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Posts Tagged ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’

A Woman of Little Substance

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on March 20, 2014 at 9:17 am

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Covent Garden, Monday 17March 2017)

Die Kaiser/The Emperor – Johan Botha
Die Kaiserin/The Empress – Emily McGee
Die Amme/The Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Barak The Dyer– Johan Reuter
Sein Weib/Barak’s Wife – Elena Pankratova

Director – Claus Guth
Designs – Christian Schmidt
Lighting Design – Olaf Winter
Video Designs – Andi A. Müller
Dramaturg – Ronny Dietrich

Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Semyon Bychkov (Conductor)

For the first time in many years I suffered what should be a recognised medical complaint during a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten at Covent Garden.

Premature Expectation.

That is the only reason that I can think of why I did share the overall sense of enthusiasm and pleasure that the majority of people experienced with the Royal Opera House’s co-production with La Scala.

FroSch has quickly become one of my favourite operas by Richard Strauss, supplanting even Der Rosenkavalier in my affections. But on this evening it failed to have the same effect on me as it did either live in Vienna or by telecast from Munich.

Perhaps I had expected too much from this production that has elicited such an enthusiastic response from both audience and critics both in London and Milan. But once the curtain had descended I walked down Bow Street with an overriding sense of disappointment rather than the more common feeling of overwhelming wonder and elation at this incredible opera.

Strauss himself dubbed this the ‘last romantic opera’, and it contains some of his most beautiful music and soaring melodies. I don’t deny there were moments of beauty when the majesty of Strauss’ incredible score shone out.

But it wasn’t a consistent evening.

However laurels should crown the heads of Johann Botha and Elena Pankratova as the Emperor and Barak’s Wife respectively as well as Ms Schuster as Die Amme.

Does Johann Botha possess one of the few truly heldentenor voices on the stage today? Its bright, clean sound rises effortlessly above even the densest of Strauss’ orchestration, with Botha’s keen musical intelligence shaping the vocal line with both incredible grace and eloquence. He many not be the strongest actor but he makes his presence felt and I for one wished during this performance that Strauss had given him more to sing.

Ms Pankratova repeated her steely performance from Munich, finding the right balance between shrewish life and a woman desperate to be loved by (any) man. I won’t forget in a hurry her rich and warm soprano, especially at the opening of the Third Act and any weaknesses in her characterisation lay with Guth’s direction for this character.

The Amme of Michaela Schuster was more than equal to the demanding music that Strauss composed for this character. Vocally secure – and more often than not magnificent – even in the most taxing of passages, she rose above the challenge of the music to also delivered the most rounded and believable character to the very end. Her final glace to the audience spoke volumes of this Nurse’s malevolence which left – hopefully intentional in Guth’s confused vision – a final question mark over what the opera was all about.

I last saw Emily McGee in Munich when she replaced an ill-disposed Elsa. She is a soprano that possesses a vibrant soprano based on a foundation of both strong technique and musical insight. However I did wonder if the role of the Empress is slightly beyond her at this time? This role was originally created for Maria Jertiza and while Ms McGee produces a honeyed tone in her middle register, either end of her vocal range sounded less robust and at the top definitely pinched. Her first scene sounded more challenging vocally than it should have and it wasn’t until the final act that I heard the kind of voice that is required for this role.

The same can be said of the vocally resplendent Johann Reuter. While he displayed his usual confident and firm delivery, I felt not only that his Barak lacked a sense of finer nuance and colour but also more importantly, at times the Dyer was too inward looking in term of his performance.

The remaining members of the cast delivered their roles well if not exceptionally. The three brothers barrelled through their roles both in terms of their singing and acting and of the remaining cast it was a shame that the singing of the Night Watchmen – Michel de Souza, Jihoon Kim and Adrian Clarke – was obscured by, from where I was sitting, them singing from the back of the auditorium.

I can’t say that the Orchestra of the Royal Opera have that instinctive ‘feel’ for Strauss’ music as some of their German counterparts but Symon Bychkov drew some of the richest and warmest playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera that I have heard in quite a while. Perhaps they were inspired by Bernard Haitink’s attendance as Bychkov produced a level of transparency and coaxed a range of dynamics and colour from the players that was one of the highlights of the evening. My one reservation, as it has been with other performances of FroSch, is that I wish conductors would give the music more time to breathe. Again that magical cello moment in the Second Act felt rushed rather than revelled in which meant that when it returns – in a more frantic guise – in the Emperor’s scene that follows, the emotional impact is lost.

FroSch will never be an easy opera to direct. Its mixture of fairytale and morality shot through with the contemporary obsession with psychoanalysis makes it an almost impossible story to tell. Like Carsen’s production in Vienna, clearly Guth took as his starting point the idea of dreams and their interpretation. Unlike Carsen, his sense of narrative became confused with almost overburdened and incessant symbolism that undermined any sense of real character development.

Was it a dream? Was it a hallucination?

But it wasn’t so much too hard to tell what Guth was trying to say than Guth not clearly knowing himself. Whereas Vienna, Munich, Copenhagen and even Kent’s production for the Mariinsky provided a clearer narrative framework with success to a greater or lesser degree, Guth provided a single set. The monotony of the sanatorium-cum-bedroom set was relieved only by a rotating back wall offering more often than not less than sophisticated imagery and a conveyor belt which seemed more about getting props on and off set quickly that adding any depth to the storytelling. And in an age of animation of the likes of the recent Don Giovanni, Müller’s video designs had an infantile but-not-in-an-intentional-way feel to them.

Having the Empress mirror or mimic the Dyer’s Wife to portray both the duality of their personalities as well as the opposing forces that they represented was never truly defined beyond the basic. Its sense of pantomime never developed into a more effective and powerful counterpoint between the two characters and those around them. Personally I fancied that the Nurse – in some kind of fantasy-stoke-psychoanalytical way – was some kind of succubus but I don’t agree with Guth’s premise that the Nurse “strives” for evil but only does good.

And while the use of dancers as gazelles and the Falcon was inspired at the beginning – as was Barak preparing a skin of a white gazelle – it quickly paled as a device. Their constant appearance symbolised not so much the characters and their alter egos than Guth’s lack of inspiration. Similarly Keikobad’s ‘death’ at the end seemed superfluous and gestural rather than dictated by any narrative and the dilettante playboy was unbelievable not because he wasn’t either naked or semi-clothed as in other productions, but because he looked like he had stepped straight from a Noel Coward play, devoid of any sexuality or allure.

Finding a convincing ending for this opera is of course the real challenge. I have yet to see a truly convincing denouement but this one left me completely non-plussed. Revealing all the characters sitting as members of a wedding party complete with judge had no connection with the drama that had just unfolded on the stage. Nor did the subsequent tableau of the children, surrounding the protagonists and looking to all intent and purpose as if they were either about to embark to Salzburg to sing Doe-A-Deer or re-enact that famous scene from Titanic.

As I mentioned the closing moments with the Empress at the window and the Nurse looking back at the audience might have left us with a visually arresting final image, but its effect was – I think – more luck than calculated storytelling from the director.

And ultimately a production that fails to tell the story clearly or at least intelligently, distracts from the overall impact.

Sadly for me then, this production promised both before and from the start so much to look forward to. Perhaps my expectation was raised too high before and dashed as quickly.

But I have heard it said that it sounded ravishing from other parts of Covent Garden. Perhaps I should go back one last time.

But close my eyes.

2012: The Good. The Bad. The Stupid.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

2012 was meant to be about getting to Leipzig to hear the GewandhausOrchester and Riccardo Chailly. And about trying to listen to more new music, at least one new piece every fortnight.

Sadly, I can’t say that I achieved either.

But it has been a good year in terms of music in my life, a good year for the ‘bad’ music in my life and let’s face it, the classical music world wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the occasional ‘stupid’ things as well.

But starting with the good. And in most cases the excellent.

Renée Fleming tops the list not only for the performances that I attended but for the CDs that have given me not only hours of pleasure but lifted my spirits on many an occasion.

Her disc of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux is one that I appreciate more each and every time I listen to it. There is a depth and integrity to the performances that is perfectly matched by the more burnished – almost golden – tone of her voice. Of the recital, it is Messaien’s Prière Exaucée that I return to most often.

In terms of live performances, Ms Fleming has delivered three of my most memorable concerts of the year. In February she made her debut as Ariadne/Prima Donna at Baden-Baden, in an intelligent and beautifully nuanced production by Philippe Arlaud. She is today’s Strauss interpreter par excellence, and her Ariadne – warm, dignified and soulful – was truly remarkable. And she was supported by an incredibly strong cast, from The Composer of Sophie Koch and Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta to a particularly strong performance by Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus.

Similarly, her Arabella in Paris in June. While Philippe Jordan was not the most sympathetic conductor, and the set felt somewhat lost on the stage itself, Ms Fleming and Michael Volle in the lead roles were superb.

But most memorably and most recently was Ms Fleming’s performance at the Barbican. In a carefully constructed recital, she took the audience on the most magnificent journey through the closing years of the Habsburg empire to the dawn of fascism. From Mahler to Schoenberg, Ms Fleming once again demonstrated her musical and vocal prowess. And when, in her encores she glitched, she did so with great humour. As I said at the time I hope that in 2013 she will make a recording of this recital. It can only be brilliant.

Staying with Vienna, Robert Carsen’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Wien Staatsoper in March was a homage to the city itself. Compared to the two previous productions I had seen – in Copenhagen and Edinburgh – this was by far the more successful in interpreting the at times dense symbolism of the story. And Carsen was aided and abetted by an incredible cast, led by Adrienne Pieczonka and Evelyn Herlitzius as the Empress and Dyer’s Wife respectively and Robert Dean Smith as the Emperor. And in the pit, Franz Welster Möst drew superlative playing from the orchestra. It’s a shame that this production hasn’t been captured on DVD.

Soprano Sandrine Piau literally wowed the audience of Wigmore Hall with her Mozart recital in October. Combining Mozart’s arrangements of Handel arias with some of his own arias drawn from his youth Ms Piau, ably supported by the Orchestra of Classical Opera conducted by Ian Page gave a performance that was nothing short of brilliant. But to the delight of everyone who attended she saved the best til her final encore – an absolutely heart-rending performance of Verso gia l’alma col sangue from Handel’s Aci. Galatea e Polifemo. Brava.

And finally hats off to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for being – in short – the most cheerful, energetic and enthusiastic performers of 2012. Not only is their music making of the highest standard but they continue to raise the bar when it comes to reaching new audiences and the inventiveness of their programming. Their Nightshift series is brilliant and their most recent event, celebrating the music of Handel with brilliantly amusing anecdotes by John Butt demonstrates that they know how to make classical music seem alive and relevant to the audience. And their first two concerts in the series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers with superlative performances by Anna Catarina Antonacci and Sarah Connolly bode well for the remaining concerts in 2013. Definitely performances to book if you haven’t done so already.

Other memorable performances were Janowski’s Tannhauser for Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram slightly pipping Nina Stemme’s Elizabeth and a live stream of the final installment of Kriegenberg’s Ring in Munich.

Sadly 2012 wasn’t without its turkeys. Top of the list was ENO’s misjudged choice of director for their new production of Julius Caesar. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s vision was nothing short of facile and shameful as it completely undermined the strong performances overall of the cast. In a similar vein, Nigel Lowery’s production of Il Trionfo di Clelia wasn’t only let down by the pretension and ridiculousness of his ideas but by the ragged, almost poorly rehearsed playing of the City of London Sinfonia.

Sadly Opera North also didn’t quite hit the mark this year. Disappointing productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare – bar a strong performance by Sarah Tynan – were followed by a particularly poor Die Walküre. As well as being poorly cast, Richard Farnes never seemed to grasp the music’s sweep. I am hoping that they recover their mojo for Siegfried.

Robert LePage’s Ring Cycle finally ended with a fatally flawed Götterdämmerung. Not only was the production – symbolized forever by it’s Buckeroo Grane – poorly conceived together with the rest of the cycle, but a hostile reaction from the public and the critics led to both the director and Peter Gelb going on a poorly thought through offensive. LePage’s interview in the New York Times was nothing less than insulting, and Gelb’s attempt at censorship similarly ill-fated. Lepage’s reference to “the Machine” as a ‘poisoned gift’ in Wagner’s Dream, a documentary about the entire production and well worth watching, seems particularly apt.

Staying with bad ideas, the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera proved just how insulting the BBC thinks its audience is. This tick-box-arts-programming featuring a series of has-beens and nobodies not only insulted the intelligence of the wider audience but also ensured that the tired old myths and misconceptions about opera on the whole have been perpetuated. Let’s hope that Lord Hall of Birkenhead sorts it all out.

And John Berry continued his attempts to be hip with his introduction of a “no dress code” dress code at ENO. Stupid man.

But to end on a positive note, this year has seen some fantastic CDs issued. Top of the list and forgive my bias that “all-things-by-Joyce-DiDondato-are-fantastic” is her latest CD, Drama Queens. Not only is each and every track a marvel of musicianship and passion but her concert tour has been a storming success. Personally I cannot wait for her to perform in London this February. Valer Barna-Sabadus rose above the poorly named title of his CD to produce one of the best recital discs of 2012. Not many artists could pull of an entire CD of Hasse’s music, but Barna-Sabadus not only does so with verve but with a series of masterful performances. As I said at the time, Cadrà fra poco in cenere is simply beautiful. Two other discs that remain almost on constant repeat are Iestyn Davies’ Arias for Guadagni accompanied by the excellent ensemble Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen and Anne Schwanewilms’ disc of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder.

And for 2013? Well I have already mentioned Ms DiDonato’s forthcoming concert but there are other things to look forward to and to book. The OAE’s Queens, Heroines & Ladykillers series continues and in this year of Wagner a full Ring cycle is a must. But if not the Met, then perhaps Munich or even Palermo?

And while I have failed to get a ticket to Die Frau ohne Schatten with Anne Schwanewilms in Amsterdam, I have my eyes firmly fixed on a new production of FroSch at the Met this Autumn. And of course I hope to return to Vienna for either Die Walküre or Tristan und Isolde.

And in terms of forthcoming CDs who cannot be excited – or at least intrigued – by Gergiev’s forthcoming Die Walküre, a reissue of Anneliese Rothenberger singing the Vier Letzte Lieder and another instalment of of Janowski’s WagnerZyklus?

So it only leaves me to thank you all for continuing to visit my blog. I know that not all of you agree with my write-ups and I am always honoured when you leave a comment – good or bad they make me think and on occasion change my mind.

So while it’s adieu to an eventful and enjoyable 2012, in terms of 2013 I say “bring it”.

A ‘LuSch’ FroSch in Clever Vienna

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on March 21, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Wien Staatsoper, 17 March 2012)

Der Kaiser/Emperor – Robert Dean Smith
Die Kaiserin/Empress- Adrianne Pieczonka
Die Amme/Nurse – Birgit Remmert
Barak The Dyer – Wolfgang Koch
Sein Weib/The Dyer’s Wife – Evelyn Herlitzius

Director – Robert Carsen
Conductor – Franz Welser-Möst
Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra & Chorus

Vienna, the home of The Secession, Freud, Jung and arguably the creative and spiritual home of Richard Strauss himself. The premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten (‘FroSch’ as Strauss affectionately referred to it in correspondence with his librettist, von Hofmannstahl) was held in the city in 1919 and Richard Carsen’s thoughtful and well-paced production is in some ways an homage to the city itself both musically, culturally and philosophically.

It’s impossible not to start with Carsen’s production itself. I have previously seen his Iphigénie at Covent Garden with Susan Graham and was impressed with the real sense of claustrophobia he created which added to Gluck’s drama.

In the same way, this was possibly the strongest production of ‘FroSch’ I have seen either on stage or screen. It achieved an almost perfect balance of superb singing combined with intelligent and vital support from conductor and pit and married to an insightful yet challenging production.

And all this in Strauss’ most complex and challenging collaboration with von Hofmannsthal.

Over and above the incredible density of the libretto with its symbolism the biggest challenge for any director is how and where to set the opera. Kasper Holten created and successfully delivered a well-executed fantasy world with nods to manga and animé; Jonathan Kent‘s production opted for a fantasy world that confused chinoiserie and the Ivan Bilibin’s Russian fairytale illustrations with a backstreet launderette in Putin’s morally and politically corrupt Russia. While these interpretations worked – bar the incredibly flawed and poor music-making of Gergiev and his untidy band from the Mariinsky – in the sense that they placed von Hofmannsthal’s drama in a make-believe world they both left me wanting for a deeper emotional interpretation of the drama.

Refreshingly, Carsen’s production firmly rooted the drama in a modern yet simultaneously a timeless world where the emotional drama was played out through the lens of psychoanalysis, a fitting tribute to the city where the discipline was born. I say timeless as the staging and the costumes alluded to succeeding centuries. The Nurse for example looked like she’d stepped of the latest TV hospital drama, but the robes of Empress and Dyer’s Wife and the shirt collars of the Emperor and Barak hinted at the previous Secession era.

The opera opens in a bedroom. The Nurse, in a white coat of the medical fraternity is observing her patient The Empress who is sleeping. The Messenger arrives – The Nurse’s medical colleague – and consults The Empress’ notes while delivering the ultimatum that unless she gains a shadow the Emperor will turn to stone. In a clever coup-de-théâtre the backdrop then fades to reveal a mirror image of the original room and the entrance of The Emperor. Yet this alter-space had one tiny and significant difference – the photo on the desk was not of The Emperor, but with it’s black ribbon at one corner, it was the photo of a dead man.

Keikobad – father of The Empress – is dead.

In a single fade and with so subtlety placed a visual motif I almost missed it, Carsen has revealed his intention and direction of travel. He has abolished any sense of fairytale and instead we are in the world of a daughter locked in a world of grief which is impacting on her marriage. As a result the symbolism of gaining a shadow takes on new perspectives. Not only is The Nurse the only character who is able to cross into The Emperor’s world as well as the various planes that Carsen constructs as the drama unfolds, but the very nature of what the ‘shadow’ represents is open to interpretation.

When The Empress wakes up it is clear that The Nurse is more psychoanalyst that pill-administering doctor. The significance of the three-day deadline takes on a new hue. To cure her. To find a breakthrough in her breakdown.

For Carsen, when The Empress begs The Nurse to take her to ‘the human world’ to find a shadow this isn’t about a physical journey but rather a journey into her own mind. That is where the problem lies and it is the intervention of psychoanalysis that will uncover it.

Again Carsen’s attention to detail and obsession with telling a clear narrative come to the fore as the fade returns us to the alter-world but this time a world wrecked and ruined with broken furniture and the chaos of mess. Clothes everywhere and tables overturned.

And The Dyer’s Wife is The Empress alter ego except she is dishevelled, distressed and desperate. Carsen’s reinterpretation of the relationship between the two women is a masterstroke. He removes the normal physical tension between these two protagonists and instead melds them into one. And he created a similar parallel between The Emperor and Barak. For me the question posed was this – was The Empress truly in her own mind or was what we were seeing in Barak and his Wife the true reality of her life?

It was here that the subtlety of the lighting became even more evident. The creation of shadow and shade is an important tool in any theatre or opera director’s kit of parts and when used with intelligence can be incredible effective. Here it was clear that careful thought had been given to its role. Tellingly Carsen ensured that The Empress never cast a shadow. She was always in the shade – a voyeur within her own mind. And only The Nurse was visible to Barak’s Wife.

Strauss’ opera is full of challenges and none is more challenging than how to handle the somewhat unexpected Night Watchman’s chorus that closes the first act. Holten for example placed them off-stage as his Dyer’s Wife – Linda Watson – gazed longingly at the metropolis that eluded her.

Carsen’s solution was similarly tidy. He used it as the leverage to literally lift the walls of the set and symbolically I believe to lift the walls of The Empress’ mind. The start of the intervention that might lead to a cure.

The Second Act continued along this route with the same attention to detail by Carsen and his creative team. Interestingly the appearance of a true nude – and more than physically beautiful – young man (where do they find them?) elicited no response from the Viennese audience. In London such a theatrical – and justifiable act – would have raised sighs of indignation or titters. But in this act, the most incredible moment – both dramaturgically and musically – was the dream sequence. With Kammersängerin Pieczonka hanging precariously – so it seemed – from her vertical bed we finally came to confront what we had always suspected had led to her ‘breakdown’ – the death of her father. Using a film projected onto gauze we switched from Ms Piezoncka’s amazing performance to a film of her adolescent-self going through the door of her father’s bedroom and inadvertently witnessing his death. Again Carsen tied his interpretation back to the text of von Hofmannsthal with closing images of the father tying a pendant – the talisman of the libretto – around his daughter’s neck. It was gripping and literally the stuff that psychoanalysis is made of.

In the Final Act the momentum continued. First of all, and in a scene similar to that in Copenhagen Barak and his Wife were alone on a bare stage, enclosed in cubes of light. As each came to the self-realisation of their love together then a door – the door from the previous film – opened at the back of the stage. The first step in freeing the alter egos of The Empress’ mind and beginning her own journey of recovery.

And Carsen’s interpretation of the Empress and The Nurse as they journeyed towards Keikobad was deftly dealt with. The Empress realises what she must to as a giant version – and I do mean giant – of the door to her father’s bedroom opens at the back of the stage. And The Nurse is left to face The Messenger/Doctor who proceeds to pull apart The Empress’ file page by page. As he abandons her, the prone bodies that have been lying on the floor – and perhaps her past patients – rise up and mob The Nurse, their own cases studies in hand.

The penultimate scene returns us to the bedroom of The Empress. Here the symbolism of the water in the previous film is brought to the fore as she finally faces up to her fears over the death of her father. It is not The Emperor that is turning to stone but her marriage bed before she finally gathers the strength to symbolically pull away the covers. Again the whole scene – so brilliantly directed – was made all the more luminous by Ms Pieczonka’s mesmerising performance and the incredibly simple but effective achievement of her shadow.

Again the final scene presents a challenge. For Holt it was an opportunity to raise – if rather late in the day of the production itself – questions over the pro-life argument. I can’t even remember how Kent managed it as by then all I wanted to do was leave.

For Carsen it seemed to be a combination of a metaphysical response to the proceeding drama mixed with – if I am honest – it seemed to me a 1950s Hollywood film interpretation of, well, Heaven. And weirdly it worked brilliantly. In front of a plain white canvas which so effectively projected the shadows – children of those on stage – the closing scene became a paean to love. It should have been schmaltzy but it simply wasn’t. And it worked.

To put it simply. Carsen had taken an incredibly complicated fairytale and remodelled it – bravely and I think successfully – as a modern love story.

And if Carsen’s vision was strong and consistent then the singing was some of the best have seen not only in FroSch but in a long time on any stage.

As I have said previously, Strauss does not write music that is kind to men. With the exception of Baron Ochs and the Tenor in Der Rosenkavalier, the roles for men in this and Ariadne for example are unforgiving. So full marks to both Robert Dean Smith and Wolfgang Koch for riding for the most part above the orchestra and delivering musically accomplished performances.

All the off-stage roles – and in particular Chen Reiss – was similarly of a high calibre. But it was the three leading ladies who stole the evening.

The Nurse is an incredibly challenging role and after a slightly shaky start Birgit Remmert delivered a strong and characterful performance. Hers is a dark timbred soprano and while she occasionally displayed some vocal unevenness manoeuvred the demands of the score with success.

Evelyn Herlitzius as The Dyer’s Wife was mesmerising and she brought to the role hints of both Elektra and Salome. Vocally bright and clear for me she on occasion tended towards stridency although I think that perhaps this was more a case of pacing herself than vocal problems. Her acting was faultless and for me the most telling moment of her incredible talent was at the very beginning of her appearance when she almost – but only almost – seemed to fold into herself and surrender to her husband’s affections before turning on him.

However the highlight of the evening was The Empress of Adrianne Pieczonka. An eminent Straussian – most memorably I saw her as the Marschallin in Munich – she delivered an incredibly strong, insightful and musical performance. The Empress is not an easy role buy any means but Ms Pieczonka not only managed the vocal demands of the score itself not only in terms of the soaring vocal lines but also rode above the orchestra while maintaining the highest level of musicianship and intelligent interpretation. Her is a voice of great warmth and depth with a lustrous even tone through her entire register. Combined with an innate sense in terms of acting the role, never have I seen or heard the penultimate scene performed so wonderfully. And as I have said, her dream sequence was mesmerising. Indeed the Wiener Zeitung’s review – “Märchenhaft schattige Kaiserin” – was full of praise for her performance and called her inspiring (“begeisternd”).

And in the pit, Welser-Möst commanded the score and drew the most luxuriant and luminous playing from the orchestra. The brass were bright, the woodwind were pointed and the strings burnished. A Straussian par excellence, he unfolded Strauss’ wonderful music but never lost sight of the transparency needed even in the most heavily orchestrated moments to ensure that the singers were supported. And above all else, Welser-Möst demonstrated – and as the programme argued – that Die Frau ohne Schatten is the last ‘Romantic’ opera.

I hope against hope that this production will be recorded in some format. It was one of those rare nights when the highest level of musicianship was drawn from an amazing ensemble of singers which then combined on stage under the careful and intelligent direction of Carsen to produce a most memorable evening.

If I could I would return this weekend (24 March) and experience it all over again.

Vacant Valery & His Kinder-Egg-Emperor

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on September 3, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky Opera, Edinburgh, Friday 2 September 2011)

The Empress – Elena Nebera
The Emperor – Avgust Amonov
Barak – Nikolai Putilin
The Dyer’s Wife – Ekaterina Popova
The Nurse – Elena Vitman
A Spirit Messenger – Evgeny Ulanov
Barak’s Brothers – Andrei Popov/Andrei Spekhov/Nikolai Kamensky
Voice of the Falcon – Tatiana Kravtsova

Original Director – Jonathan Kent
Revival Director – Lloyd Brown
Design – Paul Brown
Video & Projection Design – Sven Ortel, Nina Dunn
Conductor – Valery Gergiev

An overwhelming sense of disappointment. Not the best ending to a night at the opera – particularly after the excitement of the first night – but it’s the only way to describe how the Mariinsky Opera production of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten left me as I walked away from the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. All the more so following the inspired – if sometimes flawed production – I enjoyed in Copenhagen a few months back.

On paper the billing was promising. Having seen Gergiev conduct many times before – including an extraordinary Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet – and the promise of an intelligent production from Jonathan Kent, the augurs were good. Of course with any Mariinsky production you expect some of the singers to be hit and miss, but nothing can – in my mind – account for last night. The Mariinsky is probably unsurpassed in terms of their Russian repertoire and I’ve only read about their faulty staging of The Ring. But their decision to stage this Strauss opera needs either major improvement or total abandonment.

It’s a shame as the production itself had some interesting features but ultimately they didn’t knit together cohesively, almost ended in farce, and undermined von Hofmannsthal’s original intentions. When I was young I had a book of Russian fairytales – including Baba Yaga and The Frog Princess – illustrated by Ivan Bilibin and it’s clear that Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown were similarly inspired by Russian tales as well as by the chinoiserie movement for the spirit world of the Emperor and Empress with it’s oversized flowers and golden statuesque beasts. However perhaps the fly-eyes on the hapless Falcon would have been better left to Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. The use of projections – and a general theme of water – implied that this kingdom was underwater. In stark contrast the world of Barak and his wife was as clearly set in modern day – presumably – Russia, with launderette-style washing machines and a suitably grey and crumbling work/home environment.

As I said there were some nice touches. During the first dream sequence in the Dyer’s home, for example, harem handmaidens came out of the washing machines and the use of footage of babies against the wall of the Dyer’s how was effective. On the other hand there was some choreography that was misjudged – in the opening scene the movements of the Emperor’s guardsmen made me think of nothing less than those of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard Of Oz. Perhaps that was the intention.

As in Copenhagen‘s much more effective production, the Mariinsky used projections throughout the operas to effect both scene changes (some of which featured noisy stage hands barking orders at one another) as well as to add to the drama unfolding on the stage. The falcon and flocks of bird featured heavily as did a vocabulary of rolling clouds, waves and water. Apart from a desire to see more variation in the flocks of birds, the projections were generally effectively used – Francesca Zambello take note – and in particular the sunburst reaching down into the water the final scenes was almost – but not quite – breathtaking.

While the setting of the first two acts were traditional almost to the point of predictability, the final act was confused, contrived and ultimately almost farcical. Opening quite literally with the world ‘upside down’ – or indeed underwater although this wasn’t entirely clear – Barak’s car and a tree, both upended, were gradually joined by other ephemera from both the real and spirit world. Against this backdrop the Dyer and his wife wandered aimlessly across an empty set until they eventually disappeared into the background to be replaced by The Empress who took to the stage, amid golden light and glitter and what can only be described as a misshapen plastic ‘egg’. Clearly this was meant to entomb the petrified Emperor, but I don’t think I have ever encountered anything as incongruous, clumsy and so simply badly judged on stage for some time. It reminded me of nothing less than the Kinder Eggs I used to have when I was a child. After it had been subjected to intense heat. No amount of grace could enable any singer to emerge from this deformed Perspex ovoid with any grace and dignity and the moment was only saved by the clever use of lighting to create the Empress’ shadow.

Yet the effect was broken at the end as the back of the stage opened up to enable a crowd of Russians to amble like zombies to face the audience. Clearly they were meant to be Russian as there were men in uniform amongst them – either a clumsy tribute to Gergiev’s protector Putin or a simple reminder of the continued power of Russia’s military state.

It was a relief when the curtain fell.

In terms of the singing, it was almost uniformly bad. Overall not only was their German poor and their diction dire, but the quality of the singing itself left a great deal to be desired. The stand-out performer was Nikolai Putilin’s Barak. His deep and resonant bass, rich and even throughout and coupled with a real sense of musicianship and knowledge of the role, showed little strain even by the end and mostly rose above the clamour Gergiev and the orchestra were making in the pit. Apart from Putilin, the rest of the ensemble struggled both with their roles and against their own limited talents. ‘Next best’ but leagues behind her husband, was the Dyer’s Wife of Ekaterina Popova. While she has a large voice she seemed unable in the first two acts, to control either her intonation or dynamic range. While she fortunately rallied for her short scene at the opening of the Third Act, this is clearly not a role suited to her voice. The same is true of Elena Nebera’s performance as The Empress. Again she has a rich soprano voice but didn’t seem to be in complete control of her own instrument, leading to both intonation problems and an acute inability to sing Strauss’ fluid lines. She also had a troubling habit of stopping for a split second before attempting any note above the stave. Avgust Amonov’s Emperor was poor from the start. Weedy and strained vocally, he cracked from his opening scene and never recovered. Drowned by the orchestra – not completely his own fault – this is not a role he should have in his repertoire and I am equally surprised – or is it horrified? – to see Cavaradossi, Calaf and Siegmund among his other roles. I shudder to think.

In the smaller replies, Evgeny Ulanov was an accomplished Spirit Messenger but Tatiana Kravtsova was simply miscast as The Voice of the Falcon. She failed to annunciate the words, negotiate the vocal line or create any sense of drama. Again she bills herself as a Violetta – not a role I would want to sit through.

But of them all Elena Vitman’s The Nurse was the worse. Over and above the dreadful ham acting – Ms Vitman, there must be more in your acting vocabulary than hand wringing – she simply didn’t have the vocal capabilities for this demanding role which requires an innate sense of musicianship and strong characterisation rather than the vamped up pantomime portrayal she delivered. For a role that is almost excessive in its vocal demands and almost constantly on stage, who at the Mariinsky thought Ms Vitman was a suitable choice? Her voice was ungainly, uncontrolled, out of tune and on more than one occasion when it became too much for her, she resorted to something resembling bad sprechstimme. Appalling.

The various choruses – adult and children alike – were lacklustre and indistinct in their singing and again intonation problems abounded.

So this leaves us with ‘Maestro’ Gergiev and the orchestra. As I said at the beginning I have seen him conduct many times and remember a particularly spectacular Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and the LSO. His Die Frau was poor – devoid of the passion and insight for which he is renowned and indeed whenever I looked toward him there was a single look on his face – of vacantcy. There was no sense of finesse in the playing and the orchestra seemed to have one volume – loud – which was coupled with some cloudy brass playing and dodgy intonation from the strings. The opening of the Second Act, where Strauss wrote some particularly ravishing music for solo cello and strings that looks forward to Metamorphosen, was particularly lacklustre and bland and the closing bars of the final act were ragged and messy. It was almost as if Gergiev hadn’t looked at the score since the Mariinsky last toured with it, if in fact he had studied it at all.

One wonders whether Gergiev – already so greedily over-committed for the sole purpose of self-aggrandisement – is a good choice as President of the Festival? Will it mean more mediocre performances from the Mariinsky Opera and other companies that he is associated with? A cultural suffocation of the Festival to appease and satisfy his ego?

Of course, this isn’t the first – and won’t be the last – time that I attend a performance that is disappointing. However, the majority of the time, even the most disappointing productions have redeeming features – a smart director that makes you think, a reasonable cast of singers, an intelligent conductor.

Not on this occasion. Mr Gergiev, can I have a refund please?

Chasing A Marvellous Shadow In Copenhagen

In Classical Music, Opera on May 30, 2011 at 6:01 am

Review – Die Frau ohne Schatten (Det Kongelige Teater, Copenhagen), May 28 2011

The Emperor: Johnny van Hal
The Empress: Sylvie Valayre
Barak: James Johnson
Barak’s Wife: Linda Watson
The Nurse: Ildiko Szönyi

Conductor: Michael Schønwandt
Director: Kasper Holten
Set, Projections & Costume: Steffens Aarfing
Light Designer: Jesper Kongshang
Video Designer: Steffan Aarfing & Signe Krogh

Die Frau ohne Schatten must rank as one of Strauss’ most difficult operas not only for the performers but for the audience as well.

The almost impenetrable libretto crafted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal draws upon a great deal of symbolism and allusion to other works which, while it may have satisfied his intellectual bent, would have been lost on the majority of listeners in 1919 and probably still is today. Fortunately however, the audience can listen to the entire opera guided by the universal themes of true love, forgiveness and the defeat of evil, and just sit back to enjoy the sumptuous music and, in this case, a great production.

Often the music composed by Strauss has been dismissed as being ‘heavy duty’ and I suppose for audiences used to Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier it might seem so. Yet judging from this particular performance, I am beginning to think that this might be an observation made by those who have not listened to the opera in its entirety. I have long loved the beautifully constructed score of Die Frau. Within it, Strauss clearly shows himself to be a master in orchestration, switching from full orchestral might to heavenly chamber-like sequences in a turn, as well as adept at handling of motifs and overall structure.

And a quick word about the Copenhagen opera house – or Operaen as it is known. Designed by Henning Larsen, it is a modern architectural gem. Approached by boat it sits on the island of Holmen opposite Amaliehaven in the centre of town. The lobby areas are open, light and airy, affording great views of the theatre across the water as well as Copenhagen itself, and the interior is beautifully designed, with a rich, warm acoustic and comfortable seats! A visit – especially considering the high performance standards – is a must.

This particular Copenhagen production of Die Frau ohne Schatten was the swansong of Kasper Holten who will soon take up his new post as Director Of Opera at The Royal Opera House following the retirement of Elaine Padmore. And on the strength of this production I, for one, am excited about his intending arrival and the positive impact it will have at Covent Garden.

From beginning to end almost, the production was intelligent, well executed and I think, true to the original conceptions of librettist and composer. Often when animation and video are used in opera productions they tend to interfere with the drama onstage. I think back particularly to the recent Lucrezia Borgia at English National Opera with Figgis’ badly judged Fellini-esque short films (which in fact almost took on the guise of badly made home porn) and the Sellars/Viola Tristan und Isolde in Paris. In truth, when I saw the latter production last year in London again as a concert performance the accompanying films worked much better. In Paris they simply distracted from the stage action – which admittedly revolved around the characters sitting, lying or standing on a simple blackened stage with a black box doubling as a boat, bed and final funeral dais.

In this case the staging was well conceived. The manga/noir inspired animation worked well, although even I have to admit I had somewhat tired somewhat of the circling falcon by the end. But the use of imagery, from the gangster-like portrait of Keikobad, the trickling hourglass and, during The Empress’s dream sequence, the petrifying Emperor, all added a clear layer of explanation.

The set very tidily separated out the worlds of gods and humans, and in the final Act Holten rather smartly turned the chambers of the gods from the first two acts into the prison cells for Barak and his wife. Similarly breathtaking was the end of Act One when the Dyer’s wife leaves him to sleep alone as she wearily climbs to the upper level to gaze up at the tall, Gotham-esque buildings above her.

However the final scenes saw the entire set removed which at the start continued the dramatic momentum. This was particularly true of the scene where the Empress confronts her father. The sudden lack of the set created a real sense of a massive throne room, helped by the simple and imposing backdrop of Keikobad himself before which she reasoned. However, trial over and with The Emperor restored, the scene changed to a nineteenth-century landscape painting in the style, to me, of the Danish painter Christian Købke. Perhaps this was a deliberate gesture yet personally it seemed like too great a stylistic change and was further exacerbated in the closing scene of five suspended ova onto which Holten projected caricatured images of children’s faces and foetuses. But on the whole, a smart and intelligent staging.

So to the music. As I have mentioned, it is often considered to be a difficult listen, and probably it is if the musicians are not of a high standard and not led by an intuitive and experienced conductor. Michael Schønwandt clearly loves the score and furnished a great attention to the orchestral detail, summoning impressive, secure and eloquent playing from his orchestra throughout, from the opening Keikobad motif to the final shimmering sounds of the closing bars. From the loudest crescendi to the most transparent of chamber-like sequences, the players demonstrated a high standard of playing throughout. But a special mention must go to the the Principal Cellist, Anders Öberg and his section for their beautiful playing at opening of the Second Act. Not only was the playing exquisite but for the first time it made me wonder if, as Strauss composed Metamorphosen at the end of his life, he did not think back – however fleetingly – to this part of the opera?

Of the singers, undoubtedly the night belonged to Linda Watson as Barak’s Wife. How I wish that she would sing in London more often for she has a marvellous voice – a rich, velvety tone which is supple throughout it’s whole range. She is an extremely talented singer, demonstrating an innate ability to colour the diction-pure words of her character throughout. Ms Watson easily negotiated the demands of this most difficult role, not only having the heft to ride above the orchestra when required but also able to float the softest notes even at the top of her register. Combined with a real talent for acting – so rare these days in singers – she made the character credible, from her avaricious and hawkish opening scenes to her final reconciliation with her husband. I will be listening to Thielemann’s Ring now I am back with renewed interest.

Ildiko Szönyi replaced Susanne Resmark on the night in question as The Nurse and did so admirably. Again she combined good acting with eloquent, straightforward singing. While her voice might not be to everyone’s taste, with a slight metallic ring when stretched, she inhabited the character of The Nurse so much so that her demise at the end definitely felt well-deserved.

Barak was played by James Johnson – a difficult role which he carried off with great skill and verve. From his initial cheerful demeanour, through his betrayal ton final act of forgiveness, Johnson performed credibly, although he did visibly tire at the end. Yet his deep, resounding bass – again with good, clear diction – was able to ride above the orchestra for the most part.

Sylvie Valayre’s Empress was – for me I’m afraid – less than passable. Not being acquainted with this soprano, a quick ‘google’ revealed that she is more well-known for her Verdi and Puccini heroines (apparently a notable Lady Macbeth at the Proms in recent years) rather than Strauss. It seems she came to Strauss quite late, starting with Salome before moving to The Empress in Die Frau, in which this was her Copenhagen debut. From her opening scene, with it’s bird-like runs it was clear that this was not going to be a first-class performance. I do not want to be unkind but throughout the performance Valayre sounded both challenged and strained vocally. At one point in the final act, a millisecond hesitation made it seem like she might not hit the note. Fortunately she did, but with neither grace or subtlety. In fact there was neither grace or subtlety in her entire performance, and for the most part a lack of vocal colour undermined further by some weak acting. I wonder if this role – and it does require a soprano with a formidable and secure talent – is now slightly too ambitious for Valayre? However I may be doing a disservice to her as an interpreter of Verdi and Puccini so will check out some of her recordings.

I’m afraid Johnny van Hal was similarly unimpressive, but for different reasons. His is an impressive voice – a beautiful, clear tone – but simply too light-weight for this role. Wonderfully expansive when the orchestra was in ‘chamber’ mode, he could not cut through when he was ranged against the whole cohort.

The three brothers were ably sung and interestingly, Holten had them portrayed almost as children – a nice gesture to the underlying friction in the Dyer’s household.

I did notice that Pappano was in attendance. I wonder if it was to consider Die Frau for a future ROH Season? I certainly hope so and that he won’t be put off worrying that the London audience might not enjoy it. If he was to bring this production to London – hopefully it would fit in the confines of Covent Garden’s stage – and with a strong cast including Ms Watson, it would definitely sell out.

Indeed the evening in Copenhagen belonged to Linda Watson and the production team and I shall be returning to Operaen again.

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