Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tristan via Monorail

Sam is on to Wuppertal to see yet another Tristan und Isolde:

24 MAY 2007

Wuppertal has a brand new opera house. Well, almost brand new. The theater building underwent a major overhaul during the past several years at the cost of a gazillion euros and re-opened last autumn. The renovations have produced a brightly lit creme and gold auditorium of about 800 seats, distributed over the progressively widening parquet and two steeply raked balconies. All price ranges have democratized views of the stage.

The acoustical characteristics struck me as typical of newly constructed spaces meant for music: generous reverb and rapid response from top range to bottom. The litmus test, though, is whether the acoustics amplify the singers over a large orchestra. Few works are better suited to providing the tough questions than Tristan und Isolde, which I heard this past Sunday. The house passed the test admirably, at least from my seat in a box at the side of the first balcony: The voices thrust forward over the pit, even when the orchestra was going full-tilt. The ambiance, though, tends to favor male singers.

The acoustical qualities of the house came into sharp relief for me, as I was listening to Marion Amman as Isolde. A couple of weeks ago, I heard her in the same role in Cologne, where she simply sounded better -- bigger, brighter, a more varied timbre in the upper middle register -- aural peculiarities that have nothing to do with how she was singing, which was superbly. Amman is a singer to be reckoned with no matter where she performs.

The acoustical quirks of the house were especially unkind to Anette Bod, whose Brangäne seemed acidic at the bottom and shrewish at the top. Her dark mezzo has size, and she has abundant musicality going for her, but her sound in Wuppertal struck me as hectoring rather than heartening. Maybe elsewhere...

On the other hand, the acoustics seemed to caress John Uelenhopp's unhappy Tristan. His is not the most beautiful voice you're likely to encounter in the role, but it projects boldly under pressure, retains its virility in soft passages and, most importantly on Sunday, did not tire in the fevered throes of Tristan's third act mad scene.

Kay Stieferman as Kurvenal also benefited from the ambiance. His baritone is a powerful engine that also yields rich subtleties, though the lower end of his range has yet to come fully into its own.

As King Marke, Gregory Reinhart delivered a compelling oration in the second act.

The backstage area has undergone a complete update too, but producer Gerd Leo Guck, who is also General Manager, apparently decided to abjure a splashy display of the theater's state-of-the-art technical facilities. Instead, his designer Roland Aeschlimann provided him with literally a blank page -- a series of stark black-white rectangular frames, one behind another. No hint of place, except from subtle lighting changes dominated by shades of blue. For some reason, the characters are dressed mostly in muted Japonaiserie costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. But in a jarring costume switch, Isolde shows up to bid Tristan farewell dressed in a black haute-DDR evening gown.

I don't get it. Are we meant to be in Cornwall, Kareol, Kanagawa or Karl-Marx-Stadt? But I also admit, that the production is attractive and doesn't get in the way of the music.

Speaking of which, the performance was delayed for nearly 40 minutes because conductor Toshiyuki Kamioki was caught in traffic. It's a miracle that the show got started at all, if he drove as slowly as he led parts of the first and second acts. As noted by one critic, who wrote enthusiastically about the premiere, Kamioki not merely conducted, but celebrated Tristan. That was obvious from the belated start. But if there's a line separating celebration from self-indulgence, Kamioki crossed it by a kilometer. The sluggishness that crept in during those doncha-just-love-it? passages didn't bother me as much as his stop-light running races to get to the next Big Moment. Oddly enough, though, he managed to create remarkable tension in some spots. But Kamioki reveals himself still in the formative stages of an interpretation-in-progress.

Absent a ragged entrance here and there, the orchestra played for him with polished verve.

Again, no program credit for the English horn soloist, who played with reedy passion. Can't the musician's union do something about such omissions?

And now a confession: the really really fun part of visiting Wuppertal for the first time, was discovering the monorail that took me four stops from the main train station to Adlerbrücke, where the opera house is located. The Schwebebahn runs through most of the city, hovering over the (river) Wupper for much of its eight-mile route. It was designed by Eugen Langen, known best for his part in developing the gas engine, and completed in 1901. It's the oldest monorail system in the world and is unique in Germany. It suffered massive damage during the Second World War, but it was hastily rebuilt and has operated almost continuously ever since. If your travel plans take you through the Ruhr area this summer, a stop in Wuppertal is well worth a detour, just to take a ride over the city on its Schwebebahn. The whole trip takes only a half hour and costs less than two dollars per person.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Or Am I Losing My. . . Head?

Sam Shirakawa has moved on to Lübeck, where he caught a performance of Salome:

22 MAY 2009

Lübeck is an amazing city. Quite apart from its fame as the birthplace of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, this quaint northern port city on the Baltic coast has had a lively cultural scene since the 18th century. The population numbers about 220,000, but the city maintains a calendar-crowded concert hall and a 900-seat Jugendstil theater completed in 1908, as well as several other spaces that serve as focal points for its musical and theatrical offerings. Conductors who cut their teeth here include Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hermann Abendroth and Christoph von Dohnányi.

To celebrate the centenary of its theater building, the game management is mounting several productions of operas and plays that relate to Thomas Mann's wide-ranging interests -- including Wagner's Ring and, in a cunning move, Richard Strauss' Salome, which I heard this past Saturday. Scheduling any Strauss work in this context is a shrewd move, because Mann apparently loathed Strauss, and the hostility was fully reciprocated.

Knowing that Mann disliked Strauss, I was hoping for a production that would reflect the Nobel laureate's enmity: ugly sets, hideous costumes, putrid orchestral playing, exaggerated vocal lines and something deliciously disgusting in the eminently spoof-able Final Scene. No such luck. If only the late and much lamented Charles Ludlam could rise from the grave, be brought to Mann's hometown, and do with Strauss' breakthrough opera what he did in New York with Wagner's Ring...!

As it turns out, Roman Brogli-Sacher, doing double-duty as conductor and stage director of Lübeck's Salome, has avoided opening old wounds between Strauss and Mann and seems intent on reflecting the city's well-known pragmatic values. Rightly so, perhaps. Lübeck remains much as it was in Mann's youth: a town of hard-working, thrifty, no-nonsense citizens, retaining the bourgeois values that inform Mann's novel Buddenbrooks. In fact, the building that housed the Manns' family business and became the inspiration for the setting of Buddenbrooks now houses a museum devoted to the Mann Brothers that is one of the town's must-visit attractions.

Swiss-Born Brogli-Sacher takes his cue for the production from the masterful color mixing and quasi-musical qualities of the large format painting by Paul Klee "Ad Parnassum." Small wonder. Klee was well known for inspiring musicians. Gunther Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee speaks for Klee as much as it does for Schuller. Steinway even produced a limited edition of grand pianos called "The Paul Klee Series" in 1938.

Designer Ulrike Radichevich in turn takes her cues from Klee's hues -- cool blue, musty grey and warm orange -- for her unit set and oriental-flavored costumes.

They work.

On the musical side, Brogli-Sacher has two advantages that are not necessarily available to conductors who attempt such a difficult work as Salome at so-called provincial houses: an excellent orchestra (especially the brass section) and a cast that's up for the task, right down to the Fifth Jew.

The major excitement generated by this production, for me at least, was Manuela Uhl in the title role. I heard her sensational Ricke in Franchetti's potboiler Germania a couple of years ago in Berlin, and I was eager to hear how she's sounding these days. The audience mumbled worriedly as a house spokesman -- possibly the General Manager himself -- appeared to say, that Uhl had just undergone an eye operation. More mumbling. Nonetheless, she would sing, he continued, but she might have to don sunglasses and possibly nurse her voice, should the rigors of singing irritate her retina. Grateful applause.

So how did Uhl sound? Sensational again, though understandably not in peak form. Not, at least, until that protracted Final Scene. While Uhl was running on four cylinders up to that point, she shifted into high gear, as she launched into "Ah, du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund Küssen lassen..." The impact of this well-known phrase may have sounded more powerful than might usually be expected because she had been husbanding her resources somewhat, but it was turbo-charged nonetheless. Uhl's unpremeditated sexual allure and commanding stage presence converged in her voice as she revelled in Salome's mortifying triumph -- her mulberry middle
register opening out with steely pinions as it ascended fearlessly beyond the staff. Helga Pilarczyk came to mind, but Uhl grew more intense at these heights than my recollections of Pilarczyk in this scene.

Even the unplanned designer shades worked. After all, wasn't Salome the Original Jewish Princess?

Antonio Yang as Jochanaan articulated disdain and impending doom with every note. His acting needs some Stella Adler, but the turbulence driving his voice intimates the devouring potential of Scylla in his bass, and the gale-force promise of Charybdis in his baritone. Yang is yet another South Korean on the threshold of a major career. Is it the water that's producing such a bumper crop of South Korean F-clef singers of late?

The surprise finds of this performance, though, were the Herod of Matthias Grätzel and the Herodias of Roswitha C. Müller, who both appear regularly in Lübeck. Grätzel is apparently concentrating on developing character roles, but he may want to consider upgrading to major parts: This was the first time, I've heard Herod sung as though it was Tannhäuser. Müller has a lush, ear-rattling mezzo that has both a snifter of madeira and a smattering of Jean Madeira. Thrilling.

Daniel Szeili's Narraboth displayed a resplendent tenor that could, at this stage of his burgeoning career, go in several directions. He reportedly is already a masterful Tamino, but his Narraboth reveals a glimmer of Faust.

To experience Salome in a relatively small theater is always a treat. To have heard it sung with such ample voices and no-holds-barred orchestral playing under a bolt heaving conductor was like attending a rock concert.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Springtime for Hitler and Berlin

Sam Shirakawa was there for the opening night of The Producers in Berlin. Here's his squib:

Berlin Premiere
17 May 2009
See some video clips

Adolf Hitler returned to conquer Germany this past Sunday... in Mel Brook's The Producers.

It took about eight years to bring the smash Broadway hit musical to Germany, but both critics and glitterati attending the gala premiere at the Admiralspalast -- one of Hitler's favorite theaters -- agreed that it was worth the wait.

Security was extra tight. Any show or film dealing with the Third Reich arouses Angst among Germans. It's unlawful to display the Nazi flag in public, and even pretzels replacing swastikas on banners outside the theater have regularly prompted complaints to the police. But once the crowd filed past the flanks of paparazzi, TV reporters and their crews to settle into their seats, everybody seemed prepared for a Happening.

And a Happening it was. But don't get the wrong impression: at no point did the audience lapse into jaw-gaping, freeze-frame paralysis at what was happening on stage -- possibly the most hilarious moment of the 1968 film. Just uncomfortable silence here and there, when a gag fell short of its mark. But I'll come back to this shortly. First, a little mood-setting.

Mel Brooks had been invited to attend the premiere, but even the lure of receiving the prestigious Ernst Lubitsch Award before the Opening Night crowd failed to draw him away from California. Accepting the award in his place, his long-time collaborator and co-producer Thomas Meehan mumbled perfunctory excuses for Brooks' absence but said in clearly enunciated German, "Sie haben Mel Brooks sehr glücklich gemacht" (You have made Mel Brooks very happy). So the hype, tone and presentation of this event was designed to celebrate Brooks' achievements and revel in his musical. And celebrate and revel they did.

Since many among the glamorous first-nighters appeared to be Broadway-savvy or familiar with Brooks's aforementioned 1968 film classic on which the musical is based, they responded in most of the right places to Philipp Blom's mostly superb German translation of the gags and lyrics -- frequently with that gravelly show-biz-insider guffaw that sounds infectiously the same in any language. What is more important: they got the point of the plot from the very outset. As Frederik Hanssen of Der Tagesspiegel put it, The show is neither about Hitler nor the Nazis, "it's about turning shit into gold."

And truly golden was the cast headed by Cornelius Obonya and Andreas Bieber as Max and Leo. No vestige of Zero Mostel, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick in either of them, thank goodness. They go their own way. But. Both Obonya and Bieber are more accomplished hoofers than Lane and Broderick, and that cuts several ways -- Lane and Broderick had kind of a double left shoe clunkiness that made their terpsichoric efforts all the more endearing, while Obonya and Bieber make their mark by "selling it" all the way. Different folks, different strokes. Terrific all the same.

The posters of the show reveal Bettina Mönch in a semi-reclining position, as the undulating Ulla Inga tor Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson. When she's standing up anywhere on stage, though, her legs are even longer than her character's name. Mönch's voice at full blast also goes right through the roof. She's every bit as impacting in every Fach as the irresistible Cady Huffman was on Broadway, and she is far more alluring than the otherwise wonderful Uma Thurman was in the film of the musical. (Don't get me going on the dreadful 2005 film.)

Now a word about Martin Sommerlatte, as Roger DeBris, the drag queen director of Max and Leo's sure-fire would-be flop. The saga of how the musical took form has it, that Mel Brooks created a whole new section for the original Broadway DeBris, Gary Beach, while he was rehearsing the "Springtime for Hitler" extravaganza. Brooks overheard Beach doing a Judy Garland impression, and Brooks' brain waves went into over-drive. The result was a pastiche/tribute to Judy at the Palace. Sommerlatte as the Teutonic DeBris was hugely effective up to this point in the show on opening night, but it became clear to me that he was not doing Judy Garland. Had it only been Dietrich! If it was Marlene, ya cudda fooled me. Possibly another German-speaking icon -- maybe Claire Waldorf or Zarah Leander or Lilian Harvey? Net-net: Sommerlatte should be imitating somebody in this sequence, and there are plenty of legends -- German and otherwise -- that would work. Nonetheless, the audience scooped him up as though he were freshly churned Schlagsahne.

Herbert Steinböck nearly stole the show as Franz, the alt-Nazi turned author, as he stomped and mummered his way through the hilarious translation of "Haben Sie gehört die deutsche Band?" He would have been even more side-splitting, had he played the Hitler-wannabe with a puerile Austrian accent. A missed opportunity that should be corrected.

Some of the wit, as I said earlier, didn't quite make it around the language barrier. As one reader of the New York Times duly commented, "Be a smarty, come and join the Nazi Party" was translated into something like "Sei kein Barzi/komm zu uns und werde Nazi," or: "Don't be a Bavarian boor, become a Nazi." Huh? "Barzi" is a deprecating slang term for Bavarian and it's neither funny, as the Times reader rightly noted, nor, in my view, appropriate in this context: Weren't the Bavarians Hitler's first and biggest supporters? The line would be both accurate AND acerbic if it went: "sei ein Barzi..." or "Be a (dumb) Barzi, and join the Nazis." But acerbic is also not what the show is about.

What HAS translated well is Nigel West's production -- pretty much the same as Susan Strohman's slick, fast-paced, and often exhilarating original. Leigh Constantine has all but cloned Strohman's choreography, except for an amendment here and there. The bevy of chorus girls in Leo's "I wanna be a producer" number emerge from filing cabinets, but they file off up stage, as the accounting office set splits apart. If I recall the original correctly, they receded back into their filing cabinets, which gave the number one last poignant gesture.

The Producers is set to run through July at the Admiralspalast in Berlin's hotsy-totsy Friedrich Strasse. The theater was often frequented by Hilter. A special box he had installed was only recently removed. The Berlin edition of the show has been dubbed an unqualified critical success, but wags on both sides of the Atlantic are making bets on whether it will be a box office hit. When this production was originally mounted in Vienna, it was hardly a smash. Small wonder. A musical spoofing native Austrian Adolf as a sissy? I don't think so. Certainly not after decades of hard slogging, trying to market Hitler as a German and Beethoven as an Austrian.

But Berlin's public during the Third Reich was never nearly as adoring of the Führer, and theater regulars in the German capital today may well cotton to a show that has its true origins in the wry Jewish humor that flourished in Berlin for decades before the diaspora. Frederik Hanssen of Der Tagespiegel, in fact, all but hailed The Producers as a dazzling precipitate of that bygone age, that Germans today can at best only import.

The Producers in German is by no means going to turn the grimmest page in Germany's history, but it does bring back a cynical, crude, hilarious and curiously humane view of life to the city it once called home.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Monday, May 18, 2009

More Than Glamor?

Sam has moved on to Berlin where he caught Jonas Kaufmann's Cavaradossi:

Deutsche Oper Berlin
16 May 2009

Germany now has a star tenor and he's getting the star treatment: Photographs on music magazine covers, and billboards, shallow interviews, plus a High-C contract to be the bedroom eyes behind the wheel of BMW.

His name, by the bye, is Jonas Kaufmann.

A sold-out celeb-strewn crowd flocked to the Deutsche Oper in Berlin to hear him as Cavaradossi this past Saturday. The assembled Prussians, many dressed to the tens, gave him a hero's welcome, even though he's a native Bavarian. Nobody's perfect.

It would have been His Night, if it hadn't been for the Tosca -- Nadja Michael -- and the Scarpia -- Ruggero Raimondi, both of whom were willing to share the stage with Kaufmann but not concede it to him.

In fact, Raimondi received the biggest hand at the final curtain calls -- and with good reason. It was he who gave the most involved portrayal of the evening. What a pleasure to find that some opera singers are as good if not better than they ever were. While Tito Gobbi's Scarpia often left the impression of a sadistic bureaucrat, Raimondi, who made his Met debut in 1974, delivered an object lesson in implied, unspeakable malevolence.

Nadja Michael reportedly is no favorite among rear rung regulars at the Deutsche Oper, but she managed to keep the usual booing at bay at this performance. Hers is a huge but wieldy voice, capable of dynamic swings that sound inevitable rather than interpolated: an especially effective "Vissi d'arte."

Which brings me to swingin', I mean, singing Kaufmann. No doubt: he has more than glamor -- He manifests intelligence and imagination. His large, dark tenor is already casting a shadow toward late Verdi and, of course, the W word. In fact, he's set for Lohengrin at the Munich Festival this July. But for me on Saturday night, he also cast a shadow on his musical taste -- milking alargandi nearly to the point of full stop -- crooooooning "O dolci mani..." with enough syrup to induce sugar shock. Bitte, nicht so schleppend, Lieber Jonas!

It's not clear if veteran conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi -- who is new to me -- had a hand in the liberties Kaufmann took. Even though he received some catcalls, no one could deny that Morandi steered the orchestra effectively, while eliciting some details that I've seen in the score, but rarely have heard.

The production by Boleslaw Barlog dates from 1969. Like Barlog himself, who is now in his 90s, it shows no signs of wear.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Live Offerings - Saturday, May 16, 2009

Several interesting offerings for this afternoon and evening: Chief among them the Tales of Hoffmann from Covent Garden with Rolando Villazon . . . several repeats of Met broadcasts from this past season, including (from Down Under) two installments of the Met's Matinee Ring Cycle . . . Here's the complete live lineup:

  • LRT Klasika - A repeat broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, with Angela Gheorghiu, Marcello Giordani, Franco Vassallo and Simone Alaimo, conducted by Maurizio Bernini.
  • BBC Radio 3 - From the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, with Rolando Villazon, Kristine Jepson, Gidon Saks, Ekaterina Lekhina, Christine Rice, Katie Van Kooten, Gaynor Keeble, Matthew Rose, Graham Clark, Lynton Black, Robin Leggate, Kostas Smoriginas, Olga Sabadoch, Changhan Lim and Ji-Min Park, conducted by Antonio Pappano.
  • CBC Two & Espace 2 - From the Gottingen Festival, a May 2008 performance of Mendelssohn's arrangement of Handel's Acis and Galatea, with Julia Kleitner, Christoph Prégardien, Wolf Matthias Friedrich, and Michael Slattery, conducted by Nicholas McGegan.
  • Cesky Rozhlas 3-Vltava - From Amsterdam, Cavalli's Ercole amante, with Luca Pisaroni, Anna Bonitatibus, Jeremy Ovenden, Anna Maria Panzarella, Marlin Miller, Umberto Chiummo, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Johanette Zomer, Mark Tucker and Tim Meadconducted by Ivor Bolton.
  • Deutschlandradio Kultur - From Opera Kiel, a may 2 performance of Dupont's Antar, with Daniel Magdal, Tomohiro Takada, Kemal Yasar, Fred Hoffmann, Hans Georg Ahrens, Susan Gouthro, Merja Mäkelä, Svenja Liebrecht and Sen Acar, conducted by Georg Fritzsch.
  • France Musique - From Teatro Real de Madrid,an April 25 concert performance of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, with Kobie van Rensburg, Christine Rice,
  • Cyril Auvity, Joseph Cornwell, Umberto Chiummo, Ed Lyon, Robert Burt, Luigi de Donato, Claire Debono, Marina Rodriguez-Cusi, Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, Sonya Yoncheva and Terry Way, conducted by William Christie.
  • Radio 4 Netherlands - From Deutsche Oper Berlin, Respighi's Marie Victoire, with Takesha Meshé Kizart, Markus Brück, German Villar and Jaco Huijpen, conducted by Michael Jurowski.
  • Radio Clasica de Espana - From Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, a March 17, 2009 performance of Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide, with K. Stoyanova, E. Gubanova, A. Tikhomirov, A. Klemberg, M. Cassi, M. Kuzmin-Karavaev, C. García-Ruiz, B. Díaz, A. Ruffini, S. Allegretta, M. Nikolich, M. Tarone, F. Marsiglia and M. Moretto, conducted by Riccardo Muti.
  • WETA & Radio Oesterreich International - From the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersberg, Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov, with Alexei Taovitski, Irina Mataeva, Nikolai Gassiev, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Yuri Vorobyev, Mikhail Vishnyak and Varvara Solovyeva, conducted by Valery Gergiev.
  • WFMT Opera Series (on numerous stations) - From Lyric Opera of Chicago, Berg's Lulu, with Marlis Petersen, Wolfgang Schöne, Jill Grove, William Burden and Thomas Hammons, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.
  • Bartok Radio - From Montreal, Canafa, a November 13, 2008 performance of Bizet's Pearl Fishers, with Karina Gauvin, Antonio Figueroa, Alexandre Sylvestre and Phillip Addis, conducted by Frédéric Chaslin.
  • NPR World of Opera - From Teatro Carlo Felici in Genoa, a performance of Rossini's Il Torco in Italia, with Antonella Nappa, Vincenzo Taormina, Myrto Papatanasiu, Bruno De Simone, Antonino Siragusa, Simone Alaimo and Federico Lebre, conducted by Jonathan Webb.
  • NPR Klassisk & NRK P2 - From Theater an der Wien, Handel's Partenope, with Christine Schäfer, Kurt Streit, David Daniels, Patricia Bardon, Florian Boesch, and Matthias Rexroth, conducted by Christophe Rousset.
  • Latvia Radio Klasika - From the Latvian National Opera, Mozart's Don Giovanni, with Inga Kalna, Asmika Grigorjana, Pa-vels C(ernohs, condcuted by Julian Reynolds.
  • Sveriges Radio P2 - From Kungliga Operan, Stockholm,a performance of Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame, with Stefan Dahlberg, Marcus Jupither, Jesper Taube, Ulrik Qvale, Lennart Forsén, Magnus Kyhle, Michael Schmidberger, Ingrid Tobiasson, Hillevi Martinpelto, Karolina Blixt, Marianne Eklöf, Hedvig Jalhed and Magnus Kyhle, conducted by Christian Badea.
  • WDAV - NPR Worlf of Opera (on a one week delay): From Flemish Opera, Antwerp, Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa, with Nikolai Putilin, Leandra Overmann, Sergei Aleksashkin, Alexia Voulgaridou, Viktor Lutsiuk and Milcho Borovinov, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski.
  • KING - From Lyric Opera of Chicago, a double bill: Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, with Carlo Ventre, Dolora Zajick and Mark Delavan; and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, with Vladimir Galouzine, Ana María Martínez, Christopher Feigum and Mark Delavan.
  • Concert FM (New Zealand) - From the Metropolitan Opera, Wagner's Die Walküre, with Iréne Theorin, Waltraud Meier, Yvonne Naef, Johan Botha, James Morris and John Tomlinson, conducted by James Levin.
  • ABC Classic FM (Australia) - From the Metropolitan opera, Wagner's Götterdämmerung, with Christian Franz, Iain Paterson, Richard Paul Fink, John Tomlinson, Katarina Dalayman, Margaret Jane Wray, Yvonne Naef, Wendy White, Elizabeth Bishop, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Lisette Oropesa, Kate Lindsey and Tamara Mumford, conducted by James Levine.

Happy listening . . . .


Friday, May 15, 2009


Sam revisited Samson et Dalila in Cologne:

13 MAY 2009

I couldn't resist returning for a second visit to the Cologne Opera's scandal-ridden new production of Samson et Dalila, on Wednesday night (13 May), even though I knew full well, like Samson himself, that yielding to such temptation could prove catastrophic. In my report on the premiere, I rehearsed the series of issues that led to two singers portraying Dalila. Net-net: last-minute substitute Ursula Hesse van den Steinen contracted a throat ailment, so she ended up miming the role, while Irena Mishura (who has portrayed the role at the Met) was flown in from Geneva to deliver Dalila from a bridge over the orchestra pit.

At the second performance, Ursula Hesse van den Steinen (is there a marquee anywhere wide enough for this name?) was supposed to mime and sing Dalila, but an announcement from the stage informed us, that she had not yet sufficiently recovered, so Ms. Mishura again did voice-over duty from stage-left. While I couldn't help looking over at the singing Dalila at the premiere, a big-haired woman blocked my view this time around, forcing me to keep my eyes on stage-center.

Several widely circulated opinions about the premiere expressed bewilderment at all the noise surrounding Tilman Knabe's violence-filled production. I fully agree. Truly offensive spectacles are readily available on the tube. What passed nearly unnoticed at the premiere but impressed me most at this performance was the dazzling erotic energy displayed by Ursuala Hesse van den Steinen and the horny High Priest of Eglis Silins in their scene that begins the second act. The heat coming off them as they circled an outsize bed, eyes locked in fervid foreplay: that kind of animal sensuality is found rarely in a live performing framework, much less at the opera. In addition to Ursula's gifts as singer (I've heard her before), -- her dime store negligee reveals a stacked body. Correspondingly, Eglis Silins moves his tall, slender and paunchless frame to and fro with gainly amble. So why, apart from unzipping his fly, does Knabe make him keep his clothes on?

The question is salient, because Ray M. Wade, Jr. as Samson does remove his trousers in the ensuing seduction scene, unfurling a mega-monumental midriff and thundering thighs that herald nothing short of a tsunami. This is a directorial decision that is far more shocking than any truly gross exhibition of violence that Knabe could have concocted. What is the frigging point? Is this well-nigh obscene spectacle of obesity a perverse hommage to Shirley Stoler in Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties? Is Knabe issuing a declaration of himself a chubby chaser? What is clear is that this scene is embarrassing, most specifically for Mr. Wade. This, at the very moment of his hard-won triumph in one of the most demanding roles in the Tenor Fach.

By the way, the singing was uniformly top drawer, and Enrico Delamboye's conducting compared favorably once more to vintage Gewurztraminer -- intense and piquant.

I'm still looking forward to experiencing Ursula multi-task. Meanwhile, I implore Knabe to let Ray keep his pants on.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Barber in the Bull Ring

Sam is still in Cologne - his latest squib is on the final performance of Barber of Seville of the season:

10 May 200

It was only a matter of time before an opera director would come up with the idea: Plop a new production of Rossini's Barber of Seville in the middle of a bullfighting arena. The time came two seasons ago at the Cologne Opera. A production team headed by Christan Schuller dumped the action into the bullring of a bisected stadium. Mini sets, placed on stage wagons of various sizes, rolled on and off by choristers and supernumeraries, gave the audience a notion of where the proceedings were actually taking place.

I don't know what kind of reception Schuller and company received at the premiere, but this past Sunday afternoon, an attentive, nearly full house of spectators responded enthusiastically to this season's final performance of the production's revival. Much of the enthusiasm focused on the cast, which dutifully went through the motions of the staging while focusing their efforts on fleshing out Rossini's delightful score.

She's not ideally suited to the role, but Regina Richter was vocally a cunning Rosina. She rattled off her flights of fioritura with ease and drew wit and irony from the outset with her "Una voce poco fa."

Richter had a versatile foil in Gerardo Garciacano's Figaro, who proved himself as equally at home with Rossini as he was comfortable with Mozart a few days earlier. Garciacano's partner in mischief at that performance of Cosi fan tutte, Benjamin Bruns, turned up again, this time as Almaviva and pursued the Count's amorous adventure with a secure, mellifluous line.

Maurizio Muraro turned out to be a sympathetic Bartolo, while Wilfried Staber turned Don Basilio's "La Calunnia" into a showcase of sonority. Enrico Delamboye returned to the pit on a short turnaround, following a nerve-wracking but successful evening on the podium at the premiere of the Cologne Opera's new Samson et Dalila. His way with Rossini could use a bit more zest, but maybe he and the excellent Gürzenich Orchestra were recovering from a bout of Saturday Night Vibe.

In fairness to the musicians as well as the performing artists, though, much of the sparkle was vitiated by Schuller's middle-brow Barber-in-the-Bullring concept, which he has not thought out clearly. If his view of the mise en scene makes Bartolo the ill-fated bull, as it perforce must, does Rosina embody his ears? Or tail? The concept is further muddied by Jens Killian's brown-dominant stadium and shlock house garments. And where are the blood-thirsty crowds? The stands remain empty for most of the proceedings.

There's a gaping hole here, that Schuller makes no apparent effort to close: Bullfighting rings are places for a blood sport that is tragic at its crux. Il Barbiere di Seviglia is bloody good fun and comedic to its core.

This Barber needs a haircut. And a makeover.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Do Me, Dalila!

Sam Shirakawa is still in Cologne, this time attending the premiere of Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila:
9 MAY 2009

I think it was Mae West who said, "Call me anything, just call me often."

The Cologne Opera has been called a lot of things -- and often -- over the past year. Scandal Number 69: After a variety of problems forced the premiere of its latest new production to be postponed by a week, the curtain finally went up on Camile Saint-Saen's Samson et Dalila before a sell-out crowd this past Saturday evening, 9 May. The time-line of the tempest runs like this (sort of): The originally cast Dalila dropped out about a week before the premiere was set to take place on 2 May, claiming the violent excesses of Tilman Knabe's production were distressing her to the point of indisposition. Her replacement, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (no, the name is NOT taken from The Producers), fell prey to a throat ailment, thereby increasing the suspense -- and the publicity. Meanwhile, a goodly number of chorus members called in sick, because of said production excesses.

Determined to go on with the show nomattawhat, the Cologne Opera management scraped together a quorum of choristers and hastily recruited Irena Mishura from Geneva to sing Dalila from the side of the stage with score in hand, while Ursula Hesse van den Steinen mimed the role.

Did it work? Mostly. In fact, as Mishura vocalized her sultry she-devil with the gratifying confidence of a seasoned courtesan, glancing over at her from time to time over the course of the intermission-less evening became a merciful respite. Here's why:

First of all, Samson et Dalila, apart from two top-o'-the-charts arias, is a third-rate opera by a fifth-rate composer; frequent distractions of almost any sort are a blessing. Second, Knabe's production is not dynamic enough to keep the attention focused on center-stage for the duration. Neither are Beatrix von Pilgrim's sets sufficiently eye-catching to hold undivided attention. Nor do Kathi Maurer's costumes -- including a ticki-tacky seduction outfit for Dalilah -- compel unconditional surrender. Nonetheless, I look forward to attending a future performance, in which Ursula Hesse van den Steinen juggles stage business and singing along with simulated shtupping. (Her Dalila turns two tricks -- the High Priest and Samson -- within a half hour and still comes up like she's humming for more!)The lip-sync compromise would have worked perfectly as a diversion, had it not been for the mesmerizing, nuanced Samson of American and long-time Cologne Opera member Ray M. Wade, Jr. Whenever he opened his mouth, all eyes and ears gravitated to him alone. Whenever I’ve heard him previously, he invariably essayed a large, disciplined, but dynamically invariable spinto tenor that hardly betrayed a trace of the Gallic heroism required by such a hefty role as Samson. Maybe he's been tutored under the care of an expert in la Style Français, or maybe he's just listened closely to recordings left us by the likes of Paul Franz and Emile Scaramberg -- or maybe both. Whatever. Ray purveyed the pay-off of his studies on Saturday night with stentorian passion and muscular grace. He's made a break-through with Samson, and intendants at international houses might do well to pay heed. This production, though, raises a serious issue, that could prevent Ray from attaining the heights he otherwise deserves. That matter I will discuss in discursive terms shortly.

Another worthy distraction took shape in the High Priest of Eglis Silins, whose virile, athletic vocalism matched his colleagues note for note. This lanky Lithuanian bass-baritone has an easy-going sensuality in both his singing and stage demeanor that renders him international star material. Why the stars have yet to align in his favor in a big way remains one of the mysteries of contemporary opera politics.

Nearly forgotten in the midst of all the hoo-ha: the idiomatic and fluidly paced conducting of Enrico Delamboye. He won a huge ovation from the audience at the curtain calls, as well as a round of floor stomping in the orchestra pit.

For all the outrage and external noise the production has aroused, the opening night crowd sat still through the scenes of amok-running on stage and, minus a boo here and there at the curtain calls, gave the production team a big hand. The magazine Das Bild has dubbed the event "brutally good."

Now a couple of thoughts about Tilman Knabe's production. He's updated the period from Biblical antiquity (11th century BC, I believe) to the current age, so muted machine gun fire replaces sabre-clunking. (It's not clear who the Philistine soldiers are supposed to be in this frame of reference.)

No matter.

The operative word in viewing the scenes depicting sex, mass rape and genocide is "simulation." Given the numbing glare of today's real-life prurience and violence on TV news, cable and the Internet, Knabe's simulations of human behavior at its ugliest strike me as anemic. If he knows what it's like to be in the midst of a combat zone, he is obviously at a loss to portray convincing tableaux of it. Much too tame, lieber Knabe! Give us some real violence on stage! Why not, for example, slay the uppity prima donna and rebellious choristers, five or six at each performance, and eviscerate them in full view of the audience? But even that seems old hat, given the plethora of snuff films floating around.

So here is where Knabe and other "artists" paint themselves into a corner, when they try exploiting gratuitous violence in the theater of our times. It's cold coffee. They might succeed in offending a few colleagues, but the shock-inured public is way ahead of them. On Saturday evening, some audience members, far from being outraged, were snickering dismissively. The only viable option left to stage directors who keep pushing the violence envelop is, in my view, to co-opt and advance the animation-driven, blood-drenched universe of certain best-selling video games: Out-grand Grand Theft Auto, by splashing mindless beheadings and such in blown-up detail beyond the limits of the proscenium arch. And go 4-D by dousing the audience with genuine cold blood. Do Next-Level Wannabes like Knabe, though, have the stomach for truly upsetting bourgeois audiences?

All of which is not to say, that Knabe's staging failed in inducing Aristotelian awe, pity and so on. Far from it. I cannot recall a moment throughout years of theatre-going, in which I felt so seized with grim amazement, as when Ray M. Wade, Jr., shucked his trousers to mount Ursula Hesse van den Steinen in the second act seduction scene, baring girth so gargantuan that it mocked Biblical proportions, flashing corpulence so awesome, that I wanted desperately to look away. But couldn't. Was it really socially responsible for Knabe to treat us to the breath-stopping harvest of Ray's evident penchant for massive consumption? Would Knabe have been so needlessly flesh-forward had he been directing Pavarotti?

But now, at least, I suspect I know the real reason why the originally cast Dalilah pulled out: she found the role too heavy.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Love’s Labours Belaboured

Sam Shirakawa was back in Cologne to catch a performance of Mozart's Cosí fan tutte:

7 May 2009

Having heard most of the Mozart’s stage works that I've attended performed in large international opera houses, I’m always struck by the pleasure I find in even a faulty production, whenever I hear it in theaters less cavernous than, say, the Met or Covent Garden. Mozart composed for the masses, but in small gatherings. The architecturally distinguished home of the Cologne Opera is hardly a hole-in-the-wall, but it’s just the right fit for the revival of Michael Hampe’s virtually fault-free, no-frills 2006 production of Cosí fan tutte.

He’s retained the locale – the Bay of Naples – but he’s moved the period from the 18th century to what looks like the 1930s, if his sets and Carlo Tomassi’s quietly elegant costumes are anything to go by. Despite a penchant for grey, their production still sparkles by leaving most of the pep-work to Mozart’s contrapuntal wit and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s cheerful irony.

The rest of the labors, of course, are carried out by Christopher Mould’s stylish conducting and a cohesive cast that’s drawn from company’s resident roster. Katharina Leye and Adriana Bastidas Gamboa as Fiordiligi and Dorabella respectively have just the right weight and agility to convey their weaknesses as characters, as they fall prey to their lovers’ scheme to test their constancy. Gerardi Garanciano’s Gugliemo and Benjamin Bruns’ Ferrando purvey more than enough charm to outshine the peculiar side of their characters: Have these guys nothing better to do than to embarrass their sweethearts? Werner van Machelen as the instigator of the plot Don Alfonso gives the winking impression that his bet against the ladies' fidelity is a guaranteed win. Claudia Rohrbach’s irresistable Despina consistently proves that a resourceful maid is always mistress to her mesdames.

It would be churlish to pick out arias and the way this singer or that one has with them in this performance. The artists work as a team, interacting and relating to one another in ways that you rarely find at international houses, where Grabbing the Spotlight is the name of the game. Which leaves me to wonder whether I'm getting the right point of all the delightful shenanigans the Mozart and da Ponte concoct: If all women are fickle, aren't men all the more fatuous for loving them no less?

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Aural Viagra (or Tristan Redux)

Sam went back to the Cologne Tristan to see if he could catch lightning in a bottle ... he claims to have captured "aural Viagra" instead:

8 May 2009

To discover a dream singer before the Great Unwashed is told what to think: It makes all those ho-hum hours of so-so opera-going worthwhile. There’s little else to compare with the thrill of hearing–-to name only a few--Regine Crespin, Jon Vickers, Marilyn Horne, Kiri te Kanawa, René Pape, Juan Diego Flórez before they became big stars. But to discover within a week not one but two turbojet singers who may be destined to join their ranks... that’s aural Viagra!

Recently I reported on finding mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova at the Cologne Opera, belting out what I called a “hair-raising” Brangäne. I could hardly believe it, so I returned a few days later to the succeeding performance of Tristan. She took a few dozen bars to really get with the program this time, but she nonetheless confronted me again with a voice that diddles the nerve-endings and invigorates those arcane longings that only a select few larynges can induce.

At this performance, a second discovery: Samuel Youn as Kurwenal. This South Korean bass-baritone, now in his mid-30s, was reportedly one of the few cast members who drew approval at the production’s much maligned premiere two months ago. (I have no doubt, that some readers may well be muttering: You’re only discovering him now? Catch up, Sam,– this guy’s already appeared at Bayreuth in Christoph Schlingensief’s production of Parsifal!. To which, I with abject contrition can only reply: Silly me, who could possibly forget that fabulous Second Knight on the radio four years ago...?)

Youn’s curriculum vitae shows that he’s been around and around, and he’s used his time profitably in honing his voice into a force to be reckoned with. It’s big, bright and it lingers in the ear -- a baritone with a distinctive vocal (and stage) profile. Unfortunately, Wagner gives Kurwenal only one real crack at taking command of the stage, but Youn made the most of it on this occasion in his third act duologue with Tristan.

The Cologne Opera has in Youn and Zhidkova a pair of powerhouse vocalists, and its beleaguered management should make sure it doesn't miss a golden opportunity to market their respective and combined merits. Here’s a proposal for the suits to consider: Cast Zhidkova as Dalilah in the current dropout-ridden new production of Samson, whose scandals are making it fodder for ridicule. Nobody will give a damn about the production if she’s on stage. (If she hasn’t learned the role yet, lock her in a rehearsal room with a coach or just have her sing it from the vocal score.) Mount Rigoletto and Il Tabarro for Youn. Recast Barbiere and revive Don Carlo for them both. Top line them in a Germany's Got Talent monster benefit concert. If you don’t do it now, somebody else soon will...

Two other noteworthy cast changes at this performance: Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter as Isolde and Mischa Schelomianski as King Mark. I first heard Schneider-Hofstetter as Minnie about seven years ago in Wiesbaden, when big plans for her were being hatched. A number of them have materialised. The voice has also grown in the interim – large enough to give Zhidkova a breath-baiting sprint for the money. Their first and second act exchanges raised the decibel level way into the red zone -- unusually exciting Can Belto -- more commonly heard on Pasta Nights. In its current estate, Hofstetter's soprano is evenly distributed and brightens metallically under pressure. She also possesses two pigments that complete the picture Gabriella Schnaut tried with variable success to paint: a pair of secure, well-placed and sustained high-Cs. (In fact, Gabi could manage neither top C convincingly, when she visited Cologne with Siegfried Jerusalem in Gunter Kramer's laser-lousy production a couple of years ago.)

If the audience applause level at the curtain calls was any indication, Schelomianski is a house favorite. He has a rich, compelling sound, but I would have welcomed a more plaintive articulation of King Mark’s self-pity.

Robert Gambill’s Tristan was in far better form that in his previous performance. His top, especially in the third act, seemed freer and more luminous than it was five days earlier. In fact, Gambill enacts the role more effectively than a couple of better known Tristans, who have appeared at the Met lately.

Some ragged entrances and intonation issues – an oboe was at one point markedly out of tune in the third act – diminished the otherwise grand sweep of the orchestral playing somewhat, but the Cologne Opera’s music director Markus Stenz maintained the impression he initially gave me of a master Wagner conductor well into the making.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Live Offerings - Saturday, May 9, 2009

Most offerings are now underway, as of 1:00PM EDT:

  • RTP Antena 2 - From Teatro Régio in Turin, a Jube 1987 performance of Rossini's Il Barbiere de Siviglia, with Luciana Serra, Nicoletta Curiel, Rockwell Blake, Bruno Pola, Alberto Carusi, Enzo Dara, Paolo Montarsolo and Aurelio Faedda, conducted by Bruno Campanella.
  • Dwojke Polskie Radio - From Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, a February 2nd pergormance of Berlioz' Béatrice et Bénédict, with Christophe Fel, Nicolas Cavallier, Nathalie Manfrino, Jean–François Lapointe, Joyce Di Donato, Charles Workman, Jean-Philippe Laffont and Elodie Méchain, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.
  • CBC Two - From Theatre an der Wien, a February performance of Handel's Partenope, with Christine Schäfer, Kurt Streit, and David Daniels, conducted by Christophe Rousset.
  • Deutschlandradio Kultur - From Stuttgart, a May 5th performance of Handel's Teseo, with Franco Fagioli, Jutta Böhnert, Helene Schneidermann, Kai Wessel, Olga Polyakova and Matthias Rexroth, conducted by Konrad Junghänel.
  • Espace Musique - From the Wexfor Festival, Rimsky-Korsakov's Snegurochka, with Darren Abrahams, Natela Nicoli, Krzystof Szumanski, Irina Samoylova, Thomas Goerz, Viktor Sawaley, Elena Gabouri, Katerina Jalovcova, Lina Tetruashvili and Igor Tarasov, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski.
  • France Musique - From the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, a November 3, 2008 performance of Rossini's Matilde di Shabran, with Alexandra Kurzak, Vesselina Karasova, Enkelejda Shkosa, Juan Diego Flores, Alfonso Antoniozzi, Mark Beesley, Marco Vinco, Carlo Lepore, Bryan Secombe, conducted by Carlo Rizzi.
  • Radio 4 Netherlands, Klara & Sveriges Radio P2 - From Waalse Opera, Auber's Fra Diavolo, with Sumi Jo, Doris Lamprecht, Kenneth Tarver and Marc Molo Mot, conducted by Giovanni Antonini.
  • WETA - From the Vienna State Opera, Verdi's Stiffelio, with Jose Cura, Hui He, Anthony Michels-Moore, Gergely Nemeti, Goran Simic, Peter Jelosits and Elisabeth Marin, conducted by Nicola Luisotti.
  • WFMT Opera Series (on numerous stations) - From Lyric Opera of Chicago, a double bill: Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, with Dolora Zajick, Vincenzo La Scola, Mark Delavan, Katherine Lerner and Judith Christin; and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, with Vladimir Galouzine, Ana Maria Martinez, Mark Delavan, Christopher Feigum and Keith Jameson, conducted by Renato Palumbo.
  • Bartok Radio - Gluck's Alceste, with Paul Groves, Anne Sofie von Otter, Dietrich Henschel, Yann Beuron, Joanne Lunn, Ludovic Tézier and Nicolas Testé, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.
  • NPR World of Opera - From Flemish Opera in Antwerp, Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa, with Nikolai Putilin, Leandra Overmann, Sergei Aleksashkin, Alexia Voulgaridou, Viktor Lutsiuk and Milcho Borovinov, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski.
  • NRK Klassisk & NRK P2 - From Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander, with Bryn Terfel, Hans Peter König, Anja Kampe, Torsten Kerl, Clare Shearer, and John Tessier, conducted by Marc Albrecht.
  • Radio Oesterreich International - From Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, a January 20th performance of Rossini's Il Turco in Italia, with Simone Alaimo, Bruno de Simone, Myrtò Papatanasiu, Antonio Siragusa, Vincenzo Taormina, Antonella Nappa and Federico Lepre, conducted by Jonathan Webb.

Starting about now:

  • Radio Clasica de Espana - From Deutsche oper Berlin, Respighi's Marie Victoire, with T. Meshé Kizart, M. Brück, G. Villar, J. Huijpen, J. Schümann, S. Pauly, J. Benzinger, G. Warren, N. Piccolomini, Y. Kang, M. Welschenbach, A. Jerkunica, P. Maus, A. Ashwin and H. W. Lee, conducted by M. Jurowski.
  • Latvia Radio Klasika - From the Vienna State Opera, a June 7, 2008 performance of Strauss's Capriccio, with Renee Fleming, Bo Skhovus, Adrians Erods, Franz Hawlata, Angelika Kirschlager, conducted by Philippe Jordan.
  • Radio Tre (RAI) - From Teatro Regio di Parma, Verdi's Rigoletto, with Leo Nucci, Nino Machaidze, Francesco Demuro, Marco Spotti, Stefanie Iranyi, Katarina Nikolic, Mario Buffoli, Roberto Tagliavini, Orazio Mori, Ezio Maria Tisi, Scilla Cristiano and Alessandro Bianchini, Massimo Zanetti.



Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A Lotta Night music

After Bremen, Sam went to Cologne to see their controversial new production of
Cologne Opera
3 MAY 2009

The once mighty Cologne Opera has been having a tough time of late. This season the company has met with much printed and public disapprobation. In the latest scandal, the premiere of a new Samson et Dalilah, set for 2 May, had to be postponed a week. The originally announced Dalilah quit, after finding the production -- reportedly redolent with violence and rape -- too distressing. Her replacement dropped out at the last minute, citing illness.

On the following afternoon, I arrived from Bremen, just in time to witness the specter of another roundly heckled new production on the boards of the opera house. Few, it seems, liked David Pountney's setting of Tristan und Isolde when it was unveiled back in March. Even fewer liked the principals. Not much could be done about the production, but several cast changes were effected, and the show has been going on with hastily engaged replacements. The performance I was now witnessing sort of amounted to a somewhat newer new production of Tristan.

Since I was not present at the premiere, comparisons are not just odious but impossible. Pountney certainly has his detractors, but I certainly have been subjected to productions of Tristan that struck me as far worse. The only substantive objection I have to Pountney's staging is its visual disconnect between the middle and outer acts. Designer Robert Israel sets the first act with a grey ship on a grey Irish Sea. The last act is set in a similarly grey-hued cemetery. The second act, however, looks like an outsize fun house you might find in the toy section of a department store-- bright colored slabs of geometric constructs, strewn about a slowly revolving turntable.

None of this bothered me in the slightest, because nearly everything else about this performance was so surprising, so bodacious!
Swiss soprano Marion Ammann was a last-minute replacement, but she looked, moved and above all sounded as though she had been the chosen Isolde all along. But be warned -- especially those awaiting the Second Coming of St. Birgit: Ammann is different and quite possibly a throwback to an earlier epoch. How such a solid but beautiful sound can emanate from such a slender, willowy torso is truly a wonder. And, ah, the sweet sorrow that informs her glance as her tall, tortured Isolde remembers how she became powerless to prevent herself from dropping the sword, as she tried to kill Tristan: simply haunting. Those who recently heard Irene Theorin at the Met might summon comparisons, but Ammann is warmer, more vulnerable: Germaine Lubin resurrected.

Ammann also had the good fortune of playing off American Robert Gambill, another replacement whose grandly nuanced Tristan sounded and acted as though weeks of rehearsal had come to satisfying fruition. Gambill is a Tamino-turned-Tristan, who I first heard as Siegmund about eight years ago. He looks like a leading man and moves graciously. His voice has heft and stamina, but it tends to recede as it ascends beyond F, which puts a clamp on the tone, where it ought to open out. Nonetheless, Gambill shows signs of neither wear nor tear, as he finds himself in what appears to be a golden period of his career.

Some years ago, when Soviet mezzo-soprano Elena Obratztova took the Free World by storm, I wondered (perversely) how she would sound as Brangäne. Now I know. But putting it this way does disservice to both Obratztova and a diminutive, Lolita-looking singer named Elena Zhidkova. How often can you describe a singer portraying Brangäne as "hair-raising?" As big-voiced as Amman and Gambill are, Zhidkova's is by far bigger and ballsier than you're likely ever to get without invoking Sigrid Onegin. And like Onegin, she is also capable of mystical subtlety, as evidenced in her exchanges with Ammann. So mind your backs ladies, and I mean YOU -- Olga, Ewa, Larissa, Magdalena et cie: this one's for real and her handlers are comin' straight atcha!

Thomas J. Meyer was a virile sounding Kurwenal, Gerardo Graciacano a malicious Melot and Alfred Reiter an unusually introspective King Marke.

The performance was ultimately made cohesive by the direction of Markus Stenz, the Cologne Opera's music chief, who induced the kind of orchestral tension that I have come to expect mostly from much older Wagner conductors. He shows the kind of innate understanding of this work, at which recordings under great conductors hint, but never teach. Too bad, he chose to perform it with standard cuts -- no Tag und Nacht, etc.

Whoever played the English horn solo (no program credit) in the third act was marvelous.

The takeaway: Forget about the noise surrounding this production. This performance ranks among the all-time top five of the 40-odd Tristans I have attended thus far. The other four? Don't ask.

© Sam Shirakawa

Tristan Production Photo courtesy of Opera Cologne (© Klaus Lefebvre)

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Wagner alla Romana

Sam Shirakawa will be in Europe for the next few months, reporting to us periodically on what he sees and hears.

Bremen 2 May 2009
video clips

You may know that Richard Wagner's breakout work was Rienzi, his third opera. It was supposed to have its premiere in 1840 in Paris, but Wagner had to get out of town because of his political activities. The first performance finally took place in Dresden in 1842. Despite its six-hour-plus duration (long even for Wagner), it was perhaps the composer's most frequently performed work during his lifetime. It's often said, that this opera is rarely produced these days, but that's not really the case. A partial list: The English National Opera staged it in 1983, the Komische Oper Berlin mounted it in 1992 and revived it in 1999, the Vienna State Opera put it up for Siegfried Jerusalem in 1998, Oper Leipzig produced it last year, and the Opera Orchestra of New York has presented it twice in concert form.

Wagner himself, of course, eventually found his breakout work to be an embarassment, and his heirs have yet to permit a production of it at Bayreuth--though certain family members have been agitating for mounting ALL of the composer's stage oeuvre at the composer's shrine.

One of those activist clan members is Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the Master and youngest child of Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson and recently retired Lord of the Sanctum Sanctorum. She, along with her half-sister Eva, is now co-director of the annual Festival at Bayreuth. This year she directed a production of it in Bremen, so I trekked all the way to this lovely Hanseatic city to attend its 13th and final performance this season.

The fascistic themes of the plot, based on a book by the 19th century English nobleman, writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton, may have emboldened Katharina to revisit those very leitmotifs that her family has sought assiduously to avoid since the end of World War II. The story revolves around Cola di Rienzi, a medieval Italian politician, who defeats a grim coterie of nobles in behalf of the populace. But the power Rienzi accrues goes to his head, and he ultimately is crushed by his erstwhile supporters.

In a simple stroke of theatrical brilliance, Katharina uses wigs to show how the trappings of power and the futility of vanity are inextricably related in the hero's ascent. Katharina's Rienzi is bald, but donning facsimiles of hair invigorates his political potency: the trendier the wig, the greater his power. She also arms Rienzi with a flame-throwing device that becomes a one-man instrument of annihilation. Katharina's designer Tilo Steffans places a huge faux-alabaster statue of a female deity on a stage-length set of steps. The statue ultimately devolves into a prurient cartoon poster, as the decadence that Rienzi causes turns the Glory that was Rome into a lascivious caricature of itself.

While Katharina's basic take on her great-grandfather's nascent work frequently provokes even as it amuses, it's hard to make out where she is leading us. Yes, power corrupts and ultimately destroys itself. But so what? Rienzi doesn't lose all his hair as he loses power. And yes, I am also aware of the commonplace wisdom that tells us that powerful friends can turn into deadly enemies. (A certain recently elected world leader is learning that sad fact.) Perhaps the point lies in those immoveable steps, spanning the stage. They remain unchanged through bloodbaths and debauchery- They also lead nowhere...

What strikes me as most fascinating about the work as a whole, though, is that Wagner is forced to articulate in a musical language that is not his own. You hear bits and chunks of Tannhäuser and Dutchman straining to burst out, but hardly a trace of Tristan, not to mention Parisfal. Wagner at this stage of his career must still speak through the tub-thumping, rum-ti-tum conventions of early 19th century Italian opera and the inflated gestures that animated Parisian Grand Opera of his time. To experience the eventual revolutionary composer of the Ring "putting out" for paltry approval is both unnverving and, at times, utterly delectable.

No less delectable in this production, which was performed with about half an hour worth of cuts -- not including the 40-minute ballet -- is the singing. Hats off to American heldentenor Mark Duffin in the killer title role. His big, beefy timbre never tires, as it bulldozes its way through page after page of stentorian declamation. While Duffin's tenor runs the risk of turning coarse if he sings like this too often, his musicality prevents it in this instance from taxing the ear.

As Rienzi's sister Irene, Duffin's fellow American Patricia Andress soared effortlessly above the staff, as her role evolved act by act into what might be described as Senta's step-sister. If Andress' professional ambitions are leaning toward Wagner, she already has at least one listener looking forward to her Brühnnhilde.

Why Wagner conceived of Irene's lover Adriano as a trouser-role remains a mystery for me, even though he tailored it for his favorite Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who created the role. But if singers like Tamara Klivadenko are assigned to it, I have no regrets. It's hard to say in which direction Klivadenko is leaning, but her bright and warm Adriano left me with the impression that her options are wide open.
The English National Opera staged it in 1983, the Komische Oper Berlin mounted it

Other standouts in the cast were Pavel Kudinov as Steffano Colonna, Loren Lang as Paolo Orsini and Franz Becker-Urban as Kardinal Raimondo.

Daniel Montané leading the Bremen Philharmonic and the Theater Bremen Chorus brought focus and clarity to a score that seems at times to ramble. Speaking of the orchestra, it never fails to astonish me how much superior the brass and woodwinds sound among so-called provincial pit orchestras in comparison to some of their counterparts in so-called "major" opera houses.

© Sam Shirakawa

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Monday, May 04, 2009

Selective Listening

Sam Shirakawa heard the Met's first Götterdämmerung of the season, but he didn't see it. He explains:

25 APRIL 2009 Season Premiere

Have you ever felt glad that you didn’t get into an opera performance you really wanted to attend?

Through quirks of fortune, I was unable get to the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance this season of Götterdämmerung--which happened to take place on last Saturday´s broadcast matinee. So I tuned in to the radio at home--late--just in time for the Brünnhilde-Siegfried Duet that caps off the Prologue.


In my recent report on the Met’s first Siegfried of the season, I said that Christian Franz in the eponymous role had learned to refrain from squawking out notes, an annoying proclivity that had marred his previous performances, when I had heard him elsewhere as Siegfried.

I spoke too soon.

Apart from barking out note-less words here, there, and a lot, Franz was also afflicted on this occasion with a nasty wobble that often straddled at least two semi-tones.
Incipient motion sickness I was beginning to experience from that wobble was little helped by Katerina Dalayman’s squally Brünnhilde. She hit the top C in the duet squarely on target, but her mid-size voice appeared to be laboring fruitlessly under the weight of the role.

What to do?

Listening via radio or computer allows you do other things at the same time or just tune out. So, I opted for the latter and went outside to enjoy a beautiful spring afternoon--pitying, from time to time, those sea-worthy Wagnerites consigned to stay afloat in their seats at the Met.

When I returned home, the live performance was over, but a delayed transmission of the third act was about to begin online by way of a European station [Editor: Ireland's Lyric FM]. The Rhine Maidens were in good shape. A good omen maybe? If it was, Franz’ pneumatic delivery of the Hunting Narrative fell short of it. Some tender moments, yes, but I nonetheless found myself craving Siegfried's demise.
The Funeral Music came as an ear-cleanser. Levine’s Spell held the Met Orchestra in thrall. Great playing.

The phone rang, so I didn’t hear much until Brünnhilde’s Big Moment.
Dalayman had the energy for her Immolation Scene but not the gravitas. Rarely have I been so grateful for Brünnhilde to catch fire; this is no role for a pleasant, pushed-up mezzo. Several years ago, I heard Dalayman as Lisa in Pique Dame in Munich, and she was wonderful. She should stick with roles in which she sounds wonderful.

Judging from snippets I heard, John Tomlinson as Hagen was a study in malevolence, Margaret Jane Wray was a good Gutrune and Iain Paterson, making his Met debut as Gunther, was a revelation--a singer on the threshold. Don’t be surprised if he soon becomes a star Amfortas, Dutchman, and, of course, Sachs.

I am told the Schenk/Schneider-Siemsen/Langenfass production is not being dismantled after this season. Is the Met hedging its bets on the new production of the Ring, set for 2010? No matter. If the news proves true: O tidings of comfort!

© Sam Shirakawa

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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Saturday, May 2, 2009 - Part 3

Yet more offerings, now at GMT 1800/EDT 2:00PM:

  • Bartok Radio - A second opportunity today to catch Violeta Urmana, again in Verdi, this time in Ballo in Maschera, where she is joined by Marcelo Alvarez and Ludovic Tezier; at the podium is Jesús López-Cobos.
  • Klara - Wagner's Lohengrin, with Robert Dean Smith, Janina Baechle and Camilla Nylund; Leif Segerstam conducts.
  • Radio Tre - Another Lohengrin, this one starring Zoran Todorovich, Marianne Cornetti, Martina Serafin and Sergei Leiferkus; under Günther Neuhold's baton.
  • Latvia Radio Klasika - Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila, starring Olga Borodina and Jose Cura, with Colin Davis conducting.

Happy listening . . . .


Saturday, May 2, 2009 - Part 2

Here are some more highlights from this crowded day, starting at GMT 1730/EDT 1:30PM:

  • France Musique - From Opéra Bastille, Verdi's Macbeth, starring Dimitris Tiliakos, Violeta Urmana and Ferruccio Furlanetto.
  • NPR World of Opera (on numerous stations) - From Vienna, Handel's Partenope, starring Christine Schaefer in a cast that also includes Kurt Streit and David Daniels; Christophe Rousset conducts.

Still more offerings coming up . . . . .


Saturday, May 2, 2009 - Part 1

With the ending of the Metropolitan Opera's radio season, a number of American stations are now abundant with varied offerings, from unusual historic recordings taken "live" during radio seasons of yesteryear to today's new productions from Chicago and elsewhere, featuring the stars of today and maybe tomorrow. WQXR offers Joan Sutherland and Fritz Wunderlich in the first flush of their success in Handel's Alcina . . . Bullock, Goerke, and Mishura headline WETA's Elektra . . . Chicago Opera launches its broadcast series with Dessay and J. Kaufmann in the Massenet Manon. Here are some few highlights from a very crowded day, all starting at GMT 1700/EDT 1:00PM:

  • DR P2 - From this past March at Covent Garden, Wagner's Flying Dutchman, starring Bryn Terfel, with Hans Peter König, Anja Kampe, Torsten Kerl, Clare Shearer and John Tessier, conducted by Marc Albrecht.
  • Radio Clasica de Espana - Nikolai Putilin stars in Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, his Mazeppa, under Maestro Jurowski.
  • VPR Classical - from the 2006 Salzburg Festival, Anna Netrebko and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo headline Mozart's Nozze di Figaro.
  • WETA - From Washington National Opera, Strauss's Elektra, starring Susan Bullock (Elektra), Christine Goerke (Chrysothemis), Irina Mishura (Clytaemnestra), Daniel Sumegi (Orestes), Alan Woodrow (Aegisthus); Heinz Fricke conducts.
  • Chicago Opera (on numerous stations) - Massenet's Manon: Manon: Natalie Dessay, Des Grieux: Jonas Kaufmann, Lescaut: Christopher Feigum, Count des Grieux: Raymond Aceto, Guillot: David Cangelosi, Bretigny: Jake Gardner; CONDUCTOR: Emmanuel Villaume.
  • WQXR - An historic landmark of yesteryear, the youthful Joan Sutherland and Fritz Wunderlich lead an archival performance of Handel's Alcina with a cast that also includes Nicola Monti; Ferdinand Leitner conducts.

More offerings to follow for later this afternoon . . . . .