Friday, May 27, 2011

The Day after Doomsday

Only friend Sam would think to go to Parsifal the day after "Doomsday" - and review it for us:

22 March 2011

©Frank Heller

Not knowing quite what to do on Doomsday -- May 21st -- I went shopping. For groceries. No earthquake as predicted, of course, but shortly before 6 o’clock, I could feel the floor under the fresh produce section swaying ominously, as two things dawned on me: first, a potentially deadly strain of e-coli found in certain veggies, fruit and meat is spreading across Germany; second, food prices are rising sharply, especially in European Union countries. So is this how the world will end? Certainly not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but through viral afflictions that will starve everybody and by prices of everything reaching heights even financial industry plutocrats can’t afford. Followed, of course, by aftershocks of decimated populations and by deflation so severe that neither industries nor artisans can afford to purvey basic necessities.

As these these cheerful thoughts gave way to a faint feeling of rebirth -- aha, was it Rapture? -- I decided to take in a live concert -- just to experience human beings doing something only humans can do. But too late. All performances of opera, concerts, plays, even pop and rock concerts, evidently having implemented their respective Plan Bs, had already commenced.

So the next day, I was determined to do something -- anything -- that would soothe the existential stress of the previous 48 hours. As if by divine coincidence, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein was presenting its season premiere of Parsifal in Düsseldorf.

I freely admit, that the magnet drawing me to this performance was  Elena Zhidkova  as Kundry, who delivered a show-stealing Brangaene in Cologne two seasons ago. Since then, I’ve found her hard to track down; her engagement listings have been scanty, and I believe her appearance this season in Düsseldorf is a one-off.


Zhidkova is incontestably in possession of an exceptional voice, and I can’t understand why she’s not as well known as her Russian contemporary Anna Nebtrebko. Could be, that she’s not to everyone’s taste, though she’d never score less than runner-up in a modeling contest. She is a dramatic mezzo-soprano with an intense, dark timbre that recalls Arkhipova, Obraztsova and, more recently, Diadkova. While its energetic vibrato occasionally widens under pressure, she is most energizing when Kundry’s music exposes her upper-middle register. And there’s the rub: she seems challenged by those cruelly placed notes above the staff, hitting them accurately, but denying them their full counts. If it is to become truly lethal, her portrayal  needs more vocal unguent.

The surprise of the evening came in the plain-wrapper package of Michael Weinius in the title role. The program notes indicate that the still youthful Swede began his career as a baritone. His Parsifal projects at turns boyish wonder, adolescent confusion, and ultimately, experienced authority. He has that “wounded animal” cry at the top -- tighter on vibe than Vinke, less baritonal than Siukola, brassier than Domingo in his salad days, but as thrilling as any of them any day. A bright, forward thrust in the middle merges seamlessly with a rotund lower register. Rotundity in physical appearance, though, could become a problem for him in our HD age.

The golly-gee novelty of his frequently refulgent vocalism tended to overshadow the significant contributions of other the other principals, namely Ryan McKinny (Amfortas), James Moellenhoff (Gurnemanz), John Wegner (Klingsor) and Sami Luttinen (Titurel).

Axel Kober led a comparatively fast-tempo performance that nonetheless allowed the inner voices of the orchestra their due. For some reason, the orchestra seemed to have a collective lapse of concentration in the third act, producing some cheese-cutting clunkers.

The graceful production by Kurt Horres from 2001 (excepting Andreas Rheinhardt’s Ku Kluxy costumes for the Grail Knights) showed no signs of obsolescence. A sign, maybe, that Armageddon can be weathered. At least until December 2012...

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rattling Good Time

More news and reviews from Sam Shirakawa:

13 May 2011
(Premiere New Production)

DIE WALKÜRE (HD Broadcast)
Metropolitan Opera/Kerpen
14 May 2011

15 May 2011
(New Production)

Sally Matthews (Sophie), Michelle Breedt in Der Rosenkavalier

Sir Simon Rattle rarely guest conducts. Why bother, if you’re the Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic? Nonetheless, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut this season, leading a new production of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. Rapturous notices and audience reception; not-so sold-out houses.

And now, he’s begun a string of Rosenkavaliers in Amsterdam with de Nederlandse Opera, with which he has had a long and fruitful relationship. The house went pretty much clean at the premiere. The reviews no doubt will be enthusiastic.

What is striking about these two “events,” though, is that “ordinary people” are getting the opportunity to hear Rattle conduct opera. That is to say, they don’t have to trek to Salzburg, where he makes most of his appearances in the pit -- at astronomic ticket prices. Admittedly, it's tricky to enter any major-league opera house these days, if you‘re a working stiff, but tickets at these venues are by comparison dirt cheap.

As the Final Trio at the premiere of the new Rosenkavalier ascended to its inevitable climax, the frisson it engendered made me realize why I endure so many hours of so-so and simply crummy opera performances. As the late and lamented Francis Robinson said more than once, when an opera performance is great, there is nothing like it. Musically, this Rosenkavalier was about as miraculous as you can hope for.

All the more amazing, in view of the backstage dramas that led up to the premiere, centering upon the cancellation of Magdalena Kozena (a.k.a. Mrs. Rattle), who was supposed to have sung Oktavian. Ultimately, two singers were called in to alternate, but Michelle Breedt, who was scheduled to appear at the premiere, withdrew at the last moment. So the rotation fell to Karin Strobos.

Karin who? Actually, the diminutive Dutch mezzo-soprano is no stranger to local audiences, having sung Oktavian last autumn in Maastricht, where she is a member of Opera Zuid. Following a tentative start at the premiere in Amsterdam, Strobos accrued quantum leaps of self-assurance. By the time the curtain descended on the third act, a proverbial star had been born. Hers is an ample, warm and flexible mezzo that bears hints of an upper extension: think of her as a future Adalgisa, not Azucena. Her comportment convincingly betrays a teenager in the throes of pre-adult passion, whether reluctantly parting from the bedroom, thrusting a sabre when provoked or flying into the arms of a new love.

Strobos’ ardor was matched with equal brio by British soprano Sally Mathews, who is the darkest-sounding Sophie I have yet to hear live. Her voice takes some getting used-to, especially if you’re expecting a soubrette along the lines of Rothenberger, Grist or Blegen. Nonetheless, its hue is far from sunless and serves to make her Sophie more intelligent and canny than the usual bourgeois babydoll.

Kurt Rydl turned in a superb performance as the aptly named Ochs, primarily because he sang the part, rather than barking, as is sometimes his wont.

His Ochs is colossally irritating, bereft of dignity and begging for the comeuppance Oktavian serves him. Rydl's voice is also gaining depth in the middle and lower regions while retaining its clarity farther north.

Other standouts in the redoubtable cast include Niklas Björling Rygert as Annina, delightfully dolled up to look like a mean caricature of Monserrat Caballé, Michael Kraus as a devious Faninal, and Valentin Jar as a zealous Italian Singer.

Have I forgotten somebody? Silly me. Who can forget Anne Schwanewilms’ sublime Chrysothemis with the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel several seasons ago? Few will forget her current Marschallin in Amsterdam. It speaks to her ever-growing mastery that her Princess is as powerfully minimal as her Chrysothemis was resplendently massive. Schwanewilms’ unaffected restraint induces the kind of incremental tension that colors the first act, haunts the second act (by its very absence) and finds its heart-breaking release in the Final Trio. She is a singer becoming great in the Grand Tradition.

Based on a concept by Willy Decker, the new production was neatly organized by a superb Oktavian of the recent past, Brigitte Fassbender. She kept the staging witty and to the point, although the bed in the first act was placed too far upstage. The lovers’ intimate exchanges simply got lost.

Wolfgang Gussmann’s attractive furnishings were marred by a low doorway to the inn in the third act, forcing Schwanewilms, who is no Lilliputian, to make her grand entrance and even grander exit stooped over to accommodate her bonnet. This detail should have been foreseen before the sets were built.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic gave Rattle a stamping-feet ovation as he entered the pit for the last act. And they played for him throughout, as though there were no tomorrow. While the strings went wanting for some of the sheen Rattle gets from the more famous orchestras he leads, the Rotterdamers produced a gleaming transparency in all sections that was at once delicate and solid.

From my seat near the front of the parquet, I had the uncommon pleasure of being able to see Rattle interact with the orchestra and singers. Shortly after the curtain rose, I saw that there was no prompter’s box. For most operas, this means rankling double-duty for the conductor. Choosing to go it alone with Rosenkavalier, given its rhythmic complexities, sub-sub beat entrances and general mayhem, is not only the ultimate test of prowess at the podium, but also the mark of a danger junkie. If Rattle willingly forewent a prompter, his achievement is all the more percipient, though, because it went virtually unnoticed. Watching him in action also brought home why he is among a rare handful of conductors who are deeply loved by the artists with whom they work: he can sense when a singer or a secondary brass player needs a cue, he has an alert high school band master’s instinct for anticipating and circumventing collisions, and above all, he generates confidence. Such august modesty is indeed moving.

Speeding back to Cologne on Germany’s version of the Bullet Train (2 hours 40 minutes) for a meeting early the next day, I managed to finish up in time to take in the Met’s live HD broadcast of Die Walküre. But finding a theater showing it was no easy matter. Despite Cologne's cultural variety, the Met’s telecasts are not being shown in the “City of 11-thousand Virgins” this season. The nearest cinema featuring Walküre was in Kerpen, which necessitated a half-hour train ride, a ten minute wait for a bus, and a bumpy 15 minute journey to the bus stop nearest the movie complex -- located at the end of a short strip of low-slung pizza joints, kebab shops and, I think, a beauty parlor.

As you may know, the performance started late, but there were no announcements estimating the start time. The wait was made less annoying for some patrons by complimentary wine in real goblets that you could take to your seat.

Shortly after the performance began some 45 minutes behind schedule, some details about the telecast started occurring to me:
  • The beach house plank unit set looked much more impressive on the silver screen than it had when I attended a performance of Das Rheingold at the Met last month. Stage director Robert La Page also deployed its moving parts much more imaginatively in Walküre than he had in the Prologue.
  • The singers frequently reflected the projections intended to be cast on the planks behind them. The Wälsung Twins in the first act sometimes looked pin-striped. Tacky.
  • The sound design was gorgeous. The reverb imposed on the audio output put a pleasant bloom on the sound that I never have heard at a live performance in the house. While the resulting effect was indisputably lovely, it also transformed the total sound picture into something quite other than what I hear at the Met, or for that matter, in any auditorium. Stephanie Blythe (Fricka), for example, has a huge voice. But the master sound control board “equalized” her voice, so that it had the same sonic valence as Bryn Terfel (Wotan), whose voice expresses its majestic power with equal force but with fewer decibels at forte. Net-net: the Stephanie Blythe everybody loves sounded unusually less; the Bryn Terfel everybody adores sounded unnaturally more. The same irritating sonic socialism afflicted the entire cast, which, down to the last Valkyrie, was superb.
  • On the same theme, the telecast confirmed for me how merciless digital microphones are. They pick up the most minuscule pitch variances and, depending on the voice, can wildly distort a singer’s vocal gestalt. Consequently, some voices proved microphone-friendlier than others, making them seem better on the air waves than I have ever heard them sound in an auditorium. Who? No way am I going there.
  • The mikes also registered nuances from the orchestra that I never heard during performances in the house -- some second bassoon figurations during parts of the “Magic Fire” scene, for example. Did James Levine ask for this? Or was it an engineer’s choice? Or was it a felicitous accident? It’s hard to tell what Jimmy really wanted, because he had control only over what met his ears in the crush of keeping the music going. Also, the bandwidth between very soft and thunderous seemed narrower than what I've come to expect from Jimmy and his peerless orchestra when they play Wagner in my face at the Met. Few other conductors before the public today can draw a deafening fortissimo from an orchestra and still make it sound unassailably musical. I would have thought that the sound engineers could easily reflect that power. If they did, it got lost in transmission.
  • To the credit of the sound technicians, they managed to eliminate most of the extraneous noise, such as creaking planks and shuffling feet. But they could not entirely silence the prompter. This was especially evident, when Voigt sang a number of her lines with her cheek pressed to the floor in the third act.
  • Visually, all the artists were surprisingly telegenic. You’d expect heart throb Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund) to look sensational, and he did. Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde) is attractive enough to pass for his sister, if not his twin. You‘d hardly expect Stephanie Blythe to look anything but fat, but the sheer force of her personality dared you to look away, and, aided in no negligible way by the camera aimed at her from below, she prevailed with sovereign command. The telecast also proved that Deborah Voigt’s most formidable asset is not merely her voice, but her Bette Davis eyes, which she has yet to learn how to exploit fully. (Object lessons: the way Callas locks onto the knife in her Covent Garden Tosca or Nilsson’s eyes shrieking tacit retorts at Mignon Dunn in the Met‘s broadcast of Elektra from 1980.)
  • But the peculiarities became irrelevant as the show continued, thanks to the nervy smarts of Gary Halvorson, who directed the live transmission. Having at least eight stationary and robot cameras at his disposal, he created a video experience along the lines of a rock concert or sporting event, rather than a straightforward video documentation. During the second intermission, I repaired to the taco tavern within the cinema complex and watched part of The Eurovision Song Contest being flashed on all the mini-jumbo monitors. It dawned on me there, that I was experiencing an entirely different event from the one spectators at the event were witnessing. They each could only see and hear from their respective vantage points. 
  • Halvorson‘s challenge was far more complex than relaying a rock or sports event, because of what I call the ‘intimacy factor.’ Walküre has some moments of spectacle -- such as the Ride of the Valkyries -- but unlike a rock concert or a soccer match, it also tells a story full of pre-programmed unspoken details. One of the minutia the camera caught in a tight shot was Sieglinde surreptitiously clasping Siegmund’s hand, while Hunding, played and sung with gritty menace by Hans-Peter König, quizzes Siegmund with mounting suspicion. It is an electrifying moment that may have been seen by some spectators in the house, but hardly grasped in the breath-grabbing way it could be felt by those watching the telecast. It was, in TV parlance, the “money shot” of the first act, which, if fudged, would surely have bankrupted the entire show: live TV offers no second chances.

Moral of the story: if you watch a video relay of an opera in a cinema setting, expect, even demand, an experience you could never have if you had attended the performance itself. Similarly, if you attend an opera performance for the first time, having videos as your only frame of reference, prepare yourself for disappointment: your ticket entitles you to one vantage point only. Good acoustics are never guaranteed, and some voices will sound bigger and/or better than others,

Coda: I had to take a taxi to the train station after the performance, which ended shortly before midnight, because the last bus had long since gone. It was nearly two in the morning when I arrived back in Cologne.

The next day, Sunday, I needed a respite, or let‘s say, a dessert, following two heavy Teutonic meals. So I hopped on a train to Mönchengladbach to hear -- what else? -- Oscar Straus’ infrequently performed operetta/burlesque Die Lustigen Nibelungen (The Merry Nibelungs).

Straus is best known as the composer of The Chocolate Soldier, but Nibelungen became his breakthrough, when it opened in 1904 at the Carl Theater in Vienna. It won both praise and scorn for debunking social mores of the time, the banking sector, Teutonic traditions, and, not least, the Nibelung Saga.

For the most part, Straus and his librettist Rideamus (Fritz Oliven) wreak havoc with sections of the legend that Wagner adapted for his own purposes in Götterdämmerung: King Gunther must subdue his betrothed Brünnhild in combat before he can marry her. If he loses, he dies. He enlists help from Siegfried of Niederland, who is an invincible dragon slayer, a wealthy businessman and possessor of the Nibelung‘s hord of gold. Siegfried ensures Gunther’s victory, by donning his tarnhelm, making himself invisible and standing by Gunther, as he defeats Brünnhild. For recompense, he receives the hand of Gunther‘s sister Kriemhild plus real estate. But greed prompts Siegfried’s new in-laws to plot his demise and obtain his gold for themselves. The conspirators prepare for their dastardly deed, by taking elaborate measures to find out which tiny part of his body is vulnerable to attack. But little do they know that a little birdie has meanwhile alerted Siggy to the plot. The murderous gold diggers ultimately drop their plan, when they learn that Siegfried‘s gold is not, as legend would have it, lying on a sandbank in the depths of the Rhine, but in the vaults of the Rhine Bank, which has just gone belly up.

In the wake of such murderous intrigues, can Siegfried live happily ever after? He has little choice: after all, this is an operetta. Besides, the virile vanquisher can now not only serve Gunther, but service Brünnhilde and Kriemhild as well.

Hinrich Hostkotte's tongue-in-cheek production (he also designed the sets and costumes) is fast-paced and frequently hilarious, as he colludes with Straus and Oliven in lampooning the sundry mania of the Wilhelminian Age, by showing them as fixations of our own time. Portraits of present-day sports figures, politicians and other celebrities share space on the royal dining room wall with paintings of Cosima Wagner, Bayreuth barkers and Germanic monarchs of yore. Muppet look-alikes also make on-point cameo appearances.

The with-it cast works overtime, if sometimes frenetically, to get to the gold. Among them: Christian Zenker (Siegfried), Michael Scharfenberger (Gunther), Gabriella Kuhn (Kremhild), Janet Bartelova (Brünhild), Eva Maria Gunschmann (Ute), who could pass any day for Cosima Wagner, and Matthias Wippich (Uncle Hagen), who is so tall that he can meet eye-to-eye with other cast members, even when he’s on his knees, which is most of the time.

Maria Benyumova, who is in charge of the chorus, ably took the podium at the performance I attended.

While this performance was well attended, the audience sat stone-faced and on its hands throughout the proceedings. I began to feel as if I had been dropped into the audience watching the “Springtime for Hitler“ number in Mel Brooks’ film The Producers. This crowd was not amused. Possibly they had just come from a wake, or thought they were attending a funeral.

Maybe the addition of another portrait in the dining room set might have given them the right nudge to lighten up. Straus’ supremely hummable score steals shamelessly from Wagner -- always with a wink. Is that plagiarism? Hmmmn. But an ongoing national scandal, involving plagiarism in large portions of his doctoral thesis, has led to the resignation of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as Germany’s Defense Minister. Perhaps a portrait "Dr. Googleberg" hung next to Straus’ picture would have put this audience in the proper frame of mind.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Danses Sacrée ou Profane?

Last week Sam Shirakawa went to Berlin to catch performances of Salome and Die Shopfung . . . and a wayward Don Carlo:

29 April
Komische Oper Berlin

30 April
Berliner Dom

The rites of Spring are in full swing in Berlin. One weekend following the long Easter weekend, the sidewalk cafes are full of locals scoping out tourists passing by, the art galleries have opened their latest collections, and it’s business-as-usual at the Reichstag.

The cornucopiate musical scene is alive, if not entirely well. I took in three performances over as many days, but I may as well have quit following event number two. A word about this later.

Getting down to business: When Berlin‘s Komische Oper presented its new production of Salome last month, some of the reviews were less than laudatory. If they didn’t care for Thilo Reinhardt’s adult comic book production, they snubbed the singing and conducting.

Several of the principals and the conductor had changed by the time I managed to attend its fourth performance, but the production was presumably the same. Reinhardt sets his neo-pop art concept on a turntable dominated by the portico of a lopsided Roman-style palace. Soldiers armed with automatic weapons stand guard over what turns out to be an erotic Mardi Gras, whose attractions spin into view while the orchestra blasts the Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome (1905) may be a work that defines pre-World War I decadence, but Reinhardt‘s peep-show carnival, designed by Paul Zoller, ventures beyond, flirting with Gomorrhean obscenity, not to mention the mindlessly sacrilegious: Herodias hammering the out-size erection of a man nailed to a cross (who could that be?). Salome doesn‘t dance, but the sets do.

If the musical side had truly been poor at the premiere -- which I don't believe -- the replacements were surely an improvement. This was one of the best performed Salomes I have yet to experience live.

Annette Seiltgen in the title role is said to have begun her career as a mezzo, but she has blossomed into a soprano of indefinable category. Her sultry lower register opens out into a soaring, if occasionally tart upper voice, while traversing a solid, limpid mid-range. Aided by an insouciant mini-skirt (Katharina Gault) up to her kishkas, she exudes deadly doll right from the start. While she disappears entirely from view during the Dance Segment, her ya-shudda-kissed-me-Jake Finale is censurably steamy Seiltgen is hot.

Although Tomas Tomasson was not so hot the last time I heard him several months ago, he proved himself in formidable voice this time, as an effectively cool Jochanaan. Decked out in sex-ready Che Guevara fatigues, his Baptist appeared to reject Seiltgen‘s advances with look-but-don‘t-touch coyness.

Christoph Späth as Herod, Aurilia Hajek as Herodias and Joska Lehtinen as Narraboth rounded out a hip cast.

But the star of the performance was the orchestra of the Komische Oper under Uwe Sandner. The playing may not have been note-perfect, but the raw energy Sandner drew from the ensemble was effectively chilling. All the more remarkable, given that it was somewhat reduced in size.

©Oliver Wia

The following evening, the place to be was the Berliner Dom at the Lustgarten in Unter den Linden, where Christoph Hagel was presenting the premiere of his take on Haydn’s Schöpfung (The Creation). Hagel has become something of a cult figure in Berlin over the past several years, mounting musical works with mixed- and multi-media production values at unusual venues: most recently a Titus on a catwalk bisecting the entrance hall of the Bode Museum, less recently a Magic Flute in the U-Bahn (read subway station) at Potsdamer Platz.

The format this time around goes like this: Haydn’s oratorio staged on the elevated chancel before an orchestra placed at one side toward the south transept of the massive, ornate Baroque style church. It‘s the perfect setting for Haydn's masterpiece. But Hagel is not about to leave well enough alone.

©Oliver Wia

Enter a brace of break dancers, audience-friendly props like giant balloons, a live snake and Star Wars graphics (Kezia B., Marco Moo, Tina Zimmermann) flying out of a movie screen placed before the altar. And to top it all out, a pair of interludes -- Debussy‘s “Sunken Cathedral” and Arturo Marquez‘ “Danzon Daz” separating the three parts of the Bibical drama.

If this seems a bit too-too, it is, and delightfully so. It's clear that Hagel has given considerable thought to his choices, unlike some current flash pan directors, who have no idea how to develop and integrate their hunches. Hagel’s secret to making it work is to conduct the oratorio as if it were simply a concert, letting all the other components he has selected -- both human and technical -- do their thing. The rotating cast of singers -- I heard Darlene Ann Dobisch (Gabriel), Kai Ingo Rudolph (Uriel), Christian Oldenburg (Raphael/Adam) and Christiane Roncaglio (Eve) interact with the large corps of adult and child terpsichoreans -- including Khaled Chaabi (Lucifer), Bente Weiler (Eve) and Manu Laude (Adam) -- who animate the narrative in a variety of dance styles -- but mostly breaking dancing -- choreographed by Laude and Nadia Espiritu. The singers and dancers move among the audience, bobbing enormous balloons across the nave, as the planets and stars come into being from the near-3D projections, that envelope the intricate decorations on the columns, walls and domes of the interior.

There is so much “action” in so many different areas of the cathedral, that it‘s a wonder that Hagel can keep everybody in sync without (at least noticibly) the help of musical assistants. All the more remarkable because few Baroque style churches are noted for uniform acoustics -- too many domes and crannies into which the sound can disappear.

Which brings me to the single glaring flaw in this and other Hagel inspirations. The aforementioned acoustical vagaries of the Berlin Cathedral necessitated amplification, and it was far from felicitous, especially for the solo voices. I think it was Barbara Cook who once, in an interview, blamed the almighty microphone as the most pernicious of the villains that have caused the downfall of the Broadway musical. Birgit Nilsson likened miking to doping. In my view, they are both right. There is no point in commenting on the merits of the singers in this performance, because they all, thanks to the miracle of amplification, sounded alike. Yeah, they all looked terrific, they sang on pitch, as far as I could tell, and they all started and finished together in the ensemble pieces, but qualitatively they each and all sounded canned, like mutations of Donny and Marie Osmond.

The choir of the Berliner Symphonie also seemed awkwardly disembodied and the Berliner Symphoniker sounded phoned in, although the latter may have been caused by arbitrary pickup from omni-directional microphones. But that said, there is no point in carping about cars, as we find ourselves way past the end of the horse-and-buggy age. Hagel is not merely giving us his take on musica antiqua, he is revealing its future.

I never leave Berlin willingly, so I stuck around for another day, to catch the season’s first Don Carlo at the Staatsoper’s temporary digs, the long-shuttered Schiller Theater in Bismarck Strasse. I should have obeyed my instincts and left town a day earlier. The production is so awful, I won’t dignify it by naming the producer. Besides, I only went because I wanted to hear René Pape. More specifically, I went only because I wanted to hear Pape sing “Ella giammai m’amo” -- which was ruined by the jerk behind me having a mega-coughing fit that lasted through most of the aria. Elsewhere, Pape was not in fine fettle. He had dropped out of the Met’s revival a couple of months ago, reportedly claiming indisposition. If his showing at the Staatsoper is any indication of lingering indisposition, one can only wish him speedy recovery. Otherwise, the performance was hexed by a Posa who apparently tuned his voice ca. A=340 (The standard everybody else used was at least A=440.) Given the variance in pitch, you can just imagine the wings of deadliness taken by the Duet and Prison Scene with Carlo, sung decently, incidentally, by a corpulent tenor whose unmentioned name will remain part of the collateral damage from this performance.

Thinking back to the previous evening, as I stumbled out of the Schiller Theather into the drizzling spring night, I wondered what Papa Haydn would say about Christoph Hagel’s treatment of his oratorio. Suddenly, a bolt of lighting struck Bismarck Strasse, followed by an intimidating clap of thunder. And lo, the Answer came unto me from on high:

Break dancing hath met the The Creator of the Creationist, and He findeth it... fabu!

(Schöpfung runs at the Berliner Dom Tuesday through Sunday at 8.30 p.m. until 3 June. Most performances are sold out.)

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

Easter Longings

We had a lovely dinner with our friend Sam Shirakawa a couple of weeks ago, but now he is back in Germany and reports upon his exploits over Easter weekend in Cologne, Duisberg and Hamburg:

 Wagner : Parsifal
 22 April

 Wagner : Fliegende Holländer
 23 April

 Wagner : Parsifal
 25 April

Wagner - Parsifal | Cologne | 22 April

When I told a friend that I was attending Parsifal twice over the long Easter weekend, he warned me -- not entirely in jest -- that too much of Wagner’s final stage work is unhealthy. There are, of course, those who believe that Wagner in any quantity presents a health hazard.

I became acutely aware of his comment, as I was listening to a concert performance of the work on Good Friday in Cologne. Parsifal is redolent with illness: Amfortas is in unspeakable pain, the community is suffering. The music longs for regeneration. Ultimately, redemption rules, but getting there takes more than five hours. Indeed, experiencing Parsifal can prove transformative, providing you have patience.

It also helps to hear artists who are up to their tasks. Which was thankfully the case at the Kölner Philharmonie, where a powerhouse cast sounded in excellent form. Most of the names are familiar: Robert Holl (Gurnemanz), Franz Grundheber (Amfortas), Evelyn Herlitzius (Kundry), and (are you ready for this?) Franz Mazura (Titurel). None of them brought new insights into their respective roles, but who cares? To hear these artists, who have grown into their roles without traces of wear and wobble was nothing less than thrilling. Age need not wither.

There was fresh blood too. Marco Jentzsch has a middle-weight voice, somewhat reminiscent of Sandor Konya and Charles Kullman, whose clarity and natural musicality reveals an appealing Parsifal. Samuel Youn keeps growing musically and at an astonishing pace, but he still has some work to do in articulating Klingsor’s menacing cynicism.

Crisp pacing and translucent textures characterized Markus Stenz’ reading. The Gürzenich Orchestra was in superb form, and Andrew Ollivant drew supernal sounds from the multiple choirs placed in various parts of the amphitheater-shaped auditorium.

Wagner - Parsifal | Hamburg | 25 April 

The Hamburg Oper on Easter Monday had the full monty -- or nearly. Robert Wilson’s production was furnished with sets and costumes (Frida Parmeggianni), minus the Grail Chalice, spear and tell-tale kiss. But he made it all work with lots of stylized gestures and hypnotic lighting effects. Wilson’s dream-like style is particularly suited to Parsifal. And he had a brand-name cast at his disposal, which was fully attuned to his ideas: Wolfgang Koch (Amfortas), Diogenes Randes (Titurel), Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Antonio Yang (Klingsor), Michaela Schuster (Kundry), and certainly not least Klaus Florian Vogt in the eponymous role.

Michaela Schuster was perhaps the most remarkable in this ensemble; she navigated the treacherous ups and downs on the staff with no perceptible effort. But her Kundry seemed oddly too well-adjusted -- more Klingsor’s willing tool than a tortured harlot, who tries to seduce Parsifal against her will.

Of Klaus Florian Vogt there is little to add to what I’ve said about him in the past. He has detractors among his growing legion of admirers. His Parsifal is about as anti-Melchior as you can get: its lyrcism is well-nigh androgynous. But it has size and warmth and brightens under pressure. His phrasing is invariably telling. His stage presence has an aura. Unlike some of his better known peers, he seems in no hurry to lumber his voice with loads of heavy roles.

Some unusual textures emerged from the pit at this performance -- quite unlike I have ever heard at a live performance of Parsifal. Could the fact that Simone Young is a woman have had something to do with it?

Speaking of conductors, you’ll find an extraordinary moment in a new film documentary by Vadim Jendreyko about the making of a recent production of Parsifal in Stuttgart titled Die singende Stadt. In it, stage director Calixto
Bieito tells conductor Manfred Honeck to pep up the tempo. The look on Honeck’s face as Calixo lectures him is worth the price of admission. When stage directors tell conductors what to do, you know in which direction opera is heading.

Wagner - Der Fliegende Holländer | Duisburg | 23 April

Sandwiched between the two Parsifals, I slipped into a performance of Der fliegende Holländer in Duisberg. The opera is the first (1843) of Wagner‘s “major” works and its premiere in Dresden was not as successful as Rienzi. Hearing this early Dutchman virtually side by side with Wagner’s final work was instructive: so vast is the musical development, that you would hardly believe the same composer created them both. If Wagner had died following the premiere of Dutchman at the age of 30, the opera would still be a landmark.

Seeing the Deutsche Oper am Rhein’s production by the late Adolf Dresen was also a mini-revelation. Real ships, women weaving at real looms, period-looking costumes. The evening was a throwback to times long past. The cast also seemed from another age: Tomasz Konieczny as a towering Dutchman, Jan-Hendrik Rootering in solid form as Daland, Corby Welch an intense Erik and Manuela Uhl, striking and incandescent, as Senta.

Uhl is chalking up one success after another. She recently added Chrysothemis to her arsenal of outsize roles in Baden-Baden and Munich under Christian Thielemann. Is the Met in the cards?

John Barry Steane, music critic and musicologist, born 12 April 1928; died 17 March 2011
Now a word about the loss of a great teacher. John Steane was a school master, whose specialty was Elizabethan literature. But his great love was opera, or more exactly, singing. He made it his task to convey that affection to the interested layman, but you don’t have to be musically in the know to appreciate him. His writings are gems of prose: concise, witty and thought-provoking. Above all, his articles and books are infectious; they make you eager to listen to the singers he surveys. The Grand Tradition explained a long miraculous moment in the history of singing while never appearing to explain it. It reads like an irresistible novel. Regretfully, I never met the man, and I never took the time to write him to ask what voice he utterly detested. Those who knew him say he was an English gentleman to the core and probably had no hate list -- at least, to which he would admit.

Now that he's departed, we are left with re-reading him, somewhat like replaying favorite records with the expectation of finding something surprising each time.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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