Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Being Bohemian

Picture, if you will, a student production of Puccini's La Boheme, staged as an opera within a documentary. Well, Sam Shirakawa was in Munich on June 17th for the premiere of just such a production. He reports:
PUCCINI: LA BOHEME
A production by
the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding, Munich

Premiere 17 June 2009


I usually anticipate attending student productions of operas with a mix of curiosity and dread. They bait curiosity because you never know if a future Caruso or Callas may be taking the stage. They arouse dread because there is nothing quite so dreadful as a vocally dreadful performance of an opera.

In recent years, though, I’ve found that student opera performances of opera are getting better. Professional preparatory academies seem to be turning out singers who appear more confident in knowing they have the right stuff. The tension arising from having a now-or-never opportunity to prove it endows their performances with that extra dollop of excitement that’s becoming increasingly rare at “big” opera houses.

That shared anxiety between performers and audience produced an especially exciting performance of La Boheme on 17 June at the Theater Academy of Bavaria August Everding (Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding) in Munich, primarily because the singing was so good. I frequently had to remind myself that these are students -- most of them around 30 years old and taking their vocal training at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München -- because they’re not merely ready for prime time, they are performing as though they are in prime time.

The Mimi, Myung-Joo Lee, from South Korea, is in full possession of a warm lyric soprano that opens out effortlessly above the staff. Her “Mi chiamamo Mimi” had a melancholy timbre reminiscent of Ileana Cotrubas. But she had her own way with the sad nostalgia reflected in “Donde lieta uschi...”

As her lover Rodolfo, Jun-Ho You, also from South Korea, displays a tightly focused lyric-spinto tenor, some of whose inflections remind me of Jussi Björling. His upper register is thrilling, but maintaining its bracing freshness is the challenge he and all those with similarly bright potential face.

American-born Vanessa Goikoetxea is a Musetta who is a born showgirl -- leggy and shamelessly flirtatious. Her middle and upper registers contain a fine resin that gives her voice an unusual personality. Her options are wide open.

Christian Ebert’s sonorous Marcello is a guy who can’t live with his Musetta, but can’t live without her either. His ample warm baritone points to Posa via Onegin. Nice sound. I wonder if he’s listened to Gerhard Hüsch....

Benjamin Appi and Tareq Nazmi are excellent respectively as Schaunard and Colline. The roles of Benoit and Alcindoro are so well characterized, that you need to check the program to realize that Thomas Stimmel sings both. Mauro Peter deserves a bigger part than Parpignol.

The cast has the good fortune of having a first-class professional orchestra in the pit, the Munich Radio Orchestra, under the steady guidance of Ulf Schirmer, whose stints include the Vienna State Opera and, beginning next season, Music Director of the Leipzig Opera.

Both singers and orchestra are blessed with the superior acoustics of the Prinzregententheater, which is the Akademie's own performing space. Small wonder. The house was completed in 1901 by architect Max Littman, who based his concept on the designs of Gottfried Semper and Otto Brückwald for Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. The acoustics of the "House on the Green Hill" are unique, but the

sonorities of the Prinzregenten Theater are thrillingly similar, especially after its recent renovations, which have also revitalized the Jugendstil decor in the access areas. It is a spectacular setting for any kind of performance. The building's interior is a must-see if you visit Munich -- but you must have a ticket for an event.

The singers also have a good deal more to do than sing. Balazs Kovalk's staging sets out to capture a slice of life through a documentary-in-the-making about bohemian life in modern-day Paris. The concept is relevant because Puccini’s music is the mother of all western film scores. (And how many shows have you seen that are shameless recycles of Boheme and Butterfly?) So the cast must not only enact the lives of starving Parisian artistes, but also enact those lives before multi-cams and crews. The audience can see portions of the taping on monitors and scrims and witness the difference between “Being and Seeming,” as a program note puts it -- or reality and appearance.

Theoretically it works: you get a behind-the-cameras look at Life In The Making. But I couldn’t help remembering what Wolfgang Wagner once told me, when I asked him why Leonard Bernstein never conducted at Bayreuth. “Bernstein insisted that his contract include a documentary on the rehearsals and preparations for the production,” he said. “I learned long ago, that when you allow film crews, everybody plays to the cameras. You lose the impact of what is LIVE. You can’t really rehearse for the performance.”

Indeed, the presence of a camera crew on stage vitiates the impact of the drama and tends to siphon off the impact of the music into a separate realm. There are simply too many people on stage in the love scene of the first act, for example, when only two of them -- the lovers -- really matter.

Bertolt Brecht might have loved this view of Boheme. Intentionally or inadvertently -- I can’t discern which -- Kovalik’s production gives new meaning to the term Brecht invented: Verfremdungseffekt, or, for want of a better translation, alienation. Brecht coined this term to force his audiences to pull back from emotional involvement in the plot and characters and to push them toward viewing the proceedings on stage critically.

The intervention of a video/film documentary crew within any setting, not to mention a love duet, rudely yanks everybody back from plugging into “reality.” But here is where Kovalik ups the ante: the shots the crew is recording -- close-ups, wide angles, pans, and so on -- are shown on monitors and mini-Imax screens, thereby thrusting the audience in the direction of yet another reality. Or the appearance of another reality.

Exploring levels of reality -- or the illusions of those realities within the framework of the stage as “the place devoted to articulating the conflicts between past and possible worlds, the dialogues between our perceptions of mundane experience and our desires” -- is at the root of the Akademie’s primary objectives under the guidance of Klaus Zehelein, who has been its president since 2006.

Zehelein was General Manager of Stuttgart’s State Opera for 15 seasons before he came to lead the Akademie. During his tenure, the Annual Survey of German Critics voted the Stuttgarter Staatsoper “Opera House of the Year” six times. He has accrued international recognition as both pedagogue and all-around man of the theater. When he decided to make a change, he received offers from several high-profile theaters including the Salzburg Festival and the Berlin State Opera. Zehelein declined them all, opting to take over the Akademie, one of Germany’s foremost teaching institutions for the performing arts. He explained at the time, that he wanted to do his part in securing the future of the performing arts by bringing young artists and technicians to the highest standards.

He also wants to further the cause of live theater as a forum. As he warns in the Welcome Page of the Academie website:
“If we abandon the stage, by consigning it to the compromises of mundane superficialities, we betray that part of our lives that constitutes an indispensable necessity for existence, which we risk losing beyond recall.
In times when the prospects of continued financial support for the performing arts look increasingly grim, Zehelein appears to be steering the Academie on a steady course. Hopes for his ability to enable the Academie to surmount the economic realities that are now threatening the arts everywhere may prove illusory. But his leadership through the challenges he now faces may well turn out to be exemplary, indeed the stuff of legend.

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Production photos © A. T. Schaefer

Revised 6/23/09 - 1:45PM EDT - added production photos; removed some theater photos.

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