Thursday, December 23, 2004

Sam Takes a Vacation (from Wagner...)

Here is the third and final installment of Sam H. Shirakawa's review of some operatic performances he saw last month in Chemnitz and Eisenach, Germany:

Evangelimann
20 November

Sandwiched between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung was a performance of Wilhelm Kienzl's rarely heard Evangelimann, a melodrama about star-crossed love and false imprisonment. It was a success at its 1895 premiere in Berlin, but the work had to wait until the years between the world wars before it became an international hit. Between 1914 and 1941 over 3,500 productions are said to have been mounted throughout the world. Hardly a leading tenor active during those years failed to perform or record the principal aria "Selig sind die Verfolgung leiden," including Chemnitz's own Richard Tauber.

The British might term the story's material "Victorian claptrap." Two brothers Matthias and Johannes are in love with Martha, who is the ward of her uncle, the village notary. When she rejects Johannes in favor of Matthias, the rejected brother promptly sets fire to the village church.

Scene with Edward Rendall, as Mathias Freudhofer, and the chorus of Chemnitz Opera
Scene with Edward Rendall, as Mathias Freudhofer, and the chorus of Chemnitz Opera
Photo © Dieter Wuschanski

Hardly 32 bars go by before the innocent Matthias is branded the arsonist and sent to prison. 30 years later, the falsely accused Matthias returns as a journeyman pastor. In a scene full of nodding references to Tannhäuser and Parsifal, we learn that his beloved took her own life shortly after his sentencing. Matthias then confronts his guilt-stricken brother, who now lies on his deathbed, and forgives him. It's heady stuff, if you're into soap operas.

Dietrich Greve, as Johannes Freufhofer, and Edward Rendall, as Mathias Freudhofer
Dietrich Greve, as Johannes Freufhofer, and Edward Rendall, as Mathias Freudhofer
Photo © Dieter Wuschanski

The cast of Stefan Piontek's highly stylized production lunges around Mike Hahne's over-lit comic book sets, lurching and leering as the moment requires. But his heavy-handed send-up shies away from reflecting why the work once touched a sensitive nerve among the opera-going public, and why it may still be of seething relevance to a post-DDR public. After all, the hero of Evangelimann is a scapegoat. Maybe it's all still too painful to approach in any other way but burlesque.

Despite Piontek's determination to send up its dramatic shortcomings, the work is filled with some wonderful music, especially the duet between the lovers and the deathbed reconciliation between the brothers. Under Eckehard Stier's committed, idiomatic direction, the cast seemed more convinced than Piontek of the opera's worth. Edward Rendall and Dietrich Greve were well-suited for each other's vocal thrust and parry as the Brothers Freudhofer, both yielding fully to the unabashed romanticism of Kienzl's score.

Nancy Gibson had radiant moments as their fatal love object. Regine Köbler, a contralto with an exciting upper extension, was darkly sympathetic as Martha's friend, who reunites the estranged brothers.

Edward Rendall, as Mathias Freudhofer, and Nancy Gibson, as Martha
Edward Rendall, as Mathias Freudhofer, and Nancy Gibson, as Martha
Photo © Dieter Wuschanski

After spending an evening exposed to such a mirthless muse, I was dying for some good old-fashioned deli. Fat chance. Lo and behold - a Jewish restaurant almost directly across the street from the Opera House that's open until midnight! Schalom, as it is named, doesn't do pastrami, but the chicken soup, matzo balls and Israeli salad filled the need to nosh.
a piping hot bowl of matzo ball soup!
Sam's Soup?
The owner Ariel Dzubilla tells me, there are just over 700 Jews in Chemnitz, but hungry local Goyim, thank you, have kept his place going for four years, and it's "doing well." The lively Klezmer music was a nice antidote to Kienzl's negativity.

Wiener Blut
Eisenach 18 November

Even inveterate Wagnerites can use a break from a week-long diet of mega-drama, diminished sevenths and endless suspensions, so why not a little operetta? But I had to train nearly 260 miles over to J.S. Bach's birthplace Eisenach to tank up on some ear candy. Of course, Wagner is inescapable even here: the second act of Tannhäuser takes place on the Wartburg, which overlooks the city. (An apartment in the castle was also home to Martin Luther, while he translated the Bible into German.) Last season, the Municipal Theater of Eisenach presented a remarkable production of Tannhäuser in its charming 19th-century opera house. Concert performances of the Dresden Version will be presented in the Wartburg castle later this season.

When Wiener Blut had its premiere in Vienna, it might well have been sub-titled the „new" Johann Strauss operetta. Victor Leon and Leo Stein literally rummaged through the ailing Waltz King's music trunk for discarded or little known tunes and patched up a formula libretto to tie them together.

Since Strauss died just before its first performance in the autumn of 1899, we'll never know what he thought of it. Even though the score was chock full of Strauss melodies, the first performance at the Carl Theater was a failure. Perhaps the Viennese were still in mourning. A few years later, the Theater an der Wien revived it on short notice, when another work failed to materialize. The piece became an international success and remains in the repertory of German-speaking theaters to this day.

Budget constraints now afflicting state-subsidized theaters in Germany have struck Eisenach especially hard. The cutbacks not only prevented Hans-Hermann Krug from mounting a more opulent production, belt-tightening measures also deprived the theatre of of its chorus - which was disbanded last June. Nonetheless, his bright sets and elegant costumes evoke a period of 19th-century Vienna, when sparkling wine, witty women and hummable music answered every prayer.

Wiener Blut
Photo © Inka Lotz

This performance could hardly be described as exemplary, but it had something frequently missing from performances in major houses: teamwork and a palpable sense of "the show must go on." The cast -- drawn entirely from the resident ensemble -- caught the effervescence of Strauss' Vienna. Helmut Kleinen, François Soons, Suzanne Beyer and Sabina Martin thankfully made no effort to dig deeper into their airhead Schlagsahne characters and played off each other with snappy timing.


Wiener Blut - Ensemble
Wiener Blut - Ensemble
Photo © Inka Lotz

Rainer Eichhorn led a tightly-paced string of Strauss pearls from the pit. This was champagne on a near-beer budget, but pleasantly intoxicating all the same.

Landestheater Eisenach  Eisenach
Landestheater Eisenach Eisenach
Photo © Inka Lotz

With the exception of Tristan, further performances of all these operas will be presented throughout the season.

www.theater-chemnitz.de - This site has additional pictures from the Ring production, Tristan und Isolde and Evangelimann

http://www.theater-eisenach.de/

Thank you, Sam, for providing us with these reviews. Please let me know when your next trip is!

We would like to know if our readers found these reviews helpful and of interest. We plan to continue featuring reviews and other articles on operatic matters.

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