Thursday, April 28, 2005

Sam's on the Road Again

Last month Sam Shirakawa travelled to Germany to see Wagner's Parsifal and Ring Cycle at the Staatsoper Berlin, and continued on to Leipzig to catch a performance of Zeller's Der Vogelhändler. Here are his reviews of these performances:

A Wagnerite in Berlin and elsewhere

© Sam H. Shirakawa, 2005

Just when I thought opera audiences were getting bloated and complacent, a pair of scandals within one recent weekend in Berlin clearly demonstrated that The Wagner Fan, at least, is still alive.

On Saturday, March 19th, a celebrity-spangled audience filed into the premiere of the Deutsche Staatsoper’s new Parsifal. With Daniel Barenboim on the podium and renowned Bavarian-born film director Bernd (Oscar-nominated “Downfall”) Eichinger producing his first opera, this was an eagerly anticipated “event” to open the Staatsoper’s annual Easter Festival. No searchlights piercing the late afternoon sky, but a Hollywood-on-the-Havel atmosphere prevailing nonetheless: a red-carpeted sidewalk full of paparazzi and cancellation hopefuls waving fistfuls of Euros amid the groupies and the bedizened gamines on the arms of their well-heeled companions. With tickets topping $300 (cheap by festival price scales) per seat, the opera regulars were packed into the upper-most gallery, costing each of them about $22 for almost no view of the stage.

Indeed, a restricted sight-line was the view to have. Vociferous catcalls greeted Eichinger and his production team, when the six-hour sideshow finally drew to an end. In a moment recalling the days when Joan Sutherland galloped on stage to stand by her boo-besieged husband, Barenboim sprang to Eichinger’s side to divert the verbal shrapnel, when the latter bravely emerged to take a solo call. Barenboim, who received his usual well-deserved acclaim each time he entered the pit, could have remained backstage: few cheers diluted the roars of disapproval at his appearance.

So what was so upsetting, even to the first-night incognoscienti? Their anger may have been sparked by Eichinger’s substitution of a New York City park for Montsalvat as the locale for the first scene of the third act. Their ire was certainly piqued by punk rocker Grail Knights, hooded Flower Maidens, and Klingsor’s woefully faked spear throw. Cries of “provincial theater!” -- promptly reported by the New York Times -- punctuated the darkness, when the curtains closed at the end of the second act. Even those who never before attended a performance of Parsifal (and those who may consequently never attend any opera performance again) might have become queasy at the sight of Amfortas yanking what looked like a blood-drenched bun from his wound to serve for refreshment in the Grail Scene of the first act. Gross as it may have seemed to some in the audience, the Grail knights, perhaps famished from fasting, lined up like schoolchildren at the portable butcher-block downstage and chopped off bite-size morsels for themselves.

Fortunately, the performance sounded a lot less repulsive than it looked. Rene Pape as Gurnemanz not only dominated the performance but endowed it with undeserved dignity. Pape’s portrayal continually gets better with each passing season, although he is still too young to enliven its innermost subtleties.

As far as I know, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, who stepped in as Amfortas for the originally scheduled Roman Trekel, has never performed in opera in the United States. American opera goers will be in for a treat. He brings a wide spectrum of vocal color to a role too often whined rather than sung.

Michaela Schuster’s Kundry is lovely to hear and pleasant to watch, but her Wayward Woman at this point in her young career goes wanting in personality. All the notes are there, and, yes, she takes the killer two-octave plunge from high B-natural to middle C-sharp on “lachte” as easily as a laugh. The jump, though, like the rest of her performance, takes no leap into revelation. Not that Crespin’s sultry desperation or Rysanek’s bewitching madness are musts, but that emotional elixir that elevates the role above mere character still eludes Schuster.

The same may be said for Jochen Schmeckenbecker as Klingsor and Burkhard Fritz in the title role. They are both relatively young, in healthy vocal estate, and rather clueless about the words they are uttering. Their performances in this production seem less like interpretations than portrayals-in-progress.

The disparity between semantics and inflection as well as the chasm separating text from production became all the more apparent with surtitles flashing mercilessly across the proscenium throughout the ordeal. While they were in some instances distracting, the opportunity on this occasion to follow Wagner’s text as it was being articulated turned into a welcome distraction from witnessing the hooliganism being perpetrated on stage.

Barenboim drew translucent textures from the Staatsoper orchestra, which sounded in better shape than in some recent years. Adapting to the quirky acoustics of the house, he doubled several instruments. As a result, the instrumental volume occasionally was too loud, especially in the first act. Barenboim’s sound picture bore no resemblance to that miraculous noise that wells up from the pit at Bayreuth under almost any conductor, but the stream of seamless harmonies he induced was hypnotic nonetheless, especially in the third act.

Neither the singers nor the orchestra was helped by what seemed like an arbitrarily selected series of animated video projections, credited to designer Jens Kilian and a video firm named Fettfilm (“fett” meaning fat, if you’re being nice, grease if you’re not). These included aerials of bombed out Berlin in 1945, grainy shots of a more recent vintage, showing buildings crumbling under the wrecking ball, the earth videographed from outer space, postcard-pretty pyramids, garish paintings (by Emile Nolde?) of Christ in extremis, and pools of psychedelic color shifts. Whatever Eichinger and his production team had in mind for their Parsifal, this expensive-looking video show could be shown anywhere as an all-purpose divertissement. It failed to illuminate a production that is as uninteresting as it is dreadful.

On the next evening over at the Deutsche Oper, imprecations punctuated the curtain calls at the end of Götterdämmerung. The dissatisfied customers may well have come from the Staatsoper, looking for an excuse to continue venting their spleens at Eichinger’s production of Parsifal. A member of the management explained to me later, that politics played the villain in the unwarranted booing at conductor Jun Märkl. A small but loutish claque apparently believes that Wagner performances at the Deutsche Oper are still the property of former Music Director Christian Thielemann. Even though Märkl was engaged while Thielemann was still in charge, die-hard T-fans regard Märkl and anyone else who takes the podium in Wagner as poachers. A flub in the brass section at the start of the third act drew more heckling.

Actually, Märkl performed miracles during all four performances of this Ring (12-20 March). All the more astonishing because the Deutsche Oper’s budget was left with little more than two hours of rehearsal time with the orchestra for each opera. (The funding for festival conditions attending the premiere of Parsifal had to come from somewhere, which is one reason why relations among Berlin’s three opera houses are less than amicable.) While a faster tempo here and there might have animated some sections of Walküre and Siegfried, Märkl spun out unbroken threads of frequently gorgeous sound right from the E-flat pedal leading into the rhapsody of the Rhinemaidens all the way to the sustained D-flat of the Ring’s apotheosis.

Not quite so felicitous: some of the singing, particularly among the men. The most egregious bellowing came from Kurt Rydl, who apparently can do no wrong in Berlin, given the thunderous ovations he received for his Fafners, Hunding and Hagen. He was matched wobble-for-wobble by Günter von Kannen as Alberich. When the beat in their respective quavers coincided with the orchestra, Wagner’s vocal line took on a pulsating new dimension; when it didn’t, which was most of the time, their combined yelping sounded like a steroid-supplemented double-dutch jump rope contest. I have heard both singers in far better shape, especially von Kannen, who performed a superlative Falstaff in Cologne several seasons back. As Siegmund and both Siegfrieds, star tenor Christian Franz vacillated between yelling out words for ill-founded dramatic effect and some tenderly phrased singing. The audience seemed to love him, though. Is Wagner singing regressing to the style of the so-called Bayreuth Barkers, who held forth in the early years of the last century?

Veteran Wotan Robert Hale has maintained the freshness that has characterized his singing for decades, but his memory may be showing signs of weariness, evidenced by an unnerving mega-lapse in the middle of his Farewell in Walküre. Despite Märkl’s attempts to prompt him back on track, Hale’s meltdown was not to be arrested. To Märkl’s credit, the orchestra never dropped a beat. Hale’s Wotan-Wanderer in Siegfried managed much better, drawing out a fine legato in counterpoint to the half-sung, half-shrieked delivery of some of his colleagues. He was well-matched by Burkhard Ulrich’s unctuous Mime. Their Quiz Scene took on an excitement rarely heard in this essentially expositional segment.

The ladies fared more successfully. Petra Lang’s Rysanek-driven Sieglinde (replete with Leonie’s shameless scream as Siegmund rips the sword from the tree) makes favorable comparisons all the more tempting. Lang has a lot going for her, but she needs to find her own voice, so to speak. Yvonne Wiedstruck sang politely and pitch-perfectly as the hapless Gutrune. Mette Ejsing made an all-too-brief appearance as Erda in Rheingold. Mihoko Fujimura’s smoky mezzo-soprano rendered a vocally erotic quality to her Frickas, Erda in Siegfried and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung. She has gained more assurance in recent years, and a wider international platform is awaiting her.

Linda Watson is arguably the most vocally attractive Brünnhilde before the public today. Surmounting some under-the-note issues in Walküre, she produced a ravishing Awakening and went from strength to strength throughout the distended rigors of the Ring’s Final Day. While it’s hardly Nilssonian in volume, her voice is ample at the top, penetrating in the middle and firm at the bottom. It shows good signs of fermenting into an instrument that is as recognizable as that of some of her illustrious predecessors.

The late Götz Friedrich’s tubular production, dating from the 1980s, was clearly inspired by Washington’s inter-uterine Metro system. The sets show no wear or tear, since they were as dreary as the DC Metro right from the start. Had Friedrich lived to freshen up this season’s revival, he might have made it clear that this Ring is set in various parts of the Metro’s Red Line, which begins in Maryland, ends in another part of Maryland, and passes near the Capitol, the old Treasury Building and the White House. Had he spent more time in Washington, he might have conceived a production of the Ring set inside the Pentagon or at that shopping mall in Rockville, Maryland.

---------

Those jeering “provincial theater!” at the Staatsoper premiere of Parsifal might do well to find out what theater in the German-speaking provinces is really doing, and pay a visit to the new production of Carl Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler (The Bird Merchant) in Leipzig. Some have called this operetta warmed-over Strauss. Others have gone so far as to claim it a masterpiece. I think it’s a gem. It was a sensation when Vienna’s Carl Theater first produced it in 1891, arousing hopes that the waning Golden Age of operetta had been infused with new blood. Despite a quick succession of classy productions in London and New York (mounted at the Casino Theater as The Tyroleans) creating great expectations, Dr. Zeller (he was a physician who composed in his spare time) never had another hit equal to Vogelhändler’s success. Vienna and the world had to wait nearly 15 years before Franz Lehar ushered in the Second Golden Age with The Merry Widow.

Vogelhändler is filled with lilting waltzes, easily singable ballads, rousing polkas and a couple of raucous gallops - none of which betray fin-de-siecle mannerism. The debts to Strauss-the-Younger and Offenbach are obvious, but Zeller leavens the frivolity and social commentary with a soulfulness rarely heard in Strauss. His librettists Moritz West and Ludwig Held imbue the lyrics and plot shenanigans with an exoteric warmth that eschews the lip-pursing stings puncturing Offenbach’s social satires. Through the journey of the impecunious Papageno-derived hero Adam, the convoluted plot of Vogelhänder touches on such serious themes as gambling addiction and abuses of the privileged classes, but its propelling impulse is Vergnügung - enjoyment.

Thankfully, Karl Absenger’s production makes no visible effort to find special meaning in the complications surrounding a poor Tyrolean bird seller’s effort to regain the love of his betrothed, which he has lost through yielding to temptation in a series of intrigues and conflicting motives. Instead, Absenger all but dares the audience to get with the sometimes silly-with-Sekt program, by bringing the characters out of Tamara Oswatitsch’s smart looking sets and sending them into the house and onto the balcony abutting the stage. It all works, except the blocking of the choristers, who for some reason almost always appear with their scores in hand.

But it’s the vocal principals who make this Vogel fly. The Leipzig Oper is fortunate in having enough singers at its disposal to double-cast most of its operetta productions. (It also has a separate theater devoted exclusively to operetta -- Haus drei Linden - a 15-minute tram ride from the main railway station). Hans-Jörg Bock as Count Stanislaus, whose compulsive gambling sets off a chain of intrigues that turns an 18th century Rhineland village topsy-turvy, made the schlepp into former DDR territory well worth the journey. His luminous tenor is imbued with the sensual tonal warmth of Franz Völker and the stylish grace of Marcel Wittrisch. Michael Heim and Beate Gabriel were the intrigue-crossed lovers Adam and Christel on March 15th. Heim’s warm and hyaline lyric tenor occasionally overpowered Gabriel’s sweet ‘n’ smallish soubrette, but they made a handsome pair. Both Heim and Bock are in possession of superlative vocal instruments that recall an earlier period of gracious tenors in Germany.

Jana Hruby rendered a commanding Kurfürstin Marie, whose efforts to spy on her husband lead her into a flirtation with Adam. She more than held her own with Heim in their big first act duet (“Schenkt man sich Rosen in Tirol…”). Whatever Angela Mehling may perform elsewhere, her Baroness Adelaide showed time and again that musical comedy is her forte.

The secondary roles were filled by first-class musical comedy acting voices. First among equals - Andreas Rainer and Folker Herterich as professors presiding over a fixed quiz scene.

Roland Seiffarth captured the dynamics and sparkle of Zeller’s resolutely romantic score, but he was occasionally hampered by some inattentiveness in the pit. While the standard of the Orchester der Musikalischen Komödie is quite high, some of its members might be reminded that the audience at every performance deserves the same concentration level as those paying a premium for seats at the premiere.

One confusing plot element in Vogelhändler that no director will ever be able to sort out: Why is Adam, the Tyrolean bird merchant, too poor to wed his beloved Christel? By the 18th Century, bird trafficking was an honorable and usually lucrative profession. In the days before wireless media, owning singing birds was as much a mark of prestige as having a grand piano. People paid as much for exotic canaries then as opera house managements splurge for ordinary coloraturas today. But the production’s program notes offer a clue to Adam’s indigence. Consider the opening sentence of an essay about the Tyroleans by the romantic German poet and journalist Heinrich Heine (1797-1856):

The Tyroleans are attractive, cheerful, honest, virtuous and of inexplicably limited intellect.
-- Homo Tiroliensis, Reisebilder


During his stay in Berlin in the 1820s, Heine studied at Humboldt University located directly across the street from the Staatsoper (in his time named the Königliche Hofoper). He probably crossed Unter den Linden countless times to attend performances. If he returned now, in these days of mortal combat to grab shrinking arts funding from a bankrupt city and a cash-strapped federal government, what would he say about a Bavarian dilettante running amok with diminishing subsidies? Habemus fatuum! or better Cave fatuis! Urbane as he was, Heine might ultimately be at a loss for words. I’d bet he would simply hop a train heading to Saxony, where the Leipzig Oper is giving “provincial theater” a good reputation, holding its head erect during perilous economic times and whistling a happy tune… by Carl Zeller.

2 Comments:

At 8/19/2005 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anne said...

I'm so glad someone else out there who is not a native German or Austrian enjoys Zeller's gem of an operetta. I saw it performed once in Munich and it was one of the most perfect evenings in the theatre I've ever had.

 
At 4/07/2006 1:05 AM, Blogger ssshekkie said...

CAN YOU SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT THIE FABULOUS URBANE OPERA "THE TREE???Take notice: THE LOS ANGELES MAYOR> THE LATINO ARTS COMMUNITY AND BARYSHNIKOV DUO MERGE TO PRESENT " THE TREE" AN URBANR OPERA ...THAT WILL MELT YOUR SOUL. 55 "WORKS OF ART" COSTUMES
AND ONLY A LIMITED RUN DUE TO THE CLOSING OF THIS GLORIOUS THEATER. THE LOS ANGELES THEATRE CENTER WILL BE SADLY MISSED. MAY WE PLEASE GET A POST ON THIS?



FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: MEDIA CONTACT:
INTEGRITY PUBLICITY NY: SHERYL MANDEL
APRIL 6 , 2006 LA: ROBERT AXELROD
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK 718.352.5976
PROUDLY ANNOUNCES 213.483.1449
THE WORLD PREMIERE


THE TREE....YOUR SOUL WILL ACHE Information :
Peter Wing Healey
323 343 1171

AN URBANE OPERA
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED
PETER WING HEALY
MUSIC AND ARRANGENMENTS
LINDA DOWDELL join mailing list: send email

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MONDAY APRIL 3 , 2006
INTEGRITY PUBLICITY
LOS ANGELES/NEWYORK
SHERYL MANDEL
ROBERT AXELROD




ANNOUNCES THE WORLD PREMIERE OF


"THE TREE"


AN URBANE OPERA


WRITTEN AND DIRECTED

BY


PETER WING HEALY


MUSIC BY


LINDA DOWDELL


Librettist/ Director/Dancer Peter Wing Healy and
Musical Director/ Composer/ Arranger Linda Dowdell
have shared backgrounds in both dance and opera
(with legendary Baryshnikov ) have inspired both
of these virtuoso talents to create a rhythmic
innovation and grand story-telling
that will melt your heart!


CONDUCTED BY DAVID O
COSTUME DESIGN BY KAYOLYN KIISEL
LIGHTING DESIGN BY DAVID KELTING



CHILL INSPIRING

WHIMSICAL

SOUL TOUCHING

MELT YOUR HEART

OPEN YOUR EYES

WORLD MESSAGE

TO THE POSSIBILITIES

OF OUR FUTURE


BRILLIANT THEATRICAL


EXPERIENCE


MELODY AND MOVEMENT


WILL MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE

YOU ARE BARYSHNIKOV

LIBRETTO THAT WILL


TEAR AT YOUR HEART


IMPECCABLE CREATIVE


VISUAL DELIGHTS


AN EMOTIONAL JOURNEY


YOUR SOUL

WILL ACHE FOR


"THE TREE"


PREMIERING AT


THE LOS ANGELES THEATRE
CENTER
THEATRE THREE


514 SOUTH SPRING STREET
BETWEEN 5TH & 6TH

PARKING IN ADJACENT LOTS UNTIL 11PM


LOS ANGELES,CA 90013


TICKETS MAY
BE PURCHASED
ONLINE AT:
www.centerartseaglerock.org


TICKET RESERVATIONS
323.226.1230



"THE TREE"



PREVIEWS:

SUNDAY, APRIL 2
5:00 PM
THURSDAY, APRIL 6
8;00 PM

PRESS OPENING:

FRIDAY, APRIL 7
7:30 PM

*GALA OPENING*

SATURDAY, APRIL 8
7:30 PM

LIMITED RUN:

SUNDAY, APRIL 9
5:00 PM
THURSDAY, APRIL 13
8:00 PM
FRIDAY, APRIL 14
7:30 PM
SATURDAY, APRIL 15
7:30 PM
SUNDAY, APRIL 16
5:00 PM



"THE TREE" IS PROUDLY PRESENTED BY

THE CENTER FOR THE ARTS, EAGLE ROCK

CITY OF LOS ANGELES DEPARTMENT

OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS IN ASSOCIATION WITH

THE MESOPOTAMIAN OPERA, INC.

WITH GRACIOUS FUNDING FROM

THE JAMES IRVINE FOUNDATION

THE NOAH WYLE FOUNDATION

AND THE GENEROUS SUPPORT OF

THE LATINO THEATER

THE LATINO MUSEUM

OF NATURAL HISTORY

ART AND CULTURE

"THE TREE" PRODUCTION BRINGS TO LIGHT

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA'S

ENVIRONMENTAL INITIATIVES

"THE PLANT ONE MILLION TREES CAMPAIGN"

A MAYORAL INITIATIVE SCHEDULED FOR A 2006 LAUNCH

THE CENTER FOR THE ARTS, EAGLE ROCK

DEPARTMENT OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS

ARE DEDICATING THE WORLD PREMIERE

PRODUCTION OF "THE TREE"

TO LOCAL NONPROFIT ENVIRONMENTAL

AND SMART GROWTH ORGANIZATIONS
###

MEDIA CONTACT:
INTEGRITY PUBLICITY
NY: SHERYL MANDEL
718.352.5976

SSShekkie@aol.comS

LA: ROBERT AXELROD
213.483.1449

rob27axelrod@yahoo.com

GIVE A CALL TO SHERYL OR ROBERT AND LET US KNOW IF YOU CAN MAKE IT FOR PRESS NIGHT....WE CAN ALL SCHMOOZE
"
JOIN US FOR THIS STIRRING EXPLORATION

OF LIFES' COMPLEXITIES ITS' HUMOR

AND ITS' JOY!!!











Ticket Reservations
323 226 1230

The Center for the Arts, Eagle Rock





website:

www.centerartseaglerock.org

for further information
323-226-1617


LIBRETTO BY PETER WING HEALEY (bio)
MUSIC BY LINDA DOWDELL (bio)



















SYNOPSIS

The spirit of a centuries-old oak tree on a ridge outside a small town falls in love with a poetic young man from the town. She comes out of her tree and marries him when his first marriage falls apart. They move to the big city where he will pursue his dream of becoming an architect. His ex-wife, taking custody of their son, marries again, this time to a local developer. When, years later, the developer decides to build a mall outside the now growing town it becomes clear that he plans to cut down the old tree. The town is instantly polarized and the son joins with a band of tree-sitters to protest the construction. The architect and the tree spirit watch helplessly as the situation deteriorates. When the tree is finally felled she dies but in the process he receives the gift of a vision that will enable him to transform the world.

An exciting, contemporary re-telling of an ancient Shinto myth combined with the story of today’s struggle to save our old-growth forests and stop the sprawl. Tying together themes being addressed by a broad world movement chrystalising around such organizations as Smart Growth and Congress for a New Urbanism, The Tree attempts to sing about the unthinkable – can there be life without cars?





BIOs


Peter Wing Healey
librettist, choreographer, director and founder of The Mesopotamian Opera Company, Inc., whose original operas have been presented in New York at P.S. 122, The Judson Church, The Vineyard Theater, The Middle Collegiate Church, The R.A.P.P. Arts Center, H.E.R.E., The Greenwich House and Alice Tully Hall, now lives and works in Los Angeles. He has a long association with The Mark Morris Dance Group both as a performer and as rehearsal director. He worked on The White Oak Project with Mikial Baryshnikov and has been balletmaster on the John Adams/Peter Sellars opera “Nixon in China” from its inception at the Houston Grand Opera, through productions at The Los Angeles Opera, The Frankfurt Opera, The Nederlands Opera to the latest staging at the English National Opera in London. In Los Angeles he has danced original works at The Getty Center, 2100 Square Feet, U.C.L.A., L.A.T.C. and Highways. He has received support for his work from American Opera Projects, TWEED Productions and The Gilman Foundation.

contact: email tel: 323-343-1171





Linda Dowdell
is a New York-based composer, arranger and musical director. Specializing in new work, she is a regular at the NYC International Fringe (Ellen Craft, a New Opera and All American Boy), having produced her own mini-opera The Big Window (text by NYC playwright Kate Browne) at the Edinburgh Fringe where she was praised as “showing a very rare instinct for word-setting.” For her 1991 opera The Norma for The Mesopotamian Opera she was hailed by New York critic Bruce Michael Gelbert as a “stirring and contemporary voice”, her score combining “Baroque and Romantic influences, with sides of Broadway flash and early rock.” She was Musical Director of Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins at Berkshire Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. In the dance world she was, for her ten years, musical director of the Mark Morris Dance Group, and was the original pianist and musical director of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. As a conductor she has made appearances with many orchestras including the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony. Currently she is composer/lyricist of Parlour Song (collaborator Lynn M. Thomson, dramaturg, Rent) and has been named a Tribeca Performing Arts Center Artist-in-Residence 2004-05.

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home