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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