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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