Thursday, June 16, 2011

Oldies But Goodies

Sam Shirakawa saw three evergreen singers last week:

Pagliacci [Excerpts]
5 June 2011
Ford-Sinfonie Orchester Philharmonie Cologne

Leo Nucci Recital
6 June 2011
Theater Bonn

8 June 2011
Deutsche Oper am Rhein

Last week, I attended three vocal performances within four days, each of which featured a comparative oldster -- old, at least, among opera singers. The most junior of these veterans was Wagner tenor Wolfgang Schmidt, who reportedly turns 55 this year. Heldentenor Wolfgang Neumann accrues 66 years this month. Star baritone Leo Nucci at age 69 was the most senior among them. In a brutally tough line of work, these guys have hung in there at the top of their profession for at least three decades and counting.

Schmidt’s career is typical of beefy tenors who have managed to thrive on singing Siegfried, Tristan and Tannhäuser at the world’s big-name opera houses. After racking up a to-date record 18 Siegfrieds at Bayreuth (1994-2004) -- beating Windgassen and Jerusalem -- he’s downsizing to Mime in the current production of the Ring at Wagner’s shrine. There’s certainly no shame in being able to belt out Aegisth, Albert Gregor or the Captain in Wozzeck, and playing such roles competently can make you pretty much recession-proof.

Schmidt’s Herod last week in Deutsche Oper am Rhein’s production of Salome at Düsseldorf paid off expectations. He was licentious and loud with not a smidgen of subtlety -- just the way Herod should be. Even in his prime, Schmidt’s voice tended to wobble in the upper register, and it didn’t sound like it’s going to steady up. But the clarion alarum of his “Ah! herrlich!” and other such outbursts was indeed herrlich.

Among his colleagues, John Wegner was in super form as Jochanaan, Renee Morlac a powerful, deep-throated Herodias and Anne King-Williams musical but underpowered as Salome. She was not entirely to blame: the orchestra, even lacking an instrument or two, was simply too loud under Wen-Pin Chien’s direction. Ah, but in the final pages... those horns! those horns! Play it again, Sams!

Wolfgang Neumann officially retired last season as a company member of Mannheim’s National Theater. Unlike Schmidt, he didn’t downsize and departed with a valedictory Götterdämmerung Siegfried. Which obviously meant that he’d draw his pension and keep singing freelance: exactly what he did last weekend at Cologne’s Philharmonie in a concert by the Ford-Simphonie Orchester, slinging “bleeding chunks” of Pagliacci.

I was beginning to think this opera was going the way of Germania, Nerone and other gut-busters of Verismo vintage after I barely survived some tepidly sung performances of this pot-boiler in recent years -- including one at the Metropolitan with a so-called star as Canio. But there was liebes altes Wolflein last week, batting those bang-on high Bs and Cs way out of the Philharmonie, as though the bases were loaded with Paoli, Martinelli and Lázaro. At noon on a Sunday, yet!

Next day, Oper Bonn presented Leo Nucci in recital with an all-Verdi program before a small but enthusiastic crowd. He deserved better attendance, but he knows he’s part of his popularity problem. Following highly publicized disagreements with some German stage directors, he reduced his appearances in Germany for many years. (Maybe they were reduced for him, whether he liked it or not.) But, as he told an interviewer recently, “I’m singing better now than 20 years ago.” A true statement, I believe, given my recollections of orgasmic yawning during his big numbers at the Met and La Scala in those years.

It took about four early Verdi songs at his Bonn recital for him to hit his stride, but once he got going, Nucci really did sound better and more interesting than way-back-when. His voice has become darker and richer, although it occasionally spreads under pressure. Nonetheless, the top is still there: open, persuasive and at crucial junctures, heart-rending.

Following intermission, Nucci, nicely accompanied by Paolo Marcarini, offered lollipops from Macbeth, Vespri, Otello and Falstaff with several encores including “Di provenza” from Traviata -- all of them subtly detailed and gorgeously sung. His voice, I’ve noticed, has become larger in his senior years, and its vibrato remains sensual -- here and there awakening abstract insights. Whodathunkit?

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sam was back in Cologne to catch a performance of Wozzeck at Oper Cologne:

Un-Beautiful Losers
WOZZECK (New Production)
5 June 2011
Oper Cologne

I attended my first opera when I was about 10 years old. If Efrem Zimbalist’s only known and deeply tragic opera Landara could hook me, I dread to think what hearing Wozzeck (1925) live at such a tender age would have done to me. Alban Berg’s masterpiece, based on fragments of a play (1837) by Georg Büchner (1813-1837) is a profoundly disturbing work.

I wondered how Oper Cologne‘s new production might affect at least a dozen minors filing into a recent matinee performance. Two of them, neither one more than 8 years old, were seated directly in front of me. To my amazement, both sat still for the whole thing -- close to 100 minutes. The kids even leaned forward in rapt attention occasionally, as the episodic story of a simple man destroyed in the maelstrom of a hostile universe lurched inexorably toward its deadly climax.

Ingo Kerkhof‘s bleak staging for Oper Cologne’s production -- with minimal sets designed by Gilbert Jäkel and appropriately drab costumes by Jessica Karge -- mercifully makes no attempt to make the work more palatable, nor does Kerkhof appear to impose a thesis on the grim narrative. He is fortunate in being served by a cast that works hard to illuminate the catch-22 cycle of alienation and despair. With every vocal and physical gesture Florian Boesch projects incomprehension at a mean, pitiless world to which he ultimately responds with homicidal violence. Gordon Gietz (Drum Major), Alexander Fedin (Captain) and Dennis Wilgenhof (Doctor) take turns in exacerbating Wozzeck’s abysmal descent with some thrilling vocalism. But it is Asmik Grigorian’s Marie that is most heartbreaking. Her lachrymose account of the Magdalene narrative breathes a short respite of tenderness into the cruel societal vortex into which Marie has long since fallen. Martin Koch (Andres), Ralf Rachbauer (the Fool), Andrea Andonian (Margret), Dennis Wilgenhof and Sévag Serge Tachdjian (Workers) and Jakubus Aust (Marie’s Son) round out the closelly knit cast.

Markus Stenz explores Berg’s cheerless musical universe with resolute tread, eliciting cold, damp sounds from the Gürzenich Orchestra, which was in outstanding form.

Shortly before Wozzeck murders Marie and subsequently drowns, a persistent rumbling of thunder engulfed the house. What an effect, I thought. Shortly thereafter, as I emerged from the theater into a raging downpour, I realized that nature had played its part in making a downbeat drama all the more noir.

I’ve attended several productions of Wozzeck, including both mountings to date at the Metropolitan Opera, but I’ve never been eager to seek it out. I find Wozzeck simply too distressing.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Invoking the F-Word

Sam Shirakawa chose to attend a concert performance of Meistersinger instead of the soccer match of the day - did he make the right choice?

3 June 2011
Berlin Radio Symphonie Orchester
Philharmonie Berlin

While I was listening intently during a concert performance of Die Meistersinger last week at the Philharmonie in Berlin last week, the F-word occurred to me. Not that F-word. The F-Word.

As Edith Haller hit the word “Freund,” in “O Sachs, mein Freund,” the opera’s only lengthy interlude for Eva, she sounded to me fleetingly like, -- dare I say it? Kirsten Flagstad. There, I’ve said it: Flagstad. Several sopranos, Dvorakova and pre-Bayreuth Gwyneth Jones among them, have elicited the same reaction from me, but none with such sirenical allure as Haller. Hers is a huge, ineluctably feminine instrument, gleaming at the top and becoming flexibly mellow as she skates with no perceptible effort through her middle and lower registers. Haller’s Eva is enchanting; the part may as well have been written for her.

She was matched by Albert Dohmen’s superb Hans Sachs. Some may have found him a bit gruff from time to time, but the overall arc of his portrayal illuminated an aging but energetic craftsman, who is unwillingly obliged to resist Eva‘s advances.

Robert Dean Smith was at the top of his form as Walther von Stolzing, though he occasionally had some challenges above the staff. (I’ll come back to this in a moment.) He was at his best in the composition scene of the third act.

Peter Sonn, stepping in on short notice for Christoph Strehl as David, acquitted himself satisfactorily with his bright, well-focused and large lyric tenor. But there were stretches where he appeared to be sight-reading. He must also learn to eschew toe-tapping in time to his music.

Standouts among the rest of the alert and disciplined cast members included Georg Zeppenfeld as a mellifluous Pogner, Dietrich Henschel’s borderline psychotic Beckmesser, Thomas Pursio as a fluently florid Kothner, Michelle Breedt surprisingly concupiscent as Magdalena, and lo, that treasured ward of Aoide, Matti Salminen, in a much too brief cameo as the Nightwatchman.

Marek Janowski led the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (under Eberhard Friedrich) in a tightly paced -- occasionally too brisk -- performance. But in keeping the tempo decidedly upbeat, he contravened, for example, Wagner’s instruction for the chorale at the beginning of the first act, which explicitly states: “At the same tempo as the Prelude.” He’s not the first conductor to slow down at the chorale, but on this occasion, the effect was brake-slam abrupt. Otherwise, his reading became warmer and increasingly nuanced as the performance proceeded.

Anyone looking at the placement of numerous microphones on and above the platform could tell from the outset, that the performance was being recorded. That’s nothing new nor objectionable. But the seemingly itinerant placements of the singers -- now here, now there -- proved now and then unsettling for me. In the second act, Sachs and Eva played out their dialogue behind the first violins. The Nightwatchman delivered his first announcement from an upper loft overlooking the platform; his second from the stage. In the latter, the aural difference worked out nicely. In the former, not so successfully: despite the Philharmonie‘s much vaunted acoustic virtues, Dohmen and Haller sounded not merely distant from behind the first violins, but seemed qualitatively different than when they were standing near the podium. And I was sitting in the most desirable part of the house: Row 8, center block, parquet. No doubt, the sound engineers will work everything out for posterity, but if it occasionally sounded a bit odd to me, there‘s no telling how it struck people in other parts of the cavernous Philharmonie.

Which poses some questions: if performances are being slanted toward the microphone at the expense of the attending audience -- which sometimes pay obscene ticket prices -- should patrons receive a hefty discount? Or should they maybe just stay at home and wait for the broadcast or recording?

A case for waiting for the doctored broadcast or the enhanced CD/DVD: Walther has an exposed high-C in the second act. If he sang the note at all, Robert Dean Smith hit it so softly that I could not hear it. Was that intentional? You'll probably be able to hear the note loud and clear on the airwaves or on disc, and it will surely be Smith's very own separately taped and perfectly placed high-C (unlike Flagstad, whose high-Cs in the legendary EMI recording of Tristan und Isolde were lent by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf). But part of the thrill at any live opera is hearing those high notes con forza in the heat of performance, and we were, in my view, short changed.

Net-net, it was a superior performance. But as a member of the audience that chose schlepping to Philharmonie that day in favor of watching the Euro 2012 Qualifier, I felt cheated. All the more so, because Germany picked Austria's pockets 2-1.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Money Sings

Sam Shirakawa visited Bonn several days ago and has filed a report on a rare revival he attended of Lortzing's Der Wildschütz:

Lortzing: Der Wildschütz 
(The Poacher Or: An Indecent Proposal) [New Production]
1 June 2001

Is there any reason why Albert Lortzing’s seldom heard stage work Der Wildschütz oder: Ein unmoralisches Angebot (The Poacher Or: An Indecent Proposal) should be revived? The program notes to Oper Bonn’s handsome new production list about 25 reasons -- all reasonable, some fanciful, others even compelling. But the main reason is not given.

Oper Bonn is mounting Wildschütz (1842) because it can, thanks to a well-drilled cast and to a co-production deal with Theater Chemnitz and the Vienna Volksoper that helps defray costs.

Those, like me, who have never seen it before are lucky in having Dietrich W. Hilsdorf’s gimmick-free production set before us, because the story is complicated enough without imposing a “concept” on it: a German village schoolmaster loses his job and jeopardizes his marriage after he is accused of shooting a deer while trespassing on a local count’s property. To clear himself and settle his debts, he may have to sell his wife to the nobleman. Ergo the subtitle: An Indecent Proposal. Before everything is straightened out, a lengthy series of identity switches, disguises and subterfuge must be played out.

Hilsdorf‘s staging is pleasantly direct and fluently blocked with charming period sets by Dieter Richter that glide on and off aboard a revolving platform. Renate Schmitzer’s costumes are satisfyingly ooh-ahh, especially for the noblewomen.

The production is also strongly cast and well-paced under the musical guidance of Ulrich Zippelius. Philipp Meierhöfer fuses resolve with desperation as the schoolmaster Baculus, determined to win back his job even if he has to sell his soul, um, I mean, his wife. Kathrin Leidig’s pleasant lyric soprano and graceful stage presence endows credibility on her portrayal of Baculus’ young spouse Gretchen. She is elegantly counter-balanced by Julia Kamenik as the recently widowed Baroness Freimann, who offers to help Baculus out of his dilemma. Giorgos Kanaris as the libidinous Count von Eberbach elicits sympathy through his way with the most tuneful arias of the opera. André Riemer as the Count’s brother-in-law Baron Kronthal makes a vocally impressive attempt at captivating Gretchen for himself. Anjara I. Bartz, Charlotte Quadt and Carlos Krause ably round out the principals.

Coming back to the question why Der Wildschütz should be revived, maybe the key question is why it is performed so rarely these days? In my view, a significant part of its current popularity problem lies in its mechanics. For starters, it takes a full act -- or about an hour, followed by an intermission -- before the memorable tunes, arias and ensembles start tumbling out, one after another. Worse, most of the exciting music -- and there's lots of it -- is awarded to the Count, the Baron, and the widowed Baroness, little of it to Baculus and Gretchen. The work is also too long, and the convolutions of the plot become ha-ha interruptus. Lortzing was a versatile Man of the Theater who wrote his own libretti, so it's hard to figure out why his plot labors for levity. That said, composer and conductor Hans Pfitzner proclaimed the schoolmaster Baculus as "The finest comic figure of German opera." Go figure.

The other problem that burdens the story is thematic. Baculus is apparently marrying a much younger woman. Age difference may not necessarily wither matrimony in life, but it is A-material for cuckold comedies and tragedies. Witness The Barber of Seville or Pagliacci. In Wildschütz, though, its semi-incestuous implications are, oddly, not an issue. Ultimately, it is a comedy of muneration not manners. While Baculus is certainly not the first husband who‘s thought seriously about putting his wife on sale, Lortzing falls short of making the subject a laughing matter.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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