Saturday, June 23, 2012


ALCINA      New Production
20 June 2012 

* Oper Köln
© Sam H. Shirakawa

More than a meal...

Musikalische Leitung Peter Neumann 
Inszenierung Ingo Kerkhof 
Bühne Anne Neuser 
Kostüme Stephan von Wedel 
Dramaturgie Tanja Fasching 
Licht Nicol Hungsberg

Alcina Claudia Rohrbach 

Ruggiero Franziska Gottwald 
Morgana Anna Palimina 
Bradamante Katrin Wundsam 
Oronte John Heuzenroeder 
Melisso Wolf Matthias Friedrich 
Oberto Adriana Bastidas Gamboa 
Orchester Gürzenich-Orchester Köln 

Okay, I admit it.  I've never been able to follow the plot of Handel’s Alcina, and trying to summarize it in 50 words or less hasn't been made any easier by a monumental distraction now seizing the whole world, except the United States:  the European Soccer Championship Games.

Anyway, here goes...  A young woman named Bradamante, who dresses up as her own brother Ricciardo, goes looking for her missing intended, the knight Ruggiero. She/he lands on an enchanted island ruled by the sorceress Alcina, who has benighted Ruggiero and taken him for her latest lover -- the operative word being ‘latest.’  Seems that Alcina discards stale squeezes, by turning them into animals, trees and waterways, and Ruggero could also suffer the same fate. 
Can Bradamante destroy Alcina’s power and get back her/his man? [86 words, and it doesn't begin to tackle the by-plots. e.g. Alcina's sister Morgana falls for Bradamente/Ricciardo. Oops...]  

Handel (using a text by Antonio Fanzaglia based on Ludovico Ariosto’s "Orlando furioso") portrays Alcina as a lonely, isolated creature, who gains understanding of true love only after she renounces her hold on Ruggiero.  Don’t try following the gnarled vicissitudes that bring Alcina to her breakthrough, because you’d be missing the point -- at least the point I took from Ingo Kerkhof’s new production for Cologne Opera at the Palladium, one of its temporary, smaller venues, while the opera house undergoes a three-year renovation program.  A blessing because the main house is too cavernous to host a work of Alcina’s proportions.

Kerkhof places the action on a dark, sparsely furnished platform whose set changes are mostly indicated by Nicol Hungsberg’s bleak lighting shifts. Stephan von Wedel’s costumes are present-day and gray.  Such paucity of visual color drew me to the bleak suffering all the characters undergo and ultimately led me to a pair of motley conclusions: a> Alcina is about the powerlessness that the power of love predicates and b> it’s about the singing, stupid! 

Claudia Rohrbach, Franziska Gottwald
And what a sing-fest Cologne Opera has assembled!   Handel composed airs and ensembles that pushed his singers to their technical limits, but no challenge is too difficult for this cast.  It’d be odious to pick standouts in this production, because none of the singers sharing the stage can truthfully be said to be better than the others, at least among the women.  So, I’ll cut the Gordian Knot simply by pointing out that Katrin Wundsam (Bradamante) set the vocal standard for her colleagues at the performance I heard, if only because she was the first to appear.  But it would be remiss of me to omit mentioning Claudia Rohrbach, who trumps the vocal acrobatics demanded of Alcina with a soulful “Mi restano le lagrime.”  Franziska Gottwald (Ruggerio) is destined for more trouser roles at international houses, if she doesn't drop her voice into her pants.  Anna Pallmina (Morgana), John Heuzenroeder (Oronte), Wolf Matthias Friedrich (Melisso), and Adriana Bastidas Gamboas (Oberto) rounded out the super cast.

Peter Neumann kept the musical proceedings from slagging with a number of judicious cuts, including most of the dance music.  Instead, the dancing emerged from the energy of the Gürzenich Orchestra -- absent an occasional spare entrance.  The band was pleasantly supplemented by unusual instruments such as a welsh harp and a theorbo, which double intermittently with the pianofortes when they’re not playing individually.

Katrin Wundsam

Cologne Opera’s new production of Alcina is a fitting final premiere of the city’s current lyric season in a time of transition and uncertainty.  The opera is among the last of Handel’s works for the stage.  The public at the time of its premiere (1735) in London was turning away from magickal opera, florid singing and their emasculated artists, so Handel started composing  more oratorios, which proved more practical and lucrative.  One can only hope the Cologne Opera can find practical and lucrative ways of staying in business.

Which brings me to report briefly on an unseemly backstage soap opera now playing out on news stands across Germany.  Cologne Opera's Intendant (General Manager) Uwe Eric Laufenberg has been let go, after he quit publicly, then retracted his resignation, only to be summoned to Cologne's City Hall this past week to be notified that he no longer has a job.  Laufenberg reportedly is now taking the matter to court. 
Gunfight at the O.K.* Corral: Uwe Eric Laufenberg / Georg Quander  
*O.K.=Oper Köln
When a marriage goes on the rocks, as Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof might say: the rocks are right there in the bottom line.  Laufenberg's resignation several months ago was reportedly precipitated by massive cuts in Cologne's budget for the arts in up-coming seasons. This devolved into a gunfight in the press, in which Laufeberg attacked his boss Georg Quander, Cologne's Culture Czar.  Drama reigned at a press conference, which Laufenberg was "unable" to carry out, because he had "refused" to complete the list of presentations for next season.

Now that Laufenberg is at liberty, three productions (Le Nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte, Parsifal) he was to produce will be reassigned or dropped.  On top of that, Laufenberg, who is also an actor of some note, was set to appear in his own production of My Fair Lady.  While he offered to fulfill the engagement, the offer was turned down. 

At the moment, Quander appears to have had the final word, although the courts ultimately could favor Laufenberg in some way.  But Quander's impressive background in broadcasting has surely qualified him to engage in political battles of quasi-Vatican proportions.  And prevail. 

Who is the big loser in this teutonic vision of street theater?  The same loser in any culture: the audience. 

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012


OBERON         Premiere New Production
17 June 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Musikalische Leitung: Hendrik Vestmann
Regie: Wolfgang Quetes
Bühnenbild: Heinz Balthes
Kostüme: José Manuel Vázquez
Licht: Matthias Hönig
Choreographie: Daniel Goldin
Chorleitung: Karsten Sprenger
Dramaturgie: Jens Ponath / Wilfried Harlandt
Jeff Martin (Oberon - Gesang)
Marek Sarnowski (Oberon - Schauspiel)
Christiane Hagedorn (Titania)
Wolfgang Schwaninger (Hüon von Bordeaux)
Fritz Steinbacher (Scherasmin)
Peter Jahreis (Karl der Große / Harun al Raschid / Almansor)
Maida Hundeling (Rezia)
Eva Trummer (Fatime)
Lucie Ceralova (Puck)
Benjamin Kradolfer Roth (Wieland)
Yuan Yuan Lu (Meermädchen) 
Michael Wild (Karloman / Abdallah)

Tanztheater der Städtischen Bühnen Münster
Opernchor der Stadtischen Bühnen Münster
Sinfonieorchester Münster
Standng room only

Composing Oberon killed Carl Maria von Weber.   Defying ill-health, he undertook a commission to compose a new work for British showman Charles Kemble, because he needed money desperately.  He even made the arduous journey from Dresden to London, learned enough English to cobble a libretto based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a poem by the Bard’s famous German translator Christoph Martin Wieland.   He also added a smattering of The Magic Flute and generous allusions to Abduction from the SeraglioOberon opened in April 1826 at Covent Garden with Weber on the podium.  Two months later, he succumbed to tuberculosis, aggravated by the duress of rehearsals, last-minute rewrites, debt and, plausibly, English cuisine. (Nearly 20 years later, Richard Wagner arranged for his remains to be brought back from London to Dresden.)

While Oberon was a success at its world premiere, Weber left behind less a refined operatic entity and more a huge grab bag of brilliant ideas, from which succeeding composers, notably Felix Mendelssohn and Wagner, have snatched mercilessly for their own purposes.  Gustav Mahler prepared a performing version with interpolations of his own.   Artur Bodanky made extensive cuts and composed recitatives based on themes from the opera for the Met's premiere in 1918, featuring Rosa Ponselle, Giovanni Martinelli and Paul Althouse.
Oberon al fresco
Cutting to the present, Münster Opera has just unveiled a new production of this seldom heard work in a version by Wolfgang Quetes, the departing Intendant (General Manager).   Quetes adds several scenes that include dialogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (primarily between Oberon and Tatania) and a dramatic leitmotiv of sorts, through which the aforementioned Wieland (1733-1813) becomes a character in the storyline, serving mainly to prod the narrative along, while writhing under the strain of the creative process.

The audience enters this theatrical Chinese box by witnessing (on its feet) a lengthy prologue on the spacious veranda of the theater (photos above), in which Wieland, awakened rudely from a drunken stupor, continues writing the poem that would eventually inspire Weber’s opera.  On a pair of balconies above him, the spirits of Shakespeare’s Tatania and Oberon agree to settle their dispute, only after an earthly couple can be found, who will remain true to each other through all travails. The audience then repairs to the auditorium, where replicas of the balconies they have just seen on the veranda flank the stage (photo below).
This complicated deconstruction -- Wieland writing the poem that inspired Weber -- is a heuristic albeit feet-tiring concept that takes advantage of the generous spaces the theater offers.  But Quetes doesn’t stop there.  He places the chorus in the side loges of the first and second balconies (photo above), to draw spectators closer to the action with surround-sound (and to eliminate traffic jams on stage). 

All inventive and provocative ideas, enlivened in particular by a storm scene, danced effectively by six members of the theater’s dance wing to the choreography of Daniel Goldin, and colorfully enhanced by the production team’s evocative decorations (Lighting: Matthias Hönig, sets: Heinz Bathes and Manfred Kaderk, costumes: Jose Manuel Vàsquez).  But it remains unclear, to me at least, whether Quetes views the mise on scène primarily as a pre-summer night's fairy tale,
a dramatic romance, or a burlesque, laced with irony.  He adumbrates all of the above -- but only here and there.  I was left wanting more.
Most memorable about this production, though, is the standard of singing.  Wolfgang Schwaninger (above left) as Hùon von Bordeaux looks a bit like Max Lorenz (above right) and is master of a big, beefy sound that finds its strength in a ringing top.  After a tentative start Eva Trummer blossomed into a radiant Fatima.  Fritz Steinbacher made an affable impression as her squeeze Scherasmin.

The rest of the cast are up to their assignments:  Jeff Martin (Oberon, singer), Marek Sarnowski (Oberon actor), Christiane Hagedorn (Tatania), Lucie Ceralova (Puck), Peter Jahrieis (Charlemagne, Harun, Almansor), Michael Wild (Karolman, Abdallah), and not least, Yuan Yuan Lu as a melodious mermaid and Benjamin Kradolfer Roth, who exudes star power in the speaking part of Christoph Martin Wieland.

Hendrik Vestman drew unflagging excitement from the orchestra and is blessed with some fine instrumental soloists, namely in the horn and woodwind section.  But he had some issues keeping Karsten Sprenger’s chorus in synch with the band.  It’s a problem that an extra rehearsal could fix.

The issue arises, of course, from the acoustic vaguaries of the theater. which. as far as I can tell, are essentially bright and relatively even.  But I wouldn’t doubt the presence of some roaming dead zones, given the steeply raked parquet and variances in resonance, depending on the size of the audience, which, this past Sunday was about 80 percent of capacity.  

Have I forgotten something?
Maida Hundeling
Of course: Maida Hundeling as Rezia.  While she may have disappointed by omitting the optional two octave leap from high B-flat  -- which she is fully capable of pulling off -- on “Ozean, stellst DU ein Schreckbild dar,” in Rezia’s big aria, hers is a voice you dream of discovering:  Unforced and gleaming at the top, warm and expressive in the middle and firm at the bottom.  She is a born heroic soprano who could turn Eva Turner’s head.  Her presence is comely, and she appears to have a sense of wit that Quetes could have exploited more profitably. 

An Oberon of any standard comes around about as frequently as Haley’s comet.  Given a cast of Münster’s calibre, this is your chance to add a rare performance of an operatic rarity to your repertoire.

Production photos: Michael Hoernschmeyer
Max Lorenz Photo: Public Domain
Other photos/Graphics: Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, June 15, 2012


VITTORIO GRIGOLO            Concert
Danilo Rigosa, Bass
Daniele Bonaviri, Guitar 

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Vittorio Grigolo had no chance to count the house, when he made his first entrance at his concert in Cologne’s Philharmonie on 12 June -- the orchestra had already started the introduction to “Angelo casto e bel” from Donizetti’s unfinished opera Il duca D’alba.  Had he been able to look out at the sparsely filled hall, he might well have turned on his heels.  But Grigolo is a seasoned trouper and proceeded to give his audience its money’s worth.  A tall task, given that a premium seat was priced at 103 euros -- a lot of money for Germans, who justifiably are worried about the escalating monetary crisis.

For the record, it was neither a recital nor a monster concert.  Grigolo sang about a half dozen arias, backed up by the Slovakian National Orchestra, two scenes with basso Danilo Rigosa (who he thanked for being his lifelong vocal teacher and friend), several duets with guitarist Daniele Bonaviri and a batch of encores, mostly Italian pop numbers.  But these facts don’t tell why the house was half-empty for a performer who is on his way to becoming a household name.

It’s hard to get a bead on Grigolo.  Is he a pop singer who can do opera?  Or is he an opera singer who can do cross-over?  The irrefutable recorded evidence that he excells at both doesn’t clarify the matter.  And the manner in which his appearance in Cologne was handled only adds to the confusion.

For starters, there was little advance advertising, that I could perceive, for an event apprently selling Grigolo at the Philharmonie, Cologne’s Temple of High-Brow, not as an operatic rock star, but as a no-nonsense classical artist:  A smattering of street posters here, some discreet ads there.  But the ad that first brought the concert to my attention was a button-pusher: tickets available at a substantial discount. 

What??  Seats going begging for the next Pavarotti? the next Lanza? the next Boyle in drag?  Further, the paltry batch of program booklets available on the night of the concert was snapped up by the first few lucky patrons.  That left the unlucky others having to content themselves with crude photocopies of the numbers page, which listed the repertoire for all his current appearances in Germany (Berlin, Munich, Cologne, Regensburg).  The usefulness of these rattly sheets was compromised by some pregnant pauses between numbers, notably when Grigolo failed to appear on stage because he hadn’t been informed of some changes in the program.  And when he did appear, his performance was seriously challenged by an usher clattering up and down the hardwood aisles waving down spectators to put their i-cameras away.

Would any of this have happened to Peter Lemongello?

Throughout it all, though, Grigolo pressed on without missing a beat, phrasing like de Stefano in his prime, hitting high notes with the all the aplomb of super Mario’s spectacular EM strikes, moving freely around the stage apron and working the room like a veteran saloon singer. 

For one of several encores, he invited any audience member to join him on stage in singing the Brindisi duet from Traviata.  When no takers came forward, possibly because he was speaking in English, conductor Daniele Rustioni stepped up and did double duty, a dud-prone stunt that turned out to be hilarious.  After dismissing the supporting Slovakian National Orchestra, he paired up with guitarist Daniele Bonaviri for a delightful set of Italian pop songs.

His finest moment, though, was not in the lollypop arias from Boheme, L’Elisir d’amore, Romeo et Julliette, Rigoletto nor in the lesser known “Tutto parea sorridere” from Il Corsaro.  It was his idiomatic and tender “Un’ aura amorosa” from Così fan Tutti.  Grigolo a Mozart singer?  Whoddathunkit.

After the concert, he patiently autographed his recordings for a queue of admirers that stretched across the width of the foyer.  The demographics of the line skewed toward women beyond a certain age. 

In all, the evening was a tad bizarre, but if you've witnessed Grigolo’s contribution to a segment on “Dancing with the Stars,” in which “La donna e mobile” was billed as a “Viennese Waltz,” this concert was a paragon of unassailable secernment.  Grigolo is so winsome a performer that the concert was, I must confess, a lot of fun.  Something classical events rarely are these days.

One more thing.  Grigolo is one of a dwindling handful of Italian-born Italianate tenors before the public today.  His breed may not be vanishing, but it has become alarmingly diminished in number and quality.  Grigolo has one concert remaining on his current German tour.  If you’re in Regensburg on 18 July and have the scratch to spring 130 euros per ticket, by all means, go for it. 

And grab a program booklet for me. 

Photos: Courtesy Vittorio Grigolo

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Thursday, June 14, 2012


SUSANNAH    New Production
10 June 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Musikalische Leitung: Bernhard Steiner
Inszenierung: Roman Hovenbitzer
Ausstattung: Jan Bammes
Choreographie: Andre Baeta
Dramaturgie: Jan Henric Bogen
Licht: Ulrich Schneider
Chor: Wolfgang Müller-Salow
Abendspielleitung / Regieassistenz: Guta Rau

Susannah Polk: Jaclyn Bermudez
Sam Polk, ihr Bruder: Charles Reid
Olin Blitch, ein Prediger: Rainer Zaun
Little Bat McLean: Jeffery Krueger
Mr. McLean: Raymond Ayers
Mr. Gleaton: James Wood
Mr. Hayes: Richard van Gemert
Mrs. McLean: Marilyn Bennett
Mrs. Gleaton: Dagmar Hesse
Mrs. Hayes: Tanja Schun
Mrs. Ott: Rena Kleifeld
Susannah faces her accusers
American and British opera companies mount Italian, German and French operas all the time.  European companies mount English-language operas less often, primarily because there are fewer (far fewer) risk-worthy works to choose from.   

So it was with curiosity and a little skepticism that I visited Hagen to see a new production of Carlyle Floyd’s Susannah, reportedly the most frequently performed American opera world-wide after Porgy and Bess:  Curiosity, because Susannah is so quintessentially American; skepticism because I dreaded hearing the text uttered with German accents. 
Rainer Zaun, Jaclyn Bermudez

Shame on me.  I should have realized, in the first instance, that people outside the U.S., especially Germans, probably are more familiar with the broad spectrum of American culture than Americans ourselves, thanks to films, television series, Yankee pop culture and the global tyranny of what's left of the English language. Secondly, many in the Hagen cast are American or British.  So the Tennessee twang that imbues the text was produced without much effort and fell naturally on the ear. 
Jaclyn Bermudez

Most pleasing to the ear was Jaclyn Bermudez in the eponymous role.  She purveys a large lyric voice that imparts intensity as it rises toward her upper register.  From a distance, her smooth oval face and brunette hair recall the young Phyllis Curtin, who created the role (and was my first Susannah in Frank Corsaro’s idiomatic production (1958) at New York City Opera).  Bermudez’ account of Susannah’s lovely second act aria “The Trees on the Mountain” was especially moving. 
Clockwise:  Rainer Zaun, Jeffrey Krueger, Raymond Ayers, Charles Reid

She was surrounded by a formidable quartet that distinguished itself by working as an ensemble. Among equals, Rainer Zaun (the only German native among the principals) stood out as the fiery preacher, Olin Blatch, whose needs promptly lead him to fall prey to his own weaknesses.  Jeffrey Krueger was sympathetically twitchy as Little Bat, the challenged outsider, who fails at his only aim in life: to be Susannah’s friend.  Raymond Ayers is commanding in both height and vocal size as the church elder Mr. McLean.

I've occasionally wondered what Charles Reid has been doing since I heard him sing Tony at the Met's premiere of William Balcom's A View from the Bridge ten years ago.  He's doing quite well, it seems. As Susannah’s drunken brother, his voice has accrued clarion heft that hints at the violence Sam ultimately commits.   

The batch of old biddies is led admirably by a nasty Marilyn Bennett, who reveals Mrs. McLean’s envy of Susannah’s youth and vivacity with incisive distemper. 
 Dagmar Hesse (Mrs. Gleaton), Marilyn Bennett (Mrs. McLean), Tanja Schun (Mrs. Hayes), Rena Kleifeld (Mrs. Ott)
Bernhard Steiner culls tension from the attentive chorus and orchestra and parses out the musical disclosures with an assured hand. 

The atmospheric production by Roman Hovenbitzer places the mise en scène on a wide planked platform, neatly designed by Jan Bammes, which rises to serve by turns as a wall and a hanging rock.  
Theater Hagen

Balcom composed the opera he set to his own libretto during the McCarthy witch hunts.  Its story of an innocent girl scapegoated by her church community bears a marked affinity to Wilhelm Kienzl’s Evangelimann, which also deals with false accusations and their consequences.  Following Germany's defeat in World War, the latter had tremendous resonance among the German public, who identified their collective humilation with the scapegoat-hero.  50 years after its world premiere, the Get-the-Girl theme of Susannah is gaining new relevance for some opera-going Germans, now grappling with their nation’s role in Europe's economic anxieties.  A German lady I spoke with after the performance in Hagen told me she identified with Susannah's ordeal because she felt that ordinary hard-working Germans are being scapegoated for a monetary crisis they didn’t create.  She added, she hopes the government will, like Susannah, stare ‘them’ down.

Oddlly, Susannah also spawns greater societal significance in light of the recent documentary Bully, which deals with arbitrary cruelty in American schools, a social plague whose virulence continues unchecked and is rapidly becoming bubonic.  Susannah may find its musical substance through the comforting harmonies of indigenous American music, but its melodies thinly conceal a cautionary tale about the attenuated fabric of a society that validates malice.  It is, ultimately, a deeply disturbing work.

Production / publicity photos courtesy Theater Hagen
Other photos and graphics: Sam H. Shirakawa 

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Monday, June 11, 2012


Final Performance in Cologne's Opera House
7 June 2012 

© Sam H. Shirakawa 

Musikalische Leitung Markus Stenz / Inszenierung Uwe Eric Laufenberg / Bühne und Kostüme Tobias Hoheisel / Licht Wolfgang Göbbel / Video Falko Sternberg / Dramaturgie Georg Kehren / Chorleitung Andrew Ollivant
Hans Sachs, Schuster Wolfgang Brendel 
Veit Pogner, Goldschmied Bjarni Thor Kristinsson 
Kunz Vogelgesang, Kürschner Martin Finke 
Konrad Nachtigall, Spengler Wilfried Staber 
Sixtus Beckmesser, Stadtschreiber Johannes Martin Kränzle 
Fritz Kothner, Bäcker Hans-Joachim Ketelsen 
Balthasar Zorn, Zinngießer Alexander Fedin 
Ulrich Eißlinger, Gewürzkrämer John Heuzenroeder 
Augustin Moser, Schneider Werner Sindemann 
Hermann Ortel, Seifensieder Ulrich Hielscher 
Hans Schwarz, Strumpfwirker Nico Wouterse 
Hans Foltz, Kupferschmied Dennis Wilgenhof 
Walther von Stolzing, ein junger Ritter aus Franken Marco Jentzsch 
David, Sachsens Lehrbube Martin Koch 
Eva, Pogners Tochter Barbara Haveman 
Magdalene, Evas Amme Dalia Schaechter 
Ein Nachtwächter Young Doo Park 

Chor der Oper Köln 
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln
Oper Köln in Offenbach Platz is closing for extensive renovation, budgeted at 253 million euros ($318 million). (Photo: Sam H. Shirakawa)
The end of an era.  Sort of. 

Cologne Opera closed down its landmarked home in Offenbach Platz on 7 June with a performance of Meistersinger, the same work that opened the venue in 1957. 

A festive evening, even if it wasn't nearly as emotional as, say, the closing night of the Old Met because the closure is temporary.  (The Opera is relocating to the Musical Dome behind Cologne Cathedral for the next two and a half years.)  But I couldn’t help wondering if Cologne's Opera House in Offenbach Platz would ever open for business again.  The opera theater and the adjacent Cologne Playhouse are undergoing a complete overhaul, budgeted currently at 253 million euros ($318 m).  That's a lot of money for upgrading a pair of spaces that doesn't include a sports arena.  Add near-panic over the euro crisis, the debt crisis and the incipient crisis in confidence, and ask yourself if the politicos holding the cookie jar might be tempted to snatch a biscuit here and there until the jar is empty or if the project may ultimately prove too expensive to complete.  

Meistersinger Act II (Photo Klaus Lefebvre)
Meantime, it was an evening of auld lang Rhine last Thursday, as the company mounted a wonderful performance of Wagner's sublime work.  Many original cast members of this production from 2009 repeated their roles. 

For subscribers and regulars at an opera house with a resident company, such fixed casting has pluses and minuses.  Singers can grow, grow stale or grow inferior, even within three seasons, and the audience can wax enthralled or wane away.  Fortunately, at this performance, at least, all the singers old and new were in fine form, and the house was nearly sold out.

Wolfgang Brendel
Among the principals, Wolfgang Brendel, stepping in for Robert Holl, was most noteworthy as Hans Sachs.  Why he hasn’t become a superstar during a career that goes back to the early 1970s confounds me.  The voice has defied the depredations of aging and gained luster, depth and solidity over the years; his acting has always been engrossing.  Vocally unstinting from the start of this performance, his staying power served him well right up through a stern but poignant “Verachtet mir die Meister nicht...!”

Toward the beginning of his career Brendel was mentioned in the same breath with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. After hearing them back-to-back on the same stage on successive nights in 1977 in Munich, I found the comparison fair.  No less so now, despite a smidgen of rhythmic slip-ups during the third act.  Over the past 15 years, I’ve heard Brendel as Sachs four times; each one different, each masterful.  But this performance was by far his best to date.  As I wrote of him in Leipzig two years ago, he is arguably the finest Sachs before the public today.

For someone who is far better known for his Beckmesser, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen sang Kothner as though he rarely performs anything else.  All the more astonishing because he too was a last-minute replacement.  Ketelsen is another happy case of a superb singer becoming a formidable artist.

Martin Koch’s headstrong but amiable David now shows more fulfillment than promise, combining rock-solid technique, unerring musicality and ease of physical movement.  His challenge is to become even more interesting instead of lapsing into mere efficiency.

Why Barbara Haveman marred an otherwise compelling portrayal of Eva Pogner by dropping the B-natural trill on “...werben weiss!” at the end of the Prize Song is a mystery as well as a disappointment. 

Marco Jentzsch

Perhaps inspired by Brendel’s sovereign presence, Marco Jentzsch delivered an impassioned von Stolzing, demonstrating the fruits of hard work on the part since his tentative showing at the premiere of the current production nearly three years ago.  The voice has acquired a sweetness in the mid range and filled out at the bottom, but it can turn somewhat wiry under pressure at the top.  Given his basketball champ height, agreeable looks and graceful comportment, Jentzsch has what it takes to compete in the big leagues, providing he chucks that gut he’s getting, nurses his voice and resists bouncing around Greater Germania as Walther.  The opera gods gave him fair warning, when he lost his voice recently in Berlin during the final scene.  As Erda would caution, Weiche!
Johannes Martin Kränzle (Oper Köln)
Among the other holdover principals from previous seasons, Johannes Martin Kränzle has furthered his comic gifts as Beckmesser without sacrificing the musical line the role demands.   In an unplanned bout of frenzy, he threw his shoe out the window in the first scene of the third act but gamely left the stage, retrieved it and returned just in time for his next cue.   A swift improv that earned him an ovation at his solo curtain call. 

Dalia Schecter, also from the original cast, repeated Magdalene with more freedom and leger than she evinced previously.  Bjarni Thor Kristinsson, meanwhile, has accrued booming resonance since I last heard him.  When talents such as Kristinsson sing Pogner, you regret that Wagner didn’t compose more for the part.

Young Doo Park’s Nightwatchman intimated a Pogner in the making.

Eric Uwe Laufenberg
At the center of the proceedings:  Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production and Marcus Stenz’ conducting.  I have come to like Laufenberg's staging, but I still hate that awful video that "illustrates" the Prize Song.  It distracts, pulls focus and invites unintended laughs.
Markus Stenz (Photo: Catrin Moritz)
Stenz’ comprehension of the score has ripened palpably since I first heard his reading in 2009, but he still needs to dive deeper into its sea of miraculous treasures.  Like many conductors essaying Wagner at his stage of maturity, Stenz' current state of understanding the score tends to reveal itself in volume rather than with texture.  The orchestra at times became simply too loud, overwhelming even the chorus, which by the way was in terrific form.  Still, his is an exciting reading that's morphing into a magisterial interpretation.

The Cologne Opera has been home and way station to many distinguished singers and conductors, long before the City of Cologne first took it over in 1904.  It should remain so, at any cost. 

Graphics: Sam H. Shirakawa

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Sunday, June 10, 2012


2 JUNE 2012
Threatened Closures of State Theaters in Duisburg and Eisenach 


Musikalische Leitung Dan Ettinger
Inszenierung, Bühne, Kostüme Achim Freyer
Dramaturgie Regine Elzenheimer
Donner Thomas Berau
Alberich Karsten Mewes
Fafner In-Sung Sim
Freia Iris Kupke
Floßhilde Andrea Szántó

RheingEld! RheingEld!
Maybe the Rheinmaidens should be croaking “Rheingeld!” instead of “Rheingold!” in Achim Freyer’s production of Wagner's Ring at Mannheim’s National Theater. Geld (money), or the lack thereof, is on everybody’s mind. Cutbacks in state funding for the arts are making headlines throughout Europe, but nowhere more alarmingly than in Germany. 

But I digress. First, the opera performance that provoked the Idontwannathinkaboutit thought.

Those who saw Freyer’s production in Los Angeles two years ago, may remember that he sets the tone for his Ring with the three Rhine ladies perched on swings high above the stage floor -- somewhat like a grotesque lampoon of an
opening tableau at the Follies Bergère. Given their vantage point, it’s impossible for them to even try preventing Alberich from stealing their gold. 

Freyer’s staging of this scene, though, comes off as anecdotal rather than dramatic: it has no tension. Blame it on the singers? No can do. Karsten Meves as Alberich and the Rhein Maidens (Ina Schlingensiepan, Anne-Theresa Møller, and Andrea Szantó) are about as formidable a quartet as you’ll find on any stage during these seasons of Wagner Centennial celebrations. (Wagner was born in 1813). Blame it on the conducting? Sorry, wrong number: Dan Ettinger spins out magic from that E-flat pedal which begins Wagner’s tetrology, despite a gaffe or more in the brass section of the redoubtable Mannheim Orchestra. 

When a home is not a house...
Gradually, it becomes clear that Freyer is spawning a terrible dream, whose incidents reflect our current daymares: the banking crisis (predatory dwarfs pinching trillions), the disintegrating world economy (the curse of ill-gained fortune begetting fratricide begetting...) and so on. As I wrote in my report on Freyer’s L.A. Opera-Mannheim production of Walküre recently, a requirement for appreciating this Ring is to go with the flow and yield to its suggestiveness.
That leaves the consciousness open to appreciate the singing and orchestral playing, which, by turns, runs the gamut from quite good to outstanding. Most noteworthy in a cast with no cogs: Thomas Jesatko, who performs Wotan as though he were singing Almaviva.  His voice, though not huge, is ample and warms under pressure without overheating. He also has sufficient reserves to deliver a commanding “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge...” after being on stage for most of the preceding 165 minutes.

The Mannheim National Theater has two main stages (opera house and play house) which share a common rear wall as evidenced by the back-to-back loft towers on the roof in the photo above. The stage vista of a production gains dramatic depth when the dividing wall is removed. In Mannheim's production of Parsifal (photo below), the knights in the Grail scenes enter from the rear of the playhouse and proceed onto the stage of the opera house, thereby making the entire playhouse auditorium and stage part of the Grail Hall.

Karsten Mewes (Alberich) reveals a vocally nasty nemesis to Wotan without lapsing into caricature. Uwe Eikötter manages to transform Mime from a standard-issue caricature into a deceptively cute curmudgeon. Thomas Berau and Xavier Moreno produce prime beefy sounds as Donner and Froh. Insung Sim makes a menacing Fafner. Not least, Jürgen Müller fleshes out a crafty Loge, replete with Lombard Street bowler hat and a pair of extra arms for the god’s sleights of hand.

The surprise attention-catcher, though, is Hans-Peter Scheidegger as Fasolt. When I heard him as a promising Wotan in a superlative Ring in Chemnitz in 2004, I believed that he was on the road to major opera houses. His path has led to residency at the Komische Oper Berlin, where I’ve heard him several times in camprimario roles. If he’s been saving his voice for Fasolt in Mannheim, he delivered the goods. The voice has grown darker but maintained its lyric translucence. Rarely have I heard the giant’s crush on Freia so persuasively sung.

And Iris Kupke was indeed crush-worthy. In place of
Olympian vocal proportions she brings girlish appeal to Freia’s distress. Edna Prochnik, though, seemed vocally somewhat distressed with her Rheingold Fricka, just six days after her spot-on Walküre Fricka. Maybe just an off night.

Now, a word about money, which was brought to mind during the opening scene of this performance. As I write on this bank holiday weekend (Corpus Christi) among Europe’s Roman Catholic states, the arts in Germany are financially in extremis

As monstrance: the opera house in Eisenach, the city that was home to Martin Luther while he translated the New Testament, J.S. Bach’s birthplace and the setting for the Song Contest in Tannhäuser. It’s probably going to close soon, unless funds can be raised privately to keep it open. Unlikely. 

The State Theater of Duisburg (above) is home to opera, ballet and plays. The building was originally completed in the neo-classical style with private funds in 1912. It was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in 1950, again through mostly private support.

Similarly, the long marriage between Düsseldorf and Duisburg, which achieved decades of solid success as Deutsche Oper am Rhein, is on the brink of dissolution. Duisburg can no longer afford to pay its share to keep its opera house open, so it will shut down operations in 2014, barring a miracle. Also Unlikely. 

The opera house in Düsseldorf stands on the site of an earlier theater completed in 1875. The current building opened in 1956, when a partnership was formed with the opera company in Duisburg. The merged companies have been known since then as Deutsche Oper am Rhein and share singers, dancers, productions and personnel.
Which leaves Düsseldorf looking for another partner. The most practical solution would merge Deutsche Oper am Rhein with Oper Cologne. But the styles of their respective productions are inimical. So too are their respective inhabitants: Düsseldorfers think the Cologners are gauche, while Cologners think Düsseldorfers are snotty.  A frequently worn t-shirt reads “Besser tot in Köln als gesund in Düsseldorf!” or I’d rather be dead in Cologne than alive in Düsseldorf. I can safely predict that the Campbells will marry the McDonalds en masse before Cologne Opera and Deutsche Oper am Rhein enter matrimony. A more likely scenario would merge Cologne with Theater Bonn, an alliance that has long been discussed. Which would leave Düsseldorf still trolling.

For the next two and a half years Oper Köln will play in a tent behind Cologne Cathedral that usually houses visiting musicals and tourning pop concerts.
Theater Bonn (view from the Kennedy Bridge over the Rhine)
Some Cassandras are predicting that it’s only a matter of time before all state theaters in Germany will close. The thought is too grim to contemplate, but Europe has entered the Dark Ages before. If infelicitous developments in the euro and debt crises continue, it could happen again. 

Production Photos: Hans Jörg Michel
Other Photos and Graphics: Sam H. Shirakawa

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