008. Director and sets: Achim Freyer. Cast: Roman Trekel (Eugene Onegin), Anna Samuil (Tatiana), Rolando Villazón (Lenski), Maria Gortsevskaya (Olga), René Pape (Gremin). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

“Freyer is boring” a man shouted from the first balcony towards the end of Act 1. Another loudly agreed with him, while several asked them to calm down. Daniel Barenboim looked entirely unfazed in the pit, waiting the 20 necessary seconds for them to quiet down and then continued the performance. Obviously such behaviour is unacceptable and disrespectful etc., but most of all it is hilarious. “It´s always like this at Berlin premieres, it´s sort of included in the ticket price” a lady told her rather shocked cousin from Essen in the bar. Exactly.

I have never seen an opera production quite like this one. Achim Freyer´s sets are exclusively black and white, with a completely naked stage except for some chairs as seen in the photographs below. Extensive production photographs may be seen here. All characters (except Gremin) are on stage for the duration of the opera and all are masked/dressed assembling clowns or pantomime figure including grotesque amounts of black/white face paint.

The choreography is very strict until the tiniest arm movement. Each character is allotted a stripe in the floor along which he/she perpetually moves slowly backwards and forwards. Just like a puppet show. All characters look straight forward with no facial expressions whatsoever and at no point did they look at each other.

The individual characters of Onegin, Lenski and Tatiana clearly do not matter here. They do not (inter)act like individuals, but puppets controlled by fate. Even after his death, Lenski continues pacing his allotted line - good news for Rolando Villazón fans, as he is on stage for three hours in a production centered around him. Robert Wilson´s abstract choreographies immediately comes to mind.

This dark, very restrictive puppet game of fate resonates rather well with both the Pusjkin-based storyline and Tchaikovski´s sumptuous music. The result: A rather beautiful and eery production leaving ample of space for Daniel Barenboim´s orchestra to shine.

However, one such production per theatre per season is enough, no matter how well-thought out and innovative the concept.

One would expect the singers to hate to participate in this production, however for some of the characters this strict choreography seems a strength, a fact Rolando Villazón has acknowledged in an interview prior to the premiere. He is one of the major benefactors, being forced to leave the often neurotic quality of his acting behind and express himself with his voice alone. In that respect he is extraordinary, and the clown setting obviously suits him well. He does have trouble hitting the high notes, if by hitting one understands "hitting on pitch", however his voice is so beautifully dark, that you´d almost believe him not to be a tenor (a compliment, obviously!).

Same applied to Gremin´s low notes, however that and the fact that he was made to look absolutetely ridiculous did not prevent house bass René Pape from being the best singer on stage by a considerable margin.

There is a slightly grained and wooden quality to Roman Trekel´s voice, and he was also audibly tired towards the end (who wouldn´t be with all that static arm-waving), but made a fine Onegin. Anna Samuil, also on the Salzburg Onegin DVD, repeated her beautifully sung Tatiana, though some may find her a bit monodimensional in both dramatic and vocal expression.

That Daniel Barenboim draws out the best of the Staatskapelle in a predictably rich-textured and dense reading is also no surprise for those familiar with him and/or his 2007 Salzburg Onegin. Curiously, he chose, as he did in Salzburg, to set an extraordinary slow tempo for the final scene, which almost took out all the intensity not present in Freyer´s production..

I don´t remember when a new production has not been booed at the Berlin State Opera – part of the game, I suppose. That the booing of Achim Freyer was somewhat louder than usual seems a minor point. After Achim Freyer´s initial solo bow, Daniel Barenboim (himself massively applauded) joined Freyer for his next solo bows, a rather nice way to show his support for the production, not that Freyer seemed to mind the boing, rather the contrary. After all, he has been a professional provocateur for at least 20 years. At the same time Rolando Villazón was jumping up and down, cheering wildly for Freyer in the background.

"A pantomime puppet game within loops of fate and black/white face paint" - how is that for a summary title?

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

Roman Trekel: 4
Rolando Villazon: 4-5
Anna Samuil: 4
René Pape: 5
Maria Gortsevkaya: 4-5

Achim Freyer´s production: 4-5

Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: 5

Friday 26 September 2008

DVD: Die Tote Stadt

Die tote stadt. Opera de Rhin, Strasbourg 1999. Director: Inga Levant. Cast: Angela Denoke (Marie/Marietta), Torsten Kerl (Paul), Birgitta Svendén. Conductor: Jan Latham-König. Further information here.

Composed when he was 23, Erich Wolfgang Korngold´s opera Die Tote Stadt from 1920 quickly went on to become one of the most popular operas of the 1920´s, the atmosphere of new beginnings probably resonating well with post-world war one audiences. Since then, performances have been rather infrequent and the opera never really seems to have made it into the main circuit. However, recently a minor Die Tote Stadt revival seems to be ongoing, with performances in both San Francisco, London, Vienna, Salzburg and Barcelona.

Any discussion on Die Tote Stadt seems to end up in a pro vs. con discussion of Korngold´s abilities as a composer. As I don´t have any particular new insights compared to the vast insights (most of which are not particularly original either) already available on the internet, I will refrain from discussing this subject. The work is what it is - a densely textured late-romantic composition with multiple influences from Korngold´s contemporaries, Richard Strauss in particular.

Basically, Die Tote Stadt is an innner psychological drama about one man´s overwhelming obsession with his dead wife: The man, Paul, meets a young woman, the dancer Marietta, with an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife, Marie. A hallucinatory relationship with a disastrous outcome when Paul appears to kill Marietta. Paul, however, comes to realize that he has been living in the illusory past and resolves to leave Bruges, Die Tote Stadt (the dead city), to start a new life.

As of yet, this is the only DVD version available, but one hopes for the release of the Willy Decker production, which is on the repertoire in both Vienna, San Francisco, Barcelona and London these seasons.

The production is modern, Inga Levant apparently being one of those stage directors who prefer stuffing the stage with all kinds of symbols, dolls, skeletons as well as common rubbish as opposed to the stylish minimalism of a Willy Decker. Marietta appears to become pregnant and in the end, Paul slits his wrists and collapses, apparently unable to put the past behind him after all.

The leads are two singers, closely associated with their parts - Angela Denoke and Torsten Kerl. Angela Denoke´s lyrical soprano and comitted acting makes her entirely believable as the dancer Marietta while Torsten Kerl is a good fit for the rather strange and obsessive Paul, a part requiring the stamina of a Wagner helden-tenor. Beautifully conducted by Latham-König.

Personally I would still wait to see if one of the Willy Decker performances are to be released. If not, this is a fully acceptable choice.

Angela Denoke with Marietta´s lied:

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

Torsten Kerl: 4
Angela Denoke: 4
Levant´s production: 3

Jan Latham-König: 4

Overall impression: 4

loops of fate

All photographs by Monika Ritterhaus on www.staatsoper-berlin.de

Achim Freyer´s new Eugene Onegin opens tomorrow at the Berlin State Opera with Daniel Barenboim (cond), Roman Trekel, Rolando Villazón, Anna Samuil and René Pape.

Apparently Achim Freyer´s concept is, according to Rolando Villazón a "modern sculpture, with strictly choreographed minimalistic movements" with the singers moving in very strict loops of fate, which gives Rólando Villazón "freedom to express himself vocally" and "in no way interfers with the music" according to Daniel Barenboim.

Review of the Eugen Onegin premiere here.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Karita Mattila´s Salome revisited - Met 2008

Salome, Metropolitan Opera, September 23th 2008. Director: Jürgen Flimm. Cast: Karita Mattila (Salome), Kim Begley (Herodes), Juha Uusitalo (Jochanaan), Ildiko Komlosi (Herodias). Conductor: Patrick Summers.

I´ve previously posted audio clips from Karita Mattila´s 2003 Metropolitan Opera Salome, as well as video clips from her Paris Salome performances.

Reviews: New York Times, Financial Times, Concertonet

A reader has sent me this excellent live report, which I will reprint unredacted:

The Jürgen Flimm production of Salome, notable particularly for Karita Mattila's star turn in the title role, opened in its first revival in New York on September 23.

The production itself is set roughly between the wars and the action is portrayed as a party at Herod's place, set in the desert. Most of the action takes place on a glass floor with a spiral staircase at the back and Jochonaans' cistern on the right side of the stage. The principals and party guests are wearing modern dress with the soldiers sporting late colonial era uniforms. The photos above give an excellent idea of the setting. The updated setting and and costumes aside the production is faithful to the libretto and while Flimm offered no distinctive insights the direction was first rate. The production itself recieved mixed reviews originally but has worn well.

Karita Mattila portrays the spoilt, capricious princess turned psychopath magnificently. Every gesture, every move, every look, every vocal inflection captures Salome's whims, desires and descent into madness. Vocally she is quite magnificent with but a couple of minor cavils. At the beginning of the opera there was a bit of strain and sharpness in the highs and register shifts were not entirely undetectable. The midrange was spectacular throughout, the bottom of the voice fantastic when called upon and as the evening wore on the whole became a seamless, lustrous glorious instrument. In sum a portrayal for the ages.

Juha Uusitalo, in his Met debut, made an excellent Jochanaan. His warm, evenly produced large bass baritone was closer in vocal distinction to Terfel than Albert Döhmen in 2004 and he portray the prophet with considerable dignity. On this hearing he would seem to be an entirely suitable Wotan for Vienna or the Met.

Ildiko Komlosi was quite excellent vocally and dramatically as Herodias, holding a bottle neck by the napkin throughout and progressing from a light buzz to complete inebriation with great conviction. Also she looked kinda hot.

Kim Begley was fine if somewhat dry voiced as Herod.

The orchestra was its magnificent self but Patrick Summers offered somewhat less detail and perhaps intensity than Gergiev 4 years ago. He was also excessively loud in a number of passages, occasionally drowning out Mattila and Uusitalo who have more than enough voice for normal accompaniment.

Mostly Ratings:

Kaita Mattila 5
Juha Uusitalo 4.5
Ildiko Komlosi 4 - 4.5
Kim Begley 2.5 - 3

Patrick Summers 3.5

Flimm production 4

Overall impression 4.5

René Pape with Wotan and Hans Sachs in superb performance

René Pape and the NDR Sinfonieorchester conducted by Alan Gilbert.
Lübeck Musik- und Kongresshalle. August 30th 2008.


Wagner: Meistersinger ouverture
Flieder-monologue (Hans Sachs from Meistersinger)
Prelude to Walkure Act 3
Wotan´s Farewell (Leb wohl.., Walküre Act 3)
Gustav Mahler: Sinfonie Nr. 5 cis-Moll

This was German bass René Pape´s second public try-out with excerpts from Walküre and Meistersinger, the first one dating from Munich last year with Christian Thielemann, which is scheduled for CD release at some (as of now: Undefined) point. To compare these performances is however not possible, as Christian Thielemann drowned René Pape in Munich, a success he followed up with Renée Fleming this year.

First of all, I have never seen René Pape look this nervous on stage and he was nothing of his usual laconic self, in a way good to see. And after one minutes playing by the orchestra, it was clear why. He had no support whatsoever from the rather mediocre conductor, who completely lacked authority on the podium and producing a very muddled sound.
There is no doubt René Pape learned these pieces thoroughly or he wouldn´t have been able to make the right entrances at all. René Pape´s strategy apparently was to ignore the conductor completely without looking at him even once, just sing the way he wanted and then leave it to the conductor to pick up what was left. I don´t see what else he could have done, however I´d like to see him try that approach with Daniel Barenboim.

And who is Alan Gilbert? As most will know, but I had temporarily forgotten, he is in fact the upcoming musical director of the New York Philharmonics. A man with “that indefinable leadership quality that you look for.” But chose not to display here, obviously.

To the point: René Pape´s Wotan is beyond superb, both vocally and dramatically. I have no doubt that he will not be equalled in my lifetime. He is not even under real pressure in the top register, where he still manages piano notes and portamento. Furthermore, René Pape´s vocal range equals that of Hans Hotter - he has lost much of the power in the bottom notes over the past 5-6 years, though how he will do in the overall higher tessitura, remains to be seen, obviously.
Interpretatively, I would be more sceptical, if I hadn´t seen what emtionally staggerging performances he can pull off when he wants to, such as as Boris Godunov and Filippo (Don Carlo).

René Pape "Leb Wohl" (Wotan´s Abschied from Walkure):

Hans Sachs he, of course, can sing and more beautiful than anyone else I have heard. But why exactly does René Pape want to play a middle-aged cobbler, who steps away from life and leaves the living to others? It´s not obvious to me that this part suits him dramatically at all. And it has never made sense for me why he would schedule Hans Sachs so close to the Wotans, before he knows how this bass-barytone thing moves along. So it wasn´t really a surprise that he canceled his Berlin Hans Sachs appearances well in advance and now waits with Hans Sachs until "after the Wotans". My guess would be 2013+, the right decision, in case anyone should care to know my opinion.

René Pape with the Fliedermonologue (Hans Sachs from Meistersinger):

And Mahler´s 5th? I don´t know. Given the quality of orchestra playing before the intermission the choice between drinks and Mahler was rather easy. However, had I remembered, before sitting with my drink, that Alan Gilbert was upcoming NY Phil leader I probably would have stayed, just to get a better impression of his work.

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


Monday 22 September 2008

Oslo Don Carlo: Superb Pape, Harteros, Mattei in Hytner kitsch production

Don Carlo. 5-act Italian version. Norwegian National Opera, Oslo. September 20th, 2008. Production: Nicholas Hytner. Cast: René Pape (Filippo), Anja Harteros (Elisabetta), Peter Mattei (Posa), Alfred Kim (Don Carlos), Ingebjørg Kosmo (Eboli), Ketil Hugaas (Grand Inquisitor). Conductor: Marco Guidarini. Further information here.

Nicholas Hytner´s production of Don Carlo is the first staged opera production at the absolutely magnificent new Oslo Opera house. The production comes from Covent Garden, where it earlier this year received extraordinarily mixed reviews ranging from disastrous to brilliant, and is scheduled at the Metropolitan Opera in upcoming seasons. Nicholas Hytner is an esteemed theatre director (as well as director of the National Theatre, London) and to be honest, I had expected much more from him.

Nicholas Hytner has in fact created a very conventional Don Carlo, which most of all looks like 70´s style kitsch with several of the tableaus distinctly reminiscent of plastic replicas of religious artifacts. Or just plastic replicas of anything. It´s occasionally semi-aesthetic kitsch, with singers in mostly unflattering period-style costumes, but nevertheless kitsch. It doesn´t look like Hytner directed the Oslo production himself, but I doubt that Elaine Kidd did not follow his instructions closely. The lack of insights into the motives and interactions of the characters surprised me, coming from a director who is apparently "opposed to stereotypes". The only truly outstanding dramatic performance was that of René Pape, which I somehow doubt may be attributed to the stage director. Production photographs and reviews from the London performances here.

First of all, German bass René Pape delivered the most shattering performance of Filippo I have ever seen, including many of his own previous shows. A broken man, from start to finish, laying his soul completely open, he was simply heartbreaking. Completely different from his usual appearances and if I hadn´t seen him approach something like this in last years Boris Godunov, I frankly wouldn´t have thought him capable of it dramatically. Somehow I doubt that Nicholas Hytner/Elaine Kidd is responsible for this, as none of the other singers even approached that level of acting. If he is going to perform like this as Boris in Dresden in December (which I for several reasons suspect he will) it will be worth traveling a long way to see. Vocally, he was as perfect as ever, not even worth mentioning. That said, I strongly disagree with Hytner on this characterization of Filippo, which seems far too monodimensional and insightless.

Only in one scene were the sets kitsch-free, luckily it was in the most important one - Act 4 scene 1 with Filippo and the Grand Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor seems always cast with basses on their way up or down. I am not sure which category Ketil Hugaas belongs to, but the part needs a major voice in it´s prime to fully carry it off.

I would be surprised if Anja Harteros doesn´t become 1st choice worldwide as Elisabetta. This performance was her role debut, and already at this early point I cannot name a better interpreter of the part today. Her voice is certainly big enough, she is unstrained and on pitch. Furthermore, she looks the part. Her singing is very straight forward, with a minimum of portamento, stylishly not unlike Karita Mattila´s previous interpretation. I have only one but..., which is that for some strange reason I find Anja Harteros somewhat unengaging. Not only as Elisabetta, but as a performer in general. Those not sharing this general reservation, will most probably find her perfect.

Peter Mattei is a great and very noble Posa with a soft-grained clear and beautiful voice. However, the role needs a bit more ring to it, particulary in the confrontation with Filippo, where he furthermore looked too much an adolescent schoolboy next to René Pape, not the oldest Filippo on the circuit either. An aspect of the part Thomas Hampson mastered superbly earlier this year in Vienna. That said, Peter Mattei approaches being top choice for this part as well.

Hytner clearly built this production around Don Carlo, with him appearing in front of the sets between most of the scene changes. A fine approach, especially if you have a singer with the dramatic and vocal strenghts of a Plácido Domingo in his prime at your disposal. Read: To make this concept work you need a stronger presence than Alfred Kim, who is simply too easily forgotten despite fine singing. Ingebjørg Kosmo got away with Eboli´s fiendishly difficult part impressively well and managed to hold her own among these international top-singers.

Marco Guidarini and the orchestra also performed at a higher level, than I had expected. It´s hardly their fault that I simply find the 5-act Don Carlo too long..

Compared with the London cast (broadcast only), I´d say this Oslo cast wins 3-2. An easy 3-2, perhaps even a 4-1.

Peter Gelb over at the Metropolitan Opera must now have something to think about: To bring this kitsch to Met audiences in replacement of their much-loved, traditional Don Carlo production (notwithstanding I personally find it undead)....well, good luck. I will believe this production to replace the old one at the Met when I see it.

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

René Pape: 5
Anja Harteros: 4-5
Peter Mattei: 4
Alfred Kim: 3
Ingebjørg Kosmo: 3

Nicholas Hytner´s staging: 2-3

Marco Guidarini: 4

Overall impression: 4

Sunday 21 September 2008

Oslo Opera House and the Norwegian Opera

Designed by Norwegian architect firm Snøhetta, the spectacular new Opera House in Bjørvika, Oslo, home of the Norwegian Opera opened on April 12th 2008 with a gala.

The opera house is located a mere 5 minutes walk from the Oslo Central Station (exit: South) via a pedestrian bridge, in a previously underdeveloped area of Oslo.

The building is quite simply spectacular and ranges among the finest examples of modern architecture I have yet seen. There is a very nordic atmosphere to the design, and the way the elements of water, ice, wood and the northern lights are incorporated is truly exceptional.
Among the most spectacular features is the roof, which descends directly into the sea, available for the public to walk on. The impression of floating and unending widths are stunning.

The 1364 seats in the auditorium include standing room spaces at the 3rd balcony level. The view seems fine from most of the seats. The stage is located 16 meter below sea level.

Practical information:

Tickets and season schedule available from the company website.

All the below photographs are from September 20th 2008 during the performance of Don Carlo.

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