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.