Posts Tagged ‘Johan Botha’

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.


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.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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