Archive for December, 2013|Monthly archive page

Cross-purposed Verdi

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on December 30, 2013 at 11:43 am

Review – La Forza del destino (Live Stream from Bayerische Staatsoper, Saturday 28 December 2013)

Il Marchese di Calatrava & Padre Guardiano – Vitalij Kowaljow
Donna Leonora – Anja Harteros
Don Carlo di Vargas – Ludovic Tézier
Don Alvaro – Jonas Kaufmann
Preziosilla – Nadia Krasteva
Fra Melitone – Renato Girolami
Curra – Heike Grötzinger
The Mayor – Christian Rieger
Trabuco – Francesco Petrozzi

Director – Martin Kušej
Set Design – Martin Zehetgruber
Costume – Heidi Hackl
Lighting – Reinhard Traub
Dramaturgy – Benedikt Stampfli & Olaf A. Schmitt

Conductor – Asher Fisch

As Verdi operas go, La Forza del destino doesn’t have a complicated plot so it’s a shame that the director Martin Kušej’s best intentions to create a simple narrative was at best patchy.

Fortunately, the quality of the singing on the stage was up to the usual high standard as was the technical achievement of the Bayerische Staatsoper as they continue their commitment to making their productions globally available. And it was elevated even higher by role debuts of Anja Harteros as Donna Leonora and Jonas Kaufmann as Don Alvaro. However there wasn’t a weak link in the principal roles with each singer delivering musically intelligent performance in spite of Kušej.

On this occasion the laurels must go to Anja Harteros. From her first entry she dominated the stage both vocally and dramatically. In both her solo numbers as well as her duets and ensemble numbers she displayed enviable musical discipline with well-placed vibrato, a masterful control of dynamics and a range of vocal colour. As expected Pace, Pace, mio Dio was the highlight of her performance but throughout her portrayal of Leonora – especially her often missed vulnerability – was musically intelligent. Take for instance her opening Romanza Me pellegrina ed orfana or more especially the way she spun out the vocal line of Madre, pietosa Vergina in the second scene of Act Two and La Vergine degli Angeli at the very end of that same act.

As Alvaro, Kaufmann was equally confident both musically and performance wise. However – and as I have said before – there are times when I would like to see more finesse and sensitivity in his singing although admittedly there isn’t that much scope afforded for this in the role of Alvaro. However I did wont for me little more vocal colour and flexibility in his first duet with Leonora. I cannot deny that his singing during the opening of the Third Act wasn’t poised rather than sensitive yet still thrilling but I can’t stop thinking that in terms of musical interpretation his approach is still rather black and white with very little shading. However he does seem to spark off his fellow performers as his scenes with Ludovic Tézier’s Don Carlo demonstrated. And as the vengeful son, Tézier with his bright and supple baritone, was excellent once he had gained musical momentum after a rather wooden Son Pereda, son ricco d’onore.

Nadia Krasteva – hamstrung by a ridiculous costume – is in possession of what I would describe a typically Eastern European voice. Big and bold, deep and dark-hued it has a heaviness to it that isn’t unappealing and well suited to Verdi roles if not this one completely. It’s worth checking out her YouTube channel.

The remaining male roles were well cast. As both Calatrava and Guardiano, Vitalij Kowaljow didn’t quite distinguish between the two. However this might have been at the bdding of Kušej but if it was, it wasn’t followed through by the director himself. Similarly both Christian Rieger and Renato Girolami acquitted themselves well.

It was quite difficult to make out any of the subtlety or nuances in the orchestral playing however the Fisch’s choice of tempi was smart and he gave the singers the space they needed to do full justice to Verdi’s vocal lines.

Sadly, Kušej’s vision of Forza didn’t pass muster as well as the performances on stage. The set – at times reminding me of Tcherniakov’s set for his ENO Boccanegra – aimed at simplicity. Perhaps over simplicity. In paring down this opera to his interpretation of its elemental themes ultimately led Kušej to strip too much away.I also wondered what the dramaturgists Stampfli and Schmitt had contributed.

Set somewhere that seemed a cross between Mafioso Sicily and a war-torn country somewhere in the Balkans, the Calatrava’s familial tensions were played out over dinner in the overture. Indeed the table and the crucifix upon it were evident throughout the entire opera as recurring visual motifs regardless of whether it was home, chapel, prison or battleground. But apart from acting as visual anchors – with the only arresting use of the cross coming at the end in a last gasp of creative desperation – the director didn’t seem interested in developing any true sense of narrative around either item.

Parts of each act played out in a prison or demolished house but with little dramatic intensity. Kušej’s idea of laying out the stage in different perspectives for example was clever in as much as it gave him the opportunity to have an imaginary Leonora walk up the back wall but ultimately it was just a visual vanity. The minute that any real action was required – the battle scene or the duet between Alvaro and Carlo, the set became a single one-perspective entity. For the battle scene itself Kušej resorted to simply having extras (or the chorus) run from right to left – choosing movement over any sense of dramatic intent.

And the chapel – almost Nordic with its emphasis on wood – opened up to reveal (to me at least) a set of ‘priests’ who would not have looked out of place in a production of Parsifal. This idea was strengthened further still when Harteros (well her body doubled) was baptized via full immersion.

The scenes with the chorus were similarly unfocused with Kušej again failing to deliver any sense of a coherent narrative. Whether acting as corpses or indulging in a most predictable scene of sex and drunkenness, it seems that Kušej was at some points ‘directing by numbers’.

And the over-sized crucifixes of the final scene seemed like a last ditch effort to develop one of the visual motifs and bring a semblance of continuity and vision to the production. But having the singers clamber through them was clumsy but fortunately for us all, their impassioned performances overcame the distractions of the stage as they played out the final tragedy.

Costumes were basic and in the case of Kaufmann’s over-long hair looked like a device simply to differentiate him on stage. Similarly the lighting was so simple as to be ineffective.

And while the idea of having Calatrava and Guardiano played by the same singer should have been an opportunity for some real characterization, in reality this duality – as well as the doubling of the waiter with the mayor, and Preziosilla dressed as Curra for her first appearance – underlined the fact that Kušej seemed to have forgotten to give any direction at all to any of the singers. While the singing was excellent it was clear that the singers – left to their own devices – were resorting to their own dramatic lexicon to portray their characters. Some better that others.

Indeed throughout it seemed that somewhere – lurking in the shadows of the stage – there was a single unifying idea. But sadly for Kušej, ultimately that idea remained just outside his grasp.

And yet the singing – particularly of Anja Harteros – made the entire production worth hearing.


Ladies Night In A Foggy FroSch

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on December 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Live stream from Bayerische Staatsoper, Sunday 1 December 2013)

Die Kaiserin/Empress – Adrianne Pieczonka
Der Kaiser/Emperor – Johan Botha
Barak, the Dyer – Wolfgang Koch
The Dyer’s Wife – Elena Pankratova
Die Amme/ Nurse – Deborah Polaski
The Messenger – Sebastian Holecek
The Falcon – Eri Nakamura
The Dyer’s Brothers – Tim Kuypers, Christian Rieger & Matthew Peña
Watchmen – Andrea Borghini, Rafal Pawnuk & Leonard Bernad
Voices of the Unborn – Laura Tatulescu, Heike Grötzinger, Tara Erraught, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Eri Nakamura & Okka von der Damerau

Director – Krzysztof Warlikowski
Stage & Costume – Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting – Felice Ross
Choreography – Claude Bardouil
Video – Denis Guéguin
Animation – Kamil Polak
Dramaturgy – Miron Hakenbeck

Orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper

Kirill Petrenko (Conductor)

Hats off once again to the Bayerische Staatsoper for their commitment to live-streaming opera from their magnificent opera house. The last live performance I watch was Kriegenberg’s production of Götterdämmerung with Nina Stemme. On that occasion it was via my laptop but this time round I managed to stream it via Apple TV and I would strongly recommend it. The quality was superb.

Having just returned from seeing Weinicke’s production at the Metropolitan Opera and with Carsen’s incredible production still fresh in my mind, I was interested to see Warlikowski’s take on this dark fairy-tale so laden with symbolism.

More of the production later because what made this an exceptional production was the incredibly high level of performance and musicianship on stage and in the pit.

At the heart of the production were stunning performances of the Kaiserin, Nurse and Dyer’s Wife – namely Adrianne Pieczonka, Deborah Polaski and Elena Pankratova. Personally of all the productions I have seen on stage, they represented an almost perfect trio of singers in these roles.

Adrianne Pieczonka – who was so mesmerizing as Chrysosthemis in London recently – brought a regal humanity to the role of the Kaiserin. Vocally she was simply incredible – secure throughout her range and bringing a range of colour and depth to the role that was evident even ‘down-stream’. I hold that she is one of the great Strauss sopranos on stage today and I just wish we could see more of her in the UK. Indeed it is a shame that she isn’t reprising this role in the Guth production at Covent Garden next year.

Deborah Polaski was surprise casting for me at least. A soprano I associate more readily with the role of Elektra and Isolde my initial skepticism was immediately dispelled with her first appearance. Not only did she negotiate this trickiest of Strauss roles with great musical authority but within the constraints of Warlikowski’s production she was hypnotic as the malevolent and controlling Nurse.

As Barak’s Wife, Elena Pankratova’s rich and resonant soprano was ideal. Again there wasn’t any weakness in her vocal range even when she was singing above the full orchestra. I am looking forward to seeing her reprise this role at Covent Garden.

As in New York both the Emperor and Barak were well cast. Johan Botha made the most of Emperor’s appearance, singing with a bright and alert tone. Similarly Wolfgang Koch’s lyrical singing, full-bodied when required, was beautifully suited to the end of the First Act – possibly the most beautiful music Strauss ever wrote for the male voice.

And as ever with Munich, the other roles were well cast, particularly Eri Nakamura as The Falcon and Sebastian Holecek as the Messenger.

In the pit. Kirill Petrenko matched the quality of the singing on stage by coaxing superlative playing from the orchestra. Unlike at the Met, Petrenko gave Strauss’ music the space to breathe and flex without ever seemingly drowning out the singers. That wonderful moment in the Second Act for the lower strings was magical as it should be.

In the same month that Opera magazine has dedicated the issue to RegieTheater – with enlightening interviews with Barrie Kosky, Graham Vick and Sam Brown – I have to admit that I wasn’t completely convinced by Warlikowski’s vision regardless of what directorial genre it was.

There were some moments, and motifs that were striking but for me there wasn’t the cohesive narrative of Carsen; the contrast and strength of characterization of Weinicke or Holten’s use of modern iconography that gave these three productions their strength in terms of storytelling.

Even before the music had started Warlikowski opened with scenes from Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad. I have to admit I didn’t immediately recognise the footage but once it did create a certain sense of expectation. The film’s narrative is – rightly – confusing with the barriers between reality and dreams vague. As the opera proper started we found ourselves in a room complete with a bed, chaise longue, fish tank and shutters all in view. The tiled wall – as well as the injection given to the Kaiserin – hinted at a medical establishment, but with the stuffed deer it was also reminiscent of an abattoir. There were dinner-suited servants and the Kaiser and Kaiserin clearly dressed as members of the wealthy classes. I didn’t get the symbolism of the Kaiser’s over-sized cross as there was a dearth of religious imagery elsewhere so that in fact it simply felt like a costume choice.

Barak and his Wife were hardly the poverty-stricken characters they are often portrayed as and Warlikowski stripped the three brothers of their scripted handicaps as far as I could see, and instead made one of them the subject of fits without explanation. However the lust they displayed for their brother’s wife was a smart – and somewhat chilling – insight.

While the transition between the two worlds was smartly done there was in reality little change of scene between the two. Was Warlikowski therefore implying that this was in fact all in the Kaiserin’s mind? Or our minds? Or, as they put the Nurse in a straitjacket, her mind?

The use – or over-use – of children through the production was also intriguing. The Falcon-As-Child was an interesting concept, especially vis-à-vis his relationship with the Kaiser. As in Carsen’s production, Warlikowski’s use of a ‘younger’ Kaiserin was a powerful image but it felt that his character was outside the events unfolding on stage. And while the use of children – and then adults – sporting bird’s heads was disturbing it didn’t add up to anything, although it was a nice touch to have them play cards – I entertained the thought that they were playing Strauss favourite card game of Skat.

Warlikowski’s portrayal of Keikobad was also disappointing – a man so old he was doubled over at ninety degrees. Hardly an Emperor to be obeyed let alone feared.

I have yet to see a convincing end to FroSch. Carsen created an purgatory-style world, Holten opted for images of fetuses and Weinicke brought down the stage lights. Warlikowski’s was visually arresting with the shadows of children reflected on the back wall. This image would have been so much more effective had it now been for the four main characters inexplicably seated to all intents and purposes at a café table drinking champagne.

Thankfully, he had clearly spent some time with the leads in terms of their characterization. It was particularly telling in the relationship between Barak and his Wife as well as Polaski’s portrayal of the Nurse.

However while there is no denying that Warlikowski’s vision was visually arresting, as a cohesive piece of story-telling his approach seemed too disjointed. Ideas were not worked through and on occasion it seemed that some were juxtaposed – thrown together almost – for visual effect rather than for a narrative purpose.

Ultimately however it was the high performance standards – particularly of the leading sopranos – that made this FroSch memorable. Once again the Bayerische Staatsoper must be congratulated not only for another incredible set of performances only slightly marred by a foggy production but also for their live stream strategy.

Next up from Munich will be La forza del destino with Harteros and Kaufmann on December 28.


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