Thursday, 29 March 2018

The New Karlsruhe Ring

My reviews of the four productions as they were introduced in 2016-17, taken from recent editions of The Wagner Journal (slightly edited).

Das Rheingold. Renatus Meszar (Wotan), Jaco Venter (Alberich), Klaus Schneider (Loge), Torsten Hofmann (Mime), Katharine Tier (Fricka), Yang Xu (Fasolt), Avtandil Kaspeli (Fafner), Agnieszka Tomaszewska (Freia), Ariana Lucas (Erda), Armin Kolarczyk (Donner), Cameron Becker (Froh), Uliana Alexyuk (Woglinde), Kristina Stanek (Wellgunde), Dilara Baştar (Floßhilde); Badische Staatskapelle/Justin Brown; David Hermann (director), Jo Schramm (designer/lighting), Bettina Walter (costumes), Stefan Woinke (lighting). Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 6 November 2016

Die Walküre. Renatus Meszar (Wotan), Heidi Melton (Brünnhilde), Peter Wedd (Siegmund), Katherine Broderick (Sieglinde), Ewa Wolak (Fricka), Avtandil Kaspeli (Hunding), Christina Niessen (Gerhilde), Ina Schlingensiepen (Ortlinde), Katharine Tier (Waltraute), Ariana Lucas (Schwertleite), Barbara Dobrzanska (Helmwige), Dilara Baştar (Siegrune), Kristina Stanek (Grimgerde), Tiny Peters (Roßweiße); Badische Staatskapelle/Justin Brown; Yuval Sharon (director), Sebastian Hannak (designer), Sarah Rolke (costumes), Stefan Woinke (lighting), Jason H. Thompson (video designer). Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 11 December 2016

Siegfried. Erik Fenton (Siegfried), Heidi Melton (Brünnhilde), Renatus Meszar (The Wanderer), Jaco Venter (Alberich), Matthias Wohlbrecht (Mime), Katharine Tier (Erda), Avtandil Kaspeli (Fafner), Uliana Alexyuk (Woodbird); Badische Staatskapelle/Justin Brown; Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson (director), Vytautas Narbutas (designer), Sunneva Ása Weisshappel (costumes/video designer), Björn Bergsteinn Gudmundsson (lighting). Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, 2 July 2017

Götterdämmerung. Daniel Frank (Siegfried), Heidi Melton (Brünnhilde), Armin Kolarczyk (Gunther), Christina Niessen (Gutrune), Konstantin Gorny (Hagen), Sarah Castle (Waltraute/First Norn/Floßhilde), Jaco Venter (Alberich), Dilara Baştar (Second Norn/Wellgunde), An de Ridder (Third Norn), Agnieszka Tomaszewska (Woglinde); Badischer Staatsopernchor and Extrachor, Badische Staatskapelle/Justin Brown; Tobias Kratzer (director), Rainer Sellmaier (designer/costumes), Stefan Woinke (lighting). Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, 22 October 2017

One of the intentions of farming out the four parts of the Ring to different directors must be to create productions that can be revived individually, rather than the com­pany feeling obliged to bring out the whole cycle in order to keep the works in its rep­ertoire. It’s an experiment first tried, if memory serves, by Oper Stuttgart in the early 2000s and subsequently taken up by the Aalto Theatre in Essen. Now the Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe has taken up the challenge, inviting four young directors to share the cycle, and enabling it to mount the four works from scratch in as little as sixteen months from start to finish. I hope to catch up with the rest as they appear, but I managed to see the first two instalments a month apart in the late autumn.

David Hermann’s Das Rheingold, though, almost makes the three subsequent works dramatically superfluous. He has cleverly intertwined the story of the ‘Vorabend’ with those of the other three, so we go from the theft of the gold to Götterdämmerung in the space of the music’s two-and-a-half hours. A cast of five silent actors shares the roles of the non-Rheingold protagonists and at pertinent points acts out crucial scenes in counterpoint to the events of the main drama. Beginning in the first interlude, we see the meeting of Siegmund and Sieglinde and later their flight from Hunding as Freia expresses her fear of the giants (in a fascinating turnaround of character, Freia is here depicted as falling headlong for Fasolt when she sees him and her calls for help are made ironically); Brünnhilde is put to sleep on her rock as Loge emerges on the scene. Scene 3 is paralleled by the story of Siegfried, with our hero-to-be goading Mime in place of the Tarnhelmed Alberich and forging his sword to the Nibelungs’ hammering rhythms before killing the Wurm whose form Alberich assumes to impress Loge and Wotan. During the last interlude, Siegfried confronts the ‘real’ Wotan, finds Brünnhilde and sets off on his Rhine Journey.

Götterdämmerung then shadows Scene 4: Siegfried’s drinking of the memory potion from a goblet while the Nibelung hoard is revealed as a large golden chalice; Alberich cursing the ring as he visibly passes the mantle of its recovery to Hagen; Brünnhilde swearing vengeance as the gold is piled up to hide Freia; Siegfried being killed at the moment of Erda’s entry; and the hero’s funeral pyre setting off the volcano, whose solidified lava frames the set, as its gases asphyxiate the gods in an early Dämmerung. Erda, who seems to be Father Rhine as well as Mother Earth and who had dropped the gold into the river at the start of the evening, returns the ring to its home as the visual drama comes full circle (Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, of course, both end in the same key of D flat major).

As interpreter, Hermann is not suggesting that Wagner himself had these parallels in mind, yet there’s a serendipitous aptness about so many of them – especially the links between the Nibelheim scene and Siegfried – that they couldn’t help raising a smile for their ingenuity. Rather than compete with Wagner’s musical intentions, this dramatic counterpoint emphasises the music’s fluidity, its ability to suggest different things at the same time and to look forwards as well as backwards. The labelling of cer­tain leitmotifs with specific attributes has never been made to seem more unyieldingly rigid. And if the implication is that the miming dominates the staging to the detriment of Das Rheingold itself, that is not the case at all – the Rheingold story is told coherently in a modern-dress setting with a pertinent critique of commerce and the rape of a natural world that, thanks to volcanism, has the last word. We are just shown the implications of Alberich and Wotan’s actions in overt form.

Renatus Meszar’s Wotan has become a bit more diffuse since his performances of the role in Weimar a decade ago (going by DVD evidence) and he needed a bit more solidity of tone than he provided here. But the largely ensemble cast around him worked hard to compensate, especially the Alberich of Jaco Venter, Klaus Schneider’s mellifluous Loge, Katharine Tier’s vocally solid Fricka and Ariana Lucas’s rich-toned Erda. Justin Brown paced the two and a half hours well and the Badische Staatskapelle revealed a potently Wagnerian Klang.

* * * * *

The director of Die Walküre, Los Angeles-based Yuval Sharon, gives his explanation of his thinking in the programme in the form of an ‘open letter’ to Hermann, whose Rheingold he only managed to see some three weeks into his own rehearsals. The four directors had had an opportunity to share their ideas at a meeting in Iceland in the summer of 2015, but it wasn’t until this viewing of the ‘Vorabend’ that Sharon realised how much the two works complement each other in that one looks forward (empha­sised by Hermann’s previews of the rest of the story), while the other looks backwards. The whole of Die Walküre is about coming to terms with past events and experiences: the twins overcoming their traumatic upbringing and separation; Wotan’s irrevocable past decisions that make him realise ‘Das Ende’ is the only solution; and the repercus­sions of Brünnhilde’s recent actions in defiance of her father. Sharon explores this idea visually in a number of ways, principally by having much of the early action presented in front of a moving wall of doors, behind which memories come and go, whether representations of the young Siegmund and Sieglinde, visions of Wotan depositing the sword, or actual soloists from the orchestra with their musical reminiscences (video of the solo cellist during the twins’ first hint of recognition; appearance of the players of clarinet, cor anglais and oboe while Sieglinde prepares Hunding’s draught and as the yearning becomes more obvious at the end of Scene 2). The implication of the setting is that the twins are trapped in the present by a past from which they cannot hide, and projections and shadowed silhouettes are effectively used to suggest the threats outside the walls.

Wotan is also trapped in a nightmare, one of his own making, symbolised by the first two scenes of Act II taking place on an intermittently moving staircase – however much the god tries to climb out of his dilemma he always finds himself in the same place. His long narrative monologue is dramatised with video and live-action repre­sentation of the characters and events described, perhaps most potently with the sug­gestion that Siegmund is merely a human puppet being manipulated by the god. But the row of doors returns for the Todesverkündigung and the rest of the act: the characters are trapped by their fate.

The visual inspiration for Brünnhilde’s rock in Act III comes from Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a shipwreck in the Arctic, Eismeer (Sea of Ice), with its more pertinent alternative title in this context, Die verlorene Hoffnung (The Wreck of Hope). In one of the production’s more self-indulgent but arresting visual images, a Hollywood­esque, widescreen film shows the Valkyries dressed in orange jumpsuits paragliding through a blizzard on to the icy mountain top. Without the Friedrich title connection, the scene would seem rather disconnected with the visual style of the rest of the even­ing, but the setting, beautifully lit by Stefan Woinke, lends a chill through the drama of this last act, culminating with Brünnhilde being frozen within a big block of ice as the lower reaches of the mountain glow with Loge’s protective fire. It’s as if the loca­tion of the directorial meeting in the Land of Fire and Ice has had a role to play here. If overall, Sharon’s concept doesn’t have quite the originality and sense of unity of Her­mann’s Rheingold, and some of the parallel, illustrative imagery seems a bit obvious, it has some interesting overriding ideas and expresses them, especially through the underlying psychology of the characters and their actions, with clarity, ingenuity and total command of his multimedia resources – a modern-day Gesamtkunstwerk in action.

Part of the success of the production is its intimate relationship between stage and music – and not just the aforementioned appearance of musicians on the set. Justin Brown’s often urgent tempi and the Badische Staatskapelle’s energised playing ide­ally complemented what went on above them – of a number of Wagner performances I have heard in this house, this must count as the most orchestrally enthralling to date. Even Renatus Meszar’s Wotan seemed to have recovered its vocal eloquence, especially in his Act II narration and in the poignancy of his Farewell. And making her stage Brünnhilde debut in the theatre that nurtured her, Heidi Melton gave her strongest Wagnerian performance to date, generous of tone and word-conscious, par­ticularly in the Annunciation of Death Scene, where her rich lower register came into its own, suggesting the role of Kundry might also be within her reach. Peter Wedd’s Siegmund was forceful, if a little unsubtle, and the Sieglinde of Katherine Broderick – a new recruit to the Karlsruhe ensemble – was lustrous and often penetratingly bright of tone. Ewa Wolak’s Fricka was searingly communicative and Avtandil Kaspeli was a sturdy Hunding.

* * * * *

Karlsruhe’s multi-director cycle moves on to Siegfried with a staging by an Icelandic team led by maverick director Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson. As might be expected with someone of his upbringing, he is steeped in the Edda, the ultimate source of Wagner’s tetralogy. But apart from the appearance of the Nibelungen – looking like escapees from the Lord of the Rings films (Gollum, especially) – the mythical side is not overtly explored. Instead, Arnarsson sees Siegfried as the clash of generations, of a power struggle between the young and the old, as our hero severs ties with his upbringing and rejects the authority of the gods to pursue his own destiny. The way Arnarsson portrays this is intriguing both at a dramatic and a meta-theatrical level. Siegfried’s life is being monitored, Truman Show-style, by Wotan via a bank of CCTV screens, and as required the god dons a costume – a rather feeble Wanderer disguise of false beard and wizard’s hat – to take part in the stage events. At the end of Act II, the Woodbird as part of her guidance hands Siegfried a Wagner score, which makes him realise he is merely an operatic character, and from then on he does his best to flout the stage directions until seduced back into the dramatic sphere by Brünnhilde. Thus the battle between young and old is mirrored in the conflict between traditional and post-dramatic theatre, between Wotan the old actor and the disrespect of the younger generation as represented by Siegfried.

Vytautas Narbutas’s set is a shambolic museum – a repository of Siegfried’s childhood and forebears. A smattering of swords and spears – often seemingly picked up at random – provide the props as needed, but as Siegfried rejects his role, so he neglects Nothung (not seen again after being plunged into Fafner) and there’s no sight of the hoard, let alone Tarnhelm and ring. In Act III, Scene 2, he simply snaps Wotan’s hastily sought spear over his knee and poses with his trophy as the Woodbird takes a photo of him on her smartphone. He then sings the whole scene of the discovery of Brünnhilde while seated on a dining chair staring out at the audience – going through the vocal motions, as it were, but not engaging with his role until Brünnhilde’s seduction engulfs him.

Arnarsson’s rehearsal process appears to be very much one of collaboration and improvisation – he shuts his cast in a room full of props and lets them discover their characters at the start of the process and things don’t necessarily fully gel until the dress rehearsal. Some of that exploratory nature survives in the finished result, such as Siegfried’s frequent changing of costume and comic-book hero adherence as he attempts to discover his true being – he spends his post-Truman Act III in a T-shirt emblazoned with an irreverent ZEEG FREED.

Justin Brown and his Badische Staatskapelle go from strength to strength in this, their fifth Wagnerian collaboration in little more than two years – the sound coming from the pit was gloriously ripe and well-upholstered and Brown’s tempi always sat well with the notes. American tenor Erik Fenton, making his role debut in this production as Siegfried, may struggle in a larger space than the Badisches Staatstheater, but here remained in clarion control right to the end, with no signs of tiring and bringing plenty of dynamic and expressive subtlety – if with a slightly pallid and unchanging tone colour. Matthias Wohlbrecht’s Mime wasn’t immune from stock whining, but was vividly drawn. Heidi Melton’s soaring Brünnhilde (an apology was made for indisposition due to flu but there was no sign of it in her voice), Renatus Meszar’s determined Wanderer, Jaco Venter’s menacing Alberich and Avtandil Kaspeli’s weighty Fafner added to the positive impression all four had given in earlier instalments, and Uliana Alexyuk made light of her aerial suspension as a vocally lithe Woodbird. Mention should also be made of horn player Dominik Zinsstag’s on-stage appearance as Siegfried’s obliging hired musician, brought in when the hero’s attempts on his out-of-tune upright piano (rather than the usual ‘reed’/oboe) fail to have the desired effect.

* * * * *

I should begin this review by warning that it contains spoilers, for anyone who might be venturing to Karlsruhe for its complete cycles this spring and who doesn’t want to know how it all ends … Though in one sense, the Badisches Staatstheater’s multi-director Ring ends rather as it began in Das Rheingold, with a production of Götterdämmerung that is similarly and refreshingly irreverent, and engages with the score and text in innovative ways. Although the intention of the project has in part presumably been to present standalone versions of each component of the cycle that work singly as well as a whole, Tobias Kratzer’s ideas evidently and deliberately feed off the work of his predecessors. The theatre curtain opens to a drop emblazoned with the words, in English, ‘The End’, and seated contemplating it, with their backs to us, are three figures slumped in directors’ chairs bearing the titles of the three earlier instalments of the cycle. As these ‘Norns’ begin to sing it becomes clear they are the personifications of the three previous directors themselves – David Hermann, Yuval Sharon and Thorleifur Örn Arnarsson – who proceed to tell their individual parts of the back-narrative until they realise that they don’t know how to save the story from the inevitable cataclysm, with ‘Hermann’ constantly rummaging for alternative answers in the printed score. Directors’ chairs and music in hand, the three figures haunt the rest of the evening, observing with horrified expressions the play of events while trying to avert the disaster they foresee by intervening to wrest the ring from whoever has it. This works neatly with two of the three goading the First Norn (‘Hermann’) into reluctantly dressing up as the Valkyrie Waltraute (a common theatrical doubling in practice), and attempting to persuade Brünnhilde to give up the ring after their attempts at snatching it from her sleeping form have failed. And, of course, thanks to the wigs and make-up, the three directors also become the Rhinemaidens despite changes in personnel along the way, donning mermaid outfits in an obviously doomed-to-fail bid to influence Siegfried’s actions. The repertoire of trouser roles has never been expanded so widely in one go. (In Act II, Scene 4, the threesome also substitutes for the women’s chorus, its three brief utterances amounting to all of fifteen notes.) 

The three directors and their various impersonations aside, Kratzer takes a fairly straightforward approach to the rest of the characterisation and narrative. Scene 2 of the Prologue begins with Siegfried rather sheepishly trying to sneak away from Brünnhilde’s clutches after a perhaps too overwhelming wedding night (the set is an IKEA-style hotel bridal suite), but in forgetting to pack his Tarnhelm he cannot help but wake her in retrieving it, and she sends him off with Grane, whose unseen fearsomeness is conveyed by yanking reins held through the open doorway. For the Gibichungs, the scene changes to a cavernous room of looming dark mirrored walls (‘reflecting their egos’, comments designer Rainer Sellmaier in the programme). These are shifted somewhat in Act II, where the curtain opens to reveal a real Grane (cue intrusive audience chatter and even a couple of flash photographs), eventually led away for slaughter as part of the wedding sacrifice – perhaps symbolising the betrayal of Brünnhilde, who gifted the horse to Siegfried. (Easily missed, but in Scene 2 of Act III it becomes apparent where the meat that is being barbecued for the resting vassals came from, much to Gunther’s disgust.)

Nothung is no longer in evidence as a real object, but has become the symbol of masculinity and its mention is usually coupled with Siegfried or whoever grappling his tackle, underlining the ambivalence of the sword’s invocation as protector of Brünnhilde’s virtue during the abduction (as Siegfried’s preparatory masturbation makes clear). And in a related way, Alberich reveals to Hagen in their scene together that he has ‘done a Klingsor’ and emasculated himself, and we sense that that trauma is now being symbolically passed on to the unloved, outcast Hagen along with the urgency of his ring-retrieving task. Kratzer is skilled at drawing out the inner psychology of these characters – Gunther, most notably, with his gradual realisation of how he is being manipulated by his half-brother. And Siegfried is very much still growing up, discovering alcohol for the first time (Gutrune’s potion) and revealing himself as the innocent in the big, bad world.

So how does it all end? The curtains inscribed ‘The End’ return to announce the Immolation Scene, though here there’s no immolation. Brünnhilde starts a small fire, but – to the exasperation of the three directors – consigns the final pages of the score to the flames, while the directors/Rhinemaidens themselves are too scared to accept the gift of the ring and now they really don’t know how to conclude things. But Brünnhilde saves the day: she fetches her own director’s chair, sits with her back to the audience and proceeds to direct the action in reverse – over the final couple of minutes of music the main scenes of the entire opera are rewound until, as the final chords sound, she simply leaves the ring on her chair and rejoins Siegfried in the bridal chamber at the moment just before, Grane’s reins in his hand, he was about to leave on his fateful journey. As Kratzer remarks in the programme, Brünnhilde, realising how Hagen has used her and everyone else, ‘insists on the right to end her own story’ in a final act of rebellion, but it also raises the question of whether the piece can ever end. It’s a clever, resonant solution to the conundrum that Kratzer set himself at the start of the evening, and its audaciousness and execution go a long way to compensate for the lack of the more customary world-ending visualisation of more literal productions.

For its Siegfried, the Badisches Staatstheater has turned to a relative newcomer, Daniel Frank. This Swedish tenor, like Peter Hofmann before him originally a rock singer, has already sung Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Florestan, but as far as I am aware this was his first traversal of the role of Siegfried. And in every way it was triumphant: musicality, tonal variety and stamina were all there in abundance, as well as an ease both as actor and singer that bode well as long his career isn’t pushed too hard. Opposite him, Heidi Melton’s Brünnhilde has grown in stature through the building up of this Ring – these have been her first stage performances of the complete role and by this last instalment her top had gained greater steadiness to go with the rich, mezzo-ish timbre she produces in her middle and lower ranges. The Russian bass Konstantin Gorny – a house ensemble member for twenty years – was the epitome of a Hagen and Armin Kolarczyk gave one of the most psychologically penetrating portrayals of Gunther I have seen, as he watches his world tumble down before him. Jaco Venter’s Alberich was as formidable as earlier in the cycle and Christina Niessen was a forthright but sympathetic Gutrune. The New Zealand mezzo Sarah Castle was a vivid First Norn, Waltraute and Floßhilde, leading her merry band of directors to ever more desperate forms of action – Dilara Baştar’s Second Norn and Wellgunde, An de Ridder’s Third Norn and Agnieszka Tomaszewska’s Woglinde. Justin Brown, conducting what was to have been his last new production in Karlsruhe after ten years with the company before renewing his contract for another couple of years just a week after this performance, directed a seamless, brooding account of the score and the Badische Staatskapelle played magnificently for him.

With multi-director Rings suddenly all the rage – Chemnitz is also launching one this season and even Bayreuth is taking this route in 2020 – Karlsruhe has shown that it can be truly successful. In choosing young directors with fresh ideas, able to contemplate each work in relative isolation (they all met up in Iceland for an initial exchange of ideas), the results have generally been of a very high quality, while also managing to balance concept with narrative flow. In retrospect I imagine the four stagings will work just as well as a cycle as individually (two full cycles are being staged this spring), though the best remain for me David Hermann’s Rheingold and this Götterdämmerung.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Distant Sounds's Top Ten Operatic Productions of 2017

Activity has admittedly been rather sparse on this blog this year, as my reviewing has tended to appear elsewhere – at Bachtrack, and in Opera and in The Wagner Journal. But I thought it worthwhile to put together a short summary of my year’s musical adventures - my own personal top ten operatic experiences of 2017. (Photos all copyright photographers indicated.)

10 Lulu/Hamburg State Opera

Photo: Monika Rittershaus
A somewhat mystifying staging by Christoph Martaler that came up with its own solution to the opera’s incomplete state by replacing much of Act III’s dramaturgy with an enacted performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto, eloquently played by Veronika Eberle. Most impressive was Barbara Hannigan’s vocally and physically athletic assumption of the title role. Bachtrack review here

9 Die Gezeichneten/Bavarian State Opera

Photo: Wilfred Hosl
The first of Germany’s premier-league opera houses to bring Schreker’s magnum opus back into its repertoire after nearly a century, Munich threw its best at it: top-notch cast, a typically smart-looking production by Krzysztof Warlikowski and a sumptuous performance from the BSO orchestra under Ingo Metzmacher. Bachtrack review here 

8 Mathis der Maler/Staatstheater Mainz

Photo: Andreas Etter
A spare but effective presentation of Hindemith’s viscerally political opera in the city in which it is largely set. Review here

7 Elektra/Mannheim National Theatre

Photo: Hans Jorg Michel
A revival of Ruth Berghaus’s iconic 1980 staging, dominated by the towering portrayal of Elektra by Catherine Foster, and a searing interpretation of the score from Alexander Soddy and the orchestra. Bachtrack review here

6 Pelléas et Mélisande/Frankfurt Opera

Photo: Barbara Aumuller
Another revival, this time of Claus Guth’s five-year-old production of Debussy’s opera that mesmerised with its intensity and focus, and was swiftly but marvellously conducted by Joana Mallwitz. Bachtrack review here

5 Das Wunder der Heliane/Flanders Opera

Photo: Annemie Augustijns
A triumphant vindication of Korngold’s most ‘problematic’ opera, with a straightforwardly literal staging of the plot from David Bösch and an intense reading of the title role from Ausrine Stundyte. (Not reviewed.)

4 Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald/Theater Hagen

Photo: Klaus Lefebvre
A real discovery for me this year was H.K. Gruber’s operatic version of Horváth’s play about a dysfunctional family in interwar Vienna – a richly referential score grippingly performed by the Hagen ensemble. (Not reviewed.)

3 Hamlet/Glyndebourne on Tour

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Everyone’s favourite new opera of 2017, but seeing it for the first time on the Glyndebourne Tour (Milton Keynes Theatre) made me see why: a fascinating, resourceful score and performances of truly Shakespearean breadth and depth from the cast. (Not reviewed.)

2 Penthesilea/Bonn Opera

Photo: Thilo Beu
Another new discovery for me: Othmar Schoeck’s adaptation of Kleist’s Greek drama proved to be a bit like Elektra on steroids – a highly physical but scintillating score and single span of drama thrillingly staged by Peter Konwitschny. (Review forthcoming in Opera magazine.)

1 Götterdämmerung/Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe

Photo: Matthias Baus
Difficult to decide between my top three, but Tobias Kratzer’s irreverent conclusion to Karlsruhe’s multi-director Ring Cycle really made my year: an ingenious, meta-theatrical staging that both drew together the threads of the previous directors’ ideas and made its own mark, with an impressive ensemble cast boding well for the full cycles in the spring. (Review forthcoming in March 2018 issue of The Wagner Journal.)

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Tristan und Isolde – Gelsenkirchen/Essen – 4/5 March 2017

Catherine Foster & Torsten Kerl in Gelsenkirchen's 'Tristan'
Photo: Forster
From the July 2017 issue of The Wagner Journal

Musiktheater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen, 4 March 2017
Tristan – Torsten Kerl
Isolde – Catherine Foster
Kurwenal – Urban Malmberg
Brangäne – Almuth Herbst
King Mark – Phillip Ens
Melot – Piotr Prochera
Young Sailor – Ibrahim Yesilay
Shepherd – William Saetre
Steersman – Jacoub Eisa

Chorus and Extra Chorus of the MiR
Neue Philharmonie Westfalen

Conductor – Rasmus Baumann
Director – Michael Schulz
Designer – Kathrin-Susann Brose
Costumes – Renée Listerdal
Lighting – Patrick Fuchs

Aalto Theater, Essen, 5 March 2017
Tristan – Jeffrey Dowd 

Isolde – Rebecca Teem
Kurwenal – Heiko Trinsinger
Brangäne – Martina Dike
King Mark – Tijl Faveyts
Melot – Karel Martin Ludvik
Young Sailor – Rainer Maria Röhr
Shepherd – Albrecht Kludszuweit
Steersman – Georgios Iatrou

Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Aalto Theater
Essener Philharmoniker

Conductor – Frank Beermann
Director – Barrie Kosky
Designer/lighting – Klaus Grünberg
Costumes – Alfred Mayerhofer

Only in Germany … Such is the density of operatic endeavour in the country that it is inevitable there’s an occasional overlap of repertoire between adjacent houses. It was not so unusual, therefore, to find Musiktheater im Revier Gelsenkirchen’s new Tristan und Isolde scheduled to launch the night before a revival of the Aalto Theater’s ten-year-old production just twelve kilometres away in Essen. The Ruhr may be the most heavily populated part of Germany, but its towns and cities seem quite parochial in their individual cultural ambit, and there appears to be remarkably little cross-fertilisation of audiences. (As a parallel example, our taxi driver back from Gelsenkirchen after the Premierfeiern barely knew where Essen was without his sat-nav.)

Gelsenkirchen doesn’t have the Wagner tradition of its neighbour (Essen has most of the works in its repertoire, including a multi-director Ring) and, despite its theatre’s name, presents fewer operatic performances in a season that is shared with spoken theatre, musicals and dance. But it has obvious ambition under the Intendancy of Michael Schulz – director of Weimar’s Ring – and it was playing up the ‘Bayreuth comes to the Ruhr’ line in its publicity for having attracted two of the Green Hill’s recent and current stars to sing the title roles, Torsten Kerl and Catherine Foster (Foster had also sung Brünnhilde in Schulz’s Weimar Ring). The production is Schulz’s own, and seems pretty tame after the Regie re-interpretations of his Ring. Act I is in split-level, with Isolde’s cabin shown below decks and with Tristan brooding with the crew above – there’s a sense of the male world louring over that of the female, one where Brangäne and Isolde sip tea among their luggage while Tristan hovers beside a shiny black monolith (which just brought unwanted allusion to Space Odyssey). The story is portrayed reasonably true to the text – there’s even a gold chalice for the potion – but things get a little more complicated in Act II, where the lovers negotiate a labyrinth of a revolving set, singing ‘O sink hernieder’ to the accompaniment of a young boy and girl playing with their toys in the background (‘not in front of the children’, surely), and with the climax of their duet illustrated – as if the music doesn’t say it all – by semi-naked body doubles writhing in coupled ecstasy in a glass box. A minimalist Act III has nothing but a white backdrop, that monolith again and sliding black foreground panels. It felt like three different productions, with each act having a different design ethos and progressing from naturalistic detail to monochrome stylisation. Nothing wrong with this approach in principle, but it did feel and look disjointed, and it was difficult to see what if any point was being made, both in this regard and in general in Schulz’s directorial choices. It is a production that illustrates the story well enough but does less to interpret or explore its multi-layered strands of meaning.

The musical highlight of the performance was Foster’s Isolde: firm, often lustrous of tone and vividly acted – her venting of fury at ‘Fluch dir, Verruchter’, using her full height to imposing advantage, was visceral. Kerl’s Tristan was almost her equal. He sounded a little under-powered in the love duet of Act II, but was obviously pacing himself for the challenges of Act III, which he delivered with both power and subtlety. Only Piotr Prochera’s particularly villainous Melot truly impressed among the home-grown support team, though. Almuth Herbst’s Brangäne was occasionally unfocused, though her Act II warnings were eloquently sung, Urban Malmberg’s Kurwenal was light-voiced but a little too demonstrative in his delivery, and Phillip Ens’s King Mark sounded rather frayed and rough at the edges. Ibrahim Yesilay’s Young Sailor was subtly phrased and Jacoub Eisa’s two lines as the Steersman were forcefully projected, but William Saetre’s weak Shepherd was merely adequate. Rasmus Baumann’s conducting was nuanced, and while the orchestra coped well with the demands, its woodwind lacked sophistication at times and the whole ensemble has some way to go to develop the true Wagnerian Klang required.

Barrie Kosky’s Tristan und Isolde for the Aalto Theater dates from 2006, and compared with his more recent productions is fairly sober and contained. Bravely he sets each act in a tiny cube of a room, barely three or four metres across. Act I is a cramped ship’s cabin that does service for both Isolde’s quarters and Tristan’s, the latter storming in with his drunken hangers-on and a Kurwenal who as good as rapes Brangäne during his paean to his master. There’s just room for a washbasin and tap for Brangäne to use to dilute the potion in a glass tumbler that Isolde smashes after consuming its contents. The idea of a brightly lit room in a black void is made even more minimalist in Act II. This time the acting space is still further restricted, just a grey-flocked trapezoid cube (with light fitting and bowl of fruit) that rotates during the love duet, very slowly at first and with more speed as the musical tension hots up. It’s a beautifully simple expression of a personal world in motion with the added element of jeopardy as the singers constantly need to find their feet and centre of balance. A third, still room is the setting for the final act, now seen in the context of a field of model sheep. As Tristan’s world collapses around him, the herd is shepherded out of the way and the action spills out on to the full stage for the first time.

Compared to the Gelsenkirchen experience, the musical performance was generally on much firmer ground. The orchestra under Frank Beermann, until last year music director in Chemnitz and conductor of the ongoing Ring cycle in Minden, played with élan from the start, with rich strings, sleek woodwind and sophisticated overall balance. The supporting cast, too, was much better, with Heiko Trinsinger a vivid Kurwenal, Martina Dike a Brangäne with real vocal and physical presence and Tijl Faveyts a young-looking but authoritative King Mark. Where the performance fell down, sadly, was with the two principals. Rebecca Teem, as Isolde, had the excuse that she was a presumably latish replacement for the unwell Dara Hobbs, and with Kosky’s physical demands, especially in the revolving set of Act II, it is understandable that she might not give of her best. But her singing, although she had all the notes, was often strident and coarse, and had little of Foster’s tonal bloom. Jeffrey Dowd, who has been in the production since the start, and who also appeared in its previous revival in 2013, had less of an excuse for such an unengaged performance as he gave, especially in Act II where he seemed to be too conscious of the precariousness of the moving stage and as a result gave the impression of singing on autopilot. Act III was demonstrably better, where his pinched tone and occasionally mannered delivery felt more in keeping with his character’s disintegration. Playing ‘fantasy Tristans’, if one took the best from both productions – the lead roles in Gelsenkirchen, the rest, and the staging, in Essen – one would have come away with an experience closer to that elusive ideal.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Distant Sounds’s operatic must-sees in the 2017/18 season

As a supplement to my listing of operatic repertoire for the 2017/18 season (see tab above), here’s my personal list of highlights - very much a 'long list’ of all the productions I’d be prepared to travel and see (though obviously more than I’ll manage!).

And don't forget the full list of season premieres here.

Firstly, the rarities:

Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane in Gent/Antwerp (September) & Berlin DO (March)
Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten in St Gallen (September) & Berlin DO (January), plus revival in Munich (May)
Schoeck's Penthesilea in Bonn (October) 
Hindemith Mathis der Maler in Gelsenkirchen (October)
Schreker’s Der ferne Klang in Lübeck (October)
Prokofiev’s The Gambler in Vienna (October), Basel (May) & Gent/Antwerp (June)
Hubay’s Anna Karenina in Bern (November)
Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie in Amsterdam (November)
Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg in Lille (November)
Weill’s Love Life in Freiburg (December)
Korngold’s Die tote Stadt in Dresden (December)
Zemlinsky’s Der Kreiderkreis in Lyon (January)
Von Einem’s Dantons Tod in Magdeburg (January)
Reznicek's Benzin in Bielefeld (January)
Martin’s Der Sturm in Saarbrücken (January)
Marschner’s Hans Heiling in Essen (February)
Meyerbeer’s Vasco da Gama in Frankfurt (February)
Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue in Graz (March)
Rachmaninov’s Aleko & Francesca da Rimini in Kiel (March)
Shostakovich’s Cheryomushki in Braunschweig (May) & Gelsenkirchen (March)
Von Einem’s Der Besuch der alten Dame and Dantons Tod, both in Vienna (March)
Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper in Giessen (March)
Puccini’s Edgar in Regensburg (April)
Enescu’s Oedipe in Gera (April)
Hindemith triple bill in Budapest (May)
Hindemith's Neues vom Tage in Schwerin (May)
Weill’s Der Silbersee in Pforzheim (May)
Langgaard’s Antikrist in Mainz (June)
Tate’s The Lodger in Bremerhaven (June)
Waltershausen’s Oberst Chabert (1912) in Bonn (June)
Busoni's Doktor Faust in Osnabrück (June) 
Mascagni’s Isabeau in London OHP (summer)

Contemporary and premieres:

Henze’s Der junge Lord in Hannover (September)
Ligeti’s Le grand macabre in Luzern/Meiningen (September) & Flensburg (May)
Reimann’s L’invisable in Berlin DO (WP, October)
Saariaho’s Only the Sound Remains in Paris (January)
Eötvös’s Angels in America in Münster (February) & in Freiburg (March)
Henze’s Das Fluss der Medusa in Amsterdam (March)
Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in Nürnberg (March), Köln (April) & Madrid (May)
Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence in London (WP, May) & Amsterdam (June)
Holliger’s Lunea in Zürich (WP, May)
Andriessen’s Waiting for Vermeer in Heidelberg (May)
Adams’s Nixon in China in Würzburg (May)
Ruzicka’s Benjamin in Hamburg (WP, June)

Notable new productions of more familiar repertoire:

Pelléas et Mélisande in Berlin (Komische Oper), dir. Barrie Kosky (September)
Die Frau ohne Schatten in Linz (September)
From the House of the Dead in Cardiff (October), Paris (November), London ROH (March), Frankfurt (April) & Munich (May)
Wozzeck in Düsseldorf, dir. Stefan Herheim (October)
Capriccio in Frankfurt, dir. Brigitte Fassbaender (January)
Jenufa in Kassel (February)
Boris Godunov in Paris, dir. Ivo van Hove (June)

The Wagnerian highlights:

Rienzi in Innsbruck (May)
Tannhäuser in Köln (September), Wiesbaden (November), Görlitz (March) & Leipzig (March)
Lohengrin in Brussels (April) & London ROH (June)
Ring cycles in Leipzig (January), Dresden (January), Munich (January), Karlsruhe (March) & Vienna (April)
New Rings beginning in Chemnitz (February/March) & Bielefeld (March) and continuing in Oldenburg (September) Kiel (March) & Düsseldorf (April)
Tristan und Isolde in Amsterdam (January) & Kassel (May)
Parsifal in Hamburg (September), Baden-Baden (March), Paris (April) & Munich (June), plus revivals in Mannheim, Stuttgart & Antwerp/Gent

And a few revivals of non-standard rep missed first time round:

Barber’s Vanessa in Frankfurt (September)
Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan in Dresden (November)
Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau in Munich (November)
Strauss’s Daphne in Vienna SO (December)
Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar in Frankfurt (January)

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Das Lied der Nacht – Theater Osnabrück – 5 May 2017

Lianora - Lina Liu
The Princess-Abbess - Gritt Gnauck
Hämone - Susann Vent-Wunderlich
Tancred - Rhys Jenkins
Ciullo/The Nameless Singer - Ferdinand von Bothmer
The Chancellor - José Gallisa

Opera Chorus & Extra Chorus of Theater Osnabrück
Osnabruck Symphony Orchestra

Conductor - Andreas Hotz
Director - Mascha Porzgen
Designer - Frank Fellmann

Immediately after the 33-year-old Hans Gál made his breakthrough with his opera Die heilige Ente in Düsseldorf in 1923, he began work on a successor, creating a ‘dramatic ballad in three scenes’ to a text by the poet Karl Michael von Levetzow. Das Lied der Nacht was premiered in Breslau (now Polish Wrocław) in 1926 and was soon taken up by several further theatres, before the Nazis’ rise to power sent Gál into exile and his music into obscurity. The opera had lain unperformed for the best part of 90 years until is was dredged up from the archives to be revived this spring by the enterprising Theater Osnabrück in time to mark the 30th anniversary of the composer’s death. It is also being revived in a semi-staging at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, so one might claim that its time has come. It is certainly an interesting work, both musically and dramatically, and while it might not have emerged as a long-lost masterpiece to set alongside the works of Schreker and Zemlinsky from the same decade, there’s enough of substance to make one hope it doesn’t get forgotten again after this initial burst of exposure.

Musically, Das Lied impresses with its fluidity more than for striking originality – Gál obviously knew his Strauss and Mahler and steered their languages to his own uses without coming up with ideas that linger long in the mind. At its best, in the dark, gloomy harmonies of the scene with the Abbess for instance, it is powerful and full of resonance, but one longed for something more striking for the ‘Lied’ itself, the mysterious song sung by the ‘Nameless Singer’ that so enraptures the Crown Princess, Lianora – its most potent feature is its harp accompaniment. But there’s a rather impressive Act II prelude to compensate – a piece of textural ingenuity and harmonic rapture that would make an attractive concert item in itself – and throughout Gál is particularly adroit at letting his vocal lines cut through the often busy orchestral writing.

On the face of it, the story is simple: the orphaned Princess Lianora is refusing to name her husband so that Sicily may gain a king – she is more attracted to the Nameless Singer than to her bullish suitor, Tancred, and would much rather enter her aunt’s convent in any case. But this being the work of a post-Freudian Viennese, the opera is very much an exploration of the psychology of growing up, something drawn out in Mascha Pörzgen’s perceptive staging. With the death of her father, Lianora is catapulted into adulthood before she is ready, with the need to choose a husband to maintain the island’s political stability. She is also a woman in a world where men call the shots – as princess she has obligations that fall under the power of the aged Chancellor and Tancred’s macho strutting. What follows drifts into the world of dreams – is the seductiveness of the Nameless Singer a figment of her unconscious desire for escape? A way of subconsciously avoiding reality by projecting her fantasies on to her favourite gondolier, Ciullo, who turns out to be singer? We are left to ponder what’s real and what imagined – entrances and exits are often ambiguously made from within the scenery and in Act I the ‘Stony’ Abbess emerges as a giant figure from what one presumed to be the Princess’s wardrobe. Watery images abound, too, in keeping with the theme of the Singer’s lament, and add to the sense of subconscious being explored.

Gál’s score had sweep and pace in the hands of Osnabrück’s charismatic GMD Andreas Hotz, and while the orchestral playing had sheen and power, it would be good to hear what a really top-notch ensemble could make of this music. Lana Liu was highly effective as Lianora, with focused projection and a communicative way with the words; Susann Vent-Wunderlich as her maid/confidante Hämone was also impressive. Gritt Gnauck, a mezzo familiar from the Detmold ensemble, made an imposing Abbess, bringing a touch of the Klytemnestras to her vocal portrayal, and Ferdinand von Bothmer sung valiantly as the Nameless Singer and Ciullo, with just a hint of insecurity in his tenor at moments of heightened tension. Rhys Jenkins was a solid Tancred, José Gallisa a robust Chancellor and the chorus sang with particular focus and dramatic edge.

Link to promotional video:

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Mathis der Maler – Staatstheater Mainz – 2 April 2017

Ursula (Vida Mikneviciute), Regina (Dorin Rahardja) and
Mathis (Derrick Ballard). Photos: Andreas Etter

Mathis – Derrick Ballard
Cardinal Albrecht – Alexander Spemann
Ursula – Vida Mikneviciute
Hans Schwalb – Lars-Oliver Rühl
Wolfgang Capito – Steven Ebel
Regina – Dorin Rahardja
Riedinger – Stephan Bootz
Lorenz von Pommersfelden – Hans-Otto Weiß
Sylvester von Schaumberg – Johannes Mayer
Countess of Helfenstein – Geneviève King

Chorus, Extra Chorus & Statisterie of Staatstheater Mainz
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Mainz

Conductor – Hermann Bäumer
Director – Elisabeth Stöppler
Sets – Annika Haller
Costumes – Su Sigmund
Lighting – Stefan Bauer

The vision of angels: Schwalb (Lars-Oliver Rühl) and
Mathis (Derrick Ballard), centre
Hindemith conceived his opera Mathis der Maler in response to the situation in which he found himself during the early years of the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany. The dilemma facing artist Matthias Grunewald at the time of the Peasants’ War in Germany in the 1520s whether to fight or paint is one that struck a chord with the composer and is a theme that seems to have lost little of its relevance in today’s fractious world. The war in the story was partly a religious one, as newly inspired Protestants fought with Catholics, and Staatstheater Mainz has mounted the opera to mark the Luther anniversary that falls this year. But Mainz also has the advantage that the work is actually set in the city and features historic figures of the time.

There’s no pandering to medieval Mainz in Elisabeth Stöppler’s spare staging, however. Annika Haller’s ‘set’ is merely a raked stage, upon which Mathis chalks texts (unreadable from my seat) as his artwork, surrounded by black curtains on sides and rear. It focuses attention on the characters, and Stöppler makes excellent use of the space in marshalling them. Costumes are contemporary, with even Cardinal Albrecht wearing a business suit beneath his red cape – emphasising, perhaps, the way he is torn between the attractions of the new religion and the financial trappings of his position. The angelic vision of Scene 6 at least allows some brightness to lighten up what is otherwise a very muted palette of colours. Stöppler doesn’t hold back in her portrayal of violence in a society rent asunder by class and religious conflict: the rich are strung up and the fate of the peasants’ leader Hans Schwalb is a bit of a gore-fest.

Capito (Steven Ebel) and Cardinal Albrecht (Alexander Spemann)
Mathis is an ambitious work for a company of the scale of Mainz’s to mount, but it would be hard to imagine it done more compellingly by a major international house. Admittedly, one or two of the individual singers fall a little short – Lars-Oliver Rühl’s Schwalb struggled with a couple of the high notes in his part and as Ursula, Vida Mikneviciute’s shrill soprano and rapid beat proved to be an acquired taste. But Derrick Ballard’s Mathis was commanding, an assumption to rank alongside his accomplished Sachs, seen both in Mainz and in Detmold. There were moments when a little roughness emerged, but it went with his burly, highly physical portrayal of the troubled artist. Tenor Alexander Spemann was convincing as the cardinal archbishop and Steven Ebel’s contortions made his adviser Capito a particularly oleaginous creep of a character – a sinisterly comic portrayal somewhat at odds with the seriousness everywhere else. If Mikneviciute’s Ursula was a little strident, more subtlety was to be found in the singing of Dorin Rahardja as Schwalb’s daughter Regina.

Much of the success of the dramatic performance fell on the expanded chorus, which truly thrilled with the power and focus of its singing. Its members can act convincingly, too – it wasn’t so many years ago that ‘provincial’ German opera choruses could almost be relied upon for their wooden theatrical appearance. The orchestra, too, makes a most impressive sound under Mainz’s GMD Hermann Bäumer, who has no problem maintaining both the momentum and tension in Hindemith’s highly dramatic writing.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Passenger – Musiktheater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen – 2 March 2017

Lisa – Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir
Walter – Kor-Jan Dusseljee
Marta – Ilia Papandreou
Tadeusz – Piotr Prochera

Opera Chorus & Extra Opera Chorus of MiR
Neue Philharmonie Westfalen

Conductor – Valterri Rauhalammi
Director – Gabriele Rech
Set designer – Dirk Becker
Costumes – Renée Listerdal

Having missed Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger at ENO in 2011 and only seeing David Pountney’s much-travelled premiere production on film (via YouTube) this week, this was my first proper encounter with the opera. Its story is now reasonably well known, but a quick resumé: Weinberg’s composed his opera based on Zofia Posmysz’s semi-autobriographical novel of experiences at Auschwitz in the mid-60s. But its subject matter was too strong even for the Soviets, and it didn’t see the light of day on stage until Pountney mounted it at Bregenz in 2010, since when it has been seen in the UK, the US and further afield. It had its German premiere at Karlsruhe in 2013 and, thanks to Gelsenkirchen’s new production it is swiftly on the way to becoming a repertoire work.

The opera’s plot – about Lisa, a former SS officer at Auschwitz’s supposed re-encounter with one of her charges in her new post-war life – is suffused with the ideas of memory and remembrance and these are brought to the fore in Gabriele Rech’s perceptive production at the Musiktheater im Revier. Rather than the split-level set called for in the libretto – 1960s ocean liner above 1940s prison camp – she and Dirk Becker have set the whole work on board the luxury ship on its way from Europe to Brazil. Thus the implication is that Lisa’s sighting on the voyage of the former inmate Marta – whom she presumed to be dead – ignites all her memories of her time at the death camp, and we see everything through her eyes. We never quite know if it is Marta, anyway, or just a lookalike who sets off Lisa’s reminiscences as she first admits her shady past to her diplomat husband, Walter, and then goes on to seek to come to terms with it by reliving her experiences. Arguably this approach sanitises the Auschwitz scenes, since it doesn’t give a sense of the environs, bit it puts the onus on the characterisation to convey something of the conditions.

This the Gelsenkirchen cast did impressively. From the looks on the faces of the singers at the subdued final curtain calls this was obviously a draining experience for them all. Ilia Papandreou was an intense, keening Marta, a character wanting to be equal with everyone but through no choice of her own picked out by Lisa for special treatment along the lines of divide and rule. And Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir’s Lisa got to grips with a woman trying to reconcile her past in her attempts to argue that she was only doing what everyone did at the time, and that she was one of the ‘good ones’ in her treatment of the prisoners. As her husband, Kor-Jan Dusseljee sang with clarity and finesse, and Piotr Prochera’s Tadeusz – Marta’s lover – impressed not only for his eloquent singing but also for playing on the violin – creditably – the opening of the Bach D minor Chaconne that sets his fate. The distinction of the smaller roles did credit to the theatre’s ensemble – more so, as it happened, than in the subsidiary roles of the following night’s Tristan premiere (review forthcoming in The Wagner Journal). The chorus sang with force and the brass-and-percussion-dominated orchestra played incisively under Valterri Rauhalammi.

But we are left with the issue of the music itself. However much one can believe the sincerity of Weinberg’s utterances, there’s no getting away from the fact that he lacked a truly personal voice – so much of the score, as elsewhere in his output, comes across as sub-Shostakovichian. The score of The Passenger certainly hangs together, and its ideas are often striking, but there are just too many echoes, unabsorbed, from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and its final gulag march scene in particular.