Saturday, January 29, 2011

Linzer Forte

Sam Shirakawa recently caught performances of Die Meistersinger and Lakme in Linz:

(New Production)
Linz 16 January 2011

DELIBES : LAKME (New Production)
Linz 19 January 2011

Die Meistersinger has always been a source of ambivalent pride for Wagnerites and, since 1933, a profound embarrassment for cultivated German-speaking peoples. On the one hand, it constitutes, to paraphrase a British music critic, the grandest conception ever to seize the human imagination. On the other, it raises to the level of high art the chauvinism and racist rubbish that greased the deadly motors of National Socialism for twelve hideous years -- Abschaum that still finds best-selling resonance.

In the latest effort to save Richard Wagner from himself, though, the producer of a new production of Meistersinger in Linz has committed a capital crime among orthodox Wagnerites. Olivier Tambosi has altered parts of the text. The gravity of this “misdeed” is hardly diminished by being perpetrated in Austria, where Hitler was born, and in Linz (a reputed citadel of musical conservatism), where a special Führer-approved production of the opera was imported from Berlin in 1941.

Olivier Tambosi’s most radical changes take place in Hans Sachs’ final peroration of Act three. In place of the section that begins with:
zerfällt erst deutsches Volk und Reich,
in falscher wälscher Majestät
kein Fürst bald mehr sein Volk versteht,
und wälschen Dunst mit wälschem Tand
sie pflanzen uns in deutsches Land;
was deutsch und echt, wüsst' keiner mehr,
lebt's nicht in deutscher Meister Ehr'.
Drum sag' ich euch:
ehrt eure deutschen Meister!
Dann bannt ihr gute Geister;
und gebt ihr ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging' in Dunst
das heil'ge röm'sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich
die heil'ge deutsche Kunst!
Tambosi substitutes:
An Geist, an Wissen nicht mehr reich,
verarmt im Herzen und im Sinn,
gibt sich kein Mensch der Kunst mehr hin.
Mit seichtem Dunst und seichtem Tand
benügt man sich ringsum im Land.
Was Kunst uns gibt, wüsst’ keiner mehr,
Lebt’s nicht in wahrer Meister Ehr’.
Drum sag’ ich Euch,
Ehrt Eure wahren Meister,
dann bannt Ihr guter Geister!
Und gebt Ihr Ihrem Wirken Gunst,
zerging in Dunst
jedwedes ird’sche Reich,
uns bliebe gleich 
die ewig neue Kunst! 
 Or, in other words:
No longer rich in spirit or in wisdom, impoverished in heart and mind, people will forsake their devotion to art. People throughout our land will settle for shallow ephemera and frills. No one will understand the value of art; the nobility of the masters will disintegrate. So I say to you: venerate your true masters, invoke their noble spirits and honor their works, lest they fade from all earthly kingdoms, so that art may remain forever anew.
Gone are the obeisances to the Holy Roman Empire, the curtsies to matters German and the paranoid grumbling about evil foreign influences. For Tambosi master singing is about furthering the animus of art through love, not chauvinism.

In a program note, Tambosi is said to disavow any suggestion that his text changes should become standard. He has made them, according to the note, specifically and exclusively for the current production. He might have saved himself the trouble of forging an ersatz-text, by following the Metropolitan Opera’s procedure during the 1930s through the beginning of the post-war period: simply drop the troubling xenophobic lines. Or take his cue from Peter Konwitschny’s eyebrow-raising production in Hamburg some years ago, in which the music stopped momentarily to make room for an “impromptu” discussion of the nationalistic implications of Sachs’ speech. (I must admit, I found that discourse a bit hard to follow.)

Taken on their own terms, however, Tambosi’s changes work.

And those terms work primarily because he has a first-rate cast onstage and a master in his own right on the podium: Dennis Russell Davies -- Music Director of the Linz Opera.

Davies’ reading took a bit of adjustment for me, because I’ve never heard Meistersinger performed in such a small space -- about 700 seats. That’s less than half the size of Bayreuth and under 20 percent of the Met’s capacity. Nonetheless, as loud as the orchestra sounded, it never overpowered the singers, thanks to Davies’ straight-forward approach and the congenial acoustics of the theater.

To get an idea of how the imponderables of sound-bouncing work at the Landestheater, I sat near the front of the parquet level for the first and third acts and moved upstairs for the second act. While the bloom on the sound seemed a bit thin from the last row of the second tier, the lucidity Davies achieved in kneading the vocal lines with the instrumentation, no matter where I was sitting, was consistent and remarkable. His pacing struck me as a bit hasty at times, but he might have been forced to pick up the tempi, because the house is short on reverb: the price of clarity here is alacrity. As a result, his is a brisk, sunny Meistersinger that foreswears soul-searching.

The cast was replete with characterful vocalists. Albert Pesendorfer as Sachs towered over his coevals with his tall lanky frame and outsize voice. Despite an uncomfortable moment during the Schustermonolog of the second act, he lasted the distance triumphantly in this killer role. Michael Ende commands a pleasingly hefty lyric sound that suits him admirably as Walther. Bjorn Waag has bracing Nordic wind in his voice and purveyed one of the most vocally rewarding Beckmessers I’ve encountered to date. Domanik Nekel delivered a resonant Veit Pogner that reminded me of early Salminen. With the aid of a gleaming tenor, Matthäus Schmidlechner made David a thoroughly sympathetic rules-of-the-contest savant. Seho Chang was a delightfully disorganized Fritz Kothner.

Christiane Boesinger as Eva is a find. She has a huge voice that can traverse an equally wide dynamic spectrum, She turned “O Sachs, mein Freund” into a molten burst of affection.

A pity that Karen Robertson has relatively little to do as Magdalene; her snippets make you want to hear her doing something more substantial -- like Mére Marie. Among the master singers, Martin Achrainer could not help but be noticed as a cross-dressing Konrad Nachtigall.

The sound of the Landestheater Chorus was bigger than the number of its members might suggest. The Bruckner Orchester of Linz played with an attractively softened edge that apparently characterizes the Austrian way with Wagner’s instrumentation. The brass section was in rousing form.


Any experienced chef will tell you: no matter how you cook merde, nothing can change the fact that it’s still crap. The thought occurred to me when I returned on 18 January to the Landestheater to attend a new production of Leo Delibes’ Lakmé. No matter how mah-velously it’s produced or sung, the opera is still musically execrable. And mounting it is a sticky gamble. In addition to needing a soprano who can persuasively cuckoo-clock her way through the opera’s signature number, no production can do without a tenor who can stylishly animate the role’s demanding but dead-beat vocal line. On the night I revisited Lakmé for the first time in decades, the Landestheater’s production played half of its hand in aces, the other half in sixes and sevens.

Mari Moriya was born in Japan and has already appeared at the Met, but opera managements should find out if there are any more like her at home. She portrays the title role with an other-worldliness that can’t be faked and has a warm lyric voice that opens out gloriously at the top. Her fiortitura is immaculate and her technique rock-solid, always at the service of dramatic expression. Nowhere was this more evident than in “The Bell Song.” When Lakmé’s father forces her to sing in the market place, in order to ensnare her lover, Moriya uses the aforementioned cukoo-clock decorations not only to signal danger to her beloved but also to express terror at being ogled by passers by. The scales, trills and stratospheric leaps function simultaneously to render Lakme’s manifold peril. Thanks to Aurella Eggers’ contemporay but no-nonsense staging, Lakmé and Lakmé rise to a moment of thrilling tension. Unfortunately, Moriya’s formidable talents and Eggers’ cohesive thinking are insufficient to sustain this level of excitement over the span of the whole work. But if Moriya paces herself, she could become a Shadow Empress to be reckoned with.

It would be easy but not necessarily fair to dismiss Pedro Velázquez Díaz as inadequate for such a demanding role as Gerald, the soldier who falls for Lakmé. While he has the requisite metal for the part, he seemed out of sorts and unfocussed on the 18th, possibly pulled under by the lugubrious tow of Gerald’s music.

Rounding out the trio of principals, Seho Chang had a better time making Lakmé’s Priest-Father sound more interesting than a flat-footed religious thug. The role is not really suited to him, but he’s fortunate in having the chance to find that out at this stage of his career rather than later.

Three conductors are listed for this production in the program brochure. Daniel Linton-France conducted an orderly, well-paced performance on the 18th. It’s hard to say what he contributed to the musical proceedings, because there was no way to tell what he rehearsed. Too many chefs might spoil the sauce, but Lakmé is one stew that can use all the spice it can get.

No winter journey to Linz is complete unless you take the upwardly mobile streetcar to Pöslingberg (altitude: 1762 feet) and look down on the veil of fog enveloping the city and the setting Winterreise sun. Restaurants worthy of the name usually close around 10 pm, but you can find excellent dining after the opera at Dom 5, less than a 10 minute walk from the theater. And Linzertorte really does taste better in Linz than elsewhere, especially at Hofmann, a bakery on Landstrasse dating from 1862.

©Sam H Shirakawa

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