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Thread: Opernwelt – September/October, 2015, Issue Summary

          
   
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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Opernwelt – September/October, 2015, Issue Summary

    http://www.opernwelt.de/

    Interviews

    Michelle Breedt

    For the past two years, the South African mezzo has maintained her own performing career while serving as a Professor of Voice at Munich’s Academy of Music and the Performing Arts. In this very candid interview with Marcus Thiel, she has some blunt words about deficiencies in the current state of instruction for voice students, conductors who don’t understand singers’ needs, orchestras who play too loud, and market and public relations pressures on the classical music business.
    - A pastor’s daughter, Breedt originally wanted to pursue a career in medical or biological research, and didn’t attend her first opera until she was a university student. Her parents did have a large recording collection and both sang well, but the nearest opera house was a considerable distance away. For her, singing was associated with hymns, but was nothing sacrosanct; it was just something one did. At some point, a voice teacher heard her singing and encouraged her to have her voice trained. But even when she had decided on a singing career, Breedt retained her scientific curiosity. The physiology of vocal production interested her, and she still approaches singing very analytically. She adds that she had two “fantastic” teachers in Nellie du Toit and Brigitte Fassbänder – and that she’s still learning from her own students.
    - In general, she finds that voice students are not very well served by the program of instruction currently in place. (I don’t know if her comments deal with a general course of study that voice students around the world are required to complete, or if what she describes is specific to the music universities in the German-speaking countries.) On one hand, voice students are burdened by course requirements that were really designed for those studying an instrument, and leave them little time for studying such things as additional languages, something many singers would like to do. Breedt attributes this state of affairs to a bureaucratic mentality at the music universities with regard to required coursework, which tends to include subjects like harmony, counterpoint, and music history – all of which are important, she adds, but do nothing to prepare voice students for the realities of a performing career.
    - She would like to see more focus on students’ individual needs in instruction, observing that one student may need help with music theory, another with languages, and a third with acting. Music universities need to avoid stereotyping and pigeonholing; not every voice can be squeezed into the same mold. She says that science is increasingly providing assistance in voice instruction, showing that what people have known instinctively over the centuries and from listening to singing can be scientifically proven. (She mentions a good friend of hers, director of an otolaryngology clinic in Zürich, with whom she often has discussions on the topic.) At the same time, it’s possible to precisely analyze what is beneficial for the individual student, how his/her voice can be “awakened.”
    - Breedt describes herself as “optimistic” that some of these changes are actually occurring, and says she’s found that she and her colleagues in Munich all share similar thoughts on the matter. She says it’s important to her as a Professor of Voice to still be actively involved in her own performing career, noting that she has been singing with greater awareness since becoming more intensively involved with teaching. She admits to feeling more nervous when her students attend one of her performances, since she wants to be a role model for them. But it’s also important for them to learn that singers are not machines, especially since their ideas about singing are often focused on the superstars and the ideal situation, causing them to have unrealistic expectations about a singer’s daily existence.
    - The mezzo also expresses concern that music universities are training too many individuals who have no realistic chances for a successful career. The administrators there take no account of the realities of the music market and the merciless competition among performers. She quotes an Afrikaans saying that everyone believes his nag is a racehorse.
    - Teaching has always been an important component of her own career for Breedt, who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in both vocal performance and music education. She spent seven years on the faculty of the University of Stellenbosch in her native country, and over the course of her career, has also helped colleagues. Teaching is something for which she feels reverence and respect, but not fear. She is very conscious of the tremendous trust her students place in her, that they are very open and consequently very vulnerable. She says it’s her greatest joy when one of them grasps something she’s explained, when his or her tone improves and becomes freer, and the “Ah, ha!” moment occurs. But she’s also honest when one of her students is having a problem she can’t figure out. Then she’ll ask colleagues, consult the literature, try to analyze what’s happening. She cautions that students also have a great responsibility for their learning, and adds that their own overestimation of their capabilities often plays a role when they encounter a problem.
    - Her observations about the impact of marketing and public relations on singers’ careers today have previously been voiced by many of the artists interviewed by this magazine – from the fact that voices are often not given adequate time to develop now, resulting in shorter performing careers, to the focus on media stars and the expectations for singers to look like models or film stars. She mentions singers being cast in roles for which they are unsuited, for which she blames a lack of knowledge among those at opera houses who are responsible for casting decisions. “The art of casting has been lost,” she asserts. She has sharp words for General Directors and Regisseurs who are unduly focused on singers’ appearances, insisting that classical music has other standards outside of these transitory externalities. In opera, portrayals are about content, the inner life, emotions, and character of the stage figures, about a certain truthfulness and verisimilitude. She believes audiences are interested in the quality of the singing, and not a succession of beanpoles (she actually calls them spaghetti noodles) who all sound alike.
    - She laments the fact that a generation of conductors has grown up who have little or no knowledge of voices, with all of them coming from symphony orchestras without having gone through the classic Kapellmeister training and stints as a Répétiteur. In the latter capacity, a conductor learns about the difficulties with which singers must cope, and those who lack this experience often expect singers to react like a keyboard – one presses it, and it’s supposed to function. She views this “symphonic socialization” of conductors as one of the reasons orchestras today play at louder volumes than in the past. She also claims that many are afraid of the orchestra musicians, who are gaining increasing power through their strong labor unions. As conductor or soloist, one is left standing alone – even though everyone is supposed to serve the music and collaborate in this objective. She says that egos need to be scaled back a few notches, but everybody wants to put his or her “stamp” on the music. She asserts that there is an “unhealthy personality cult” involved, something she feels safe in saying after 23 years in her profession. As an illustration, she cites performances of Tristan und Isolde in which the orchestra plays as though it were a symphony, pushing the singers to the limit of their capabilities and making a flexible shaping of a role nearly impossible. Wagner’s instructions in the partitur are all but forgotten in the robust mezza-forte at which the orchestra plays, and the conductor’s choice of tempos has nothing to do with the delineation of the text. Again, she castigates the “media society” in which only the superstars count, while “out there” are many conductors who understand a great deal about voices and about their craft.
    - She insists she’s not placing all of the blame on conductors and orchestras for the way things are now, observing that singers must also learn to make greater use of vocal colors instead of engaging in a competition to see who can produce the loudest forte. She says it would also help if more people attended live opera performances and measured what they hear from the live experience rather than CD recordings, which she says convey a totally false “tonal reality.” She herself isn’t afraid to speak up when an orchestra is playing too loudly, and ask the conductor if an adjustment can be made. And while she certainly can be impressed by a staging concept, it bothers her that a great deal of rehearsal time is spent on that aspect of a production and relatively little on the musical performance. The worst are repertoire production, where there may only be one stage rehearsal with the orchestra. In this case, the justification is usually something to the effect that the orchestra is already familiar with the score. Yes, she agrees, they can play the notes. But otherwise? She says she loves the orchestras, but they have too strong a lobby . . . She insists that one can’t stage a theatrical production with a timeclock mentality; for her, there are other ways of working.

    Sir John Tomlinson

    One of the great Wotans of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the British bass – who still maintains an active performing career after 50 years onstage – talks with Kai Luehrs-Kaiser about his approach to singing (and singing Wagner specifically), his formative years in Great Britain, and some of the noted conductors with whom he’s worked.
    - As a bass, he has often portrayed opera’s villains, from Hagen in Götterdämmerung to Claggart in Billy Budd, and says he’s always tried to find a way to identify with each of them. In Hagen’s case, that individual was born to fulfill a purpose that he had neither thought of nor sought. Sir John describes it as an emptiness or a talent for misfortune that makes these figures both complex and interesting. He doesn’t believe in portraying them only from their dark side, and says one should never go onstage with evil intentions, but should feel a certain sympathy for these characters. It doesn’t work any other way.
    - Though Hans Sachs was among the roles he sang, he makes it quite clear that he’s a bass, not a bass-baritone. Over the 50 years of his career, he’s always tried to sing beautifully every day, with his own vocal colors and his natural timbre. He recalls that Wolfgang Wagner once described his voice as “meat” that one could chew around on, which he admits sounds a little strange. But he observes that he spent many summers in Bayreuth, so Wolfgang – whom he calls the best of all Intendanten – certainly had plenty of opportunity to form an opinion. He reiterates his own belief that the quality of a voice is something one is given and is not made, observing that the best singers he has known were not intellectuals. There was nothing of the academic about them, and they didn’t give too much thought to their own voices. They also didn’t try to form their voices themselves. He mentions Pavarotti, whom he says was a wonderful singer with “dazzling” technique, and a very good, very expressive musician. But one couldn’t have carried on an intellectually demanding conversation with him – and why would you? Sir John says he’s found that in Germany, even among younger singers, there is an inclination toward approaching things too analytically, and that leads to nothing. (Um . . . Ms. Breedt?) Singing depends on producing something natural with one’s own breath.
    - He regards his attitude toward singing as typically British, noting that there is a strongly developed pragmatism among his fellow countrymen (and women). When he was growing up in Lancashire, there were a lot of brass bands and men’s choirs; singing was something physical and part of the normal daily routine. He compares singing to the high jump, saying that after five years of training, people should get the impression you’ve been doing it all your life, as though it comes quite naturally to you.
    - His most important teacher was Otakar Kraus, who also taught Robert Lloyd, Willard White, and Elizabeth Connell. Although Kraus is usually remembered for his operetta recordings, Sir John points out that he actually specialized in the villains himself – Scarpia, Klingsor, and Alberich, singing the last-named under the batons of Rudolf Kempe and Hans Knappertsbusch. As a teacher, Kraus was always very clear and direct about what he wanted. He believed the tip of the tongue should be placed primarily toward the front when singing and shouldn’t move a great deal; problems with the tongue were always serious. He also insisted that in general, one must always establish a connection to the body below the chest, that singing depends upon it. Sir John adds that, until Kraus’ death in 1980, he continued working intensively with his teacher, though his own career was well established by then. He had come to Kraus quite late, to have the final polishing (so to speak) on his voice. He received his first singing lessons from an aunt who was a soprano (an uncle was also a choir director), and later spent four years at the Manchester College of Music, studying with Patrick McGuigan. The singers he admired most then were fellow Brits Philip Langridge and Dame Janet Baker, as well as baritone Robert Merrill and the great basses Nikolai Ghiaurov and Boris Christoff. He mentions that the U.K. has different musical traditions than Germany or Italy, with opera regarded as something very exclusive or even elitist, while art songs and oratorios enjoy greater popularity, being the more accessible genres. For this reason, young British singers often look up to their fellow countrymen/women as role models.
    - Early in his career, he willingly took on small and even very small roles in productions such as a Manon with Dame Janet, Tosca with Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti, and Le Roi de Lahore with Dame Joan Sutherland. He says it would have been foolish to decline these parts, not only because there were so many of them, but also because London was headquarters to some major recording companies with whom a singer could obtain small contracts. In this way, one could grow as an artist. He notes that he also sang in the Chorus at Glyndebourne during the 1970s, and adds that one should absolutely accept such opportunities when they are offered.
    - His repertoire over the course of his career has encompassed a wide range, from Baroque music to Wagner’s operas. He says he’s found one can sing both of these divergent styles with the same voice; they aren’t as far apart as one might think. In both Bach and Wagner, one is not required to sing very high notes at the end, and the tessitura of Wotan is settled comparatively close to Bach (presumably he’s referring to bass arias in cantatas and oratorios). He came to Bach via Handel, whereas he sang his first Wagner role in the late 1970s with Fasolt in Reginald Goodall’s English-language Ring.
    - Among the major Wagner parts for lower voices, Wotan has likely been one of his parade roles, while he’s sung Hans Sachs much less frequently. He first added the poet-cobbler to his roster in 1993, singing in productions of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in London under Simone Young and then in Dresden under Christoph Prick. And that was it, aside from the live recording at Covent Garden conducted by Bernard Haitink, of which the bass says he is proud because it was a “genuine” recording. Although he eventually received an offer from Bayreuth for Sachs, by that time he was already singing Wotan and preferred to stay with it instead. He liked Sachs, but found the role could be well cast with other voices – and he identified more with Wotan.
    - It was with Wotan, he says, that he could best perceive how his voice was developing. At first, he
    “barely survived” Das Rheingold and Die Walküre when he sang them in 1988, managing them well only from a physical-vocal perspective. He says the advantage with this figure is that Wotan develops over a longer period of time – three operas – and while one needs the necessary stamina to make it through the role successfully, on the other hand, one can put some things right if there are problems over the course of a performance (unlike King Marke, for example).
    - Though he is a bass, the tessitura of Wotan and Sachs never posed any difficulty for him, and the character of his voice has made it possible for him to suggest that of a bass-baritone. In his recordings, he never fudged on any high notes. But his voice has dramatic weight, so that it’s almost too heavy for Sachs. He feels he can confidently state that when he has a good day, he’s a perfect Wotan – and he’s never canceled any appearances in that role.
    - He recalls the great conductors with whom he has worked as “brilliant personalities” whose leadership he was glad to follow. He says it would be a fatal error to alter one’s voice for a conductor, but he always enjoyed letting his voice react flexibly to a conductor’s wishes. He remembers that John Eliot Gardiner always wanted to hear everything spotlessly clean, with little legato and little portamento, whereas Riccardo Muti attached particular importance to a warm-sounding legato. James Levine wanted fullness, consistency, and solidity, and was less spontaneous than Daniel Barenboim, who emphasized refinement in the treatment of the text. Of all the Maestri with whom he has worked, Sir John believes he’s probably learned the most from Barenboim, along with Barenboim’s former Bayreuth assistant, Sir Tony Pappano, and to a certain extent, John Fiore. From them, he learned how much depends on the shaping of the musical line and formation of vowels. The vowels also provide singers with stamina, since a different muscle must be used to form each of them. He describes the conductors as very well-informed individuals with strong intellects – then, recalling his comments earlier in the interview, adds that, naturally, one must be clear-headed and know what he/she is doing. The audience just shouldn’t notice all too much of the intellectual considerations when listening.

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    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    Thanks Mary, especially for the Sir John Tom interview. He's one of my heroes.
    "Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward for the incurables."

    FRANZ SCHALK, attributed, Losing the Plot in Opera: Myths and Secrets of the World's Great Operas

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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Magazine

    Kokkola Opera Summer Festival

    This year’s Festival featured the world premiere of Seppo Pohjola’s one-act opera The Maiden From Harrbäda paired with a staging of Sibelius’ only opera, The Maiden in the Tower. With a libretto by Jusa Peltoniemi, the plot of Pohjola’s work involves a group of card players and a police inspector. In a repeating loop, he interrupts their game in his search for hidden weapons four times, and each time, is diverted by the telling of a ghost story and sent on his way. The opera begins and ends with pizzicato “rain,” and is structured so that after the final measure, the whole thing could begin all over again. It’s an original approach, but one that’s more likely to be encountered in instrumental pieces than a theatrical work – and Pohjola is primarily known for his instrumental compositions. He plays by his own rules with this opera, but it’s still entertaining in its own way: a lively comedy with local connections, a mixture of history and theater of the absurd. The card game involved is Pidro, which was especially popular in Finland after the Second World War – a period during which Finns kept a wary eye on the powerful Soviet Union to the east, fearing their neighbor might try to swallow their country, too. The Inspector in the opera is a member of some nasty secret police force, yet he allows himself to be lulled by the ghost stories the four card players tell him. Each of the stories concerns a young woman who dies in a mysterious way, the last one being an 18th century girl found embedded in ice. She’s such a fascinating figure that narrator and narrative become blurred. The action also includes an appearance by the 18th century Finnish clergyman, physician, and economist Anders Chydenius, who brought the Enlightenment to the country; a demonstration of Mesmer’s magnetism, a ballet of cards, and at the end, a turbulent finale.
    Pohjola’s score centers on a magnificent high soprano role, which was sung by Anu Komsi, a contemporary music specialist who is the Kokkola Festival’s director and commissioned this opera. Her character led the round of card players, and was repeatedly transformed into a variety of young women (presumably those in the ghost stories). Komsi says she never imposed any limits on the composer by claiming something was unsingable; to do so would have restricted his creative freedom. Instead, he should write what he wanted, and it was the job of the singers to give it expression. In Basel, where she sang the title role in Heinz Holliger’s Schneewittchen (Snow White), and will soon appear in Donnerstag from Stockhausen’s Licht cycle, she discovered the tenor Markus Nykänen. He created the role of the Inspector in The Maiden From Harrbäda, and is scheduled to sing in Hamburg’s new production of Les Troyens with Kent Nagano on the podium. Discovering and promoting young singing talent is important to Komsi, and the Kokkola Festival plays an important role in that endeavor. The event draws funding from a variety of sources, including Finland’s national government, the city of Kokkola, and a number of foundations, but must make application for it every year. At a time when the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki is programming more musicals in its season schedules, and artistic standards have noticeably declined at the once-prestigious Savonlinna Festival, the initiatives in Kokkola are gaining increasing significance.
    It helps that Kokkola has the services of an internationally respected conductor in Sakari Oramo, Music Director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Stockholm Philharmonic, and the East Bothnian Chamber Orchestra. The last-named appears regularly at Kokkola, and had Oramo on the podium for Sibelius’ opera, while the young Maestro Erkki Lasonpalo conducted the premiere of The Maiden From Harrbäda. Though The Maiden in the Tower is considered Sibelius’ only opera, it really isn’t an opera at all, but a 35-minute farce in which it’s hard to determine what is meant to be taken seriously and what is intended as persiflage. The libretto deals with a helpless maiden imprisoned in a tower by an evil Burggrave with designs on her virtue, and comes across like a parody. The music tries to be comic at some points, and is loaded with Wagnerian significance at others, especially in the central duet between the Maiden and the tenor role identified only as the Lover. Director Aku-Petteri Pahkamäki opted for a parodic approach in his production, which happened to be the first staging of this work since its 1896 world premiere. Led by Oramo, the orchestra produced blooming colors that matched the shrill costumes, and enabled the listener to hear the young Sibelius on the way to finding his distinctive style.

    International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition

    The 34th International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition, held in Amsterdam for the second time since 2013, drew a total of 1,300 participants from around the globe, of whom 15 made it to the final round. It was pleasant to note that all finalists sounded as though they had solid technical skills; no one pushed, no one confused barking with expression, and no one mistook the concert stage for a sports arena. First prize went to the South African tenor Levy Sekgapane, who wowed judges with his performance of Tonio’s “[I]Ah, mes [/I]amis” from La fille du régiment in the semi-finals, and followed it with an appealing rendition of “Languir per una bella” from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri in the final. The Norwegian jugendlich-dramatische soprano Lise Davidsen took home not only the second prize, but the Audience and International Media Jury Prizes as well after delivering a nuanced account of “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser. Third prize winner was the 20 year-old South Korean tenor Ki-Hun Park, who drew favorable notice with a convincing, mature interpretation of Werther’s “Pourquoi me reveiller.” Another standout among the finalists was the Finnish lyric soprano Tuuhi Takala, who displayed a full timbre and attractively secure coloratura in the Queen of the Night’s “O zitt’re nicht.” The group was accompanied with verve by conductor Ed Spanjaard and Het Gelders Orkest.

    Handel’s Saul in Glyndebourne

    This oratorio has always contained the material for an effective stage drama (the program at the 1739 world premiere in London included staging instructions along with Charles Jennen’s libretto). For his production at this year’s Glyndebourne Festival, Barrie Kosky turned the Biblical story of resentment and jealousy into a parable of Georgian England. He divided the work in half, setting the first amid the revels of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (which once contained a statue of Handel), and contrasting it with the horrifying conditions at the notorious Bedlam insane asylum in the second. Certain aspects of the Glyndebourne staging were reminiscent of Kosky’s Frankfurt Opera production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The chorus of Israelites, garbed in Katrin Lea Tag’s costumes that were a combination of punk and Baroque styles, displayed the sort of fickle behavior manifested by the courtiers in Purcell’s opera, while John Graham Hall’s bearded Witch of Endor with the shriveled breasts of an old woman recalled the imagery Kosky used in Frankfurt. In collaboration with Otto Pichler’s “dynamic” choreography, the Australian Regisseur took the audience on a compelling journey from a festive triumphal procession, through the scorched, blood-soaked battlefield of the defeated Israelites, to David’s coronation. In the Bedlam segment, the singers coughed, screamed, and laughed; there was spitting and food thrown about before it was decided to use Goliath’s severed head as a fetish and foot stool. The most terrible, heartrending impression was made by Christopher Purves as Saul, whose stuttering rendition of “I’m the King” revealed disturbing glimpses into a tortured soul, tormented by the return of Iestyn Davies’ eerie David with his ambivalent eroticism. Both soloists gave extraordinarily beautiful, ardent interpretations of their roles, Purves with his velvety baritone that was also capable of rough outbursts, and Davies with his flawless control and elegance. The contrast between artificiality and naturalness was continued in the other cast members’ role portraits, with Lucy Crowe (Merab) and Benjamin Hulett in the triple assignment of High Priest, Abner, and the Amalekite (fused by Kosky into the single figure of the misshapen Court Fool) singing and acting with mannered stiffness, while Paul Appleby’s Jonathan and Sophie Bevan’s Michal offered wonderfully tender characterizations. The evening’s only disappointment came from conductor Ivor Bolton on the podium of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment. For all his experience and cultivation, Bolton’s reading of Handel’s “flamboyant” score with its Baroque trombones, drumming, harps, and Glockenspiel remained too superficial and “thin.”

    Pique Dame and Le Nozze di Figaro in Baden Baden

    On the schedule of this year’s Baden Baden Summer Festival were guest performances by forces from the Mariinsky Theater with their new production of Pique Dame, and a concert performance of Le Nozze di Figaro with Yannick Nézet-Séguin leading the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Director Alexei Stepanyuk and his team of set designer Alexander Orlov and costume designer Irina Cherednikova took an essentially traditional approach to Tchaikovsky’s opera with opulent scenery and an extensive use of the stage machinery to give their production the compactness of films, providing visual accompaniment to the through-composed shifts from big ensembles to lyrical melancholy. Stepanyuk played with symbolic elements, but nothing was obscure – as, for example, the small house of cards that stood at the edge of the stage apron and collapsed at the moment Gherman had gambled away his happiness. With his powerful Slavic tenor, Mikhail Vekua captured the extroverted character of the gambler’s nature, though fortissimo outbursts in the upper register emerged clearly too sharp as well as slightly untidy. Irina Churilova, the Lisa at the premiere evening, had an appealingly warm lyric soprano, while Elena Vitman contributed a remarkably detailed character study of the old Countess, with her reminiscences about her youth in Paris becoming the intimate high point of the performance. The Mariinsky Orchestra was in peak form under the baton of Valery Gergiev, who “set milestones” with his impressively rapturous, expressive, melancholy sentimentality as well as the darker colors of the third act.
    The concert performance of Le Nozze di Figaro was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon as the fourth of seven planned releases in the label’s cycle of Mozart operas conducted by Maestro Nézet-Séguin. He and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are acknowledged specialists in this repertoire, though the question still arises as to how urgent such a project actually is. The French Canadian conductor and his musicians seem driven by the ambition to produce a more radical “historically informed” interpretation playing on (mostly) modern instruments than the Early Music specialist ensembles have done. In Le Nozze di Figaro, Nézet-Séguin emphasized maximum contrasts in tempo, dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. The ecstatic overture often suggested the dawning of a day that was more rabid (German: tollwütig) than fantastic (German: toll – a little word play here). Among the leading international soloists who comprised the cast, the standout was Christiane Karg, who used her supple, delicate soprano and nuanced articulation to capture Susanna’s multilayered moods. Thomas Hampson’s Count Almaviva was reminiscent of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the way in which every word and sentence was examined and illuminated in the best Lied singer’s tradition, though his gently aging baritone revealed its limits in coloratura. Sonya Yoncheva, replacing the indisposed Diana Damrau, was a sensitive and strongly expressive Countess, with vocal colors that reminded one of Callas. Occasionally, one missed a certain tenderness in her singing, as in “Dove sono.” The other stars fulfilled expectations – Anne Sophie von Otter (Marcellina), Maurizio Murano (Bartolo), Angela Brower (Cherubino), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), and Regula Mühlemann (Barbarina, with wonderfully clear articulation) – and acted with great passion. And then there was audience favorite Rolando Villazón, this time in buffo mode as Don Basilio, doing what he does best – portraying a clown.

    Eine Nacht in Venedig at the Mörbisch Lake Festival

    The staging was inadequate, but the musical performance was top-notch in Mörbisch’s new production of Johann Strauss the Younger’s operetta set in Venice during Carnevale. The huge representation of a cruise ship that dominated the sets could have provided director Karl Absenger with an opportunity to probe the “disastrous” tourism strategy that has made the sight of these vessels as common in Venice these days as the pigeons on the Piazza San Marco. Instead, he settled for superficialities in his updating of the plot (the work had its world premiere in 1883). There were cell phones and intercoms as well as a liberal smattering of contemporary scatology in Absenger’s version, but his Personenführung remained conventional and timing was clearly off in some of the onstage proceedings. In compensation, tenor Herbert Lippert, who sang the Duke of Urbino in the first cast, delivered a performance worthy of the great Rudolf Schock. The buffo couple was portrayed by young singers with a strong theatrical flair, and “singer legend” Heinz Zednik was heard in the part of Senator Delaqua. Festival Intendantin Dagmar Schellenberger is still in splendid voice, as she demonstrated in her appearance as Barbara Delaqua, and still has the stage presence of a genuine operetta diva. It was regrettable that the weather was not being especially cooperative on the premiere evening. A sharp wind was blowing that caused headaches for the sound technicians. Those in the audience were able to hear the music, but many of the nuances were lost – including in the playing of the orchestra, with conductor and musicians sheltered in a rehearsal hall and the sound fed to the outdoor staging area via loudspeakers. Things were even worse at the Festival in nearby St. Margarethen, where a week-long heat wave ended on the evening of the premiere, with torrential rains that flooded the stage in the old Roman quarry and delayed the start of Tosca until 10 p.m.

    Rossini in Wildbad Opera Festival

    The Rossini in Wildbad Festival may be in the shadow of the larger Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro to some extent, but it has secured an honorable place for itself in the summer festival landscape. Rarities form an important part of the offerings here, and two of them were presented this year with L’Inganno Felice (composed when Rossini was not yet 20) and Bianca e Falliero, written seven years later. The first is a farce, dealing with a Duchess who becomes the target of a rejected admirer’s nasty reprisals, but thanks to the aid of a sympathetic miner, is finally happily reunited with her husband; the second is a melodrama with a Romeo and Juliet relationship that for once has a happy ending. While Primo Antonio Petris’ staging of Bianca e Falliero was pretty much in the old school stand-and-deliver mode, L’Inganno Felice was in better hands with Bad Wildbad’s Intendant Jochen Schönleben, though he had to work within this festival’s more modest theatrical capabilities. The singing was at a high standard in both operas, often even of a quality worthy of La Scala. Soprano Cinzia Forte as Bianca and mezzo Victoria Yarovaya in the Marilyn Horne breeches role of Falliero brilliantly mastered their parts’ sheer “abnormally” difficult coloratura, while Silvia Dalla Benetta in L’Inganno Felice found herself on increasingly dramatic terrain. That opera also includes one of the craziest patter duets in the history of the genre, and bass-baritones Lorenzo Regazzo and Tiziano Bracci delivered a bravura performance. For both of these productions, Antonino Fogliani was on the podium, and once again proved himself an unbeatable Rossinian. The manner in which he structured the extensive complex of scenes, filled the drama with “bursting” expressiveness, and let the melodies float naturally was quite impressive.
    Also on the program of this year’s Festival was a concert performance of L’Italiana in Algeri with José Miguel Pérez-Sierra leading the Virtuosi Brunensis, an ensemble comprised of musicians from both of Brno’s orchestras, paired with the Chorus from Bad Wildbad’s Akademie BelCanto prepared by veteran Rossini tenor Raoul Giménez. Isabella was sung by mezzo Marina Viotti, a gifted coloratura stylist. Barcelona’s Teatre Sarrià made a guest appearance with their production of Manuel Garcia’s Le cinesi, set to the same Metastasio libretto used by Gluck for his opera of the same title. Garcia, a legendary tenor and singing teacher who was also the father of the prima donnas Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot, is a composer to be taken seriously. With the tale of the three bored – not at all Chinese – young women who invent scenes to act and sing to each other, Schönleben achieved a little masterpiece of Personenregie full of ironic touches. The four soloists – Sara Bañeras, César Arrieta, Silvia Aurea De Stefano, and Ana Victoria Pitt – were all top-drawer, and will certainly be heard again at larger houses.

    World Premiere of Marc-Aurel Floros’ Adriana in Rheinsberg

    As the composer Marc-Aurel Floros sees it, there is a reason contemporary music often fails to touch people’s hearts. He contends that the avant-garde style grew out of the horrors and catastrophes of the 20th century, and can do an excellent job of expressing that sort of world. But outside of it, the style has pretty much exhausted its possibilities. Dissonance can only be dissonance, even if consonant moments occur. Floros and his partner, the author and literary critic Elke Heidenreich, collaborated on a new work intended – as the writer phrases it – to reopen the emotional chambers in the manner opera usually has done over the course of its 400-year history. In and of itself, a sympathetic undertaking – but is it possible to turn back the clock without producing more than a stale rehash? Their opera, Adriana, had its world premiere at the Rheinsberg Castle Chamber Opera festival at the end of July. In the plot, the title character marries Leander, even though she really loves his brother Julian. Leander offers financial security, but little else; his favorite occupation is telephoning the stock broker. There is a middle-aged couple, Fanny and Bruno, along with Adriana’s parents, her father a compassionate man who takes Adriana’s mother back even though she had abandoned the family. The baritone balks at the happiness of the soprano and tenor – a formula we know from Verdi. The “song” of the cello in the second act is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, and the orchestral suggestion of a ringing telephone recalls Poulenc’s La Voix humaine. Among the cast members, the most convincing were Luke Sinclair as a tousle-haired, fashionably bearded Julian and Sophia Theodorides, who delivered Fanny’s shrill appeals pointedly. The part of Leander lay too high for Philipp Mayer, but in general, the quality of the young singers heard here is capable of further development. Judith Kubitz conducted the orchestra of the Potsdam Chamber Academy with a successful balance of passion and control, allowing Floros’ music to flow smoothly, with an emphasis on the strings’ flow that was seldom interrupted to make room for percussion “thunderstorms.” This was certainly more than effective film music, but precisely because of the score’s unabated emotionalism, it was seldom moving. In the writer’s opinion, “it goes without saying” that trying to capture the present with the tones and means of our great-grandparents just can’t succeed.

    Opera Performances in Concert Format (editorial)

    This piece by Anselm Gerhard looks at the practice of performing operas in concert format before he comes to his own conclusion that opera in concert is a contradiction in itself, hardly less absurd than presenting a film with loudspeakers and no screen. In any event, he’s in good company; Wagner detested the practice as well, hardly surprising for a man who had a purpose-built theater constructed at Bayreuth for the performance of his operas. Gerhard asserts that regular performances of operas in theaters was largely a phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century, possibly spearheaded by Herbert von Karajan at the Salzburg Festival. Perhaps not coincidentally, this occurred around the same time as the introduction of the LP recording, which accustomed audiences to hearing operas’ music in isolation. Concert performances of operas have always existed, and were originally given primarily in private settings (as in the only performance of Idomeneo in Vienna during Mozart’s lifetime). Or they were used in connection with “avant-garde” works such as the 1874 performance in Vienna of part of Die Walküre, accompanied by two pianos. In 1887, the first performance of Lohengrin was given in concert format (thanks to Charles Lamoureux) after “official Paris” rejected the work. And, of course, concert performances are useful in universities and conservatories, or when renovation work, destroyed venues, or strikes make an “emergency” solution necessary. In recent years, however, the emergency solution has become standard practice – though not everywhere. The Deutsche Oper Berlin regularly includes several operas performed in concert format in its season schedules, whereas the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has never scheduled opera in concert even when audiences demanded it. The Baden Baden Festival often uses this format; the Bayreuth Festival (hardly surprising) never does. The practice is less common in Italy than in France; the Vienna State Opera hardly ever performs opera in concert, having done so the first time in 1979 with Mercadante’s Il giuramento, and most recently in 2007 with Norma, in which Edita Gruberova sang the title role. But the Austrian capital’s Theater an der Wien is another house that regularly includes operas in concert in its season programs. Then there is the hybrid referred to as “semi-staged” or “concert in scene” opera, where the singers wear some sort of costume and props are used (perhaps video projections as well), but the orchestra remains onstage. This format was first used in 1923 for the Paris premiere of Falla’s El retablo de Maese Pedro, though marionettes were used in the performance in Madame de Polignac’s salon. But if such a “theatricalization” of the concert format is to be artistically convincing, the setting then loses its most important economic advantage, namely shorter rehearsal periods. An additional advantage for opera in concert is supposed to be the ability to concentrate on the music. Gerhard quotes an unidentified source who asserts that this format permits “a sublimated interpretation” which is a “crystallization of the work” in the “transported depths of intimacy.” But with this argument, Gerhard points out, one can justify shrinking Romantic opera arias or even symphonies down to the dimensions of a string quartet. The vocal part wouldn’t be sung, but “crystallized” by the first violin and transported to an immaterial world. In the “music theater without a theater,” he argues, singing is robbed of its communicative, extroverted qualities.

    Interview with Roberto Alagna

    This short interview with the tenor, who is making his debut this month at the Deutsche Oper Berlin as Vasco da Gama in the original version of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, covers a lot of the same ground as the more extensive interview that appeared in the September issue of Das Opernglas. What is new here:
    - He doesn’t view Vasco da Gama as an especially large step in his career, observing that Eléazar in Halévy’s La Juive, which he’ll sing for the first time next June in Munich, is more difficult. And singing Turiddu and Canio on the same evening in a double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci isn’t child’s play, either. But he doesn’t divide the roles he sings into “easy” and “difficult,” saying that for singers, it’s always about trying to achieve the impossible – in every role. He admits he’s often thought, “I can’t do that,” and then everything turns out just fine.
    - He describes himself as a music lover with a huge recording collection at home, and has studied some of the leading interpreters of Grand Opéra such as Léonce Escalais and César Vezzani. But he says he can’t pinpoint an ideal Meyerbeer singer because the operas are simply too different. He likens the composer to an artist who paints in different media or uses a different technique. One can’t compare Robert le diable to L’Africaine, or L’Africaine to Le Prophète.
    - He relies on his own voice in whatever role he sings, saying that to distort it in some way would not only be wrong, but dangerous. All he can do is approach roles honestly and with dedication.
    - He had actually received four or five offers for Lohengrin (including one from Bayreuth) before he was finally persuaded to accept the one for next summer’s Festspiele, where Anna Netrebko may be his Elsa. Each of the preceding times, he got “cold feet,” and observes that up until this point, he’s only sung roles with original languages in which he feels at home. His partner, Aleksandra Kurzak, has promised to help him with the German diction for Lohengrin, so he’s going to make the attempt and give it his best effort. He mentions that in addition to offers for Lohengrin and Walther von Stolzing, he’s received inquiries for Tannhäuser. The French version of the last-named might be a possibility; he recalls that it was offered to him a number of years ago by the Opéra de Monte Carlo. He also mentions one time that he happened to be at La Scala when Plácido Domingo was singing Siegmund in Die Walküre there, and conductor Riccardo Muti had said to him, “Next time, you’ll sing that” (i.e., Siegmund). Alagna says he doesn’t know why everyone wants him to sing Wagner.
    - Speaking of La Scala, he goes into some detail about the infamous booing incident when he was singing Radames there, and walked off stage. He’d been having problems with his blood sugar level that evening and was aware that he could lapse into a coma if he wasn’t careful. He’d already announced before the performance that he might have to leave the stage in the middle of the opera. And then, in fact, he couldn’t continue. He admits that getting booed while onstage was certainly an unpleasant experience, but claims that all singers get booed at La Scala at some point – Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Flórez, even Mirella Freni. They’ve all experienced it, he says, yet with him it became a scandal. He feels that what happened to him then wasn’t exactly fair.
    My note: It’s news to me that Kaufmann was ever booed at La Scala. I’ve followed his career closely since 2002, and I’m well aware of the contretemps surrounding the production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the 2003 Salzburg Festival. But I’ve never read of a single instance when he was booed at La Scala.

    Portrait of the Syrian Composer Zaid Jabri

    The recent Shubbak Festival of Contemporary Arabic Culture included a concert performance at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studios of portions of Zaid Jabri’s new opera Cities of Salt. Although the plot deals with the impact of the Middle East oil business on individuals and an entire culture, Jabri insists that the work is not primarily an Arabic opera. The English libretto is based on Abdelrahman Munif’s 1984 novel of the same name, which was translated into English by the American author Peter Theroux and that translation adapted by Jabri’s librettists, the Canadian Rosalind Morris and South African Yvette Christiansë, who live in New York and came in contact with the composer via the Brunel Institute for Contemporary Middle Eastern Music near London. If this is beginning to sound like a miniature United Nations, it could also be noted that author Munif is a Jordanian of Saudi Arabian and Iranian descent who has lived in Baghdad, Cairo, Paris, Belgrade, and Damascus, while Jabri grew up in Damascus, where he maintained close friendships with Turks, Armenians, Circassians, Iranians, and Bosnians before leaving Syria at the age of 19 to study in Poland, where he’s now been living for 20 years. He counts Krzysztof Penderecki among his mentors, and has used techniques of the avant-garde for his pieces. However, he stresses that his music “resides in many worlds,” and he is equally familiar with European and Arabic musical forms. He was never formally trained in naqam, the Arabic tonic system, but says that from time to time, he draws inspiration from it. For example, he says he often uses microtones, though not necessarily ones corresponding to the Arabic scale. He adds that he has used classical forms many times, and then open ones; for Cities of Salt, he never followed a single formula, but strove to do justice to the individual dramatic situations. Jabri observes that a composer must approach opera like a film director and keep an eye on everything – plot, poetic language, time periods, dramatic tension. For him, composing is about recognizing problems and then solving them. In Cities of Salt, the primary problem is that a lot happens, and it happens in a lot of different places, all of which need their own specific sound. A world premiere date has not yet been determined for this opera, comprised of three acts and lasting approximately three hours. The concert at the Linbury Studios included four scenes and an orchestral interlude, and even in this fragmentary condition, the story is clear and eloquent. Jabri’s music is multilayered, sensuous, and beautiful, but never bombastic or even merely agreeable, and reveals his strong feeling for atmosphere, characterization, and drama. How will it look in a staged production? Jabri contends that we’re losing our imagination, but art helps us to regain it; in this case, one will have to imagine the desert. He then reiterates that his opera isn’t about the Arabic world, but humanity in general.

    Interview with Doris Soffel

    This must be the issue with mezzos who don’t mince words. In this interview, the 67 year-old Soffel, who has been appearing on the operatic stage for more than 40 years, talks about eroticism in performance, the problems of being a German coloratura mezzo, and a pair of grandmothers who didn’t conform to Victorian/Edwardian norms.
    - She initially studied violin before switching to singing at Munich’s University of Music and the Performing Arts, where her teacher was the formidable Wagnerian soprano Marianne Schech. Another of Schech’s students, Felicity Palmer, had recalled being instructed by Schech to “make a little mouth” until her throat finally constricted. Soffel says she remembers the phrase, but had no great problems with it. She was more amazed that Schech smoked so much and polished her nails during lessons. Soffel recalls her teacher as an “old prima donna. Like my mother,” with both women always telling her that she had the most wonderful profession in the world, and when she hit a high note, the listener must sense the euphoria.
    - She finds being referred to as a “singing actress” to be a great compliment, and says that over the course of her career, she’s learned a little from stage directors and a lot from life. Her biggest learning experiences were connected to the divorce from her first husband and then to her change of Fach from a lyric coloratura mezzo to dramatic mezzo roles. She remembers that it was a shock to her when she was supposed to substitute for Leonie Rysanek as Klytämnestra at the 1996 Salzburg Festival, having just sung Charlotte in Werther prior to that. The “picture book career” doesn’t exist, she says; there are only zig-zags (and mentions that she’s finally “caught up with” Ortrud and Kundry).
    - She attributes her career longevity to the fact that she often said “no” to “impossible” role offers. After she appeared as Fricka in the 1983 Bayreuth Ring conducted by Sir Georg Solti, she wrote him a letter saying that she would prefer to sing lighter roles again. She waited with the part of the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten until she was 56. But in reflecting on her career, she also notes that she never sang important coloratura mezzo roles like Tancredi or Bellini’s Romeo, asserting that she looked too German for them. The limit for a tall, blonde, Teutonic singer like herself was in parts such as Giovanna Seymour, Rosina, and Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda. It would have taken a “super impresario” to cast her in the other roles, but no such individual was around, and Soffel says the situation really isn’t any different today. A young German mezzo usually ends up singing the wrong roles, when more Rossini or Bellini would be much better for the individual’s technique.
    - She’s always been known as a very sensuous singer with a strong physical presence, and she says eroticism onstage is incredibly important to her. The only problem was that it could be misinterpreted – and was by some conductors. So she prefers to work with gay conductors (yes, she actually said that) so that she can really turn up the heat without any risk. And isn’t music erotic, anyway? she asks. To feel free and unbound. And genuine eroticism, she adds, is about the unspoken. Reminded that her Herodias in Amsterdam several years ago was more of a seductress than Salome, Soffel recalls telling director Peter Konwitschny during rehearsals that they needed to bring out the “Whore of Babylon,” observing that (in the Bible) the business with demanding the Prophet’s head on a platter actually originated with Herodias.
    - The singers from earlier periods whom she considers to have had the most erotic voices were Maria Callas and the young Montserrat Caballé, the latter in her own way. Among the men, Soffel thinks Plácido Domingo has an erotic voice, and adds that she’s an absolute Franco Corelli fan. For her, Corelli was the greatest tenor; she remembers that he could sing a high B in the most delicate pianissimi. And, she adds, if the expression “horny” would ever be appropriate anywhere, it was for him.
    - And about those grandmothers. One of them kicked her husband out in 1900, a time when Queen Victoria was still on the throne; the other had waist-length hair that the young Doris was allowed to comb out. But that was the most. This was no nice, cuddly Granny, but “almost a monster” – and Soffel says she found that wonderful. The singer’s mother introduced her to the works of Virginia Woolf, and the mezzo says she’s always found the contrary old women to be the more interesting characters.
    - She concedes that the thought of becoming a soprano appealed to her – because the mezzos were always relegated to the smallest dressing rooms, right next to the women’s loo. So mezzos want to be sopranos. But she’s observed that when mezzos transition to the soprano repertoire, there’s very often all kinds of shortening, transposing, and fudging going on. That was nothing for her, and she also wanted to retain her sensuous low notes. High notes, she claims, are usually “chaste” notes, and she wants none of it.

    Carmen at the Chorégies d’Orange

    When a performer of Jonas Kaufmann’s stature appears onstage, goosebumps are just about guaranteed. But there’s also the risk that the rest of the cast will pale in comparison – and that’s exactly what happened here. For two-and-a-half hours, one wondered why Bizet hadn’t titled his opera Don José. That such a character as José should come to be the drama’s dominant figure speaks volumes about Kaufmann’s qualities. In spite of the mistral wreaking havoc in the ancient Roman amphitheater where operas are staged here, the tenor was the uncontested star of the evening, using the music to convey all of José’s shifting emotions, and impressing with his ability to modulate tonal colors, his pianissimo on the high B at the conclusion of the Flower Song that was both weightless and yet robust, and his exemplary French diction. Kate Aldrich’s smooth, elegant Carmen would probably be convincing in a small theater, but for the dimensions of Orange, her mezzo is simply too small-scale. Kyle Ketelson’s Escamillo had little charisma, while Inva Mula’s Micaëla was sticky-sweet. Astonishing to this writer was that both director Louis Désiré and conductor Mikko Franck were the targets of booing at the curtain call. The audience evidently wanted a good, old-fashioned Carmen with horses, castanets, and a bullfight; what they got was an abstract set with enormous replicas of playing cards and dark colors – probably too dark for their liking. The same can be said for Franck’s interpretation. On the podium of the magnificent Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Finnish conductor chose slow tempos and drew phenomenal tonal mixtures from his virtuosic musicians that did full justice to Bizet’s cultivated orchestration, without any bombast or showiness. In this respect, he was the only one whose performance was on a par with Kaufmann’s.

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    Cold Mountain World Premiere and Salome at the Santa Fe Opera

    This year’s Santa Fe Opera Festival featured the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, based on Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel of the same name. The plot, set during the final months of the American Civil War, centers on Inman, a wounded deserter from the Confederate Army, who is walking back to the home of his beloved Ada Monroe in Cold Mountain, North Carolina. Operas need villains, and this one has Captain Teague, the sadistic head of the Confederate Home Guard, groups of men and boys too old, young, or infirm to fight whose job is tracking down deserters. The subject matter is topical, not only because 2015 is the sesquicentennial of the War’s end, but also because there have been countless debates over the past months revolving around police brutality, intimidation of voters, and display of the Confederate flag. For a first effort, this work is more than respectable. The strengths of Higdon’s score lie in its fine textures and intelligent structuring of the orchestral writing. Some conversational scenes are reminiscent of Prokofiev’s dark Semyon Kotko, while the vocal lines are closer to the style of Samuel Barber. Higdon shows a marked preference for ensembles, even having Inman and Ada sing a duet when the two are actually miles apart from each other. Bringing an epic like Cold Mountain to a strong conclusion isn’t easy, and the composer should probably rethink the dramaturgy of the last 45 minutes. The dark choral scene in the second act when all of the figures are brought together has, in all respects, the characteristics of an ending. But it isn’t; the complicated interpersonal relationships continue developing for quite a while longer. A considerable factor in the success of this opera is Gene Sheer’s libretto, which is always clearly comprehensible. The best articulation of the text came from Jay Hunter Morris, who sang Teague with a clear, slightly dry tenor. Emily Fons made a touching Ruby, Ada’s rescuer, with her charismatic, far-reaching mezzo; Isabel Leonard’s Ada wasn’t quite as even, though the chemistry was right between her and Nathan Gunn’s Inman. Gunn created a gripping portrait of a man caught up in violence against his will, but his singing was marked by pressure and a hard vibrato. The few exposed passages, however, were always tenderly sung. In the pit, Miguel Harth-Bedoya led a taut account of Higdon’s score by the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra.
    Director Daniel Slater took some praiseworthy risks in his staging of Salome, transplanting events from Biblical times to the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Belle Époque and turning the opera’s plot into a Freudian drama. Salome viewed the bearded, bespectacled Jochanaan, who sat at a desk writing, as a father figure, a substitute for her own father who had been killed at the behest of Herodias. Leslie Travers provided marvelous sets, even if the rotating stage was rather overused. Many of the scenes took place in the cistern, within which walled-up rooms were continually opening to reveal Herodes’ banquet, Salome’s dance, or her memories. In the title role, Alex Penda proved a fabulous singer-actress who lent her characterization some of the effortlessness from her years singing Mozart and Rossini, phrased intelligently, and displayed complete control of her body. Robert Brubaker’s robust Herodes was very nearly on her level, and the up-and-coming dramatic mezzo Michaela Martens offered a pleasingly full-voiced Herodias. Ryan McKinney’s Jochanaan sounded healthiest when he could summon the greatest power – not a good sign, whereas Brian Jagde’s Narraboth occasionally reminded one of James King. Conductor David Robertson led a masterful reading of Strauss’ partitur.
    The productions of La fille de régiment and Rigoletto, staged by Ned Canty and Lee Blakeley, respectively, were disappointing, though there were some bright spots with Alek Shrader’s Tonio, Quinn Kelsey’s Rigoletto, and the “exquisite” Gilda of Georgia Jarman.

    Glimmerglass Festival at 40

    For its 40th anniversary season, the Glimmerglass Festival offered productions of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Verdi’s Macbeth, and Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica – and with one exception, they were very satisfying. Candide was a flop at its world premiere in 1956, and since then, has been performed in all manner of revisions. Glimmerglass combined the Scottish Opera’s 1988 version with John Caird’s 1999 textbook, with Festival director Francesca Zambello in charge of the staging. Together with Music Director Joseph Colaneri, she produced a fast-paced, but comparatively dark and nuanced interpretation. With his “sugar-sweet” tenor, Andrew Stenson was the ideal embodiment of the naïve Candide, who clings persistently to the optimistic outlook of his teacher, Dr. Panglos, in the face of a real avalanche of catastrophes. His adored Cunégonde wasn’t turned into the usual vacuous air-head, thanks to soprano Kathryn Lewek’s spirited portrayal, while Marietta Simpson brought considerable stage presence to the Old Woman. Actor David Garrison infused the long passages of narrative and Voltairian or Panglosian philosophy with excitement. James Noon’s sets consisted primarily of benches and movable platforms, while costume designer Jennifer Moeller supplied Las Vegas showgirl finery for “Eldorado.” Owing to the generally nuanced treatment of the material by all involved with this production, the finale in which the protagonists have to accept reality (“Those Edens can’t be found . . . make our garden grow”) was actually convincing.
    For her magical staging of The Magic Flute, director Madeline Sayet was inspired by Native American culture, and had Wall Street mogul Tamino flee to the woods, where he discovered nature as a source of wisdom and understanding. Costume designer Kay Voice dressed Sarastro’s priests as scientists, and outfitted “nature boy” Papageno with trapper’s gear. In choreographer Eric Sean Fogle’s approach, the menacing serpent and the trials of fire and water were illusions created by the natural environment. Conductor Carolyn Kuan led a strong cast that included Sean Panikkar’s assertive Tamino, Jacqueline Echols’ charismatic Pamina, So Young Park’s blazing Queen of the Night, and Solomon Howard as a Sarastro who commanded respect.
    The production of Macbeth was most notable for the quality of the musical performance, headed by the “sovereign” Scottish usurper of Eric Owens (in spite of indisposition). Melody Moore “triumphed” as his Lady with her sparkling soprano that was even across all registers. Solomon Howard’s rich bass and attractive appearance made him an impressive Banquo, while in the pit, Joseph Colareri conveyed a sense of the unstoppable escalation of violence with his “muscular,” driving interpretation.
    The weakest production among this year’s offerings was Catone in Utica, but the evening was not an entire loss thanks to countertenor John Holiday’s Caesar.

    Retrospective on Jon Vickers

    On 10 July, the great Canadian Heldentenor known for landmark interpretations of Verdi’s Otello, Florestan, and Tristan passed away at the age of 88. Throughout his career, he never fit the clichéd image of the star singer narcissistically focused on his beautiful, big voice and the splendor of his high notes. Still, for the pure force of his instrument, Vickers had few equals after 1960. He was certainly never lacking the mighty, sweeping vocal power for Otello or Tristan, and “vehemently” asserting himself with stentorian tones never posed any problems for him, though this corresponded to neither his temperament nor his ethos. The shining heroes remained suspect to him; it was the suffering figures, the ones beset by problems, or those who were sinking with whom he identified. Then he achieved the maximum of sheer monumental intensity in his singing. Siegmund, Tristan, Otello, Radames, Don José, Samson, and Peter Grimes were the roles in which he captured the “dialectical polarity,” as the writer terms it, between majestic tonal splendor and an expressive-depressive pianissimo suggestive of sung speech. Vickers’ interpretations were contemplative and nuanced, committed to the truth in artistically unsparing borderline situations; he had far less interest in less sympathetic characters such as Siegfried. He decided on a singing career relatively late, making his debut at the age of 31 as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera at the Royal Opera House. He never really had much of a chance at Bayreuth, but in 1961, captivated listeners with his Florestan in Otto Klemperer’s recording of Fidelio that included a “painfully triumphant” cry of “Ein Mörder steht vor mir” described by Ernst Bloch as “the wildest scene of dramatic tension in general.” He recorded Otello twice, first with Tullio Serafin and later with Herbert von Karajan. In the latter, his high B in the “Esultate” is not the best, but the voce suffocate in “Dio! mi potevi” has a succinct despondency that’s in a class of its own. Described by this writer as an “event of the century” in discographic history is Sir Colin Davis’ recording of Les Troyens with Vickers in the highly complex, ecstatic part of Énée, though the tenor confessed he didn’t necessarily find the part of a demigod appealing. He was much more drawn to the conflicted characters, and for expressive urgency, he could hardly be equaled.

    Retrospective on Alan Curtis

    Less than a week after Vickers’ demise, the world of opera lost another standard-setting artist in conductor Alan Curtis, described by the writer as the “Professor on the podium,” who was among the pioneers of historic performance practice and revival of the Baroque opera repertoire. Early in his career he was, in fact, an academic, teaching at the University of California at Berkeley from 1960-64, and re-editing Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. His enormous discography of complete Baroque operas was recorded over the course of half a century, and included Vivaldi and Handel rarities such as Arminio, Admete, Ezio, Tolomeo, Lotario, Floridante, Fernando, Deidamia, and Giove in Argo – and all featured outstanding casts. Among interpreters of this repertoire, Curtis was probably the most knowledgeable with regard to singers. He pretty much made a star of Joyce Di Donato with his recordings of Handel’s Alcina, Ariodante, and Radamisto, and engaged Marijana Mijanovic, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, and Vesselina Kasarova for other recordings. He loyally supported the singers he discovered, had an international outlook, and was excellent at networking. In 1977, he founded his HIP ensemble Il Complesso Barocco in Amsterdam, after which he and his orchestra regularly appeared at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music from 1982 onward, and later performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. His close friendship with the successful mystery author and arts patron Donna Leon turned him, at least for a time, into the most prolific of the conductors “filling the gaps” in the Baroque opera repertoire with their CD recordings of rarities. His meticulous, though not exactly “volcanic” interpretive style did divide listeners. His reputation as an all too matter-of-fact executor of plans finally led to a schism in the ranks of his ensemble in 2012, when several musicians left to form their own orchestra, Il pomo d’oro, led by Riccardo Minasi. For many years a resident of Venice like his friend Ms. Leon, Curtis had been living since he received emeritus status in 1994 in the side wing of a castle by the gates of Florence. He remained active past his 80th birthday, his last project being the planned restoration of an old palazzo in Naples.

    Rome Opera: Puccini at Caracalla, Future Plans

    A year ago, a strike threatened to cripple the Opera di Roma. Since then, a “leaner, meaner” (my terminology) company is back on its feet, presenting a trio of Puccini operas at its summer festival at the Baths of Caracalla, and making plans for the future. The Festival held by the ruins of the third century, A.D., Imperial baths has been in existence since 1937, and has been focused primarily on the classics of the Italian repertoire. The diverse audience expects, first and foremost, a good musical performance. Just a year ago, Festival visitors were looking forward to the staging of La Boheme by Davide Livermore (now the Artistic Director of Valencia’s Palau de les Arts), and in the orchestra pit was . . . a grand piano. The Opera’s orchestra musicians were on strike, a not-infrequent occurrence under Intendant Carlo Fuortes, who assumed his duties at the end of 2013. And then there was a new law in Italy that made public subsidies and favorable loans contingent upon a financial “housecleaning” by the country’s weakened opera houses, the Opera di Roma among them. It stipulated that these houses must have balanced budgets by the end of 2016 to ensure a continued flow of public moneys. And that meant reductions in salaries and bonuses, elimination of perks, and massive personnel cuts, concurrent with an increase in the number of performances. A portion of the labor unions kicked up a mighty fuss, and the result was that the 2014 Caracalla Festival was reduced to “shrunken” offerings like the aforementioned La Boheme. It made a shabby impression, and ticket sales fell off in consequence. But the Opera di Roma’s problems were far from over. Last autumn, Riccardo Muti, the company’s direttore onorario a vita, canceled many performances in the 2014-15 season and announced that he was finished with the organization. Shortly afterward, the theater’s management threatened to dismiss the choristers and orchestra musicians, though an agreement was finally reached prior to the start of the new season in November. Plans to lay off Chorus and Orchestra members were scrapped, but a three-year rehabilitation plan was implemented, with conditions for employees that were far less favorable than those proposed before the labor troubles began. Among other provisions in the agreement, there can be no more strikes up until 31 December 2016. Since the agreement was reached, there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of performances, according to management, and over the course of a year, expenses have been reduced by approximately €10 million. Ticket sales have risen 44 percent, and sponsors have been won back.
    Paradoxically, the rigorous belt-tightening seems to have enlivened things onstage, with a perceptible improvement in quality during the 2014-15 season. The choice of Henze’s Die Bassariden as the opening production of the 2015-16 season is indicative of the “fresh wind” blowing at the Opera di Roma since the arrival of Giorgio Battistelli as the second Artistic Director (alongside Alessio Vlad). There are a total of 161 performances scheduled for the new season, compared to around 80 in the previous one, and plans have been announced to launch a new festival of contemporary music next June, with Wolfgang Rihm as the first composer-in-residence. There will also be an increase in the number of Baroque operas included in season programs, for which purpose the 1727 Teatro Valle is undergoing renovation/restoration. The company has also started offering paid internships and workshops in all of the theatrical professions.
    Back to Caracalla: This past summer saw performances of La Boheme (with a full orchestra this time), Madama Butterfly, and Turandot. In his staging of Madama Butterfly, Alex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) transplanted the action from early 20th century Japan to present day China with its unfettered Capitalism and a real estate bubble (courtesy of the Pinkerton company). There was forced resettlement and the destruction of old cultural sites, embodied by Cio-Cio-San as the representation of an entire people sacrificing themselves and their dreams for an illusion. In the title role was the “fantastic” Asmik Grigorian, who drew ovations along with conductor Yves Abel for his uncommonly songful interpretation. Director Denis Krief’s staging of Turandot was less convincing. He turned the Ice Princess into a spoiled child who didn’t want to grow up, making it hard to imagine what Calaf found so fascinating about this woman. The giant orchestral part threatened more than once to slip out of conductor Juraj Valcuba’s grasp, and the singing isn’t even worth mentioning aside from Rocio Ignacio’s Liù and Marco Spottini’s Timur. Happily, Davide Livermore had the chance to deliver an atmospheric production of La Boheme that even included snow cannons for the second act (with temperatures around 30°C/85°F). Here, one was able to see what an outstanding job the Opera di Roma’s choristers, children’s chorus, ballet, and supernumeraries can do when given the opportunity.

    Mayr’s Medea in Corinto at Martina Franca

    When Giovanni Simone (a.k.a. Johann Simon) Mayr’s Medea in Corinto premiered in 1813 at Naples’ Teatro San Carlo, the title role was sung by no less than Isabella Colbran. After Mayr had revised the score, the opera appeared again 10 years later with the no less illustrious Giuditta Pasta as the Princess of Colchis. But Mayr’s opera was soon eclipsed by Cherubini’s work on the same subject, and then forgotten. It wasn’t heard again until 1977 – once again in Naples – with Leyla Gencer as Medea. For the production of this opera at the summer festival on the grounds of Martina Franca’s Palazzo Ducale, a new critical edition of the partitur by Paolo Rossini, issued by the Ricordi publishing firm, was used. The Spanish soprano Davinia Rodriguez was not intimidated by the legendary Medeas who had preceded her, and with her rich expressive palette, gave the role everything she had – “knife-sharp” high notes, impassioned tones in her midrange, and smoky shadings in the low register. On average, she created a psychologically plausible, if disturbing role portrait of Medea as avenging angel and dark sorceress who evaded punishment for her crimes. The characters of Giasone and Egeo were written, following the Naples tradition in the early 19th century, for “baritenors.” In Martina Franca, the former was sung by Michael Spyres, who impressed with his energetic agility, though his vocal coloring wasn’t always optimal. Enea Scala made a convincing Egeo with his perfect breathing technique, nimble ornamentation, and spotless high notes. The young tenor, like Nozomi Kato, who sang Ismene, is a product of the local Accademia di Canto Rodolfo Celletti, which has proven to be a veritable hothouse for supplying the Festival with outstanding new talent. Mihaela Marcu, as a virtuous Creusa with a velvety, soft timbre, occasionally stole the show from the protagonists with her flawlessly shaped bravura arias. Mayr’s colorful orchestral writing includes impressive woodwind passages as well as obbligato solos for violin, cello, harp, and other instruments. The Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, an ensemble that comes together specifically for this Festival, and the Chorus of the Transylvania State Philharmonic were led by Fabio Luisi with an assured feel for Mayr’s dramatic timing. Director Benedetto Sicca and set/costume designer Maria Paola di Francesco seem to have been influenced by Graham Vick’s 2013 production of Das Rheingold in Palermo with their scenes of bright red field poppies against equally bright green lawns and their timeless costumes. At the finale, a flock of doves flew heavenward, apparently a tame substitute for the team of dragons with which legend indicates Medea made her escape from Corinth.

    Contemporary Russian Opera

    The modern opera scene is thriving in Moscow, and this past season has been an especially productive one. According to the writer, the world premieres of new operas have practically amounted to a declaration of war against the troubling political developments in Russia, where armed conflict and corruption have become a normal, seldom questioned background of daily living. Of course, the weapons in this war consist of criticism through aesthetic means. Among the most daring institutions in this regard is the Boris Pokrovsky Chamber Music Theater, which presented two new works with Alexander Morozov’s Titus the Irreproachable and Alexander Zhurbin’s The Petty Demon. Morozov’s opera, with a libretto by the director Vladimir Mirzoev, is based on Maxim Kurochkin’s 2008 play of the same title, which was itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and deals with the mechanisms of the totalitarian state. The thought-through, “hermetic” score combines Schoenberg’s twelve-tone form with Indian Raga chords, motifs reminiscent of Kurt Weill, and even some Baroque influences. Musically, Morozov’s opera really stands out with its “shrill synthesis” of mythology, mysticism, and parody. Zhurbin, a very successful composer of “rock operas” and musicals in Russia, based his new work on Fyodor Sologub’s 1902 novel of the same title. Unfortunately, he turns Sologub’s “shimmering” figures into cheap operetta heroes, though the masterful staging (director not identified) managed at the end to believably convey the grotesque horror of an apparently unending Russian décadence. The high point of the season, however, was the operatic hexology Sverlians (or Swerlians) that was commissioned by Boris Yukhananov, director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky Electrotheater. Yukhananov furnished the text for his “novel opera,” which is actually a series performed over five evenings, with the music written by six composers who are members of the “Structural Resistance Group” – Dmitri Kourliandski, Boris Filanovski, Alexei Sioumak, Sergei Newsky, Vladimir Rannev, and Alexey Sysoev. (The mammoth work has been recorded in CD and DVD formats.) According to Yukhananov’s program note explaining the opera’s concept, another civilization is supposed to exist parallel to our “earthly reality,” with this civilization’s most important sign being that of a borer or gimlet. Between Earth and Sverlia are many well-worn paths, and the Sverlians have been paying visits to Earth since primordial times. They are still doing so today, and will continue doing so in the future. The opera has no coherent story, but rather episodes that revolve around the mythical Sverlians. In the production at the Stanislavsky Electrotheater, set designer Stepan Lukyanov skillfully played with adapted motifs, with an “Ur-Venice” one of Sverlia’s most important cities, while Anastassiya Nefjodova’s costumes transformed the cast members into the “subterranean” pseudo-human Sverlians. The music consists of an overture and four acts, with each act of approximately 90 minutes’ duration. The first part, which took place on the upper deck of a gondola transporter, was composed by Kourliandski, the Electrotheater’s Music Director. The second, written by Filanovski, counteracts the lively dynamics of the prologue with its “fresco-like” stasis, while Sioumak contributed the more strongly narrative third part. Newsky and Sysoev collaborated on the fourth, with its more restless sounds. Rannev’s conclusion is likened by the writer to a pale, harmonious Requiem. The ensembles N’Caged, Questa Musica, and Moscow’s Ensemble for Modern Music, conducted by Philipp Tschischewski, performed the complex piece with admirable precision.

    Jenůfa in Hannover

    The Lower Saxony State Opera wrapped up the 2014-15 season with a production of Jenůfa staged by Florin Visser, with sets by Dieuweke van Reij. The latter transformed the Bohemian countryside into an abstract locale, with action taking place within the outlines of a house that contained a milking stool, zinc tub, and grain sacks along one wall. In the background was a stylized landscape. Because Visser wanted to convey the passing of seasons over the course of events, the sets were seen in shades of grain yellow, then pitch-black, and finally a hopeful green. His approach was markedly different from that of Barbara Beyer, who staged Hannover’s previous production of this opera, and presented the drama without interruption in an abundantly clear fashion, with beer cans, provocation, and drastic intensification. Visser’s current version is simplistic, but of an almost well-crafted restraint; characters are sketched rather than over-illustrated. Only when the Kostelnička struggled with guilt and atonement did the large crucifix (minus the figure of Christ) become a threatening symbol. Visser’s interpretation also revealed why the Kostelnička objected to Jenůfa’s relationship with Števa; the young man reminded her of her own good-for-nothing husband. His ending, unlike Beyer’s, offered a note of hope, with Jenůfa and Laca setting off for a new future together instead of just crawling under the bedcovers (Beyer). The musical performance was, on the whole, quite good. Under the baton of General Music Director Karen Kamensek, the Lower Saxony State Orchestra produced a warm, attractive sound, and though one might have wished for some sharpening and revealing clarity in her reading, Kamensek captured the interpersonal tones and the consolation of nature in a very moving manner. Kelly God’s Jenůfa and Hedwig Fassbender’s Kostelnička dominated the vocal performance, God with her warm, gleaming soprano, and Fassbender as an appropriately buttoned-up, desperate, and self-righteous foster mother. As Laca, Robert Künzli displayed a magnificent tenor, while Ivan Tursiċ’s Števa got to console himself with the Karolka of the 52 year-old soprano Carmen Fuggiss, who can still credibly portray a young girl.

    La Traviata at the Schwerin Castle Festival

    Summer thunderstorms also wreaked havoc with the Schwerin Castle Festival’s performances of La Traviata, which were forced to end prematurely on two occasions because of torrential downpours (and presumably accompanying lightning). As the writer observes, this is the risk outdoor performances always run, and only minutes can separate the greatest enjoyment and the deepest misery. One would hardly categorize Georg Rootering’s staging of Verdi’s opera as deepest misery, but it still impressed this writer as little as it did his counterpart at Das Opernglas. The background alone forces any director to compete with visual distractions, as audience members’ view is naturally drawn to the majestic castle with its towers and turrets, which dwarfs the soloists onstage, and the wide lake beside which the structure sits. Rootering’s approach never went beyond the conventional and expected, and the sets were no help. The glowing red frame around the stage surface had a rear wall consisting of panels that could be opened up and often were, allowing the castle to dominate the panorama even more. Set designer Romaine Fouchère supplied a few sofas and chaises longues as props, and had the singers lavishly costumed in the style of the mid-19th century. The opulence, however, revealed a significant weakness in Rootering’s staging, namely the lack of any precise, to say nothing of subtle, Personenführung. Hardly anything was conveyed of these figures’ inner drama. The musical performance, however, was a considerable improvement. Conductor Daniel Huppert inspired the Mecklenburgishes Staatskapelle (positioned underneath the stage and behind a curtain) to an account of Verdi’s partitur that was a genuine tour-de-force. Regrettably, the sound system was of dubious quality. The principals – Márta Kosztolányi (Violetta), Kerem Kurk (Alfredo), and Carsten Wittmoser (Germont) – sang in a classical, well-balanced manner, but never found any personal, individual connection to their characters. Not that they were given much time to do so. At some point in the second act, the skies opened up, and although the cast members carried on bravely, the fire department finally intervened and shut down the proceedings.

    Nabucco in Oberammergau

    When Christian Stückl, Artistic Director of the Oberammergau Passion Play since 1987 (and also Intendant of Munich’s Volkstheater) decided to shake things up with the venerable drama in his hometown, one of his first decisions was to find additional uses for the Playhouse, since the Passion is enacted only once every 10 years. Spoken-word theater was the obvious solution, since it also kept the villagers’ acting skills honed between Passion Plays and gave them an opportunity to earn some extra income. Since 2005, the Playhouse has been used for summer theater productions of (among others) Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel Joseph and his Brethren. And since Stückl has already directed opera productions (Fidelio in Cologne in 2004, Palestrina at the Bavarian State Opera in 2009), it was probably safe to predict that, sooner or later, he’d hit upon the idea of staging operas at the Playhouse. It finally happened this past summer with a production of Verdi’s Nabucco, though strictly speaking, the performance didn’t take place within the Playhouse, but in front of it, with sets consisting of a sand-colored, columned structure. The big choral scenes, especially the great tableaux, made Nabucco an ideal choice for Oberammergau, and it didn’t hurt that Stückl has had plenty of experience managing masses of actors in Cinemascope format. The entrances and exits of the gigantic amateur chorus, who coped amazingly well with Verdi’s music, proceeded smoothly. Only from a superficial perspective could Stückl’s staging be regarded as “wax figure Regie” with museum-esque pathos; on the contrary, the scenes had power and excitement. There were no cheap contemporary allusions in the conflict between modern Babylonian desert fighters and the Hebrews, even if the latter appeared to have raided the Passion Play’s costume department. Conductor Ainars Rubikis, one of those who landed in hot water over the controversial Tannhäuser in Novosibirsk, led a magnificently impassioned reading of Verdi’s score, while the soloists – Evez Abdulla (Nabucco), Irina Rindzuner (Abigaille), Bálint Szabó (Zaccaria), and Virginie Verrez (Fenena) – wouldn’t have been out of place at the Arena di Verona . . . though once again, an outdoor performance was hampered by a sound system that wasn’t entirely cooperative.

    Retrospective on Bert Neumann

    On 30 July, the well-known set designer Bert Neumann passed away unexpectedly at the age of 54 while staying at his vacation home in Mecklenburg with his wife and son. He had suffered from severe asthma for a number of years. A native of Magdeburg, Neumann was closely associated with Berlin’s Volksbühne, where one of the directors with whom he worked most often was Frank Castorf – he of the current Bayreuth Ring production. Neumann is remembered in this retrospective by another directorial team with whom he collaborated, the Stuttgart Opera’s Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito.
    Before the beginning of summer, the duo and Neumann were involved in preliminary rehearsals for a new production of Fidelio, with the soloists gathered around a model of the set. One of the directors explained that their approach would not depict any specific political system, but would examine the impact the surveillance on which a regime relies – well known from dictatorships – has on the people living under it. Neumann interjected with the laconic observation, “Not only in dictatorships.” A thought with which he was often occupied was the idea that the prison guards in Fidelio were, in a sense, much more imprisoned than the actual inmates, since the latter at least were in a position to see through their lack of freedom and give it a name. During the following two weeks of rehearsals, Neumann’s ability to reduce complex interconnections to the most simple, striking, visual “common denominator” became apparent. His sets evoked an archaic provincialism and paired it with an unsettling science fiction scenario of digital surveillance. Wieler and Morabito rhetorically ask what it was that drew this man, who had revolutionized set, stage, and audience seating area design for playhouses, to opera with its complex structure and prevailing use of the traditional proscenium stage. Their answer: it was probably his experience with history – the history of his own métier, his love of craftsmanship, the old painting of sets and theaters, and his enjoyment of spectacle, circuses, and jamborees, all of which influenced his work in opera. That love and enjoyment were anything but naïve, as they were accompanied by an “insistent aesthetic and philosophical reflection.” In the operas’ scores, he was always discovering the “sediments” of social and cultural history, and ultimately human history in general. He was drawn by the historically rich “intensities” of music and singing that elude our efforts at exercising power over them, and first provide theater practitioners an “endless free interchange.” He was always thinking outside the (proscenium?) box, and in the balance between abstraction and concretion, his spaces created open models for a “possible future” into which the music could flow and human possibilities could fully unfold. Wieler and Morabito cite as examples Neumann’s designs for Halévy’s La Juive, where a combination of Christmas market and pogrom atmosphere in medieval Konstanz threatened the small community of Jews gathered for Passover in Eléazar’s skeletal-looking house, or his sets for Katya Kabanová, where the protagonist’s crossing a concrete barrier coincided with her crossing of societal boundaries in her position as wife and daughter-in-law. Or the enormous Ark that Neumann had sailing over a tossing sea in the first act of Tristan und Isolde, which reappeared in the third act as a petrified wreck. Or behind the circling, violet-purple drape in Rigoletto, where the characters continually wandered in a confusion of twisting, narrow, nocturnal streets until the final storm of this “collapsing revolutionary theater” rained down upon the child’s corpse. Now Fidelio, with music that conjures an incomprehensibly attainable hope for freedom, has been the final opera with which Neumann was involved. What shone out of his art never denied the awareness of theater’s transitory nature, and with his loss, that awareness has seldom been so painful.

    Contemporary Works at Vienna’s New Opera

    This is a short interview with the conductor Walter Koberá, one of the founders of the Neue Oper Wien (New Opera Vienna), which has existed since 1990 to provide regular performances of contemporary operas in Austria’s capital city. Here he discusses the challenges of maintaining a small, independent company dedicated to new music.
    - At first, the New Opera Vienna was focused on modern interpretations of mainstream operas, beginning in 1990 with a production of Idomeneo that coincided with Johannes Schaaf’s staging of the same work over at the Vienna State Opera. The New Opera’s version dealt with the question of whether or not nuclear power should be used as an energy source. The last updating of a repertoire standard was in 1992, when Macbeth was set in the crumbling Yugoslavia. But Koberá says he soon became aware that there was no organization in Austria that performed contemporary music theater works, or the works of the 20th century in general, on a regular, frequent basis. So he and a group of colleagues set about establishing such an organization, aided by Ursula Pasterk, at that time a member of Vienna’s City Council with responsibility for cultural activities, who set up a budget for independent opera groups.
    - The New Opera Vienna has no permanent home, but uses a variety of performance venues for its productions. Koberá views the situation as a positive, noting that with neither a regular location of its own nor a permanent ensemble, his company can approach the operas it performs flexibly. Venues are chosen according to the work being staged, and the space is incorporated in the production. Of course, the acoustics in each new place are vetted beforehand.
    - Koberá bases the company’s choice of repertoire on three “pillars” – world premieres, Austrian premieres, and 20th century works that have not been performed for a long time, but shouldn’t be forgotten. Over the course of 25 years, the New Opera Vienna has mounted 60 productions, with nearly a third of them world premieres (such as Peter Eötvös’ Paradise Reloaded/Lilith two years ago). Among rediscoveries of operas from the “classic Moderne” the company has presented have been Friedrich Cerha’s Baal and Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, with Shostakovich’s The Nose staged just last month.
    - Like other cultural institutions these days, the New Opera has had to live with tightened budgets. The city of Vienna has frozen the amount of public subsidies it provides, with the result that Koberá’s company is operating at nominally the same funding level as in 2002. The New Opera receives €450,000 from the city and €120,000 from the Austrian government, which this year has gone toward three productions, including the “dance opera” JUDITH/Schnitt_Blende by Judith Unterpertinger in December. Co-productions help the group make ends meet. The Nose is set to travel to Budapest’s Palace of the Arts after performances in Vienna are finished, and an opera company in Italy has also expressed interest in it. For the 2016-17 season, a co-production of Argentine composer Fabián Panisello’s Le Malentendu, based on a work by Albert Camus, is planned in cooperation with the Teatro Colón. The world premiere will take place in Buenos Aires, after which the production will travel to Warsaw, Vienna, and Madrid – and possibly to London, since the ROH’s Linbury Studio Theater has shown interest in it.
    - Koberá’s company has also developed a “Junge Oper” (Young Opera) program in collaboration with area schools. The program isn’t limited to acquainting students with types of theatrical performance, but gives them the opportunity to develop their own version of whatever work the New Opera Vienna is performing. There are also workshops in set and costume design, photography, and even marketing to create synergies. The company has no expectation that these initiatives will turn students into audience members; the goal is simply to make them curious.

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    In Focus: Live Performance Reviews in Depth

    - Rihm: Die Eroberung von Mexico (The Conquest of Mexico) – Salzburg Festival
    Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher
    Director: Peter Konwitschny
    Cast: Angela Denoke, Bo Skovhus, Susanna Andersson, Marie-Ange Todorovitch, Stephan Rehm, Peter Pruchniewitz
    Reviewer’s evaluation
    Musical performance: Ingo Metzmacher, who had been on the podium at this opera’s world premiere in 1992, did a masterful job of coordinating the complex, multilayered recorded sound (the Chorus) and live performance that Rihm has interwoven in the score, approaching the task with as much ease as if he’d been conducting Eine kleine Nachtmusik instead. Angela Denoke, who had sung the role of Montezuma 20 years ago during her first engagement as an ensemble member at the Ulm Theater, is one of those singers who become more interesting the longer they are in their profession. One would have scarcely expected to hear the fragile inwardness she brought to her portrayal in Salzburg two decades ago. From a technical standpoint, she was also completely up to the challenges of the demanding part, and was ably supported by Susanna Andersson and Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Montezuma’s “voices,” usually positioned with the orchestra, but occasionally brought onstage in Peter Konwitschny’s staging to offer solace to Denoke’s character. At the moment, Bo Skovhus seems to have become a specialist in existential compulsion. His Lear and Dr. Schön had this format, and so too did his Cortez. Admittedly, his genuine lyric baritone was overtaxed by the part’s low tessitura, but that was mitigated by the staging’s conception of the figure as no Conquistador bogeyman, but rather an ultimately defenseless loser. It probably didn’t hurt that both principals had worked with the same conductor and director on a “magnificent” Wozzeck in Hamburg 17 years ago, and likely helped to give this production the depth that a Festival performance should have.
    Production: In his staging, Konwitschny showed the clash of cultures represented in this opera from its nucleus, as a battle of the sexes and conquest mania. There were no traces here of folklore, the Aztecs’ gold, or the Marian cult of the Spaniards. Rihm himself had not aimed at a realistic treatment of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but had used the subject material to explore the concept of the encounter with the foreign, the Other. Antonis Artaud, from whom Rihm borrowed a considerable portion of his “building blocks” for this work, had conceived his Mexico as an apocryphal, fragmentary “theater of the future.” Nonetheless, any staging that tries to sell the whole opera as a variant on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has missed the target. Konwitschny didn’t miss. Instead, he provided a balance between “hair-fine” details and the big conflict (i.e., the prejudice, compulsions, characters, and gender polarities that come into existence through communication). It was also a balance between wish and reality, between wit, madness, and veracity. The purpose of the junkyard of wrecked autos in Johannes Leiacker’s sets became clear when Cortez drove up in a bright red Porsche (which later ended up on the scrap heap as well) while the libretto announced, “We are your seducers.” The production was also distinguished by a balance between sound, bodies, and space. When Montezuma (who here was unquestionably a woman) disappeared into the kitchen, Cortez, who had finally worked up the courage to enter her house, nervously fiddled around and smacked into an Ikea bookcase at the first orchestral cluster. Later, when he flattened Montezuma on the sofa, it nearly looked like a rape, and when gasping, screaming (per the partitur) male choristers rose from the rows of audience seating, a rape then did occur. In consequence, Montezuma became pregnant and finally gave birth to a Smart phone, tablet, and other electronic gadgetry – the spirit of loneliness giving birth to the digital age. Here, at the very latest, it was clear what the extraordinary quality of this production was based upon: a virtuoso juggling of the laconic and the excessive that didn’t dodge the archaic dimensions of the plot’s events, but discovered these dimensions in our own everyday existence. It grasped what actually couldn’t be realized onstage, but what stands and is hidden in the musical notes – ritual and slaughter, a fight of everyone against everyone, with conquest as devastation.

    - Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro – Salzburg Festival
    Conductor: Dan Ettinger
    Director: Sven-Eric Bechtolf
    Cast: Adam Plachetka, Martina Janková, Anett Fritsch, Luca Pisaroni, Margarita Gritskova, Ann Murray, Carlos Chausson, Frank Supper, Christina Gansch, Erik Anstine, et. al.
    Reviewer’s evaluation
    Musical performance: On the whole, this was pretty weak. Dan Ettinger played the Hammerkavier fabulously, but his conducting was pallid and couldn’t even strike sparks in the lively G-major duettino between Susanna and Cherubino (“Aprite presto, aprite”). Aside from Luca Pisaroni’s superlative Count, the only other standout in the cast was veteran mezzo Ann Murray (Marcellina), who often conveyed with merely a glance what quick-witted music theater can be; unfortunately, her aria had been cut. Adam Plachetka was a “broad-gauge” Figaro whose voice was inadequate in the lower register and whose ornamentation lacked agility, while Martina Janková minced around as a frilly Susanna, her singing equally clichéd. Anett Fritsch, who can be rock-solid onstage, was a sniveling Countess, and Margarita Gritskova’s Cherubino was just nice – nothing more.
    Production: Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s staging was in no way up to Festival standard, and it’s lamentable that this production, and not the Metzmacher-Konwitschny Die Eroberung von Mexico, was the one televised. Bechtolf had transplanted events in the opera from 18th century Spain to an English manor house in the 1920s, where the Count (Earl?) wore plaid and had a little dog that he properly spoiled. Alex Eales’ sets showed a two-story structure in cross-section, and there was always action occurring simultaneously in several rooms, with peripheral plot strands invented and given undue prominence. Bechtolf’s approach resembled that of Philipp Stölzl’s staging of “Cav and Pag” at this year’s Salzburg Easter Festival, and yet the effect was entirely different. Where Stölzl layered opposite timelines with film-like sensitivity and subtlety, so that the tonal chronology occurred in the most productive manner, Bechtolf lacked any feeling for musical-dramatic concentration. His Ring cycle in Vienna suffered from it, as did his Ariadne auf Naxos at the 2013 Salzburg Festival, and the – now finally ending – Mozart-da Ponte cycle displayed the same deficiency in drastic fashion.

    - Bellini: Norma
    Conductor: Giovanni Antonini
    Directors: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier
    Cast: Cecilia Bartoli, Rebecca Olivera, John Osborn, Michele Pertusi, Liliana Nikiteanu, Reinaldo Macias
    Reviewer’s evaluation: This production was a revival from the 2013 Salzburg Whitsun Festival, and was pretty much tailored to Cecilia Bartoli’s Norma. In conductor Giovanni Antonini’s reading of Bellini’s score, the slow, elegiac passages were paced even slower, and after an awkward “Casta Diva,” Bartoli gradually sang more freely over the course of the evening. Naturally, she realizes that in other productions of this opera, without a historically informed interpretation, she would find the role difficult. The staging by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, which transferred events to France during the Resistance, was useful for the star mezzo and placed her in the best positions, but never betrayed the work and its dramatic coherence. This month, the production moves on to the Zürich Opera, followed by the Opéra de Monte Carlo in February, 2016, before touring houses in England, France, and Germany.

    - Beethoven: Fidelio – Salzburg Festival
    Conductor: Franz Welser-Möst
    Director: Claus Guth
    Cast: Adrianne Pieczonka, Jonas Kaufmann, Tomasz Konieczny, Hans Peter König, Olga Bezsmertna, Norbert Orth, Sebastian Holecek
    Reviewer’s evaluation
    Musical performance: This reviewer also regards Jonas Kaufmann as the best among the soloists, though the star tenor doesn’t win the raves here that the critic from Das Opernglas bestowed upon him. As required by the directorial concept, Kaufmann portrayed the traumatized prisoner with agile, effortless physicality, and vocally had the part well within his grasp, with extreme piani contrasted with a throaty, darkened tone. His characteristic treatment of the outcry “Gott!” at the beginning of Florestan’s aria doesn’t impress this reviewer as much as it does others, and is regarded as more of a “trick” than natural, and produced at the cost of vocal emphasis. As Leonore, Adrianne Pieczonka, like the other soloists, became nearly inconspicuous in the large dimensions of the sets and the stage in the Grosses Festspielhaus. Normally a superb singer, Pieczonka was not her usual self, so that her powerful, well-schooled soprano, elegant phrasing, and expressivity could only be suspected. Hans-Peter König lent a beautiful bass to Rocco, but Tomasz Konieczny’s Pizarro was marred by discolored vowels and broken tones. On top of that, the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, left the singers no chance, playing with cutting articulation, often brisk tempos, and dynamics that could scarcely be restrained. Welser-Möst’s symphonic treatment of Beethoven’s partitur culminated in a virtuosic, richly contrasted account of the third Leonore overture. The audience loved it. But the reviewer asserts that such a reading had nothing to do with the musical or acoustical world in which Beethoven worked. The more intimate Haus für Mozart would have been a more suitable venue for this opera, and an interpretive approach closer to that of the early 19th century more appropriate.
    Production: Festivals may be there for experimentation, as the reviewer contends in arguing for what might be described as a more historically informed interpretation of this opera. But Claus Guth’s experiment in scrapping all of the spoken dialogue and replacing it with an assortment of sounds that were supposed to represent the characters’ thoughts and emotions gets a big thumbs-down. The use of doubles for Leonore and Pizarro – hers using sign language (a reference to Beethoven’s deafness?), his an entire entourage – didn’t add anything to the proceedings, either, but came across as unmotivated and diverted attention from the plot action. There was no trace of interpretation here; everything was unspecific and detached. What was left of the plot was conventionally arranged, aside from the prisoners in the first act being turned into white-garbed lemurs. During the finale, the Chorus was banished entirely to the wings. That was daring – but also comfortable for the director.

    - Wagner: Tristan und Isolde – Bayreuth Festival
    Conductor: Christian Thielemann
    Director: Katharina Wagner
    Cast: Stephen Gould, Evelyn Herlitzius, Iain Paterson, Christa Mayer, Georg Zeppenfeld, Raimund Nolte, Tansel Akzeybek, Kay Stiefermann
    Reviewer’s evaluation
    Musical performance: All this really had to recommend it was the magnificent playing of the Festspielehaus Orchestra and the conducting of Christian Thielemann. Tempos were brisk, the interweaving of motifs brilliantly developed, the proportions convincingly managed; everything flowed, breathed, and vibrated. And there was never a hint of ostentatious pathos. Stephen Gould had stamina to spare as Tristan, with seemingly unlimited power and endurance, and made it through this taxing role with apparently effortless ease. Nonetheless, this “athletic” feat came at a cost. Gould’s portrayal came across as largely monochromatic, so that one perceived little of the character’s inner struggle between “Orphic” longing and ecstatic desire. Evelyn Herlitzius’ Isolde was plagued with problems all around. She constantly had to resort to forcing, wrested notes, and used so much energy in dramatic passages that moments such as the intimately flowing love duet (“O sink hernieder”) and the Liebestod were delivered in a sort of constant, dizzying excitement with downright shrieking high notes. Christa Mayer was a strongly expressive, grounded Brangäne, and Iain Paterson a somewhat awkward Kurwenal, though his character was practically ignored by a directorial concept that turned King Marke into the drama’s pivotal figure. Georg Zeppenfeld conveyed the monarch’s conflict in his own manner, with a warm, sonorous bass and unfeigned dismay at the discovery of Tristan’s betrayal.
    Production: Katharina Wagner’s staging doesn’t at all impress this reviewer as it did his counterpart at Das Opernglas. Instead, he asserts that she’s borrowed from many sources, but still hasn’t found a consistent interpretive language of her own. The impression of gleaning from the resources of (Bayreuth’s) stock was strongest in its evocation of a repressive atmosphere where emotional transports, the “inner firestorm” was almost suffocated. Isolde wildly brandished a dagger in her efforts to reach Tristan (“Erfuhrst Du mein Schmach”), tore the bridal veil which Brangäne had draped over her for the wedding with Marke to shreds. Tristan showed up for their nocturnal assignation in the second act with a self-illuminating, decorative little star that Isolde rapturously placed atop their hastily prepared trysting tent. And when the hormones really got it in gear, they slit their wrists on the struts in Marke’s chamber of horrors. Marke in this instance was a scornfully arrogant narcissist vacillating between sadism and melancholy who allowed Melot to murder Tristan, and at the end, forced Isolde to return to her marital prison. It was a prison that was also shut off from the seductive quality of Wagner’s music and text in a production where the action was quite naïve, somewhat clumsy, and often nothing but basic motor function. Even the elements of a delusional, grotesque realism characteristic of Frau Wagner’s Personenführung seemed like “second hand ingredients” here.

    - Wagner (arr. by Marko Zdralek): Parsifal for Children – Bayreuth Festival
    Conductor: Boris Schäfer
    Director: Tristan Braun
    Cast: Benjamin Bruns, Jukka Rasilainen, Alexandra Petersamer, Raimund Nolte, Kay Stiefermann, Andreas Hörl, Christiane Kohl, Desislava Danova, Karina Repova, Simone Schröder, et. al.
    Reviewer’s evaluation: In recent years, the Festival has been offering scaled-down versions of Wagner’s operas for the sticky finger set, performed on one of the rehearsal stages. This year it was Parsifal, presented in the hour-long arrangement by Marko Zdralek, and staged by Tristan Braun, son of mezzo Lioba Braun. The knights’ choruses had to be scrapped due to space limitations, but nobody seemed to mind – especially since the original Glockenklavier built for the opera’s 1882 world premiere was used twice here. Zdralek’s “downsized” (my term) partitur was exactly right for the 30 musicians of the Brandenburg State Orchestra, conducted by Boris Schäfer. The well-known soloists, many of whom have also appeared on the Festspielehaus stage, were clearly having a good time. Jukka Rasilainen was a gruff Gurnemanz in short trousers who held the steaming Grail chalice above Raimund Nolte’s lachrymose Amfortas; Kay Stiefermann’s fantasy Klingsor appeared in a skull mask, fanned collar, and Batman cape – all of the protagonists wore costumes designed by a school class in Düsseldorf. There was a genuine discovery in Benjamin Bruns’ Parsifal, whose fresh lyric tenor had the stuff to go the whole distance of the role. Lollipops and cakes grew in the garden of the Flower Maidens, who were all costumed in brightly colored party dresses and fluffy wigs in shades of pink, purple, and blue. After the performance, there was “bioade” (which I assume is some type of soft drink made from organically grown fruit) outside for everyone.
    This short review is embedded in an article that mixes some gossip in with information about the newly reopened Richard Wagner Museum in the refurbished Villa Wahnfried. The gossip amounts to sightings around town of veteran Wagnerians René Kollo and Franz Mazura, with the latter spotted at performances and the former only seen around his usual lodging, the Weihenstephan Hotel. Marek Janowski was in town, too, familiarizing himself with the acoustics in the Festspielehaus preparatory to replacing Kirill Petrenko on the podium for the Ring cycle at the 2016 Festival. Hans Neuenfels’ “lab rats” Lohengrin was making its final appearances in Bayreuth this summer, and performances were sold out. There were even some spruced-up teenagers among the audience members decked out in formal attire, and they seemed to be having a great time, giggling over the rats (especially the pink bridesmaid rats, who came dancing out of the ranks). Who knew Wagner could be so much fun? Some additional entertainment (at least for the gossips) was provided by the ongoing Wagner clan soap opera. Among those on hand for the grand reopening ceremony at the Museum was Eva Wagner-Pasquier, formerly the Festival’s co-director before being elbowed out by her half-sister Katharina, and now simply serving in an “advisory” capacity. She was seated among the guests of honor as her cousin Nike Wagner gave the welcoming address, in which Nike fired off a few “poisoned arrows” at Museum Director Sven Friedrich and a “Wolfgang Stamm.” (A check of Google reveals several individuals by this name, and it’s anyone’s guess at which one of them Frau Wagner was aiming.) But there was no sign of Katharina, not at the ceremony, not at the entry of the VIP guests at the opening premiere (the Mayor of Bayreuth had to step in and make the official greeting), not at the state reception held in the Margrave’s Palace, and not at the children’s Parsifal on Rehearsal Stage IV.
    The Museum had been closed for five years, with construction work taking up two of them, and the final cost of the renovation/restoration and new addition amounted to €20 million. Funding for the operation of the Museum complex, estimated at €1.5 million per year, has still not been secured for the long term. Still, opting for the “big solution” was the right answer. A “stroke of luck,” in the writer’s estimation, is the light, low-slung addition by architect Volker Staab that has been discreetly integrated with the historic structure, and has a design reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 Barcelona Pavilion. In the basement level of the addition are the exhibits relating to the history of the Bayreuth Festival, with costumes, set models, and some of the old stage equipment. The exhibit area was designed by the Stuttgart firm of HG Merz, with the goal of providing factual, open, critical information free of any Wagner worship. That would seem to contrast with the “treasure chamber” beneath the building’s forecourt, where the autograph of Tristan und Isolde is preserved in a glass casket, and bronze busts of the composer are picked out by spotlights in the diffuse lighting. Museum Director Friedrich probably isn’t wrong when he refers to the display as a “shrine” or “devotional object.” Also housed here are the libretto (1859), orchestral sketches (1857-59), and the first printing (1860), along with Wagner’s Dresden library, kept behind glass. Also new to the Museum is an “interactive partitur” that provides information about the characteristics of Wagner’s compositional style and orchestration, interpretation of his works (the Prelude from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as conducted by Maestri from Furtwängler to Thielemann), and the use of his music in film (from The Great Dictator and Melancholia). After being destroyed by a bomb during World War II, Villa Wahnfried was reconstructed in the postwar period, and filled with plush furnishings. Those have been removed, and instead, the story of the Wagner family is told within the white-painted walls of the former nursery floor. Merz would have gladly dispensed with the furniture from the Berlin firm Hussen that replaced original lost furnishings, and left the authentic gaps – as was done with Siegfried Wagner’s house, where all that’s left is Winifred’s dining room. This was the house where Winifred’s pal Adolf Hitler stayed when he was attending the Festspiele, and video monitors here now show films dealing with the Wagner family’s anti-Semitic “contamination” and their involvement with the Nazis. Unfortunately, there are some gaps in the exhibits here that are quite painful, particularly the absence of the legendary 1975 film conversation with Winifred that was shot at Siegfried’s house. Hans-Jürgen Syberberg was willing to make it available to the Museum, but with the stipulation that it could only be shown in its entirety. That would be no problem in the new Museum cinema, but it remains unclear why negotiations with Syberberg broke down. Equally unclear are the specific reasons for the spat between Friedrich and Bayreuth Mayor Brigitte Merk-Erbe. Could it be related to the dispute over the “chaos” in the archives, which no one has yet taken any substantive action to deal with? Or does it have something to do with the special exhibit (which actually belongs in the permanent collection) about the history of Villa Wahnfried, which was quickly prepared by an outside curator when it came to light that the Museum’s management had no plan of their own? After the ceremony, there was a reception with champagne, juice, and hors d’oeuvres in the Villa’s restored garden, where fresh wreaths had been placed on the Master’s final resting place – a tradition at every Festival.

    - Puccini: Turandot – Bregenz Festival
    Conductor: Paolo Carignani
    Director: Marco Arturo Marelli
    Cast: Mlada Khudoley, Riccardo Massi, Guanqua Yu, Michael Ryssov, Manuel von Senden, Andrè Schuen, Taylan Reinhard, Cosmin Ifrim, Yasushi Hirano
    Reviewer’s evaluation
    Musical performance: The generally good quality of the protagonists was limited in the case of Mlada Khudoley’s Turandot, whose final transformation was marked by some profound moments, but also too much vibrato and shrillness in the high-lying dramatic passages. In contrast, Guanqua Yu was an absolutely wonderful Liù, with a full, freely-flowing, but still lyric soprano that displayed great consistency even in pianissimos sung at the top of her range. Riccardo Massi (Calaf) is one of the most cultivated Italian tenors of the present time, and also has a potent, gleaming top at his disposal. With the Prague Philharmonic Chorus, Bregenz Festival Chorus, and Vienna Symphony Orchestra all located within the Festspielhaus, the successful mixing of their sound with that of the soloists outdoors on the lake stage was due to the positive routine and the sheer ability of all involved, particularly conductor Paolo Carignani. He placed less emphasis on volume of sound and more on the delicate, “sublime-Impressionistic” tonal colors in the moonlight chorus, the color of the Chinese capital at night where the people dare not sleep. Even where collective fortissimos were demanded, Carignani didn’t rely on superficial force, so that the sound still remained transparent.
    Production: This was the lavish production on the Lake Constance stage with all the bells and whistles that Bregenz’s audiences have come to expect each summer. In this case, director Marco Arturo Marelli’s elaborate sets featured an enormous replica of the Great Wall of China that rose out of the water and stretched like dragon’s wings on either side of the stage, and was guarded by a large army of terra cotta warriors, all with individual faces. There was the rotating disc at the center of the stage that could be raised to 90 degrees, revealing an interior that contained a sort of library in which the heads of Turandot’s luckless suitors were preserved in formaldehyde. The surface of the disc when upright functioned as a projection surface for Aron Kitzig’s videos that showed the Emperor Altoum bathed in rays of sunlight, oddly colored dragons, and a mask of Turandot that at first appeared mysterious, but then looked increasingly vulnerable and damaged, as though disfigured by a skin disease. This was also the staging that created a parallel between Puccini’s struggles to complete his final opera and Calaf’s efforts to figure out Turandot. At the beginning of the performance, the composer was seen in a small, blue-lit room where he was listening to a music box play Chinese melodies that became source material for his opera. At this point, the figure was transformed into Calaf and remained in that character until near the conclusion, when he reverted to the dying composer. In the final scene, it was also Turandot who seized the initiative and kissed Calaf instead of the other way around. Surprisingly, this production was actually a spiffed-up version of Marelli’s earlier staging for Stockholm and Graz. Since Bregenz’s new Intendantin Elisabeth Sobotka had little time to prepare for the 2015 season after she was selected as David Pountney’s successor, she had suggested the revamped staging to Marelli, having previously seen it when she was Executive Artistic Director at the Graz Opera. In spite of all the spectacle, his approach still allowed concentrated, intimate moments that seemed astonishing in such a monumental framework.

    - Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann – Bregenz Festival
    Conductor: Johannes Debus
    Director: Stefan Herheim
    Cast: Daniel Johansson, Michael Volle, Kerstin Avemo, Mandy Fredrich, Rachel Frenkel, Bengt Ola Morgny, Ketil Hugaas, Christophe Mortagne, Pär Karlsson
    Reviewer’s evaluation
    Musical performance: Bregenz had a nearly ideal Hoffmann in Daniel Johansson with his wiry, robust, substantive tenor, and only in the highest passages of “O Dieu, de quelle ivresse” did he need to resort to a little trickery. As Hoffmann’s nemeses, Michael Volle phrased intelligently and displayed a secure bass-baritone, though his upper register seems to have suffered a bit as a result of his appearances as Wotan and Hans Sachs. Kerstin Avemo (Olympia) fired off daring, totally flawless coloratura, while both the warm, lyrical Antonia of Mandy Fredrich and the agile mezzo of Rachel Frenkel as the Muse, Nicklausse, and the Voice of Antonia’s Mother were completely convincing. The directorial concept had the three ladies sharing the role of Giulietta, who was supposed to exist only in Hoffmann’s imagination, and they fit themselves unreservedly into the director’s interpretation. There are kudos for the “actor and buffo at once” Christophe Mortagne, who sang the three servants – or Offenbach acting as the three servants, in yet another part of the staging concept. This was also the production that had Stella portrayed by the stuntman Pär Karlsson, who made his entrance by taking a spectacular head-over-heels tumble down a huge grand staircase. On the podium of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Johannes Debus led a cultivated reading of Offenbach’s score that was springy, flexible, light, and full of esprit. The version of the opera used here was actually created by Debus, director Stefan Herheim, and dramaturge Olaf Schmidt, based on the new edition by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck, but “transplanting” some material from the last act into earlier ones, and including the sextet and aria “Scintille Diamant” in the Venice Act.
    Production: Herheim’s staging, with sets by Christof Hetzer and costumes by Esther Bialas, elicits raves from this magazine’s reviewer as well as the critic at Das Opernglas. What the Norwegian Regisseur presented here was “total theater” that was equal parts Revue, cabaret, operetta, sitcom, and Grand Opéra; Moulin Rouge, Bouffes Parisiens, and Palais Garnier in one. Hetzer’s sets, dominated by the aforementioned staircase that reached into the flies and (thanks to the revolving stage) could open up to reveal individual scenes, wouldn’t have been out of place at the Folies Bergère or in Las Vegas. Early in the performance, a weedy man with lightened hair, side whiskers, and a pince-nez came walking down the stairs, cello in his right hand – unmistakably Jacques Offenbach. In addition to taking on the servants’ roles, he was also seen with a pen or baton in hand, listening to his music with visible pleasure, and at one point was spotted piloting a gondola. In addition to conjuring the composer’s Doppelgänger, Herheim’s interpretation played with gender and sexual orientation. There was the male Stella in his underwear, and the (female) Muse who turned into the (male) Nicklausse and showed off his – um – male accoutrements, either a bisexual or, as the reviewer phrases it, “transvestite par excellence.” A man in the second row of the orchestra section seating protested loudly against the “gay sh-t,” only to be revealed as Michael Volle in the role of one of Hoffmann’s adversaries. The reviewer rhetorically asks whether this “puzzle game” was actually an evening-long probing look by the artist within himself, including the discovery of the androgynous, the “sexual subconscious” there. The answer is that Hoffmann, the man and poet, was searching for the feminine in himself. Over the course of the performance, almost all of the figures changed gender and garments. In the Antonia Act, Dr. Miracle surfaced from a frequently-used hole in the floor decked out in a floor-length, strapless, sequined gown. Hoffmann sported a garter girdle and block stockings in the Giulietta Act, and in the first act, was seldom so aware of the meaning of Olympia’s coloratura pyrotechnics as he was here. There were clear coital connotations (not lacking in comedy), and Olympia herself was modeled on Gustave Courbet’s once-scandalous painting “Origin of the World” (a very realistic depiction of – um – female accoutrements that wasn’t even exhibited until 1988), with scars from where she had been patched together. (That actually sounds more like Frankenstein’s monster than Courbet’s painting.)

    - Handel: Alcina – Aix-en-Provence Festival
    Conductor: Andrea Marcon
    Director: Katie Mitchell
    Cast: Patricia Petibon, Philippe Jaroussky, Anna Prohaska, Anthony Gregory, Katarina Bradic, Krzysztof Baczyk, Lionel Wunsch
    Reviewer’s evaluation
    Musical performance: Patricia Petibon’s portrayal of Alcina showed a woman who was increasingly less of a match for her own feelings, and she ventured to include despairing groans and fervent laments in her rendition of “Ombre pallide,” while a slight hesitation before “sola” in “Ah mio cor” tore open an abyss. As a Morgana addicted to sado-masochistic sex, Anna Prohaska neared a suggestion of orgasm in her da capo ornamentations, with bubbling, “spring-fresh” cadences. Philippe Jaroussky (Ruggiero) initially produced hard tones in the upper register, but was able to deliver a tenderly youthful, supple account of “Mi lusinga il dolce affetto” in the second act. The fine ensemble was rounded out by Katarina Bradic (Bradamante), Anthony Gregory (Oronte), Krzysztof Baczyk (Melisso), and Lionel Wunsch (Oberto), while conductor Andrea Marcon drew playing full of “fire and color” from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.
    Production: This was Katie Mitchell’s staging that explored the impact of aging on women, from the realization that one is no longer sexually attractive, to a tragic, insatiable longing for a lost youth. Chloe Lambert’s sets showed a two-level structure in cross-section, with the ground floor divided into a large central room that was lavishly furnished, and two smaller, semi-dark rooms flanking it. The top floor contained what appeared to be a laboratory, with a huge, odd-looking piece of machinery. The two little darkened rooms were occupied by the elderly sisters Alcina and Morgana, who were magically changed into their 50 years’ younger selves when they entered the central space. The contraption upstairs was used to transform their discarded lovers into taxidermy animals, who were then consigned to glass display cases. That upper floor was also where Ruggiero caught on to Alcina, took one look at her wrinkled face, and dumped her. In contrast, Orante loved the elderly Morgana as much as the younger one, though it took him a while to come around. Near the end, Bradamante, Ruggiero, and Melisso hatched a rescue plan in which they managed to free the animals from their enchantment, then locked the sorceresses in the glass cases and scattered explosives throughout the house. Mitchell’s approach was skillfully balanced between realism and sci-fi, psycho-thriller and magical tale, with pain always lurking close to the entertainment. The house founded on eternal youth had a nasty, lingering odor of the past.

    - Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail – Aix-en-Provence Festival
    Conductor: Jérémie Rhorer
    Director: Martin Kušej
    Cast: Daniel Behle, Jane Archibald, David Portillo, Rachele Gilmore, Franz Josef Selig, Tobias Moretti
    Reviewer’s evaluation
    Musical performance: For much of the evening, conductor Jérémie Rhorer and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra seemed unable to properly “get it in gear” (my terminology), and there were some lapses in communication with the singers. Daniel Behle was a highly musical Belmonte, but his tenor threatened to fizzle out in the large open court of the Archbishop’s Palace, and Franz Josef Selig, who sang Osmin with a wonderfully rich bass, really had to work to keep pace with Rhorer’s tempos. David Portillo (Pedrillo), Rachele Gilmore (Blonde), and Jane Archibald (Konstanze) all filled their roles reliably.
    Production: This reviewer wasn’t tremendously impressed by Martin Kušej’s staging, either. The Regisseur wanted to seize the conflict in the Middle East “by the roots” and settled events in some unspecified Arab country during the First World War. But with all the sand, the tent, and the masked fighters, he could have just as well placed the action in the present day. This was also the production that scrapped the traditional spoken dialogue and replaced it with contemporary text in a mixture of German and English – which at least came in handy for the three North Americans in the cast – that had references to troop movements, unbelievers, and oil. The power-conscious Pasha Selim flung around bits of shallow wisdom, and knew, for example, that the soul weighs 21 grams (a reference to Alejandro González Iñárritus’ film). In this spoken role, actor Tobias Moretti portrayed Selim as a disloyal manipulator between two worlds, a renegade and shady businessman who surrounded himself with a Jihadist squad, but also liked to wear a suit and artist’s scarf, giving him a decidedly Western appearance. At one point, Belmonte was so preoccupied with amorous pining for Konstanze that he didn’t even think of extricating Pedrillo, who had been buried in sand up to his head. Osmin was a fundamentalist without principles, who at the end of the opera, murdered the captives out of a combination of a thirst for revenge and personal affront. (So much for the opera’s happy ending.) Actually, Kušej had plans to present a scene during the final chorus that showed the decapitated heads of the prisoners on display, but festival Intendant Bernard Foucrouille put his foot down. In consideration of the recent beheading of a civilian in Lyon, Foucrouille found the idea “insupportable,” and Kušej had to be content with having Osmin simply carrying blood-smeared fragments of clothing around. However, the alteration (which, of course, got Kušej’s knickers in a knot) changed nothing about the statement, only its effect. What one recalled afterward was just mild boredom; otherwise, it would have been just a plain attempt to shock. The problem with this staging lay elsewhere, anyway. In fact, playing on the present-day conflict brought the content oppressively near, but by wrapping the plot within the context of earth-shaking cultural clashes, the personal conflicts between the characters appeared small, even downright banal.

    - Ana Sokoloviċ: Svadba/Wedding – Aix-en-Provence Festival
    Conductor: Dáirine Ní Mheadhra
    Directors: Ted Huffman and Zack Winokur
    Cast: Florie Valiquette, Danica Liesbeth, Jennifer Davis, Pauline Sikirdji, Andrea Ludwig, Mireille Lebel
    Background: Sokoloviċ’s a cappella opera for six women’s voices takes place on the evening before a wedding, as the bride (Milica) hangs out with her girlfriends. The group spends the night up laughing about the boys, arguing, dancing, taking a swim, and engaging in the occasional pagan ritual (?!). Sokoloviċ’s writing is extremely demanding, not only because it is performed unaccompanied, but also because of its mixture of operatic and Balkan folk singing styles, and extensive use of chest voice, nasal tones, and whispering.
    Reviewer’s evaluation: Sokoloviċ’s 55-minute opera had its world premiere four years ago in Toronto, and was making its first European appearance here. Directors Ted Huffman and Zack Winokur left the stage in the tiny Théâtre du Jeu de Paume nearly bare, with conductor Dáirine Ní Mheadhra at the front. The six young soloists from the Aix Académie mastered the complete work with the support of only an occasional discreet instrumental effect. Sometimes, the music was dominated by circling “tonal fields” with second-long friction; at other times, it suggested a madrigal. In between these passages, Sokoloviċ “reveled” in the consonant-rich Serbo-Croation text to the point of total loss of meaning, a percussive play with the sonorities of speech.
    Seated beside the reviewer and her companions were Layla Claire and John Chest, who wanted to hear this work again even though they would be appearing soon afterward as Demetrius and Helena in Robert Carsen’s “rather toothless” but still charming production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (This also explains why tenor Christopher Gillett’s monthly column has been included among the reviews instead of in the Magazine section where it usually appears.) Anna Prohaska was seen again in the double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Stravinsky’s Perséphone in Peter Sellars’ staging that’s burdened by an urge for profundity. In one of the narrow streets of the old town, the reviewer and company heard musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra chatting about their experience working with the young instrumentalists from the Orchestre des Jeunes de la Méditerranée, with whom they performed under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle in Jonathan Dove’s The Monster in the Maze.

    “Mal ehrlich . . . Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts” (Honestly now . . . From the life of a good-for-nothing)

    Christopher Gillett quotes the popular saying that a criminal always returns to the scene of his or her crime. While it’s always been a mystery to him how someone could be so stupid, the statement is nonetheless true. And it applies to him, too, though he admits his criminal instinct must be just a bit lame, as it’s taken him 24 years before he returned to Aix again. When Robert Carsen’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first seen at the Festival in 1991, the director was by no means famous. In fact, the whole business was a stopgap measure, an emergency solution after a co-production came a cropper. Carsen’s production was cobbled together in a short amount of time under the greatest pressure, and with hardly any budget. Rehearsals took place in a hot, dusty gymnasium on the outskirts of the city, and much too late on the stage where the opera would actually be performed. Everyone involved was certain it would be a flop. The rest, as another saying goes, is history.
    The tenor was up to his usual mischief in a total of 15 revivals of the production. And always as the bellows-mender Flute, who had to dress up as a girl for the “mechanicals’” play, Pyramus and Thisbe. Flute was a little guy, usually shy, but full of fire. Gillett says he portrayed the clumsy teenager around 140 times in a variety of stagings, most recently at La Scala when he was 51 years old. And now Robert Carsen came to him and suggested it was time for him to grow up. A Flute with varicose veins, pains in the small of the back, and who groaned every time he sat down wasn’t likely to be entirely credible as a young whippersnapper. So Gillett was back in Aix once more, but this time as Stout the tinker, a witty, “enormously satisfying” character whose performance as the wall separating the lovers in Pyramus and Thisbe always goes over “super” with the audience. Gillett says he can’t complain; what tenor doesn’t dream of being able to just stand around while singing? But now he misses Flute. After all, he’s invested so much in the figure, especially all the gags he’s snuck in over the years. And above all, it feels strange to see someone else . . . as himself. Honestly now, he admits, Flute is really a symbol of his career, a guy who would have liked to be the cool, macho in the leading role, but who has to be the joke instead. In women’s clothing. Yes, and now he would very gladly be the joke, even in women’s clothing, again.

    - Nono: Prometeo – Darmstadt State Theater
    Conductor: Johannes Harneit
    Second conductor and Director of Studies: Joachim Enders
    Third conductor and Chorus Master: Thomas Eitler-de Lint
    Acoustical concept and live electronic realization: Southwest Broadcasting Experimental Studio (Reinhold Braig, Michael Acker, Joachim Haas)
    Production: Karsten Wiegand and Roman Schmitz
    Cast: Aki Hashimoto, Christina Daletska, Tara Venditti, Annette Schönmüller, Minseok Kim, Yana Robin la Baume, Samuel Koch
    Background: Nono described this work, written in the early-mid 1960s, as a “tragedia dell’ ascolto” – a tragedy for listening – rather than as an opera. The libretto by Massimo Cucciari draws on a variety of texts dealing with the Prometheus myth, but doesn’t form a literal narrative. Nono’s music resembles a series of cantatas, and was composed for five soloists (two sopranos, two contraltos, and a tenor), chorus, string and wind soloists, orchestra, and assorted electronic equipment.
    Reviewer’s evaluation: This wasn’t a festival performance, but the final production of the Darmstadt State Theater’s 2014-15 season. However, in keeping with Nono’s spatial concept, which strictly rejected any traditional theater configuration with a proscenium stage, the four performances of the work took place in a sports hall on the outskirts of the city. This composer’s work has always been close to Intendant Karsten Wiegand’s heart, and a small exhibit in the theater foyer that was set up in conjunction with the staging of Prometeo reminded visitors of Nono’s leading role in the “heroic” years of the avant-garde and the Darmstadt Summer Course, established here in the 1950s by Nono and other like-minded individuals to “completely invent music anew.” Among the Italian composer’s later, most significant works, Prometeo has no approved canon of rules, no consolidated musical language, but moves untethered in the open, in what the reviewer describes as a sphere of initially forming and almost immediately dissolving tonal landscapes – “music without grammar.” It’s almost devoid of recognizable elements such as melody, meter, harmony, and rhythm, and when they do surface in this new, flexible, fluid sonority, they seem almost alien or even disturbing. However, the score has a “burning intensity” of a “compressed, heightened vocal sphere,” especially in the women’s voices, the power of the brass attacks, and the “latent presence” of a musical language that is more magical and obscure than semantic and logical. The musical forms are incorporated in an unavoidable “present absence,” with the language of poet and philosopher as a material basis. Cacciari’s libretto can be understood in a similar context, as an omnipresent background of ideas revolving around the mythical figure of Prometheus as the bringer of fire. The reviewer asserts that one can also understand him as the “bringer of music,” as a powerful, violent creator and reformer of an art which doesn’t yet exist.
    Wiegand himself directed the production, and tied his approach in with the composer’s description of his work as a “tragedy for listening,” best experienced as a contemplative audio narrative. Prior to the beginning of the performance, sleeping masks were distributed to audience members, who were then led “blind” to their seats, located in six-place “islands” evenly spaced around the hall. Certainly, those who went along with this procedure perceived the composition with an entirely different sort of concentration. Nonetheless, this wasn’t something many were willing to endure for the entire 135 minutes, and at some point, people wanted to see what was happening. Having the visuals involved some amount of compromise, namely the inadequacy of a sports facility with its grandstands and signage for the presentation of this work. Athletic associations fit less well with Prometeo than sacral ones. However, many attendees happily complied with the recommendation to change their seats during the course of the performance.
    A significant part of Nono’s “sound dramaturgy” is the use of live electronics, which, unlike with pop music, aren’t there to create a distorted, inflated sound, but to provide the spatial realization of “naturally” appearing sources of sound. Darmstadt was fortunate in having experts on hand in the persons of Reinhold Braig, Michael Acker, and Joachim Haas from Southwest Broadcasting’s Experimental Studio, who have been involved with many other productions of Prometeo. Everything else was in the capable hands of State Theater employees, and they made an excellent impression. The musicians of the Staatstheater Orchestra (who also had to play such “eccentric” instruments as a euphonium and glass plates) gave a very accurate account of Nono’s score under the guidance of Johannes Harneit, despite being spread all around the audience members, who were seated in the center, and displayed the well-trained competence of avant-garde specialists. Led by Thomas Eitler-de Lint, the Darmstadt Opera Chorus sang with an unparalleled tonal power, differentiation, and secure intonation; at the time of the world premiere (1985), one wouldn’t have thought an opera chorus would ever be capable of such a profound performance. Maestro Harneit likewise did an exceptional job of accentuating and scanning (with Joachim Enders as “sub-conductor”) the continual, magmatic, adagio flow of the music. There was also a highly qualified group of soloists in sopranos Aki Hashimoto and Christina Daletska, contraltos Tara Venditti and Annette Schönmüller, tenor Minseok Kim, and the two characterful narrators Yana Robin la Baume and Samuel Koch.

    - Schreker: Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) – Mannheim National Theater
    Conductor: Dan Ettinger
    Director: Tatjana Gürbaca
    Cast: Michael Baba, Cornelia Ptassek, Sung Ha, Petra Weltroth, Sebastian Pilgrim, Bartosz Urbanowicz, Edna Prochnik, Raymond Ayers, Tamara Benjesevic, Dorottya Láng, Estelle Kruger, Evelyn Krahe, Juhan Tralla, et. al.
    Plot summary: In the libretto, which Schreker also wrote, the composer Fritz and Grete, the daughter of an impoverished retired officer, are in love and plan to marry. However, before they tie the knot, Fritz insists he must first write a great piece of music, and to do that, goes off in search of the mysterious “distant sound” he hears within him. So poor Grete is not only left behind by her fiancé, but is gambled away by her alcoholic father in a game of dice with his landlord, and is now supposed to marry the latter. She feigns happiness at the prospect to placate her mother, but the moment she’s by herself, climbs out of a window and runs off to join Fritz. She’s unable to catch up with him, though, and finally sinks down exhausted by the shore of a lake with thoughts of drowning herself. She falls asleep instead, and when she awakens, once again encounters a strange old woman who had approached her earlier, asking about Fritz and promising to assist Grete should she need it. Once more, the woman promises Grete a splendid future if the girl will follow her. Ten years pass by, and Grete is now living on an island off Venice, where she is a celebrated courtesan. (Turns out the old gal had been a prostitute.) She’s trying to make up her mind which of her suitors she will accept, and to help her decide, asks the two gents to each sing something for her. While she’s thinking things over, who should show up but Fritz, who recognizes her. He still hasn’t found the distant sound, but wants to marry her now, anyway. Grete still loves him, but feels she must be honest with him about her past. She confesses to being a demimondaine and asks him if he still wants her to be his wife. At first, Fritz doesn’t believe her, but he’s soon convinced when the Count (one of the aforementioned suitors) challenges him to a duel. He declines the challenge and leaves, and Grete collapses in the Count’s arms. Five more years elapse, and Grete is back in the vicinity of her hometown. She’s lost the Count’s protection, and been reduced to the level of a streetwalker. Fritz, meanwhile, has finished his opera, Die Harfe (The Harp), and while the first act is received well enough by the audience during the premiere, the music in the second act displeases the attendees so much that a riot ensues. Grete hears about the melée and is worried about Fritz. On her way home, she’s accosted in the street and only saved from molestation by the intervention of Dr. Vigelius, one of her father’s former drinking companions, and some actors who are staying at a nearby hotel. The doctor escorts her to his house, saying he deeply regrets ever permitting her father to use her as a stake in his gambling. Fritz, by now an old man, has also gone home and is sunk in depression. He realizes he has thoroughly mucked up his life and lost the woman he loved. The efforts by his friend Rudolf to cheer him up are of no avail; he only wants to see Grete again. This, of course, is the cue for Dr. Vigelius and Grete to arrive on the scene. Fritz and Grete fall into each other’s arms, and lo! and behold, he hears the distant sound. He begins to revise his opera’s second act, but dies in Grete’s arms before he is able to finish it.
    Reviewer’s evaluation
    Musical performance: The staging concept made Grete the pivotal figure in the plot, and soprano Cornelia Ptassek delineated the transformation of the child-like young woman into the self-confident demimondaine who still retained characteristics from earlier years with a fascinating urgency. With body language and gesture, she easily conveyed the stages of Grete’s regressive displacement, notated with a “clinical precision” by Schreker, and vocally captured them in the alternation between hymn-like uplift, intense outbursts, and melancholy slumps. The erotic hallucinations in the first act, the oppressive dream narration in the second, and the lullaby for the dying Fritz in the third act were high points of Ptassek’s role portrait. Michael Baba, as the long-haired, egotistical careerist Fritz sporting dark horn-rimmed glasses, wasn’t up to his co-star’s level. His tenor was powerful, but with very limited modulation capacity and a constricted top. Mezzo Edna Prochnik made an eerie Old Woman, and there was a striking Landlord from Sebastian Pilgrim. The many small, sharply defined roles were capably filled by members of Mannheim’s ensemble, with the standouts among them Bartosz Urbanowicz as Dr. Vigelius (turned by the director into an oily, mendacious priest), Raymond Ayers (the Count, a comedian, an actor), and Juhan Tralla (the Chevalier, a shady individual). This opera is one of the key works of the Fin de Siécle, and Schreker’s libretto reflects the ideas that were au courant in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century – Hofmannsthal’s symbolism, Klimt’s lascivious paintings, Weininger’s sexual pathology, and the discovery of the subconscious by Freud. But what makes Der ferne Klang so significant isn’t Schreker’s text, but his music. The partitur’s opulent, incredible, richly colorful orchestral palette doesn’t illustrate the plot, but instead “deciphers” the complex psychology of the two protagonists with what the reviewer characterizes as “almost contrapuntal logic.” On the podium of the splendid National Theater Orchestra, Dan Ettinger articulated the “phantasmagorical” score that has touches of the Italian verismo with sensuous emphasis and “lucid transparency.” The musicians followed his lead enthusiastically and created real “tonal magic” in the symphonic interludes as well as the nocturnal forest scene in the first act and the night time scene in the third. The second act was more problematic with its daring “dissolution” of simultaneous tonal “occurrences” in each other. Schreker’s partitur also requires onstage ensembles, including a mandolin orchestra and gypsy band, and in Mannheim they were not clearly situated, so that the acoustical (and visual) “labyrinth” that reflects the chaotic plot (and subliminally Grete’s emotional state) never really developed.
    Production: As mentioned earlier, Tatjana Gürbaca’s staging was primarily focused on the character of Grete. At the beginning, one saw Max Weeger’s huge rectangular stage box that was almost entirely empty save for a small wood cabin at the left, in front of which were a sofa and a chair – and Grete crouching on the floor. She was looking at photos and reading old letters, from which she retrieved tiny presents. From the start, Gürbaca told the story from double narrative levels. The real figures (the witch-like Old Woman, the father’s grotesque drinking companions) were increasingly influenced by a dreamy/nightmarish hyper-reality. The cabin, on which Grete carved the word “fire,” floated up into the flies, and her flight from her conventional family home was accompanied by sand raining down. She was prevented from committing suicide by a group of dancers wearing animal heads and golden robes, who subsequently accompanied her to the bordello where Fritz encountered her again and finally rejected her as a whore. What was supposed to be reality in this precisely choreographed, joyless, sado-masochistic crowd scene remained deliberately open. Grete’s traumatic self-discovery, from young woman to courtesan to the streetwalker Tini, was shown in distressing scenes that began to make one suspect (and which Gürbaca never made a certainty) that the whole business, Fritz included, was the expression of a psychosis. For the disastrous premiere of Fritz’s opera, the Regisseurin changed perspective, using the symbolic “theater within a theater” to show Fritz’s artistic tragedy. The first act of his opera was rehearsed on a constantly revolving stage, while at the same time, projections on the walls of the box showed a retrospective of the protagonists’ young love before finally disappearing in the blooming landscape. The wood cabin reappeared, scorched and half-destroyed, and Grete showed up as a slightly aged woman, but still in her green dress. Fritz, who had found his distant sound within himself, lay bleeding in her lap after slitting his wrist. Gürbaca dispensed with Grete’s shocked outcry specified in Schreker’s notation, and let events end with reconciliation, a sort of Liebestod.

    - Saariaho: L’Amour de loin – Opéra de Québéc Summer Festival
    Conductor: Ernesto Martinez-Izquierdo
    Director: Robert Lepage
    Cast: Phillip Addis, Erin Wall, Tamara Mumford
    Plot summary: Jaufré Rudel, the Prince of Blaye, has tired of a lifetime of pleasure and longs for an idealized love far away. His friends think he’s just dreaming, but a pilgrim who has returned from foreign travels tells him that such a woman does indeed exist. This is Clémence, a resident of Tripoli, who finds out from the pilgrim – now back in the Middle East – that a French Prince-troubador is singing her praises (literally). She’s interested, but still prefers to keep the relationship with Jaufré at a distance. Finally, he decides he must visit his far-off lady-love, but en route, becomes so seriously ill that he’s near death by the time the ship docks in Tripoli. The pilgrim (who certainly does a lot of traveling between France and Tripoli during this opera) informs Clémence that Jaufré has arrived, but is dying and asking to see her. She arranges for the Prince to be brought to the citadel, where he revives a little when he sees her. But his recovery doesn’t last long, and as death draws near, Jaufré and Clémence embrace and confess their love for each other. He dies in her arms, after which she first blames Heaven and then blames herself for the tragedy. Apparently, she gets over her anger with Heaven because she decides to enter a convent. The opera ends with her in prayer, though it’s not clear to whom her prayers are directed – the Almighty or her “love from afar.”
    Reviewer’s evaluation: The new production of L’Amour de loin at the Grand Théâtre not only marked the culimation of Québéc City’s two-week long summer opera festival, but also the first time the native Québécois Robert Lepage and his multidisciplinary production company Ex Machina staged an opera in his hometown. Prior to the start of the performance, the Regisseur came onstage to receive the title Compagnon des Arts et des Lettres, drawing cheers and a standing ovation from the audience. Perhaps inspired by the city’s location on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, Lepage centered his production around the theme of water. Michael Curry’s sets used 28,000 LED lights bundled together in long strands that were stretched across the stage to create an impression of the sea at night, with the silhouettes of the choristers appearing like small islands. When events occurred during daylight, the undulating “waves” reflected a shimmering play of sun and clouds. But nothing here was an end in itself. At every moment, the stage mirrored Saariaho’s rich orchestration that charged the outwardly often placid declamation of the protagonists with meaning. The surface was tinged blood-red as Clémence approached the water and symbolically her passion, while a tsunami-like wave arose when Jaufré entrusted himself to the sea. In contrast, the bridge-like machine on which Clémence and Jaufré hovered over the stage was not quite as compelling. The roles of the two protagonists were superbly cast with Phillip Addis and Erin Wall. She effortlessly fired off sudden high notes that reverberated in the auditorium, while he integrated the complex ornamentations of his part (reminiscent of Guillaume de Machaut) in the musical flow without a trace of mannerism. Tamara Mumford gave a nuanced, “economical” portrayal of the Pilgrim with her wonderfully characterful mezzo and an impressive harmony between the text and her meaningful, calm movement. She made the Pilgrim into a mysteriously present, Janus-faced companion for the protagonists who might have been Love itself – or Death. The reviewer offers no comments about the performances of conductor Ernesto Martinez-Izquierdo or the orchestra.
    This is another case of a review embedded in a larger article, in this instance one that deals with the Festival d’Opéra in particular and opera in Québéc (city and province) in general. The Festival is a product of the Opéra de Québéc, which has been performing regularly since 1985 and usually stages two productions a year, normally from the core repertoire. Grégoire Legendre became the company’s Artistic Director in 2003, and he had some far-reaching goals. The celebration of the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding in 2004 gave him the opportunity to transform goals into reality when municipal leaders called for project ideas related to the celebration, and for the cultural development of the region. Legendre’s first suggestion was to bring Robert Lepage back home to stage an opera; the second was to rework the rock opera Starmania with a text by the Québéc musical author and songwriter Luc Plamandon into an arrangement for classical opera singers and orchestra. (His aim was to interest those only familiar with Plamandon as Céline Dion’s songwriter in music theater.) His third suggestion was to draw top young international singing talent to the province with Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition, for which Legendre himself had served as a juror. The success of all three recommendations with city leaders assured support for the Festival d’Opéra, and the local opera company was able to secure the Met as a co-sponsor for L’Amour de loin. While Saariaho’s opera was being rehearsed at the Grand Théâtre, the spacious courtyard of the white-walled seminary established in 1663 served as the site for an outdoor gala titled “From Bernstein to Plamandon” that featured the Québécois singer Marie-Josée Lord and two of her countrymen, baritone Gino Quillico and tenor Marc Hervieux. The stage presence and expressive power of the longtime audience favorites made it easy to overlook some recurring intonation weaknesses, especially among the gentlemen.
    On the other hand, the city has done much too little with its Baroque heritage, even though it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site 30 years ago thanks to the city wall surrounding the old town – the only such fortification still existing in North America. But it was only this year that the chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy, whose name is a play on that of the Sun King’s court orchestra, appeared at the Festival, performing selections by Lully and Rameau. However, no opera from the French Baroque repertoire has yet to be presented here, and that’s related to problems with performance practices. The musicians use historic bows, but also modern instruments with a concert pitch that’s clearly superior to what was once customary at Versailles.
    Another offering at this summer’s event was the “youth opera” Arthur, written for teenage voices and performed at the Maison Jaune, a social-cultural center outside of the old town. The Québécois composer Nathalie Magnan and stage director Richard Paquet told the Arthurian legend in a very traditional manner, with the singers wearing doublets, carrying swords, and walled in by the fog of Avalon. Magnan’s composition, with its folk music influences and deliberately archaic style, combined pentatonic recitative form with choruses in basic harmonies, and gave the young singers vocal security. It also audibly stoked the teens’ enthusiasm for participating in a “real” opera, which was aided by Paquet’s sensitive, precisely developed staging.

  6. #6
    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Infos (News Briefs)

    - The Italian Ministry of Culture announced that 60 of the country’s orchestras and musical institutions would no longer receive any public subsidies, effective immediately. Among the organizations involved are the Ex Novo Ensemble (Venice), Fondazione Teatro Rossini (Lugo), Opera Barga, and the festivals Le Vie del Barroco (Genoa), Grandezze e Meraviglie (Modena), Settimane Musicali al Teatro Olimpico (Vicenza), and Luglio Musicale Trapanese (Trapani). The Italian daily La Stampa said the decision hit the nation’s music world like a bomb.

    - Alexander Soddy has been named General Music Director of the Mannheim National Theater Orchestra.

    - The Augsburg city government has decided not to renew the contract of the Augsburg Theater’s General Director Juliane Votteler when it expires in 2017. The Opposition criticized the decision as “unworthy behavior,” but Votteler has since reconciled herself with the situation and called for a peaceful transition of leadership at the house.

    - Andris Nelsons’ original five-year contract as principal conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been replaced by an eight-year contract extending until the 2021-22 season.

    - London’s Royal Opera House has been coming under increasing pressure to cut ties with one of its corporate sponsors, the oil concern BP (British Petroleum). After a performance of La Boheme was disrupted by protestors, a group of 75 composers, musicians, and musicologists had an open letter criticizing the BP sponsorship published in The Guardian. An online petition has also been established.

    - Jens Neundorff von Enzburg’s contract as Intendant of the Regensburg Theater has been extended until the end of the 2021-22 season.

    - According to statistics released by the German Stage Association for the 2013-14 season, attendance at the country’s theaters and orchestra halls had clearly increased from that of the previous season. Approximately 35.5 million people visited publicly affiliated theaters, orchestras, cultural events, festivals, and private theaters in 2013-14, an increase of 2.3 percent over an attendance level of 34.7 million in the 2012-13 season. In many areas, especially children’s and youth theaters, orchestras, private theaters, and the genres of dance and musicals, the number of performances had increased as well. Income rose, too, over the previous season by 5.8 percent, amounting to around €530 million in 2013-14. During the same period, subsidies for the publicly affiliated theaters and orchestras increased to €2.37 billion from €2.3 billion in 2012-13, and the number of employees – including both permanent and temporary workers – rose slightly, from 39,086 in 2012-13 to 39,235 in 2013-14.

    - The 25 year-old Swiss Lorenzo Viotti is the winner of the 2015 Nestlé and Salzburg Young Conductors Award, which carries an endowment of €15,000. In the 2014-15 season, Viotti led performances of Offenbach’s La belle Hélène at the Théâtre du Châtelet, and made debuts with the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lille, Munich Radio Orchestra, and Orchestra of La Fenice.

    - The Studio Prize of the Götz Friedrich Foundation for the 2014-15 season, with a €2,500 endowment, was awarded to Dorian Dreher for his staging of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Mannheim National Theater.

    - Soprano Kiandra Howarth was the winner of the 2015 Culturarte Prize, presented for the first time in conjunction with the Operalia singing competition, which was hosted (also for the first time) by London’s Royal Opera House. The soprano will be heard there in the 2015-16 season as Echo in Ariadne auf Naxos.

    - The Wexford Festival Opera and International Veronica Dunne Singing Compeition have agreed on a collaboration in which the Wexford Festival Orchestra will provide accompaniment for the competition’s final round in the National Concert Hall, and the winner will have an opportunity to appear during the Festival.

    - Celebrating milestone birthdays in September were soprano Sona Ghazarian, lyric coloratura soprano Brigitte Eisenfeld, and bass-baritone Franz-Josef Kappelmann (70), as well as mezzo Sona Cervená (90). This month, baritone Alan Titus celebrates his 70th birthday, while tenor Vasile Moldoveanu and conductor Leopold Heger will celebrate their 80th.

  7. #7
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    I'm not sure if I regret the decision of the Italian Ministry of Culture, given the resurgence of the Rome opera with a leaner and more efficient structure and double the number of performances, once they worked on the bloated subsidies and union privileges. Opera in Italy seemed to be dying with the old structure and a more modern style of management seems to be needed. So, it looks like a lot of money being thrown at lesser organizations is drying out, but paradoxically this might have a positive effect on Italy's main organizations.

    Now, I have mixed feelings about the protests against BP sponsorship of the ROH. I understand the concerns about carbon footprint, but either one boycotts entirely those things, or doesn't. I'd like to ask every single one of these people who are protesting, if they fill their cars with gasoline. I'd respect those who bike to work and don't drive cars (because even electric cars have a big carbon footprint given that at least in the US, many of their charging stations use electricity from coal power plants). So, OK, if people do continue to consume BP products, why are they targeting the poor cultural institutions that already have a hard time surviving, and are lucky enough to get some corporate sponsorship? While I don't think that oil companies are saints, at least it's a good thing that some executives at BP seem to value the arts. They have lots of options for advertising and for increasing the visibility of their company, and among those, they picked the Royal Opera House, which for me, is a good thing.

    So Bank of America sponsors Opera Carolina, and Wells Fargo sponsors North Carolina Opera. Sure, banks are known for questionable actions for example during the predatory loan events that among other factors caused the 2007-8 economic crisis. Still, I do have an account with one of them... I do need to have a checking account, a mortgage, etc. - I can't boycott them entirely.

    I'd say that things are not black and white, and while these corporations can be ruthless, at least someone there believes that opera is a good thing to sponsor, and while I'm disgusted at many of their practices, at least I'm grateful for that part and I can see gray instead of black and white. Should I boycott them exactly in what regards to their arts sponsorship? There are better causes out there than targeting the already insufficient funds for the arts.

    Every opera company has a number of corporations that contribute to balancing their budgets. Should we screen every single one of these corporations to see if they engage in any questionable practices in the way they do business? Being capitalism what it is, we'd probably end up vetoing ALL of them and our opera companies would then close down.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  8. #8
    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    DVD/CD Reviews

    - Rossini: Guillaume Tell
    Conductor: Michele Mariotti
    Director: Graham Vick
    Soloists: Nicola Alaima, Marina Rebeka, Juan Diego Flórez, Amanda Forsythe, Veronia Simeoni, Simon Orfila, Luca Tittoto, Alessandro Luciano, Wojtek Gierlach, Celso Albelo
    Decca 0743870 (2 DVDs)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: What distinguishes this recording from the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival is the musical performance, particularly Michele Mariotti’s circumspect conducting that pays more attention to nuances than effects, and the singing of Juan Diego Flórez (Arnold). There is also a fine Tell in Nicola Alaimo, the only one among the cardboard Swiss confederates who is actually a credible man of flesh and blood, and who brings a warm, voluminous baritone to the role. With Arnold, Flórez moved from the lyric to the heroic bel canto Fach, and while he’s not much of an actor, he delivers the vocal goods with the hoped-for brilliance. There are fine contributions from Veronica Simeoni (Hedwige) and Amanda Forsythe (Jemmy), but Marina Rebeka is a vocally cool Mathilde with a masklike, stiff facial expression. Graham Vick’s staging only makes a real impact in the second scene of the third act (Gesler’s celebration in Altdorf), where the director creates a brilliantly satirical picture of rule by terror, aided by Ron Howell’s choreography. What happens before and after this on the nearly bare stage is just empty standing and hopping around.

    - Rossini: Guillaume Tell
    Conductor: Antonino Fogliani
    Director: Jochen Schönleben
    Soloists: Andrew Foster-Williams, Judith Howarth, Michael Spyres, Alessandra Volpi, Tara Stafford, Giulio Pelligra, Artavazd Sargsyan, Nahuel Di Pierro, Raffaele Facciolà, Marco Filippo Romano
    Bongiovanni AB20029 (2 DVDs)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: This production comes from the other Rossini Festival in Bad Wildbad, and an audio recording of the performance on the Naxos label has already been available for several months. Like at Pesaro, the new critical edition of the score issued by the Fondazione Rossini was used, so that this is probably one of the most complete performances of Guillaume Tell available. But whether or not it really needed to be released in video format is questionable. While Jochen Schönleben is an outstanding Festival director, he’s not a particularly gifted Regisseur. There is some cheeky updating here, but his guidance of singers and choristers evinces a great deal of helplessness. It’s up to the soloists to fix things. In comparison to Nicola Alaimo at Pesaro, Andrew Foster-Williams is a “small gauge” Tell, while Michael Spyres (Arnold) and Judith Howarth (Mathilde) are a visually comical pair of lovers with a penchant for singing at full power right past each other. The Virtuosi Brunensis orchestra is competently led by Antonino Fogliani.

    - Rossini: La gazza ladra
    Conductor: Alberto Zedda
    Soloists: María José Moreno, Marianna Rewerski, Kenneth Tarver, Stefan Cifolelli, Pablo Cameselle, Giulio Mastrototaro, Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade, Bruno Praticò, Lorenzo Regazzo, Maurizio Lo Piccolo, Damian Whiteley
    Naxos 8660369-71 (3 CDs)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: The Virtuosi Brunensis are heard on this production from Bad Wildbad as well, this time with Rossini expert Alberto Zedda on the podium. The musicians from Brno are capable, but not virtuosic, and even Zedda can’t manage to get them to really take off. That Naxos is now releasing a recording made back in 2009 probably has something to do with the fact that it completes the label’s “Rossini in Wildbad” series (at least for the time being). It’s certainly not because of any particular musical merits. Maria-José Moreno (Ninetta) and Kenneth Tarver (Giannetto) need time to warm up, while the contributions of the experienced Rossinians Giulio Mastrototaro, Bruno Praticò, and Lorenzo Regazzo are simply routine.

    - Rossini: La gazza ladra
    Conductor: Henrik Nánási
    Soloists: Sophie Bevan, Francisco Brito, Jonathan Lemalu, Federico Sacchi, Katarina Leoson, Kihwan Sim, Nicky Spence, Alexandra Kadurina, Michael McCown, Iurii Samoilov, Thomas Charrois, Carlos Krause
    Oehms Classics OC961 (3 CDs)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: This is another in Oehms’ series of recordings from the Frankfurt Opera, and is distinguished primarily by the Ninetta of Sophie Bevan, who fills her portrayal with new, very individual vocal colors. Otherwise, this is not a significant addition to the Rossini discography, and in this case, a DVD recording would have been better. David Alden’s interesting production would have offered a genuine alternative to those by Michael Hampe from Cologne (Arthaus) and Damiano Michieletto from Pesaro (Dynamic).

    - Rossini: Aureliano in Palmira
    Conductor: Will Crutchfield
    Director: Mario Martone
    Soloists: Michael Spyres, Jessica Pratt, Lena Belkina, Raffaella Lupinacci, Dempsey Rivera, Sergio Vitale, Dimitri Pkhaladze, Raffaele Costantini
    ArtHaus Musik 109073 (2 DVDs)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: This opera was a flop at its world premiere at La Scala in 1813, and is of interest today primarily for the countless numbers Rossini subsequently recycled in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Whether or not that justifies mounting a staged production of the work is open to question; the festival in Martina Franca did so three years ago (and a DVD recording is available on the Bongiovanni label), and last year, Pesaro took up the challenge – with this new release on ArtHaus documenting the result. The film director Mario Martone never seems to find a staging concept that can sustain interest over the course of three-and-a-half hours, and everything remains within a framework of conventional arrangements in spite of video director Tiziano Mancini’s efforts to inject some life into the proceedings. The silent roles that Martone added to the drama draw more attention than the protagonists, especially the harpsichordist Lucy Tucker Yates. Positioned almost in the center of the stage, she not only accompanies the soloists sensitively, but suffers along with them as an actress. The singing here is not so exceptional that it justifies the opera’s revival. Michael Spyres masters the title role, with a range extending from the baritone realm all the way to the highest reaches of the tenor voice, respectably but not brilliantly. Jessica Pratt’s Zenobia is a cool “singing machine,” and Lena Belkina’s Cherubino-sized mezzo is too small for the dramatic breeches role of Arsace. Will Crutchfield, who prepared the critical edition of the work, leads the Orchestra sinfonica G. Rossini and the chorus of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale with verve.

    - Schubert: Fierrabras
    Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher
    Director: Peter Stein
    Soloists: Michael Schade, Julia Kleiter, Benjamin Bernheim, Dorothea Röschmann, Markus Werba, Georg Zeppenfeld, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Manuel Walser
    C Major 730708 (2 DVDs)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: This video of Peter Stein’s production of Fierrabras from the 2014 Salzburg Festival gets an emphatic thumbs-down from the reviewer. The major problem is Stein’s staging, which is far too traditional for the critic’s liking with its views of castle courtyards and rocky coasts, the ladies of the harem, and Christians garbed in white while the Muslims are costumed in dark shades. At the end, a red heart is prominently displayed above the reconciled antagonists. (That really does sound kitschy.) Actually, the trouble isn’t just the conventional approach, but the superficial treatment of the material. Schubert was apparently able to read between the lines of the confusing libretto, and saw in the love blossoming between young Moors and Franks in spite of political opposition a symbol of his own conflicted existence. That’s evident already in the overture with the clearly diverging, restlessly seeking air of the music. In their legendary 1988 Vienna State Opera production, conductor Claudio Abbado and director Ruth Berghaus had logically revealed the work’s emotional foundations based on the spirit of the partitur and conditions of the time. Both the Frankfurt and Zürich Operas staged Fierrabras in autumn, 2002, the former with Paolo Carignani conducting and Tilman Knabe directing, the latter with Franz Welser-Möst on the podium for Claus Guth’s production. Each offered much more than Stein’s “higher art of concert performance” with the literal fidelity that reduces the work to a “Sunday fairy tale.” (No idea who the reviewer is quoting here.) Ingo Metzmacher, who had replaced Nikolaus Harnoncourt at short notice in Salzburg, was unable to clear up the misconception, though he’s known for outstanding interpretations of Schubert’s works and had conducted this opera in Brussels in 1989. The Vienna Philharmonic’s playing offers neither dramatic furor nor a lyrical, Lied-like quality, but has everything smoothed out as though viewed in soft focus. Only Dorothea Röschmann’s account of Florinda’s bravura aria lets one suspect what emotional power is concealed beneath the conventional sets and costumes of Ferdinand Wögenbauer and Annamaria Heinrich, respectively.

    - Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
    Conductor: Dan Ettinger
    Director: Achim Freyer
    Soloists: Thomas Jesatko, Thomas Berau, Jürgen Müller, Karsten Mewes, Uwe Eikötter, Andreas Hörl, Sung Ha, Edna Prochnik, Simone Schröder, Katharina Göres, Endrik Wottrich, Manfred Hemm, Heike Wessels, Judith Németh, Cornelia Ptassek, Christoph Stephinger, et. al.
    ArtHaus Musik 8 07280 75539 8 (7 DVDs)

    - “Vom Werden des Mannheimer ‘Rings’” (About the Making of the Mannheim “Ring”)
    A film encounter with Ruij Bergmann
    ArtHaus Musik 8 07280 91129 9 (2 DVDs)

    Reviewer’s evaluation: For a review of the actual performances in Mannheim, the reader is referred to earlier issues of this magazine. I’ve gone back to summaries of the 2013 issues to see what I could find, and included it here.
    January, 2013 (Siegfried): Perhaps this performance should have been subtitled, “Send in the Clowns.” There was much in Achim Freyer’s staging that was reminiscent of marionette theater or the old Punch and Judy shows. Siegfried, a sort of zombie hybrid of gods and dwarfs, appeared in clown costume and facial make-up, a grotesque Harlequin with a funnel for a hat. (Not dissimilar from what was seen in Freyer’s Los Angeles Ring.) In the first act, he was tied down in an institution-style bed, apparently Mime’s attempt to restrain him and his uncontrolled adolescent behavior. In this unsuccessful attempt at socialization, Siegfried and Mime were both victims and perpetrators.
    Jürgen Müller’s Siegfried was full of natural curiosity and boundless exuberance, a portrayal that fit with Freyer’s view of him as a childish nature-boy rather than a powerful hero. It was an outstanding performance theatrically, but just missing the last bit of finish vocally. There was also excellent singing from Thomas Jesatko (Wanderer), Uwe Eikötter (Mime), and Jürgen Linn (Alberich). Judith Németh’s hard-edged, often sharp Brünnhilde was as disappointing here as she had been in Die Walküre. On the other hand, the orchestra, which had been rather weak in the cycle’s first two operas, came into their own with the third one. Under Dan Ettinger, they played with astonishing precision and keen dramatic impulse.

    May, 2013 (Götterdämmerung): With this production, Regisseur Achim Freyer brought his Mannheim Ring cycle to a conclusion. As is customary with Freyer, he not only directed the production, but took care of sets, costumes, and lighting, as well. The reviewer characterizes his Götterdämmerung as a “wild theatrical time trip” by Siegfried and Brünnhilde, in which past and future, ancient myths and present reality visually collided. Its chief scenic element was a continually revolving stage that only came to a standstill when all of the characters were dead. The world of the Gibichungs became the world of today’s amusement-driven society, with elements from the circus, gambling casinos, ballrooms, and daily life in a large urban center all intertwined. Freyer even topped the whole scene with views of advertising spots for Germany’s largest electronics discounter. The male chorus and supernumeraries were dressed in black, sack-like garments and rigid facial masks; when Siegfried impersonated Günther, he ditched his own clown costume for the faceless Gibichung mask with only slits for the eyes and mouth. The Gibichung siblungs were gray, faceless dolls on stilts who were manipulated by circus director Hagen.
    Most of the action took place on five small platforms positioned near the stage apron and facing the audience. As is typical with Freyer, the singers acted with ritualistic gestures that were effective in their brutal, exaggerated clarity. That Freyer’s approach is not to everyone’s liking is made equally clear by the fact that this reviewer seems compelled to devote several paragraphs to defending him from his critics (among whom is Martin Geck, author of a new Wagner biography). The critic contends that Freyer’s concept relies on Wagner’s music to tell the story, and through the use of archetypes, demonstrates that human nature has not essentially changed from the time of the myths’ origins to the present.
    The musical performance was generally at a respectable level. Jürgen Müller had the necessary reserves of power for the role of Siegfried, and captured the character’s clumsy, ungainly behavior. However, his singing lacked ease in many spots, and the dying Siegfried’s hymn-like invocation of Brünnhilde was missing the requisite glowing color. Eva Johansson, who replaced the ailing Judith Németh as Brünnhilde already at the final rehearsal, masterfully sustained the great arch of this role from beginning to end. Her portrayal could have been more nuanced, though, her declamation clearer, and her singing in lyrical passages less shrill. Christoph Stephinger sang Hagen with a flexible, mellifluous bass that still had the necessary volume for the summoning of the vassals; however, his top register was extremely thin. Several roles were filled by members of Mannheim’s house ensemble, including Thomas Berau as a bel canto-esque Günther, Cornelia Ptassek’s dramatically present Gutrune, Eda Prochnik’s convincing Waltraute, and Katharina Göres as a sonorous Woglinde. On the podium, Dan Ettinger created fluid tempos, made the remembrance motif, with its richness of allusions, blossom, and was particularly brilliant in the great symphonic parts of the score. But like many conductors, he also had a tendency to equate loudness with drama, and as the reviewer phrases it, not to take into consideration the acoustic pain thresholds in the auditorium.

    Most of this critique deals with the “making of” video by the filmmaker Rudij Bergmann, which takes the viewer behind the scenes to the rehearsals of the cast and orchestra with conductor Dan Ettinger and director Achim Freyer. And, of course, Freyer is interviewed about his staging concept. Bergmann followed the production at Mannheim over the course of more than two years, and whether or not one is a fan of Regietheater, it sounds as though his film gives a very close-up look at the process through which an opera staging comes together. One big caveat: Everyone here speaks German, of course, and I couldn’t tell from ArtHaus’ web site whether or not it’s possible for the viewer to select translated subtitles.

    - Verdi: La Traviata
    Conductor: Sir Mark Elder
    Director: Tom Cairns
    Soloists: Venera Gimadieva, Michael Fabiano, Tassis Christoyannis, Emanuele D’Aguanno, Magdalena Molendowska, Hanna Hipp, Eddie Wade, et. al.
    Opus Arte Glyndebourne OABD7169D (1 Blu-ray disc)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: Verena Gimadieva’s Violetta is the best thing this production from Glyndebourne has going for it. Her soprano has presence and radiance, sounds elastic and supple, determined and vulnerable. She is entrancing in the gentle passages, where it seems one can glimpse the depths of the heroine’s soul – and one might have been able to look still deeper had the staging permitted it. Michael Fabiano portrays Alfredo as a naïve young man in love, but the character is neither vocally nor dramatically either a hothead or a visionary. Tassis Christoyannis’ Giorgio Germont is somewhere “in-between,” neither mild nor authoritative, and one can’t quite imagine this man capable of letting hard-heartedness replace his dignity at any moment. His baritone is also missing depth, warmth, volume, and shading. Sir Mark Elder leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra reliably, if now and then stiffly, and finally inconspicuously. Tom Cairns’ staging is lacking any focus, whether on social criticism, the worlds of money and maintaining appearances, or on the figures’ private tragedies. In Hildegard Bechtler’s sets, where events have been updated to the present, everything is stuck in the pleasing and agreeable, atmospherically illuminated.

    - Étienna-Nicolas Méhul: Adrien
    Conductor: György Vashegyi
    Soloists: Philippe Do, Philippe Talbot, Jennifer Borghi, Gabrielle Philiponet, Marc Barrard, Nicolas Courjal, Jean Teitgen, Katalin Szutrély
    Palazzetto Bru Zane (2 CDs)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: This is one of the most rewarding rediscoveries of an opera, thanks in large measure to the Orfeo Orchestra of Budapest and its concertmaster, the violinist and conductor Simon Standage, who has worked in the same capacity for Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood, and Richard Hickox. In conductor György Vashegyi’s reading, the effects, completely unknown for the end of the 18th century, that are contained in Méhul’s orchestration are able to make their full impact. Not only the overture repeatedly surprises with its unexpected changes; so, too, do the whipped-up battle scene at the end of the first act and a pantomime in the second, where the ancient warriors are climbing around “like Tarzan” on the rocks. Hardly less impressive is the way Méhul is able to span long dramatic arcs over an entire act, holding to Gluck’s style of concise arias and yet looking far ahead into the 19th century. Again and again, a dissonant attaca takes one’s breath away, and in comparison to the furious musical and dramatic momentum of Adrien, even Beethoven’s Fidelio, written nearly 15 years later and clearly owing much to Parisian models, pales. (You’re on thin ice, Mister!) Part of the appeal in Méhul’s “extraordinarily compelling” score is the manner in which the composer lets his setting of the text hover between recitative-like dialogue, brief, sparkling ariosos, and a rapid succession of arias and ensembles. Fortunately, Vashegyi allows his singers plenty of time for the sometimes measured, other times faster, and always easy to understand recitation of the dialogue. Only in this way does it become apparent how Méhul systematically eroded the boundaries between recitative and aria. Admittedly, the plot, which is based (like those of a number of other operas) on Metastasio’s Adriano in Siria, is a confusing, complicated tangle of assorted intrigues, but the soloists do a respectable job in the competition between heroic, occasionally desperate, emotions in the face of the clash between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the “Parthians” in Antioch – though the narrow timbre of their voices tends to sound a little sharp on top. The one gripe the reviewer has with this recording centers on the design of the accompanying libretto, which doesn’t provide any graphic clues to the subtle changes between longer and shorter, recitative and arioso verses.

    - Dvořák: Alfred
    Conductor: Heiko Mathias Förster
    Soloists: Felix Rumpf, Petra Froese, Ferdinand von Bothmer, Jörg Sabrowski, Tilmann Unger
    ArcoDiva UP 0410 2 612 (2 CDs)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: In 1863, the young violinist Antonin Dvořák was playing in the orchestra at Prague’s Interimstheater in a concert of excerpts from Wagner’s operas, with the Master himself on the podium. That event may have had a lot to do with Dvořák’s early adulation of Wagner that’s clearly reflected in the partitur for his first opera. The score of Alfred is filled with music that conspicuously resembles portions of Wagner’s operas – and that usually occurs in the most inappropriate situations. The captive Britons are led in accompanied by what sounds like the entry of the guests at the Wartburg in Tannhäuser, and then led off again to the “hobbling” Beckmesser motif from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Prince (or King, as this reviewer refers to him) Harald has a speech with the “God’s Judgment” motif from Lohengrin, which also crops up in many other places. Harald’s “aria” ends with the finale from Tannhäuser, but this character, in spite of being the villain, is a jugendlich-dramatische Heldentenor and the Doppelgänger of Lohengrin. In Alvina, Alfred’s heroic fiancé to whom Harald has taken a fancy, one hears Elsa; the symphonic overture has Meistersinger dimensions, and after a wonderful, independent start, has echoes of Tannhäuser’s praise of Venus in the middle section along with elements of Tristan und Isolde. The reviewer asks whether historical interest in this “extreme example” of the mid-19th century reaction to Wagner’s music makes the revival of Alfred worthwhile. In his opinion, only to a certain extent. The theme of the struggle for national liberation may have resonated with Dvořák, Britons and Danes becoming metaphors for Czechs (or Bohemians, as they were then) and Austrians. But what the reviewer characterizes as the “trivial sex-and-crime dramaturgy” and grandiloquent text make this opera almost unpalatable for modern audiences. And Dvořák’s score simply follows the musical and dramatic clichés of the period. Only the slow introduction in the overture and the prayer scene in the third act are genuinely moving. The most convincing interpretations in this concert performance come from the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, who play beautifully under the baton of Heiko Mathias Förster, and the noble-sounding baritone Felix Rumpf in the title role. Though Ferdinand von Bothmer has grown from Rossini into the Heldentenor repertoire, the part of Harald lies too high for him. Gothron’s tessitura is even more uncomfortable for Jörg Sabrowski, and Petra Froese struggles with insecure intonation in the jugendlich-dramatische role of Alvina. Peter Mikulás (Sieward) sounds like he’s sight-reading. The singing of the Czech Philharmonic Chorus of Brno is thick and hard to understand, and the incorrect accentuation of words that crops up throughout the recording is disturbing. At least there’s some entertainment value in Alfred’s leitmotif, which up until the final notes is identical to The Internationale.

    - Ming Tsao: Die Geisterinsel (The Ghost Island)
    Conductor: Stefan Schreiber
    Soloists: Tajana Raj, Claudio Otelli, Daniel Kluge, Cecilia Vallbinder, Hans Kremer, Stefan Merki, Seth Josel
    Kairos KAI0013372 (1 CD)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: Commissioned by the Stuttgart State Opera, this 50-minute chamber opera by the Sino-American composer Ming Tsao is described as a “tonal commentary” on Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg’s 18th century work of the same title based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, resurrected five years ago by Frieder Bernius. The 13 episodes in Tsao’s opera create a sort of echo chamber in which Shakespeare’s play, his Sonnet 94, William Strachey’s 1610 report of a shipwreck in the Caribbean, and Zumsteeg’s Geisterinsel all reverberate. At the same time, his palimpsest develops a practically physical presence. The kaleidoscopically fractured rhythmic and metrical structures, the strange, fragmentary plays on Zumsteeg’s classical style all disappear in what the reviewer describes as the “foaming swell” of the vivid, often noise-like sounds of Tsao’s music that “go straight into (one’s) body.” Nature itself seems to speak from the wildly growing layers of tone and text – from the Miranda (mezzo Tajana Taj), Prospero (bass Claudio Otelli), and Fernando (tenor Daniel Kluge), and through the two “tongues” of Caliban (Hans Kremer, Stefan Merki) and the ghostly voices of the Orpheus Vocal Ensemble. Leading the musicians of the Stuttgart State Opera, Stefan Schreiber lets Tsao’s shimmering island blossom in all its intertwining magic. The composer has achieved a “veritable coup” here, and disposes of the persistent prejudice that music written after Strauss lost the feeling for sensuality.

    - Michaela Schuster: “Morgen
    With Markus Schlemmer (piano)
    Lieder by Brahms, Schumann, Reger, and Strauss
    Oehms Classics OC 1833 (1 CD)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: This recording of a concert the mezzo gave at the 2012 Eppaner Liedsommer festival has been selected as this issue’s CD of the Month. Schuster first gained international prominence in 2000 with her Fricka in Stuttgart’s Ring cycle, impressing listeners with her rich, unusual timbre, effortless range, and natural expressive power. Her voice seemed predestined for the dramatic mezzo repertoire, and she was soon in demand as Kundry, Ortrud, Klytämnestra, Eboli, and even the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten – some of the heaviest music composed for mezzos. But a regular diet of such heavy fare eventually seemed to put her voice in danger. This recording allays such worries, and shows how she uses art songs as an “antidote” to the dramatic opera roles. The program on offer here, in which she is sensitively partnered by pianist Markus Schlemmer, is well thought-out. There are some folksong-influenced selections by Brahms, Schumann, and Reger, and she sings them without any artificiality. She is a “naïve” interpreter in the best sense of the word who tells her stories in song, direct and clear in her artistic statement, cultivated in the manner of expression. With Brahms’ “Drunten im Tale” or his complex “Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen,” she’s in her element, and she delivers Schumann’s “Widmung” and “Schneeglöckchen” without any sort of mental “contortions.” With darker pieces such as Schumann’s “Der schwere Abend” or Reger’s “Totensprache,” her voice seems to develop appropriate colors on its own and produces entrancing tones. In these songs and in the Strauss Lieder (“Georgine,” “Ruhe, meine Seele,” and “Morgen”), one hears Schuster’s superb technical foundation, so that a very tricky piece like “Befreit” causes no problems for her.

    - Olga Peretyatko: Rossini Opera Arias
    Conductor/orchestra: Alberto Zedda, Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna
    Sony Classical 88875057412 (1 CD)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: Rossini’s operas have played a significant role in the soprano’s career, and though she long ago broadened her repertoire, one can hear on this album devoted to the composer’s music how congenial his writing is for her. The selection of arias from six of his operas provide wonderful evidence of Rossini’s stylistic diversity as well as Peretyatko’s interpretive versatility. The scene of the Comtesse de Folleville from Il viaggio a Reims is a chamber piece of gentle, almost absurd comedy for which the soprano finds exactly the right approach, as she does for Corinna’s pseudo-improvisations with harp accompaniment from the same opera. There is an account of Amenaide’s dungeon aria from Tancredi filled with dark, pain-filled tone, while Peretyatko’s voice glows sensuously in Semiramide’s “Bel raggio lusinghier.” Her rendition of “Una voce poco fa” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia displays some new variations in ornamentation, but amazes most for the remarkable tenderness in her phrasing and articulation in a piece that is all too often delivered in an “athletic” fashion. The disc’s final selection is Fiorilla’s great rondo from the second act of Il Turco in Italia, and she sings it impressively, precisely and sensitively accompanied by conductor Alberto Zedda on the podium of the orchestra and chorus from Bologna’s Teatro Comunale. Peretyatko’s voice is evenly produced across its range, has a remarkable palette of tonal colors she uses for characterization of the figures she portrays, and her precise coloratura is full of esprit. If one listens closely, however, one often hears notes that are sung a little too tightly and lose some of their beauty, and now and then her intonation is endangered, especially when she employs too much power in lifting up to high-lying passages and then has trouble making a precise “landing” back in her midrange.

    - Jonas Kaufmann: “Nessun Dorma
    Conductor/orchestra: Sir Antonio Pappano; Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia
    With Kristine Opolais (soprano)
    Arias by Puccini
    Sony 88875092492 (1 CD)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: After CDs devoted to Wagner and Verdi, the star tenor has now turned his attention to Puccini with this new album. He has sung several of the composer’s roles onstage, including Cavaradossi, Dick Johnson, and Des Grieux, and they are prominently represented here. In the selections from Manon Lescaut, he is joined by Kristine Opolais, his co-star in productions of this opera in London and Munich (and coming up next March in New York). His experience with Des Grieux is easily discernable in this studio recording. There is a fabulous rendition of “Donna non vidi mai,” and in the duet with Manon from the second act (“Ah! Manon mi tradisce”), Kaufmann finds the right mixture of despair and rage. In the finale of the third act, he takes his voice to the limit, bursting with expressivity and yet controlled. The two selections from La Fanciulla del West also reflect his onstage experience as Johnson/Ramerrez. In addition to the well-known “Ch’ella mi creda” from the third act, Kaufmann has included Ramerrez’ narrative from the second act, and masters its dangerously high passages with bravura. In any case, he has an overabundance of acuti bellissimi at his disposal that few other tenors these days can match. Still, he never forgets that these are only the high points on this recording, from which the quality of the rest of the music can’t slack off. The darkness of his timbre gives him sonorous mid- and lower registers, even if many vowels sound rather rough and his piani don’t have the compact tone that seemed to come naturally to tenors of earlier generations. He’s not afraid to sing softly, though, even in those places where it’s audibly difficult, such as the aria “O soave vision” from Edgar. (The reviewer adds that a few more piano shadings wouldn’t have hurt his account of “Recondita armonia” from Tosca.) He produces appropriately leaner tone for Rinuccio’s aria from Gianni Schicchi, but then can really turn on the power for “Nessun Dorma.” That the tenor is on the whole successful vocally and dramatically in implementing Puccini’s highly differentiated performance instructions is also due to the presence of Sir Tony Pappano on the podium of the chorus and orchestra from Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, who holds the forces at his command to “disciplined expressivity,”

    - “Joyce & Tony: Live at the Wigmore Hall
    Joyce Di Donato (mezzo soprano), Sir Antonio Pappano (piano)
    Popular vocal and piano selections by Arlen, Berlin, Bolcom, Curtis, Daughtery, Foster, Haydn, Kern, Moross, Nelson, Rodgers, Rossini, Santoliquido, and Villa-Lobos
    Erato 2564610789 (2 CDs)
    Reviewer’s evaluation: This recording of a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall by the popular mezzo and the ROH Music Director (here in his capacity as pianist) leaves a mixed impression. Undoubtedly, Di Donato is an extraordinary singer and Sir Tony a brilliant pianist, yet the emotions conveyed in their interpretations of this varied material often seem calculated. In the first “Italian” part of the program, the rendition of Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos, described by the reviewer as an “emontional rollercoaster (ride) from loneliness and melancholy to furious rage” seems tailored to produce an effect. In Rossini’s La Danza, Sir Tony gets to demonstrate keyboard acrobatics while Di Donato takes refuge in a bit of Bartoli-esque “cackling.” The mezzo’s treatment of Francesco Santoliquido’s “Canti della sera” sounds rather bombastic in conception and performance, whereas Ernesto de Curtis’ “Non ti scordar di me” is sung in a simple, direct manner and with very beautiful legato. The reviewer likens the second half of the program to being slightly like the Disney Railroad, a trip across the American musical landscape between wit and schmaltz, in which the first selection, Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” has a healthy portion of the latter. Di Donato’s approach to this material is often reminiscent in manner and style to that of her fellow countrywoman Renée Fleming, right down to the “dollop of whipped cream” with which she tops each of the songs. Certainly, they are served up with verve and charm. The mezzo flirts with the audience and shines in William Bolcom’s “Amor,” a cabaret song with a “scent” of Latin America that is the high point of the concert’s second half. Yet it, too, seems somehow deliberate.

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