Thursday 16 April 2009

Waltraud Meier as Carmen

Waltraud Meier´s performance of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera 1997 is by many, perhaps also by herself, considered one of the low points of her career. Waltraud Meier said of the experience: "I have enormous respect for Zeffirelli, but our two styles just didn't match..The staging was folkloristic, with horses on stage and that sort of thing. It was the most horrible time, but I don't think about it any more. A mistake? Well, my philosophy is that there are no faults, only errors. You learn from your mistakes and come through knowing more."

The production was also infamous for the "that wig goes on stage with or without you"-comment to Angela Gheorghiu´s initial refusal to wear a blonde wig as Micaëla. In the end, she went on with the wig. Plácido Domingo was Don José. James Levine conducted. The whole ting was filmed, but will it also be released on DVD? Maybe not.

But what was it like? Two video excerpts are provided with Waltraud Meier´s Carmen.



And the wig with Angela Gheorghiu:

Posted by BullLee2 and Gabba02 on YouTube

Wednesday 15 April 2009

So zieht das Unheil in dies Haus (or: The Berlin Barenboim Herheim Lohengrin)

Lohengrin, Berlin State Opera, April 12th 2009. Production: Stefan Herheim. Cast: Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin), Dorothea Röschmann (Elsa), Michaela Schuster (Ortrud), Gerd Grochowski (Telramund), Markus Brück (Herald), Kwangchul Youn (Heinrich). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

Norwegian director Stefan Herheim has become one of the most sought-after directors after his staging of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival last year. Some thought Herheim created a masterpiece. Others, me among them, did not. Though I have greatly admired Stefan Herheim´s stagings of the past, such as the brilliant deconstruction of Entführung in Salzburg 2003, the Parsifal was quite simply to overly-intellectual and disorganized as I saw it.
Which also applies to this new Lohengrin production, though this time to a degree that I actually find Stefan Herheim more or less has ruined the piece.
The short version of this review is that I do not recall any new staging of any Wagnerian opera, which appealed so little to me than this Lohengrin. Daniel Barenboim, on the other hand, was sensational.
In fact I have pondered for two days on how to put this on paper in a both civilized and fair manner. And to start with the fairness, I may add that though the general opinions in the German press on Herheim´s staging were only luke-warm, this review is firmly rooted in the very negative end of the specter. Not to forget, that others found this staging to be a masterpiece.
To the point: I simply didn´t understand the concept. It was a confusing, un-dramatic as well as highly intellectual mish-mash which brought me nothing. And worst of all: It took all the attention away from the music.

It started well: A Richard Wagner puppet dances on a tree-trunk during the prelude. A feather drops down and he apparently starts to compose. We then move on to Act 1, opening in present time with groups of people waving banners displaying the three opera houses in Berlin, apparently an allegory of Brabant with The Herald starting out as the Berlin bear:
All main characters, Ortrud (and possibly Lohengrin) excepted, are puppeteers with a medieval puppet version of their character, which they control. Around the time the horn and helmet clad Lohengrin arrives, the action moves into the medieval times. Still with puppets.
And with the additional twist of all characters wearing naked-body suits with strategically placed figleaves, which they change into at various points, running around the stage.

The explanation? According to the programme booklet, Stefan Herheim explains that the sin of Eve (eating the forbidden apple thus rebelling against God) in Eden is central to the drama of Lohengrin. Who am I to say he is not right? However, as engaging theater, in my opinion it fails completely. And has very little connection to the music drama Lohengrin.

Though the puppet-puppeteer concept does seem rather appropriate for a static piece like Lohengrin, Stefan Herheim, as I see it, fails to ask (or answer) the central questions of Lohengrin, such as: Where does this man come from? Why must we not know his name etc.? Questions Peter Konwitschny actually does both ask and answer in his famous Hamburg production, a major inspirational source for Stefan Herheim.
Readers who admire Konwitschny´s Lohengrin, certainly stand a rather good chance of at least reacting more positively to Herheim´s as I do.
The working relationship between Daniel Barenboim and Stefan Herheim was not the best, with Herheim publicly accusing Daniel Barenboim, among other things, for extended abscence during rehearsals (probably rightly). Daniel Barenboim, on the other hand, publicly disagreed with Herheim´s decision to stage the prelude, a decision it was "too late to change" as he put it. A rather strange statement, as one may argue he could have thought about participating in the rehearsals at a point before it became "too late" for changing anything, including the director...

Being the third, and last, performance of this run, the orchestra was simply sensational. Somewhat unusual for Daniel Barenboim, his tempi were rather brisk. But with an energy and inner sense of the dramatic structures making this easily the best conducted Lohengrin I have heard.
Of the singers, Dorothea Röschmann stood out as a simply wonderful and very touching Elsa. With her old-fashioned way of singing, much like that of Elisabeth Grümmer, the dark colouring of her voice combined with superb, stylish phrasing made for a very moving experience. Unlike her Eva in last years Meistersinger, Elsa seems to suit her well. She does reach the limit of her voice, but she doesn´t exceed it.
Klaus Florian Vogt´s Lohengrin has spurred starkly contrasting opinions: Admirers point to his ringing, effortless topnotes. Detractors point to his monotonous singing. Both sides are right as I see it: Vogt´s Lohengrin is monotonously sung and acted with the added benefit (?) of an indifferent psychopathic air to his presentation. Though he really does hit those notes, piercing effortlessly through Barenboim´s orchestra. But contributing to any degree of interpersonal drama he does not. Neither does Stefan Herheim. At least not on stage..

Beauty of voice or expression is not what Michaela Schuster offers. However, her over-all portrait of Ortrud was superb: She clearly inhabited both the comic and desperate sides to the character and delivered a very effective, vocally as well, performance. Accompanied by Gerd Grochowski´s character barytone, singing rather well as Telramund, but having a hard time to penetrate through Barenboim´s orchestra.

How would René Pape have looked running around in a naked-body suit with figleaves and a wooden stick chasing Elsa´s bridemaids? Fortunately (for him), his illness (he has now recovered) prevented us from finding out and Kwangchul Youn delivered a fine performance.
In summary, if you ask how much action and how many intellectual concepts one may put into one Wagner opera, I´d say Stefan Herheim is the man with the answers. And if anyone should still ask who is the pre-eminent Wagnerian conductor alive, it is Daniel Barenboim.

Links to most German and international reviews of the production .

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

Klaus Florian Vogt: 4
Dorothea Röschmann: 4-5
Michaela Schuster: 4
Gerd Grochowski: 4
Kwangchul Youn: 4

Stefan Herheim´s production: 1-2

Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: ?

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Munich: Eva-Maria Westbroek shines in Jenufa

Jenufa. Bavarian State Opera, April 11th 2009. Production: Barbara Frey. Cast: Eva-Maria Westbroek (Jenufa), Deborah Polaski (Kostelnicka), Stefan Margita (Laca), Joseph Kaiser (Steva), Helga Dernesch (Burya). Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Further information here.

That Eva-Maria Westbroek (born 1971) spend the initial years of her career with endless and futile auditions leading her nowhere must make one or another opera administrator reflect just a bit as she is now establishing herself as the probably finest jugendlich-dramatische soprano of today. With a wonderful blooming quality of her voice, Eva-Maria Westbroek furthermore is a terrific actress, making it virtually impossible to not be deeply moved by this Jenufa´s fate.

Equally convincing were both leading gentlemen, particularly Stefan Margita´s superbly sung Laca, but also Joseph Kaiser as Steva. While Deborah Polaski may have more voice for the part of Kostelnicka that many of those who sing it today, a stronger stage presence (never her main asset) would have made a major difference, particularly in a character part like this. Curiously, Helga Dernesch, whom I thought belonged to the past, took the part as the Old Burya.

As the entire cast were excellent actors, it was rather disappointing how little use Barbara Frey made of them, with a rather uninteresting personenregie. She has updated Jenufa until present day, but provides little more than a traditional static theatric setting without the true interpersonal drama, which Janacek´s opera seems so full of.

Massive applause to conductor Kirill Petrenko, though I fail to see entirely why. The orchestra sounded both transparent and beautiful, but way too passive and bloodless, at least to my taste. In fact, the style of playing reminds very much of Kent Nagano, hardly a coincidence, as he is music director of the house. Why this sort of bloodless playing is so admired in Munich, is rather strange, at least to me. And even more so when Kent Nagano conducts Parsifal. But that is another topic altogether.

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

Eva-Maria Westbroek: 5
Stefan Margita: 5
Joseph Kaiser: 4-5
Deborah Polaski: 3

Barbara Frey: 3

Kirill Petrenko: 4

Overall impression: 4

Monday 13 April 2009

Zurich Tosca: Magee, Kaufmann and Hampson in (too) stylish Carsen production

Tosca. Zurich Opera, April 9th 2009. Production: Robert Carsen. Cast: Emily Magee (Tosca), Jonas Kaufmann (Cavaradossi), Thomas Hampson (Scarpia). Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Further information here.

All the ingredients were there: As starry cast, a stylish director as well as a beautiful (and sold-out) auditorium. Nevertheless, the evening never really took off.

Canadian director Robert Carsen apparently was inspired by Cavaradossi´s remark to Tosca “like Tosca in the theatre” after she instructs him on how to play dead. Thus, his Tosca is a theater-in-the-theater production, a concept Robert Carsen has tried earlier with his Hoffmann´s Tales in Paris, and generally a more intellectually rewarding than emotionally thrilling staging concept. Furthermore, this apparently is not a new production, as it appears it has been seen earlier in Barcelona, though information in this regard is not exactly forthcoming from the Zurich Opera website or magazine (read: it seems to be non-existent).

Combined with the creation of stylized Hitchkock-Hollywood images, the result is a production, which emphasizes form over substance, unfortunately draining it of drama. The overly stylized movements by Tosca, artificially coordinated with the music beneath a moving spotlight during the confrontation with Scarpia virtually draws the tension out of this, the perhaps central scene of the entire opera, briefly reminiscnet of the extreme aesthetism of Robert Wilson.

In brief, we are in a theater. As Act 1 opens we look at an operatic theater from the back of the stalls – plenty of chairs, Cavaradossi decorating the auditorium, while the curtain (of the theater-within-the-theater) finally goes up under the Te Deum to display Tosca in full stage regalia. For Act 2 we move backstage to a smoking Scarpia beneath a large VIETATO FUMARE sign, staring at a large painting of Tosca. All in a very aesthetic mix of period costumes on a virtually bare (back)-stage.

Tosca is a stylized 1950´s hollywood diva. A superficial diva, who enjoys both the spotlight (literally) and the attention from Cavaradossi as well as Scarpia while distractedly looking at the programme notes of this evenings Tosca performance..Theatre within theatre indeed.

While Cavaradossi, the only genuine character in this set-up, is the real victim: Presumably intended to be younger than Tosca (he is in real life as well), he is the only one displaying genuine emotions in his unconditionally love for Tosca and sings about his loneliness to a pitch-black auditorium from the naked stage in Act 3, into which Tosca finally jumps with her audience now vanished. It is both aesthetic and stylish. However, compelling music theater it is unfortunately not.

Despite the presence of the undisputed leading Cavaradossi of the day in Jonas Kaufmann. What does he not have? Nothing it seems. In looks and acting, he is the perfect romantic hero. He even has that barytonal glow to his voice, which does make him push for the top (as Plácido Domingo always has), but has the benefits of gaining more punch to his interpretation.
Thomas Hampson´s lyric baritone does not, on paper, seem ideal for Scarpia, though he projects the dramatic lines of the part surprisingly well. As a villain, however, he does not convince, though I am not sure Scarpia is really intended as such in this production, rather as a man, fighting with another man over a woman.
The vastly underrated Emily Magee made her role debut as Tosca, and sings the part better than anyone I can imagine today, Karita Mattila apart. The lack of emotional connection with her character may probably mainly be attributed to Carsen´s approach of the work, and it would be interesting to see her in another production. At the Met, perhaps, where her debut has been more than overdue for about a decade?
Effective, though not overly detailed, playing from the orchestra under Carlo Rizzi.

An evening, where, unfortunately the sum was somewhat less than the individual parts put together.

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

Jonas Kaufmann: 5
Thomas Hampson: 4
Emily Magee: 4-5

Robert Carsen´s staging: 4

Carlo Rizzi: 3-4

Overall impression: 4

Saturday 11 April 2009

Berlin Verdi Requiem: Smashing La Scala chorus with René Pape back in top-shape

Verdi Requiem. Berlin Philharmonie, April 9th 2009. Soloists: Anja Harteros, Luciana D´Intino, Guiseppe Filianoti, René Pape. Conductor: Daniel Barenboim with La Scala orchestra and chorus.

The short version:

A smashing performance of the Verdi Requiem in the Berlin Philharmonie.

Superb La Scala Chorus.

René Pape is back in super-shape.

The long(er) version:

Dedicated to the victims of the recent earth-quake in Italy, this Good Friday performance started with one minutes silence, as requested by Daniel Barenboim from the podium.

From then on it was full speed forward in a thrilling performance on all levels: The La Scala orchestra, obviously very familiar with the piece followed Daniel Barenboim closely, pulling out all the stops without retorting to empty bravado at any point. A balance Daniel Barenboim does not always achieve in his non-Wagnerian repertoire, but here he certainly did. The sheer power of the Dies Irae virtually knocked one back in the seat. Accompanied by the superb La Scala chorus and a quartet of soloist, not to be seen better anywhere, this could very well look like a recording project.

Most importantly, René Pape was back after illness, both looking and sounding his usual self on a very good day, easily the stand-out of the very fine quartet of soloist. Though it does become increasingly obvious that his voice continues to move upwards and parts of the score seems rather low for him (such as the Lux aeterna), you will have to go back longer in time than my (rather good and long-reaching, by the way) memory reaches to hear singing of comparable beauty and expression in this part.

Excellent singing also from the rest: Anja Harteros, seemingly ideal in the lirico-spinto soprano part, Luciana d´Intino´s firm and secure mezzo and Guiseppe Filianoti delivering a performance making one question the decision to fire him after the Don Carlo dress rehearsal earlier this year at La Scala.

Overall impression: 5

Sunday 5 April 2009

Stephanie Blythe sings Brahms, Wagner and Mahler

Stephanie Blythe sings Brahms, Wagner and Mahler. 2004. Further information here.

American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (born 1970) continue to receive rave reviews for her performances, most notably at the Metropolitan Opera in parts such as Orfeo (Gluck), Fricka (Walküre) and Ulrica (Ballo di Maschera). Her European performances are rather scarce, a contributory factor without doubt being her large physique, of which she said in a recent interview:
“If you bring weight into a conversation, all of a sudden that’s the issue. If someone wants to take a chance and cast me in a role that is unconventional physically for me, I applaud them. They recognize the fact that I can probably bring something to the role. When I was given Orfeo at the Met you could have knocked me over. I have seen people who are half my size do a role and look the part and not inhabit the part."

Weight issues apart, this disc documents that Stephanie Blythe has the perhaps most convincing dramatic mezzo-soprano voice of today, with an astonishing depth making one wonder if she perhaps really is a contralto. On this album from 2004, she sings the classic German concert repertoire for her voice type: Wagner´s Wesendonck lieder combined with Brahms´ Alto Rhapsody and Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde.

Stephanie Blythe´s contribution to this disc, in short, is simply superb. Not since Christa Ludwig have I heard such a firm and steady voice combined with a wonderfully unsentimental approach. My only quibble towards ms. Blythe´s performance is that her intonation is not always razor-sharp, particularly notable in the Brahms. But what a voice she has..

Unfortunately John Nelson´s Ensemble Orchestral de Paris does not entirely match this high level. Furthermore, much to my distaste, Hans Werner Henzes orchestration of the Wesendonck lieder was chosen for this recording, whose transparent approach I have never felt suits either the Wesendonck lieder in general or Stephanie Blythe´s voice in particular.

Stephanie Blythe with Schmerzen from Wesendonck lieder:

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


Berlin: Herheim Barenboim Lohengrin with marionettes and pre-opening controversy

Norwegian director Stefan Herheim´s new production of Lohengrin opened yesterday, April 4th at the Berlin State Opera. Cast included Klaus Florian Vogt, Dorothea Röschmann (in her role debut as Elsa), Kwangchul Youn (replacing René Pape). Daniel Barenboim conducted.

The premiere has been surrounded by more than the usual dose of controversy/press hysteria as Stefan Herheim and Daniel Barenboim apparently had a rather below-average working relationship, with Stefan Herheim being quoted in interviews as saying that "Daniel Barenboim appears a honorary guest in his own house..he hardly followed the stage don´t exactly encourage the curiousity to bring music and theater together in this way" and stating that "Barenboim has another understanding of music theater [than Herheim]". At the website of the Berlin State Opera, Stefan Herheim subsequently distanced himself from the general tone of this article originally published in Die Welt, however the quotes, I believe, remain.

Daniel Barenboim has responded with the following: “I have admired Stefan Herheim’s work in the past, and I like the way he thinks.. But we have a disagreement about the overture.” Which, Barenboim (as usual with Wagner) prefers being played curtain down.

And the perforkmance? We already knew that string puppets/marionettes would appear and that Herheim was inspired by Peter Konwitschny´s 10 year old Hamburg Lohengrin production.
I did unfortunately not attend the premiere, but from preliminary reports I understand that the main concept evolved around the current opera house situation in Berlin + Richard Wagner´s composition process with characters reflecting in marionette alter egos and that at least as much stage action went on as in Herheims Bayreuth Parsifal. If that is indeed the case, I believe I shall side with Daniel Barenboim in the "understanding of music theater" discussion.

More later.

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