Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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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