lietofinelondon

Posts Tagged ‘Kent Nagano’

Stream Of Pleasure

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Review – Götterdämmerung (Live stream, Bayerische Staatsoper, Sunday 15 July 2012)

Siegfried – Stephen Gould
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Gutrune – Anna Gabler
Hagen – Eric Halfvarson
Alberich – Wolfgang Koch
Waltraute – Michaela Schuster
Woglinde – Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde – Angela Brower
Norns -Jill Grove, Jamie Barton & Irmgard Vilsmaier

Director – Andreas Kriegenberg
Set Designs – Harald Thor
Costumes – Andrea Schraad
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger

Conductor – Kent Nagano

First of all plaudits and thanks to Bayerische Staatsoper and their sponsor BMW for the inspired and generous live stream of Kriegenberg’s production of Götterdämmerung. If only our own opera companies could find a similar sponsorship deal. Or that the BBC would put their greedy hands in their publicly-funded pockets and support a first-night initiative such as this after such massive investment in their web to the expense of others. Hardly likely – they can’t even manage to stream their own Proms.

But back to Munich and what a wonderful night. I was fortunate enough to see Nina Stemme in her first complete Ring Cycle in San Francisco. And while unfortunately Francesca Zambello & Donald Runnicles delivered an ultimately flawed production, Ms Stemme was magnificent in the role not only vocally – her voice being incredibly rich and multi-hued throughout her range – but also in terms of her characterisation despite Zambello’s poor attention to general attention to character detail in that Californian production.

And in my mind her performance and interpretation in Kriegenberg, even via broadband was magnificent and had grown in dimension.

Having not seen the three other operas in Kriegenberg’s cycle it’s difficult to make more than passing comment to the production. Yet it was obvious that this was a production that had been clearly thought out, lean with, it seemed to me, very little superfluous mannerism or PersonRegie affectation.

The opening scene was Chereau-esque in its post-apocalyptic vision. Stunned people were rifling through postcards while being tested for what could only have been radiation and having their possessions removed in plastic bags by men in protective suits. The three Norns – like unseen spirits – walked among them handling a red ball of fine twine. The frailty of that twine seemed so suitable as it was wound around the shocked and numb people on the stage.

Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s opening scene was sent in the most basic of shacks. Simple planks of wood for walls held together by Kriegenberg’s posse of extras provided the backdrop as Brünnhilde finished painting symbols on her lover’s arms. 1950s starlet was my first impression of Stemme complete with fake blond hair and Siegfried in the more typical garb for Siegfried with an ever so slightly rustic appearance. I guess the symbols had some kind of significance in terms of being protective totems – only seeing Siegfried would confirm this – and thank you to @rossignol for pointing out Brünnhilde’s hair was in direct contrast to the Gods’ own white hair as witnessed earlier on the Norns and subsequently on Waltraute.

Indeed, the scene with Waltraute while not exuding the white-hot emotion of LePage’s production – which was only due to the immense talent and experience of Waltraud Meier – was an insightful moment. Clearly this Valkyrie was slowly descending into insanity as witnessed by her obsessive-compulsive actions and mannerism. Perhaps in realisation of what the future held in store for her and her brethren? The humanity and calm of Brünnhilde in contrast was startling.

Kriegenberg’s cadre then provided a gently modulating Rhine before, in an inspired touch, they morphed into Gibichungs – suited and booted City workers who inhabited the multi-level Gibichung Hall.

Kriegenberg’s “Gewinn” theme of vulgar richesse while obvious was cleverly done complete with rocking-horse-Euro. Gunther and Gutrune – with a mirror image inference of incest harking back to Siegmund and Sieglinde – were suitably brash and brassy in character while Hagen as sinister business associate was simply chilling.

Hagen’s scene with the chorus using mobile phones to take pictures of the happy and unhappy wedding couples reminded me of ENO’s own scene with its tourists. I can only imagine the mobile phone element was to reinforce the city slicker image but the multi-floor stage came into its own here in terms of providing impact.

I have to say the one oddity in the entire production was Brünnhilde’s entrance at this point. Why the paper bag on her head?

The rest of the opera worked well within this set and before Brünnhilde prepared to set the world alight the cast rushed around the set throwing around heaps of paper somewhat reminiscent of the chaos in a company before it is raided. And considering Germany seems to be riding the current economic recession better than most others it seemed as if Kriegenberg’s Gibichung Hall was suddenly a warning against the ultimate consequence of greed. Nice touch.

And in the closing moments not only did the Rhinemaidens appear carefully carrying the returned Rhinegold but – and most poignantly for me – Gutrune took centre stage. As the world imploded around her and Wagner’s magnificent redemption theme soared out from the orchestra, we saw Kriegenberg’s extras return to the stage and wrap themselves protectively around her.

As I have said without seeing the rest of the Cycle it’s difficult to really appreciate or understand Kriegenberg’s overall vision but even within the isolation of this Götterdämmerung his ideas were rich and for the most part seemed well thought out and intelligent.

And overlaid on this was some of the best singing I have heard in a long time. Ms Stemme led an incredibly strong cast from the front. She was in magnificent voice, strong and supple, richly hued and intelligent from her opening bars through to the end of the immolation scene. Never flagging I always feel that the hushed moment in the closing scene at Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott! is telling of a singer’s skills. And here Stemme did not disappoint, floating the phrases magically.

Her Siegfried, Stephen Gould was similarly magnificent. A clear and bright tenor, he had the rarely heard heft and stamina that saw him clear the final act with great aplomb. Again, to his closing scene he remained in complete control of his voice, displaying incredible technique and a musical intelligence as this Siegfried came to the realisation of his first love and final betrayal.

The Gibichungs of Iain Paterson and Anna Gabler were similarly strong in terms of character portrayal and singing ability. Indeed it was one of the best pairings I have seen and heard in a while. Paterson in particular was in fine voice. And the Hagen of Eric Halfvarson, while taking a little while to warm up was a perfect foil in terms of the richness of both his characterisation and singing.

And the three Norns and the Rhinemaidens were equally impressive with ensemble singing of the highest standard.

I have seen Nagano conduct in Munich many times and as ever his was an intelligent and detailed performance bringing out both the grandeur of the score juxtaposed with the more chamber-like moments. And all with well judged tempi. And the orchestra under Maestro Nagano was stunning, producing a rich palette of sound that was discernable even via the live streaming.

Indeed even via iPad this was a stunning production both musically and directorially and I can only wonder what it must have been like in that square in Munich on the big screen let alone in the theatre itself.

Before Sunday evening I was minded to cancel my booking of the cycle in January, but now I am more determined that ever to see it complete – even if Nina Stemme is only singing Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung.

January 2013 cannot come soon enough.

A Very Shakespearean Wagner

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on July 13, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Lohengrin, Bayerische Oper, Munich, July 2011

• Kristinu Sigmundson – Heinrich der Vogler
• Lohengrin – Peter Seiffert
• Elsa von Brabant – Emily Magee
• Friedrich von Telramund – Evgeny Nikitin
• Ortrud – Waltraud Meier
• The Herald – Martin Gantner

• Director – Richard Jones
• Designer & Lighting – Ultz
• Conductor – Kent Nagano

The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Oper, is a beautiful building. The impressive exterior, and marble halls hide an exquisite gold gilt auditorium contrasted with pinks and reds. It was the perfect setting for this memorable performance of Lohengrin.

Admittedly I initially came for this performance to see two of my favourite sopranos – Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier – but on the night the role of Elsa was performed by American soprano, Emily Magee.

I best start with the production itself. This was by Richard Jones and his common production partner, the singularly-named Ultz. I’ve seen many productions directed by this pair. The most memorable was The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant at English National Opera. It was an unusual choice and, despite what many said, a brave and creative decision. If only ENO would take creative risks like that now rather than assuming or rather hoping that plucking a random director will work. Not only did Petra capture a real sense of ‘a time’ but Jones’ trademarks – attention to detail and most importantly, a real effort made to engage with and work with the singers to analyse their characters and develop real, tangible personalities – was evident throughout. And the same attention to detail shone through brightly in Munich.

The production itself was – to say the least – quirky, another Jones/Ultz hallmark – but enjoyable and thought-provoking. When it premiered it drew a great deal of criticism. I can’t pretend to have unlocked Jones’ intention so what I write here is my own interpretation.

This definitely wasn’t a ‘traditional’ production of Lohengrin. In a sense this was a ‘voyeurs’ production. From the start, even as the audience came into the auditorium, Jones had the action unfolding on stage. Before the prelude, a single draftsman working on a building plan; Ortrud alone before the Second Act; and finally a fully completed shell of a house, complete with flowery border. All that was missing was the white picket fence. But I’m pretty sure it was in the audiences imagination as it was so clearly in mine.

In a sense the stage was also ‘naked’. There was a single curtain backdrop towards the front of the stage to create the King’s court. As a result everything felt ‘temporary’ which of course is, in some ways, a theme of the opera. Lohengrin never intends to stay. He is merely the catalyst for events that need to happen to ‘cleanse’ Brabant.

Because in Jones’ mind, Brabant is a damaged place. The Orwellian Herald further underlined Brabant’s sinister aspect. Gottfried, Elsa’s brother is missing. After the prelude, the chorus shuffle on. The setting is anonymous. The costumes made hints at eras but nothing is clear, nor clean cut. The men are in branded Brabant jackets, some in suits, some in t-shirts. The women are similarly attired – only their multitude of A-line skirts skirts suggesting any sense of matronly uniformity. Only the main characters, and Telramund’s conspirators – in their sharp grey suits – stand out.

The King, with his sense of almost forced optimism is in sharp contrast to Telramund and Ortrud – the magnificent Waltraud Meier. With them Jones has gone beyond mere cyphers determined to take charge. Ably abetted by Meier and Nikitin, they are a couple of pure malevolence who stalk the stage. Indeed they are Macbeth-like in their calculated evil, and like their Shakespearean counterparts it is Otrud who until the last is the stronger of the two. A foil to Telramund’s own weakness and mental frailty.

Elsa, as expected, is detached, almost catatonic. But Jones delves deeper. From her first appearance, her shuffling gait as she carries white bricks across the stage and through the doors to the set concealed by the single backdrop of two doors below a set of arcane heraldic symbols says it all. Elsa is ‘damaged goods’ and suspected of murder. She carries a folded poster of her brother, like those used when a child is missing. No one is able to interrupt her catatonic march until she is forcibly restrained by one of the King’s guards. Even then she does not immediately register the reason.

And it is only when the entire stage is revealed that we understand the significance of the lone draughtsman. It is Elsa who, in her workman’s overalls, is building a home, the significance of which didn’t become clear to me until the final act.

Interestingly Jones downplays the arrival of Lohengrin himself. In other productions this is often the dramatic focus of the opening act. Granted, Lohengrin arrives carrying the necessary – and animatronic – swan, but this is not ‘a moment’ in the dramatic sense. Indeed, could they have made Lohengrin look any less the hero in his grey trousers with their silver stripe and blue shirt?

For Jones the attention is in the detail. There is no single dramatic moment in the first act. Even the attempt to burn Elsa at a hastily built stake has a surreal-like quality. Ortrud stalks the stage in her suit and management-look hair style, watching everyone. A sharp contrast to Elsa in her workman’s outfit. Women versus child. Telramund, with his overly excited manners, is a man on the edge. Dangerous. Lohengrin is not a hero. Rather he looks like an accidental tourist.

Even Telramund’s challenge, Lohengrin’s defence of Elsa’s honour and the ensuing sword fight had a strange detached, pantomime quality. Indeed the only act of real aggression is when the King rips the symbol of Brabant from Telramund’s coat and throws it on the ground at the close of the First Act.

Interestingly as the main curtain fell, the audiences response was polite and somewhat muted. But the characters had been set and, I believe, Jones deliberately lulled the audience into a false sense of security, almost making us, by extension, placid participants in the drama itself.

The Second Act opens, as I have already mentioned, with Ortrud alone, seated at the far side of the stage. She sits there like a coiled spring exuding menace and her thoughts are only broken when her husband storms in. He is clearly a broken man. Gone is the smart, buttoned-up noble of the preceding act. Here, shirt undone (and displaying Nikitin’s impressive tattoos), he stumbles and sways across the stage, every so often spying on events behind the backdrop through spy holes in the door. Jones does not have him depict anger as the key driver for revenge, but rather abject humiliation. Pulling a pistol from his pocket he attempts suicide, only to be stopped by Ortrud. Icily calm, she lays out their new plan to destroy both Lohengrin and Elsa. And here, Jones suddenly ratchets up the tension. The audience was suddenly rapt, pulled forward into the drama.

What followed – spurred on by the incredible vocal and acting talents of Meier and Nikitin – was momentous. Again I was drawn to a comparison with ‘the Macbeths’ in the evil motivation that drove them both. The interplay between husband and wife was electric. More than once Telramund attempted to hurt his wife and Ortrud’s reaction made it cleat that this was, at heart, an abusive relationship. And each time he failed. Not through weakness but because it was clear that she was in total control of him. Ortrud was all about control and Meier’s portrayal was faultless. Her call for revenge – to Wotan and Fricka – was chilling and again the only moment in the whole opera where Jones/Meier allowed the character to seemingly lose control.

This was the turning point in the drama and Jones now ratcheted up the momentum inexorably. The backdrop rose to reveal the house much closer to completion, Elsa surveying her creation. The subsequent scene between the two leading ladies – watched by Telramund – was brilliantly acted by Meier and Magee, with the former’s calculating approach to confuse and thereby befriend the bride-to-be all the more chilling by Ortrud’s stealthy movements.

The tension of wedding scene itself – and the confrontation between the key protagonists – was almost unbearable. Changed into her bridal gown, Elsa seemed to find a new inner strength, if only momentarily, as she faced up to Otrud, who once again stalked across the stage as if hunting prey. Typically the arrival of Lohengrin marks a shift in the balance of power as the hero takes the leads and sees off Ortrud. Not in Jones’ production. Again Lohengrin was made to seem weaker and – most tellingly – he played into Elsa’s own insecurities. Never have I seen an Elsa so unconvinced about being a bride.

The curtain went down and the audience – particularly when Meier appeared – went wild.

It was only during the Final Act, and the completion of the house, complete with bed, baby’s cot and high chair that the potential significance of Elsa’s building programme occurred to me. It was therapy. Therapy for Elsa to help her cope with the guilt of her lost brother. But it was also an act of atonement. Elsa building a home, and creating a family to replace him. Almost as if a house, family and child would make it all seem better. I don’t know if it was coincidental or not, but the picture of her missing brother was placed on the wall directly above the high chair. Jones’ attention to detail makes me think it was anything but that.

The Third Act played out traditionally – despite the almost comedic dance routine during the prelude – for the most part, bar two significant reinterpretations. First – and I accept that this is open to debate – it seemed to me that in the scuffle with Telramund, it is Elsa and not Lohengrin, that kills Ortrud’s spouse. To me this was a plausible and significant decision by Jones. First of all the death is accidental but secondly, Elsa now begins to unravel. Her retreat back into her original catatonic state is not so much to do with Lohengrin’s departure but her own association with death. As she is led onto the stage we are back at the beginning – Elsa being suspected of murder.

And secondly, neither Otrud nor Elsa die at the end. Lohengrin exits stage left and touchingly returns carrying ????. Elsa, momentarily revived by the return of her brother, slumps down onto a seat, once again withdrawn from the world. Ortrud, despite seeing the corpse of her dead husband, does not break down. She watches and continues to stalk.

And when the curtain closes it is Ortrud who has her her arm maternally around the young prince. But most chilling, the chorus all seated on the collapsed stage, putting pistols into their mouths.

Brabant has not been purified. Far from it. Brabant is in a worse place than at the start.

So, an incredibly thought-provoking production. Jones’ intellectual bent, his attention to detail, and his clear direction to all the singers never once threatened to swamp the story-telling. Instead it offered a fresh, and to me completely plausible reappraisal of the original story.

And the singers and chorus, so ably led by Nagano in the pit, rose to the occasion. The chorus – despite some dodgy acting – were superb. Their sense of ensemble and precision was brilliant. Nagano led the orchestra and singers like a master, bringing out a burnished quality in the orchestral playing – especially the brass – that was so sadly lacking when I attended The Ring in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Runnicles take note.

Kristinu Sigmundson as Heinrich der Vogler and the Herald of Martin Gantner were clear voiced, with excellent diction. However it was the four principals who made the evening not great – but in my opinion – momentous.

Peter Seiffert is a fine Lohengrin although not a strong actor. He has both the heft and stamina for the role and while he clearly sailed through the role, there were times when a little more finesse and lightness in the vocal line would have made a real difference.

The Friedrich von Telramund of Evgeny Nikitin was simply amazing. He captured perfectly how unbalanced the character really is, portraying with clarity his breakdown from First to Third act. His interactions with Meier – especially in the Second Act – were, as I said, almost Shakespearean in their delivery. Again he is able to carry above the orchestra and s attention to the words, the light and shade of his voice, made his Telramund a real character – not simply a man after power but a man whose pursuit of power was for evil.

Emily Magee had a shaky start but she did not warrant the booing at the end. Initial problems with intonation slowly disappeared so that by her confrontation with Ortrud she was in fine voice. And her acting was superb, capturing the vulnerability as well as the childishness of the character perfectly. At the end – and quite clearly the intention – this Elsa was not a girl to expire but rather to continue suffering.

But it was Waltraud Meier’s Ortrud who stole the evening. This Lady Macbeth in Wagnerian cloth was both consummate actress and superlative singer. Her mere presence on stage was enough to raise the temperature as she stalked and hunted out the other protagonists. Her abusive relationship with Telramund was at the core of her character and the decision not to kill her at the end was telling. Ortrud had – in all senses of the word – won. She had destroyed Elsa. Did not grieve the demise of her abusive husband. And she had the child. And her singing was simply breathtaking. I have seen her in other Wagnerian roles – Isolde in Paris for example – but Ortrud was made for her. The role sits comfortable in her range, and she negotiates the role with vocal precision married with clear and meaningful diction.

So a memorable, brilliant Lohengrin. Jones delivered an intelligent production that took a new but clearly deliberate look at the story. The characters – one and all – were three dimensional and not your typical stand-and-deliver cyphers. And the quality of the singing was of the highest standard. In fact I would go so far as to say that this was one of the most enjoyable and challenging productions I have seen in years.

So it does beg the question. If this can be achieved in Munich why can’t it happen in London, New York or San Francisco?

Subitolove

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

Good Music Speaks

A music blog written by Rich Brown

Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac

(A love affair with music)

Gareth's Culture and Travel Blog

Sharing my cultural and travel experiences

The Oxford Culture Review

"I have nothing to say, and I am saying it" - John Cage

The Passacaglia Test

The provision and purview of classical music

Peter Hoesing

...a musicologist examining diverse artistic media in critical perspective

OBERTO

Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera