Monday, October 29, 2012

Hunkering down for Sandy

Sandy is in the verge of landfall here in the New York area. We are in high rise building in mid-town Manhattan, within blocks of a partial crane collapse that happened earlier this afternoon on West 57th Street. We were told to be ready to evacuate in case the crane further collapsed, but so far we have stayed put.

In case we lose power we have been madly harvesting and posting items to the operacast website, and have put up most items through Thursday or Friday. We hope to be able to keep with everything, but please bear with us as we cope with Sandy and its aftermath.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

KISS!

LE NOZZE DI FIGARO     New Production Premiere 
Cologne Opera 
12 October 2012 
© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA
Musikalische Leitung / Konrad Junghänel 
Inszenierung / Benjamin Schad 
Bühne / Tobias Flemming 
Kostüme / Stephan F. Rinke 
Licht / Nicol Hungsberg 
Dramaturgie / Olaf Schmitt 
Chorleitung / Andrew Ollivant 
Choreografische Mitarbeit / Yasha Wang 

Conte Almaviva  Mark Stone 
Contessa Gräfin Almaviva  Maria Bengtsson 
Susanna  Claudia Rohrbach 
Figaro  Matias Tosi 
Cherubino  Adriana Bastidas Gamboa 
Marcellina  Hilke Andersen 
Basilio  Martin Koch 
Don Curzio Alexander Fedin 
Bartolo  Gilles Cachemaille 
Antonio  Ulrich Hielscher 
Barbarina  Ji-Hyun An 
Mädchen  Aoife Miskelly 
Mädchen  Marta Wryk 
Chor  Chor der Oper Köln 
Orchester  Gürzenich-Orchester Köln 
Graf Almaviva (Mark Stone, front), Figaro (Matias Tosi), Susanna (Claudia Rohrbach), Marcellina (Hilke Andersen), Gräfin Almaviva (Maria Bengtsson)*
 Some years ago an acquaintance asked me if I was planning to attend a much talked about a new production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. I replied, “I never go to Mozart operas in this country.” After a brief pause, he said: “That is by far the snottiest comment I have ever heard!” Coming from someone who has heard as well as uttered many a snotty comment, I accepted his assessment as a rare compliment. 

Actually, I did not intend to sneer. I shy away from Mozart mounted at the Met, City Opera (at Lincoln Center) and major houses anywhere because the dramatic vigor of Mozart’s operas -- especially Figaro -- becomes vitiated by the sheer vastness of a large theater. Which is not to say that Mozart cannot be presented to tremendous success in big houses. But the unavoidably grand “affect,” in my view, runs counter to the everyday ebb and flow of “real” life, that Figaro in particular projects with such flawless eloquence.

Anyway, Cologne Opera is presenting its new production of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Palladium, 
a converted Industrial Age machine factory where space has been carved out for 
a deep stage, 
a shallow orchestra pit 
and a raked parquet seating about 600 spectators. 

The house is one of several venues around Cologne being utilised while the main opera house in Offenbach Platz undergoes extensive renovation. The improvisatory ambience of the Palladium lends itself to the production, which Benjamin Schad agreed to assume at two month’s notice, soon after the designated producer (and Cologne Opera’s then-General Administrator) Eric Uwe Laufenberg was fired back in June. 

According to press reports, Schad had to start virtually from scratch with a near-zero budget, so he has manifestly adhered to the KISS! Principal -- Keep It Simple, Stupid! -- and succeeded in mounting a smart, energetic staging, whose triumph lies in keeping people from bumping into each other. 
Act IV*
But his production is not entirely bereft of incoherence. What, for example, did Schad have in mind for the last act?  Spectators at the premiere were treated to stuffed, Botero-ish mannequins dangling from the flies. Under them, sundry characters were turning up, rehearsing what looked like a tai-chi commercial. Yes, I get it: the subtitle of the opera is “la folle giornata” -- the Day of Madness -- but why belabor the obvious? 

What appears to interest Schad about the work most, although his remarks in the program booklet seem rather vague on this question, is licentiousness. Right from the start, we see a cutout of a large chalkboard on which a couple is drawn as large as life. Protruding from the man’s fly, a crudely drawn, erect penis, which becomes disfigured during the overture. It’s a pithy introduction to the Count’s philandering ways, as well as to the plots that thwart his designs on his maid Susanna on the day of her wedding to his servant Figaro. Schad stays on message until those stuffed objects and dilatory characters in the last act muddy the proceedings. 

If anyone is to be credited for endowing the production with unifying sense, it is Konrad Junghänel, who led the ensemble and orchestra through a brightly paced performance at the premiere.  Paying appropriate attention to the subtle intricacies of the instrumentation, he allowed the singers adequate space to individuate their roles. I would have liked some more visceral tension in the first and third acts, but Junghänel’s nervy tempi kept the performance choleric, when stolidity threatened now and then to set in. 

Mark Stone,* Maria Bengtsson*
 Looking at the cast list before the house lights went down, none of the names seemed out of place: they are all eminently suited to Mozart. Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson scored as the Countess, delivering heartfelt renditions of her two arias. Claudia Rohrbach, jumping in for an ailing colleague, spun out her silvery lyric voice with seductive enchantment, most notably in Susanna’s fourth act aria “Deh vieni, non tardar.” A dash of insoucience would have been welcome in her portrayal as a whole, but she never gave into cute impertinence, a temptation to which far too many Susannas these days are prone. 

Despite some tentative moments, Adriana Bastidas Gamboa proved likable as the romantically challenged Cherubino. Hilke Anderson was an aptly matronesque Marcellina, and nicely fleshed out her fourth act aria “Il capro e la capretta,” which often is cut. 

Among the men, Mark Stone as Almaviva has a bright even tone and solid musicality, typical of many British baritones of his generation. But he might go deeper into the irritable conceit the role calls for and his good looks might engender. If he can gather himself as effectively as his account of “Hai gia finta la Causa!” -- "You’ve won already!” turned out to be, he will be a Count of mean substance. 
Matias Tosi,* Claudia Rohrbach*
Argentinian Matias Tosi in the eponymous role sang louder than necessary in an environment as singer-friendly as the Palladium. That said, his voice, better suited in nature, perhaps, to Figaro’s boss, intimates sensuality at every cue. Two seasons ago, Tosi displayed his virtuosity in the above-mentioned Laufenberg’s production of Don Giovanni, in which he appeared as Leporello, Masetto and the Don on successive performances. Unfortunately, no such role-switching is planned this time around. 

Martin Koch (Basilio), Alexander Fedin (Don Cuzio), Giles Cachemaille (Bartolo) and Ulrich Hielscher (Antonio) distinguished themselves in parts that are tough to get due credit for. Fedin and Cachemaille are making their role debuts. 
Ji-Hyun An*
The stand-out at the premiere was Ji-Hyun An as Barbarina, who was such a delight last season in Cologne Opera’s production of Wolf-Ferrari’s Aschenputel (Cinderella). Her light lyric instrument currently is somewhat diminutive, but its thrust in “L'ho perduta, me meschina” has a penetrative, agile core that precogitates numerous possibilities. She would, however, benefit from noting the fates of many similar talents, who have fallen by the wayside, by taking on too much too soon. Hers is a rare gift that only nature in due course can nurture. 
Mark Stone, Claudia Rohrbach, Matias Tosi, Konrad Junghänel, Maria Bengtsson
Cologne Opera’s Figaro is sexually informed, but it steers somewhat shy of its manifest political implications. A good thing, maybe, in this, an election year full of tiresome dogfights being waged on stages near you. 

Production Fotos: Paul Leclaire*
Other Fotos, Grafix, Post Production: Sam H. Shirakawa


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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

LEAVE THE KIDS AT HOME

KÖNIGSKINDER        New Production Premiere
Oper Frankfurt 
30 September 2012
© Sam H. Shirakawa 

Musikalische Leitung / Sebastian Weigle
Regie / David Bösch
Bühnenbild / Patrick Bannwart
Kostüme / Meentje Nielsen
Licht / Frank Keller
Dramaturgie / Zsolt Horpácsy
Chor / Matthias Köhler
Kinderchor / Michael Clark

Der Königssohn / Daniel Behle
Die Gänsemagd / Amanda Majeski
Der Spielmann / Nikolay Borchev
Die Hexe / Julia Juon
Der Holzhacker / Magnús Baldvinsson
Der Besenbinder / Martin Mitterrutzner
Sein Töchterchen / Chiara Bäuml
Der Ratsälteste / Franz Mayer
Der Wirt / Dietrich Volle
Die Wirtstochter / Nina Tarandek
Der Schneider / Beau Gibson
Die Stallmagd / Katharina Magiera
1. Torwächter / Thomas Charrois
2. Torwächter / Garegin Hovsepian
Eine Frau / Claudia Grunwald

Chor der Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester

Hexed relationship: Daniel Behle, Amanda Majeski

Among depressing operas,  Engelbert Humperdinck’s rarely produced Königskinder (King’s Children) is a roaring wrist-slasher.  Performances should be banned on rainy days.  The work is all the more distressing because it is based on a fairy tale presumably aimed at children. While youngsters should by all means become inured to stories that end unhappily, I think adults should exercise special caution before exposing kids to this disturbing work.  Hänsel und Gretel it is not. 

These thoughts occurred to me as I noticed some very young children at the premiere of Oper Frankfurt’s new production this past weekend.  What do they make of such an unhappy tale? 
Julia Juon
Königskinder starts off inoccuously enough.  A prince falls in love with a farm girl, who has been hexed by a witch with a knack for baking poison bread.  The prince liberates the girl, but the witch prevents him from taking her into the “real” world.  They are eventually reunited in the prince’s kingdom, and here the narrative takes an ugly turn.  The star-crossed pair are met with scorn by the swinish populace, who expel them from their midst.  A minstrel of pure heart recognizes their true worth, but his clarity of vision proves ineffectual.  Faced with starvation, the misfortunate couple mutually end their suffering in a protracted Liebestod

What a bedtime story!
Nikolay Borchev
Königskinder received its world-premiere in 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera with a stellar cast that included Hermann Jadlowker, Geraldine Ferrar and Louise Homer.  Its success prompted numerous productions throughout the world, but it fell into obscurity after World War II.  In the past decade, Königskinder has begun to creep back into opera house repertories in Europe.  Deservedly perhaps.

David Bösch’s children's drawing book production for Frankfurt eliminates most of the difficulties in staging the work, by placing the action on a bare, steeply raked stage, with Patrick Bannwart’s cardboard cut-outs functioning unobtrusively as sets, props and geese.


If the presence of several opera world moguls seated among the money magnates at the premiere is any indication, the role of the Prince may signify a breakthrough for tenor Daniel Behle.  His voice has palpably bloomed from a Tamino-type sprout into an attractive middle-weight tenor, clearly capable of tackling Zemlinsky and early Wagner.  In its current estate, the voice sports a bright top reminiscent of the young Rene Kollo that crowns the sturdily butressed registers below it.  Genetics may be playing a role in Behle’s bodacious development: His mother is the well-known (and underrated) dramatic soprano Renate Behle

American Amanda Majeski as the farm girl commands a voice of surpassing beauty that can summon power without sounding pressured.  Its fullsome timbre reflects little of the girlish innocence you might reasonably expect from the role, but it reveals tragic yearnings in the score's final pages that surprise and disquiet.
Money gazing: European Central Bank across from Oper Frankfurt  
At first, Julia Juon struck me as a standard issue Mommy Dearest mezzo, but her Witch ultimately purveyed an agreeable detestability that I found fun to watch and interesting to hear.  Nikolay Borchev has appealing stage presence and a pleasant, well-schooled voice, but his Minstrel needs to “come out” and fully articulate the burden his character's voice must bear.  There were no weak links among the rest of the large cast. 

Sebastian Weigle paid close attention to having his redoubtable orchestra articulate Humperdinck’s numerous allusions to Wagner, most especially a fistful of quotes from Meistersinger.  He also proved efficient in steering the augmented chorus under the direction of Matthias Köhler, which includes a large section of children led by Michael Clark.  But I found myself wanting a tad more intensity from Weigle in drawing out some of the opera's arching melodies.

Königskinder comes along rarely, and It is well worth hearing in Oper Frankfurt’s new incarnation.

But leave the kids at home. 

Production Photos: Wolfgang Runkel
Oper Frankfurt Photo, Grafix & Post-Production: Sam H. Shirakawa

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