Tuesday, January 31, 2012


(New Production Premiere)
Stadttheater Giessen 
28 January 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Amorous Alessandro: butterflies, blossoms, busses

If I could take only one recording of one aria to a desert island, I would be hard put to foresake “Jungfrau Maria...” from Friedrich von Flotow’s Alessandro Stradella. Its simplicity and grace, as sung by Herbert Ernst Groh offers solace and uplift I get from only a few other arias.

Is the rest of the opera as beautiful? To find the answer, I went to Giessen to see what must be the first mounting of the work anywhere in many decades. It’s currently being presented by the Giessen Stadt Theater to honor Flotow’s 200th birthday.

Yes, I find the rest of the opera is as beautiful as the signature aria, but in different ways.  Rousing ensemble numbers, big choruses, witty patter -- the work has everything.  Flotow originally conceived it as a one-act comedy that opened to great success in 1837 in Paris. He then expanded the work into a full-fledged opera and had it presented seven years later in Hamburg.  This is the version that we know today. The revised piece amounted to a breakthrough for the composer and led to, among other commissions, his best known work Martha three years later.
Alessandro dines at the head table on Tafel Spitz

Wilhelm Riese’s libretto follows the last amorous adventure of the real-life Alessandro Stradella, a famous singer and composer in 17th century Rome and Venice, whose libido was reputedly even bigger than his talent. Alessandro wants to elope with the young, beautiful and pert Leonore on the eve of her marriage to Bassi, her guardian. Bassi gets wind of the plan and hires a pair of dimwitted assassins Malvoglio and Barbarini to kill Alessandro. But the puissance of Alessandro’s singing seduces them into helping him get Leonore away from Bassi.

In real-life, Alessandro’s larynx was no match against his assassins, and Flotow pays heed to history at the end of his opera -- sort of...

Killer trio: Stephan Bootz (center), Wojtek Halicki-Alicca (left), Matthias Ludwig (right)

The importance of Alessandro Stradella the opera lies not in its plot but in the variety of its unending chain of melodies. It’s billed as a "romantic opera," but it has the hear and feel of a through-written musical. What may prevent it from catching hold on contemporary season calendars is its call for a Heldentenor who must sing multiple arias and take part in sundry duets and ensemble numbers virtually without respite. (Leo Slezak was the Metropolitan Opera’s first (1906) and only Alessandro to date.)
Corey Bix

American Corey Bix, who undertakes the title role in Giessen, has a voice of heroic proportions, as well as the requisite high notes, of which there are many. But he lacked the stamina at the premiere to give conviction to “Jungfrau Maria,” which Flotow places toward the end of the opera. That said, Bix is also a competent comedian and evokes chronic giggles in his wigged-out getups, designed by Bernhard Niechotz. He looks as if he were John Lithgow,  having suddenly to improv a Restoration comedy.
Anna Gütter (Leonore)

Anna Gütter took the part of Leonore at the premiere and proved herself as agile physically as she is vocally. Stephan Bootz seemed more addled than menacing as Leonore’s guardian Bassi, but he was a suitably crass cuckold. Wojtek Halicki-Alicca (Malvoglio) and Matthias Ludwig (Barbarino -- stepping in on short notice) are hilarious as the pair of inane assassins.
Clockwise from upper left: Jan Hoffmann, Roman Hovenbitzer,  Bernhard Niechotz, Hermann Feuchter,  (Courtesy:Stadttheater Giessen) 

Roman Hovenbitzer’s lively production mercifully sticks to elaborating the basics of the thin plot rather than departing from them. Hermann Feuchter’s colorful sets push the Theater’s technical capabilities to the max, as his realization of Venice at Carnival time revolves, slides and drops in and out of sight.
Curtain call

Jan Hoffmann kept the often chaotic musical proceedings moving along at a merry pace, despite some unfocused moments among the brass.
Stadttheater Giessen Façade. The building, a superb example of Jugendstyl architecture, was completed mostly with private funds in 1907. Architects: Ferdinand Fellner, Hermann Helmer 
The house seats about 600 spectators.

The premiere played to a sold out audience. Not surprising, since Giessen (pop. ca. 80,000) has a long history of support for the performing arts through private funds. Crowd sourcing, in fact, financed most of the construction costs of the 600 seat theater in 1907. Today, under the leadership of an imaginative management, Giessen's municipal theater presents a full season of music theater, dance programs and plays. Later this season, for example, Pacini’s Maria Tudor and a chamber version of Berg’s Lulu are set to receive local premieres.  Stadttheater Giessen can take risks presenting such rarities, thanks to a healthy subscription program that guarantees more people in the audience than on stage.

Prodution photographs: © Dietmar Janeck
Graphics, curtain call & other photographs: © Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, January 28, 2012


TANCREDI (New Production Premiere)
Deutsche Oper Berlin
22 January 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Midway through the premiere of a new production of Rossini’s Tancredi at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, I wondered why it was being staged. The story makes little sense, and the stage directions call for even less drama. Why not just do it in concert form and allow the music and singing to take center-stage?

Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production is innocuous enough. His multi-column set reclines and sits up, depending on how much space is needed for the soloists and chorus. His costumes are attractive. But these elements neither flesh out nor make cogent an essentially incoherent story. It’s set in 11th century Sicily and turns on a misdirected letter that leads to tragic consequences for the eponymous recipient. If a thorough exegesis interests you, there are plenty of sources available that sift through the three versions Rossini had his librettist Gaetani Rossi pen.

Alberto Zedda

The true star of this production is not on stage but on the podium. At age 84, Alberto Zedda is to Rossini what Reginald Goodall was to Wagner. Zedda has dedicated most of his life to bringing Rossini to life with style and idiomatic conviction. The slightest move of his baton makes you sit up and pay close attention.

Patrizia Ciofi, Hadar Halevy

He was unlucky, though, in having a cast at his disposal that largely managed only to acquit itself rather than making the vocal lines soar. The most accomplished of the ensemble was Patrizia Ciofi, who scored a triumph at the premiere as Amenaide, the sender of the ill-fated letter. The voice is a tad light, but she kept command over the fierce technical flights the role demands. Hadar Halévy lacked the depth and tonal conviction required for Tancredi, though her florid technique was objection-free.

Clémentine Margaine

Rossini is also not best suited to Alexey Dolgov, taking the part of Ameniade’s father, though he articulated the treacherous florid passages with accuracy if not distinction. The standout among the rest of the principals, who included Krzysztof Szumanski (Orbazzano) and Hila Fahima (Ruggero) was Clémentine Margaine (Isura). Her cavatina ("Tu che i miseri conforti") at the beginning of the second half revealed exhilirating possibilities as a future Rossini singer. As Max Bialistock might say, “That’s our Tancredi!”

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Friday, January 27, 2012


Deutsche Oper Berlin
21 January 2012 

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Klaus Florian Vogt

It wasn’t until I heard the booing at the end of the performance that I believed what I had heard from the stage: a Tosca at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in which the star tenor wasn’t concentrating, wasn’t prepared or just wasn’t there. Klaus Florian Vogt is one of the great tenors of our time, but he apparently has a masochistic streak. And back-seat sadists were out en force to oblige him on 21 January. Hate to say it, but he deserved the bird he got: gaffes, rhythmic vagaries, the anemic “Vittoria!” and so on. Vogt -- a paragon of Wagner-lite and Strauss-medium -- has just started making forays into the basic Italian repertoire. In my view, Cavaradosi is an ill-advised starting point for him. If he wants to jump out of the box going up against the spectres of de Stefano, Corelli, Pavarotti et al, I say, go for it. But at least know the part backwards before entering a hornet’s nest like the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Given some of the craven Cavaradossis I’ve endured, it wasn’t all bad or even that awful. But place Vogt's virtual no-show against this background: at Dussman, Berlin’s cultural supermarket in Friedrich Strasse, they’re adorning the windows with Vogt’s first big-label (Sony) recital disc. He’ll be signing this weekend. The posters trumpeting the CD with a ghastly image of Vogt gripping a Templar sword and sporting Grail drag are in your face all over town. He's been a star for nearly a decade, but he's really Big Time now -- joining Kaufmann and Grigolo at the head table.

The timing couldn’t be more propitious: his appearance is set between two mega-events without competing with either one -- Berlin Fashion Week is just ending, while preps for the upcoming Berlin Film Festival are in full swing. I don’t know if he’s making the rounds of the national breakfast shows, talking at TV anchors, most of whom have no idea who he is and couldn’t care less. But given what he perped last Saturday night, it would be fit penance if he did.

Come to think of it, it was that bad and worse than awful, because Vogt can deliver and did not. He may not be suited for Cavaradossi, but he can make the role suit him. Maybe he should try warming up with Pinkerton or Rinuccio.

Tatjana Serjan
George Gagnidze

What ameliorated a performance made nearly catastrophic by Vogt’s diffidence, were the incisive presences of Tatjana Serjan as Tosca and George Gagnidze as Scarpia. Serjan rightly performed as though Vogt wasn’t there, but her Floria was nonetheless impassioned, focused and pitched perfectly. Gagnidze was the perfect foil for them both. He is a huge man with an outsized baritone that projected refined brutality and psychotic superiority in every phrase.

Matthias Foremny

Matthias Foremny had some interesting ideas, but his hands were full keeping the orchestra in sync with Vogt.

The Boleslaw Barlog production from 1969 is ideally set up to accommodate multiple cast changes. It should never be replaced.

Having had my life enriched by the sound of many incredible voices, I’ve also become sensitized to the sound that audiences make when they respond to those voices. The quality of the booing Vogt received last Saturday is worrisome -- that sickly bovine moan of the accursed that’s heard with predictable regularity in every music mecca. These booers travel in packs and have their favorite targets. It would be a shame if Vogt became their new scapegoat. Such pests tend to persist.

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20 January 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Roland Hartmann, Sonia Freitag 

In case you don’t know, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) was Richard Wagner’s second completed opera. Its premiere on 29 March 1836 in Magdaburg was a fiasco: with only ten days of rehearsal, the singers had had time to learn little more than 50 percent of their parts. The second performance was cancelled after a fight broke out backstage. It was never again mounted during Wagner’s lifetime.

In the past century, Liebesverbot has had a number of notable concert and stage revivals in Europe and America. Several recordings of live performances are currently available.

Dae-Hae Shin (Friedrich), Bettina Kampp (Isabella)

Most recently, the State Theater of Thuringia in Meiningen elected to celebrate the re-opening of its handsomely refurbished opera house, by presenting not only an apparently unabridged Liebesvebot, but also the work that inspired it: Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure a.k.a Maß für Maß. This nifty idea was the brainchild of intendant (General Manager) Ansgar Haag and the director of Maß für Maß Veit Güssow.

“The themes of justice and the double standards of the ruling class remain burning issues to us today as much as they were to Shakespeare and Wagner,” said Haag in a recent German News Agency interview. Haag, in fact, was so taken with the contemporary resonance of these works that he decided to stage Liebesverbot himself, and assign Shakespeare’s problem comedy to Güssow.

Xu Chang (Luzio), Bettina Kampp

Even a cursory reading of Wagner’s libretto reveals his potential as a theater genius, as he pares down and simplifies Shakespeare’s convoluted story, but a pithy tag line for the contents of the plot...? The action takes place in 16th century Sicily during Carnival -- the period preceding Lent. The king’s regent Friedrich issues a decree forbidding Carnival celebrations and all expressions of love on pain of death. Among those arrested and condemned: Claudio, a young nobleman, and his beloved Dorella, who has already borne him a child. Another nobleman and rabble rouser Luzio finds Claudio’s sister Isabella in a convent and entreats her to implore Friedrich for mercy. When she gains audience with Friedrich, he promises to pardon Claudio in exchange for a night in the sack.

Dae-Hae Shin

So what's a nun to do?

Wagner’s adaptation underscores his support of political/sexual freedom, and the work looks forward to his later operas in fits and starts.  Mostly fits.  Every now and then, sprouting amid the rushes of Beethoven-Weber based themes, you hear unmistakable statements of individuality that he later developed in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. I found myself longing for more such passages as the parade of distended marches, ensembles, choruses and declamations began to wear on my ears. ‘Hey, listen to this!’ Wagner seems to be proclaiming with unremitting insistence.  But it all amounts to Wagner before prime time.  And though it's supposedly a comedy, it's no barrel of laughs.

Several factors make Meiningen’s production of Liebesverbot not merely tolerable but engaging. First a superbly drilled cast under the stewardship of chief conductor Philippe Bach and a big-voiced chorus led by Sierd Quaré. Bach’s pacing keeps a sometimes heavy ball bouncing up in the air throughout a rather long evening, while Quaré draws a broad pallate of colors from his chorus.

Theater Meiningen

All the more remarkable, because the ensemble on 20 January had to work around a last-minute indisposition of the tenor singing Claudio. Rodrigo Porras Garula was well enough to mime his part, but a hastily drafted tenor named Christian Brüggemann sang the role from a proscenium box.  Under the circumstances, Brüggeman did a yeoman job.

Among the the mostly yourthful principals, Bettina Kampp is a revelation as Isabella. She has the fire of Rysanek and the honeyed nuance of early Crespin. Her attacks on those clusters of high notes held no terror for her. Xu Chang as Luzio purveyed a characterful ping that could make him a powerful gift to any Infanta’s birthday party. Dae-Hae Shin is in posession of a persuasive dark baritone, but his Friedrich could use more Hunding-esque menace. Camila Ribero-Souza, Roland Hartmann, Sonia Freitag, Maximillian Argmann, Ernst Garstenauer, and Stan Meus completed a surprisingly hi-octane cast.

The Big Band from Martin-Polich-Gymnasium of nearby Mellrichstadt went through their paces in the Meyerbeer-instigated procession scene in the second half and made up for some absences in its ranks with discipline and energy.

Ansgar Haag’s staging animates Wagner’s call for spectacle, by effectively exploiting a newly installed concentric revolving stage, complete with a lift that can make Helge Ullman’s attractive sets appear and disappear, even as the turntable is spinning. (Ullmann also designed the sets for Maß für Maß.)

Theater Meiningen's box office beadle.

What is astonishing about this Liebesverbot is that such a polished and integrated production is taking place in a city that has little more than 20-thousand inhabitants. You would certainly expect elevated quality in a festival presentation, even if it’s happening in the middle of nowhere. But Meiningen, which is situated in the middle of Germany's midlands, is producing this rarely performed work at regular prices ($9-$43) as part of its seasonal subscription program of musical theater and plays.

The interior of the opera house, dating from 1909,  has been refurbished, closely following the designs of  architect Karl Behlert. On the stage (above) a concave, two-level colonnade rests on the outer ring of a concentric turntable, which also can elevate and lower sets while revolving. 

Not all that surprising, if you're aware that the standards of this opera house have been stamped by the likes of Richard Strauss, Hans von Bülow, the American-born Wilhelm Berger and Max Reger, all of whom served as music directors here. In the face of ever-dwindling state-subsidies, Theater Meiningen continues to draw loyal pan-demographic support from its patrons. On my way to the train station on the morning after the performance I attended, my taxi driver informed me he has two subscriptions and has many friends who frequent the theater here at least a couple times each season.

Hotel Schlundhaus

I’m convinced that Theater Meiningen continues to thrive in part because the city was spared crippling war damage. Also, there are no skyscrapers, and new construction is integrated into existing surroundings.

During my short stay, I learned that the recipe for Thuringer Dumpling, a regional delicacy, is said to have originated at the Schlundhaus Hotel, where I stayed.  An order of these delectable diet busters is alone worth a four hour-plus trip from the Rhineland. As you walk your meal off through the narrow bending streets that open out into spacious squares, where inhabitants still do their marketing, you grasp a sense of cultural continuity now lost in most urban environments.

Meiningen's market square

I don’t know what plans are afoot to keep Meiningen’s cultural inventiveness going, but all intendants in Germany must be aware that 2012 marks the centenary of the original version of Ariadne auf Naxos, which Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstahl conceived as a companion piece to the latter’s translation of Moliere’s Le Bougeois Gentilhomme. Angsar Haag certainly has the forces at his disposal to present both works on separate days early next season.  It would be a coup indeed if he could pull it off.

Production Photographs: Foto-ed Meiningen
Other photographs: Sam H. Shirakawa

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Sunday, January 22, 2012


NORMA (in Concert)
Cologne Opera
18 January 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Edita Gruberova

It was one of those spangled nights. A star was born.

The audience attending the first of two sold-out concert performances of Norma this season at the Cologne Opera were in a win-win situation. Edita Gruberova, arguably the last genuine primadonna of our time, was, at the age of 65, singing the title role. If she finished the evening still standing, the audience would have received what it paid for. If not, a golden opportunity for sneering with civil leer.

By the end of the performance, though, the audience had gotten far more than its money’s worth. Not only was Gruberova in sublime form, but mezzo-soprano Regina Richter, singing Adalgisa, had burst forth as a singer to reckon with.

Regina Richter

How can I be so sure? I can’t. No one can. But I’ll say this much: I’ve seen it happen like this before: Anybody remember that fabled Met performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten, when Eva Marton was heard singing even louder than Birgit Nilsson? (I’ll come back to this in a moment.)

Richter is currently a contract player at the Cologne Opera.  She has always distinguished herself at the many performances I have seen her give -- most recently as the Composer; also as Princess Bolonskaya (War and Peace), as well as doing bit parts that contract singers are obliged to fulfill. Legions of singers at German opera houses get that far and are content to settle for what ever assignments come their way.  Some are fabulous artists, but they don't draw the limelight for any number of reasons, both professional and personal.

What put Richter on the map on 18 January was going toe-to-toe with Gruberova in the big duets, especially in “Mira, O Norma.” During these moments, the agility, size, beauty and energy of her instrument set themselves in bold relief against the amplitude of Gruberova’s thrilling sound.

These passages brought to mind that legendary evening at the Met in 1981, when Eva Marton squared off with Birgit Nilsson in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Most informed opera-goers knew that Marton had a big voice, but few until that night were aware of just how big. When they appeared together for a curtain call, Nilsson whispered in Marton's ear and yielded the stage. Later, in separate interviews I conducted with them both, they corroborated what Nilsson had said: “This is your future.”

Richter’s future looks a lot more upwardly mobile now than it did just a few days ago, meaning she can probably drop Waltraute in Walküre and pick up Waltraute in Götterdämmerung. She is classed as a mezzo, but the hue of her voice conjures warm bister rather than hot amber; it channels Stignani rather than Horne, Troyanos rather than Obraztsova. Her line, in common with the above-mentioned ladies, is firmly butressed from register to register, and she projects Adalgisa’s anguish through purely vocal means without resorting to bristling textual accents. She had, however, some pallid moments in the second act, which could use some juicing. My hope for Richter is that she heeds Leontyne Price’s maxim and sings on the interest her voice has begun to generate in triple digits, not on the principal. Now that she’s been outed in the opera world, she needs to continue coming out.

While one reviewer off-handedly wrote that this Norma would probably be among Gruberova’s last, I doubt whether she will be retiring either the role or herself in the near future. Her vocal estate, on her good nights, is still very much in ship-shape condition. Like any singer in any age bracket, she has spates of could-sound-better. (Her Norma in Brussels two seasons ago, for instance.) But she remains a force of nature, and has become de facto a geriatric phenomenon. She is also among that rare group of opera singers who has improved with age. Her fioritura is now more incisive and telling than ever before. Her acrobatics with dynamics may strike some as showy, but the way she flaunts her technique is a compelling performance unto itself, impossible to dismiss as mere display. Her intake of breath is oddly more audible these days, but her sovereignty in making those endless stretches of legato appear seamless quite simply beggars belief.

What is even more astonishing is that the character of her instrument has not changed significantly since I first heard her as Zerbinetta in 1979. She maintains her signature brilliance-cum-warmth at the top and projects a rotund middle. Her lower register was always shallow, and so it remains, though it has become a bit louder.

If there is any sign of erosion, it is detectable in occasional lapses of pitch. But Gruberova is in august company: Nilsson, Sutherland, te Kanawa, Elias, Rysanek, Olivero -- just a few of the better known veterans whose instincts for slam-dunking every note (has) faltered with advancing age, while their voices remained essentially reliable. Unlike most of them, however, Gruberova has neither downsized nor cross-graded her repertoire as the years have gone by. Edie, babe, you rock!

Almost lost in the hullabaloo, the estimable contributions of Zoran Todorovich and Andriy Yurkevych.

Zoran Todorovich
Todorovich is one of the most versatile and appealing sock-it-to-me tenors making the rounds these days, but for some reason, he has yet to be “discovered.” Portraying a prick like Pollione isn’t helping his cause, even if he sang with surprising musical imagination and dramatic flair -- more than standing up to the challenges thrown down by his distaff colleagues.

Yurkevich may be a Ukrainian, but he is to the Italian manner born. Rarely have I heard such measured tempi at a live Norma, but Yurkevich drew out lines close to the snapping point without making the pace appear lugubrious. He also revealed some wonderful ideas in Bellini’s score that I’ve never heard before. The house chorus and the Gürzenich Orchester were up for the occasion.

Andriy Yurkevych

Rounding out the no-fault cast, Nikolai Didenko as Orvoreso, Machiko Obata as Clothilde and Jeonki Cho as Flavio.

The second and last performance of this Norma takes place 23 January. If there’s any way you can make it to the cancellation queue, go. You might get lucky.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012


Wuppertal 14 January 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Christian Sturm, Banu Böke

Mozart composed his dark lyric comedy La finta Giardinera for Munich’s Salvator Theater in 1775. It was a resounding success. Five years later, he reworked it as a Singspiel under the title Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe, but the original Italian-language score went missing for 200 years. Rediscovered in the 1970s, Die Gärnterin aus Liebe has since been performed with increasing frequency, sung mostly in Italian under its Italian title.
Just another evening with the folks.

Its climb in popularity, though, could be hindered by its complicated libretto, generally ascribed to Giuseppe Petrosellini. Count Belfiore and the Marchinioness Violante (disguised as a gardner) find themselves under the same roof on the eve of his marriage to Arminda, niece of the town mayor Don Anchise. Belfiore and Violante were lovers before he stabbed her during a quarrel and left her for dead. Violante still wants him back, so she's had herself employed as a gardner at Mayor Anchiuse’s estate in order to nab Belfiore before he weds Arminda.

Is that nutty? You ain't seen nutty yet.  By the time Violante drops her disguise and bags her former squeeze, the audience is treated to five other members of the wedding, who all take their parts in sundry episodes of kidnapping, intrigue and outright madness. Just another evening at home with the folks.
Susanne Blattert, Boris Leisenheimer, Miljan Milovic

In a program note, Tilman Hecker credits Marcel Proust (specifically Swann’s Way) as the flash point for his production at Wuppertal Stages. Indeed, his staging reflects Proust’s creepy elegance, as the characters enter and exit through shifting doors, wearing Lisa Kentner’s couture-conscious costumes, and tread Moritz Nitsche’s flying stairways which usually lead nowhere. All against a stage-wide soundless video scrim that projects the characters pursuing each other in the same setting but in mute states of being.

Clever. But Hecker’s gilded vignettes revealing the comings and, uh, comings of a decadent society struck me as more inclined toward evoking the queasy giddiness aroused by films of the French New Wave such as Last Year at Marienbad: did you/can you really kill your one true love?
Banu Böke, Arantza Ezenarro

The disturbing dream milieu into which Hecker submerges his cast imposes no impediments; the ensemble keeps a grip on the beat and offers some lively singing. Foremost among the resident vocalists: the ever-astounding Banu Böke, who, as Violante, scales Mozart’s flights of angst-ridden ups and downs with the same aplomb she brought to her sagacious Arabella last season. Not to be out-done, Christian Sturm continues to expand his talents stylishly as Count Belfiore. He is that most blessed of creatures, making even more of his heaven-sent gifts every time he turns up.
Christian Sturm

Arantza Ezenaro purveys a strong Arminda. Boris Leisenheimer had issues finding his focus as Arminda’s uncle at the premiere, but he finished satisfactorily.  Miljan Milovic, Suzanne Blattert and Julia Klein round out the superb cast.

Florian Flannek led a cohesive performance, drawing a big bracing sound from the orchestra.

Needless to add, Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe is one of Mozart’s most sombre works for the stage -- a soap opera full of dirty laundry. All the more curious because he was only 18 when he composed it and 23 when he revised it. Imagine how Dark Wave his revisions might be, had he lived past 35...

Photos: Uwe Stratmann

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Monday, January 02, 2012

Meistersinger @ Nuremberg

Nuremberg 23 December 2011

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Trial by song: Albert Pesendorf (left), Michael Putsch (right)

I’ve never made a secret of it: a performance of Meistersinger is for me always special. But how to celebrate what I believe is my 50th live performance of Wagner’s finest work?

Hear it in Nuremberg!

I happened to be in Nuremberg in time for the penultimate performance of Staatstheater Nürnberg’s new production, so I went, albeit unwillingly. Unwillingly, because the live broadcast of the premiere struck me as lacking lustre. The production looked pasty pop art, the musical pacing sounded rushed, the video direction seemed workaday, the performances standard issue and in some instances sub-standard.
Albert Pesendorfer, Michaela Maria Mayer, Jochen Kupfer

I’m glad I went because I learned a couple of things. First, never judge a production of any kind by its telecast. Second, try to avoid seeing the telecast before you see the production live -- you enter the theater severely prejudiced. Third, and possibly most important, don’t evaluate vocal quality from a broadcast. You can discern pitch issues, though even that can be fixed these days, but not much else. Everybody sounds equally loud or soft. Visually, video directors usually have their cameras pointed in the right direction, but their calls for close-ups largely are distracting, even disgusting. Let’s face it -- most singers under pressure -- bulging eyes, sweaty brows, gaping quivering jaws -- look in close-ups like they’re undergoing a rectal probe.
Leila Pfister, Guido Jentjens, Michaela Maria Mayer

In the opera house, though, that separation between spectacle and spectator puts all that grimacing into acceptable perspective. And you get to choose the close-ups. Which brings me to David Mouchtar-Samorai’s fluid production, evolving constantly between the broad strokes of spectacle and the tiny grains of telling details in the intimate exchanges of the second act and the first scene of the third. And how much better the graphics-savvy sets by Heinz Hauser work when framed by the proscenium instead of the tyrannous 16:9 video ratio in every shot. Urte Eicker’s contemporary costumes also look prettier live.
The Quintet: (left to right) Albert Pesendorfer, Michael Bosch, Tilman Lichdi, Leila Pfister, Michaela Maria Mayer
Photo: Arte

Even in the theater, Marcus Bosch’s tempi were a tad too swift for my taste, but he drew some lovely moments in the prelude to the Third Act as well as numerous details from his outstanding house orchestra and augmented chorus, the latter under the supervision of Tarmo Vaask. Too often the work of the harpists in Tannhäuser and Meistersinger go for granted. As a recovering harpist, it would be remiss of me to forego saluting Lilo Klaus, who made the treacherous switch between her grand full size Obermayer-Horngacher and the custom-made Beckmesser harp (conceived by Wagner) sound effortless. Few in any audience attending Meistersinger have any notion of the difficulties confronting every musician playing this opera.

Now for the cast, drawn mostly from the company’s ranks. I found it hard to believe that the Michael Putsch I heard as Walther von Stolzing was the same singer as the tenor I heard on TV. Live, he was singing with a cold, according to the announcement from the stage at the start of the third act. But he sounded better than he sang on the broadcast -- warmer, entirely focused, with slender vibrato. May he always have the sniffles.
Of the 30-odd Beckmesser’s I’ve heard live, Jochen Kupfer is about the most agreeably irritating. For once, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this notary making an utter fool of himself. If Guido Jentjens is in part Italian, his elegantly sonorous Veit Pogner owes much to his Latin genes. It quickened the pulse to anticipate his entrances, and his closures induced regret. To look at Martin Berner, you’d tend to think croupier rather than Kothner, but his frizzy Fritz was all the more surprising with his aspirant-free coloratura in reciting the Master’s Riot Act.
Act III finale: Albert Pesendorfer and friends  

If handsome is as handsome does, Albert Pesendorfer proves that tall is towering in both physical and vocal stature. His Sachs is not the most moving I’ve heard, but it is certainly the most imposing in decency, directness and implicit wisdom. Again, TV does nothing to suggest Pesendorfer’s sheer height. What a Godunov he might be...

Michaela Maria Mayer is still developing her prowess as an artist, but hers is a sweet, evenly modulated Eva, whose outburst at “O Sachs, mein Freund!” has yet to find its hoch-dramatisch footing. Still, she more than held her own in Eva’s contribution to the Quintet. It’s hard to say where Leila Pfister’s Magdalena will take her, but she possesses the kind of mezzo voice that can be a lively Lola as well as an alluring Laura.
Tilman Lichdi

Tilman Lichdi looked and sounded okay as David on the broadcast. But in the theater, he hands-down stole the show. Starting with a masterful “Mein Herr! Der Singer Meisterschlag” in the first act, he made every succeeding moment on stage into an opportunity for further developing his somewhat uppity character without ever appearing to make the effort. Lichdi has recently made successful debuts in New York and Chicago and he stands on the threshold of a topline career. There is clearly a future for him in musicals too; he has cheeky charm reminiscent of Jim Dale and Aaron Tveit and Michael Crawford’s riveting physical dexterity. God forbid, this guy should chuck it all for a doll.

Joshua Monten’s break-dancing accented choreography seemed plain silly on the tube, but looked inevitable and right on stage.

Despite drizzly weather, the Old City of Nuremberg provided an atmospheric backdrop to the opera worthy of Joseph Urban. The stalls in the expanded Christmas Market were bustling with activity, as vendors hawked last-minute bargains and fresh home-made delicacies in the final hours before all Germany snapped shut like a collective clam, making way to observe the second most important event on the Christian calander.
St. Katharina ruins: summer open air concerts still take place here.
Photo: Google Photos

The weather was too overcast to take photos, but I managed a brief pilgrimage to St. Katharina, also located in the Old City, where Wagner set the first act of Meistersinger. All that remains of the church today are the outer walls, one of the few visible scars left from Allied shelling as World War II drew closer to its denouement. St. Katharina was gutted by a direct hit during an air raid on 2 January 1945, exactly 67 years to the day before this report is being posted. But the spirit of the Master Singers who assembled here during the 17th and 18th centuries lives on today: the open-air space is used in summer for concerts and recitals.
All is far from well with the world as we enter the New Year, but as long as there are artists gifted enough to bring Meistersinger to life in Nuremberg and elsewhere, and a public to experience it anywhere, the outlook can be no less than good.

Photos (unless otherwise noted): Ludwig Olah

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