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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