Thursday, May 24, 2012

Baby, It's You!

WAGNER: DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER
(New Production)

Cologne Opera 
20 May 2012 

Q WON HAN 

© 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
Daland
Lars Woldt
Senta
Erika Sunnegardh
Erik
Thomas Piffka
Mary
Diane Pilcher
Der Steuermann Dalands
Jeongki Cho
Der Holländer
Samuel Youn
Samiel
Gabi Dauenhauer
Chor
Chor der Oper Köln
Orchester
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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