Sunday 21 April 2019

A Ring with Two Masters: Germanic Wagnerian travels Oct-Dec 2018

A Ring with Two Masters
From the March 2019 edition of The Wagner Journal, a review of a self-created, itinerant Ring cycle experienced in Germany during the latter part of 2018, catching a couple of ‘Meistersinger’ performances en route.

Das Rheingold. Nico Wouterse (Wotan), Hans Gröning (Alberich), Philipp Werner (Loge), Dennis Marr (Mime), Dorothee Böhnisch (Fricka), Lukas Schmid-Wedekind (Fasolt), Aleksandar Stefanoski (Fafner), Stamatia Gerothanasi (Freia), Lisa Wedekind (Erda/Floßhilde), Paul Jadach (Donner), Theodore Browne (Froh), Elisandra Melián (Woglinde), Anna Gütter (Wellgunde); Badische Philharmonie Pforzheim/Markus Huber; Thomas Münstermann (director), Jörg Brombacher (designer), Alexandra Bentele (costumes), Oliver Feigl (video designer). Theater Pforzheim, 2 October 2018

Die Walküre. Lucia Lucas (Wotan), Julia Borchert (Brünnhilde), Richard Furman (Siegmund), Susanne Serfling (Sieglinde), Roswitha Christina Müller (Fricka), Johannes Stermann (Hunding), Raffaela Linti (Gerhilde), Uta Zierenberg (Ortlinde), Monica Mascus (Waltraute), Henriette Gödde (Schwertleite), Jeanett Neumeister (Helmwige), Isabel Stüber Malagamba (Siegrune), Lucia Cervoni (Grimgerde), Emilie Renard (Roßweiße); Magdeburgische Philharmonie/Kimbo Ishii; Jakob Peters-Messer (director), Guido Petzold (designer), Sven Bindseil (costumes). Theater Magdeburg, 3 November 2018

Siegfried. Zoltán Nyári (Siegfried), Nancy Weißbach (Brünnhilde), Thomas Hall (The Wanderer), Kihun Yoon (Alberich), Timothy Oliver/Dan Karlström (Mime), Marta Swiderska (Erda), Ill-Hoon Choung (Fafner), Sooyeon Lee (Woodbird); Oldenburgisches Staatsorchester/Hendrik Vestmann; Paul Esterhazy (director), Mathis Neidhardt (designer/costumes), Ernst Engel (lighting), Alexander Fleischer (video designer). Staatstheater Oldenburg, 4 November 2018

Götterdämmerung. Daniel Kirch (Siegfried), Stéphanie Müther (Brünnhilde), Pierre-Yves Pruvot (Gunther), Cornelia Ptassek (Gutrune/Third Norn), Marius Boloş (Hagen), Anne Schuldt (Waltraute), Jukka Rasilainen (Alberich), Anja Schlosser (First Norn), Sylvia Rena Ziegler (Second Norn/Wellgunde), Guibee Yang (Woglinde), Sophia Maeno (Floßhilde); Chorus of Theater Chemnitz, Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie/Guillermo García Calvo; Elisabeth Stöppler (director), Annike Haller (designer), Gesine Völlm (costumes), Holger Reinke (lighting). Theater Chemnitz, 1 December 2018

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Oliver Zwarg (Hans Sachs), Marco Jentzsch (Walther von Stolzing), Betsy Horne (Eva), Young Doo Park (Veit Pogner), Erik Biegel (David), Margarete Joswig (Magdalena), Thomas de Vries (Sixtus Beckmesser), Ralf Rachbauer (Kunz Vogelgesang), Florian Kontschak (Konrad Nachtigal), Benjamin Russell (Fritz Kothner), Rouwen Huther (Balthasar Zorn), Reiner Goldberg (Ulrich Eisslinger), Andreas Karasiak (Augustin Moser), Daniel Carison (Hermann Ortel), Philipp Mayer (Hans Schwartz), Wolfgang Vater (Hans Foltz), Tuncay Kurtoglu (Nightwatchman); Chorus and Orchestra of Staatstheater Wiesbaden/Patrick Lange; Bernd Mottl (director), Friedrich Eggert (designer/costumes), Klaus Krauspenhaar (lighting), Myriam Lifka (choreography). Staatstheater Wiesbaden, 29 September 2018

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Thomas Jesatko (Hans Sachs), Tilmann Unger (Walther von Stolzing), Astrid Kessler (Eva), Sung Ha (Veit Pogner), Christopher Diffey (David), Marie-Belle Sandis (Magdalena), Joachim Goltz (Sixtus Beckmesser), Samuel Levine (Kunz Vogelgesang), Rainer Zaun (Konrad Nachtigal), Thomas Berau (Fritz Kothner), Uwe Eikötter (Balthasar Zorn), Koral Güvener (Ulrich Eisslinger), Raphael Wittmer (Augustin Moser), Marcel Brunner (Hermann Ortel), Dominic Barberi (Hans Schwartz), Bartosz Urbanowicz (Hans Foltz/Nightwatchman); Chorus and Orchestra of Nationaltheater Mannheim/Alexander Soddy; Nigel Lowery (director/designer/costumes), Lothar Baumgarte (lighting). Nationaltheater Mannheim, 1 November 2018

A smattering of one-off productions and continuing ‘episodes’ in ongoing Ring cycles lent themselves last autumn to a peripatetic, self-contrived tetralogy, visiting four widely spaced German cities over a two-month period. Two were indeed standalone productions, with no indication that their theatres would be following up with a complete cycle; the other two were the latest stages in continuing projects, the last the conclusion of a four-director cycle – what my own cycle effectively became.
The itinerant Ring didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts, though. Theater Pforzheim has impressed in the past for its adventurousness in early 20th-century repertoire, particularly Hindemith and Weill, and even gave a passable Lohengrin in 2015. But ‘big’ Wagner seems to be a step too far for this small theatre with, by German standards, limited resources. Alfons Abbass’s reduced-orchestra versions of the constituent parts of the Ring, now duly incorporated into Schott’s authoritative Wagner edition, largely cut down on the number of wind and brass instruments (and reduce the harps to two), leaving the preferred number of strings at maximum strength. All Pforzheim was able to muster for Das Rheingold was a glorified chamber orchestra with a single harp, and with the players raised two or three metres high on a platform at the very back of the stage what impact there might have been from the sound seemed to disappear up into the fly tower. Coupled with some often scrappy playing under the direction of Markus Huber – below par in a country where nearly everywhere seems to field a decent orchestra – the result was a rather dispiriting experience.
It might have been more bearable if the staging had made up for things. But Thomas Münstermann, Pforzheim’s Intendant, decided to set the whole drama in a circus ring, for no discernible reason, with all the characters, family and foe, part of the same company: Wotan and Fricka as ring-masters, Rhinemaidens as acrobats, Freia on the high wire, giants as strongmen, Donner as human cannonball, and so on. This all made sense on its own terms, but had no obvious relationship to any of the themes and ideas that Wagner’s Vorabend throws up. There was justification of sorts in the final scene: Freia leads Wotan and Fricka across a rainbow bridge in the form of a high wire, the father of the gods using his spear as balancing aid, until Loge points out that it’s all an illusion, all just a circus trick, made to look more precarious than it is.
Yet there was some decent singing on offer, especially from Nico Wouterse’s solid Wotan, Dorothee Böhnisch’s expressive Fricka, Lukas Schmid-Wedekind’s eloquent Fasolt, Lisa Wedekind’s rich-voiced Floßhilde/Erda and Theodore Browne’s lyrical, knife-throwing Froh. I warmed less to the rather over-emphatic lion-tamer Alberich of Hans Gröning and the somewhat stretched sound of Philipp Werner’s magician Loge.
Encountering Die Walküre at Theater Magdeburg a month later was like entering a different world. The city, if not the present theatre, is of course where Wagner’s career more or less started, and where he married Minna, but I am not aware of Magdeburg today making anything in particular of this association. As far as I could tell, Jakob Peters-Messer’s Walküre is, like the Pforzheim Rheingold, a one-off, not intended to form part of an eventual cycle, but in this case I certainly wouldn’t complain if it did. His set-up is clear from the start. Video footage during the stormy prelude, projected on to set designer Guido Petzoid’s flexible ruined interiors, depicts a riot at full pelt – apparently from the 2017 G20 turmoil in Hamburg – from which Siegmund, one of the activists, seeks shelter in, as fate would have it, the home of one of the riot police (Hunding). At the start of Act II, Wotan, too, is on the side of the anarchist rioters, until the business-suited Fricka gets her way and he reluctantly dons the clothes of the establishment. The Valkyries dressed in crime-scene suits collect up the riot victims and when they disrobe reveal themselves to be on the same ‘side’ as the old, anarchist Wotan, who has now power-dressed to deal with the miscreant Brünnhilde. It is less perfunctory than this brief summary might suggest and the setting’s clarity and the narrative force bring insight into the characters and their relationships that a blander, ‘mythical’ milieu can often mask.
If not having room in the pit for the full Wagnerian orchestral complement, Theater Magdeburg at least moved one step on from Pforzheim in using the Lessing edition, which allows for triple woodwind and six of Wagner’s eight horns. And the Magdeburg Philharmonic made an impressive sound, even if Kimbo Ishii’s conducting didn’t quite reach the out-of-this-world transcendence of the final Magic Fire Music. ‘Heldenbaritonistin’ Lucia Lucas, who earlier in the season became the first transgender woman to sing on a major stage in her native US, was a vivid and magisterial Wotan, especially effective in the character’s explosive encounters with Undine Dreißig’s fiery Fricka and, later, Julia Borchert’s accomplished if slightly vocally under-characterised Brünnhilde. Richard Furman’s Siegmund and Susanne Serfling’s Sieglinde were both sympathetically sung and portrayed, Johannes Stermann’s Hunding had an imposing figure to match his fearsome bass, and there was some highly distinguished singing from the ensemble of Valkyrie sisters.
Staatstheater Oldenburg has been adding its Ring instalments at a leisurely annual pace and this autumn reached Siegfried (complete cycles are anticipated in 2020). This tiny house, built for the northwest German city’s former ducal court, seats barely 500, yet is not short of ambition, and with its generous pit leaving room for only twelve rows of seating in the Parkett, it provides an intimate, immersive context for experiencing Wagner. Although not specified in the programme, it looked once again like the Lessing edition was being used, and the orchestral playing under Hendrik Vestmann filled the space with an often burnished, well-blended sound.
Paul Esterhazy, with designs by Mathis Neidhardt, has created a unified interior world for his whole cycle (I also saw, but didn’t review, the Walküre in 2017), a kind of wooden alpine lodge or American pioneer dwelling, with an ever-changing array of rooms and corridors whisked into view and away again on the theatre’s revolve. Costumes evoke the second half of the 19th century, and everything animate is brought to a human level: Grane is an old man sleeping below his mistress by the fireplace; Wotan’s two ravens are laddish, feather-capped layabouts who the poorly disguised god is constantly shooing away so as not to give his game away; the Woodbird is a woman carrying a bird cage; only the bear is in full costume. Even Fafner is still in human form, nimbly towering on stilts, his hoarded ring still on the finger of Alberich’s wrenched-off arm. Mime, using knee-boots, has a body double of smaller stature for his more mobile actions that I confess I didn’t register until the curtain calls (he also, for this performance, had a vocal double – see below). Aesthetically, it’s all very much of a piece, conveying a domesticity that could also be stifling claustrophobia, with different groups of characters occupying seemingly the same spaces. It’s all slickly done, and if the incessant revolving of the set threatens motion sickness, the stagecraft is undeniable. But does it penetrate deep into the Ring’s various subtexts? That might have to wait for a full cycle to appreciate, but there are telling details that hint at wider exploration.
Despite the size of the theatre and the bijoux dimensions of the stage area, there was nothing cramped or musically lacking in this performance of Siegfried. Singers didn’t need to yell to get their point across, which meant that the tireless Zoltán Nyári never sounded strained or over-parted in the title role. Mime, as mentioned, was divided among three performers, the highly rated Dan Karlström having flown in from Leipzig to sing the vocally indisposed Timothy Oliver’s lines from a corner of the stage. Thomas Hall’s Wanderer was solid but less distinctive as a vocal characterisation, while Nancy Weißbach’s Brünnhilde brought the evening to a plush-voiced conclusion.
Theater Chemnitz has divided its current cycle of the Ring among four female directors (an idea Katherina Wagner briefly considered for Bayreuth), and Elisabeth Stöppler’s Götterdämmerung completed my own tetralogy. Not having seen any earlier parts of this cycle (complete performances are scheduled for this Easter and Whitsun), I’m not aware of how much collusion there has been among the directors in providing an overriding view of the work. Stöppler tackles both eco-catastrophe and sexual politics. The world is in perpetual winter, with the Norns as polar explorers, roped together as they trudge along an ice-floe – when the rope breaks, it’s as if mankind is left without its safety harness of protection by higher authority. In this wintry context, Grane is a sledge, which the still boy-like Siegfried treats as any child would, as he leaves the female world of nature to be dragged into the diametrically opposed interior, male space of the Gibichungs, one where Brünnhilde, too, is eventually drawn into adopting the masculine traits of her father in order to take her revenge. With Hagen troubled by his own father-induced demons, Siegfried turned to drug dependency by the memory potion and the ineffectual Gunther caught between them, it’s not going to end well for the men. In the end, though, it’s the mother who comes to the rescue: in the midst of a snowstorm, and instead of self-immolation, Brünnhilde is reunited for the first time with Erda, and with the surviving female characters, the Rhinemaidens and Norns, bravely looks to the future as Gutrune appears to want to join the sisterly gathering. Whatever one might take from Stöppler’s conception, there’s no denying the skill of her detailed Personenregie – the actions and reactions among the avenging trio of Act II, for instance, or the emotionally wrenching treatment of Siegfried’s passage into death as he takes in the gravity of his fate while Brünnhilde cleanses him. It’s rare, at this stage in the Ring, to feel so much empathy for the characters as vulnerable human beings.
Fortunately, in Daniel Kirch and Stéphanie Müther, Chemnitz has found two of the most promising and accomplished newcomers to the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde (the former making his role debut at this performance) that have come along in some time, each unflagging of voice, expressive and a fine actor. If the rest of the cast wasn’t quite on the same level, it was still impressive for a regional theatre. Pierre-Yves Pruvot’s Gunther was a little unfocused, resorting too often to a kind of Sprechstimme and Marius Boloş’s Hagen, though again convincingly acted, lacked the dark vocal colouring for the role. Cornelia Ptassek’s Gutrune was well drawn, despite slightly swallowed enunciation, and Jukka Rasilainen made for a good, manipulative Alberich. Guillermo García Calvo, who first conducted the cycle in Orviedo in 2013, had the full measure of the score and drew exciting and sonorous playing from the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie, here at last using the complete wind complement, if a little light on string numbers as a result.
* * * * *

As accompaniment to my peripatetic Ring, I also caught this season’s two new German productions of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The spa town of Wiesbaden unsurprisingly has one of Germany’s more elderly populations, so it was pertinent of director Bernd Mottl (a great-great nephew of Wagner’s assistant Felix Mottl) to stage the work at its Staatstheater as a battle of the generations. The setting is a Seniorenhaus, in this case a retirement home for former tradesmen that incorporates a Gaststätte named Alt-Nürnberg (the interior for Act I) with its associated Festsaal (as opposed to Festwiese) for community events. Here a group of old white men holds out, dressing up in medieval costumes to preserve their outdated traditions and in effect attempting to thwart the aspirations and ambitions of the young – in another context it could have been an allegory of Brexit. Helped by their carers (the apprentices), all but a couple of the masters hobble around with Zimmer frames and sticks. Sachs is grey-haired and retired, too, but still doing a little cobbling to help his friends and neighbours out and living on his own in his sheltered-accommodation flat with his memories of his late wife (Friedrich Eggert’s designs are wonderfully detailed, encapsulating postwar German interiors down to the last power socket). It’s one of those rare productions that successfully attaches its own narrative to a pre-existing one and follows it through so that everything tells in the new context. It’s also one of the wittiest and moving re-interpretations of recent times, partly because the detail is so precise and thus the characterisation is realistic.
In this contemporary setting, Walther is a ‘Weltenbummler’, a globetrotting, leather-clad biker, who has alighted on Eva on his travels and is determined not to move on without her. Despite his support of Walther, Sachs is portrayed as a man living in the past as much as his fellow masters. During our hero’s performance in the final scene, the people are so entranced that they begin filming him on their smartphones, and when Sachs delivers his ‘call to arms’ at Walther’s rejection of membership of their Gesellschaft, everyone simply ignores him, being far more engrossed in showing each other their phone footage of the event. Eva grabs Walther’s motorcycle helmet, the two of them run away and the front drop falls to leave the masters, including Sachs, on the forestage, abandoned and rejected by the younger generation still celebrating on the other side of the curtain.
Wiesbaden often attracts top international singers for its annual May Festival performances of its season’s repertoire, but even this largely housebound cast impressed on opening night: Oliver Zwarg’s firm-voiced Sachs, Marco Jentzsch’s virile Walther, Betsy Horne’s fresh, youthful Eva and Thomas de Vries’s (dramatically) pitiful Beckmesser would grace any house, and chorus and orchestra were on fine form under Patrick Lange.
Nigel Lowery, best remembered in Wagnerian terms for designing Richard Jones’s Covent Garden Ring cycle in the 1990s, has since taken on directing in his own right. And there was plenty of evidence of an indulgence in both scenic and directorial visuals in his new Meistersinger at Mannheim’s Nationaltheater. His concept is of a theatre within the theatre, a stage set within the existing proscenium, and he plays with our perceptions of what is what such that we never quite know if given characters are indeed ‘in character’ or not, or even if they’re characters or stagehands. His designs expose the bare bones of amateur theatricals and action spills out into the auditorium (the first time I’ve actually had a cobbling Sachs and serenading Beckmesser bumping past my knees as they egg each other on in Act II). Lowery states in the programme that as a non-German he doesn’t feel an obligation or need to address Sachs’s final monologue, which he presents against a louring sky accompanied by a rain shower that falls only on Beckmesser, with whom Sachs generously shares his umbrella as an act of reconciliation. Elsewhere, and like his colourful, picturebook designs, the staging is playful, with a number of visual jokes that some of the German critics found too British: for instance, a little model of the starship Enterprise flying across the stage to indicate Walther’s arrival from afar; Walther’s tussle with a serpent while hiding behind the tree with Eva/Eve in Act II; or a running joke with an animatronic cat that gets in the way of Beckmesser’s attempt to steal the prize song in Act III. There are references to fairytales, such as Walther presenting Eva with her ‘glass slipper’ after she has brought her shoes to Sachs for adjustment, some inexplicable backstage business, as when a backdrop of the Moulin Rouge descends and a dancer comes on to rehearse, and a witty episode when Beckmesser requisitions the prompt box for his marking hideaway, sending the poor souffleur to a music stand at the side of the stage.
Elsewhere, it’s the central act that shows Lowery’s direction at its best, with Beckmesser bringing on his own paid Lautenistin to do his accompanying for him, the riot staged as a giant puppet show, with shades of Punch and Judy, and with the Nightwatchman as a ghoul riding a skeletal horse across the night sky complete with a midsummer snowstorm. When Beckmesser has had enough, at the climax of the riot he tears off his wig and costume and storms off, to be seen again in Act III counting the extra money he has had to be paid to resume his role.
But some issues remain in Lowery’s stated aim to explore the work’s engagement with Wahn. His use of Brechtian alienation (complete with a role for a kind of ‘Brecht curtain’) leaves too many of the characters literally characterless. Eva is portrayed like a mechanical doll until she is freed by Walther’s prizewinning at the end, so Astrid Kessler’s peerlessly lyrical singing constantly seems at odds with her expressionless acting. Thomas Jesatko’s similarly musical Sachs has to fight through a ridiculous wig and costume and loses the battle for our engagement. Whether by default or design, it is Joachim Goltz’s short-tempered Beckmesser who becomes the central character, as one of the few to show his properly human side. The rest of the masters, portrayed as doddery as those in Wiesbaden, relied a little too much on exaggeration for effect. Walther (Tilmann Unger, craving indulgence for an infection, but saving his best for the prize song) is dressed like a cross between a Star Trek officer and a traditional Lohengrin, and indeed in Act III enters carrying a grail cup. Lowery makes David a more central character than usual, as a kind of stage manager who metamorphoses into a ‘character’ only at the point at which Sachs makes him a journeyman – a gleefully fresh, buoyant interpretation from Christopher Diffey.
The Nationaltheater’s young Generalmusikdirektor Alexander Soddy, whose detailed, nuanced interpretation was constantly in evidence, drew some often warm-hearted playing from the orchestra, and the massed choruses – hampered like most of the cast by expressionless, clown-like make-up and, in the final scene, dressed as every conceivable theatrical caricature from Brünnhilde to burlesque dancer – made an impressive sound.


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.