Tuesday, May 29, 2012


© Sam H. Shirakawa 

A Skandal at the Metropolitan Opera?  Du lieber Gott

Within hours of muzzling Opera News over publishing reviews of future Met performances a few days ago, General Manager Peter Gelb had a change of tune and let the old dog bark again. He clearly had been singed by the firestorm of objections to the silencing, which had followed from a pair of unflattering articles in the company’s house organ. 
Peter Gelb 
(Photo: Keith Bedford/Reuters)

Peetaah! Ya shudda stuck to your guns and gone into scorched-earth mode!  

>> Unshackle the rag from the Met Guild, fire those disloyal editorial dastards, replace them with lubricious hacks who report directly to you and mandate nothing but fawning pulp. 
>> Speaking of pulp, you'll save a mega-bundle by ditching the Met's performance booklets and distributing at every show the newly revamped Opera News:  Reduce its dimensions by 60 percent, trash that expensive glossy paper, have it printed on recycled toilet tissue and tack a $5 "programme" charge on each ticket. 

And while you're at it, order the new fully subservient Opera News management to ramp up revenues, by monetizing those long-since hushed up reports of alcoholism and prescription drug abuse in the opera world with full-page advertisements from distilleries and the pharma industry. The cross-marketing is perfectamundo: 

I can only hit high Cs when I sing. 
But you can hit Infinity at my next performance! 
Two tabs with a snifter of LaTiDoe Moonshine and you too will be Sempre Libra!
(Side effects may include hoarseness and hearing loss) 

With the peta-gazillions the Met would stand to earn from such ads, you can finally make Opera News into so mind-numbing a profit center, that it won’t matter if the new Ring is actually terminal waste or if that Tosca is just terminal. 

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Monday, May 28, 2012


26 MAY 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Musikalische Leitung Raimund Laufen / Inszenierung Brigitta Gillessen / Bühne & Kostüme Ute Lindenbeck / Licht Michael Haberkorn / Dramaturgie Tanja Fasching

Der König
Der Prinz
Der Narr
Jakob Grimm
Wilhelm Grimm
Stiefmutter/3. Elfe
Große Stiefschwester/1. Elfe
Kleine Stiefschwester/2. Elfe

The Brothers Grimm: Sévag Tachdjian, Yong Doo Park (Photo: Mathias Baus)

Ermanno Wolf-Ferarri’s (1876-1948) first opera (Aschenputtel - Cenerentola - Cinderella) flopped when it opened at La Fenice in Venice on 22 February 1912. But both the composer and his work have survived and prevailed -- Wolf-Ferrari because he went on to create more than a dozen stage works as well as numerous other compositions; Aschenputtel because Wolf-Ferrari and his librettist M. Pezza-Pascollato smartly condensed the Brothers’ Grimm version of the well-known story into a compact and (mostly) charming children’s opera that theaters everywhere produce regularly.

The Cologne Opera is currently presenting Aschenputtel in a freely adapated version that runs about an hour. I caught it this past Saturday morning, surrounded by more than 100 kids under age ten and their parents. Their rapt attention throughout is a compliment to both the strong cast and Brigitta Gillesen's neat direction, which became all the more effective because the cast had to make some fast adjustments when the Prince Charming cancelled on short notice.  Staff member Zarah Ritter knew only the blocking, so she mimicked the Prince on stage, while the speaking and singing parts were delivered from the orchestra loft above the stage by a tenor -- Philipp Werner -- hastily pressed into service.
Philipp Werner

Werner was remarkable, not only because he appeared to know the part, but because he synchronized his cues accurately despite his distance from the stage, thanks in part to sage musical direction by Raimund Laufen.

The other noteworthy standout in the cast was Ji-Hyun An, a captivating Cinderella. She is more attractive than even her publicity stills suggest, and she sounds a bit like Adriana Caselotti (the original soundtrack Snow White). Unfortunate that Wolf-Ferrari neglected to give the role an extended set piece like “Naqui afano... Non piu mesta...”  An’s voice needs to be heard in a more challenging framework.
Ji-Hyun An (Photo: Mathias Baus)

Sandra Jahnke, Gloria Rehm and Rachel Bate multi-tasked nicely as the step-mother, her daughters from an earlier marriage and the three elves who send Cinderella to the ball appropriately attired.

Werner Sindemann (the King), Charlie Kedmenec (the Fool), Yong Doo Park (Jakob Grimm), and Sévag Tachdjian (Wilhelm Grimm) gamely rounded out the cast.

Laufen led members of the Gürzenich Orchestra in a lively reading of Wolf-Ferrari’s formative score.

AFTERWORD:  The stories the Brothers Grimm collected are classified as safe reading for children, but it's no secret that most of them contain dark messages.  The Cinderella plot, especially in the adaptation by Wolf-Ferrari/Pezza-Pascolato, is no exception.  Quite apart from fleshing out the much-discussed Prince Charming Syndrome (somebody/something other than you will save you), the opera also contains a queasy passage in which the step-sisters have mutilated their feet in order to make them fit into the golden slipper.  The audience full of children -- especially the girls -- became stone-still as the step-sisters tried desperately to jam their bloodied feet into the slipper.  How many of those kids -- boys as well as girls -- are going to grow up determined to do whatever it takes to make their feet "fit?"   

Thinking back, Cinderella clubbed mine. 

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Baby, It's You!

(New Production)

Cologne Opera 
20 May 2012 


© Sam H. Shirakawa

Musikalische Leitung Markus Poschner / Inszenierung Dietrich W. Hilsdorf / Bühne Dieter Richter / Kostüme Renate Schmitzer / Licht Nicol Hungsberg / Dramaturgie Georg Kehren / Chorleitung Andrew Ollivant
Lars Woldt
Erika Sunnegardh
Thomas Piffka
Diane Pilcher
Der Steuermann Dalands
Jeongki Cho
Der Holländer
Samuel Youn
Gabi Dauenhauer
Chor der Oper Köln
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

Samuel Youn

The Metropolitan Opera’s late and much missed Francis Robinson was fond of saying something to the effect: a great operatic performance may happen only once in a hundred times, but when it happens, the heavens open and life gains worth; there is nothing like it.  Sometimes, though rarely, “it” happens at closer intervals. Two recent productions of Der Fliegende Holländer have elicited that longed-for feeling. I reported on Wuppertal’s production several months ago. A few more performances are scheduled before the season ends. For opera lovers coming to Germany next month, Kai Stiefermann and Allison Oakes are not to be missed.

At the moment, another new production of Wagner's fourth opera is playing to near-sellout houses
at the Cologne Opera. Dietrich W. Hilsdorf’s atmospheric staging uses the original 1843 version, which is distinguished primarily by the absence of the Apotheosis motive at the end of the opera. (Wagner tacked it on 17 years after the premiere.) Hilsdorf imposes only one noteworthy conceit on his pretty much straighforward view of the woebegone Dutchman’s story: a silent female figure, who appears as a ghost to taunt the Dutchman in his unending exile. The visage is identified in the program as Samiel.  One assumes Hilsdorf imported the figure from the Wolf’s Glen Scene in Weber’s Der Freischutz and transsexualized him in the process. It’s not an entirely arbitrary conceit, for Hilsdorf transforms the corpse-hungry Samiel in Freischütz into the man-devouring obverse of the Eternal Feminine -- Venus d'enfer. Clever, but somewhat distracting in an otherwise effective staging.  
If Samuel Youn’s career keeps going in the direction it appears to be heading, his portrayal of the Dutchman may some day give Cologne’s audiences good cause for claiming they heard him back when... His dark baritone is ideally suited to the tormented seaman. He has never sounded better.

Erika Sunnegardh

Erika Sunnegardh’s sweet stage disposition is a pleasant offset to Youn’s morosity. Her manifest development from a fixated lass into a woman embracing her destiny as the Dutchman’s savior becomes all the more remarkable because her trasformation is achieved in vocal terms, not with flailing histrionics. Her “Hier steh' ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!” was thrilling.

Others in the strong cast: Lars Woldt was a sonorous and cynical Daland, Thomas Piffka made unusual dramatic sense of Erik, Diane Pilcher a bossy Mary, Jeongki Cho a bright, vocally attractive Steersman.

Markus Poschner paced the intermission-less performance with somewhat slower tempi than is usually heard, but he never let the tension slag. The augmented chorus under Andrew Ollivant brought that peculiarly effectve swing to Wagner's choral writing which only
German choruses seem able to impart

The Cologne and Wuppertal productions, both remarkable in their respective ways, bring to mind a bona-fide, once-in-a-hundred epiphanic event. On 19 March 1968, Otto Klemperer conducted Der fliegende Holländer in a one-off concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall. The cast featured Theo Adam, Anja Silja, Martti Talvela and James King -- the same cast, excepting King, that’s heard on the studio recording Klemperer had just completed for EMI (still available). I already had heard the opera several times and knew what it was about, but nothing had prepared me for what I was to experience.

Otto Klemperer

Klemperer was seriously disabled and could hardly remain standing up for long at this stage of his life -- he was 83. But through sheer will, leaning heavily on an attendant, he made his way with glacial gait to the podium. He bobbed his head in acknowledgement of the tumultuous applause greeting him. After adjusting the special stool that enabled him to maintain a semi-standing position, he raised his right hand with a nervous arc, paused for an instant, and brought the baton down with what looked like a shudder. 
Pirate and legitimate recordings
I’ve heard of this performance (broadcast live by the BBC) vary in sound quality, but none of them begin to approximate the nerve-shattering explosion in the first measures to the overture that Klemperer detonated at that moment.  This was no longer music. It was something the likes of which I never heard before. You had to be there. And if you were, you were gripped in his thrall.  

So were the singers, who, as one local critic put it, were on fire, even though Silja couldn’t sit still and fidgeted in her chair like a hyperactive kindergartener. But they too were no longer merely singing. As the the evening continued, I absorbed things I never expected an opera performance could confide to me: inklings of indescribable yearning, premonitions of unimaginable loneliness, missed chances, unrequited affection.

After the performance, I left the Festival Hall through the terrace that overlooks the Thames and stared out for what must have been a long time at the low-slung tugs gliding elegantly along the river, their lights twinkling in barely perceptible rhythmic cadences and shimmering the water. As I stirred from my semi-trance, I thought I would never again hear anything like what I had just heard. But like the Dutchman, I’ve persisted in the pursuit, going from performance to performance, opera house to concert hall with hope of experiencing something of its like again. Every now and then, it does indeed happen.  But only something of its like. 


Speaking about something of its like, I just returned in a near-euphoric state from a student concert in Aachen (about an hour train ride eastward from Cologne). It was given by upper classmen studying voice at the Cologne College for Music and Dance (Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln). The program consisted of a potpourri of Austrian-German operetta lollypops.  
Q Won Han

As a general rule, I refrain from commenting on student recitals and the like. It just isn't fair. But 29 year-old lyric tenor Q Won Han was the uncontested standout -- and not merely because he was the only male in a ladies-only lineup. Han apparently is already making a career: He's just finished appearing at the Münster Opera and has some upcoming concerts elsewhere in Germany. His is a voice that has the makings of myth -- intimations of Björling, shades of McCormack, promises of Wunderlich, echoes of Polenzani: evenly distributed from top to bottom, warm, with a slightly metallic rush as he skateboards effortlessly in both directions between E flat and G natural, opening out thrillingly at the top. I have no idea to whom he's been listening in preparing "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz," but certainly not two top tenors who included this number in their hi-profile recitals over the past 10 months. Han's voice cannot be assessed as large, but it penetrates electrically and -- more significantly -- replays itself on the memory unbidden. His musicality is unassailable, and his diction nearly native-born. Remember the name, and where you heard about him first!

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Monday, May 21, 2012


WAGNER: LOHENGRIN  (New Production)
Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
17 MAY 2012 


© Sam H. Shirakawa

Endrik Wottrich, Andrea Baker

Musikalische LeitungMarc Piollet
InszenierungKirsten Harms
Bühne und KostümeBernd Damovsky
ChoreinstudierungAnton Tremmel
DramaturgieKarin Dietrich
Heinrich der VoglerAlbert Pesendorfer
LohengrinEndrik Wottrich
Elsa von BrabantLydia Easley
OrtrudAndrea Baker
Friedrich von TelramundTómas Tómasson
Der Heerrufer des KönigsJoachim Goltz

What is it about the singing voice that enables some vocalists to soothe the listener’s ear, even when their throats are ailing?  

The thought occurred to me several times on 17 May, during a performance of Lohengrin in Wiesbaden, as star tenor Endrik Wottrich carried on
persuasively with the eponymous role in spite of a nasty cold. Wottrich’s mega-sniffle also brought to mind an interview he gave to The Guardian a couple of years ago, in which he blasted the abusive lengths to which opera singers are frequently driven in order to perform. I have no idea, whether he took a swig of codeine before a stage elevator brought him to the surface of the stage, but he showed virtually no sign of distress until he began to traverse “Höchstes Vertrauen...” in the Bridal Chamber Scene. He managed to get through it as well as the crucial final scene of the opera, by negotiating Lohengrin’s two vocally demanding back-to-back perorations from “above the voice.”

Despite the distress under which he manifestly was laboring in the final scenes, he ended up delivering a deeply compelling performance of the Swan Knight. His near-baritonal Lohengrin makes comparisons with lighter voices gaining attention with the role at the moment inevitable but odious, so I won’t go there. Wottrich -- colds notwithstanding -- is a superb son of Parsifal, essaying both power and tenderness with effortless precision in diction and unerring accuracy in pitch. Yes, some of the notes in the third act were on the squally side, but no, they never strayed off center.

Lydia Easley
It took Lydia Easley most of the first act to find her vocal footing, but her Elsa became increasingly convincing thereafter. Hers is a large soprano whose flexibility at the top of her range rendered Elsa’s apostrophe to the night air in the second act quite moving. She came into her own in the third act when she gave Elsa’s inquisitiveness unusual sensuality.

Probably owing to noticeable breaks between registers, Andrea Baker essayed a huge brassy voice, wily temperament and laser-sharp intonation as a Lady Macbeth-like Ortrud.  She moved about the stage like a caged tigress and sang as though she were Rita Gorr on amphetamines.  

Baker was matched perfectly with Tómas Tómasson, stepping in on short notice for the indisposed Thomas de Vries. Tómasson displayed a surprisingly virile Telramund both in tone and inflection.  A critic hearing Albert Pesendorfer at the first performance, described his König Heinrich as “raw but powerful,” but I found him magisterial. Joachim Goltz was a clarion Herald.

Marc Piollet

Wiesbaden’s out-going General Music Director Marc Piollet kept the musical proceedings under a firm grip, possibly increasing the tension, by conducting without a baton. While he drew some finely spun textures from the orchestra, I found the dynamic range he produced occasionally lacking in genuine pianissimi.

Kirsten Harms’ new production, which, incidentally, opened this year’s Wiesbaden May Festival, shifts Wagner’s plot from the middle ages to a mid-19th century framework, that includes a wide shallow reception hall, designed by Bernd Domovsky (reportedly Harms' partner). Here the ancient Germanic male-dominated mores are played out to ensure the failure of Lohengrin’s threat of a new order through Ortrud’s exploitation of Elsa’s bourgeois reluctance to go with the flow: Your Name I Must Know, E'er my Gams be Crossed!

The performance I attended was the last of only two this season. Budget constraints? The production deserves to be revived. 

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau 1925-2012
Now a brief farewell to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died last week at the age of 86. While the death of Luciano Pavarotti may have commanded more ballyhoo, Fischer-Dieskau's passing received more than ample attention from the international press. Surprising, given that he was a celebrity only to those in the know, but they were legion. I remember recognizing him from an angle one morning in the late 1970s, as he walked down Broadway toward Avery Fisher Hall, where he was to appear in a concert that evening. Several people walking toward him waved or smiled or greeted him with "I'll be there!" and "Good luck tonight!" To which he responded with a perfunctory nod as he ambled diagonally across West 65th Street toward the stage door. Yes, a lot of people knew who he was, even though he had never sung at the Met and was known primarily as a Lieder singer.

I heard him only five times -- Mandryka and Falstaff at Covent Garden, the first of two farewell hommages to Gerald Moore (with Victoria de los Angeles and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf) at the Royal Festival Hall, a Winterreise Cycle in Philadelphia in 1972, and Mandryka again at the 1977 Munich Opera Festival. Among them, I remember his Philadelphia appearance most vividly. At the time, I was undergoing a difficult period that I thought would never end. Somehow, I began to feel better about myself as palpable streams of legato emanating from the stage wafted toward the uppermost rung of the Academy of Music, where I was sitting. It wasn't his clarity of enunciation that moved me, nor for that matter his manner of phrasing, at once so simple, yet inevitable. It was the sheer sound of that voice, unique and inimitable. Coincidence maybe, but my life took a turn for the better shortly thereafter.

In the late 1990s, I talked with him at his home in Berlin-West End about his career and collaborators, among them Wilhelm Furtwängler, who he especially admired. What stays with me about that long conversation has nothing to do with what he said, which was plenty. Rather, it was his demeanor and the design of his home. From the outside, the house looked quite ordinary, fronted with a lawn bisected by a path from the front door to the sidewalk. Once inside, though, I found myself in a long wide hallway with one door leading to apparently private quarters, another opening into a recital room. Although I was not invited to see the rest of the house, I could sense that it was incrementally immense, becoming larger with each step I took.

Even more surprising, though, was his behavior. I had been led to believe that he was not an especially cordial person, and there was plenty of evidence that he could be curt with queries he deemed unworthy of answering. But Fischer-Dieskau could not have been friendlier, greeting me at the front door himself, indroducing me to his wife Julia Varady, offering me refreshment before beginning our conversation -- everything to make me feel welcome.

Several years afterword, I attended an orchestral concert in Berlin that he was set to conduct. He cancelled at the last minute. I went back to my quarters and played his recording of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen under Furtwängler. Upon hearing of his death last week, I started playing it again. I got as far as "Ging heut' morgen übers Feld..." Some time soon, I want to play the rest of it.

Rest in Peace.

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