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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At 5/22/2011 8:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, ever since Sirius radio became involved in the Met broadcasts, they have used horrid compression and the dynamic range has been severly limited, almost becoming unlistenable. They're compressing everything because they assume that everyone is listening in their car or truck. Someone needs to let Met management know that there's little sense in broadcasting the performances if the sound is so horrible.

At 3/03/2012 1:41 PM, Anonymous Sandy said...

Such a great article which ctually, 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. In which 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. Thanks for sharing this article.

At 5/20/2013 6:30 AM, Anonymous fendson dorvilus said...

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