Sunday, December 29, 2013

Opera Year 2013

Phew, what a back-breakingly busy year it's been!
I've seen 45 different operas, with Wagner topping the bill, not surprisingly.

The other birthday boy, Verdi, came next along with Händel, followed by Mozart, Donizetti and Gluck. 
Frustratingly, in Britten's centenary year, I only managed to see just one of his operas, Peter Grimes.

Among the Wagner highlights, the best came very early on (in January) with a concert performance in Essen of Parsifal conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock and his Balthasar Neumann forces. 
In fact, period-performance Wagner featured fairly highly, with a visceral performance of Der fliegende Holländer by Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble under Marc Minkowski in Vienna. 
But a local performance of Parsifal, also on period instruments, in Bad Homburg was also deeply impressive.

The best staged Wagner opera was undoubtedly Stefan Herheim's Meistersinger in Salzburg, putting Bayreuth to shame in this year of all years. I also managed to catch Herheim's witty production of Xerxes.

Another opera highlight must be George Benjamin's Written on Skin, which I saw in two different productions, the original one by Katie Mitchell in Vienna and Paris and a second less successful one in Bonn.

My personal favourite among the staged performances must be Norma in Moshe Leiser's and Patrice Caurier's new staging for the Salzburg Festival, starring Cecilia Bartoli.
And a close runner-up -- at least in vocal terms -- was Martin Kušej's La forza del destino in Munich starring Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros.

In addition to all the operas, I also attended a great many concerts and song recitals and two by Christian Gerhaher and his accompanist Gerold Huber really stood out, with song cycles by Schumann and Holliger in Heidelberg and Schumann in Frankfurt.

But Britten fared better in concert, too. And burned into my memory will be two performances of the War Requiem, with Mariss Jansons conducting the BR-Symphonieorchester in Munich, with soloists Christian Gerhaher, Mark Padmore and Emily Magee.

On the chamber music front, the Tetzlaff and Arcanto quartets teamed up for a quite breath-taking concert of the Mendelssohn and Enescu Octets in Frankfurt.
Recitals by Igor Levit (in Beethoven, Shostakovich and Liszt) and András Schiff (Bach) left a deep impression.

Another highlight was John Eliot Gardiner's Bach marathon in Paris, culminating in a performance of the h-moll Messe.

Cecilia Bartoli dazzled again when she brought her Steffani programme to Frankfurt.

While this year's Bayreuth Festival itself was a bit of a damp squib, one personal highlight was sitting in the orchestra pit for Act 1 of Götterdämmerung. I also met and interviewed Gottfried Wagner.

The Rhine Main area's contemporary music biennale, Cresc, this year focussing on the works of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, was fascinating and brilliant.
And topping my list of orchestral performances must be the phenomenal period-instrument band, Les Siecles, under their founder and chief conductor, François-Xavier Roth, who played Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps like I've never heard it before.


BARTOK                 Bluebeard's Castle
BEETHOVEN         Fidelio (concert)
BELLINI                  Norma  
BENJAMIN             Written on Skin 
BERG                       Wozzeck 
BIRTWISTLE          Gawain 
BRITTEN                 Peter Grimes 

CAVALIERI            Rappresentazione di Anima
                                  e di Corpo

DIETSCH                Le vaisseau fantôme  (concert)

DONIZETTI            La fille du Regiment 
                                 Lucia di Lammermoor 

DVORAK                Rusalka  

ENESCU                  Oedipe 

GLUCK                   Alceste

GOEBBELS            Landschaft mit entfernten Verwandten
GURLITT               Wozzeck  

HÄNDEL               Agrippina 

LACHENMANN   Das Mädchen mit den

MOZART                Idomeneo 
                                 Le nozze di Figaro 
                                 Die Zauberflöte 

PUCCINI                 La fanciulla del West
PURCELL               Dido and Aneas 
PROKOFIEV          Der Spieler  

STRAUSS               Ariadne auf Naxos 

VERDI                    Un ballo in maschera 
                                 Don Carlo
                                 La forza del destino  
                                 Les vêpres siciliennes 
WAGNER               Rienzi (concert)
                                 Der fliegende Holländer (staged and concert)
                                  Das Rheingold 
                                  Die Walküre 
                                  Tristan und Isolde
                                  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
                                  Parsifal (staged and concert)



Friday, December 27, 2013

Oper Frankfurt, Ariadne auf Naxos

Oper Frankfurt
October 25th, December 20th and December 26th 2013

Primadonna / Ariadne - Camilla Nylund
Zerbinetta - Brenda Rae  
Der Tenor / Bacchus - Michael König  
Der Komponist - Claudia Mahnke  
Najade - Elizabeth Reiter  
Dryade - Katharina Magiera  
Echo - Maren Favela 
Harlekin -  Daniel Schmutzhard
Scaramuccio - Michael McCown 
Truffaldin - Alfred Reiter 
Brighella - Martin Mitterrutzner  
Ein Tanzmeister - Peter Marsh  
Ein Musiklehrer - Franz Grundheber / Johannes Martin Kränzle   
Ein Lakai - Kihwan Sim 
Ein Perückenmacher - Vuyani Mlinde  
Ein Offizier - Ricardo Iturra  
Ein Haushofmeister - William Relton 

Conductor -  Sebastian Weigle / Hartmut Keil  

Director - Brigitte Fassbaender 
Stage and costumes - Johannes Leiacker 

One of the most telling images in Brigitte Fassbaender's delightfully satisfying and lovingly directed production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Frankfurt Opera comes as the curtain comes down and the cast raise their glasses to Der Komponist (Claudia Mahnke).

After two-and-a-half hours of fierce ego-battles -- between the Primadonna and Der Tenor, the warring factions of Commedia dell'Arte and Opera Seria troupes and the clash between art (the performers) and commerce (the richest man in Vienna and his guests) -- it is to music that all lift their glasses in the end. 

Music triumphs over all and, in the same way, Fassbaender's wise and witty new staging, never crude or vulgar, pays a deeply affectionate tribute to Strauss the composer.

Unlike many singers-turned-directors whose productions never seem to catch life and remain just concert performances in costume, Fassbaender's Personenregie is subtle, lively and meticulously wrought.  
After years of performing on the stage herself, she really does know and understand her craft.

Johannes Leiacker's visually entertaining sets, which playfully skew perspective, and costumes are "modern", but Fassbaender's updating of the opera never feels forced or artificial. She is no member of the Regietheater school of directing, but always sticks to the libretto, turning up the sexual innuendo to just the right degree and adding flashes of wry humour.

This is a "traditional" staging in modern clothing and you can really feel Fassbaender's deep love of the score in every scene.

It's also one of the best possible showcases for the huge pool of fresh, young singing talent that Frankfurt Opera currently has at its disposal.

The only guests are Camilla Nylund and Michael König, who both appear here regularly, and of course William Relton in the spoken role of Haushofmeister. 

The rest are ensemble members, who know each other and clearly have fun working together. And what a hotbed of new talent Frankfurt is.

Brenda Rae's Zerbinetta is the real thing, every single note in the dazzling coloratura pitch-perfect and sung with an ease and facility that takes your breath away.
At the performance on December 20th, which was being recorded for later release,  both Rae and Michael König were said to be suffering from colds. 
But you'd never have noticed that from either of them, with no hint of strain in König's bright, ringing tenor, which fills the house so effortlessly.

Camilla Nylund's Ariadne is warm and noble of tone, but she plays with gleeful relish the vain, back-stabbing Primadonna who fights tooth and claw to have more arias than her Bacchus. 

Claudia Mahnke is more dramatic and less lyrical than I personally prefer as Komponist, but she is quite rightly one of the house favourites for Frankfurt audiences, as is Johannes Martin Kränzle whose superbly characterized Musiklehrer is also one of the highlights of this Ariadne.

It would be unfair to single out any one of the Commedia dell'Arte quartet, but Daniel Schmutzhard and Martin Mitterrutzner must be among the most promising young singers in the Frankfurt stable at the moment.

I also hope and predict great things of Katharina Magiera with her very distinctive contralto.

If I'm totally honest, I've always felt GMD Sebastian Weigle -- who can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes or ears of Frankfurt audiences -- to be somewhat over-rated. 
But he was quietly impressive here,  carefully drawing exquisite, top-notch playing from the chamber-sized house orchestra. And in the performance on December 26th, he even achieved the impossible: the audience did not (!)  applaud prematurely at the end of Zerbinetta's Grossmächtige Prinzessin.
So hats off to him for that.

This Ariadne really shows Oper Frankfurt off at its best. 


Monday, December 23, 2013

Bayerische Staatsoper München, La forza del destino

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
Premiere on December 22nd, 2013

Il Marchese di Calatrava / Padre Guardiano - Vitalij Kowalijow 
Donna Leonora - Anja Harteros
Don Carlo di Vargas - Ludovic 
Don Alvaro - Jonas Kaufmann
Preziosilla - Nadia Krasteva
Fra Melitone - Renato Girolami
Curra - Heike Grötzinger
Un alcade - Christian Rieger
Mastro Trabuco - Francesco Petrozzi
Un chirurgo - Rafał Pawnuk

Conductor - Asher Fisch 
Director - Martin Kušej
Sets - Martin Zehetgruber 
Costumes - Heidi Hackl 
Lighting - Reinhard Traub
Chorus - Sören Eckhoff

Let's face it, the plot of La forza del destino is not really very credible.  
The creaking, clunky action is driven less by Destiny with a capital D than by Hair-raisingly Hammy with a capital H.

But this is opera, after all, and Italian 19th century opera at that. So we know when we enter the theatre not to expect gritty fly-on-the-wall realism. 
We hang up our credulity with our coats at the door.

The problem for directors nowadays is whether to take Verdi's Mills and Boon-style libretto at face value and tell it straight, or try to fashion some deeper meaning out of it and make it just that little bit more credulous for modern-day audiences. 

Despite what its critics say, that is the basic -- and well-intentioned -- premise of most Regietheater: to find a way into the opera's often ludicrous and labyrinthine plots and make them that tiny bit more believable.

Whether we the audience really want or need that, or whether directors succeed is a different matter.
But therein lies the rub of much modern music theatre and the ferocious Glaubenskrieg that has long raged between supporters of so-called "traditionalist" and "modernist" stagings.

Kušej is one such exponent of Regietheater. And an intelligent and thought-provoking one he is, too. So there was never any chance he would simply re-tell Verdi's far-fetched little story at face value for his star-studded new production at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

It was utterly predictable, then, that the city's ultra-conservative premiere-night audience -- who seemed unfazed at first and accepted the sleek and modern-looking Act 1 without a peep -- would take offence at his updating of the story to contemporary times with its imagery of modern-day warfare (Iraq? Balkans?) and terrorist attacks. And the boos started in Act 3 when the army's prisoners are tortured, whipped and chained like inmates of Abu Ghraib.

Sometimes all it takes is a different perspective. And the stark, visually arresting sets by Kušej's long-term collaborator Martin Zehetgruber offer just that: most striking of all in Act 3 where we're looking down onto the bombed-out building interior from a bird's eye view.

It's a highly cinematic moment.
But with imagery so specific -- and therefore so ultimately outdate-able -- it is arguable whether 
Kušej's staging will outlive anything but a one or two revivals. 

(But few new stagings nowadays are really built to last anyway, so maybe that's beside the point.)

Kušej's decision to re-tell the story in the head of Leonora, who seems to be suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing her father accidentally shot by her lover Alvaro, is intriguing. And it pays dividends if you let it.

The first indication of 
Kušej's reinterpretation of the plot comes from the dinner table at which all the characters are seated during the overture, but which remains where it is during all four acts.

(In a nice little aside, too, it is Curra, Leonora's confidante, who tips the Marchese off to the lovers' secret tryst.)

In Act 2, the body of the Marchese who has been shot in the previous scene remains onstage while Leonora cowers in terror under the table.

A more significant signal comes from the decision to double-cast the Marchese as Padre Guardiano.

At first this seemed to be a way to better show off the huge talent of Russian bass Vitalij Kowaljow. But 
Kušej seems to be saying that in her state of shock and grief, Leonora is idealizing her dead brutish bigot of a father and turning him into the caring and loving figure she would like him to be who offers refuge and comfort.

Alvaro, too, is not the slightly greasy small-time gangster he first appears in Act 1, but a more courageous Glaubenskrieger who -- in Leonora's imagination -- valiantly saves the nerdy snitch who is her brother Carlo. 
Carlo has similarly been transformed into a soldier so that the two adversaries can do battle over her honour,
The whole Mills and Boon-style story is, in fact, the romantic imaginings of a young woman who, in her cloistered, religious upbringing secretly devoured cheap love novels.

Finally, in the last scene, in her fevered hallucinations, the three men in Leonora's life -- her father, her brother and Alvaro -- are symbolically brought together and it is the heroine herself who dies among a huge pile of oversized crucifixes.

Repeated viewings are probably needed to judge whether 
Kušej's concept is ultimately successful.
But at first encounter, it seemed a lot more interesting and intriguing than the knee-jerk boo-ers and those who harp continuously on about the composer's "true intentions" would have us a believe.

Unfortunately, with a dream cast such as 
Kušej and conductor Asher Fisch have assembled, getting a ticket for a second performance will be nigh-on impossible.

Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros are of course the big crowd-pullers -- and rightly so -- as the unhappy lovers.
They have already earned their spurs as great Verdians in last season's Il Trovatore.
And there can't be any other singers currently on the planet who could sing Forza better than they do, b
oth making their role debuts. 
Harteros's soprano, so ravishing and creamy but with a solid core of steel, glints and shines with jaw-dropping beauty. 
Kaufmann's tenor, in the flesh, seems darker and more burnished than on his recent Verdi album. And he seems much more natural and at ease in Verdi than in some of the Wagner roles he's been trying out on disc.
He also cuts a fitter and trimmer figure on stage, too, as if he has been working out.

Tézier is every bit their vocal match as Carlo.
The French baritone, very impressive recently as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor in Paris, was astonishingly convincing as he transformed from Leonora's bookish younger brother into fanatical avenger of the Marchese's death.

Kowaljow's dark, balsamic bass made the Marchese more human, almost likeable and was all the more fatherly as Padre Guardiano.

Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla and Renato Girolami as Fra Melitone rounded off the superb cast. 

With so much high-voltage vocal power on stage, Asher Fisch, conducting Verdi for the first time in Munich, seemed a little star-struck and left little real impression, even if the Staatsoper orchestra were in fine form. 
Fisch's neat and tidy conducting lacked real bite, but perhaps he will loosen up as the series progresses.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Beethovenfest Bonn: Written on Skin

Oper Bonn
Premiere on September 29th, 2013

Miriam Clark - Agnès
Evez Abdulla - Protector
Terry Wey - Angel 1/The Boy
Susanne Blattert - Angel 2/Marie
Tamás Tarjányi - Angel 3/John

Hendrik Vestmann - conductor
Alexandra Szemerédy, Magdolna Parditka - direction and stage
Thomas Roscher - lighting
Beethoven Orchester Bonn

Since its world premiere in July 2012, George Benjamin's Written on Skin has taken the opera world by storm, thanks, not least, to Katie Mitchell's landmark staging -- visually arresting, exquisitely crafted and breathtakingly acted -- which has toured from Aix-en-Provence to Toulouse, Amsterdam, London, Vienna, Munich and Florence and will reach Paris in November.

So any new director who dares to take on this piece -- the original production has already been captured on CD and will be released on DVD next year -- is going to have their work cut out for them.

Unfortunately, Alexandra Szemerédy and  Magdolna Parditka who are staging the work's second-ever production in a cooperation between Bonn Opera and the city's Beethovenfest singularly fail to live up to this daunting task at just about every level.

It is clear from the beginning that everyone is out of their depth -- from the audibly under-rehearsed Beethoven Orchester Bonn and the clueless conducting of Hendrik Vestmann  to the director-duo themselves who have managed to come up with a "reading" so cringingly banal and simplistic that it had me squirming in my seat with embarrassment for the composer who had flown in earlier that day and was sitting in the row in front of me.

Only the singers offered any sort of respite. But valiant as even their efforts were, they, too, were no match for the cast whose voices Benjamin had in mind when he wrote the opera.

Miriam Clark's soprano may be slightly richer and creamier than Barbara Hannigan's, and she can also reach her final top C with ease.
However, in Szemerédy's and Parditka's reading, Agnès is no living, breathing woman, intelligent but illiterate and longing for love and fulfilment, but reduced to little more than a cipher.
It needs more than writhing seductively around on the floor to convincingly portray a woman's sexual and intellectual emancipation.

Terry Wey has a clear, angelic voice, but is also not in the same league as either Bejun Metha or Iestyn Davies who shared the role of the Boy in the original production.
Similarly, Evez Abdulla had a few convincing moments, but remains a distinctly small-time gangster of a Protector compared to the dangerous, smoldering Christopher Purves, "calm, powerful, addicted to purity and violence."

After seeing Written on Skin first on the webcast from Aix and then in three live performances at Vienna's Festwochen, (where Audun Iversen replaced Purves in the role of Protector) I was excited about the prospect of a different take on the work.
(A third production is slated next year in Detmold).

But that excitement quickly gave way to trepidation when I saw the photos of the Bonn production posted on the theatre's website, with a punkish stage aesthetic that harks back to what counted as "avant-garde" in the West back in the 80s and 90s and seemingly still appears to do so today in eastern Europe.

In the original production, Mitchell and her stage designer Vicki Mortimer came up with visuals as stark, austere and beautiful as Benjamin's miraculous score itself.

Szemerédy and  Parditka have simply trashed it, situating the action in some sort of post-nuclear holocaust world, where the Angels are alien-like creatures and the Protector and Agnès a pimp and his whore, whom he keeps on a  chain.

And the characters are all dressed in silly, unflattering wigs and costumes that make it impossible for the audience to like, identify with or care about them at all.

There are simulated sex scenes with S&M whips, chains and masks (ooh, edgy!).
There's a "critique" of capitalism and consumerism in the form of television screens that flash up stock prices while the Protector's suited employees push supermarket trolleys laden with groceries straight into the rubbish heap, watched by the starving, rag-wearing homeless crowds (ooh, biting!).

The undercurrents of sexual tension between the three protagonists that bubble just below the surface in Benjamin's score were powerful and palpable in Mitchells' staging, thanks to the astonishing acting of the roles' creators.

In Bonn, Terry Wey's Boy is so sexless in his red page-boy wig and ludicrous costumes that it's difficult to imagine anyone falling for him, let alone Miriam Clark's Agnès or Evez Abdulla's Protector.

Indeed, as Clark gets all voluptuous in the squalid room that counts as the Protector's "perfect" house, Wey sits primly reading a book (my guess would be something by Enid Blyton), way out of her reach.

The illuminated book itself, so central to Benjamin's story, plays only a cursory role in Szemerédy's and Parditka's staging.

When the Protector asks the Boy for an example of his artwork early on, the Boy merely produces loaves of bread from his rucksack which he then doles out to the starving poor.
And he certainly paints no illuminated pages as the story proceeds, with the only allusions the piles of second-hand books scattered at the front of the stage.

Indeed, while the original production's was rich and compelling in its multiple layers of meaning, here the use of symbolism was crass and heavy-handed.
A runway runs along the very top of the set and at different points during the action, we see various figures move along it, including the Boy riding a unicorn and a woman in childbirth in a hospital bed surrounded by medical personnel in operating theatre garb.

At the end, Agnès doesn't escape her murderer-husband by jumping out of the window, but he chains her to a ladder in the pose of a crucifix, while the spirit of Boy who ascends the ladder into Everlasting Light.

I really had high hopes for this new staging and I wish I could be more charitable.
But it's an unremittingly ugly, depressingly ill-prepared mess of a production that has none of the subtlety, the deep, probing intelligence or stagecraft of the original.

The only good thing to come out of it is that I'm looking forward all the more to revisiting Katie Mitchell's staging when it comes to the Opéra Comique in Paris in November.

Sorry, Oper Bonn. But this is a definite fail.

[All photos courtesy and copyright of Oper Bonn]

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Boycotting Castorf's Ring: The Follow-Up

Remember my 'Weird Wagnerian' who coughed up €25,000 not to go to see Frank Castorf's new Ring in Bayreuth this summer?

Or more accurately, a certain Erich Fischer who took out five adverts in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on August 10, 14, 15, 17 and 19 this year to proclaim to the world that "out of reverence and love for Richard Wagner, we will not be taking our seats in Ring II in Bayreuth"? 

You know, that droll little story that filled the Sommerloch for a while. (If your memory needs refreshing, you can read my original blog posting here. )

Well, just when I'd given up hearing from him, despite multiple enquiries, an e-mail plopped into my in-tray.
More than 5 weeks after I first contacted him. But hey, who's counting?

To be honest, even now he didn't respond to my questions personally and directly, but chose to answer them instead via a mock "self interview" that he'd similarly paid to have published in the FAZ on August 29.

In it, he claimed that while the media had initially "shown an interest, it led nowhere, for one reason or another."

(I'm sorry, Mr Fischer, but that's more than just a little disingenuous of you.
You had my contact details and I'd already pestered you several times. And your secretary promised me you'd contact me when you were ready.
So I can't help feeling you were avoiding a direct interview, either face to face or via telephone.)

Anyway, as I'd already surmised in my original article, it was indeed the very same Erich Fischer, a 75-year-old Munich-based former entrepreneur and founder of the philanthropic  Internationale Stiftung zur Förderung von Kultur und Zivilization.

According to a pamphlet downloadable from its website, the main achievements of this organisation is putting on afternoon concerts for senior citizens and financing music lessons for school children and prisoners in an attempt to re-socialise them. 
All laudable aims in themselves even if the organisation's name is rather pompous and self-aggrandising.

Fischer also confirmed that he'd spent €25,000 on his highly unusual advertising campaign, a sum most of us could put to infinitely better and more constructive use.

(Interestingly, he never reveals what he actually did with the tickets.)

Throughout the "interview", Fischer never broaches the crucial question as to how he hopes to judge a production that he has never actually seen. 
Nevertheless, his fear, he assures us, is that "Richard Wagner's oeuvre is in mortal danger, particularly in Bayreuth." 

What is more, he wants to save opera in Germany from the curse of Regietheater.
Now this is a hazily defined term, usually spat out venomously by the cultural Taliban of the opera world whose artistic notions are challenged and their hackles raised if the female leads don't wear a pretty frock and the male singers aren't hamming it up in tights and a ruff.
You know the ones: the self-appointed guardians of Wagner's Holy Grail who harp on endlessly about the composer's "true intentions" and insist that his stage directions be followed to the letter.
(They're usually the ones, too, who complain that 'modern' directors can't read music when I'd bet my bottom dollar that they can't either.)

Fischer is one such High Priest in this strange cult called Wagnerism.

"The issue is the authenticity of the work of art that is being reproduced," he tells us.

The directorial excesses of Regietheater "make a mockery of the artwork and the audience," Fischer complains. And they are almost only seen in Germany.
"If you go to the opera in France or Italy, you  can -- in contrast to here -- recognize which work is being performed."
He then goes on to say -- seemingly completely without irony -- that "even in the US, at the MET in New York, things are a lot more conventional."

And he confounds such hair-raising ignorance further by saying later: "Look at the Comédie Française in Paris or the Royal Shakespeare Company in London -- the stagings are antiquated there, too." 

This man has patently never been to any of these places and I'm not sure the theatres in Paris or London would take kindly to seeing their productions described as "museum-like" (or in his word museal).

Neither is the boycott of Castorf's Ring Fischer's first such campaign. He took out similar ads after seeing "with horror" Stefan Herheim's Parsifal in August 2008, which he said "adulterated and bastardized Wagner's Bühnenweihfestspiel beyond all recognition."

Fischer's biggest clou, however, comes in his proposed remedy to the plague of Regietheater productions in Bayreuth.

"Instead of surrendering Wagner's works, particularly in Bayreuth, to the mercy of ever new, ever more dubious 'interpretators'... the ideal solution" would be to re-stage Wieland Wagner's "timelessly relevant stagings from the 1950s and 1960s," Fischer says. 
"Their symbolism is completely coherent and even 'more correct' than what Richard Wagner did himself," Fischer says. 
In addition, it would save the festival many millions of euros each year, money that could be spent training new Wagner singers, he argues.

He makes no bones about it. Opera, for him, is clearly not a living, breathing art form, but a museum.
(And this man has set up a foundation the aim of which is to "promote culture and civilisation? The irony is clearly lost on him.)

To this end, Fischer is launching an initiative entitled "Save Richard Wagner's Bayreuth" and asks for the support of "everyone who has say in politics, in culture, in the media and in industry, as well as all Wagnerians." 

What Fischer fails to realise is that there is just such a festival already in existence, the Richard Wagner Festival in Wels, Austria.
And it nearly went bust this year due to lack of support.

Now I challenge anyone to say Wagnerians aren't a pretty mad bunch.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bayreuth Festival: Deep inside Wagner's 'mystical abyss'

Lining the walls of the tunnel that leads into the beating, pulsating heart of Bayreuth's Festspielhaus are mug shots of all the conductors who have ever conducted there, from Hans Richter in 1876 via Richard Strauss, Siegfried Wagner, Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Carlos Kleiber to more modern-day maestros such as Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Thomas Hengelbrock and Christian Thielemann.

The most recent in the line-up is Philippe Jordan, who made his debut on the Green Hill in 2012 in the final run of Stefan Herheim's Parsifal.

Two nails have been hammered into the white-washed wall where the portraits will hang of this summer's two newcomers -- Kirill Petrenko, who is in charge of the Ring, and Axel Kober, who has stepped in to conduct Tannhäuser.
But somewhere like the Festspielhaus has its many rites and rituals.
[For example, the generations of musicians who have played in the orchestra always sign the back of their individual parts at the end of each season, which must also make for some fascinating reading.]
And, according to a similar tradition, Petrenko's and Kober's photos will be unveiled only once the season is over.

It was under the eyes of some of my greatest musical heroes, then, that I made my way into the very heart of Wagner's Green Hill and the Festspielhaus's fabled orchestra pit for the third and final performance this season of Götterdämmerung.

I sort of knew what to expect.
With more than 100 musicians squeezed into a small and cramped space, this wasn't going to be anywhere for claustrophobics. It could also be deafeningly loud and, depending on the weather outside, stiflingly hot.
And clearly I wasn't going to be able to see anything of the stage or hear the voices.

But it was an unmissable opportunity and a privilege that only a few outsiders ever come to enjoy.

I was collected at the artists' entrance, which is situated just below the Festspielhaus, out of sight and largely unnoticed by many of the audience.

We made our way along the Ahnengalerie of conductors, following the tunnel that sloped upwards slightly until we came to a door which sternly forbids entry to all unauthorized personnel, "before, during and after guided tours, rehearsals and performances."

A second smaller door to the right leads a few steps down to where I was to sit, bang next to the Wagner horns or tenor tubas.

There are six levels to the pit in all, ascending from where I was seated.
Alongside the Wagner horns were the heavy brass -- the trombones and bass tuba, the timpani and percussion.
Next step up sat the French horns and the trumpets.
Then came the lower woodwind, the bassoons and clarinets, followed by the flutes and oboes, then the celli and violas. The violins were at the top, seemingly a long way away. (There must be a difference in elevation from the top of the pit to the bottom of at least five or six metres).
On each side were three harps (six in all, we were, after all, in Götterdämmerung) and the double basses.

A square box entered by a small ladder was suspended immediately above the heads of the bassoons, which I realised was the prompter's box.

The musicians were still arriving when I got there.
They were chatting, reading or playing with their smartphones.

But the space quickly filled up and the decibels rose as the musicians warmed up or went over some of the trickier passages.

Because the Bayreuth pit was conceived by Wagner as being invisible to the audience, there's no dress code and the musicians play in T-shirts, shorts and sandals.

Petrenko was briefly there, too, to shake hands and say hello to the 1st flautist, who I'd been told was stepping in at short notice to cover a colleague fallen ill.

Perched at the very top is the conductor's seat so that he can see what is going on onstage while at the same time having eye contact with every musician in the pit.

Three large lights hang next to him, green, amber and red. Amber signals the start of the tuning, red commands absolute silence as the lights in the auditorium go down. Green is for when the performance is underway.

Petrenko, compact and muscular of frame, is a meticulously neat conductor, endlessly calm and precise, avoiding grand gestures.

When he was happy with the way the orchestra was playing, he frequently smiled and gave them the thumbs up.
Only at one point did he scowl and seem to become impatient with the lower brass, motioning them to speed up and shaking his head vexedly afterwards.

Seated at the very bottom of the pit, you  have no sense of the balance of the sound and the voices onstage are barely -- or only rarely -- audible at all.
Alongside the heavy brass, the din was ear-splitting at times and the beating of the timpani almost visceral.

I frequently had to move aside for the brass players, too, as they sneaked out for some air when there were long stretches of nothing to play.

My two hours in Bayreuth's legendary covered pit raced by and all too soon my contact came to collect me at the end of the act and take me to the canteen for an ice-cream, the light of day and some fresh air.

Many of the musicians have been playing in Bayreuth for years.
Whilst the prospect is a daunting one at first, even for Germany's best orchestral players, once they get used to the cramped space and noise levels, the experience also becomes a drug to the players, just as Wagner's music is for the thousands of opera aficionados who who traipse to Bayreuth every year, one player tells me.

Some of them are in Bayreuth for as long as two months including rehearsal time.
The pay isn't great and they get a fixed fee for the entire season, rather than per performance.
So jumping in for a sick colleague doesn't get them any extra pay.

But they regard it as an honour to be invited and the musicians often get hooked, returning year after year, another player explained.

I understand how they feel.
I can certainly say that my time in the pit in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus must count as one of the most memorable in my entire musical life.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Salzburg Festival, Norma

Haus für Mozart, Salzburg
August 24th, 2013

Cecilia Bartoli - Norma
Rebeca Olvera - Adalgisa
John OsbornPollione
Michele Pertusi - Oroveso
Liliana Nikiteanu - Clotilde
Reinaldo Macias - Flavio
Giovanni Antonini - conductor
Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier - directors
Christian Fenouillat - stage
Agostino Cavalca - costumes
Christophe Forey - lighting
Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera, Lugano
Orchestra La Scintilla

No matter what your views about Cecilia Bartoli are, if ever you had any reservations about her artistic intelligence and integrity or doubts about the range and power of her voice, you should watch this Norma.

The operatic know-alls in their grubby anoraks will, of course, debate endlessly and tiresomely about the vocal casting -- a mezzo in the title role and bright, high soprano in the role of Adalgisa and a  light, lyrical Rossini tenor as Pollione.

Bartoli herself and Riccardo Minasi and Maurizio Biondi, who prepared the new critical edition of the score on which the production is based, all make a convincing case -- in the programme notes and in the CD booklet -- for their controversial artistic decisions and choices.

But even leaving such musicological debates aside, I defy anyone not to be moved by the searing, blistering power of this production, the handsome elegance of the sets and the extraordinary, jaw-droppingly good singing.

Salzburg, like Vienna, must have one of Bartoli's biggest fan bases, but the usual scramble for tickets outside the Haus für Mozart actually threatened to deteriorate into fisticuffs among those who were desparately holding up Ticket-Wanted signs.

The production, an import from Salzburg's Whitsun Festival (which is headed by Bartoli herself), has turned out to be by far the biggest hit of the main summer festival.

And while the other productions -- such as Don Carlo and Meistersinger -- have been broadcast on TV and the web and will, no doubt, be available on DVD at some point, for some mystifying reason, Norma -- with its relatively short run of just five performances -- wasn't and won't be, we are told.
[But perhaps that's merely a canny marketing ploy.]

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier have worked with Bartoli many times in the past.
Their visually rich, witty and hugely entertaining Le Comte Ory, which I caught in Vienna earlier this year, was also built around her, even if she was unfortunately indisposed for the performance I saw and was replaced by Pretty Yende.

Such uproariousness is, of course, ill-befitting for Bellini's rather po-faced and somewhat preposterous little tale of a mistletoe-bearing priestess.

Leiser and Caurier dispense with togas, temples and moon goddesses and update the plot to the 20th century, turning it into a story of resistance fighters and occupiers in the Second World War.

And the concept works surprisingly well if you blend out the surtitles and all their talk about druids and the god Irminsul.

Bartoli said she wanted to make the heroine more human. And she certainly does that.
Torn between vengeful fury and terror at the thought of killing her children, she shook so hard while brandishing a knife in "Dormono entrambi" at the start of Act 2 that I was seriously concerned she might injure herself.

But more than her acting, it was Bartoli's voice that had the audience welded to their seats.
Notwithstanding a stumbled, strangely strangled start to "Casta diva" -- which was also marred by a few intonational impurities in the solo flute -- Bartoli was in blow-torching form.

Her detractors like to say Bartoli's voice is too small.
The Haus für Mozart is the most intimate of the Salzburg Festival's three opera venues, but it's by no means tiny.
And from where I was sitting in the first balcony, I could hear every word, from the most hushed pianissimo to the furious fireballs of her fortissimi.
Bartoli also has a breathing technique like few others and can spin seemingly endless lines on only the shallowest of breaths.

Biondi and Minasi say their edition is complete and uncut and restores some numbers that are traditionally shortened or omitted completely.
Bartoli therefore has much more to sing than is the case in more traditional Normas, but never showed any sign of flagging.

Just as Bartoli embodies the role of Norma, the other singers were every bit her match.
It was easy to understand how the young Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera with her angelic, childlike soprano could win Pollione's heart.
And US tenor John Osborn sounded even more at ease in Pollione's fiendlishly difficult writing than he does on the CD.

Michele Petrusi was similarly impressive as Oroveso, and Liliana Nikiteanu and Reinaldo Macias rounded off the ensemble admirably in the supporting roles of Clotilde and Flavio.

Zurich Opera's period-instrtument band, La Scintilla, sizzled, raged and wept their way through Bellini's astonishing orchestral writing under Giovanni Antonini.
So much so that I fear I'll be reluctant to hear Norma again on modern instruments from now on.

For me personally, this was the undisputed highlight of this summer's festival season.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Boycotting Castorf's Ring

We all know opera lovers are weird, right?

Whether it's waiting in the freezing cold in the early hours for standing room at the Wiener Staatsoper; staying up all night to try and grab tickets as soon as they go online; or grovelling outside the performance venue brandishing a "Ticket Wanted" signs, night after night.

No price is seemingly too high, no queue too long for a hardcore fan to catch a glimpse of their idol.

But even among opera lovers, Wagnerians seem to be a breed apart, a little bit weirder than most.

I'm not just talking about the 10-year waiting list for a ticket to Bayreuth or the endless vitriol you'd be subjected to if you dare suggest that Wagner might not have been a very nice person.

I'm talking about the vast sums of money that the self-appointed keepers of Wagner's Holy Grail -- you know the ones, the trainspotters of the opera world who insist the only way to stage The Master's works is to abide by his libretto and stage directions to the letter -- are prepared to pay not to see a production that they have decided "desecrates" the composer's memory.

Yes, you read that correctly. The tens of thousands of euros a Wagnerian is willing to pay NOT to see a Wagner opera.

Just such someone, calling themselves Erich Fischer, has bought a small square of space in the high-brow arts section or Feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently to proclaim to the world that "out of reverence and love for Richard Wagner, we will not be taking our seats in Ring II in Bayreuth."

Aus Ehrfurcht und Liebe für Richard Wagner werden wir unsere Ring II Plätze in Bayreuth nicht einnehmen.

I'm not sure the world knows or cares who Erich Fischer is.
But he apparently feels it imperative to inform us that he doesn't like Frank Castorf. And he placed five such adverts in the FAZ over different days to do so.

He could have just quietly returned his tickets, or given or sold them on to someone else.

But no, here was someone who has waited long enough -- or was rich enough -- to have obtained tickets not only to Bayreuth's Festspielhaus, the Holy of Holies in the whacky and wonderful cult that calls itself Wagnerism, but also to the most anticipated and talked about event in the Wagner Bicentenary.
And he feels compelled to tell the world he isn't going to use them. "Out of reverence and love for Richard Wagner."

There is no explanation of his reasons or his motives.

I tried to contact Erich Fischer via the email address provided, but he hasn't responded so far.

A quick web search revealed that a man of the same name is a 75-year-old Munich-based former entrepreneur who has set up the philanthropic Internationale Stiftung zur Förderung von Kultur und Zivilisation (International Foundation for the Promotion of Culture and Civilization).

According to a downloadable pamphlet on the foundation's website, Erich Fischer was the owner and managing director of a micro-chip company. And he set up the foundation in 1995 to "promote art and culture, mainly in the field of music; improve the living conditions of senior citizens; and further develop civilization."

The foundation's achievements so far seem to have been putting on afternoon concerts for senior citizens and financing music lessons for school children and prisoners in an attempt to re-socialise them. 
Another laudable project is to stage neglected works of music from all eras and engage young and up-and-coming musicians to perform them.

There even seems to be a Wagner connection: a special project to present a pocket two-hour, five-singer version of Rienzi in a number of towns in cities in Germany and Switzerland during the Bicentenary Year.

Could this be one and the same man?
If so, how does that all tie in with someone who is willing to shell out €24,000 (that's the estimate of another daily Berliner Zeitung) to inform the unsuspecting world that he won't be making use of his tickets to Bayreuth?
I think it's fair to assume that Erich Fischer hasn't actually seen the offending production, so my question to him would be on what grounds is he boycotting it?

Sadly, I don't honestly expect to receive any answers.
But like I said, Wagnerians are a pretty weird bunch.

Two days after I posted this article, I received an email from Erich Fischer's secretary, confirming that the man who took out the adverts -- five in all, on August 10, 14, 15, 17 and 19 -- was also the same Erich Fischer who set up the Internationale Stiftung zur Förderung von Kultur und Zivilisation.
She promised me that he would get in touch in due course.
He hasn't yet. I'll keep you posted about his reply. But I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Salzburg Festival, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg
August 9, 2013
Eva - Anna Gabler
Magdalene  - Monika Bohinec
Hans Sachs - Michael Volle
Walther von Stolzing - Roberto Saccà
Veit Pogner - Georg Zeppenfeld
Sixtus Beckmesser - Markus Werba
David - Peter Sonn
Kunz Vogelsang - Thomas Ebenstein
Konrad Nachtigall - Guido Jentjens
Fritz Kothner - Oliver Zwarg
Balthasar Zorn - Benedikt Kobel
Ulrich Eißlinger - Franz Supper
Augustin Moser  - Thorsten Scharnke
Hermann Ortel - Karl Huml
Hans Schwarz - Dirk Aleschus
Hans Foltz - Roman Astakhov
A Nightwatchman  - Tobias Kehrer

Conductor - Daniele Gatti
Director - Stefan Herheim
Sets - Heike Scheele
Costumes - Gesine Völlm
Lighting - Olaf Freese

Konzertvereinigung Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic

Once this Wagner Bicentenary Year is over, probably the biggest question we'll all be asking ourselves is why wasn't Stefan Herheim allowed to stage the 200th Birthday Ring?

Sadly, it has become something of a truism that to hear the best Wagner singers and see the best Wagner productions you needn't (shouldn't?) go to Bayreuth.

I really don't believe that Frank Castor's Ring is the unmitigated disaster that everyone says it is.
It has tantalising, albeit isolated, flashes of brilliance.
And that is a great deal more than can be said of the previous production by Tankred Dorst, which was so unremittingly dull and dire that it must rank as one of the worst Rings I've ever seen.

Vocally, too, Bayreuth's Bicentenary Ring was anything but worthy of Wagner's Festspielhaus, in this year of all years.
Just look at the line-up of the concert performances of the cycle at this year's Proms to see that the world's current best Wagner singers were everywhere this year but on the Green Hill.

Yes, Bayreuth still has arguably the world's best Wagner orchestra. And it looks set to remain so in future with Kirill Petrenko taking his place alongside the festival's unofficial GMD Christian Thielemann among the ranks of the festival's great conductors.

But all in all, Bayreuth really should be ashamed of the shambles it has made of the bicentenary celebrations, after a shoddily-prepared Birthday Concert on May 22, the Festspielhaus still clad in scaffolding, Wahnfried reduced to rubble and the Markgräfliche Opernhaus closed to the public.

In artistic terms,  it is Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier who should take the blame for the muddled and directionless management of the world's oldest summer music festival. 

Of the various productions staged under their leadership, only Hans Neuenfels' Lohengrin and Stefan Herheim's Parsifal have really proven up to the mark.

Otherwise, it's a list of could-have-beens: Lars von Trier pulled out of the 2006 Ring to be replaced by Tankred Dorst. And it seemed like groundhog day again when Wim Wenders got cold feet for the Bicentenary Ring, which was then handed to Frank Castorf.

Following Sebastian Baumgarten's (literally) execrable Tannhäuser, future productions aren't looking especially mouth-watering either.
I've never found any of Katharina's productions -- from her Der fliegende Holländer in Würzburg in 2002 to her Meistersinger in Bayreuth in 2007 and Rienzi in Bremen in 2008 -- to be at all convincing.
Yet she has entrusted herself with the new Tristan in 2015. And Jonathan Meese -- a sculptor, painter, installation and performance artist of some notoriety in the German-speaking world -- will make his directing debut with the next Parsifal in 2016.

It is rare, but not impossible, for guest directors in Bayreuth to be asked back.
Among the 23 who have worked there since 1951, only August Everding and Götz Friedrich have ever staged more than one opera in the Festspielhaus.
Everding was responsible for Der fliegende Holländer in 1969 and then Tristan und Isolde in 1974 and Friedrich for Lohengrin in 1979 followed by Parsifal in 1982.

Since then, however, it seems to have become some sort of unspoken rule for directors not to return.

But surely, given the critical and popular success of his astonishing Parsifal, an exception could have been made for Herheim?

His magical and masterful re-interpretation of Meistersinger for this year's Salzburg Festival -- apparently the first staging of Wagner's only comic opera here since 1938 -- certainly gave us ample opportunity to fantasize about what he wonders he could have worked with the four-opera Ring.

Herheim updates the story, set by Wagner in the mid-16th century, to the so-called Biedermeier period in Germany in the first half of the 19th century.
And the action is all a fairy-tale, a dream on the part of Hans Sachs (who is actually Wagner himself) who rushes on stage before the overture in nightshirt and cap to scribble down his nocturnal imaginings.

We could be in a painting by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885).

Sachs is a lonely widower, longing for the love and physical contact of a younger woman (Eva).

In the opening scene, the Nuremberg church where the congregation is singing is Sachs' own writing desk.
It's Märchen-time where the characters, the Mastersingers and Walther enter through a crack in the oversized window, the Singstuhl is the bridge of a violin and the guild members sit on thimbles engraved with their names.

It's sort of Meistersinger-meets-the-Nutcracker, and so crammed full with delightful details that the five-and-a-half hours fairly whizz by.
In fact, it's a Meistersinger you could easily take your children to.
The Festwiese at the end of Act 3 is the life-size close-up of the toy-play that Eva and Walther and David and Magdalene indulge in on the far-side of the stage.

But it precisely therein that lies the rub, a niggling qualm about such a technically perfect production.

It is all so utterly charming and enchanting that we forget that Meistersinger is Wagner's most problematic opera, hijacked and misused by the Nazis as a hymn to the supremacy of German art. And it is for that very reason that it is still treated with distaste today by even the most dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerians.

In his Bayreuth Parsifal, Herheim was not afraid to make the festival's Nazi past one of the central themes of his interpretation.
His use of swastikas and goose-stepping soldiers onstage drew loud boos from audiences every year.
So it is puzzling to say the least that he side-steps the issue so completely in Salzburg's new Meistersinger.

It is a matter of fierce debate whether, for example, Beckmesser is an anti-Semitic caricature.
But no matter what your position, the violence of the riot scene at the end of Act 2 is always deeply disturbing and the prelude to Act 3 all the more desolate for its musical depiction of the trail of devastation and destruction that the riot leaves behind.

In Herheim's reading, the riot is actually rather anodyne -- a few fairy-tale characters such as the Frog Prince and Hansel and Gretel misbehave, nothing more sinister than that.

In Sachs' (in)famous monologue at the end of Act 3, a sudden change in lighting made me sit up, expecting a dramatic new development on stage.
But it was all over in a blink of an eye, and I was left asking myself whether I'd missed something.

Vocally, Michael Volle was the star of the show. His was a superlative Hans Sach, richly nuanced and deeply moving.

And he was near matched by the excellent Markus Werba as Beckmesser.

I found the two female leads much more problematic, with Anna Gabler, to my ears, clearly miscast as Eva. Her voice is much too heavy for the role and her intonation was frequently off.

Monika Bohinec made little impression as Magdalene. Peter Sonn has a pleasant enough voice as David, but only really found his form in Act 3.

Much as I admired Roberto Saccà in Frankfurt's Idomeneo last season, he, too, seemed miscast as Stolzing, his tenor sounding tired and worn, his vibrato too wobbly for my liking.

Among the Meistersinger, Georg Zeppenfeld was excellent as Veit Pogner and Oliver Zwarg was also very impressive as Fritz Kothner.

Tobias Kehrer, on the other hand, was also seriously off-pitch in the small walk-on role of Nightwatchman.

Daniele Gatti, who conducted Herheim's Parsifal in Bayreuth, didn't always seem at ease here and, surprisingly in this score, the Vienna Philharmonic was not at its best.

Gatti, Gabler and Saccà were all loudly booed at the end.

Herheim's staging ia a co-production with the Opéra National de Paris and it seems that the Met in New York wants it, too. So hopefully there will be plenty of opportunity in the coming years to re-visit and relish this intelligent and visually stunning new Meistersinger.