Friday, January 05, 2007

Sam's Latest Operatic Caravan

Our dear friend Sam Shirakawa travelled to Germany in mid-November to see several operas. Before he left he pledged to deliver reviews of what he saw. It's always a treat to read Sam's lucid takes on live performances as well as his general observations on the opera scene. After his arrival in Berlin on November 9th, he saw a performance of Traviata, then proceeded to Magdeburg for two operas, then on to Cologne, back to Potsdam and Berlin and finally to Leipzig. Here is the first half of Sam's report (Enjoy!):


Deutsche Oper Berlin: La Traviata (November 9, 2006)

They say, it can’t go on forever, but Berlin still supports three opera houses. The city is about 75 billion dollars in debt, but the subways and buses still run pretty much on time, possibly at the expense of human services, such as public health care. No doubt about it, Berlin is ever increasingly a “happening” place in spite of everything.

On the night I arrived, though, the only opera on the Spielplan was Traviata, playing at the Deutsche Oper. It had been hastily assembled upon the abrupt cancellation of the revival of Hans Neuenfels' production of Mozart's Idomeneo, dating from 2003. In case you haven't heard, it took someone three years to take offense at a scene near the end of Neuenfels' production, which shows large headless statues of Poseidon, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed. [Apparently it is a sacrilege to visualize the Prophet Mohammed in any form - even without his head. The rules on showing Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon may not be as clear. By the way, why were Abraham and Zoroaster excluded?] A phone call threatened trouble if Idomeneo went on. Swept away by a wave of titanic artistic courage, the Intendant Kirsten Harms sank under “advice” from police and deep-sixed all six performances that were set for November and December. The cancellation made headlines around the world. Cries of outrage ensued from the city, state and even a few members of the general public. Intendant Harms again buckled under all the hoo-hah and rescheduled several performances that had been set for December. One of them was attended by a delegation of politicians and religious leaders in what looked like a show of Solidarity for Artistic Freedom.

Just before this curious event was to take place, two things happened: several leaders of Berlin’s sizable Islamic community sent word that they were snubbing the performance, because they didn’t want to feel “manipulated.” Then came word that all four of headless paper-mache statues were “missing” from the Deutsche Oper’s scenery warehouse. A new quartet of headless statues was hastily pasted together, and the show went on under tight security and without incident. But it was hardly a sell-out. About 200 seats went unsold at curtain time. How did the audience of notables enjoy Mozart’s masterpiece? So far, there have been no further threats.
What was not so prominently reported about the furor, was that Harms was about to cancel the string of Idomeneo performances, probably because of poor ticket sales. The bomb threat, or whatever prompted the police to advise cancellation, provided the exact excuse she needed to nix Idomeneo and replace it with Traviata, which played to a nearly full house at the performance I attended.

Inva Mula as Violetta Váléry and Tito Beltrán as Alfredo Germont

Casting Traviata is becoming more difficult as the years go by, especially on short notice. But the management was able to round up three “name” singers in the principal roles, and pardoning a minor lapse here and there, the performance I attended was quite well sung and produced. The late Götz Friedrich’s production dating from 1999 restores the first statements of the cabalettas for Alfredo and père Germont in the second act. Friedrich clues in the audience on Violetta’s terminal illness from the start, revealing her in bed, pallid and still, during the prelude. She springs abruptly to life at the festive introduction to the first act, as Annina hastens to dress her for the party at which she will meet the great love of her life.

Andrea Rost acquitted herself in the long first act finale, offering a firm but hardly fervent vow to remain sempre libera. If she has an E-flat up there somewhere, she kept it to herself. She sounded more comfortable in the second and third acts, but she remained essentially the same robust sounding Violetta from start to finish. Roberto Aronica was in excellent shape as Alfredo. He had few insights into his character, but he was a treat hear, knocking off a sustained high C at the end of “O mio rimorso” with thrilling abandon. Roberto Frontali was a serviceable père Germont. Pacing appeared to be Yves Abel’s first priority, and his tempi tended to hover over the right side of the speedometer. But brisk does not necessarily induce breathtaking – pace Toscanini’s 1946 NBC broadcast, and the end-effect of Abel’s swift tempi left me with a sense of thank-goodness-that’s-over.

Magdeburg: Tannhäuser (November 5, 2006) / Schön ist die Welt (November 9, 2006)

Magdeburg’s opera house was severely damaged during the war, and its reconstruction was finally completed only about 10 years ago. The city was one of the DDR’s [1950-1991] major operatic venues, and the current management of the Municipal Opera remains committed to facing all its musical challenges with casts drawn primarily from its resident ensemble. That means few if any guest singers. The house has ties with Richard Wagner dating back to 1832 when the composer was hired as Kapellmeister of a traveling opera company that was based in Magdeburg. Wagner wrote Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), based on William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, during this period, and it was staged for one performance at Magdeburg in 1836. The troup ran out of money and disbanded before the second performance, which left the composer (not for the last time) in serious financial difficulties.

On November 5th, the house unveiled Holger Pototzki’s production of Tannhäuser with the current musical director Francesco Corti on the podium. So was it the Dresden [1845] or the Paris [1861] version he led? Actually both. This production follows the current trend of restoring most of the cuts Wagner made for Paris, but replaces the Dresden Overture with the Paris Overture-Ballet. Net-net: the Song Contest in Act II runs long, but it also gives more contestants a chance to be heard.

Magdeburg has enough bench strength in its ensemble to double-cast some of the roles. I attended the second premiere on November 11th with Manfred Wulfert in the eponymous role and Ulf Dirk Mädler as Wolfram. While Wulfert might benefit from a weight trimming program, his voice is in excellent estate: well-focused and solid from top to bottom. Anita Bader as Elisabeth is a Milanov look-alike, but the similarity ends there. She looked older than her father the Landgraf, sung dependably by Paul Sketris, but she certainly has what it takes to develop an international career: Leonie’s heft and Gundula’s way with turning ice into fire.

It’s hard to make sense of Holger’s production, which is dominated by a king-size bed that rises and descends as Holger needs it. Venus cavorts on it with both sexes in the first act; Elisabeth sits on it before standing to greet the Hall of Song at the start of the next act. To paraphrase Big Mama in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” when a production goes on the rocks, the rocks are right there in bed.

Four nights later, I returned to Magdeburg to hear Franz Lehar’s rarely performed Schön ist die Welt [Life is Beautiful]. This operetta was for Franz Lehar perhaps what Madama Butterfly was for Puccini. Both works were flops in their first incarnations. Puccini reworked his love child and turned it within months into an international hit at its second premiere. Lehar took more than 15 years to transform Endlich Allein [Alone at Last] from mediocrity into the mega-hit of its time. Unlike Butterfly, which continues to attract a huge audience, not only to itself, but to opera in general, Lehar’s confection about love lost and found – all within the framework of a movie theater – has rarely found an audience outside Germany and Austria since its premiere in 1930 with Richard Tauber and GittaAlpar.

What distinguished this production for me were the singers, several of whom appeared in the performance of Tannhäuser I had heard. Manfred Wulfert seemed to be having a good time playing a prince, who falls in love with one woman while becoming engaged to another. He hardly cuts a romantic leading-man figure, but he made the transition effortlessly from Heldentenor to romantic lead and evinced a gift for comedy that one would have hardly suspected from hearing his Tannhäuser alone. Ulf Dirk Mädler switched from the rigors of Wolfram to a weasel-ish lackey with even more surprising ease. But the delight of the evening was Ute Bachmaier as the object of the Prince’s affection. She easily overcame the technical challenges Lehar flung at Gitta Alpar in the songs he composed for her in the original production. Alexander Steinitz’s lively tempi managed to preserve the idiomatic grace and lilt that is so crucial in giving this genre life.

Köln: Hänsel und Gretel (November 12, 2006)

What perhaps was most remarkable about this performance of Hänsel in Cologne was neither the singing, which was uniformly excellent, nor the production, which was attractive, if not elaborate, but the audience. More than half the seats of the sold-out house were taken by youngsters, most of them clearly under ten.

Kids can be a performer’s nightmare, for their attention spans are easily broken, and their show of impatience can be merciless. For more than two hours, though, they were as quiet as church mice, clearly held in thrall. The work has often been condescendingly described as a “children’s musical,” but the remarkable reaction the production in Cologne received from its young audience amply proved that it is a work of subtle sophistication. In Jürgen Rose’s production, the Mother and Witch are one and the same [Katharin Andonian on 12/12/06].
Dalia Schächter (Knusperhexe), Regina Richter (Hänsel), Claudia Rohrbach (Gretel) |
Vorheriges Foto | © Klaus Lefebvre

In combining these two characters, Rose transforms the work and invokes the spirit of childhood in all of us. He shows us that the adventure of Hänsel and Gretel has important lessons to teach children and poses crucial reminders for adults. The journey of Hänsel and Gretel into the forest dream world amounts to a rite of passage that every child undertakes on the path to individuation: By maneuvering the malevolent witch into her own oven, in order to escape being baked into gingerbread zombies, Gretel saves both herself and Hänsel. In surmounting this trial by fire, she grows closer to her brother. Together, the children ultimately grow toward understanding their mother, who, in Rose’s view, is the witch’s benevolent twin. Through his glorious melodies, Humperdinck enlivens this cautionary fable of maternal cannibalism that all children must experience before they take on the rigors of guardianship and parenthood. Along the way, his spellbinding harmonies remind the informed Innocent in all of us, that material poverty need destroy neither the wealth of spirit to which every child is heir nor the will to be generous that adults are prone all-too-soon to abjure.
The entire cast -- Regina Richter as Hänsel, Katharina Leye as Gretel, Andrea Andronian as the Mother/Witch, Leandro Fischetti as the Father, and Insun Min as the Sandman were in superb form under Alvaro Palmen’s baton.

Potsdam – Neues Palais Sans Souci: La Clemenza di Tito (November 14, 2006)

The primary target for tourists visiting Potsdam on the southwestern outskirts of Berlin, of course, is the magnificent palace Sans Souci. Its ornate rooms and spacious gardens are worth visiting repeatedly. But even many Berliners are unaware of the equally impressive “Neues Palais” – a huge stately annex standing just behind San Souci. Climb two flights up the wide marble staircase, and you’ll find a miniature private opera house in the late baroque style, tucked away behind an unassuming painted door. It was designed for Kaiser Friedrich II by J.C. Hopenhaupt, completed in 1768, and has stadium seating on the parquet level! The Hans Otto Theater of Potsdam occasionally presents opera here, and to round off its celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday year, the company mounted La Clamenza di Tito and Cosí fan Tutte.

Interior of Neues Palais, Sans Souci

I wanted to attend both operas in this wonderful setting, but time constraints permitted me only the chance to hear Tito. And what a bonne bouche it was to hear first-rate musicians and healthy young singers performing Mozart under conditions for which he composed! The theater accommodates only 225 people and has perfect acoustics. You can even feel and hear the air drafting from the stage as the curtain parts!

The quality of mercy may be put to the test in Wolfgang’s final opera seria, but such cannot be said of the splendid vocalism displayed by the virtual unknowns in Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s period production under the direction of Michael Helmrath -- not at least on the night of November 14th. Hearing singers such as Lothar Odinius (Tito), Nancy Weißbach (Vitellia), Antigone Papoulkas (Sesto), Jeannine Hirzel (Annio), Anna Palimina (Servilia), and Matthias Ehm (Publio) – who all are as attractive as they are technically secure -- gives hope for the future of opera. Primus inter pares was Antigone Papoulkas, who, given the difficulties these days in finding a genuine castrato – at least a castrato who can sing -- made the part sound as though Mozart should have composed it for a female voice.

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Germania (November 17, 2006)

I’ve always been curious about Alberto Franchetti’s Germania, because Caruso created the lead role under Toscanini’s baton in 1902 at La Scala Milan and included one of its big arias in the first batch of recordings he ever made. Those recordings, also made in 1902 for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, followed by his debut at the Metropolitan Opera a few months later, turned Caruso into a household name. Despite Franchetti’s rousing pot-boiler score [think Boito’s Mefistofele or Nerone], Germania fell into obscurity, and it was proscribed during the Third Reich because its composer, while Italian and a Germanophile, was also Jewish.
News of the Deutsche Oper’s new production, which premiered October 15th, aroused a lot of anticipation, primarily because it was the first production presented by the new Intendant Kirsten Harms and her music director Renato Palumbo. It also turned into a closely watched trial balloon for Harms, coming on the heels of her decision to cancel Idomeneo. Palumbo’s competence and Harms’ sensible, middle-of-the-road approach to a love triangle set within a German student uprising against Napoleon’s invasion enabled them both to emerge safely though slightly singed from critics on a witch hunt.

Despite several personnel changes by the time I got to hear it on November 17th, neither the orchestra, now led by Attilio Tomasello, nor the singers had lost enthusiasm for the work. It was thoroughly satisfying to find gifted youngish singers prepared to deliver verismo can belto at the top of their lungs with such heart and musical sensibility. The Argentinian Gustavo Porta portrayed Frederico Loewe with the requisite brownish timbre, kneaded by that bristling burr, apparently unique to singers of Latin blood. Frederico was written for Caruso, and Porta never forgot it, taking command of the stage whenever he got the chance. But he was also a considerate colleague, especially in his scenes with Silvio Zanon as Carlo Worms. The program notes indicate Luciano Pavarotti as one of Zanon’s coaches, and his consistent vocal warmth, showed that his work with Pavarotti has not been wasted.

Ah, but the big surprise was one Manuela Uhl (pictured at left) as the third corner of the love-triangle, Ricke. Her voice defies categorizing: a burgundy lower register, a claret mezzo-middle, and a simply intoxicating top, distributed flawlessly throughout and energized with mordant morbidezza. Her talents may be more suited to Salome and Agäthe, but they are not necessarily specific to such roles, especially when it dawns on you, that she has also essayed the Queen of the Night to critical acclaim. So look out Nebtrebko! Frau Uhl not only has a solid high F, she can look even prettier while singing it. If you’ve never heard of Manuela Uhl, go out of your way to hear her, and remember where you read about her first!

-- Sam Shirakawa


I will be posting the rest of Sam's report in the next day or two.

Revised (1/8/07) to add some additional photos and (1/9/07) to add the review of Hänsel und Gretel from Cologne (which inexplicably got dropped in the first go round).

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