Sunday, October 17, 2010

Matters of Passion

Sam Shirakawa weighs in on a new Meistersinger in Leipzig, the Passion Play in Omerammergau and the passing of Joan Sutherland, among other things:

Wagner: Die Meistersinger (New Production)
Leipzig 9 October 2010

This is a special year and a special time of year in Leipzig. October 2010 marks the 20th anniversary of Germany’s reunification, in which many of the city’s inhabitants played a key and perilous role, as well as the 50th birthday of Leipzig’s reconstructed opera house. On October 9th, the two milestones converged at the same time on Augustusplatz, the city’s enormous central square, situated between the Opera House and the main concert hall, which is named after its principal tenant the Gewandhaus Orchestra. At least 10 thousand people filled the square for a pop concert hosted by Leipzig’s mayor, while Oper Leipzig unfurled a new production of its most famous native composer’s festive opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg -- the work that inaugurated the building a half-century ago. The glittering audience included many present and former dignitaries and two members of Germany’s unofficial royal family: Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier. While an Oper Leipzig official's objections to the outdoor celebration led to her resignation, an accord between the Opera House and concert promoters resulted in an hour-long second intermission, which allowed the glitterati and others attending the performance to watch a chunk of the festivities in all their finery from the portico and upper terrace of the Opera House.

For such a joyous event, Jochen Biganzoli’s production was something of a downer. Which is not to say his view of Meistersinger is a letdown -- far from it. It is filled with fascinating interpolated incidents, such as Eva appearing to Beckmesser in a quasi-daydream in the third act and leading him to the poem on which the climax of the opera turns. No -- it’s Biganzoli’s view of Hans Sachs as a less-than tragic drunk that I found both unsettling and singularly depressing. Biganzoli’s Sachs starts bottoms-upping at breakfast, as is clearly demonstrated in the first half of the last act. What is not so clear, is whether the culminating Song Contest actually happens or takes place in Sachs' head as an episode of delirium tremens. In the midst of the choral finale, the elder statesman of song collapses and emergency medics rush in hastily to remove him on a stretcher.

Sachs’ alcoholic bent is no concept ornamentation. It is rooted, according to Biganzoli, in his ambiguous relationship with Eva, to whom he is seriously attracted, even as he addresses her as “my child.” His reference to the legend of Tristan and Isolde is more an admission of besotted resignation than of stoic abnegation.

But Sachs is not the only Nuremberger who imbibes. The apprentice David carries a flask from which he draws inspiration. Eva’s father Pogner is also strong on sauce.

In the hands of a less competent cast, such an edgy view of Wagner’s only comedy might falter. Fortunately, Leipzig is graced in having none less than Wolfgang Brendel portraying Hans Sachs. His is a masterful achievement -- retaining consummate dignity while endowing the text with layers of wondrous ambiguity through his peerless musicality. Of the 20 or so baritones I have heard in the role live, Brendel is the greatest by far. His voice has gained depth and an even broader spectrum of color since I first heard him at the Munich Festival in 1977 as a towering Onegin.

The young American soprano Meagen Miller triumphs over Heike Neugebauer’s ill-suited costumes to render a graceful and radiant Eva. Her compatriot James Moellenhoff portrays Pogner as a man as much concerned with the welfare of German culture as with the happiness of his daughter.

Dan Karlström’s David is a discovery. He is agile in both voice and movement -- his brief dance turn in the final act shows him to be an accomplished hoofer. This kind of versatility endows him with huge cross-over potential. Tuomas Pursio as Kothner is new to me and also a welcome surprise. I wouldn’t be surprised to find him somewhere as a first-rate Escamillo.

Some thoughts about Stefan Vinke (pronounced Fink-uh) as Walther. So far, I’ve heard him as Lohengrin, Rienzi, Siegmund and most recently as both Siegfrieds, and I’ve found him largely rave-worthy, especially as Siegfried. At the premiere of this Meistersinger, though, he seemed, out of sorts, even out of his depth. Walther is arguably the most demanding of Wagner’s tenor roles because its range of vocal color calls on everything a tenor has to offer. Admittedly, it’s Vinke's first crack at the role, and he has what it takes. But he is still grappling with integrating these demands into a cohesive portrayal.

Axel Kober's briskly paced reading never skims over lyrical moments, particularly in the second act, and he keeps the orchestral volume from competing with the vocalists. The Gewandhaus Orchestra consistently produces the kind of frisson-inducing sound more commonly heard at muse-inspired concerts.

Now a brief word about other matters:

What would have become of Richard Wagner without his foremost fan and patron King Ludwig of Bavaria? The question is academic, if not foolish, but the thought occurred to me several times during a couple of side trips I took a few weeks ago, while I was in Oberammergau, the village where The Passion Plays Festival has been performed roughly once every decade since 1634. Ludwig’s opulent main residence -- Linderhof -- is about a 25 minute drive away. Two of his fairy tale palaces -- Hohenschwanngau and Neuschwannstein can be reached in less than an hour from Oberammergau. Ludwig was so crazy about Wagner’s music (not to mention just crazy), that he even had a cave built at Linderhof with a grotto representing Venus’ grotto in Tannhäuser. Here, he produced private performances of Wagner’s works, complete with orchestra and chorus.

It’s not until you come to this grotto, that you gain some sense of the depths to which the obsession produced by Wagner’s music drove Ludwig. Few would dispute that Wagner’s works opened up a glimpse -- for better or worse -- into a new world, but the will to make that glimpse reality... does that not take the kind of conviction akin to religious fervor?
Back in Oberammergau, I experienced fervor of a kind I’ve never before undergone. I had sort of expected the Passion Plays to be a hokey affair -- a few grades above a parochial school production. I was hardly thunderstruck with Revelation, but I admit to being drawn almost unwillingly into the utter conviction with which the actors -- all amateurs and residents of the village -- played out this most-told-story. An acting teacher once told me, “You have to believe, regardless of whether you’re presenting or representing." And the essence of that believing was purveyed over nearly six hours (excluding a dinner break), enhanced with musical interludes by Rochus Dedler (1778-1882 !!). At least 40 percent of the sold-out audience was obviously non-German, and there was no simultaneous translation. But only a handful of the 4,700 people departed during either half of the performance.

The production was realistic, the sets and costumes were Renaissance-Biblical, and Christian Stückl of Munich's Volkstheater directed the cast of literally thousands with striking simplicity, letting the tragic proceedings unfold with ever mounting tension. I found it simply astonishing that a stage full of non-professionals could sustain the dramatic line over such a long period. Not even the incomparable Peter Brook could keep kindling the mimetic flame in his cast at the all-night performance of Mahabharata that I attended some years ago in Brooklyn.

During the break, I learned a bit about the live orchestra that plays below the auditorium. (Actually, I had mistakenly assumed that the music was canned.) I happened to stop by a souvenir shop to buy a few postcards, when a man in his early 40s came rushing into the shop. He came over to me and asked if he could help me with a purchase. I asked him why he was out of breath, and he replied that he had just come from the theater where he was a member of the orchestra. One of the shop clerks was off for the day, so he had to do double duty. With a little encouragement, he went on to say, he played the timpani in the 80-member orchestra. All the players, chorus and vocal soloists (with two exceptions) were non-professional and bona-fide residents of Oberammergau. It was clear from his lively cadences that he adored what he was doing, but he was glad too that the festival would soon be over. He also confirmed that over half of Oberammergau’s 5-thousand residents played a direct part in the production, onstage, behind the scenes, or in preparing costumes and sets. Men and children selected to appear in the plays are not allowed to have their hair shortened, starting three months before the first performance.

Why such an epic community effort that takes up over seven years of preparation each decade? Historians confirm that in 1633, the residents of the village were in the throes of pestillence, poverty and the 30 Years’ War. The villagers pledged to perform once every decade a play depicting the last days of Christ as a supplication to be delivered from their misery. The pestilence ceased the following year.

Absent one year -- 1940 -- the beginning of perhaps the worst pestilence in Germany’s history, the descendants of Oberammergau have kept their promise. You cannot begin to imagine what it’s like to come here and undergo such an experience. It won’t necessarily prove a Pauline epiphany -- it’s not meant to be -- but I’ll wager just Being There will not leave you unmoved. You have only a decade left to plan your trip, so get started.

Finally, the recent death of Joan Sutherland. When I first heard her in 1960 at a concert performance of La Sonnambula in Philadelphia, I was awed by the size of her voice, not to mention its agility. She sounded so indestructible! This was a different kind of passion being displayed, more akin to to the rush during big game sports. In all, I heard her about 25 times, and she always sounded the same: loud, limpid and in her way, lovely. For a singer specializing in vocal stunts, Joan seemed deliriously disaster-proof. Surely, I assumed, she would keep going forever. Maybe that’s why her death on 10 October at age 83 took me by surprise. But, to rephrase the tag-line from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, she’ll go on.

©Sam H. Shirakawa 

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