Nabucco at Zwingenberg
Sam Shirakawa took a side trip to the Zwingenberg Festival to catcha performance of Verdi's Nabucco. His review:
13 August 2010 (Premiere)
Zwingenberg? The name may ring a bell if you know a bit about Carl Maria von Weber. It is said that the wolf’s crag beneath Zwingenberg Castle inspired the like-named scene in Der Freischutz. Weber freaks still argue over the exact spot -- there are several crags beneath the castle -- where Weber supposedly met his muse. No matter. Whether you believe this story or not, the entire area -- replete with voluptuous foliage, towering trees and a babbling brook -- is breathtaking if not inspiring. German Romanticism, its manifold glories and its Grimm mysteries, repose in this haunting valley about 65 miles east of Heidelberg/Mannheim. The castle is perched atop a cliff at the edge of the Nekartal-Odenwald Nature Park and overlooks the Neckar. The edifice facing the river reportedly looks much as it did upon its completion in 1420. Unlike many such estates, it hasn't changed ownership since 1808, and somebody actually lives there now. Its current occupant is the Grand Duke Ludwig, Prince of Baden.
Every summer since 1983, a music festival, including concerts, staged operas and musicals, takes place in the courtyard of the castle. A simple shallow platform is erected on the yard's floor against a stone wall that rises about 100 feet to the castle’s ramparts. The orchestra takes up nearly half the stage area and remains virtually invisible, cloaked by a black scrim. The performers take their cues from video monitors set up on each side of the courtyard. No amplification is used, nor is it necessary. The various walls and sidings around the courtyard produce no acoustic miracles, but both performers and orchestra can be heard in a nicely balanced ambience.
The repertory invariably includes Der Freischutz. This year, Hello Dolly and Nabucco are also being mounted. I opted to attend Nabucco for my first-ever visit to Zwingenberg because it seemed like such a perverse choice: Verdian rum-ti-tumming echoing amok through the verdant vales of Weber’s Elysium, killer music making sadistic demands on the lead soprano, the principal baritone doomed to be struck by Biblical thunderbolt. And for a digestive: all sung in German! Yummy.
Had the singing been uniformly grand, Nabucco set against a dour late Gothic backdrop might have worked grandly. Sadly, only the distaff members of the cast really were up to their assignments.
I must confess, though, that I arrived ready to throw popcorn at any uppity soprano foolish enough or maybe impecunious enough to take on Abigaille, arguably the most lethal role Verdi created. Callas packed it in after only a few performances, Suliotis and Cerquetti were never the same after taking on the role, and both Leontyne Price and Sutherland reportedly heeded Rysanek’s advice and said, Maybe never. It's unclear whether the sorely underrated Leyla Gencer ever sang the entire role.
As it turned out, the young Swiss soprano Claudia Grundmann had a triumph. She comes to Abigaile while still cutting her teeth on such roles as Adele in Fledermaus and Constanza. Listen to chunks from any of her current performances on the internet, and few besides Max Bialystock would say with confidence, “That’s our Abigaille!” Hers is essentially a lyric voice with spinto proclivities, leavened with splashy coloratura and a dead-ringer top. But she also has a what appears to be a cavernous lower register into which she plunges with the fearlessness of a cliff diver. The size of her voice is hardly of Biblical proportions, but its ping has a high-voltage thrust. Unlike most of the Abigailles I’ve experienced, Grundmann rarely bears down on the voice. It soars effortlessly above her colleagues and the orchestra without rudely dominating. It’s Italianate singing in a way I never associated with the role. Such extra-musicality she could not have learned from her giga-name mentors, among whom: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac and Inge Borkh.
It’s temptingly morbid to speculate what territory such a vocal arsenal might invade, but let’s just wait and listen. In Grundmann’s line of pursuit there are, unfortunately, Waterloos everywhere, not all of them self-determined.
The other artist who prevailed thrillingly was Gundula Schneider as Fenena. I’ve heard her in Dortmund and in New York, and I have always contended that she is a mezzo to be reckoned with. Regrettably, Fenena is essentially a sing-along part and no extravagant showcase for Schneider’s significant talents, despite a heartfelt delivery of Fenena's short aria.
Somewhat regrettable, too, was the vocal standard evinced by the other cast members. Götz Seiz (Nabucco), Thomas Mehnert (Zacharias) and Max An, (Ismael) were okay, but there was little more than okay to take notice of. Eberhard Bendel (High Priest), Ralf Rachbauer (Abdallo) and Carmen Bender (Rachel) were note-perfect.
Jan Hoffmann led the Festival Orchestra in a well-rehearsed and idiomatic reading of Verdi’s early score. Despite some vagaries in rhythm, probably attributable to the placement of the orchestra at the rear of the stage platform, Hoffmann induced some exciting playing and elicited stirring responses from the chorus.
The staging is credited to Svenja Tiedt. Given the restricted playing area, there was little she could do beyond getting the performers on and off the stage without risking major collisions.
Choosing Nabucco for the Festival’s first foray into Verdi territory still strikes me as ill-considered. The setting is ideal for so many unusual and visually compatible stage works -- especially operetta rarities, say, Zeller’s Obersteiger, Fritz Kreisler’s Sissy or Johann Strauss’ first known stage work Ritter Pátzán... Wasted resources, it seems to me.
Nonetheless, Zwingenberg is one of those off-the-beaten-track phenomena that you won’t regret visiting. You can book your performance tickets online. The Festival continues through 22 August.
If Heidelberg is on your itinerary this summer, you can reach the castle by public transportation (about one and a quarter hours) or better, by car: Just follow the Neckar eastward and try not to be distracted by the drop-dead scenery. Take a break in any of the medieval towns along the way. I recommend Neckarsteinbach and Eberbach.
© Sam H. Shirakawa