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Women on the verge.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm

Review – Elektra (Semperoper, Dresden, Friday 31January 2014)

Elektra – Evelyn Herlitzius
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Orest – René Pape
Aegisth – Frank van Aken
Companion of Orest – Peter Lobert
The Maids – Constance Heller, Gala El Hadidi, Simone Schröder, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Nadja Mchantaf
The Overseer – Nadine Secunde
Young Servant – Simeon Esper
Old Servant – Peter Lobert

Director – Barbara Frey
Bühnenbild – Muriel Gerstner
Costumes – Bettina Walter
Lighting – Gérard Cleven
Dramaturgy – Micaela v. Marcard

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden
Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden

Christian Thielemann (Conductor)

If the rest of Richard Strauss’ 150th anniversary maintains the standard of Semperoper’s Elektra, then 2014 will be more than a memorable year.

It will be a fitting homage.

The singing, the playing and – for me at least – the production came together almost perfectly.

In terms of the singing, if there was ever an opera equivalent of Fantasy Football League (please can someone invent it) then this cast was a ‘dream team’.

Is there a soprano on stage today who is a more convincing Elektra than Evelyn Herlitzius?

In compete command of her vocal technique, her rigorously disciplined instrument permitted her to take vocal risks that, combined with some finely tuned acting, made her characterisation so visceral. Yet at the same time she balanced it with an innate and musically intelligent sense of shade and colour. I don’t think I’ve heard the Recognition scene sung with such emotional and musical inteliigence, both Herlitzius and Pape completely committed to and immersed in that wonderful moment.

Therefore I find it incredible that we haven’t seen Ms Herlitzius in London. But then the same can be said of Ms Pieczonka in our capital and not forgetting that Anne Schwanewilms has only recently made her debut at the Met.

Such a towering performance from so physically slight a singer could not but cast a shadow on the other members of the cast.

But only slightly.

Anne Schwanewilms’ Chrysothemis contained all the trademark intelligence and eloquence that this soprano brings to Strauss. Her bright, piercing soprano for the most part sailed over the orchestra and as with her troubled sister, Schwanewilms is an instinctive actress. She portrayed both the often-missed vulnerability of this character as well as her exasperation and desperation. Her final return to the stage dressed as the never-to-bride, even at that moment conveying the forlorn hope that she might marry even after the double murder, and punctuated with the most heartrending calls for her brother will remain with me for a long time.

Who doesn’t admire and love Waltraud Maier both as singer and actress? Just as her Waltraute for Barenboim, Ms Meier’s Queen demonstrated that this soprano is a seasoned veteran who brings a real intellectual depth as well as formidable interpretive skills to any character she portrays.

Onto this Klytämnestra, Maier overlaid a real sense of fragility onto the more expected paranoia. Her scene with her daughter not only laid bare these feelings as well as her wariness and fear of Elektra, but also the unbreakable Mother-Daughter bond not often seen in productions. Just before the scene ended there was an unexpected moment of tenderness between the two that made Klytämnestra’s final exit, clearly accepting her fate as foreseen by her own daughter, all the more chilling especially as it was as if she was entering a tomb.

However at points it seemed as if Ms Maier was too immersed in the character. Her projection dimmed to too much of a whisper as if internalising only to herself the emotional journey the queen was going through.

It was also wonderful to hear René Pape in the role of Oreste. His dark timbre was perfect, suitably grave yet burnished and I have to admit in a production of generally small gestures his acting was powerful.

Where other productions of Elektra are often let down, the principals here were brilliantly supported by the rest of the ensemble. If I had to single out one other member of the cast then it would be the Fifth Maid of Nadja Mchantaf. Velvet-toned and even throughout her range she brought a real sense of dimension to this short-lived role and is definitely one to watch.

And in the pit, Christian Thielemann was magnificent, marshalling singers and orchestra with incredible authority and knowledge of the score. I personally think his affinities lie closer to Strauss than Wagner, and last night only confirmed that belief.

From the very first notes, he drew exemplary and confident playing from the orchestra. Where some conductors miss or submerge the detail in the mistaken belief that Elektra should simply assault the eardrums, Thielemann uncovered the lightness amidst the darkness and transparency within Strauss’ sometimes ‘over-orchestrated’ textures. And while he never let us forget that this is the composer’s most expressionist work, he celebrated the lyricism imbued both in the soaring melodies and motifs and similarly he was also not above judging when the orchestra – dominating the emotional mood with a motif or theme – rose over the singers.

More so than I’ve heard in previous productions of Elektra, Thielemann was not scared to allow the music to breathe, unfettering phrases and just as importantly seeking out the silences which are so essential in creating that sense of impending dread far more effectively than a hack and thrash battle through to the end.

It might not have been to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed the fresh perspective of Barbara Frey’s production, her first for Semperoper.

Let’s not forget that Elektra – both for Hofmannsthal and originally for Euripides – is ultimately a family tragedy. This was Frey’s focus but she also suggested new perspectives and interpretations.

For this director Klytämnestra may have wielded the axe, but all three women were complicit in Agamemnon’s death.

Elektra for example isn’t dishevelled and abandoned. Rather, in a dress more suited for an evening of revelry than the mourning weeds she more often dons in productions, she is no outcast.

Chrysothemis’ appearance from the very beginning not only reinforces her role as go-between but also voyeur but her final appearance in that extravagant wedding dress again hinted at a more secure position within the household.

And this was was a production of small gestures and actions. It was like watching a slow fuse burn and in some ways reminded me of Almodovar. Small gestures and tics – like Klytämnestra’s rubbing of her arm, Chryosthemis raising her arm in despair, the way the Maids hunched protectively together – replaced the histrionics.

And Frey had clearly spent time with the singers. As well as the Mother-Daughter relationship, Frey and the singers also re-examined other pivotal moments.

There was a surprising sexuality to Frey’s Elektra. Her flirting with Aegisth for example hinted at something darker in her personality. And as she tried to persuade her sister to commit the murder, in that moment as she caressed Chrysothemis, she morphed into lover and future husband. The look of subsequent horror on Chrysothemis’ face isn’t only the result of thoughts of matricide but also – perhaps – seeing a side of her sister she wished she hadn’t.

The aforementioned Recognition scene was built not only on the singing and orchestral playing under Thielemann, but also the direction on stage. This wasn’t an emotional roller coaster or brutal revelation that it sometimes is. After the initial shock Elektra and Orest rediscovered their childhood love. I, for one wasn’t jarred by the use of children as their younger selves and the way Herlitzius and Pape acted with one another – ending as it did with their foreheads press together as if accepting their own fates – was beautiful. Orest’s seeming reluctance to commit murder was similarly well observed and even Elektra’s final ‘dance’ was more in her own mind’s eye than for the audience.

And by keeping all the violence – including the brutal murder of the Fifth Maid – off the stage, Frey force the audience to focus on the main characters as well as the music and thereby distilling the emotions created even further.

Even the set was suggestive. The decorative balcony, the clothes of the main characters were reminiscent of the era of Strauss and Hofmannsthal themselves. Yet it was clearly a home in transition. The hole in the wall where Elektra concealed herself, the spare paneling against the wall and piled on the floor indicated to me the final stages of redecoration. it was as if they were trying remove any evidence of Agamemnon himself but ultimately had failed. For above their heads was the motto Justitia fundamentem regnorum – loosely translated as ‘Justice is the foundation of kingship’. An all too ominous aide memoire – none of them could neither escape the murder committed nor, with the accompanying lion’s head motif of the house of Atreus above it the spectre of Agamemnon himself.

And while the lighting was for the most part simple there was a single moment of breathtaking beauty – that moment when Orest first appears. Suddenly the house is dark except for a single beam of moonlight cascading into the house from one side which – for whatever reason – reminded me of the light in the Secessionsgebäude in Vienna.

Yet for all this, at no point did the production overpower the music making. Rather it added to the whole as an equal partner.

And it was this equilibrium between all the parts – singers, players, conductor and director – which made this Elektra so magnificent and memorable.

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Parsing Parsifal

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on March 5, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Review – Parsifal (HD Broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, Saturday 2 March 2013)

Gurnemanz – René Pape
Kundry – Katarina Dalayman
Amfortas – Peter Mattei
Parsifal – Jonas Kaufmann
Klingsor – Evgeny Nikitin

Production – François Girard
Set Designer – Michael Levine
Costume Designer – Thibault Vancraenenbroeck
Lighting Designer – David Finn
Video Designer – Peter Flaherty
Choreographer – Carolyn Choa
Dramaturg – Serge Lamothe

Orchestra & Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera

Conductor – Daniele Gatti

There is no denying the success of the Met’s HD Live broadcasts. While it might be bringing new people to the opera, I think that simply being able to make their productions available to the existing global opera audience is significant.

While it can’t replace being in the auditorium itself in terms of atmosphere – or for the simple fact that you only see what the director wants you to see through the lens of the camera and very rarely the stage in its entirety – it’s a decision that has played out successfully.

This weekend the Met’s new production of Parsifal was relayed across the world and Gelb and his team had assembled a starry-cast of eminent Wagnerians and chosen François Girard to direct.

Without a doubt – and despite some dodgy sound quality – the singers to a person, led by maestro Daniele Gatti, sang their roles with great authority and intelligent musicianship.

From the opening notes it was clear that Gatti had a real sense of the opera’s architecture, sweep and scale. He drove the music forward inexorably without letting any release from the tension fused to every note. And the Metropolitan Opera orchestra sounded magnificent throughout, the strings have rarely sounded so warm and sonorous (even through the speakers of the Picturehouse where I was sitting) with the brass and wind majestically riding above their colleagues cleanly and clearly.

Of course this was Kaufmann’s Parsifal and like his Siegmund in LePage’s Ring cycle, it was his Met debut. As I remarked while listening to his recent Wagner recital CD, he is an authoritative singer and clearly one of the – if not the – leading Wagnerian tenors on stage today. And there was no disputing his performance in this production. Well paced, musically it was an incredibly accomplished performance. While I would have perhaps preferred a greater breadth of vocal colour – and perhaps this was lost in transmission – there was no disputing the quality and emotion of his singing, especially in the second and third acts. However – and this is more likely due to the production than Kaufmann himself – I also wanted for stronger characterization of Parsifal as a character. In the interval Girard spoke of Parsifal’s spiritual journey, but that didn’t seem a consistent theme. While he was significantly short of simply being a cipher, his transition from naïve fool to world-weary knight seemed almost piecemeal. Hopefully in future when this production will undoubtedly return – with or without Kaufmann in the title role – more attention will be focused on Parsifal the character.

The Gurnemanz of René Pape seems to have elicited contrasting opinion. For some he was magnificent both in voice and character, for others while he sounded good he was one-dimensional. There is no doubting the strength and beauty of Pape’s singing and while he did sing with authority, I have to admit that his performance was somewhat colourless and at times almost bland. Again, this Gurnemanz seemed almost one-dimensional in terms of the development of the character.

For me one of the stand out performances was Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry. Vocally she was superb. Her voice was rich and even throughout its register and she managed the range of emotions with great dexterity, colouring and bending her voice with ease to build possibly one of two of the strongest characterisations o the stage. Particularly moving and convincing was her performance alongside Kaufmann in the Second Act. Even her final redemption although Girard’s artistic licence in terms of the Grail’s reveal before her death was an emotional focal point.

I still remember Evgeny Nikitn’s Telramund in Munich and while his Klingsor was not as powerful, it was still a strong performance. His dark bass was ideally suited to the role and his overall portrayal – while sometime risking stepping over the boundary into caricature – was convincing.

However it was Peter Mattei’s pained Amfortas that delivered the most convincing performance – both musically and dramatically. It was an amazing debut performance in this role and was clearly a carefully thought out interpretation. And this was combined with some beautifully nuanced singing.

The single area of disappointment in the musical performance was the off stage chorus. However I put this down to a sound quality problem rather than the singing itself.

As this was part of the HD broadcast before curtain up in the intervals the Met employed a singer to interview the cast, director and conductor. In the past they have used with great success Joyce DiDonato and Deborah Voigt for example. Sadly, on this occasion they used Eric Owens who was either too inexperienced or badly prepared. As well as not always getting his lines right – which you could generously put down to nerves at speaking to a global audience – the questions that I heard him ask were nothing short of disastrous. For example, asking Gatti how he managed to conduct without a score was summarily dismissed by the maestro and his questioning of Peter Mattei did not elicit one answer that made any sense. Only a consummate spin-doctor like Gelb seemed to come off unscathed by Owen’s lack of interview prowess.

Clearly, in this role Owens is clearly more Mime than Alberich. A shame.

A great deal was made about how this production of Parsifal was definitely not set in the traditional era of knights and damsels. And of all Wagner’s operas Parsifal is the one that presents the greatest challenge to any director.

Parsifal represents the final – and not always happy or balanced – symbiosis of all Wagner’s beliefs on religion, mysticism and Buddhism and the various philosophers in one single moment. The opera is about a journey of discovery, suffering and redemption but all too often that journey is centred simply on Parsifal himself and not those around him. Here there seemed to be an even lesser focus on characterization than would be expected.

And an opera brimming with so much inbuilt symbolism requires someone with a clear sense of navigation otherwise not only the narrative but also the meaning can become hazy or even lost.

I enjoyed the excellent Herheim production – sadly only on DVD – and in terms of live performance I have seen both the ENO revival and Covent Garden’s production. The latter, directed by Grüber and made memorable for John Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz was impressive for its spirit of understatement. More recently, Lehnhoff’s production at the Coliseum with its ‘after-God’ setting managed to convey the themes of redemption, love and hope stripped of their Christian overtones and packed an emotional punch although I personally think the director undermined his own narrative with his ending. Indeed it was interesting to read at the time that it had taken over a decade for some of the original ideas in Lehnhoff’s production to finally crystallise.

At times it seemed that Girard’s approach to Parsifal – the result of five years work – was a concept rather than an interpretation. His often hinted at something but ultimately his ideas didn’t seem to coalesce into anything truly substantial except a series of – at times – visually arresting tableaux.

This was a Parsifal set in no specific time. During the prelude, with its use of a slightly reflective screen, men slowly stripped off coats, shoes and watches as if suggesting that they inhabited a place that did not exist except in the audiences mind. Parsifal was not so subtly spot lit and this scene – as with the rest of the opera – was steeped in Carolyn Choa’s distinctive choreography.

As the first act opened we found ourselves in an anonymous landscape, the ground barren with a single rivulet of running water that symbolically turned red with blood. Clearly this was a not so subtle reference to the wound of Christ and for the entire opera the two groups – the men and the women – did not stray across it to their opposing sides.

All the men were in white shirts, the women in veils. The men were the focus of all activity – some of which is slightly trance-like and again indicative of Choa’s choreography, with the women more often than not in the background. It is only at the end that the women only lose their veils and mingle with the men.

The suggestion of a cult was strong and made stronger by the use of pseudo-Christian hand gestures throughout. And yet this vocabulary of gestures was never developed or indeed did not return in the final act.

Yet when we do return to this place in the final act, the post-apocalyptic landscape has become even bleaker. There is hint of frost on the ground with graves and overturned chairs and a vertical shaft of light initially marks the return of the Spear before Parsifal appears over the ridge.

Setting the first and final acts in such a barren landscape requires a clear narrative, sense of direction and management of the use of symbolism. None were much in evidence in Girard’s production. Even the principals – bar Mattei – seemed to lack anything more than a rudimentary sense of characterization through stock poses and gestures and had it not been for the intensity of the music making there would have been a real risk of dramatic inertia.

Even Girard’s Parsifal stood out simply because of his costume and there only seemed a basic attempt to portray any sense of either innocence or the fool. For example, peering over the shoulders of the men as Amfortas revealed the Grail seemed not only weak but also insignificant. And in the final act he returns a broken man who miraculously revives to become king. There was no sense of the fragility or even spirituality in this hero.

Klingsor’s kingdom in the second act was in stark contrast to the first. Set, it seemed, in some kind of hell complete with a sea of blood and white-smocked damsels, Nikitin’s Klingsor looked as if he had had a bad fall. The pincushion effect of numerous Spears seemed a contradiction to the idea of a single weapon and there was less a sense of sensuality and danger than inspiration drawn from Hammer Horror movies. The entire act was saved only by Dalayman’s and Kaufmann’s singing and indeed the mannered choreography of the denouement seemed like a missed opportunity and somewhat of an anti-climax.

Throughout the opera the backdrop was constantly moving with digital imagery. There were the ubiquitous clouds in various formations, images suggestive of a more ‘cosmic’ – clearly meant to infer ‘buddhist’ iconography in some way -and ultimately what I could only reason to be an orange planet. In many ways, the videography – whether intentional or not – reminded me of Lars von Trier’s Melancolia with its own use of Wagner’s music. The background images simply didn’t marry convincingly with the narrative that Girard was attempting to create in the foreground.

Therefore for me at least none of Girard’s ideas – visual or physical – created a cohesive whole or sense of direction. Even the ending, with the simplest symbolism of clouds separating to reveal sunlight on a blemished land failed to convince.

Indeed it seemed that the journey referred to by Girard and others in their interviews was at best more a physical – almost simply a cross-stage journey – than either a spiritual or temporal one.

I have to admit that perhaps the overall scale of Girard’s production might have been lost in the cinema where – as I have said – you only see ever really see part of the entire production. However you have to believe that Girard used the camera to focus on those elements that would bring sense to his interpretation. I never go that feeling I am afraid.

Yet I was left with a sense that somewhere inside that production was an idea worth developing and I can only hope that successive revivals will work to refine and distil what Girard was trying to say.

Yet strangely unsatisfying as the Met’s new production of Parsifal was to watch, there was no denying the overall impact musically of Gatti and his singers.

Wagner’s final work – his Bühnenweihfestspiel – is meant to be a challenge. However it is made harder to contemplate and reflect on if the substance of the direction is as diffused and unclear as the sky often was above it.

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