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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