Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Unwritten Dialogues

Sam Shirakawa paid a visit to the Komische Oper Berlin for anhd interesting interporetation of Dialogues des Carmelites:

9 JULI 2011

©Komische Oper Berlin

One of the most harrowing moments I’ve ever experienced at the theater -- or anywhere for that matter -- happened recently at the Komische Oper Berlin toward the end of the first part of Francis Poulenc’s Gespräche der Karmelitinnen (The Dialogues of the Carmelites). In a gratuitous vignette, one of the characters is killed in full view of the audience. As the assassin slashed his victim’s throat, a spine-wrenching shriek coursed through the house.

As my head whiplashed toward the source of the din at side of the box tier, I saw a young boy bury his face in his chaperone’s breast. He could scarcely have been more than five years old. His screaming grew louder. The woman snapped the boy up and carried him out into the passage. Even after the door to the parterre shut behind them, his wailing could be heard in unnerving decrements.

It was a show-stopper.

The producer of this new production, Calixto Bieito, can pat himself on the butt for an unplanned coup de théâtre. Those responsible for bringing a small child to an opera about a group of Angst-ridden nuns facing public execution during the French Revolution should be summarily guillotined.

So rattling was this moment, that I found it impossible to pay much attention to the rest of the performance.

Bieito’s designers (sets: Rebecca Ringst, costumes: Ingo Krügler) frame the convent of the Carmelites with a series of bunk beds stacked four levels high, separated by narrow aisles. The impact is at once claustrophobic and monumental: the value of waking life expands exponentially as the blade’s inevitable descent mocks eternal rest within the whack of a semi-quaver. The conceit is brilliant, one of Bieito’s simplest and most effective to date.

The singing is uniformly excellent: Marquis de La Force ... Claudio Otelli, Blanche de La Force ... Maureen McKay, Der Chevalier ... Joska Lehtinen, Madame de Croissy ... Christiane Oertel, Madame Lidoine ... Erika Roos, Schwester Constance ... Ingrid Froseth, Mutter Jeanne ... Caren van Oijen, Schwester Mathilde ... Maren Schäfer, Der Beichtvater des Karmel ... Peter Renz, 1. Kommissar ... Thomas Ebenstein, 2. Kommissar ... Hans-Peter Scheidegger. Not a false note among them. When the Komische Oper’s ensemble forges itself into an ensemble, as it did on this occasion, you would be hard put to find anything comparable elsewhere in Germany,

There was, however, one surprise: Irmgaard Vilsmaier as Mutter Marie. She sounded like a mezzo-soprano -- a dead-ringer for the size and timbre of Stephanie Blythe, but her bio lists Isolde as one of the parts she has sung with success at several provincial opera houses. If true, Komische Oper has no excuse for procrastinating on reviving Tristan.

The Orchestra of the Komische Oper responded viscerally to Stefan Blunier’s direction.

To hear the text sung in German took some adjustment, but the impact was all the more immediate. Again, that immediacy is what makes the Komische Oper at its best so exciting.

Back to that little boy’s screaming. It brings to mind an accident I witnessed when I was about four years old, when a car ran over a cat The victim’s owner was a girl about my age at the time. Her screaming still recurs to me every time I hear a child cry, regardless of the cause. More to the point, I occasionally wonder whether the little girl, my contemporary, ever got over the trauma of seeing her cat struck; whether her inconsolable shrieking was enough to begin healing the trauma of seeing her feline companion writhing in its death throes. That little boy at the Komische Oper will eventually learn that real boys don’t cry. And so, the the horror implicit in his screaming will probably remain hidden within his psyche while informing his outlook on life, long after he forgets that hideous moment, which was, after all, only make-believe.

On the other hand, the impromptu shock theater may ultimately benefit the boy, if environmental circumstances collude favorably with how he already has dealt with trauma. If everything that purports to be art is but a rehearsal for reality, the boy's visit to the Komische Oper could turn out to be a turning point in his evolving adjustment to a world in which the line between violence and its depictions is becoming increasingly hazy.

Maybe toddlers should be brought to every performance of the Komische Oper’s Gespräche der Karmelitinnen. Its current production opens a dialogue it never intended.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

It's Boogie Time, Klaus!

Sam has been very busy of late - he was there for Klaus Florian Vogt's concert at Deutsche Opera Berlin:

8 JULY 2011

Broadcast: Deutschland Radio 21 July 2011

When Klaus Florian Vogt launched into “Se all'impero, amici Dei” from La Clemenza di Tito last Friday at a concert in Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, I distracted myself from what I was hearing by trying to recall if I had ever attended a vocal recital that began so disappointingly. (Yes! Of course! -- as Barabas would never have put it -- but that was in another country; and besides the wench is dead.)

An aspirant in Pudding Mill Lane or even in Newark might get away with starting a concert with such a mine-laden aria, but a star tenor before an audience full of savants and panjandrums? Hate to ape Beckmesser, but here’s a partial list of inculpations: Smudgy coloratura. Choppy cantilena. Muddled phrasing. Insufficient support. In toto: Amateur Night at the East Gesus Civic Opera. Nonetheless, Vogt betrayed no signs of ill-ease, as he pursued his pigeon-toed vocal tap dance to its denouement.

Following polite applause, which he acknowledged with aw-shucks modesty, Vogt quit the stage. Moments later, a different singer emerged from the wings, to perform the second aria on the program: “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” from Zauberflöte. His name: Klaus Florian Vogt. This Vogt was in full possession of the supernal artistic faculties that modulate one of the most extraordinary, albeit controversial, voices now before the public. Arias from Oberon, Freischütz and Zar und Zimmerman ensued with ever mounting authority, grace and vocal opulence.

The second half of the concert started swiftly -- maybe a bit too swiftly: Lohengrin (“In Fernem Land”), Walküre ("Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond") and Meistersinger (Preislied) -- three of Vogt’s parade operas. But where was Lohengrin’s elegiac self-revelation, Siegmund’s ardor in winter’s frost, Walther’s wondrous discovery of a dream coming true? I‘ve heard Vogt as Lohengrin and Walther in three opera houses, and I know he can perform these numbers with axenic incandescence. Why such disagreeable haste on this occasion?

For the penultimate number Vogt brought Manuela Uhl on for the Duet from Die tote Stadt. Uhl is on the threshold of a significant international career, and her brief turn offered a tantalizing glimpse into what her Marietta might become in full performance. Regretfully, this up-and-comer was not given a solo turn, so she had little chance to display her burgeoning gifts. Notwithstanding, she and Vogt produced one of the evening’s glowing moments.

Vogt completed the evening with a tidy account of “Ach, so fromm” from Martha.

Peter Schneider conducted the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper. On the one hand, he presided over providing a flexible orchestral framework for Vogt, as he progressed from Mozart to Korngold. But left to his own devices with orchestral interludes (Lohengrin, Meistersinger, etc.), Schneider seemed content to mark time.

Net-net: a strange concert. Like him or not, Vogt is a force to be reckoned with. When the muses stand by him, he projects virile other-worldliness in streams of vocal splendor. His sound recalls Wunderlich’s irresistible musicality, Bjorling’s intoxicating sweetness and Völker’s fluvial power under pressure. While some listeners find the purity of Vogt’s sound vexingly androgynous, others find its alabaster smoothness eloquent. His looks are hardly in need of Photoshop; he would enhance any upscale ad campaign. But he appears satisfied to pick up his performing fees and spend what little spare time he has with his family.

That outlook, unfortunately, in my view, colors the impression he makes as a concert artist. At last week’s recital, Vogt seemed to abjure revealing anything about himself through his art that I didn’t already know or suspect. He offered no surprises, when he had plenty of opportunities to spring a few. He gave no encores, when he might have tossed off a rarity from, say, Liebesverbot or maybe a duet with Uhl from something like Der letzte Waltz or even Lady Hamilton. The opportunities for transforming the concert into more than a half-eaten sampler were limitless, and he went for none of them.

But Spaß [fun] is not what North German folk are known for, especially in the sacred precincts of an opera house (where Vogt was once a horn player). So, maybe Vogt’s North German temperament -- he‘s from Schleswig-Holstein -- really is what‘s holding him back from the kind of renown that some of his more ambitious coevals are seizing in deafening hi-def. In a recent interview with the Vogt interview - Berliner Morgenpost, Vogt was asked what he thinks is most characteristic of a typical North German: “Reserve,” he answered with typical North German brevity. “We take things as they come. We take our time, so that our affections can be all the more sincere.”

Well, Klaus, you‘ve been fondly known to us at arm’s length for the better part of a decade. But extroversion and conviviality are endemic to your upcoming new role: Cavaradossi. It’s time to get down and boogie.

[The concert, by the bye, was recorded for broadcast on 21 July via Deutschland Radio (the internet broadcast of this concert will be listed on Operacast). Hopefully, the Tito aria will have been re-recorded or deleted by air time.]

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Orient Espresso

Way back in June, our friend Sam Shirakawa was in Wuppetal for:

New Production
12 June 2011

An idea for a quiz game question occurred to me during the intermission of a recent performance in Wuppertal of Unerhofft in Kairo or Unexpectedly in Cairo or L’Incontro Improvviso or The Sudden Encounter. This 18th century comic stage work has had a number of titles and authors, but only one composer. Is he

(a) Mozart
(b) Salieri
(c) Haydn
(d) Glück

If you know the answer, you’re a smarty-pants and a wretched human being. If you picked Glück, you’re right. But only partly. Glück composed a revue entitled La Rencontre, whose libretto became the basis for the text for Unverhofft in Kairo or L’Incontro Improvviso. If you couldn’t even hazard a guess, collect 200 Euros, but do not pass Go.

Among the links that connect all the composers on this list, apart from the period in which they lived, is their interest in the Middle East and matters “Oriental.” What prompted this fascination has been a matter of intense research for over a hundred years, and the interest has surged in our time, especially since 9/11.

Jakob-Peter Messer’s production for Wupperthal amounts to the first known mounting of the German translation (which reportedly was carried out for a production in Bratislava close to the time of the world premiere in 1775), even if he substitutes some of the recitatives with dialogue spoken in Turkish, accompanied in lieu of a harpsichord by a lute-like instrument called Ud.

The so-called dramma giocosa per musica is arguably one of the modern musical comedy’s earliest direct ancestors. Its plot concerns a young prince who arrives in Cairo (didn’t you know that Cairo was once a big city in Turkey? Or something like that...) He is looking for his long lost sweetheart, who has been kidnapped. Will he find her? Of course, he will. But not before a round of arias, duets, terzets and strange twists of plot take place.

Banu Böke, who sings the Princess Rezia, helped translate some of the material into Turkish. A worthy successor to Leila Gencer is long overdue, and Baku could well step into the late great soprano’s shoes. Nothing about her Arabella a few months ago indicated that she has the coloratura equipment for Zerbinetta or the Queen of the Night, but her jawsy delivery of “Or vicina a te” suggested that she also possesses the potential for a wide range of revival-worthy gems from the 18th and 19th century.

Christian Sturm’s appealing stage presence and lean, bright tenor are ideally suited vocally for Rezia’s beloved Ali, Prince of Basra. He apparently specializes in pre-Romantic music, but his voice has size and shows signs of darkening, which may augur a leap into bel canto. Dorothea Brandt, who sang Zdenka successfully earlier this season at Wupperthal, showed a different and equally remarkable side of her talents as Rezia’s slave Balkis. Others in the strong cast included Miriam Scholz as Dardane, Rezia’s confidante, and Boris Leisenheimer as the servant Osmin.

Tobias Deutschmann conducted and had his hands full keeping some of the ensemble numbers on the beat.

If your answer to the multiple-choice quiz was Haydn, you win a no-expenses paid 2-week vacation to Cairo. The Arab Spring is lasting longer than usual this year, so it may be a good time to go.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Drowsy Damsel

Sam Shirakawa went to Bonn early in July to pick up a performance of Bellini's La Sonnambula:

Bellini: La Sonnambula (New Production - Premiere)
Bonn 3 July 2011

When the Metropolitan Opera mounted a “concept” production of La Sonnambula two seasons ago, audiences mostly hated it. But they did like most of the singing.

Which goes some way to show that opera, moribund though it may be, is still about singing.

If audience reaction at Theater Bonn’s premiere of Roland Schwab’s new production of Bellini’s masterpiece is admissible evidence, staging that appears to make sense and singing that indubitably thrills are still a winning combination.

Schwab’s designer Frank Fellmann and costumière Renée Listerdal have set the action in a picture-postcard Alpine village and clothed its inhabitants with attractive late 19th century garments. A large scale model of the town dominates the stage, directly under a mysterious cylinder, which at turns sheds light and levitates furniture. What is it supposed to represent? My guess is that Schwab & Co. are taking a telescopic look through this tube at a Drowsy Damsel and her tribulations.

The conclusions from his sightings are clearly speculative, given the spotty evidence produced by the libretto: Elvino (Marco Laho), the most eligible bachelor in the village, dumps his betrothed Amina (Julia Novikova) when he leaps to the false conclusion that she is unfaithful and turns his affections to Lisa (Emiliya Ivanova), another village maiden, only to return to Amina after he is convinced by a stranger (Rodolfo), who coincidentally turns out to be the long-lost son of a local nobleman, that she’s no floozy after all.

A shrewdly staged wedding photo-op in the final tableaux speaks to Schwab’s findings -- snapshots of unsmiling faces portend a dysfunctional marriage for the suspicious groom and his narcoleptic bride. Such a view might have worked even more effectively had Theater Bonn obtained the services of a soprano with a dark voice to portray the sleepwalking Amina. After all, quasi-mezzo Giuditta Pasta created the role in 1831, and short-lived but deep-throated Maria Malibran (1808-1836) reportedly made a specialty of it. Jenny Lind (1820-1887) became the model for the high-flying songbirds that popularized the opera until the middle of the last century, when Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland each turned Amina’s nutty perambulations into vocal case studies.

Russian soprano Julia Novikova settles for driving the audience nuts with her coloratura flights of ecstasy, as Amina awakens from her somnolent wanderings, preceded by a rapturously melancholy rendition of “Ah, non credea mirarti.” She has the requisite notes, breath, musicality and confidence to transmute the fiortitura into dramatic expression. What the sound of her voice lacks in its present estate is effulgent warmth -- that enamoring puissance which taps into the listener’s innermost reserves of sympathy. But Novikova is still young; Lucrezia and Norma still await her, beckoning.

She was admirably partnered by the Belgian tenor Marc Laho as Elvino, who recently was a winner at the Pavarotti Competition in Philadelphia. Despite occasional pitch issues and a stage presence that needs some work, he supplied non-stop the warm Italianate lyricism that eluded some of his colleagues. When he was good, which was most of the time, he was very good indeed, obviously having profited from listening to recordings of di Stefano and Alva.

Martin Tzonev made Rodolfo compelling with his sonorous bass-baritone. The cast was nicely rounded out by Emilyia Ivanova as Lisa, Susanne Blattert (Theresa), Sven Bakin (Alessio) and Josef Michael Linneck (Notary).

The Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn played with its usual verve under Robin Engelin's direction, though not always with its customary precision.

As the current season winds down, Theater Bonn is facing another round of government subsidy cuts on top of deep slashes that forced the closure of its resident ballet company. Even if the nightmare ends, which probably won’t be soon, what is left could be no more blissful than Roland Schwab’s view of Amina’s awakening.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Minimal OperaCast, for now....!

For those who are wondering what's happened with OperaCast in the past day or two, we at OperaCast extend our regrets.

Unfortunately, being on the road for a vacation the week of the Fourth has taken a heavy toll on our main laptop, which is our virtual lifeline for while we're away. Our laptop's hard disk appears to have been severely damaged (it will not boot up)! We do have a second laptop, but we have been having connectivity issues with that computer. This means that the sad skeleton of a week you now see on our dailies may be all our users will see until our return this Friday. Although we do have access to our files, the data harvesting and editing process has been so painfully slow that we have just about given up for now. If we're lucky, we will regain wi-fi connectivity well before Friday. Please stay tuned.

It may be the first time something this dire has happened with OperaCast, and it's a bitter pill to swallow. We know there will be bewildered and disappointed e-mails that will undoubtedly flow in this week, and to all our disappointed users, we can only extend our sincere regrets.

We can only repeat that we are ceaselessly trying to re-establish working contact with our dailies files as soon as possible.

With great regrets,

Geoffrey Riggs, Webmaster