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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