What I did on my summer vacation

I wrote about opera and modern life in Saturday’s New York Times:

Beneath the artifice, the virtuosic singing and the foreign languages, opera’s stories are deeply familiar: tales of love, loss and duty that anyone could identify with. But lately, there’s another way that opera has been recognizable to many in its audiences: its dissatisfaction with the state of the world.

During a recent operagoing trip to Europe, I was struck not by the extent to which productions were placed in the present — contemporary settings are routine there to an extent they are not in the United States — but by the degree to which they were critical of the universes they portrayed. They were, above all, savage and skeptical, and therefore felt very much of our moment.

You can read the whole thing here.

The above also constitutes my review of Lohengrin in Zürich. To add a few more review-y things: it’s hard to judge in the Opernhaus Zürich, which is approximately the size of a two-car garage, but Rachel Willis-Sørensen sounds like a genuine jugendlich-dramatischer Sopran, which is always exciting. She’s only in her early thirties and it will be exciting to see where her voice goes. Anna Smirnova was a big and blowsy Ortrud whose dramatic highlight was a point at which she kicked a bunch of bouquets off tables like an aggressively untrained soccer player. Finally, this a performance found Fabio Luisi doing Peak Luisi (delicate, exquisite) and I found the production involving and admirable if not very thrilling.

Hopefully I will soon be able to very belatedly complete my review of Die Frau ohne Schatten in Munich (which currently is a draft and a lot of notes), mostly because the conducting was extremely good.

Das Land des Lächelns in Zurich

I went to Zürich and I talked to director Andreas Homoki about his production of Franz Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns. My article is in this week’s issue of VAN.

In Franz Lehár’s 1929 operetta “Das Land des Lächelns,” a Viennese lady, Lisa, loves a Chinese diplomat, Sou-Chong. She follows him back to China and marries him, only for them to ultimately be forced apart by Chinese custom. In 1929, this was a plea for tolerance by its two Jewish librettists. But today, its depiction of a cruel, exotic China gives us pause. Watching the Opernhaus Zürich’s new production, I was struck by a piece whose intentions were trapped within the limitations of its own perspective.

“It’s not a piece about China. It’s about a woman in an alien environment which draws her husband away from her,” said Andreas Homoki, who directed the production and is also the general director of the Opernhaus Zürich, in a recent interview.  Compared to many directors, the genial Homoki is specific and practical when discussing his work. “It could be anything, could be Arab, could be Aboriginal, but it’s China because China was fashionable at the time.”

Read the whole thing here. I was happy to work with the editors of VAN (and their exceptionally snazzy design)!

I didn’t write the article as a review, so I would like to add here: Piotr Beczala sounded terrific as Sou-Chong, the best he’s sounded in a while and probably the best Sou-Chong since Nicolai Gedda. Julia Kleiter was stylish and fun. And the reserved Fabio Luisi was disconcertingly gleeful. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen his hair become disheveled, something I did not believe to be possible.

Photo copyright Toni Suter

Carmen and Rake’s Progress in Aix

I went to the Aix Festival and covered it for the New York Times. First I reviewed an outstanding production of Carmen:

At the beginning of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s remarkable new production of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Aix Festival here, the audience is warned that “tonight’s performance contains scenes that may seem like actual danger. Please be aware that they are part of the show.”

Such a disclaimer may be wise reassurance in these jittery times. But it is also a welcome promise: This daring Russian director plans to find some particularly modern anxiety in a work that has become dulled by overexposure.

Boldly rewriting the opera’s dialogue to accommodate his concept, Mr. Tcherniakov presents “Carmen” as a large-scale role-play, a novel bit of psychotherapy for a numb modern man.

You can read it here.

I also tried to get a whole lot of social media slang through the editorial process in my review of The Rake’s Progress (mostly successfully!):

I wish I had money,” sings Tom Rakewell, the aimless protagonist of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” which opened on Wednesday at the Aix Festival here. A satire of quests for fame and fortune, the piece seems in this staging more modern than ever. Many of its characters are, as the kids say, thirsty — desperately seeking the instant celebrity of our internet age.

You can read the full review here.

Photo copyright Patrick Berger

Die Gezeichneten in Munich

Upon the premiere of Die Gezeichneten in 1918, Franz Schreker was hailed as the heir apparent of German opera. He was compared favorably to Strauss; according to him, in a sarcastically self-aggrandizing text read at the beginning of Act 3 in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production of this opera, he was “the only true heir to Wagner.” That was, alas, the high point of his career and in 1934 he died of a stroke shortly after been declared “degenerate” by the Nazis. Today he lives at the margins of the repertory, representing an extreme of a kind of overheated yet philosophical early twentieth-century opera that makes Salome look like The Magic Flute. A ticket to a Schreker opera guarantees a trip through sin, redemption, brothels, transcendence, the mind of the artist, degradation, and more orgiastic musical depictions of a sunrise than all the recordings of Zarathustra ever made put together. It’s great it if you have the orchestra for it, but once every few years seems about right.

The Bayerische Staatsoper does have the orchestra for it, as well as a new production by Krzysztof Warlikowski that, while not exactly lucid, gets at the abstract issues in the middle of this piece.

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She’s on a boat

On Tuesday I went back to my old stomping ground, the Wiener Staatsoper, a return not particularly highly anticipated by me nor, I assume, by anyone else. With the Staatsoper you roll your dice and you take your chances—even the most formidable casts can be undone here by a total lack of rehearsal. But sometimes you get lucky (and not always at the performances with all the famous people). And despite having only one shot, this time I did.  This dark, dreamy Pelléas, a “new” production by Marco Arturo Marelli, is surprisingly worth seeing. Continue reading