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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