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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