Thursday, September 27, 2012


LA FORZA DEL DESTINO      New Production Premieres
Cologne Opera 
16, 18 September 2012
© Sam H. Shirakawa
Musikalische Leitung Will Humburg 
Inszenierung Olivier Py 
Bühne & Kostüme Pierre-André Weitz
Licht Bertrand Killy 
Dramaturgie Georg Kehren 
Chorleitung Andrew Ollivant 
Orchester Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

Il Marchese di Calatrava Dirk Aleschus 
Leonora di Vargas Adina Aaron/Maria José Siri
Don Carlo di Vargasn Anthony Michaels-Moore/Dmitris Tiliakos
Alvaro Enrique Ferrer/Vsevelod Grivnov
Padre Guardiano Liang Li/Nikolay Didenko
Fra Melitone Patrick Carfizzi 
Preziosilla Dalia Schaechter/Katri Wundsam
Mastro Trabuco Ralf Rachbauer 
AlcaldeYoung Doo Park 
Chirurgo Leonard Bernad 
Curra Andrea Andonian 
ChorExtra Chor & Chor der Oper Köln 

Cologne Opera at the Musical Done on the west bank of the Rhine.

A party mood pervaded the season opening of the Cologne Opera last week, as first-nighters mingled prior to curtain time in the foyer and bars of the company’s temporary home at the Musical Dome on the banks of the Rhine.  (The Opera House is undergoing a lengthy, costly and controversial renovation.)  The late-setting sun brightened the red carpeting in the lobby area, as it poured through the wide windows facing the Rhine.  The opening took place just as Photokina, the world's biggest trade event for photography and video, was about to get underway at Cologne's Convention Center directly accross the river.  Extra performances have been added to accomodate conventioners in search of lyric theater.
Opening Night patrons included former General Manager Eric Uwe Laufenberg, who planned the current season.
The sanguine mood subsided, though, once the audience sat down to face the dour sets housing Olivier Py’s production of La Forza del Destino.  While Verdi’s view of fate hardly hungers for lush and plush appointments, Pierre André Weisz’ bleak series of starkly lit (Bertrand Killy) gray buildings exuded unremitting gloom, as they slid in and out of view atop a stage-wide bank of steps. 
Production: Oliver Py, Sets: André Weisz, Lighting: Bertrand Killy
Weisz’ sets, of course, have some distinct plusses going for them.  They are stylishly ooh-aah at first impression and easy to forget thereafter.  They traverse the stage noiselessly and convey a queasy sense of foreboding when they move.  On the other hand, they give little feeling for a shift in locale.  The personae seem to move from one neighborhood to another, rather than from Spain to Italy, the two environs of the story.  Maybe that’s intentional: the program slip has no list of scenes and notes no specific time-frame.

What remains omnipresent throughout the proceedings are three large faux-iron wheels mounted at each side of the proscenium arch.  They spin remorselessly throughout the evening.  Okay, I think I get the idea -- wheels of fortune, spinning, spinning.  But they also become pesky, pesky.  And if I’m right about their on-stage significance, they ultimately contradict the storyline throughout the opera.  Wheels of fortune tell of bad and good luck, but the principal characters in Forza are beset with misfortune
only, triggered by the curse invoked at the outset.  

The stage-wide bank of ten stairs leading to the peregrinating edifaces may not be as distracting as those gears of ruin, but they pose hazards for the singers, who risk tripping as they mount and descend them. They also restrict everyone to moving in often awkward and unmotivated combinations.  

I admit I don't get Py's concept, although I've now attended three performances of his production and plan to go again -- to hear the music.  In the demi-monde of Continental theater, he has become a legend, following his dismissal last year from Théâtre de L'Odéon in Paris, presumably for mounting an unflattering play about France's late president François Mitterand.  To which, some might ask: So what?  I ask:, So what else?  French theater has always prided itself on fomenting provocation, but I, for one, believe that when theater directors of any nationality or persuasion tread beyond the borders of their empyreal realms, they owe their foreign, unwashed hosts some measure of elucidation about what they are provoking, apart from -- in the case of Py's production at the Cologne Opera -- non-Brechtian alienation.  
Enrique Ferrer, Adina Aaron
For those who, perhaps vainly, cling to the notion that opera is still about singing as the primary medium for articulating feeling, drama and ideas, the vocalism at the premiere proved far less stress-inducing than the production.  In fact, American Adina Aaron scored a triumph with her first-ever Forza Leonora, even though the first-night audience gave her less applause at the curtain calls than she might have received from a savvier crowd.   Aaron has clearly worked hard on polishing her considerable gifts since I last heard her last two seasons ago in Cologne as Aida.  The color of the voice now evokes platinum rather than silver, and she has mastered the transitions between her middle and upper registers.  She also now manages to channel Milanov, Caballé and Leontyne Price in producing some astonishing high-wire volume variations, most notably at the start of her big aria “Pace, pace mio Dio.”    Few currently active sopranos I’ve heard live can do what she did at the premiere.

Dalia Schaechter appeared to be having the time of her life as a bawdy Preziosilla.  Her ballsy mezzo is in great shape, and her jug-juggling antics are as delightful as they are shameless.

As Alvaro and Carlo respectively, Enrique Ferrer and Anthony Michaels-Moore seemed to be suffering first-night nerves. (It was Ferrer’s first Alvaro).  Both sounded vocally constricted and were occasionally challenged in finding the center of some notes.   They both have sung better and no doubt will again in succeeding performances.

Dirk Aleschuss as Calatrava and Liang Li singing Padre Guardiano were in fine form.  But it was Patrick Carfizzi who enlivened Fra Melitone’s scenes with his gift for seizing a comic moment, while eliciting that wanna-hear-more buzz through his distinctive, light-weight vibrato.  He received a well-earned ovation at the calls.

Maria José Siri/Patrick Carfizzi

Two nights later,  Cologne Opera presented the Maria José Siri (Leonora), Vsevolod Grivnov (Alvaro), Dmitris Tiliakos (Carlo) and Katrin Wundasam (Preziosilla) heading a semi-alternate cast.  Again it was Ladies’ Night Out as Siri and Wundsam largely out-sang their male coevals.  Siri has a Verdi-prone temperament that came boldly to life after Leonora goes into seclusion, but she tired somewhat in the fourth act, cracking while attempting the pianissimo on B-flat in the treacherous line “Invan la pace... quest'alma...” (At a later performance I attended, she hit the note squarely, ma meramente con mezzo-piano.) Wundsam created a sassy young Preziosilla all her own, leaving no doubt of her character’s lusty predisposition.  Grivnov is in possession of a bright, forwardly produced tenor, whose sound lingers in the mind’s ear.  But he has a tendency to growl under pressure.  Tiliakos has an ample saturnine voice that makes him a good choice for Escamilio and Lescaut.  But it needs to acrue more heat before he becomes a choice Verdi baritone.  Both he and Grivnov also are disposed to aspirating on vowels sung over two notes or more.  My Italian is at best maimed, but Dio, pieta and other frequently uttered sustained words heard as "dee-hee-io" and "pee-hay-ta" tend to "gray-hate" on the nerves.

Vocally, Nikolay Didenko proved an even exchange for Liang Li as Padre Guardiano, but broad experience has purchased him a bigger stage personality.  Patrick Carfizzi, as well as Young Doon Park, Ralf Rachbaier and Andrea Andonian confirmed the impressions they made at the premiere.

Will Humburg
Will Humburg showed a deft hand at maturing Verdi, keeping the orchestra and chorus firmly in unison, while moving the performance along at an energetic pace.
Musical Dome interior
Opera Cologne has lucked out in finding such congenial temporary quarters at the Musical Dome.  The steeply raked auditorium provides both good sight-lines and balanced acoustics throughout the house. The orchestra pit is deep and juts back several meters under the stage, which enables the ensemble to play full blast without overpowering the singers.  The subdued, warm decor is also more hospitable than the drab ambience of the auditorium in Offenbach Platz. 

Production Photos: Paul Leclaire 
Will Humburg: Theater Bonn
All other Photos and Graphix Post-Production:  Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, September 15, 2012


DER SCHATZGRÄBER      New Production
The Treasure Hunter
De Nederlandse Oper    Amsterdam
9 September 2012
musical direction
Marc Albrecht
Ivo van Hove
stage/lighting design
Jan Versweyveld
costume design
An D’Huys
Tal Yarden
Janine Brogt
Klaus Bertisch

Der König
Tijl Faveyts
Die Königin
Basja Chanowski
Der Kanzler/Der Schreiber
Alasdair Elliott
Herold / Der Graf
André Morsch
Der Magister/Der Schultheiss
Kurt Gysen
Der Narr
Graham Clark
Der Vogt
Kay Stiefermann
Der Junker
Mattijs van de Woerd
Raymond Very
Der Wirt
Andrew Greenan
Manuela Uhl
Gordon Gietz
Ein Landsknecht
Peter Arink
Erster Bürger
Cato Fordham
Zweiter Bürger
Richard Meijer
Mezzo Sopran Solo
Marieke Reuten
Alt Solo
Inez Hafkamp
Alt Solo
Hiroko Mogaki

Tableau Video Projections: Tal Yarden, Set: Jan Versweyveld
A query occurred to me after hearing a new production of Franz Schrecker’s rarely performed Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Hunter 1920) last weekend at de Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam:  What single factor do revived “forgotten” operas have in common?  A simplistic but simple answer:  First and foremost, someone, maybe a group, has both the will and resources to carry the enterprise through to presention.  In Holland this month, stage director Ivo van Hove and de Nederlandse Opera are collaborating to give Schrecker’s now seldom performed stage composition the Full Monty.
Manuela Uhl
Der Schatzgräber was a huge success for Schrecker at its Frankfurt premiere in 1920.  About 400 performances of the opera were heard before the Nazis banned Schrecker's works after they came to power in 1933.   He died in Berlin the following year at the age of 56.
Above/Below: De Nederlandse Opera

While the ins and outs of the mise en scène are hardly child's play to follow and even harder to remember than the plot of Total Recall, van Hove views the work as an “adult fairy tale,” in which an abstract narrative governs the action that he, at least, finds more menacing than found in most children’s bedtime stories.  (So Snow White and Cinderella are paragons of benignity?)  Anyway, van Hove's production, designed by Jan Versweyveld with modern day costumes by An D’Huys has a brightly lit, pop-out children’s book feel and look. Within that framework, a search for the stolen, magic jewels belonging to a fairy-tale queen, which dominates the action, takes on the semblance of a bad dream.  The jewels precipitate murder, false accusations and a love story involving a miserably married innkeeper’s daughter and a minstrel, whose enchanted lute leads him to the missing treasures.  Ultimately, all’s well that ends on an unearthly plane.
Ivo van Hove
Musically, Der Schatzgräber is even more complex than its plot, but for me, its luxurious score is ultimately less distinctive than distinctly reminiscent of several late romantic composers.  It also contains vast stretches of incidental music that may strike some as soporific rather than absorbing.   But thanks to the palpable commitment of the cast, conductor Marc Albrecht and the orchestra and chorus, as well as Tal Yarden’s effective video sequences, van Hove’s chimera-like production induces attention, if not fascination.  
Uhl, Raymond Very
The singing, though, kindles both.  First among equals: Manuela Uhl as Els, the Inkeeper’s daughter and the only prominent female singer in the testosterone-heavy cast.  Her voice continues to develop focus, soaring in the upper register and becoming ever more solid in the middle and lower regions as the performance proceeds.  At the same time, her unusually incisive instrument is becoming more voluminous with each hearing.  

Tenor Raymond Very as the minstrel Elis held his own with a flexible, beefy dramatic timbre. If he can get rid of the flab around his midriff, he will have a stage presence as imposing as his voice.  
Left: Kay Stiefermann Right: Graham Clark
Kay Stiefermann makes the most of the Bailiff, whose jealousy railroads the Minstrel to the gallows.  It is a thankless role, but he makes it elicit gratitude from the listener.  Following his towering Dutchman in Wuppertal last season, though, Stiefermann is now wasting his talents on third-string villains.  

After lo these many years, Graham Clark in the part of the Court Jester still manages to double the value of every syllable he utters and triple the valence of every note he sings.  But the spectacles he wears should be 86ed.  They make him look like an unkind caricature of Woody Allen, and it doesn’t work.  

If it takes conviction and money to bring operatic rarities back to the stage, some operas may be hindered from being revived because their casts are simply too large and competent comprimarios are too expensive.  De Nederlandse Opera is to be lauded in engaging singers of quality down to the smallest roles -- several of them from Holland. They include Andrew Greenan as the Inkeeper, Mattijs van de Woerd as the nasty young nobleman, and a trio of soloists: Marieke Reutan, Inez Hafkamp and Hiroko Mogaki.
Marc Albrecht

Keeping the instrumental and choral pots well stirred,  Marc Albrecht serves up his enthusiasm for the opera by drawing some fabulous playing from the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and finely articulated ensemble work from the Chorus of de Nederlandse Opera under the supervision of Alan Woodbridge. 

Incidentally, you already may know, that Amsterdam is as interesting during the day as it is at night, especially when the weather is clement.  The people are friendly, and the thoroughfares are largely safe and surprising at every turn.  You never know where they can lead...

Bar Lempicka

Foreground: Bridge across Nieuwe Herengraacht; Background: Magere Bridge
Available for duets and ensembles

Production Fotos; Monika Rittershaus
Amsterdam Fotos & Grafix:  Sam H. Shirakawa

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Thursday, September 06, 2012


VANESSA             New Production Premiere
Oper Frankfurt    2 September 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa 

Musikalische Leitung
Jonathan Darlington
Katharina Thoma
Bühnenbild und Kostüme
Julia Müer
Olaf Winter
Michael Clark

Charlotta Larsson
Jenny Carlstedt
Alte Baronin
Helena Döse
Kurt Streit
Der alte Doktor
Dietrich Volle
Nicholas, Haushofmeister
Björn Bürger
Chor der Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester 

Set and costumes: Julia Müer
When Samuel Barber’s Vanessa received its widely acclaimed World Premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on 15 January 1958, a substantial segment of the well-heeled audience in attendance could relate viscerally to the milieu in which its story is set.  The subject of finances comes up only fleetingly in the opera, but Vanessa deals with people descended from Old Money.  Lots of it.  Landed and titled, they live in a dimension far from the madding crowd. 

The demographics were the same if not more so, when I attended the fourth iteration of the Met’s production less than a month later at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.  A goodly lot of that audience was made of Old Money.  No wonder the Franklin Mint is resident in the City of Brotherly Lucre.  As a resourceless schoolboy who saved months of lunch money for a ticket to my second opera ever, I must have been the exception that made those demos democratic.

As it turned out, Vanessa became an object lesson of my youth.  Having recently experienced the first pangs of desire at the time, I was sorely dismayed to be shown that wealth doesn’t necessarily enable you to deal with the cravings for what I still haven’t begun to understand.  So it was the libretto more than the music that got me.  In the years since that evening, I've become convinced that it's the strength of Vanessa’s libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti as much as the quality of Barber’s music, which has caused it to fold gradually into the repertories of opera houses around the world.   

Vanessa tells a strange, sad tale.

Charlotta Larsson, Kurt Streit

After years of pining for the return of her great love Anatol, a visitor arrives at Vanessa’s estate, who turns out to be her long-lost lover’s son, also named Anatol.  While Vanessa reluctantly opens her arms to her young guest, her spinsterish niece Erika offers him a part of her own anatomy. With equal promptness, she prevents nature from taking its due course, by twice turning down Anatol’s marriage proposal and cheesing the bun he's thrust into her oven.  That leaves Vanessa, despite her suspicions of hanky-panky between Erika and Anatol, free to marry the scion of the love of her life and sally forth with him to -- where else? -- Paris.   Having renounced one chance for love, it is now Erika’s turn to await another.

Odd perhaps, but the demographics of opening nights at the opera haven’t changed much since the days of Vanessa’s premiere at the Met.  A near-sellout audience of opera subventioniers, sundry dignitaries and a lotta yotta-wealthy movers/shakers of the international banking scene assembled
this past Sunday at Oper Frankfurt’s first-ever performance of Vanessa in Barber's 1965 revised version for the Met. 

Jenny Carlstedt, Anna Larsson
Katharina Thoma’s production with sets and costumes by Julia Müer was first unveiled at the Malmö Opera in 2009 and has been brought to Oper Frankfurt through substantial support of its patrons.  Julia Müer’s unit set depicts the psychological split in the state of mind that has beset Vanessa’s household, in which her grandmother and her niece also reside: On one side, the elegantly appointed but somewhat dreary drawing room of her family's mansion; on the other, a rocky slope, where quiddities of ghosts share the substance of what has become of their sad lives.  
Charlotta Larssom. Kurt Streit, Jenny Carlstedt

Oper Frankfurt’s cast for the premiere was about as vocally apt as you could find these days.  Jenny Carlstedt commanded the stage from the start as the poor, not-so-little rich girl Erika.  Tall, regal and parsing out a stream of warm, velvety tone, especially in her aria Must the winter come so soon..., she made the part sympathetic and compelling.  In the eponymous role Charlotta Larsson looked almost too young and attractive for the role, but she but succeeded in sustaining Vanessa’s illusion/delusion of love lost/regained.  Her large lyrico-spinto shone best in Vanessa’s scena Do not utter a word... While English-speaking singers have no special leverage in articulating the language, American Kurt Streit as Anatol was best understood among the cast.  The role allows him to purvey his upper middle register thrillingly, and his acting treads a fine high-wire between sincerity and self-serving seity.  Oper Frankfurt veteran Helena Döse made a welcome appearance as the Old Baroness.  Dietrich Volle pleased the crowd with his portrayal of the opera's most appealing principal character, the family Doctor.  Björn Bürger discharged his duties as the House Steward

Speaking of tall, an emotionally charged moment in which Vanessa and Erika face each other down is vitiated in Thoma's staging, by having Carlstedt and Larsson standing opposite each other center-stage.  Carlstedt erect is nearly a head taller than Larsson, which leaves Erika peering down her nose at her aunt, when it should be the other way round.  This is an unintentional knee-slapper that should be remedied and quickly. 
Björn Bürger, Dietrich Volle
Jonathan Darlington moved the pacing along without losing his grip on the sometimes unwieldy intricacies of the instrumentation.  The Chorus of Oper Frankfurt and the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester performed with attentiveness and lucidity.  
Helena Döse
Persuasive arguments could be made for re-titling the opera Erika, for it is much more her story than Vanessa’s.  Or more simply, switch their names and retain the title.  If Vanessa is the central character, the plot waxes pedestrian, proving only that people come to those who wait.  If Erika is the key character, she demonstrates that noblesse can indeed have oblige, even in family matters, as she spares her aunt the truth of her involvement with Anatol and embarks on a solitary journey aboard a landau named Desire.

By the bye, you can see the interview segment I produced for WPIX-TV News New York with Rosalind Elias. who created the role of Erika at the Metropolitan Opera.  Check out the complete 3-part interview from which the segment was packaged and you'll find her relating how Barber came to compose Must the winter come so soon... for her.

Photographs: Barbara Aumüller
Grafix:  Sam H. Shirakawa 

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