Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hate to See you Go: Wolfgang Neumann’s Farewell

Götterdämmerung
Mannheim
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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