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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