Friday, September 30, 2011

Hey Pete! This Guy!

Sam is back in Cologne for the new season, where budget concerns have not crimped their style....

Prokofiev: War and Peace (New Production)
Cologne Opera
21 September 2011

Cologne’s state-run Opera and Playhouse are in deep financial trouble. To the reportedly unpleasant tune of 5 million euros ($6,754,000) being cut from operating expenses in order to keep the two venues going. Cologne Oper’s Intendant (general manager) angrily disputes this figure, contained in a front-page report by the city’s main newspaper Kölner Stadt Anzeiger. Uwe Laufenberg says, no, no, the Opera and Playhouse are having a “structural problem” and are currently existing off their reserves.

That may explain how the Opera can afford to open its current season with a spiffy new production of Prokofiev’s epic War and Peace. Was it Maynard Keynes who said? When in debt, spend!

You need not read Tolstoy’s epic novel nor see the biblically proportioned movie to know that this white elephant demands all the resources an opera house can muster. And yet, for all the money and energy expended for the delectation of a dwindling audience base, War and Peace still can be stressful to witness because it’s episodic and lacks clearly woven musical and dramatic threads.

No wonder.

Prokofiev composed his opera during World War II under the miserable constraints of Stalin’s multi-layered bureaucracies, each of which demanded scores of changes and propagandistic interpolations. It could be said that the effort killed him. He never saw his valedictory opus performed, but he at least took Stalin with him: they both died on the same day in 1953.

The quasi-variorum score as of Prokofiev’s death has 60 soloists. Cologne’s production calls for about 48 parts sung by about 35 artists. Do the math and you can tell that Nicholas Brieger’s staging has abridged it significantly, focussing on the human interactions of both the War section (Part 2) and the Peace portion (Part 1). Nonetheless, this production has a playing time of nearly three hours. But thanks to an elegant series of sliding screens designed by Raimund Bauer, some dazzling smoke-and-lighting effects by Alexander Koppelmann and splashy costumes by Andres Schmidt-Futterer, the scenes pass swiftly by, long before you realize that Brieger is squeezing the last cent out of every Euro in his undisclosed budget.

Vocally, Cologne reportedly spared every expense but still got bargain after bargain. Johannes Martin Kränzle is a superb Bolkonski, Olesya Golovneva a vibrant Natasha, Mirko Roshkowski a marvelous Kuragin, Milyenko Turk a nasty Napoleon. Judging from their names, they have this music in their blood, and they all ooze forth one gorgeous ensanguined note after another -- individually and as an ensemble. The question is whether you like your soloists rare. Another helping, please.

Anchoring the proceedings is Michael Sanderling, the recently deceased Kurt Sanderling’s youngest son by his second marriage. I first noticed Sanderling more than 15 years ago, when he was cutting his teeth as music director of the Kammerakademie in Potsdam. In the intervening years he has come step-by-step into his own as a first-rank conductor. He is indeed his father’s son.

Sanderling started his musical life as a cellist and was appointed (at age 19) by none less than Kurt Masur to the first chair of the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig. An auspicious starting place for a wannabe conductor: Charles Münch, Rudolf Kempe, and Albert Catell (neé Katz) also were instrumentalists in this august ensemble before they took to the stick.

What strikes me about Sanderling’s view of the score is his flexible pacing and even-handed control over the frequently unwieldy tug-of-war between the stage and pit. At times, though, he gives the impression of taking a vain stab at making some movie-music stretches of the score sound like real music, instead of just letting these passages play out -- especially in the war scenes -- as up-market Dimitri Tiomkin. He might also give himself over a bit more to the romantic line, at which Prokofiev, at his best, was every bit as masterful as Tchaikovsky. Nonetheless, an admirable reading from a someone whose shoes could readily fill Levine’s footsteps. Given the breadth of his experience at age 44, though, why has Michael Sanderling yet to conduct at the Met?

Hey, Pete! Over here! Yeah, this guy...

©Sam S. Shirakawa

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Friday, September 16, 2011

She’s Still Here... and Smokin'

Rosalind Elias in FOLLIES 
Marquis Theater
New York 

Rosalind Elias in Follies
Rosalind Elias appeared in the second opera I ever attended, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Not only is she still alive, she’s extraordinarily well and at the age of (she won’t say), she’s - lo and behold - making her Broadway debut in the current revival of Stephen Sondheim’s legendary musical Follies!

Efrem Zimbalist’s Landara was my first live opera performance. It was mounted by the opera department of Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where Zimbalist was Dean or whatever you called them in those days (he was married to Mary Curtis Bok of the Curtis Publishing family). I only went because some friends were performing in it. As I recall, none of them thought much of the work, and they said as much with varying degrees of candor. As a neophyte, though, the strangeness of it all captivated me, even though I could hardly understand a word coming from the stage.

My second opera excursion was a different story: I understood every syllable coming from the stage.

In those days, the Metropolitan Opera came to Philadelphia at least six times every season, to serve the cream of the city’s social elite their dose of cultcha. Performances were invariably sold-out by subscription. But Samuel Barber’s Vanessa was a triple loser: it was a new work, it was composed by an American and it was to be sung in English. Tickets were being sent back to the box office by the bushel. But spares were grabbed on the rebound because the world premiere a month earlier in New York had received ecstatic reviews and the buzz on it was hot. Even then, some afficianados poo-pooed it all because Eleanor Steber, who created the title role, would be replaced by Brenda Lewis. Ultimately, it didn’t matter who performed Vanessa. Once she sang “Must the winter come so soon,” all ears and eyes, including mine, were locked on Rosalind Elias as Erika.

In an interview I produced for WPIX-11 News in New York recently, Elias recalled to correspondent Tamsen Fadal how the aria was created. It’s a fairly well-known story, but hearing it in her own words is a treat. I cut this portion of the interview from the aired episode because the story would not appeal to a broad general audience, most of which may never have heard of Vanessa or, pardon, Rosalind Elias. The focus of the interview was to expose the just-folks side of the diva. Did you know, for example, that she has been married only once and for over 40 years? That her father strongly opposed her musical ambitions?

I managed to get approval for the story for two reasons: Elias was appearing in a Broadway musical and it was the Broadway debut of a Met diva. The project was deemed sufficiently mainstream for a back-of-the-book episode. The timing was good too: I was able to shoot it quickly during a slow news phase.

Here's the link to the piece. On the same page, you'll find links to nearly the whole interview conducted by correspondent Tamsen Fadal, including Elias' comments on Domingo, Corelli and Pavarotti, as well as her story of how Samuel Barber came to compose "Must the winter come so soon?" for her. I split it into three parts, so that each section would upload faster.

Note that I was allowed 3:28 for the segment: an unheard of length in commercial morning television for such a story. The average is 2 minutes tops. Thanks to Senior Producer Marcia Parris, Executive Producer Howard Dorsey and PIX-11 News Director Bill Carey for allowing their superb taste and supernal artistic discrimination to prevail over the demotic exigencies of terrestrial daytime TV.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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