Thursday, December 29, 2011

T'is the Spielzeit

OTELLO (New Production)
15 December 2011

EIN WALZERTRAUM (New Production)
16 December 2011


Sam H. Shirakawa
James Rutherford, Frank van Aken

T’is now the season to be jolly in the Judeo-Christian world, even as we hunt grimly for post-Santa bargains, exchange unwanted presents with malevolent zeal and coldly cash in those gift certificates. At Oper Graz recently, t’was also the season to be madly jealous.

Director Stephen Lawless certainly anticipated the holiday mood with hardly an agenbite of inwyt when his shrewd new production of Verdi’s Otello opened back in September: his Iago as embodied by James Rutherford is a bearish clown -- Rigoletto re-risen. But this time, no more Mister Victim. Iago’s jester costume may provoke nervy jollies, but it conceals a seething well of loathing, whose vampiric imprint ultimately scrags his employer through Verdi’s opulent, insidious melodies.

Otello is performed as often as there are lead tenors game enough to gamble the longevity of their voices. Both tenors and those who know are aware of what kind of voice Verdi wanted for his Moor. Tenors who could measure up to Francesco Tamagno’s leonine anguish have been relatively few.

Recently several tenors of note have been trying their luck at Otello, among them Ray M. Wade, Jr. and Frank van Aken. As far as I can tell, Wade has had no engagements since he sang the role in Heidelberg earlier this year. Frank van Aken, meanwhile, has taken the Moor to Frankfurt, Graz and who-knows-where-else.

Van Aken is still finding his way around this exhausting role. But performing Otello more than a dozen times this autumn is exposing him to risk. The voice is showing signs of strain. Nonetheless, it’s a thrill to hear a singer with the requisite oomph for the part commit himself from start to finish with such passion.

Gal James

Gal James as Desdemona had intermittent pitch issues at the start of the first act Duet, but she went on to produce a warm effulgent sound, culminating ultimately in an elegiac Willow Song and heartfelt Prayer. The Big Leagues are certainly in the cards for her; shucking a few kilos could hasten her chances.

If kilos could measure voice size, the aforementioned James Rutherford would be as much a vocal heavyweight as he is physically. But his voice is accruing overtones, giving the impression at times, that his voice is unfocused. It took some concentrated listening to filter out the intrusives, but the voice found its center, and Rutherford turned out to become an unusually arresting villain.

Johannes Fritsche led a lively performance despite occasionally ragged ensemble in the orchestra.

Lawless’ production, designed by Frank Philipp Schlößmann, is distinguished by a platform that tilts alarmingly forward at times, summoning a rocky world, subject to earthquakes and sudden catastrophes.

The performance I caught was the last in the series for this season. The production deserves to be revived, and soon.

Ein Walzertraum: Act II (Sets and Costumes Rainer Sellmaier
On the following evening, Oper Graz offered Oscar Straus’ rarely performed Ein Walzertraum, a more suitable presentation for the Yuletide season, perhaps, than a tale of miscegenation heading south. Ein Walzertraum or The Waltz Dream, which received its premiere in 1907 at the Carl Theater in Vienna, was a breakthrough for Straus [no relation, by the way, to either Richard Strauss or Johann Strauß)]. Opening on the heels of Franz Lehar’s Merry Widow two seasons earlier, Straus’ work raised hopes for a long Silver Age of operetta. The composer chalked up several hits over a long career, notably The Merry Nibelungs, The Chocolate Soldier and Die Teresina, but Walzertraum achieved a level of critical and international public acclaim that none of his other works attained.

Edward Johnson as Niki in The Waltz Dream, Broadway version (1908)

Incidentally, the Broadway version (1908) headlined tenor Edward Johnson, future General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera (1935-1950). Apart from productions in London and other theatrical capitals, the work also has had several film interpretations, including The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) starring Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins -- all in irresistible form, directed by none less than Ernst Lubitsch
.  Straus added new numbers with lyrics in English by the composer, actor and two-time bobsleigh Olympic gold medalist Clifford Grey.   Surrounded by such a confluence of genial energy, Straus couldn't help but produce a finer score than his original.  Still, this operetta is, in my view, a gem.

Many variations of Walzertraum have sprung up in the Post-War period, among them a broadcast iteration in 1954, assembled at Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk Cologne (NWDR) under conductor Franz Marszalak.  The so-called Rogati Adaptation dating from the 1950s was used by the current revival's conductor Marius Burkert several years ago.  In a program note, Burkert says that he felt the idioms in this version were growing dated. So he went to some lengths to secure the original version, replete with ballet music from that production, which presumably has not been performed for decades.

Change partners? Margareta Klobucar (Princess Helena)  Thomas Sigwald (Niki) and Sieglinde Feldhofer (Franzi)
While Walzertraum caused almost as much excitement throughout the world as Lustige Witwe at the time of their premieres, the latter has thrived, while the former has barely survived outside Austria. A pity because Walzertraum has some gorgeous music. Its theme has been recorded by countless singers and the Waltz still turns up now and then in films and on television.

Both works have several societal concerns in common -- primarily because these issues are layered into most operettas of the Golden and Silver Ages: class distinction, hypocrisy, money versus rank, aching nostalgia, etc. But Walzertraum’s popularity problem may lie in the outcome of the plot: Handsome, eligible, but demotic Lieutenent Niki is caught between his crush on working-girl band leader Franzi and the affections of royally rich Princess Helene. The ending is happy but not especially satisfying. And therein lies the rub: Niki the Lieutenent must awaken from his waltzy dream and dine in; Hanna and Danilo will always breakfast at Maxim’s -- somehow.

Oper Graz’ new production may achieve some endurance, thanks to Michael Schilhan’s well-paced direction and lots of eye candy provided by Rainer Sellmaier’s sets and costumes, especially in the beer garden scene of the second act. More arabesques are provided by choreographer Allen Yu and a lineup of superb dancers, who give lift and verve to the newly unearthed ballet music.

Michál Zabavik and ballet ensemble

Among the principals, Thomas Sigwald (Niki), Margareta Klobucar (Princess Helena) and Sieglinde Feldhofer (Franzi) all are in full control of requisite operetta voices and make their understanding of the Viennese operetta tradition work to their advantage. The entire cast, among them Janos Mischuretz (Montschi), Fran Lubahn (Fredericke), Götz Zenman (Joachim), Martin Fournier (Lothar), was in good shape, but they all occasionally lagged a speck behind the beat. Hard to fathom because Marius Burkert’s baton punctuated cues with crystal clarity.  If this irritating occurrence is a latter-day take on old-time Viennese schmaltz, it comes off schleppy and day-old provençal.  Catch up, Liebchens.  On the other hand, the orchestra and chorus performed with concentration and heart.

The portico was rebuilt in a simplified design following war damage.

Oper Graz remains one of the foremost lyric theaters in northern Europe, to which the current productions of Otello and Walzertraum give ample evidence.  It is also one of the most handsome opera houses on the Continent, and steady upkeep from a 1980s renovation program preserves its physical as well as acoustical opulence.

Completed in 1899 in the late rococo style, the house has nearly 1,300 seats distributed over a rectangular parquet, two steeply raked balconies and 40 boxes. Surfaces are lavishly appointed with gold-leaf molding and marble statuaries. Judicious use of wood and plaster amplify the vocalists, while enriching the reverb from both stage and pit. I sat in four  locations over the course of the two performances I attended and found the sonorities surprisingly uniform and “natural” at every vantage point.

Courtesy: Oper Graz

What late Wagner and Richard Strauss sound like in this theater is good reason to return to Graz, but suffice it to say, Strauss found the acoustical conditions sufficiently sufficient to take the podium here at the Austrian premiere of his Salome [The reported list of attendees at this event may be partly apocryphal, but can you imagine being an autograph hound on that warm May night in 1906? -- stalking Gustav, Alma, Arnold, his disciples, Giacomo, and that pubescent monorchid with the Chaplin moustache for their John Hancocks...]

Richard Strauss himself conducted the Austrian premiere of Salome at Oper Graz.

Graz has also been a proving ground for numerous musical artists who have gone on to win  world fame, among them Marianne Brandt (the first Götterdämmerung Waltraute), Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Friedrich Schorr; more recently Gundula Janowitz, Heinz Zednik, Angelika Kirchslager and, not least, native son Karl Böhm, who made his conducting debut at this theater at age 23 in 1917.


Otello: Werner Kmetitsch
Walzertraum: Dimo Dimov
Edward Johnson: Public Domain
Oper Graz exterior, foyer and Karl Böhm: Sam H. Shirakawa

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Sleeping with the Enemy

NORMA (New Production)
Krefeld 3 December 2011

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Barbara Dobrzanska (Norma) Kairschan Scholdybajew (Pollione)

How is it possible to be a Druid priestess in the wide open spaces of ancient Stonehenge and keep such secrets as having two children by an enemy soldier? It’s one of the don’t-ask issues I’ve always had with Bellini’s otherwise supernal opera Norma.

The question recurred to me at the premiere of Krefeld Stages’ new production under the direction of Thomas Wünsch. He’s shifted the scene from the green open plains of southern England to the grey claustrophobic environs of a 20th century ghetto designed by Heiko Mönnich -- presumably an eastern European enclave, given the absence of Third World n’er-do-wells.

Why a ghetto? In an interview found in the program booklet, Wünsch says, he wanted to put in bold relief the isolation of the British aborigines as an occupied people. [The Roman occupation of Britain lasted for nearly 300 years, beginning in 43 AD.] Further, he was inspired by Roberto Rosellini’s Rome -- Open City and by Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, both of which, as Wünsch notes, starred that most operatic of cinema icons Anna Magnani.  In the former, latter day Romans face off against the occupying Nazis. In the latter the denizens of the Eternal City find no liberation from the ensuing peace-time occupation of the Allied Forces, despite the desultory efforts of some, namely the younger generation.  

If Norma the opera is viewed through these filters, Norma the Druid priestess apparently copes with the condition in which she finds herself, by sleeping with the enemy, embodied by Pollione, and bearing him two children, whose fate as ethnic half-breeds could prove seminal for the plot of another opera. Especially in view of the fact that Pollione is having it off with a temple novitiate, Adalgisa. My, those Druid lassies were a randy bunch!  

Anna meets Babs
But it’s the song that matters, isn’t it? And the singing for the most part is surprisingly grand.

Barbara Dobrzanska bears a faint but agreeable resemblance to Magnani, and her sound evokes images of Anna’s deeply felt tragic gestures. I’ve heard Dobrzanska before, and she’s always stepped up to the plate. This time, she steps out. Her coloratura may eschew Sutherland’s bravura and Caballe’s lapidary incision, but she stamps her own vigorous personality on the role with her clarion roulades and seamless legato, combined with heartfelt articulation. A welcome surprise: a vocal discovery in... Krefeld?

Janet Bartolova holds her own as Adalgisa, though her voice is bereft of the darker hues usually assigned to the role. After the holidays, she and Dobrzanska reportedly are switching roles on successive performances. Should be interesting.

Kairschan Scholdybajew, who sang Pollione, had a cold. In fitter shape, he might have had a triumph. His somewhat nasal production takes some getting used-to, but his tenor is well suited to the part. His acting, though, could use more flexibility.

Andrew Nolan was serviceable in the thankless role of Oroveso.

Clothilde was a breakthrough of sorts for Sutherland. Whether the role opens horizons for Lilla Tripodi remains to be heard.

Andreas Fellner led a lively reading and drew disciplined response from the chorus, drilled by Maria Benyumova. The orchestra was in outstanding form.  

(Right) Janet Bartolova
Net-net: Wünsch has come up with an heuristic concept. But it ultimately is unfocused and distracting. Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani certainly were caught up in the dust winds of politics as they prepared to bring Norma (1831) to La Scala for the first time, but their primary concerns were romantic.  The opera, in my view, has held the imagination of the public for 200 years because of a love triangle that audiences of any era can and do relate to.  

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Grand Bargain

Ariadne auf Naxos (New Production)  
30 November 2011

99 years and counting.  Anticipating the upcoming centenary of Ariadne auf Naxos, Oper Cologne is currently mounting a new production of the work.  New for Cologne, yes, but not new as in brand new.  The fiscal going is tough right now, so Intendant and director Uwe Eric Laufenberg went shopping for bargains. They found a production designed by Tobias Hoheisel in Barcelona and snapped it up, reportedly for a snap.  (These sets landed in Catalonia after being seen all over Europe as well as in Israel, following its 1997 premiere in Brussels.)  
If you like Jugendstil or Vienna Secession, as I do, it’s hard to resist the urge to run up onto the stage and take a closer look at the accents that decorate the massive reception hall of “Vienna’s wealthiest man.” The costumes by Jessica Karge are also attractive.  Yeah, I know the period is supposed to be 18th century, but it works; nothing in the text runs counter to the updated setting. Even the floor-to-ceiling windows at the rear of the hall open out to reveal not the Danube, but the waters of the Aegian/Mediterranean.  In all, a Grand Bargain of a production.
The original version of Ariadne was conceived by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstahl as a companion piece to Hofmannstahl’s translation of Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.  The play and opera were first produced as a unit in 1912 in Stuttgart under Max Reinhardt’s direction with Strauss himself on the podium.  The cast included venerable provincials of their art such as Maria Jeritza, Hermann Jadlowker, Margaretha Siems and Sigrid Onegin (as a Nymph!).  Several iterations in other cities followed, but it proved too long (six hours) and too costly to be worthwhile.  The second version dropped Moliere, moved the setting of the retooled opera from parvenu Paris to arriviste Vienna and opened there on 4 October 1916.  It proved a success.  It also clocked agreeably shorter than the original, lasting about two hours. This is the version most often performed today.  

Also in our hurried times, Ariadne is often presented without intermission.  Such is the case in Cologne.  
Everybody in the opera world seems to have the sniffles in these dog days of autumn, and both Regina Richter as the composer and Marco Jentzsch singing Bacchus had colds.  Neither sounded any worse for their ailments, and they acquitted themselves with some gorgeous, impassioned vocalism.  
Barbara Haveman sang with mounting energy and flexibility as Ariadne gives herself to Bacchus’ entreaties.  Anna Palimina (in place of Daniela Fally), singing Zerbinetta for the first time, proved vivacious, cute and pitch-perfect in her big aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin.”  Standouts in the outsize cast included Gloria Rehm, Adriana Bastidas Gambos and Ji-Hyun An as the nymphs; Harald Kuhlmann as the House Master, Johannes Martin Kränzle as the Music Teacher, and the quartet of Zerbinetta’s sidekicks: Jeongki Cho, Matias Tosi, Gustavo Quareama Ramos and Miljenko Turk.
Given the massive workload Markus Stentz has as Music Director, it’s a wonder that he can elicit such exquisite ensemble work from his cast and orchestra with a Gordian score the likes of Ariadne auf Naxos.  I wonder, though, what wonders he might discover if he took some time to plunge a bit deeper into this treasure-laden masterwork. 

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Photos © Karl Forster
Top (left to right); Regina Richter, Marco Jentzsch, Barbara Haveman
Middle: Daniela Fally and friends
Bottom: Nymph in distress prepares a drop-kick with her left foot.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

All for Liebe

Sam Shirakawa went to Frankfurt to hear Klaus Florian Vogt in recital:

Klaus Florian Vogt
Recital | 29 November 2011 | Frankfurt-am-Main

Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin

Several weeks ago, I heard a recital in New York given by a well-known singer. One of the pithiest comments I heard during intermission: nice voice but not a clue about the text. Which is why I dislike Lieder recitals these days. The disconneFrankfurtct between the singer and the song, the text and the music, appears to be growing wider as we modulate away from the golden phase of Lieder in the 19th century.

That chasm was narrowed to no little degree at Klaus Florian Vogt’s recital on 29 November at Oper Frankfurt. The feat was all the more remarkable because he tackled Schubert’s deceptively simple song cycle Die schöne Müllerin.

For me, the secret of Vogt’s interpretive cunning lay in mining his personal experience as a father to make the most of himself as a narrator. He told the story of a young journeyman’s hopeless love for his employer’s daughter, as he might tell it to his own kids. While the plot may be a bit advanced for children, Vogt’s singular achievement at his recital was to coax his audience of grown-ups into childlike attentiveness right from the energetic outset of “Das Wandern ist der Müllers Lust” and hold his public in thrall down through to the hoke-free resignation of “Gute Ruhe, tu’ die Augen zu...” Rarely have I attended a song recital where the collective concentration of the audience was so rapt. To be among an assembly of native speakers who bring their shared linguistic comprehension to the gathering was, for me, especially moving.

Vogt was helped hugely by Helmut Deutsch, whose partnering instincts produced a lively dialogue between piano and singer. Met audiences will recall him serving as Jonas Kaufmann’s redoubtable accompanist earlier this season.

You might not think of Vogt as a natural Lieder singer, given that he’s made the greater chunk of his fortune with chunky roles like Lohengrin, Florestan and Paul. But the voice on this occasion offered tanatalizing glimpses into what he might do with the songs of Mahler, Strauss and, not least, Wolf. As I’ve said repeatedly, his is one of the most unusual male voices now before the public: lithe, tungsten brilliant when so summoned and even from tip to tailfly. Plus he has a clue or two to what he’s singing about, which he articulates with telling diction, unpremeditated legato and compelling range of volume, free of blemishing overtones when under pressure. The recital also gave a new disclosure about Vogt’s art: he’s more versatile than he’s previously let on. But how versatile? His sunny, sole encore “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehar’s Land des Laechelns offered some hints.
I’m looking forward to further clues he may disclose through his first Cavaradossi.

But that’s next year. This is now:

As I scurry out of the opera house onto Willy Brandt Platz, heading for the main train station, I’m confronted by a huge softly illuminated blue shield emblazoned with a star spangled golden €. So here I am, I realize, just around the corner from the headquarters of the august European Central Bank. Is this where they’re trying to save the world from fiscal doom?


Even as I hurry away, they’re inside, flushing gazillions into the toilets that constitute the world’s financial systems as a quick-fix to avoid another 8 October 2008. This measure, of course, will do nothing to solve Europe’s long-term debt crisis and will tabulate a terrible cost only a few dare think about. I glance fleetingly back at the opera house, tilting against the cold night wind, and I chill at the thought of what may go down the tubes to pay the piper.

©Sam H Shirakawa

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New OperaCast page for up-and-coming singers

This is to let everyone know that we've now put up a revised version of our Up-and-coming Singers page on our OperaCast web site.

This new page consists of a series of links to uncommon examples of sterling vocal artistry from opera singers who are just starting to make a stir in the opera world and who now deserve the widest possible exposure. Personally, every one of the choices made here pass the goose-bump test for me.

I hope you enjoy this tribute to the fruits of dedicated lives, showing all these singers doing their level best to give back to music everything music has given them.

With my thanks for the thrill they give all music lovers lucky enough to hear them,

Geoffrey Riggs