Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Partytime in the Pfalz

ZELLER: DER VOGELHÄNDLER [The Bird Seller] (New Production)
Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
19 February 2012 

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Karsten Süß, Sharon Kempten, Jud Perry

Have you ever arrived at a party late without a proper excuse? I was tardy to a holiday performance of Der Vogelhändler (The Bird Seller) at the Hessian State Theater in Wiesbaden because I hadn’t checked the starting time. A plausible reason? yes. A proper excuse? no.
(seated) Axel Wagner

Anyway, Wiesbaden’s new production of Carl Zeller’s delightful operetta is indeed a party unto itself -- eine Gaudi, as south Germans might say. The composer and his librettists (Moritz West and Ludwig Held) might be aghast at some alterations Ansgar Weigner and his production team have made to interpolate a couple of hilarious rhymes about certain German scandal-ridden politicians. But if the play’s the thing, they couldn’t object to the audience’s reaction at the performance I attended. Weigner’s production takes its cue from Broadway rather than Vienna, where Vogelhändler received its World Premiere in 1891. (In fact, it also had a successful run in New York that same year under the punchy title The Tyrolean.)  Robert Schrag’s deliciously kitschy sets and Renate Schnitzer’s pre-Empire costumes are as eye-popping as any you’ll find in Times Square or in the West End.
Annette Luig

Whatever you call it, the work has the lickety-zip and pace of American post-war period musicals like Hello Dolly! and My Fair Lady, as well as the sort of tart wit that you usually identify with the likes of Anything Goes and Crazy for You.  Its music ranges from rousing to rapturous and clings to the ear long after you've left the theater.

Vogelhändler is a comedy of opposing cultures, centered on the off-again-off-again romance between Adam, a bird seller from the Austrian provinces, and Christl, the village post mistress in 18th century Rhineland Pfalz. You don’t need to ask whether boy gets girl: it’s an operetta. 
Axel Wagner, Kerstin Witt

Zeller is thankfully democratic in giving nearly every member of the cast at least one big chance to shine. As Adam the bird merchant, Carsten Süss has many chances to show off his ideally suited tenor, and he makes the most of his opportunities. Jud Perry is the preciously foppy fool Stanislaus, Sharon Kempton a soubrettish Christl, Annette Luig a sympatheic noblewoman Marie. Axel Wagner as Weps always appears to know more than he’s letting on. Klaus Krückenmeyer and Wolfgang Vater are sublimely silly as the deans -- one deaf, the other blind -- who examine Adam for his elegibility to work at court. Especially delightful is Kerstin Witt as a lady aristocrat, who avers that the years since her husband’s death are the happiest she’s ever known.

Wolfgang Wengenroth keeps the proceedings moving spritely, but gamely lingers above the downbeat in the better known waltzes. Orchestra and chorus performed attentively, though one might have asked for a dollop more schmalz.

For all the stellar performances on stage, the true star of the evening was the audience: clapping in rhythm and singing along in the big numbers with no need of prompting. The last time I experienced something remotely like it was during a matinee of Rock of Ages last year on Broadway, when a nostalgic and well-lubricated audience spontaneously joined in some of the show’s rock hits from the 1980s.

Vogelhändler is also a perfect match physically for the Wiesbaden State Theater, arguably the most ornate performing venue in Germany. The original building was designed in the Neo-Baroque style and built by the architectural firm Fellner and Hellmer in 1894. The theater suffered severe damage through allied air strikes in 1945, but it was restored to its original splendor between 1976 and 1978. The opera and the State Orchestra served as way stations for Otto Klemperer, Heinrich Hollreiser, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Ulf Schirmer and many other notable conductors.

The opera house can attribute its uniformly robust acoustics to wall-to-wall moldings that grace the interior from gallery to parquet. They keep the sound bouncing from crevice to crevice.

Currently, the theater has three stages serving music theater, plays and workshops. The opera house is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, including stage elevators and turntable. Energetic subscription and education programs keep all the enterprises well-attended throughout the season.

Net-net: Vogelhändler may strike some as sentimental rubbish, and a case might be made for denouncing Zeller's enchanting chain of incandescent melodies as sleight trash. If you think we of the Great Unwashed would profit more from attending Pelleas et Melissande or Lulu, may I refer you to Noel Coward in Private Lives: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”  Prost! 

Production photos: Martin Kaufhold; Other photos courtesy Hessisches Theater Wiesbaden; Graphics: Sam H. Shirakawa

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Monday, February 20, 2012


GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG      (New Production)
18 February 2011

GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG      (New Production)
Metropolitan Opera HD Live Transmission
11 February 2011

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Lance Ryan, Britte Stallmeister, Jenny Carlstadt, Katharina Magiera

There are two good reasons for visiting Oper Frankfurt’s new production of Götterdammerung. The first is Canadian Lance Ryan, who you may have seen and/or heard as the most recent Siegfried at Bayreuth. At the performance I attended in Frankfurt, a worrisome beat dogged his mid-range well into the first act. But once he found his stride, Ryan proved himself the leader of today’s ever-growing pack of powerhouse Siegfrieds, outclassing most of his Frankfurt colleagues in vocal size and stage presence.
Anja Fidelia Ulrich

The other reason to go to this Götterdämmerung is Anja Fidelia Ulrich’s supple, big voiced Gutrune. Ulrich first joined Oper Frankfurt in 2004 and hasn’t stopped growing since. Her voice has warmth and flexibility and opens out easily toward the top. A singer to follow.

The rest of the cast, while technically and musically objection-free, is workaday. They all have their moments, but their individual and collective efforts rarely take flight.

Susan Bullock is a smallish-voiced but energetic Brünnhilde. She hangs in there from start to finish, belting out her part in the big scenes comfortably within the limits of her capacities. Seldom though, does the soprano from Cheshire compel the ear into submission. Johannes Martin Kränzle scores as a strong voiced Gunther.  He may have the toughest assignment: making the role sound convincingly weak. Jochen Schmeckenbecker turns in a beautifully sung Alberich minus the menace. Gregory Frank, through no fault of his own, is way too attractive a stage presence for Hagen. Meredith Arwady and Angel Blue are fine Norns. Claudia Mahnke doubled dutifully as the Second Norn and Waltraute. Britte Stallmeister, Jenny Carlstadt and Katharina Magiera as the Rhine Maidens sang in fascinating clockwork unison. I don’t recall ever hearing this scene sung with such precision.

Vera Nemirova’s production designed by Jens Kilian is technically complex: Four concentric turntables turning, rising and falling to form the various settings in the opera. The fluidity of the changes are a delight to behold, as locales ebb and flow into each other according to the dictates of the music. Perhaps the most interesting detail is the Rhine Maidens as Green activists, touting a sign that reads “Save the Rhine.” They ferry Siegfried in a lifeboat on his Journey to the Gibichungs and to his doom. Telling are Ingeborg Bernerth’s costumes. Siegfried arrives at the Gebichung’s estate clad in Teutonic tunic and helmet. Once he drinks the amnesia potion and changes into a suit, he's finished.
Above/Below: Oper Frankfurt interior    (Photos: Shirakawa)

It took the orchestra some time to get its act together. Unfortunate, because Sebastian Weigle has some wonderful ideas that never quite made it across into a coherent view of the work. He is still cutting his teeth on this behemoth, but he leaves no doubt that he’s a comer. His sensiblities call to mind Colin Davis back in the 1960s.
Deborah Voigt   (Metropolitan Opera)

Speaking of getting an act together, a brief word now about the live Metropolitan Opera relay of Götterdämmerung on 11 February. Deborah Voigt obviously used the time between her Siegfried Brünnhilde and the live broadcast of Götterdämmerung to clean up her vocal house. Her former Valkyrie in the relay embodied a transformation that was well-nigh miraculous, especially since it happened so quickly -- within three months. The voice was more solid in each range and her upper notes at times took on an Italianate warmth that I haven’t heard from her in years. Of course, I heard it digitally, so it's impossible to tell how she sounded live-live.

German acquaintances of mine complained that Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried is “too American” -- i.e. too much swagger for their taste. Not sure I agree. But he does need to attend more dialogue coach sessions to sharpen his pronunciation.

Waltraud Meyer, Wendy Bryyn Harmer, Eric Owens, Iain Paterson and Hans-Peter König were all in superb form. Fabio Luisi’s lighter touch with the orchestral blend is refreshing.

Not so refreshing is Robert Le Page’s production. It’s getting old fast. Who among those attending the upcoming complete cycles fancies sitting through 15 hours of people dwarfed by Carl Fillion’s gyrating planks? Lieber du als ich, mein kleiner.

The telecast was, by and large, technically excellent, but there were some distracting video/audio glitches, especially during Alberich’s rant, several jumbled subtitles, and an amber (intentional?) colorcast over most of the second act. Probable causes of these incidents should be easy to locate: idiosyncracies in the capture equipment, in the output configuration, in the transmission path, or maybe in the projection system at the cinema where I viewed the broadcast (Düsseldorf). At 28 Euros per ticket ($37 -- 50 percent more than the tab usually charged in US cinemas), the Met can afford to effect measures to forestall such gaffes.

Photos Frankfurt Götterdämmerung: Monica Ritterhaus

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Thursday, February 16, 2012



Bayerische Staatsoper Munich

13 February 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Edita Gruberova as Lady Thatcher? (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

Edita Gruberova (65) arguably may be to opera what Sophia Loren (77) undeniably is to cinema. At a time when most of their respective coevals evoke memories, they both still elicit savage cries of wonder whenever, wherever they appear. But Loren has to be only Loren: that face, that walk, that aura. Gruberova has to work a bit harder: pitch-perfect high notes, animated cantilena, Zeppelins of air reserves. 

On a recent Monday evening in Munich, when most opera houses in Europe and points east are dark, a sold-to-the-rafters audience filed into the Staatsoper to feast upon the diva’s upteenth killer Queen in Donizetti’s cut-throat opera Roberto Devereux. Looking more like Lady Thatcher than Betty One in Christof Loy’s modern-dress production (2004) designed by Herbert Murauner, Gruberova left no doubt about who rules, as she made her first entrance to cries of “Brava!” and assorted yelps of welcome. Whether under Loy’s direction or benigno numine, she proceeded to hold the audience in thrall, usually from the only station worthy of a monarch: down-stage center.
Floor Play (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

Can she still still do it? Of course. You can quibble here and niggle there -- and I must admit she sounded a tad better as ER about 14 months ago in Mannheim -- but the total thrust of her performance in Munich purveyed nothing less than magic. While she showed no outward signs of husbanding her strength, she kept the best for last. The arduous “Vivi, ingrato, a lei d'accanto” held no terrors for her after nearly three hours of duets, ensembles and arias, all of which she dominated, not merely because she is a diva but because she is an ideal colleague to fellow singers, nearly all of whom were at least 20 years her junior.
Joseph Calleja (Photo: Mitch Jenkens/Decca Records)

And those colleagues were up to the standard she set. Pares inter pares Joseph Calleja as Essex. Of the new generation of top-line Italianate tenors, the Guy from Malta has something that in my view most of his contemporaries don’t: a voice that imprints the memory indelibly.  Days after hearing him, it wasn't the iron-clad technique and it wasn't the infectious musicality that got me, it was that nerve-teasing burr  infusing warm honey into his way with the melodic line, recurring un-beckoned and repeatedly to my mind’s ear.  I have rarely heard the likes of his voice, and never live. Recordings of Fernando De Lucia and Cesar Vezzani come to mind, but like those personalities, Calleja is developing into a phenomenon unto himself. He is also in possession of a commanding stage presence that he exercises naturally.
Sonia Ganassi

Sonia Ganassi has a somewhat smaller voice than broadcasts have led me to believe, but her Sara is nonetheless big in vocal character, focused and intense. Fabio Maria Capitanucci displayed a warm, dark baritone as Nottingham. The cast was rounded out by Francesco Petrozzu (Cecil), Tareq Nazmi (Raleigh), John Chest (Page) and Johannes Klama (James).

Friedrich Haider took the orchestra and chorus through their paces without incident.
Bayerische Staatsoper (Photo: Shirakawa)
Interior (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

The Bayerische Staatsoper suffered severe direct hits during World War II but was rebuilt almost exactly as it appeared before the war. Die Meistersinger received its World-Premiere here in 1868. They say Wagner could find his way around the house, if were alive today. 

The horse-shoe design restricts a full-view for nearly a third of the audience, but the generous and well-kept use of parquet flooring and plaster creates a vibrant ambience, somewhat reminiscent of the old Metropolitan Opera House. Even in the worst seats, the voices and orchestra can be heard as an homogenized unit, becoming neither truncated nor strident, as too often is the case in newer theaters. 

The Bavarian State Opera sells out almost every night.  Most state-sponsored performing arts venues in Germany are not nearly as fortunate, and many theaters have had to make severe cuts.  The German economy has recently dodged a bullet in the current debt crisis, but state money for the arts is shrinking. Worse, politicians who used to do their most serious wheeling and dealing during intermissions at the opera, apparently are now doing their business on junkets financed by wealthy interests.  That means the performing arts are becoming less of a priority for them personally.  This may not be the case in Munich, where its three operatic venues are a source of tremendous civic pride.  But if Germany is unable to dodge the deluge of fiscal bullets being fired even as I write, glorious nights at the opera such as this Devereux may soon be history, even in Munich.

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