Thursday, March 24, 2011

Moor or Less

Sam Shirakawa was in Heidelberg recently for a performance of Verdi's Otello. Also, he pays tribute to Yakov Kreizberg who passed away recently at only 51....:

VERDI: OTELLO [New Production]
Heidelberg Oper
18 March 2011

"The production is awful," he muttered in crisp Hochdeutsch.

That verdict was issued by an astute observer of cultural matters at the premiere of a new production of Verdi’s Otello at the Heidelberg Oper.

And the performance had only reached half-time.

When the proceedings finally concluded, though, the sold-out house greeted director Alexander Fahima with relative politesse. Only one loud boo -- possibly uttered by a wannabe claque to instigate a furor.

No such luck.

In a well-distributed interview, Fahima says he’s putting Iago at the forefront of the action as sort of a behavioral scientist, who uses the Moor and his consort as guinea pigs in an experiment on jealousy. Sounds reasonable enough. Fahima‘s view of Iago looks back to Don Alfonso (Cosí fan Tutti) and forward to Henry Higgins (My Fair Lady via Pygmalion). But he fouls his petri dish by plopping in Bob (All that Jazz) Fosse-esque routines (choreographed by Michael Bernhard), plus a bewildering variety of semi-modern costumes (Reinhard von Thannen), which in themselves would probably work marvelously anywhere else.

In a cringing, goofy moment set within Bart Wigger’s grim sliding-door closet that runs the length of the stage, Otello makes his first appearance in a striped silver and black zoot suit straight out of a strutters’ ballroom circa late 1950s. The production team is not about to allow their Lion of Venice let his attire go to waste, and so the poor sod, who dances neither wisely nor well, promptly lapses into a momentary Mummers’ Parade turn, in which I fully expected a snatch of “Razzle-Dazzle” from Chicago:
What if your hinges all are rusting?
What if, in fact, you're just disgusting?
Shakespeare and Verdi‘s librettist Arrigo Boito eventually intervene and, mercifully, force an end to the ill-conceived experiment, once Otello perceives Desdemona’s kerchief as proof of her infidelity. If Iago were indeed a scientist, he would have any number of ways to continue acting scientifically, even from this point onward. But the exigencies of the plot preclude any such action. So we‘re back to the same-old-same-old Iago as a misanthropic closet chocolate-chaser with unkind intentions.

Given the evidence he presents in his Heidelberg experimentations, 30-or-so year-old stage director Alexander Fahima is neither Wunderkind nor enfant terrible nor Student Prince. His most dazzling credential is autumnal youth.

If there’s any reason for trekking to Heidelberg, though, it’s to be able to say someday soon, that you heard Texan Ray M. Wade as Otello back when.... His Moor is still in progress, but the vocal material is there -- brilliance in the upper regions, depth in the middle, and weight in the lower areas. First-night fright may have prevented him from going full-throttle in the “Esultate,” but the smoldering rage and tragic remorse that followed were all in full furl. This was Wade’s first Otello. I have little doubt that it soon will be as fine as his Samson was, two seasons ago in Cologne.

It’s hard to say much about Michael Bachtadze‘s Iago because his interpretation was saddled with the dispassion demanded by the role’s supposed calling as a scientist/philosopher. Still, his baritone has a big, warm sound that shows no effort in animating the immense Verdi line.

Hye-Sung Na is a vulnerable and vocally gifted Desdemona, but she needs to explore her character with the same intensity she applies to singing the notes accurately. Despite some infelicities of intonation, hers is a huge voice that sounds rewardingly like ante-Levine Scotto. It’s tempting to speculate what roles she might eventually assume.

Carolyn Fink (Emilia) and Aaron Judisch (Cassio) distinguish themselves in a solid cast rounded out by Eleazar Rodriguez (Rodrigo), Wilfred Staber (Ludovico) and Amadeu Tasca (Montano/Herold).

Cornelius Meister’s pacing struck me as a tad rushed in the first scene and in the third act, but maybe he wanted to get past the embarrassing shenanigans on stage. As I’ve reported on his Salome last season, he is a bonafide wonder, drawing once again some exciting, nicely textured playing from the orchestra, absent a smudgy incident among the double basses in the third act. He was ably assisted by Jan Schweiger, who exacted discipline and spontaneity from the chorus and children’s choir.

As if the production team were compelled to impose itself even on aural matters, the premiere was marred by the whir of ventilators and cooling machinery for the lighting apparatus. Desdemona's Willow Song and Ave Maria were filtered through what sounded like an encroaching sandstorm.

Yakov Kreisberg - ©Marcus Borggreve &
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra
Now a final farewell to an extraordinary musician, felled before his time. Yakov Kreizberg was 51 years old when he succumbed this month to a long illness. Although his talent was arguably commensurate with some conductors who have achieved world fame early in their careers, Kreizberg was still, as Stephen Sondheim might muse, putting it together. I was always amazed at how he unceasingly amplified his now inestimable gifts whenever I attended his performances, mostly during his tenure as Music Director of Berlin‘s Komische Oper. Details of his way with certain passages recur to me all the time: the longing he elicited from the violins in the ‘Dammi Alfredo’ theme in the Prelude to Traviata, the moonlit vapor he cast on ‘Il dolce suono’ with Naomi Nadelmann as Lucia, the irrepressible optimism with which he concluded his reading of Die Zauberflöte.

Kreizberg made several recordings, notably with the violinist Julia Fischer, but those I have heard fall pale before his live performances. Like Guido Cantelli long ago, he will forever remain one of the music world's rathe primroses, dying while sounding a crescendo above the whelming tide.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Looking for Mr. Goldbar

Sam visited Wuppertal  to see Strauss's Arabella:

New Production (Premiere)
5 March 2011

In the Guardian a few years ago, Tim Ashley concluded his superb article on a new production of Arabella at Covent Garden, by calling the work the “most elusive of Strauss’ operas.” Most elusive? I haven‘t a clue as to what Die Frau ohne Schatten is really about, but even before I read Ashley's illuminating piece, I had some inkling of what’s going on in Strauss’ final collaboration with his longtime librettest Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Arabella (1933) is Donizetti‘s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) turned six ways from Sunday. For the Ravenswood brood, it‘s all about money and social pretense. For the Waldner Gang, it‘s only about money and social pretense. Arabella is a bit more interesting than Lucia because she keeps her cool amid her family of ambulatory psychotics: Her father is a gambling addict, who is trying to pawn her off to a wealthy Croatian acquaintance, who turns out to be dead. Her mother probably spends more on fake card readers than on groceries. Her sister, now suicide-prone, has been raised as a cross-dresser. It‘s a comedy.

Lucia seeks fortune in passion; Arabella seeks fortune and passion. Lucia fails to get what she wants and goes crazy. Arabella gets what she wants and goes Croatian. Lucia seals her fate with a dagger, Arabella with a glass of water.

Georg Köhl’s elegant new production for the Wuppertal Stages, housed within Peter Werner’s handsome sets, wisely avoids going for laughs, but he manages to go for the jugular in revealing the Waldners’ dyfunctional world without spoiling what little levity they levitate.

At one point during the performance I wondered if Banu Böke would sound as enchanting in the title role, if Claus Stump’s sumptuous costumes for her were less... sumptuous. But as she launched into her reconciliation scene with the man of Arabella’s dreams, it became clear to me that Böke’s claret gown complements a warm and rich Straussian sound, whose dash of resin in the mid-range gives depth and poignance to Arabella's thoughts. Stepping into the shoes of the last heroine Strauss created with Hofmannsthal (he died suddenly in 1929, while completing on the text) has been no easy fit, even for the greatest sopranos who have tried, and Böke is still finding her bearings. But she has the voice and temperament for Arabella as well as for her lyric cousins: the Marschallin and Ariadne. She is a singer to keep an ear on.

Kay Stiefermann as Arabella’s handsome Croatian suitor measures up admirably in finding strength in Mandryka’s wounds: the relatively young man has lost both his uncle, for whom Arabella originally was intended, as well as his wife. Strauss denies Mandryka the arching moments of self-definition that he grants Jokanaan and Barak, but Stiefermann’s soulful Byronic mien brings the character cumulatively to life over the course of three acts. His bright, metallic Heldenbariton sound has grown even more flexible since I last heard him as Kurvenal two seasons ago.

As Zdenka, Dorothea Brandt covers Zdenka’s neurotic longings with desperate pertness. Oliver Ringelhahn is a passionate, piteous Mateo. Michael Tews elicits disdain in every line his Count Waldner utters. Joslyn Rechter's Adelaide nicely reveals veneer upon veneer as Arabella's mother. Boris Leisenheimer (Elemer), Liljan Milović (Dominik), Thomas Schobert (Lamoral), Elena Fink (Fiaker-Milli), Marina Edelhagen (Card Reader), Phillip Werner (Welko) and Marco Agostini (Butler) rounded out the vocal ensemble.

Köhl's staging adds the ghost of Mandryka’s wife, who wafts on and off stage to remind us of his loss. A nice touch. But does she let him go at the end? Or does he break free of her? Or is Arabella doomed to mold herself in the image of her predecessor?

The answer might be found in the music, but Hilary Griffiths’ luminescent conducting offers no specific interpretive clues. A good thing, I‘d say.

Incidentally, Wuppertal and its municipal theater were, as you may know, home for many years to choreographer Pina Bausch, until her sudden untimely death in 2009. Wim Wenders’ film, entitled Pina, has just been released. Some have called it a documentary, but it‘s actually an hommage. You probably won’t learn any more about her than you already know, but the statements made by dancers in her troupe leave no doubts about her part in their lives. She was mother, counsellor, confessor and a creative task mistress, who still in every sense possesses them.

I had hoped to find some traces of what life really is now like for these acolytes, but neither they nor the numerous dance excerpts Wenders lovingly records offer substantive clues. What Wenders does capture in every 3D frame is their abiding, tearless sorrow at her passing.

Pina is fascinating, sometimes irritating, but it is also as cathartic as an homage to a most elusive legend can be.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Seventh Spiel

Early this month Sam Shirakawa was in Mönchengladbach for a perfromance of Verdi's Giovanna D'Arco:

In Concert
Theater Krefeld, Mönchengladbach
2 March 2011


Some numerologists believe that 7 is the most spiritual of the natural numbers. It was also a lucky number for Ingmar Bergman. Giovanna d'Arco (1845) is Verdi’s seventh known opera. Its heroine hears voices. Her father is convinced she has given Satan her soul. Her historical eponym is a patron saint of France. Spiritual indeed, but not such a lucky number for Verdi. Following its ill-received premiere at La Scala, Verdi terminated his contract with the theater and did not return for more than 30 years. For its première in Rome, Papal censors demanded that Verdi cleanse Giovanna of all religious references. So the locale was switched to Greece and Joan became a Lesbian, who as Orieta di Lesbo, leads the expulsion of the Turks from her turf.

There is nothing mystic about why Giovanna is rarely performed today. Singers who can get their voices around its demands are hard to find.

Giovanna is not only tough to cast, a current string of performances in Mönchengladbach is hard to reach. Because the city’s main venue for the performing arts is undergoing renovation, the theater has set up temporary housekeeping in a hangar-like building on the outskirts of town, not far from the border between Germany and Holland. The space seats about 500, there is no balcony and the chairs are arranged on risers across the length of the hall. The acoustics are low on reverb. An unlikely place for grand opera, and hardly promising for a Verdi rarity.

Books, of course, shouldn’t be judged by their covers. Mönchengladbach‘s setting for Giovanna is living proof. I was half-dreading the production values with which a “provincial” theater would endow Verdi’s take on Joan of Arc and was somewhat relieved to find that it was to be performed in concert form.

Only somewhat relieved, because there would be no distractions if the singing was lousy.

As it turned out, the evening had all the thrills and chills the most exciting performances the Opera Orchestra of New York have conjured up over the years.

From the outset, Dara Hobbs made it clear that she is stepping over the threshold of what looks to be a great career. Dramatic sopranos who have agility as well as heft are not easily found, but singers in this Fach who also have warm, colorful timbre are unusual indeed.

The blond from Wisconsin seems to have it all. Neither the decorated ascents into the empyreal of Giovanna’s first aria, “Sempre all‘alba ed alla sera” nor the rigors of her contributions to the ensemble pieces fazed her. But the lower end of her range needs beefing up.

Hobbs squarely met the challenges Kairschan Scholdybajew presented as Charles. The tenor from Khazakstan has a large penetrating sound, whose brightness dims only at the very bottom of his vocal span. Scholdybajew gathered emotional strength in the latter portion of the opera, culminating in a heartfelt “Qual al piu fido amico” as Charles learns of Giovanna’s death.

Igor Gavrilov brought a dark baritone to Giovanna‘s father. Giacomo's despair in believing that his daughter is a tool of the devil (“Speme al vecchio era una figlia”) was especially moving.

Matthias Wippisch and Zhang Xu ably rounded out the testosterone-heavy cast.

Graham Jackson has been Music Director of the Krefeld-Mönchengladbach Theaters since 2003. The fruits of his efforts in steadily improving the orchestra and chorus were manifest.

Verdi’s librettist Temistocle Solera is generally tagged with adapting Giovanna d'Arco from Friedrich Schiller‘s drama Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801). Solera claimed he had no help from Schiller. Whatever. Both versions depart from history: no immolation finale. A pity. But Solera’s lacks dramatic urgency, which may be another reason why Giovanna is so rarely performed. The music is something else. It glows with some of Verdi’s finest melodies, and the inventive scoring contains some glorious moments.

If you can't schlepp to the outskirts of Mönchengladbach, check out the commercial recording with Caballé, Domingo and Milnes under Levine. You'll be humming in no time.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, March 05, 2011

Stripped Down

Sam Shirakawa made his way to Augsburg the other day for a stripped down performance of Verdi's Aida:

Verdi: Aida
27 February 2010

Petar Naydenov, Ji-Woon Kim, Stephen Owen, Kerstin Desche

I arrive at the opera house in Augsburg to hear Aida. I'm famished. With barely a half-hour to go before houselights go down, I'm told I can have a quick hot meal in the staff canteen. Food at government subsidized refectories in Germany is usually fresh and well-prepared, so I trot down eagerly to the basement level. The cafeteria is nearly deserted, but my heaping plate of tasty-looking roast pork and winter veggies still takes a few minutes to prepare. I wolf it down and deposit my tray at the rack in the corner. As I turn around just as the final warning bell jangles, an object on the floor sweeps past me. At first, I think it's a wayward cat, but no, it's a rat. Huge.
I'm more embarrassed than shocked, but there's no time to think about it, much less scream or faint. I race up the stairs and reach my seat near the front of the parquet, just before the houselights dim. Now I'm really unnerved: Am I in the theater‘s playhouse and not the opera house? No orchestra. Not even an orchestra pit.
The curtain parts. The orchestra is on stage. I get it! A concert performance of Aida! Not exactly.

Brutal government belt-tightening is putting theaters across Germany on strip down mode, forcing those who understand the tenets of survival to become even more inventive than usual. Utilizing the space between the proscenium and the platform for the orchestra, this performance turns out to be minimally staged. No period costumes, just a few flats and risers to render some idea of interior/exterior. Aerials of the Suez Canal, projected on the rear scrim, give an inkling that we‘re in Egypt. A big, augmented chorus, yes. A big corps-de-ballet, no. A stripped down staging by Karl Andreas Mehling.

But nothing is stripped down about the singing. Augsburg has a largely resident vocal lineup that can acquit itself of Aida’s demands. The gratifying surprise is Sally du Randt in the title role. Where has she been keeping herself? Mostly, it seems, in Augsburg, where she has been a member of the ensemble for nearly a decade. The voice may not be the most luxurious instrument currently before the public, but it is ample, gracefully connected between registers, and, above all, compelling. Getting past the treacherous the final lines of “O patria mia” proves challenging, but she conveys Aida‘s vulnerability and inner strength convincingly.

Ji-Woon Kim has attractive stage presence and a bright metallic sound that he exploits in “Celeste Aida,” but he has yet to develop the power of pianissimo. Kerstin Descher is a cunning Amneris, whose failure to enslave her intended produces molten waves of rage in the Judgement Scene. Stephen Owen's Amonasro concedes nothing in vocal power as he admits defeat in the second act. Peter Naydenov is a pleasure to hear, although his dark-hued Ramfis has to ripen a bit before the role belongs to him. Ilka Vaihavianin is an effectively blustery King.

But indisputably, the star of the production is onstage throughout the whole performance. It has been quite a while since I last heard such thoughtful, yet fantasy-inspiring conducting at an Aida performance. From the filigree figuration for the strings at the top of the prelude through the choral climaxes of the second act, to the elegiac cadences of the final scenes, Carolin Nordmeyer presides over some moments of rarely-heard magic.
Such moments may well become even more seldom soon.
On the train from Augsburg, the rodent that traversed my path in the canteen brings to mind the opening passage of Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947), in which Dr. Bernard Rieux inadvertently steps on a rat one morning. The incident is the first indication in the story of a pestilence that is about to claim a horrific toll.

Such a pestilence is now besieging the arts throughout the world, but it is especially pernicious in Germany, arguably the world’s premier exporter of high-end performers. Even if they are born elsewhere, it is the country of choice for musicians and dancers who are cutting their teeth as professionals. As funding erodes, and theaters cut down, consolidate or just close, the pestilence brought on by the vermin responsible for the global financial crisis is causing a cultural plague, which, if not stemmed, will inevitably become nothing short of bubonic. 
©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Live Offerings - Saturday, March 5, 2011 - Part I

Lots to choose from this afternoon, as only eight European stations are carrying the Met's broadcast of Rossini's Armida with Renee Fleming. La Scala is sending us a live Death in Venice. Radio Clasica de Espana is giving us Monteverdi's Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria from this past summer's Beaune Baroque Music Festival. From NPR World of Opera comes a Rome opera Roberto Devereux with Carmela Remigio. Take a look at all the live offerings:

  • Deutschlandradio Kultur & Espace 2 - From the Vienna State Opera, a January 22nd performance of Mozart's Così fan tutte, with Caroline Wenborne, Stephanie Houtzeel, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, Topi Lehtipuu, Anita Hartig and Alessandro Corbelli, conducted by Jérémie Rhorer.
  • DR P2 - Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, with Niels Jørgen Riis, Inger Dam-Jensen, Nikolai Didenko, Anette Bod, Guido Paevatalu, Palle Knudsen, Hallvar Djupvik, Jakob Vad and Bo Kristian Jensen, conducted by Alexander Shelley.
  • Metropolitan Opera (on numerous stations) - Rossini's Armida, with Renee Fleming,Lawrence Brownlee John Osborn, Antonino Siragusa, Barry Banks, Kobie van Rensburg and Yeghishe Manucharyan, conducted by Riccardo Frizza.
  • Radio Clasica de Espana - From Festival Internacional de Música Barroca de Beaune, a July 2, 2010 performance of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, with F. Zanasi, S. Mingardo, L. Dordolo, A. Arrivabene, S. Vitale, E. Biscuola, R. Giordani, J. Palumbo, M. Piccinini, G. Ferrarini, G. Paolo Fagotto and A. Simboli, conducted by R. Alessandrini.
  • NRK Klassisk & NRK P2 - From San Francisco Opera, Verdi's Otello, with Johan Botha, Zvetelina Vassileva, Marco Vratogna, Beau Gibson, Renee Tatum, Daniel Montenegro, Eric Halvarson and Julien Robbins, conducted by Nicola Luisotti.
  • Radio Oesterreich International (OE1) - From Schönbrunner Schlosstheater, an August 2010 performance of Nedbal's Die Winzerbraut, with Wolfgang Müller-Lorenz, Martin Turba, Marcus Niedermeyr, Andreas Rainer, Bibiana Nwobilo, Mirjam Neururer, Susanne Kirnbauer and Alfred Berger, conducted by Herbert Mogg.
  • KBIA2, WABE Classical, WDAV, WHQR & WUGA - NPR World of Opera: From Rome Opera, Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, with Carmela Remigio, Massimiliano Pisapia, Alberto Gazale, Sonia Ganassi, Bruno Lazzaretti and Ezio Maria Tisi, conducted by Bruno Campanella.
  • Cesky Rohzlas-3 Vltava - From Teatros del Canal in Madrid, a September 18, 2010 performance of Graun's Montezuma, with Flavio Oliver, Lourdes Ambriz, Rogelio Marín, Lucía Salas, Lina López, Adrián-George Popescu and Christophe Carré, conducted by Gabriel Garrido.
  • HR 2 Kultur - From the Rheingau Music Festival, an August 5, 2010 performance of Scarlatti's Penelope la casta, with Dorothee Mields, Kobie van Rensburg, Olivia Vermeulen and Luciana Mancini, conducted by Wolfgang Katschner.
  • Klara - From Juliusz Slowacki Theater in Krakow, Vivaldi's La Fida Ninfa, with Roberta Invernizzi, Maria Grazia Schiavo, Jennifer Holloway, Christian Senn, David DQ Lee and Tilman Lichdi, conducted by Jean-Christophe Spinosi.
  • RAI RadioTre - From Teatro alla Scala, Britten's Death in Venice, with John Graham-Hall, Peter Coleman-Wright, Iestyn Davies, Peter Van Hulle, Anna Dennis,
  • Guide Charles Johnston, Anna Dennis, Donal Byrne, Jonathan Gunthorpe, Richard Edgar-Wilson, Constance Novis, Madeleine Shaw and Benoit De Leersnyder
  • Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano, conducted by Edward Gardner.
  • WBHM - NPR World of Opera: From the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Wagner's Tannhauser, with Johan Botha, Eva-Maria Westbroeck, Michaela Schuster, Christian Gerhaber, Timothy Robinson, Clive Bayley, Steven Ebel and Jeremy White, conducted by Semyon Bychkov.
  • Concert FM (New Zealand) & ABC Classics FM (Australia) - Another chance to hear the Metropolitan opera broadcast of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, with John Del Carlo, Mariusz Kwiecien, Matthew Polenzani, Rachelle Durkin and Bernard Fitch, conducted by Joseph Colaneri.

Happy listening . . . .

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