Monday, August 16, 2010

Nabucco at Zwingenberg

Sam Shirakawa took a side trip to the Zwingenberg Festival to catcha performance of Verdi's Nabucco. His review:

Zwingenberg Festival
13 August 2010 (Premiere)

Those Happy Few who take interest in opera and have sufficient resources, usually flock each summer to festivals at Bayreuth, Bregenz, Glyndebourne and Salzburg. Those Happier Few, who are bit more adventurous, seek out such lesser known and less expensive Festivals as Zwingenberg.

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

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hate to See you Go: Wolfgang Neumann’s Farewell

30 July 2008

 Remember Kurt Baum? Back in the day, Met regulars disliked him for no really good reason. He always performed adequately, nearly always sang adequately. He stepped in adequately for many ailing tenors and usually received adequate thanks for saving the show. Maybe adequacy was his problem; he was never, to my knowledge, just awful, and on the other hand few in the audience other than his nearest and dearest ever called him great.

Maybe that’s also been Wolfgang Neumann’s issue. You know him: he’s the Tenor Everybody Loves to Hate. And for the better part of his four-decade career (primarily as a Wagner tenor), a small but vociferous claque has followed him around just for the puerile joy of booing him.

Now, they’ll have to find someone else to push around: at age 65, Wolfgang Neumann is retiring from the stage. His Farewell performance took place on 30 July at Mannheim’s National Theater, where he has been a company member for most of a career that took him to the Four Corners, including stops at the Met (15 appearances), the State Operas of Vienna and Berlin, as well as Bayreuth, Barcelona, and Santiago. Unlike many veteran opera singers, who end their careers by whimpering bit parts, Neumann departed last month with a bang, taking on arguably the toughest role in his sizable repertoire, Siegfried in Götterdämmerung.

It was a riveting performance. Whether you like his voice or not (and many don’t), it has always been large and well produced, and on this occasion it accrued a mild sweetness in lyrical passages, specifically in the third act. Many louder passages in past performances at which I was present tended to degenerate into bellowing, but Neumann succeeded this time in rising to stentorian heights. He even managed to turn his irritating habit of approaching higher notes from beneath to frequently marvelous effect by hitting all of them, except one (the high C in the third act), with resplendent accuracy.

And for once, at least among the Neumann performances I’ve attended, his vocal characterization of the hero brought down through no real fault of his own, subsumed his humpty-dumpty appearance. In toto, the estate of Neumann’s voice showed no signs of a heldentenor on the threshold of retirement. I could name at least two of his younger colleagues in this Fach, who will never sing so convincingly.

Also making her final appearance as a regular member of the company: the American Caroline Whisnant, who has been the house hochdramatische soprano for the better part of a decade. She is leaving to freelance as of this coming season.

Whisnant continues to gather a growing following on the internet, as complimentary reviews and favorable word-of-mouth proliferate. Hers is a large voice -- not huge in the Schnaut-Mastilovic vein -- but it is tightly focused, intelligent sounding and musical. It does, however, turn wiry under heavy pressure. For her farewell as a company member, she cut loose with full rage in the second act, as her de-deified Brünnhilde mistakenly assumes that Siegfried has betrayed her. She maintained sufficient reserves to surmount the rigors of the Immolation Scene. But clearly affected by the finality of this event, she omitted “selig” in Brünnhilde’s last line, “Selig, grüßt dich dein Weib!”

The bitter-sweet circumstances of the event tended to obscure the significant contributions rendered by the rest of the cast: Rúni Brattaberg as a mean Hagen, Vladimir Baykov sounding effectively wimpy as Gunther, Cornelia Ptassek projecting vocal and physical glamor as Gutrune and the Third Norn, Heike Wessels as a distraught Waltraute as well as a worried Second Norn and Thomas Jesatko projecting limitless bile as Alberich. In fact, he never betrayed the slightest sign of fatigue, after singing Klingsor the night before in the first performance this season of Parsifal at Bayreuth and then traveling about 200 miles for his Alberich in Mannheim.

Edna Prochnik (First Norn), Marina Ivanova (Woglinde), Heike Theresa Terjung (Wellgunde) and the marvelous Yvonne Schiffelers (Flosshilde) formed a flawless group of Wagnerian Weather Girls.

Axel Kober led the house orchestra and men’s chorus with ever burgeoning confidence. He is a born Wagner conductor, and I always look eagerly forward to hearing the directions his instincts are taking him.

Martin Schüler’s modern-dress production makes a pointed reference to the World Trade Center as Walhalla is reduced to ash, but otherwise, Hans-Dieter Schaal’s post-modern sets could easily house nearly any opera, except maybe Die Frau ohne Schatten. This Ring production reportedly is being retired, so not two farewells but three.

Following the performance, the Mannheim National Theater’s general manager Regula Gerber appeared on stage to pay the departing artists duly earned thanks. Following the usual paeans and tributes, the sold-out house was invited to partake in a reception for Neumann and Whisnant in the theater’s spacious foyer. Imagine that happening at the Met...

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Running Around with Isolde (And a word on running around Europe this summer)

Deutsche Oper am Rhein
18 July Düsseldorf

If you’re familiar with the circumstances behind the composition of Tristan und Isolde, you know that Richard Wagner’s crush on a married lady named Mathilde Wesendonck became sublimated into the character of Isolde.

Is the opera, then, a fantasia on Ricky’s thing for Milly? Little doubt on the matter is left by Claus Guth’s new production for the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. Set and costume designer Christian Schmitt uses a revolving stage to display various parts of an opulent 19th century villa -- reminiscent if not an exact replica of the Wesendonck residence in Zurich, where Wagner and his first wife took refuge during much of his forced exile from Germany in the mid-1850s.

The first act begins in Isolde’s bedroom and spins into Tristan’s appartement where Brangäne seeks to force him into an interview with her mistress. The second act is set during a ball, where the lovers find each other during an elaborate quasi-gavotte choreographed by Volker Michl -- think the Ball Scene in Minnelli’s Madame Bovary, but in cut-two tempo -- and escape via turntable through hallways and ante-rooms to the banquet hall, where they ultimately feast upon their passion, yup, on the dining table.

The final act appears to start off in one of the neglected parts of the villa and ends up back in the dining hall, where Isolde ladles out her Liebestod.

Guth grants his spectators license to follow the lovers running literally in rings around the house, by keeping the revolving stage revolving -- sort of Last Year in Marienbad on a carousel. Leading one to speculate that Guth’s take-away is quite simply: Liebe makes the world go ‘round. But if the sets are meant to represent the Wesendonck Villa, how is running around in circles in the throes of drug-induced passion within the confines of a stately mansion distinguished from insanely perambulating someplace else? This summer’s reportedly hottest film, Inception, might offer a clue: extrude the nexus of the love dream by invading the dream and implanting a dream about the love dream -- uh, or something like that. Or maybe Mike Ryan could explain it better.

While Guth’s conceit doesn’t quite work, it manages to capture the attention and pursues the memory after the final curtain descends. And much of its effectiveness is owed to the redoubtable singers in the eponymous roles. Both Janice Baird and Ian Storey clearly bought into Guth’s concept, and they worked hard at keeping it from revolving into a marose marathon.

Storey is currently the Cinderella Boy of opera. He’s been making the rounds for at least 20 years, but few took notice of him until his debut two years ago as Tristan at La Scala. Through the magic of a live TV relay, thousands of people witnessed a star being born. Uploads to YouTube enabled millions of others to witness the birth again and again.

But Storey is no Susan Boyle in butch drag. While his coal-mining, up-from-the-North Country (he was born in Chilton, County Durham) background makes him a shoo-in for Britain’s Got Talent, his voice may not be instantly appealing. It is dark, smoky and, remarkably, devoid of perceptible gears between the middle and upper registers. It has both the plus and minus of reminding you here and there of some past and current Wagner tenors -- John Mitchinson, but less intense in the agonized passages of the third act; Robert Gambill, but darker below G; John Uhlenhopp, but smoother sounding above D flat. He sings and acts with unforced concentration and he’s among the taller Tristans of today. While the sound of his tenor is compelling, his Mad Scene in the third act, intimates little of the tortured longing the music demands. Nonetheless, Storey lives up to the hype that’s carried him star-ward; he is the real thing.

Janice Baird has been opera’s Cinderella-Before-the-Ball for decades, undeservedly so in my view. Even a superbly sung Isolde taken over from Deborah Voigt in mid-performance at the Met a few years ago failed to forge a breakthrough. Her Isolde in Düsseldorf, however, offered some clues to what may be holding her back. She tended to bully her outsize voice in louder passages and showed little inclination for singing below mezzo-forte where the notes threaten to rise above the staff. Still, she is a striking performer both vocally and visually, who merits more than un-sold-out houses.

Storey and Baird were surrounded by excellent support from principals, most of whom are new to me: Hans-Peter König as a commanding Marke, Annette Seiltgen as a brightly voiced Brangäne, and Oleg Bryjak as Kurvenal. Bryjak is one of the loudest Kurvenals I’ve ever heard and the ice in his delivery is hot. But he would do well to curb his proclivity for hectoring.

Axel Kober is among an ever-growing crop of up and coming younger German conductors. The maturing process is evident in every succeeding performance I hear him conduct. His flexible tempi in Düsseldorf gravitated toward the slow side, but taking his time enabled the house orchestra to breathe infrequently heard details into the ebb and flow that marks the basic pulse of the second act. Again, no program credit for the marvelous English horn soloist of the third act.


Now a few tips for those who may be Germany- or Europe-bound this summer:
  • No matter where you make a stop, your first task is to obtain public transportation tickets. Every city has some kind of offer for day-trippers, weekenders, etc. If you travel by German Rail, you can use your train ticket for local transportation for up to two hours after disembarking, providing you’re riding on Inter-City or Inter-City Express trains. The privilege is not offered on regional or suburban transport. Inspections are becoming more frequent, and ticket-less passengers are subject to hefty fines and passport-stamping.
  • Generally speaking, exchange rates are lousy right now, but they are always much worse at money-changing outlets in airports and train stations. If you have travelers cheques or use credit cards for withdrawing euros, look for a bank or a money machine operated by a specific bank. The Sparkasse consortium is your best bang for your buck, pound, florin, etc. Sparkasse money machines are available in most airports and German Rail main train stations and branches are rarely farther than a few minutes’ walk.
  • Eurailpass vs other discount travel programs. Eurailpass enables you to hop aboard any train at any time in any European country whose rail system honors it. You don’t need a reservation, but you may be unable to find a seat without one: Tuesday through Thursday is the best period for train travel. DO NOT use your Eurailpass unless you are making a long journey (Hamburg-Munich or Budapest-Amsterdam, for examples) or are making several trips of moderate distances within the course of one day. You should book separately for short trips or outings. Eurailpass is worthwhile if you’re traveling among three or more countries during your trip. Otherwise, check out the offers made by the rail systems of each country you are visiting. They could be cheaper and more flexible than Eurailpass. Remember also that if you start your journey, say, on Tuesday and arrive at your destination in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, you could be liable for two days’ worth of Eurailpass. One way to get around this is to try paying separately for the shorter part of the journey in advance or when the train conductor first asks for your ticket. Nearly all international and trans-nation travel passes must be obtained before you leave the country where you officially reside.
  • And here (in no special order of preference) are a few tips on eateries in Germany. They are “locals” and I doubt if you’ll find most of them in guidebooks. I recommend them because they are inexpensive or moderately priced, informal, and remain open for full meals until at least 22.45 hrs (10.45 pm):


Weissenburg Strasse 66
50670 Köln
Telefon: +49-221-7325580
U-Bahn: Reichensperger Platz
Excellent food (a mix of German, Italian, Spanish). Friendly and prompt service. The menu changes daily. Breakfast available 09.00-13.00 hrs.
Outdoor seating.

Neusser Strasse 14
50670 Köln
U-Bahn: Ebertplatz

Super home-cooked Italiana. Friendly service. Check out the Pasta Amatriciana. Specials always offer surprises.
Outdoor seating. Closed Sunday.
Neusser Strasse 40
50670 Köln
0221 726910
U-Bahn: Ebertplatz

Relatively small, typical “local” serving delicious German and Cologne-region cuisine. Best for lunch. Arrive by 21.40 hrs (09.40 pm) if you want a late meal.
Outdoor seating.
Zülpicher Straße 7
50674 Köln
0221 248852
U-Bahn: Zülpicher Platz
Fast and open late. Good Italian cooking, very reasonably priced. The place to go if you eat late (kitchen open until at least midnight every day). Located in the heart of a popular student neighborhood.
I have yet to find a truly cheap restaurant serving edible food in Munich, reputedly the most expensive city in Germany. I can recommend only one moderate-upper moderate priced restaurant, whose standards far exceed its tarifs:

Prinzregentenplatz 12
81675 München
089 455 0650 (reservations recommended)
The cuisine is Bavarian-based but with a light, nouvelle twist -- the menu is always surprising and the offerings are often inspiring. The restaurant operates only on evenings when a performance is taking place in the adjoining landmark Prinzregententheater -- an architectural masterpiece modeled after the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. The elegantly appointed restaurant is part of the Schubeck chain, whose flagship eatery is located near the Marienplatz. Take a good look at the Jugendstil furnishings as well as a breath-stopping ceiling in the Wintergarten that connects the restaurant to the theater. If your budget permits only one gastronomical splurge, go for Prinzipal.
Germany’s capital has some first-rank restaurants and legions of good ones. You can also dine quite reasonably in Marlene’s hometown, but there are only three eateries to which I habitually return, because they are moderately priced, close to where I usually stay, and their kitchens remain open late.

Oranienburger Strasse 7
10178 Berlin
030 282-8995
S-Bahn: Hackscher Markt
One of the first bistros that opened in the former Soviet sector following the fall of the Wall. Excellent food. The menu (German-Continental) changes daily, presided over by Marie Baumeister, whose standards have never slipped. The place is also considered a “scene,” but the friendly ambience doesn’t deserve the moniker.
Rosenthaler strasse 42
10178 Berlin
030 280 998 77
S-Bahn Hackscher Markt
Those who know, know that the intersection at which this Italian restaurant stands is The Center of Now Berlin. The menu varies little, but the offerings are excellent, especially the fresh Tuna fish and tomato salad. Save room for desert; the pana cotta is excellent.
Karl-Liebesknecht Strasse 13
10178 Berlin-Mitte
U and S-Bahn: Alexanderplatz
I’m always amazed at the high quality of the food here, given its size. The place is huge, sometimes noisy, but the service is hospitable (by Berlin standards anyway), and the Schweinehaxe is second to few. The extensive menu offers noshing as well as multi-course alternatives. Berlin, like New York, is always changing, but Brauhaus-Mitte remains a haven of constancy.

Finale ultima: a couple of thoughts on payment and tipping. Service is usually included on your restaurant bill, so tipping, while certainly recommended, is not absolutely obligatory. In bistros and no-star restaurants, 10 percent of the total after tax is a good rule to follow. For smaller bills in European Union countries, rounding out to the nearest 50 cent/Euro is a convenient solution. You should increase your tip, if you linger over coffee and desert. The longer you stay, the bigger the tip. Above all, pay the entire bill -- tip included -- when the server presents the check. Simply state the full amount you’re paying as you hand over your money. Never leave gratuities on the table as you leave. Which also reminds me, many restaurants, especially in off-the-beaten-track areas do not accept credit cards, so make sure you know how you’re expected to pay before you sit down.

© Sam H. Shirakawa