Saturday, October 27, 2007

Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007

Today, there are a number of offerings that can satisfy many different tastes. You're invited to peruse the Saturday page for yourselves to appreciate the full variety on offer. Meanwhile, a handful of these offerings seem especially unusual, and we highlight them here:

  • Christine Brewer stars in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde from the San Francisco Opera, heard today over many different stations (check the Saturday page for airings most convenient for you).
  • BBC Radio 3 - Massenet's Thais, with Renee Fleming, Joseph Calleja and Robert Lloyd in the cast.
  • On various stations - Lalo's Roi d'Ys, starring Sophie Koch, Inva Mula and Charles Castronovo.
  • Also on many different stations - The NPR World of Opera presents Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, starring Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Patrick Carfizzi sings Paolo!).
  • More Verdi as NRK ALLTID KLASSISK / NRK P2 present Vespri Siciliani from Genoa, starring Francisco Casanova, Sondra Radvanovsky and Franco Vassallo.
  • KLARA - From Barcelona, you can catch Deborah Voigt in Giordano's Andrea Chenier.
  • Radio Tre - Catch a rising star, Kate Aldrich, in the pivotal role of Ascanio in Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini.

These and many other performances being heard today!

Happy listening!


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Sam's Adventures - Part 4

Here's the fourth (and last) installment of Sam Shirakawa's account of his operatic travels in Germany (Blogger has been balking at picture uploads all night, so I will be loading some more pictures later):

Paukenmesse. 18 September 2007

Leipzig boasts one of Germany’s larger opera houses, a separate home for operetta, and the world-famous St. Thomas Boy’s Choir, which gives regular concerts -- many of them free of charge. The MDR Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Leipzig Symphony) is not as well-known as its neighbor, the Gewandhaus Orchestra, but it reaches a wider day-to-day audience through its radio and television broadcasts over its parent organization, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (hence MDR).

Having heard both orchestras in the concert hall they share, it’s hard to understand why the MDRSO has played second fiddle to its more illustrious neighbor. During the decade-long tenure of recently departed Music Director Fabio Luisi (now ensconced at Dresden’s Semper Opera), the orchestra has morphed into a world-class instrument. New Chief Conductor Jun Märkl says, he’s on a Mission of Discovery, and he is promising unusual programs for his orchestra that will be performed at off-beat venues. Since Leipzig is located in the center of the former East German province of Saxony and was largely off-limits to visitors for nearly half a century, the list of fascinating places to “discover” right in the orchestra’s own backyard is nearly endless.

On one of my trips to Leipzig during my recent stay, I attended an MDRSO concert that demonstrated Märkl’s Mission of Discovery in action: five works for orchestra, chorus and soloists by Arnold Schönberg, followed by Haydn’s “Mass in a Time of War.” In what may have been an effort to eschew commentary about current angst-raising political conditions, Haydn’s work was discretely billed on the program by its alternate name, Kettledrum Mass (Paukenmesse).

But the supplicatory theme of the entire program could hardly be missed: Schönberg’s Psalm 130 and Modern Psalm, Three Thousand Years, Peace on Earth, and Kol Nidre, plus Haydn’s Mass -- not exactly a warmer-upper for the Oktoberfest.

Despite the evening’s solemn mood, the resplendent playing and first-rate vocalism were, to say the least, uplifting. Märkl not only has inherited a superb orchestra, but a fabulous chorus, that has its own series of programs that it broadcasts and takes on tours. While the brass and woodwinds could use some balancing, the strings sound was nothing less than astonishing -- consonant, responsive and warm.

Germany has no shortage of wonderful oratorio singers, and a quartet of fine soloists distinguished themselves in the Mass. Soprano Christiane Oelze has been making a name for herself as a lieder singer and Mozart interpreter and has already gained attention at the big summer festivals. Her voice is mid-sized, semi-sweet, and frequently capable of being ravishing. Claudia Mahnke is also a rising star, who commutes between operatic and concert appearances. She appeared to be lightening the brownish texture of her mezzo voice to blend in with her colleagues, and the effect was riveting.

The young fraternal coupling of tenor Christoph Genz and baritone Stephan Genz rounded out the vocal quartet. They were born in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, not far from Leipzig. Who knows what would have become of them, if the Iron Curtain had not fallen? Within a short space of time, though, they have proceeded along the stations to the larger international platforms. It may be a while before their substantial talents find their best expression, but pay attention to them, because they are the genuine articles, and their sibling status makes them a press agent’s dream.

The program offered Jun Märkl the opportunity to display his grasp of radically contrasting musical languages, and he showed remarkable fluency in both. Märkl tends to favor brisk tempi and rich, homogenized sonorities, which, at this concert,
worked to his advantage. But what the MDRSO needs sorely now is a leader who can transform it into an organic instrument that has its own sonic identity. In the
past 15 years, Märkl has proceeded through the small and bigger platforms of his world (including the Met, Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra). He is also Music Director of L’Orchestre de Lyon and now, with in his new position, appears poised for a breakout. If he sticks at it, he has the chance to do for the MDRSO, what Stokowski and Ormandy, Rattle and Levine have done for their orchestras.

DIE FLEDERMAUS. 21 September 2007
Komische Oper

OFFENBACH KANN-KANN. 22 September 2007
Saalbau Neuköln

I’m coupling these two performances because I had not intended to attend either of them, I arrived late at both, and they both center around the undisputed kings of operetta’s Golden Age in the mid and later 19th century. Arriving an hour late for the final dress rehearsal of Fledermaus at the Komische Oper was not my fault. The starting time on the ticket stated 17.00 hrs, but the run-through had already begun an hour earlier. Go figure. I took my seat just as the big party was about to get under way: Prince Orlovsky had just launched into “Chacun a son Gout.” Whoever was singing, it wasn’t Jochen Kowalski, who owned that part for years in its previous incarnation at the Komische Oper.

It went downhill from there. The nadir of disappointment for me about this new production was its unremitting mirthlessness. While a sizable dollop of tart hypocrisy flavors the score of Strauß-the-Younger’s delectable bon-bon, it is the work’s inebriated merriment that enlivens what Anthony Trollope called “the soft sad wail of delicious woe,” which characterizes Golden Age operetta at its finest. The audience at the Generalprobe tittered at some of the sight gags, but the current of enjoyment had been switched off by the time I arrived.

On the next evening, quite by coincidence, I stopped in the lobby of the Saalbau -- a cultural center serving the Berlin district of Neukölln. A performance of Offenbach kann-kann had just begun, and the ticket office was still open. As I entered the auditorium on the second floor, the usher handed me a postcard. The only information on it besides a color production photo was a brief plot summary: Offenbach spends far more than the considerable sums he makes, so he has to keep composing to stay ahead of his creditors. Over the next two and then some hours, we learn how three of his one-act opera-bouffes -- "Tromb-Al-Ca-Zar",
"Häuptling Abendwind" und "Ritter Eisenknacker" were born. And how did Offenbach create them? The old fashioned way: Work, Work, Work.

The underlying problem for the spectator is that it takes a lot of work to get through the mounds of arid dialogue that lead to snippets of ambrosial music. But the slog was worth it, for I learned that there is much more to this underrated composer than Tales of Hoffman and La Belle Hélène. The bouffe was performed by a group of five admirably multi-tasking singers, an actor and two musicians.

You may wonder why I haven’t mentioned any names. In the case of Fledermaus, the event was a dress rehearsal for friends and colleagues and not a performance meant for public comment. If you really want to know more, go to the Komische Oper’s website. And go to see it! The mirth may well have switched on for the paying public. In any event, a Bat in foul mood is better than no Fledermaus at all. As for Offenbach kann kann, no casting information was provided on the postcard-program. Web-surfing yielded the same information on the postcard plus the website of the agency that promoted it.

If you want to see off-beat events in Berlin, a visit to the Saalbau is well worth the 20-minute U-Bahn ride from more familiar areas of the city. It’s set in an elegant row of pre-war buildings in the middle of a colorful multi-ethnic area. The Neuköllner Oper (which had nothing to do with Offenbach kann-kann), and numerous other musical, theatrical and visual arts organizations are based here. The Saalbau complex also has two atmospheric restaurants: Cafe Rix and the recently opened Hofperle. Cafe Rix has long been a hangout for local artists. Both have excellent food at modest prices.

DIE MEISTERSINGER. 22 September 2007

The operagoing public of Halle, birthplace of Georg Friedrich Händel, has not seen a new production of Meistersinger since 1965. The city’s Municipal Opera spared no effort in bringing Wagner’s glorious, issue-ridden work back to life on 22 September: vastly augmented chorus, enlarged orchestra, dozens of supernumeraries -- the works. But the most impressive dimension of this production is that it is cast almost entirely from the house’s resident ranks.

Anke Berndt, I was told, was singing her first-ever Eva, but she sounded as if she was born to the part. It’s hard to believe that she has been engaged at Halle since 1990. Tall, slender, youthful and deceptively demure, she parsed out Eva’s conflicting affections before bursting gloriously into “O, Sachs, mein Freund!” Her estimable talent appears to be arching toward its apogee, and it’s time for capital opera companies to take notice of her.

It was also a first-ever performance of Walther von Stolzing for Gunnar Gudbjörnsson. The husky Icelandic tenor has the requisite vocal weight for Walther von Stolzing, and he seems capable of dramatic shading. But the supertitles told the tale: Gudbjörnsson has a way to go before he knows the role. No small task, for Walther has more music in the first act, than Rodolfo has in all four acts of La Boheme. Time and again, Gudbjörnsson garbled the words and jumped the beat. Some of the gaffes may be written off as first-night fright, but Gudbjörnsson also had issues with ascending toward the top of the staff, especially in the second section of the third act, where Walther transforms his dream into reality with Sachs’ help. The exposed parts of the role rise no higher than A natural, but Wagner’s writing for Walther all but sits around this area. Tenors tackling the role can ill-afford to develop vocal piles.

Friedemann Kunder as Hans Sachs also showed signs of stress starting off, but his voice relaxed as the evening progressed, and he delivered a heartfelt oration in the
final tableau. His Sachs is neither a professor nor a surrogate father, but an acute thinker whose deep feelings about his little-spoken past are sublimated through helping Walther win the jackpot. Kunder’s bass-baritone is an acquired taste, nonetheless. It has a pronounced vibrato that sometimes widens alarmingly. But the salubrious influence of Hans Hotter suffusing his performance transcends all niggling.

Nils Giesecke as David was the other major find. He has been active even longer than the aforementioned Anke Berndt. As he recited the litany of rules to the wannabe master singer, I couldn’t help thinking: Fritz Wunderlich lives! Giesecke apparently makes most of his bread as a concert and oratorio singer. Small wonder I found him in Halle.

The rest of the cast was rounded out ably by Gerd Vogel as an exquisitely mean-spirited Beckmesser, Harold Wilson in excellent form as Pogner and Raimund Nolte’s rewardingly pedantic Kothner. Katharina von Bülow as Magdalene lived up to her musical namesake.

Niksa Bareza’s flexible tempi and palpable knowledge inspired both the orchestra
and singers to exceed themselves. But his skills at the stick were sorely tested by having to follow Gudbjörnsson’s rhythmic vagaries, while keeping everyone else in check. It was knuckle-whitening to witness.

By the way, Andreas Wehrenfennig did a yeoman job playing the Beckmesser harp on stage, keeping one eye on the conductor, watching Gerd Vogel lurk about with the other eye, while wrapping his fingers around some treacherous music. But his moronic yodel-hey-hee-hoo get-up needs to be replaced with something hip, and his hideous Halloween 3 make-up shrieks for Dove Evolution.

The production by Frank Hilbrich has some provoking insights: Walther sings the first strophe of his Trial Song from inside the Marker’s box. He literally breaks out of the box to complete it and make his sub-textual point. The decorative banners in the first and last act draw the lines in the conflict between classic and romantic,
reactionary and radical, old and new.

But Hilbrich plunges from the inspired to the irretrievable at the end of the final scene, when he has the chorus abandon the stage, leaving Sachs alone with a gaggle of fans -- sort of like a latter-day Socrates holding court on banks of the Pegnitz. The image leaves me cold, but the removal of the chorus amounts to a lot worse than mere opera interruptus.

The summation of everything Wagner has to say about the myriad themes he brings up throughout Meistersinger is unleashed in unison through the crowning polyphony of its concluding anthem. To send the chorus to a backstage microphone and squeeze the opera’s grandest moment through the theater’s tinny ill-balanced sound system is to castrate the work and queer the audience. Specious stunts like this reek of dilettantism and heave fodder at those critics who claim that German theaters get too much taxpayer money and have no accountability.

The warrants of full disclosure constrain me to advise you of brief “bleeding chunks” on video. In spite of the idiocy to which the production ultimately succumbs, the musical portions of this Meistersinger are, thanks largely to Bareza’s majestic stewardship, a treasure.

A word about the theater. Halle’s opera house, built in 1886, is home to the city’s music theater and ballet. The house sits on one of Halle’s several hills and is accessed from a gently sloping garden, leading from one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Its prominent location made it a clear target for allied bombers less than two months before the end of the war. The house was re-consecrated six years later. The same management under the direction of Klaus Froboese has led the company, since Germany’s reunification in 1991. For a relatively small house (692 seats) serving about 230,000 people, its management has racked up some estimable achievements recently: the Ring, an on-going Handel revival that includes at least one new production per year -- this season it’s Belshazzar -- and an extensive performing arts program for children.

You may be asking yourself why I haven’t mentioned the new production of Meistersinger at Bayreuth this summer and the controversy it engendered. I didn’t see it, and I haven’t heard a broadcast of it yet. So there. It has been mentioned.

© 2007 Sam Shirakawa

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sam's Adventures - Part 3

Herewith Part 3 of Sam Shirakawa's travels:


AachenWhen you walk up to the stately portico fronting the opera house in Aachen, you’re seized with a sense of "occasion." Justifiably so, when you consider that this city near Germany’s current western border, has been producing opera steadily since 1753. The interior of the current theater building -- erected in 1901 -- was bombed out during World War II, but the huge Ionic columns and the façade they shelter survived with minimal damage. Once inside the recently refurbished foyer, you might notice discreet busts of Beethoven and Herbert von Karajan flanking the portals into the parquet promenade. Karajan? Actually, Karajan began his conducting career at this theater in 1934. There are no statues, however, honoring some of the truly illustrious artists who paid their dues at this Triple-A way station, notably Leo Blech, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Karl Burrian, Tiana Lemnitz -- and more recently Kurt Moll, Linda Watson and Luana De Vol, as well as film luminaries Max Ophüls and Jürgen Prochnow.

Aachen’s new production of Fliegende Holländer that I visited on 14 September was mostly a treat to hear, but somewhat confusing to watch. The program notes say, that young Bulgarian soprano Irina Popova studied the fife before turning to singing -- worth noting because she supports her immense voice with an apparently endless supply of air on one breath. It tends, nonetheless, to blanch at full-blast. Her Senta was impassioned and soulful, though she would do well to give more thought to the subtleties of the Senta’s cantilena.

At age 33, the Korean bass-baritone Woong-jo Choi might do his career a favor, by abjuring the Dutchman until he has repeatedly endured such rites of passage as Colline, Wurm, and the Herald. Choi is among a growing number of outstanding Asian singers making their way through Germany’s operatic venues. But he must learn, as Leontyne Price has often advised, to sing on the interest, and save the principal.

Polish bass Kristof Borysiewicz proved that experience counts, as he presented a stylishly burly account of Senta’s father Daland. This up-and-comer already has a number of major roles under his belt, and he navigated his way around Daland’s music with bodacious ease.Tenor Gary Bachlund had an uncomfortable evening as Erik. His lackluster showing may have amounted merely to an off night. On the other hand, he might be taking on an unsuitable role or showing signs of vocal issues. But his is an attractive voice, and I look forward to hearing it again.

The Steersman is one of the roles on which tenors aspiring to Tannhäuser and Tristan cut their teeth. It’s too soon to tell if Andreas Scheiddeger will develop sufficient bite for a Wagner singer, but he has wisely been developing his Mozart repertoire. If he confines himself to such roles for a while longer, his imposing talent could eventually elbow out numerous pretenders.

The performance was led by Marcus R. Bosch, who has been Aachen’s chief conductor for the past five seasons. His appetite for the instrumental details in Holländer was undeniable, but knowingly or not, he frequently sacrificed the balance between stage and pit in favor of letting the brass section have its way. No great sin for an up-and-comer, if you recall Levine’s thump-happy days in the not-so-long ago.

A mesmerizing image informs the final act in Alexander Müller-Elmau’s production. Villagers unravel the veils of Senta’s wedding dress, after the Dutchman mistakenly accuses her of duplicity. The tableau connects the yarn spinning scene in which she vowed to disentangle the Dutchman from his unhappy fate to her now threadbare state of abandonment.

Had costume designer Julia Kaschlinski left Ms. Popova with something a tad more alluring than an ill-fitting slip, the metaphor might have worked brilliantly: Senta alone and shamed, vulnerable and frail. But Ms. Popova’s va-va-voom torso makes her ripe for a chat with Isaac Mizrahi.

Ergo, the image ravels like a crocheted sweater made in China.

JENUFA. 15 September 2007

Operas almost always are about the vicissitudes of love, and they rarely end happily. Janacek’s Jenufa is singularly depressing: a morose menage involving two half-brothers and the titular heroine, whom only one of them wants to marry. Factor in a Jenufa’s illegitimate baby that her step-mother drowns, and you’re set for an evening of chest-clenching bawling.

The production team led by Katharina Thalbach, though, has served the Cologne Municipal Opera an oddly restrained view of the work. Winter is everywhere in Momme Röhrbein’s sets and Angelika Rieck’s grey-hued costumes. Not necessarily a bad thing, because the chilly mood puts Janacek’s sizzling vocal writing in bold relief.

The eponymous heroine held no terrors for Irish soprano Orla Boylan. Those who have heard her Donna Anna at the NYCO are familiar with her velvety upper register and crisp intonation. Dalia Schaechter, a Cologne regular, keeps growing artistically. She was at her best confessing Kostelnicka’s murderous face-saving deed. Texan Roy M. Wade, Jr. is also a member of the Cologne Opera and was entirely at home in the conflicted role of Laca. Hans-Georg Priese as Steva, rounded out the unhappy quartet, making the most of a thankless part.

Audiences reportedly went wild for Lothar Koenigs when he conducted Jenufa at La Scala last spring. The public in Cologne was appreciative on the night I attended. I didn’t hear anything new or notably charismatic in his reading, but he moved the pit band to play marvelously. Janacek fans and Koenigs’ followers might do well to keep an eye on Lyon’s opera calendar. He’s embarked on a complete cycle of the composer’s operas there.

Les Troyens. 16 September 2007

Sunday, 16 September was an unusual day for an inveterate operagoer: two performances of the same opera in two different cities. Well, almost two operas. Berlioz’ monster Les Troyens taxes the resources of any opera house that produces it. The Deutsche Oper am Rhein ("DOamR") went double-duty by presenting Part One -- The Siege of Troy as a matinée at its theater in Duisburg, and by setting up Part Two -- The Trojans at Carthage -- at its opera house in Düsseldorf. A shuttle jitney sped a handful of intrepid spectators wanting to see both parts in one day from Duisburg to Düsseldorf 15 miles away.

It was a strange experience for me, because Part One is the bigger opera in its historical and dramatic sweep. But I heard it at the smaller of the two houses. (Duisberg has 1,118 seats, Düsseldorf can accommodate 1,342 spectators). I felt as though I was watching the epic destruction of Troy through a close-up lens, and the intimacies of Dido and Aeneas through a wide-angle attachment. All in all, though, it was a sensational day’s journey into night, albeit a long one, further lengthened by "technical issues," which delayed the start of Part Two by more than 20 minutes and eliminated supertitles.

Evelyn Herlitzius as Cassandra appeared only in Part One, but her spectre as Cassandra dominated both performances, much as Hector’s ghost pervades both the opera and Virgil’s Aeneid, on which the work is based. She is, as a friend recently described her, a "very loud Pilar Lorengar." While she is no insane stage personality, like Anja Silja, Herlitzius unleashes a tragedy-laden storm, as her Cassandra desperately tries to save the Trojans from themselves.

Steven Harrison
as Aeneas has virtually all the makings of a superior dramatic tenor, except vocal variety. His monochromatic delivery wearies the ear and may prevent him from attaining lasting above-the-line billing in the big leagues. Three other singers, on the other hand, had the style and beauty to make you sit up and want more. Jeanne Piland was a compelling Didon. She brought dignity and grace to Didon’s tragic passion for Aeneas, especially in the big love duet. Mirko Roschkowski as the poet Iopas and Norbert Ernst as the home-sick soldier Hylas regretably had too little to sing. Here are two supernal voices worth a detour to hear.

Masterful crowd control is key to the coherence of any Troyens production, and Christopher Loy proved himself to be a good traffic cop in Part One. But mayhem threatened to reign in Part Two. Piland nearly had to elbow her subjects out of the way to get to her spot in the opening scene. Carthage residents and visiting soldiers often seemed constantly at odds with each other throughout the remaining three hours.Despite tableau turmoil Loy has some interesting ideas: The besieged Trojan women, for example, gas themselves along with their Greek captors in their underground hideout, as the ruins of Troy tumble on Part One.

American John Fiore led an animated, reading that was nearly note-perfect, even though he did not have the full cadre of instrumentalists demanded by the score. Possibly agitated from the rush to get from Duisburg to the podium in Düsseldorf, though, he seemed out of sorts in finding rapture in the rhapsodic portions of Part Two. But he caught the amble and sweep of the work unerringly. Fiore has been Music Director of the DOamR since 1999, and has been honing the musical forces at both theaters into a disciplined, highly flexible mechanism. If he could just get his musicians to put a little more heart into their playing, he might have a band to beat the Met’s.

© 2007 Sam Shirakawa

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Sam's Adventures - Part 2

Herewith, Part 2 of Sam Shirakawa's account of his recent travels to German opera houses:

PHAEDRA. 10 September 2007
Staatsoper unter den Linden

Hans Werner Henze has legions of devoted fans. I can take him or leave him.

What to make of his new “concert opera?” It’s called Phaedra, the disagreeable tale of a Greek queen’s all-consuming lust for her fatally disinterested step-son Hypolitus. Henze completed it last year when he was 80. His librettist Christian Lehnert has based the text on Euripides, Seneca and annotations by classical scholars.

Several facets of Peter Mussbach’s staging of the work’s World Premiere may be worth mentioning. First: the chamber orchestra of 22 instrumentalists -- the Ensemble Modern -- conducted by Michael Boder was placed at the rear of the house under center loge of the first balcony. A catwalk à la Al Jolson’s Winter Garden concerts bisected the parquet level and connected the orchestra platform to the stage, enabling the singers to commute. (No one, unfortunately, broke into a chorus of “Mammy.”) This semi-thrust arrangement allowed only spectators seated at the sides of the three balconies to have a reasonable view of the proceedings. The arrangement seemed to harken back to the days of theater-in-the-round, when, in the words of Mel Brooks’ immortal impressario, Max Bialystock, nobody had a good seat.

Second: Danish lighting and set designer Olafur Eliasson placed a network of mirrors on the stage and visually doubled the length of the playing area. The relevance of the expansion to the music or the drama escaped me, but the effect was grimly enchanting.

Third: John Mark Ainsley -- that superb singer -- spent a substantial portion of the second act lying nude and supine on a tablet center stage. During the course of this sequence, in which Artemis brings Hypolitus back to life, Ainsley’s scrotum appeared to constrict somewhat, causing his testicles to bulge. Whether this physiological vaudeville was caused by nerves, the somewhat under-heated hall, or both, we may never know. But the vignette may be instructive: Could placement of the genitalia play a role in producing superior vocal emission? I don’t think Manuel Garcia has anything to say about it in his writ on singing. Perhaps a bottom-less production of, say, Billy Budd might illuminate the matter....

Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Phaedra), Marlis Petersen (Aphrodite), Axel Köhler (Artemis), and Lauri Vasar (Minotauris) are also wonderful singers. I look forward to hearing them all again. In something else.

A source of irritation during my visit to the third and final performance of the work this season was having to sort out how Euripides and Seneca each approached the story. I have never read Racine’s take on the story. The scholarly details are to be found in the program notes, of course, but I guess I was looking for a way to remain attentive.

For me in my unwashed condition, Henze’s Phaedra, its unremitting antiphony and dense text, all require much too much knowledge aforethought. To get with the program, you have to be really up on the classics as well as the precious musical materia which constitute Henze’s erudite board game. For a cogent view of the production from a bona-fide initiate, I suggest Anne Ozorio.

Véronique Gens. 12. September 2007
Berliner Festspiele

Berlin has hosted an annual autumn cultural festival for the better part of a century, but the Berliner Festspiele have been running under that name only since 1951. The Festival’s continued success has made Germany’s ever-trendy capital the final stop for summertide festival falcons. The French lieder singer Véronique Gens was among the distinguished visitors to this year’s Festival. Appearing with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit, Gens offered a sultry glance into Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l'amour et de la mer. Hers is a warm luxurious sound, whose amber glow exudes cheerful nostalgia mixed with lachrymose anticipation. Her tall, pastel presence and delicate sad smile spoke silent volumes to such lines from Maurice Bouchor’s text as:

Mon âme unique m'est ravie
Et la sombre clameur des flots
Couvre le bruit de mes sanglots.

My very soul is torn away
And the dark clamoring of the waves
Covers the noise of my sobs.

I concede, though, that after wading through such endlessly gossamer longueurs de melodies, I wished that Madame Véronique might have saluted her German hosts with something un peu éveillant, like Veronika, der Lenz ist da...

Charles Dutoit apparently likes soccer, for he has taken to using referee gestures to communicate instructions to the orchestra -- rolling his forearms around each other and using his hands as levers. The members of the Philharmonia, arguably the finest of London’s five major orchestras, must have enjoyed his divertissements: they played fabulously for him -- especially in La Valse, the crowd-pleasing finisher of the all-French program, and gave him a rousing ovation.

FAUSTUS, THE LAST NIGHT. 13 September 2007
Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Here’s one for the Comparative Cultures Department: A new opera composed by a Frenchman, sung in English and staged for its world premiere in Berlin. Since its first performance last year, Faustus, the Last Night has also been produced in France and at the Spoleto Festival.

The plot -- if you can call it that -- of Pascal Dusapin’s sixth opera follows a middle road between the path to damnation followed by the hero of Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe and the detour to salvation taken by Goethe’s errant protagonist. The fate of Dusapin’s hero is left undecided.

And that, for me, is where Faustus, the Last Night ultimately collapses. If the fate of a man who sells his soul to the Devil is not to be defined in some dramatic way, why are we witnessing his story? Dusapin sprinkles the text with a wide range of allusions, including Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett. Just so we don’t miss how well-read he certainly is, he’s created a character named Togod. It unscrambles into Godot -- get it? (Hasn’t someone else also used this anagram for a character’s name?) Some European critics adored Dusapin’s exhibits of middle-brow literacy, but I failed to see how any of it served to shed light on the nature of a man who has made a choice that everybody faces at one time or another.

The spoken musings of Shakespeare and the quarrels of Beckett’s scrappy personae -- which who Dusapin’s characters resemble -- accumulate compelling counterpoint that speaks hauntingly to the drama of their lot and the tragedy of mankind’s existence. But Dusapin’s clever harmonies and arcane text tend to become distracting. Given the uncertainties with which he ends his work ends, he dissipates the dramatic and moral fiber on which the Faust story feeds.

The principals, Georg Nigl (Faustus), Urban Malmberg (Mephistopheles), Robert Wörle (Sly), Jaco Huijpen (Togot) and Caroline Stein (Angel), under Michael Boder’s direction, all sang the challenging score in good voice. More about them I can’t say, because I’ve never heard any of them before, and I’m not familiar with the score.

Peter Mussbach’s efficient staging places the characters on a huge clock. At first, it seemed like an apt cliché, but the end-effect was oddly disturbing. For me, both Phaedra and Dusapin’s Faustus show advanced symptoms of the same alarming malady: emotional necrosis. Our whining helplessness before powers that control
our existence is as terrifying as never before, but it’s nothing novel, just harder to recognize: The gods and the devils of our times both wear Prada. Truly harrowing are the man-made deities to which we nolens volens have rendered our identities, our innermost longings, and the remnants of our souls. Where is the Arthurian composer who has the vision and courage to write an opera about the tragi-comic consequences of mankind’s unwitting covenant with that fearfully benign repository of all that is We: Google?

© 2007 Sam Shirakawa

More to come . . . .

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Sam Shirakawa's Latest Foray to Germany

Our friend Sam Shirakawa has recently returned from a trip to Germany to see several operas. We always enjoy reading what he has to say about the performances he has seen, so here is the first installment of his reviews from his September trip Germany:

DER FREISCHUTZ. 7 September 2007
Staatsoper unter den Linden (Berlin)

Weber’s Freischutz or The Marksman was an instant hit when it received its first performance on 18 June 1821 in Berlin under the composer’s direction. The poet Heinrich Heine and the young Mendelssohn were in attendance. Weber’s use of Teutonic folk songs and recurring themes of the period -- pacts with the Devil, sorcery, the powers of the forest -- were seized upon and further refined by most of the significant cultural figures of the mid- and late-19th century.

So it was a thrill to hear the work performed in the very theater where it was born. Weber would surely have approved of the musical side of the performance headed by Burkhard Fritz (Max),Carola Höhn (Agäthe),Sylvia Schwartz (Ännchen) and Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Kaspar) under the direction of the Algerian-German conductor Julien Salemkour.

Fueled by obvious devotion to the work, and bound by the language common to them all, the cast embued the performance I attended with an esprit you rarely find in multi-national productions. The stand-out was Müller-Brachmann, who goes from strength to strength every time I hear him.

Given the eccentric stagings of many opera productions these days -- this past summer’s Salzburg Festival production of Freischutz -- the composer also would probably have approved of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s generally respectful production, dating from 1997. Despite some bloody excesses in the Wolf Glen scenes, Lehnhoff’s carefully considered production makes sense and holds up after a decade.

LOHENGRIN. 8 September 2007

Chemnitz once wore the dubious crown of "Dirtiest City" in Germany. Now, nearly 20 years after the nation’s reunification and a relatively corruption-free drive to clean up the environmental mess left by East Germany’s Soviet-backed regime, the former Karl Marx-Stadt is being lauded as the nation’s Cleanest City. But many inhabitants still suffer long-term health problems owing to decades of deadly pollution.

Throughout its environmental and political travails, the city’s Municipal Opera has managed to make quality music continuously. Much of its high standard of operatic excellence in recent years is credited to the team of stage director Michael Heinicke and Niksa Bareza, who completed a distinguished seven-year tenure as Music Director last spring. Among their achievements: a complete cycle of Wagner’s so-called ‘Bayreuth Operas.’

On my current visit, the Opera’s new Music Director Frank Beermann led Lohengrin with a cast of mostly house artists. Despite the disappointment that facing a half-filled house must have given the artists, the performance frequently
generated excitement and yielded two big surprises: Kouta Räsänen as Heinrich der Vogler and Hannu Niemelä as Telramund -- Two Finns, who rattled me out of an attack of jet lag. What a pleasure to hear these steel-reinforced voices buttressing Wagner’s bass lines!

Canadian Nancy Gibson is an irresistibly sympathetic Elsa, and her voice at full-throttle soared over the orchestra. She showed some stress occasionally at the top, and she seemed to tire somewhat toward the end of the Bridal Chamber Scene. But she rallied for Elsa’s final moments in the last tableau.

Albert Bonnema stepped in on short notice for the indisposed Edward Rendell. His Siegfried (Götterdämmerung) has become well known through Stuttgart’s multi-producer Ring. At this performance, he was at his best declaiming, but Lohengrin’s tender moments gave him difficulties. Regrettable, because his outsize voice yields honey, when he deigns to sing softly.

Undine Dreißig struck me as a tiring Ortrud. But I confess that my reaction may have more to do with my aversion to the role’s irritating hectoring than the singer’s vocalism.

Heinicke’s production emphasizes spectacle, by mounting his production on the theater’s massive revolving stage. It’s hard, though, to make out what he is aiming at. In the big finales of the second and third acts, it seems like rush hour on the
shores of the Scheidt -- principals and chorus scurrying to hop aboard the
spinning turntable before blocks of Antwerp shut them off.

Bareza’s successor as Music Director, Frank Beermann, led a fast-paced and nicely pointed reading, but it remains, at the moment, a reading. He needs to submerge himself deeply into the score and mine its mysteries bar by bar. The talent is there and the forces drilled by Bareza are also present to bring him along. Whether he has the obligatory modesty to avail himself of the help at hand remains to be heard.
In the few years since my last visit, the central part of Chemnitz, where the opera house is located, has emerged from its sullen DDR hangover and developed into a colorful multi-cultural venue. The reboubtable Cafe Moskau still brims with "Ostalgie" -- nostalgia for the good ole days -- and a Turkish bistro now resides next to Schalom, a Jewish restaurant, which has managed to thrive more than seven years.

After the performance, I renewed acquaintances with Schalom’s proprietors, Ariel and Uwe Dziuballal, over some Jewish pastry. Ariel, who I met during my last visit, presented me with a bottle of kosher beer that he and his brother have just brought on the market. It has a richer, deeper taste than most pilsners from that area, and it leaves a mild pleasant aftertaste. Ariel says he’s trying to find a distributor in the United States.

Before I left Chemnitz the next day, I visited the newly renovated Protestant Church of St. Petri (1888), which shares the broad plaza dominated by the Opera House. A long, costumed procession began the festive Sunday service, commemorating European Heritage Day -- held each year throughout Europe on the second Sunday of September. The event celebrates all places, buildings and monuments of historic significance and enables visits to many sites that are closed for most of the year.

My visit to St. Petri gave me a chance to hear the colossal neo-Gothic organ, originally constructed by the renowned Friedrich Ladegast. Unfortunately, the music for the service didn’t require full deployment of the organ’s 4,000 pipes, but the sound at full tilt was thrillingly shattering.

© 2007 Sam H. Shirakawa

Stay tuned for more of Sam's adventures.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Lots of Variety Today - Saturday, October 6, 2007

Two versions of Iphigenie en Tauride (Gluck's from Covent Garden with Graham, Keenlyside and Groves; and Gouvy's on Deutschlandradio Kultur) ...The WFMT Opera Network moves on to the San Francisco Opera with a performance of Puccini's Manon Lescaut with the incandescent Karita Mattila (the less said about the tenor in this performance, the better) ... Norwegian radio continues its Ring Cycle with Siegfried (we are curious about Terje Stensvold's Wanderer and the Erde of Anne Gjevang) ... From RTP Antena 2 in Portugal comes a rebroadcast of last year's Salzburg Festival Le Nozze di Figaro with Netrebko, Röschmann and Schäffer ... Espace 2 remembers Beverly Sills by airing the April 1975 Met broadcast of Rossini's Siege of Corinth with Sills, Diaz, Verrett and Theyard, conducted by Thomas Schippers ... WOMR will be carrying a Verdi Requiem that's new to us - with Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Giuseppe Zampieri and Nikolai Ghiaurov, von Karajan conducting ... Radio Slovenia will repeat the 2007 Bayreuth Götterdämmerung ...and on Sunday evening, Radio Tre (RAI) will be carrying a 1955 Vespri Siciliani form its archives, featuring Carlo Tagliabue and Anita Cerquetti.

An now for the live listings for today --
  • Deutschlandradio Kultur - From Evangelische Kirche Saarlouis, a December 2006 performance of Gouvy's Iphigénie en Tauride with Christine Maschler, Ekkehard Abele, Benjamin Hulett and Vinzenz Haab, conducted by Joachim Fontaine.
  • DR P2 - From the Liceu in Barcelona, a performance of Giordano's Andrea Chénier, with José Cura, Deborah Voigt, Carlos Álvarez, Marina Rodríguez Cusí, Irina Mishura and Miguel Ángel Zapater, conducted by Pinchas Steinberg.
  • Espace Musique - From Pacific Opera Victoria, Strauss' Daphné , with Sookyung Park, Kurt Lehmann, Anthony Pulgram, Brian McIntosh and Rebecca Hass, conducted by Timothy Vernon.
  • Radio 4 Netherlands - From the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, an October 1st performance of Monteverdi's l Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, with Paul Nilon, Patricia Bardon and Ed Lyon, conducted by Glen Wilson.
  • RTP Antena 2 - From the 2006 Salzburg Festival, a performance of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, with Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, Anna Netrebko, Bo Skovhus, Dorothea Röschmann, Christine Schäffer, Marie McLaughlin, Franz-Josef Selig, Patrick Henckens, Oliver Ringelhahn, Florian Boesch and Eva Liebau conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
  • San Francisco Opera (WFMT Opera Network on numerous stations) - Puccini's Manon Lescaut, with Karita Mattila, Misha Didyk, John Hancock and Eric Halfvarson, conducted by Donald Runnicles.
  • WQXR - Also from San Francisco Opera, Mozart's Don Giovanni, with Mariusz Kwiecien, Hope Briggs, Twyla Robinson, Claudia Mahnke, Charles Castronovo, Luca Pisaroni and Oren Gradus, conducted by Donald Runnicles.
  • Bartok Radio, Radio Tre (RAI) & Cesky Rozhlas 3-Vltava - From the National Theater in Prague, a performance of Smetana's Il Segreto (Tajemství), with Miloslav Podskalský, Katerina Jalovcová, Maria Haan, Roman Janál, Tomás Cerný, Jirí Sulzenko,cantore di ballate, Jaroslav Brezina, Ivan Kusnjer, Jitka Sobehartová, Václav Lemberk and Zdenek Harvánek, conducted by Zbynek Müller.
  • BBC Radio 3 - From Covent Garden, Gluck's Iphegenie en Tauride, with Susan Graham, Simon Keenlyside, Paul Groves, Clive Bayley, Gail Pearson, Claire Wild, Cécile van de Sant, conducted by Ivor Bolton.
  • CBC Two - From this summer's Salzburg Festival, Weber's Der Freischutz, with Peter Seiffert, Roland Bracht, Markus Butter, Gunther Groissbock, Alexander Kaimbacher, Ignaz Kirchner, Aleksandra Kurzak, John Relyea and Petra maria Schnitzer, conducted by Markus Stenz.
  • France Musique & Sveriges Radio P2 - From l'Opéra Bastille in Paris, a performance of Dukas' Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, with Willard White, Deborah Polaski, Julia Juon, Diana Axentii, Iwona Sobotka, Hélène Guilmette and Jaël Azzaretti, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling.
  • NPR World of Opera (on numerous stations) - From Washington National Opera, Janacek's Jenufa, with Patricia Racette, Catherine Malfitano, Kim Begley, Judith Christin and Raymond Very, conducted by Jiri Belohlavek.
  • KCME - From Houston Grand opera, Verdi's Aida, with Zvetelina Vassileva, Dolora Zajick, Marco Berti, Gordon Hawkins, and Tigran Martirossian, conducted by Carlo Rizzi.
  • KCSC - From San Francisco Opera, Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera, with Deborah Voigt, Marcus Haddock, Ambrogio Maestri, Anna Christy and Tichina Vaughn, conducted by Marco Armiliato.
  • NRK Alltid Klassisk & NRK P2 - From Oslo, a September 15th performance of Wagner's Siegfried, with Stig Fogh Andersen, Svein Erik Sagbråten, Terje Stensvold, Marcus Jupither, Carsten Stabell, Anne Gjevang, Tina Kiberg and Eli Kristin Hagen, conducted by Paul Daniels.
  • WETA & WDAV - From Washington National Opera, Donizetti's La fille du régiment, with JiYoung Lee, José Bros, Victoria Livengood, Simone Alberghini, Obed Urena, Matthew J. Minor and Madeleine Gray, conducted by Riccardo Frizza.
  • Espace 2 - An homage to Beverly Sills - the April 15, 1975 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Rossini's Le Siège de Corinthe, with Beverly Sills, Justino Diaz, Shirley Verrett, Harry Theyard, Richard T. Gill, Betsey Norden and Richard Best, conducted by Thomas Schippers.
  • Radio Slovenia Tretji - a rebroadcast of this summer's Bayreuth Götterdämmerung, with Stephen Gould, Ralf Lukas, Hans-Peter König, Andrew Shore, Linda Watson, Edith Haller, Mihoko Fujimura, Simone Schröder, Martina Dike, Edith Haller, Fionnuala McCarthy, Ulrike Helzel and Marina Prudenskaja, conducted by Christian Thielemann.
  • WOMR - After the San Francisco Manon Lescaut, a live Verdi Requiem with Leontyne Price, Giulietta Simionato, Giuseppe Zampieri and Nicolai Ghiaurov, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.
  • Lyric FM - From Teatro Communale in Bologna, Verdi's Falstaff, with Ruggero Raimondi and Patricia Racette, conducted by James Conlon.
  • Radio Tre (RAI) - on its late-night Esercizi de Memoria series this weekend, on Saturday a 1952 Rome performance of Donizetti's Il Duca D'Alba, with Gian Giacomo Guelfi, Dario Caselli, Aldo Bertocci, Caterina Mancini, Amedeo Berdini, Nestore Catalani, Manfredi Ponz De Leon, conducted by Fernando Previtali; and on Sunday an October 1955 Turin performance of Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani, with Carlo Tagliabue, Mario Zorgniotti, Giuliano Ferrein, Mario Ortica, Boris Christoff, Anita Cerquetti, Miti Truccato Pace, Tommaso Soley, Walter Artioli, Cristiano Dalamangas and Sante Andreoli, conducted by Mario Rossi.
Happy listening