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.