Monday, February 25, 2013

ROSES BURN

ANNA BOLENA         New Production Premiere
Opera Cologne 
17 February 2013

© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA
Musikalische Leitung Alessandro De Marchi 
Inszenierung Tobias Hoheisel & Imogen Kogge 
Bühne & Kostüme Tobias Hoheisel 
Licht Andreas Grüter 
Dramaturgie Birgit Meyer 
Chorleitung Jens Olaf Buhrow 

Enrico VIII. Gidon Saks 

Anna Bolena  Olesya Golovneva 
Giovanna Seymour  Regina Richter 
Lord Rochefort  Matias Tosi 
Lord Riccardo  Percy Luciano Botelho 
Smeton  Katrin Wundsam 
Sir Hervey  Alexander Fedin 
Chor der Oper Köln 
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln

Holbein: Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour
Have you heard the joke about King Henry VIII that was rumored to have circulated in 16th century England?

Question: What are the two things every red-blooded nobleman wants most?
Answer: A dead ex-wife and the Tudor crown.

Henry VIII (1491-1547) married six times, killing off two of his wives. The most famous of his consorts was his second spouse Anne Boleyn, who has become the subject of countless documentations, factual, fictional and factional, since her execution on 19 May 1536 in the Tower of London. Among the musical tributes to Anne, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena (1830) is probably the most famous.

Opera Cologne has recently unveiled a new production of the work under the direction of Imogen Kogge and Tobias Hoheisel, who also designed the set and costumes. Visually, it is a striking but somewhat confusing affair. The stage is divided into two sections (see photo below). On one side, a stark room painted in egg-shell white adorned only by plain rectangular wall panels. Most of the action takes place within this space. On the other side of the stage, part of the entrance hall in a stately home. A dark, wide wooden staircase, sweeps up to the landing, which is dominated by what looks like a copy of Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry.
Tobias Hoheisel's set for Anna Belena, featuring a copy of Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII, whose original was completed in 1536.

The conspicuous and awkward positioning of this portrait tends to distract from whatever takes place throughout the course of the action. For starters, it was completed as part of a massive mural in 1536, shortly after Anne Boleyn’s execution.  It served as a commemoration of Henry’s marriage to her successor, Jane Seymour.  Of course, its relevance to Opera Cologne's new production may be moot in the first place because the canvas cannot be seen by audiences sitting in the first few rows at house left; a wall bisecting the stage blocks it from their view.

Let’s assume for a moment, that the anacronistic presence of the portrait is relevant. Are Hoheisel and Kogge then framing the events in the opera as a stream of flashbacks? Flashbacks to what? Felice Romani’s libretto places the action squarely in dramatic real-time; there’s no past to backflash. The appearance of tall and slim Gidon Saks as Enrico VIII, dressed in non-Tudor attire comes as a shock and confuses the time frame of the action further, because Henry, who was on his way to becoming mega-chunky in 1536, posed for the portrait around the time of his decision to have Anne executed. And Jane Seymour’s flaming Tudor-red gown evokes unintended visions of Maggie Smith's hilarious turn in Lettice and Lovage and pulls focus from everything except Henry’s portrait, even when Regina Richter, who portrays the conflicted object of Henry’s desire, is standing still in a corner. Anna’s flowing Tudor-white costume is no match against it, even if the attractive Olesya Goloneva in the title role is wearing it.
Tudorettes: Oöesya Goloneva (white), Regina Richter (red)

Which leads me to ask: Who is the central character in this production of Donizetti’s opera? Previous mountings I’ve witnessed, have convinced me that it’s Anna. But Regina Richter in her first-ever Giovanna commands every scene she’s in, simply by outsinging everybody with whom the score brings her in contact.  Her glowing mezzo goes from strength to strength in range and intensity and her coloratura flights are becoming ever more exciting . Olesya Goloneva, also making her role debut, delivers a sympathetic Anna, well-drilled and musically persuasive.  But a curious placidity in her stage presence prevents her queen from becoming compelling. The disparity in potency between Richter and Goloneva ablacates the big duet "Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio" of its heartrending poignance.
Luciano Botelho, Regina Richter, Olesya Goloneva, Alessandro di Marchi
No substantive objections can be raised against the spear side, but it grew clear as the premiere performance entered its third hour, that no one in the cast can compete vocally with Richter, save the aforementioned Saks, who sings a solid, imposing Enrico. Luciano Bothelo, as Anna’s former squeeze Percy, has good looks and a pleasing tenor going for him, but he scales the role’s upper tessitura with tenacity rather than with mastery. He is currently is having some success in the bel canto repertoire, but he might want to think about varying his vocal diet with a schmier of Mozart.  Matias Tosi (Rochefort) and Alexander Fedin (Harvey) perform good service.

Katrin Wundsam makes an all-too-brief appearance with the Page Smeton’s cavatina "Deh! non voler costringere a finta gioia il viso . . ."

Baroque specialist Alessandro de Marchi drives the performance energetically and cultivates a honeyed line from the Gürzenich Orchestra in the cantabile passages.  

Performances (mostly sold-out) continue through 10 March.

Photographs, grafix, post-production: Sam H. Shirakawa 

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Friday, February 22, 2013

RAT PACK RIGOLETTO

RIGOLETTO                LIVE in HD
Metropolitan Opera 
16 February 2013 

© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA

Rigoletto...............Zeljko Lucic
Gilda...................Diana Damrau
Duke of Mantua..........Piotr Beczala
Maddalena...............Oksana Volkova
Sparafucile.............Stefan Kocán
Monterone...............Robert Pomakov
Borsa...................Alexander Lewis
Marullo.................Jeff Mattsey
Count Ceprano...........David Crawford
Countess Ceprano........Emalie Savoy
Giovanna................Maria Zifchak
Page....................Catherine Choi
Guard...................Earle Patriarco

Conductor...............Michele Mariotti

Production..............Michael Mayer
Set Designer............Christine Jones
Costume Designer........Susan Hilferty
Lighting Designer.......Kevin Adams
Choreographer...........Steven Hoggett
TV Director.............Matthew Diamond

Rigoletto tableau (Metropolitan Opera)

Several months ago, tickets went begging for performances at the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Ballo in Maschera. But the Live HD Relay was pretty much sold-out in cinemas around the world. All the more remarkable if you factor in ticket prices for the relayup to three times more than the tab for a new feature film in 2D. The simulcast of the Met’s new Rigoletto on 16 February was pretty much a sell-out in cinemas. In the house too -- judging from the numerous panning shots of the audience just before the performance. 


And from the looks of Michael Mayer’s zazzy production on the silver screen, it's an eye-popper. Forget the original setting in 16th century Mantua.  We're in 1960s Las Vegas, abetted by Christine Jones’ super-gaudy sets, Susan Hilferty’s retro-trash costumes and Kevin Adams’ nervy neon lighting. For a near-sighted spectator watching from the Met’s upper regions, the stage pictures may seem like a LeRoy Neiman chroma blur. But out in HD Land, this production has been tailor-made for high-def viewing.
 

There are enough distractions in this strategy to keep you from asking tough questions about the logic of placing Rigoletto in a Rat Pack mileu, some of which have been posed by the New York Times. What, for instance, is Rigoletto’s job? And how many people know what the Rat Pack was? The latter question was answered to some extent in a string of live intermission features hosted by the redoubtable Renee Fleming. Mayer said he found parallels between the original characters and the clique of entertainers that headlined in Vegas during the 1960s (and sealed their notoriety in the 1960 film Ocean's Eleven). But if indeed the Duke is Frank Sinatra and one of the supporting characters is supposed to be Dean Martin, then who is Gilda?  Judy Garland?  No.  Shirley MacClaine?  I don't think so. Lauren Bacall?  Huh?  Mayer’s concept is so fleetingly thought out, that it may not bear thinking about. At least it’s not offensive, except maybe to those who take umbrage at Sammy Davis, Jr. being portrayed as a white guy.

Compare, then, this production with Jonathan Miller’s memorable staging for the English National Opera back in the 1980s, which was set in New York’s Little Italy. (It played at the Met for several performances and featured a thrilling cameo by Norman Bailey as Monterone.) You didn’t need liner notes to “get” the looming reference to Edward Hopper in order to absorb the chill that permeated Rigoletto’s cheerless Mafia-driven world. Miller's sotto-seething sous-monde concept illuminated Verdi by enlivening the subversive motives behind Hugo's Le roi s'amuse, the source on which the composer's librettist Francsco Maria Piave based his text.  But you didn't need to know any of this to be utterly taken by this gem of a production.

Thanks to HDTV, I have some idea of what this Rigoletto looks like in the house, but I have little idea how it sounded to the audience at the Met. All the voices during transmission seemed to be about the same size, thanks to toney audio engineering; everything sonic was endowed with a pleasant aural “bloom” that made the singing and orchestral playing especially appealing. The singers in particular sounded flawlessly on pitch and blended nicely in the famous ensembles. But there’s not much you can say about them with certainty, because you’re entirely dependent upon the audio producer's team and how they ply the vast array of level controls at their disposal.

Zeljko Lucic sans hunchback lump delivered an effectively morose Rigoletto, but he might have made more of the character’s transition from stooge to avenger. Diana Damrau is a comely Gilda, although she is clearly in slim-down mode following the recent birth of her second child. Piotr Beczala (Beh-CHA-weh) was in superb form as the Duke. Oksana Volkova (Maddalena), Stefan Kocán (Sparafucile) and Robert Pomakov (Monterone) rounded out the principals satisfactorily.

Michele Mariotti acquitted himself promisingly at the podium, following his successful Met debut leading Carmen this past autumn. At age 32, he follows in the deep footsteps left by the likes of Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti, who both were already on the threshold of maturity at the starts of thier careers. 

After talking with some grunts at the Met in recent seasons, I’ve been left with the distinct impression that the world’s leading opera house is currently not a happy place to be employed. But when was it Paradise? Some of the complaints center on the trend toward making new productions TV-friendly. “The Met’s becoming a television studio,” is one of the more frequently stated grumblings. Meanwhile, hostess Renee again encouraged the transmission audience to experience a Met performance in the house, stopping just short of giving directions to the box-office. Poor attendance at the Met but sell-outs at live transmissions may portend a sea change for how audiences want to experience opera.  After all, you can munch and sip deadly beverages while watching a relay at a cinema near you. Given the louder-than-life ambience of HD relays, though, those who decide to attend a Met performance for the first time ever, may, as I’ve said before, be in for a letdown.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

KARNEVAL IN COLOGNE

DER CARNEVAL IN ROM      Concert Form 
Dresden State Operetta 
Cologne Philharmonie 
6 February 2013 

© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA 

Jana Büchner Sopran (Marie, ein Mädchen vom Lande) 
Michael Heim Tenor (Arthur Bryk, Kunstmaler) 
Manfred Equiluz Tenor (Graf Falconi) 
Jessica Glatte Sopran (Gräfin Falconi) 
Marcus Günzel Bariton (Hesse, Kunstmaler, Arthurs Freund) 
Bernd Könnes Tenor (Rafaeli, Kunstmaler, Arthurs Freund) 
Jeannette Oswald Sopran (Therese, Braut) 
Jens-Uwe Mürner Tenor (Toni) 
Chor der Staatsoperette Dresden 
Thomas Runge Einstudierung 
Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden 
Ernst Theis Dirigent 
Désirée Nick Präsentation 
From the  Dresden State Operetta production of Der Carneval in Rom

In case you don’t know it, Der Carneval in Rom (1873-1874) is the second operetta that Johann Strauss completed. It is noteworthy primarily for being the unnoteworthy forerunner to the Waltz King’s best-known stage work Die Fledermaus (1875). The Dresden State Operetta mounted a new production of Carneval nearly a decade ago and recorded it live for CPO. This past week, the company brought a concert version of its production to Cologne, just in time for the city’s annual celebration of Karneval or Mardi Gras, a week of motley merry-making, parades and inebriation prior to Ash Wednesday. With hardly any exceptions the cast and conductor were identical with the recording. 

What was unusual about the performance was the presence of Desirée Nick, who presented the narrative continuity, which freed the singers of having to act out the dialogue without the benefit of scenery and props. With wit and charm, she told the story of Marie (Jana Büchner), a naive Alpine country girl, who follows her errant beloved painter Arthur Bryk (Michael Heim) all the way to Rome at Carneval time where she is determined to snatch him from the snares of temptation, including the wiles of the seductive Countess Falconi (Jessica Glatte). 

As entertaining as Nick’s interpolations were, though, the performance still ran close to three hours. Duration in presenting seldom-performed operettas like Carneval becomes significant, because most such works deserve their obscurity. You smile at premonitions of A Night in Venice and nod at a hint of The Gypsy Baron, but you also grow a bit impatient with the cadences that don’t modulate into the magic of Fledermaus. Strauss was a master of melody, but the inspirations in Carneval fall far short of the heights he scaled in that masterpiece. 

The performance was also prevented from bubbling up to full sparkle by Jana Büchner as Marie, who was having difficulties with notes above the staff -- hopefully evidence of a misfortunate evening rather than a sign of vocal decline. Jessica Glatte was a bright sounding and attractive looking Countess, although her resinous voice is an acquired taste. 

Michael Heim elevated the standard of the evening in stalwart fashion, delivering Arthur with elegant phrasing and stylish musicality. His voice has maintained its strength and clarity over the past decade and he’s kept himself in shape. The testosterone-heavy support cast was ably rounded out by Manfred Equiluz (Count Falconi), Marcus Günzel and Bernd Könnes as two friends of the hero, Jeannette Oswald (Therese) and Jens-Uwe Mürner

Ernst Theis kept the Dresden State Operetta Orchestra and the chrous under the direction of Thomas Runge in a Carneval mood. 

Scenes from Karneval in Cologne 2013 
Brünnhilde (Above) meets Almaviva (below)

Le Postillon
Nabucco double-cast
The Nose @ Ebertplatz
Opening Night: Barely Audible

Karneval Photos and Post-Production:  Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, February 08, 2013

KLAUS TALKS!

KLAUS FLORIAN VOGT CONCERT
Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie / Marco Comin 
Cologne Philharmonie 
4 February 2013 
© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA 
Klaus Florian Vogt
In bygone days, opera singers giving recitals usually were heard speaking only when announcing their encores or a change in program. Now, they’re given to introducing every piece they’re about to sing, comment on the work they just finished, and recite what they had for lunch and where. Some are really good at getting up close to their audiences. As I've already reported, Vittorio Grigolo works the crowd like a veteran saloon singer. 

Klaus Florian Vogt tried his voice at public speaking during his concert this week in Cologne, backed up by the North-West German Philharmonic under the able direction of Marco Comin. With a wireless microphone in hand and a glass of water ever at the ready, Vogt offered patter about his program and even spoke endearingly of his family at one point. While he appeared ill at ease in stepping out of his comfort zone, it was clear -- to me at least -- that he has raconteur potential. Given his ultra-reserved north German upbringing (he’s from Schleswig-Holstein), though, it may take a few more auditions before a producer dares to propose him for guest-hosting a pie-in-the-sky project like "Singing with the Stars."

What strikes me about his introductions, though, is not the message but the medium.  To hear his speaking voice, you’d never think he’s an opera singer, not to mention one of the finest tenors before the public today.  His soft inflections have a distinctly baritonal resonance; he doesn’t speak “above the voice.”   Consequently, that signature sapidity in his singing sounded almost as though his Doppelgänger were doing the vocals. 

Vogt’s program consisted of eight arias and scenes from operas, most of which he has sung in staged productions. The first half opened up a confect of German and Italian favorites: Max’s aria from Der Freischütz, “Dies Bildnes ist bezaubern schön” from Zauberflöte, “Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller and “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. In the second half, Vogt got down to business: Bleeding chunks of Wagner -- The Trial Song from Meistersinger, Siegmund’s two set pieces from Act One of Die Walküre and the Grail Narrative from Lohengrin
Marco Comin
These selections were separated by overtures from Freischütz, Luisa Miller and Lohengrin, led by Comin, who displayed his versatility in two essential areas of the basic operatic repertory.  The 37 year-old Venetian native is having plenty of opportunities to develop his interpretive capabilities beginning this season in Munich, where he's taken charge as Chief Conductor at the Gärtnerplatz State Theater.

Comin's assurance on the podium enabled Vogt to lighten up a bit with two encores: a heartfelt “Ach, so fromm” from Martha and the hum-along “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from The Land of Smiles

If you were hoping for something really novel from Vogt, as much as I was, you might have been disappointed.  In opting for “E lucevan le stelle” in lieu of the programmed Flower Song from Carmen, Vogt even denyed the largely geriatric crowd at the Philharmonie the chance to hear him sing in French.  (Which may or may not have been a good thing.)  But what is remarkable about Vogt at this stage of his career, when most of his contemporaries are undergoing some kind of vocal menopause, is that his voice remains much the same in timbre and range as it did a decade ago, when I first heard him as Lohengrin in Bremen.  His lower register has gained some depth and his top seems to be acquiring amplitude. But that youthful demi-seraphic peel that so mesmerized back then is still distinctly palpable, despite occasional edginess around G-A.   His singing diction remains as effortlessly clear as his spoken enunciation. 

By the same token, the evening as a whole was typical of the sameness characterizing the deciduous parade of programs that file into and out of concert halls around the world every season. There was little sense of occasion, save the tacit awareness that a star was in town, which, in the timing of Vogt’s appearance, amounted to a missed opportunity:  Sony has just released Vogt’s new recording of Wagner excerpts, but this was known almost exclusively to those who bought a program booklet.  Only those who read the fine print on the advert for the new recording were aware that he would be signing purchased copies after the concert in the foyer. I didn’t stick around to see how many people queued up for his autograph. But one thing is clear: Vogt made no shameless attempts at flogging his foyer appearance from the stage. That may have been classy restraint, and, as the grandmother of a childhood friend used to say, “very sehr.”  But such North German reserve must have irritated the bejeesus out of Sony executives in attendance. 

If Vogt is to become a popular concert attraction, and he could, he needs a pint of Barnum in his blood and a magnum of Kölsch by his water glass. Neither soft-shoe routines nor sideshows are called for, but neither is same-old same-old.  The muses have been generous in endowing Klaus Florian Vogt with the wherewithal for prompting his audiences to wonder.  That may not be enough anymore.  Say, Can That Boy Foxtrot

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

OPERATORIO

HERCULES           Revival
Aalto Theater Oper
Essen
27 January 2013 
@ SAM H. SHIRAKAWA

Musikalische Leitung / Alexander Eberle
Inszenierung / Dietrich W. Hilsdorf
Bühne / Dieter Richter
Kostüme / Renate Schmitzer
Dramaturgie / Norbert Abels
Choreinstudierung / Alexander Eberle  

Hercules / Almas Svilpa
Dejanira, seine Frau / Michaela Selinger
Hyllus, ihr Sohn / Andreas Hermann
Iole, Prinzessin von Oechalia / Christina Clark
Lichas, ein Herold / Marie-Helen Joël 

Chöre des Aalto-Theaters
Essener Philharmoniker
Almas Svilpa as Hercules

If Aida should really be entitled Amneris, because she does most of the heavy lifting in Verdi’s opera, Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) might well have renamed Hercules (1744) after its central character Dejanira. It is she, after all, who does all the odious doing. 

The premiere of Hercules on 5 January 1745 at the King''s Theater in London fell prey to a number of misfortunes, which necessitated last-minute musical revisions as well as forcing the opera to be presented as an oratorio. Which is why some call it an "operatorio."  The fiasco led it into obscurity, and it remains infrequently revived to this day. 

Two seasons ago, the Aalto Theater Opera in Essen mounted Hercules as an opera in an acclaimed new production by Dietrich Hilsdorf, and it’s currently back in repertory with many members of the same cast. While the plot takes place in Attic mythology, Hilsdorf frames the story, based on Sophocles’ Women of Trachis and the Ninth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, within an imposing but somewhat frayed 18th century palace, deftly designed by Dieter Richter with churrigueresque costumes by Renate Schmitzer. 

The story as adapted by librettist Thomas Broughthon has Dejanira turning madly jealous when she learns that her demi-god husband Hercules has brought home a beautiful trophy from his victories in battle: the princess Iole. Determined to make sure that Hercules is never unfaithful to her again, Dejanira presents him with a cloak suffused with a potion supposedly meant make him abjure his dalliant ways.   But the cloak turns out to be toxic, and Hercules, for all his physical might, is rendered helpless against its hideous ravages. 
Michaela Selinger

This merry mise en scène is furthered, illuminated, and sometimes interrupted by a cornucopia of arias, ensembles and choruses which show Handel at his most inspired in writing for the human voice. For both Handel fans and lovers of 18th century music, Hercules is a feast for the ears. 

Michaela Selinger comes off larger than life as the scorned Dejanira -- both physically and vocally. She is at her best in “Cease, Ruler of the day...” in which Dejanira laments her suspicions of Hercules’ involvement with Iole and resolves to regain him.  American Christina Clark’s silvery Iole spins a delightful contrast to Selinger’s darker declamations. Her agility and subtle phrasing spurs an appetite for hearing more of her. 
Christina Clark as Iole

Almas Svilpa may be vocally a tad beefy for the title role, but he casually upsets expectations of what a Handel bass should sound like, juggling his voice with mesmerizing accuracy and dazzling aplomb. Despite its weight, Svilpa’s voice never worries the ear. His affable stage presence projects Hercules’ randy propsensities with an how-can-I-help-it? insoucience that somehow turns the super-hero’s horrendous comeuppance into what once was and still might be called black comedy. 

Andreas Hermann is a sympatheic Hyllus and Marie Helen Joël rounds out the cast as a comely herald, Lichas. 

Alexander Eberle leads the augmented Chorus of the Aalto Theater and the versatile Essen Philharmonic with energy and cool clarity. 

Hercules started life as a flop, but Handel never forgot his hero.  In 1750, he composed his oratorio The Choice of Hercules, in which two women representing Pleasure and Virtue offer the youthful half-god the choice between two irreconcilable paths. It was first presented at Covent Garden on 1 March 1751. Handel's reappraisal of Hercules, whose personality in this later work inclines toward virtue, may have reflected the composer's own life choices. Handel was firmly as astute in practical matters as he was brilliant at plying his trade; he took pleasure in virtue, because it usually paid off. Throughout a long career that had many heights and a number of valleys, including several serious health issues, he never baroque the bank. 

Photos: Aalto Theater 
Graphics, Post-production: Sam H. Shirakawa 

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