Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sam's Latest Operatic Caravan - Part 2

Here is the second part of Sam Shirakawa's repost of his operatic travels in Germany this past November (you can read the first part here):

Leipzig: Lohengrin (November 18, 2006)

Leipzig has a long if not always distinguished tradition of presenting the works of one of its most famous native sons. Richard Wagner was born and raised here. He cut his musical teeth at the Thomaskirche, often performing on the same organ played by his most illustrious predecessor, Johann Sebastian Bach. But Leipzig did not present a Wagner opera until 1853-54, when Bernhard Rudolf Wirsing, who worked with Wagner at Magdeburg, became director of the city’s theater and staged Tannhäuser and Lohengrin within a few months of each other.

Lohengrin grew into one of the most popular of Wagner’s stage works during his lifetime, and it remains frequently performed to this day. In 1949, Thomas Mann called the opera “the very summit of Romanticism” and confessed that hearing its “pure and haunting” prelude to the first act always recalled for him the wellsprings of youthful love. Which may explain why the new production mounted by the Leipziger Oper drew so many young people to its premiere on November 18th, which I attended.

Steffen Piontek’s production, as it turned out, was better heard than seen. The sets and costumes by Hartmut Schörghofer and Joachim Herzog respectively are a colorful mishmash of viewpoints, starting off as a reactionary, no-nonsense spectacle, replete with mail tunics, escutcheoned shields and winged helmets. The second act is dominated by an industrial spiral staircase that looks like it may have been borrowed from Harry Kupfer’s recent production of The Flying Dutchman at the Berlin State Opera. Numerous alternatives for getting on and off stage were available to Piontek, but he opted for having poor Elsa schlep up and down the narrow winding stairs with exhausting frequency. The third act began with a framed bridal chamber that takes its luxurious cues from back-issues of House Beautiful [lots of lace and opaque white curtains]. The finale winds up back where the first act started with the entire cast decked out in Teutonic drag.

While this new production was confusing to watch, the cast was a pleasure to hear, partly because Axel Kober elicited translucent and occasionally deeply moving sonorities from the orchestra. Sergei Leiferkus in the thankless role of Telramund and Lioba Braun as his shrewish spouse were the brand-name singers on the boards. Leiferkus sounded warmer and more musically involved on this occasion than he usually sounds at the Met. Braun proved to be an insidious Ortrud, whispering manipulative innuendoes into Elsa’s ear in the second act, and following them up with a multi-digit decibel appeal to her profane gods. Mind you, she’s no Eva Marton or Rita Gorr in the part, but her ranting was exhilarating.

Stefan Vinke in the title-role surmounted the distraction of his goofy costumes and delivered a sympathetic swan knight, whose best intentions are no match for the vicious machinations that prevent him from saving his beloved Elsa from herself. Vinke has the raw material to become a world-class Wagner tenor. His voice has strength and sweetness in all the right places. But he needs to work on integrating his estimable gifts.

Hillevi Martinpelto is a major find. Even as she uttered Elsa’s first words [“Mein armer Bruder”], she invoked a gallery of august sopranos, who have also inflected this line with unremitting longing. Whatever praise you might heap on her elegant phrasing, bulls-eye intonation and extra-sensory musicality, it is the sheer sound of her voice that enchants and inspires through nearly four hours of middle-high Wagner. But Martinpelto may not appeal to all tastes: especially if you prefer Riesling to Mosel. If her performance at the premiere was more than a flash in the scan, one might well ask: Where has this Scandinavian Victoria de los Angeles been keeping herself? Or, given the current-day insanity of agents and stage directors calling the shots, WHO has been keeping Hillevi Martinpelto from a big international career?


Berlin Staatsoper: Tristan und Isolde (November 19, 2006)

In a day and age when cheap thrills in opera-going are hard to get, I thought it might be fun to hear two performances of Wagner in as many days. I’ve done it before, and I’ve always gotten a buzz out of it. So I skipped the curtain calls at Lohengrin and raced to jump on the last express train from Leipzig back to Berlin. I caught enough sleep to face an almost-new production of Tristan the next day at Berlin’s Staatsoper. With Daniel Barenboim on the podium and Waltraud Meier as Isolde, how could I go wrong?

If Lohengrin in Leipzig was confusing to watch, Tristan in Berlin was a bore to look at – stultifying, at least, until the end of the second act. Stefan Bachmann’s turgid staging shrank the proscenium into a letter-box frame, giving it the feel of a wide-screen movie being shown on non-HD television: a shrewd “artistic” move, if you’re trying to save money on scenery. But cheap proved cheesy: When King Mark discovers the lovers trysting, a major mechanical function ensued that caused the set [by Jacques Herzog und Pierre de Meuron] to break apart and bring one of the scrims down, all but shrouding Frau Meier. She was not injured, but she had an awkward instant, acting her way out of what, at that point, looked like a billowing paper bag. [Ironically, Herzog and de Meuron were prize-winning architects before they began moonlighting as stage designers. You may want to check if they designed a building you frequent…]

Following a longish intermission, during which some members of the audience at the bar downing their third glass of Sekt remarked how clever the sudden disruption seemed, the stage manager appeared on stage to make an announcement. He apologized for the aforementioned mishap and said the third act would be performed with some modifications – in other words, in semi-concert form, which is what it had been all along. Maybe future series of this awful production would be best presented entirely in concert-form.

Despite the unscheduled replacement of Peter Seiffert as Tristan by Clifton Forbis, the musical side of the performance went off uneventfully, as though it had been pre-recorded. If you overlook her two approximated high C’s in the second act, Meier presented the same stalwart Isolde she always delivers at the Staatsoper, elsewhere and on recordings, Rosemarie Lang was a vocally resourceful Brangaene, and Barenboim led the Staatskappelle unassailably. Kwangchul Youn as King Mark keeps going from strength to strength as his career widens around the world. To his strengths, you can add a deadpan face, as the world literally crumbled around him during the fiasco in the second act.

Beefy may best sum up Clifton Forbis. Beefy voice – think Ludwig Suthaus or John Mitchinson – and beefy stage presence – think a size-48 James McCracken. Forbis may be a tad bland, but he has stamina, and he stays on pitch.

A footnote to this journey: I was undergoing treatment in Berlin during my trip for a neuropathic condition in my left forearm and hand, following a fall in the subway several months ago. The series of treatments produced some relief, but extended traveling on trains and sitting through certain performances aggravated the discomfort. Typing notes and even the drafts for this report often became arduous indeed. Conversely, I found that the distress subsided during certain performances and hearing on-the-money singing -- especially by Uhl, Martinpelto and Porta. In fact, the performance of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at Potsdam was so compelling and soothing, that I fell into a deep sleep on the train back to central Berlin. When I woke up, the train was pulling into Frankfurt-an-der-Oder at the Polish border! I mention this, because my experience may lend some anecdotal credence to those studies purporting to show that Mozart’s music can have a salubrious effect on infants and in treating a variety of ailments. I hasten to admit, though, that listening to Mozart on the radio the next day improved my discomfort only marginaly. And the ride back to Berlin in the dead of night was not nearly as restful.

-- Sam Shirakawa

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