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.

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Katharina Wagner’s Bayreuth Meistersinger paints the town

Katharina Wagner’s Bayreuth production of Die Meistersinger is widely loathed (and the director was indeed greeted by a torrent of boos at the end). A few people covertly whispered to me, “I actually kind of like it,” as if they were confessing on the sacred ground of the Green Hill that they prefer Verdi to Wagner. As a matter of general principle I would have loved to join this secret circle of Katharina admirers, but in the end I was unconvinced (though not loathing). Which is too bad, because there’s some genuinely interesting stuff in this thing. The only problem is that it’s a mess, and unfortunately not an entertaining one.

More disappointing was the low musical quality of this performance.

Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Wagner-Festspiele Bayreuth, 7/26/2011. Production by Katharina Wagner, conducted by Sebastian Weigle with James Rutherford (Hans Sachs), Burkhard Fritz (Walther von Stolzing), Michaela Kaune (Eva), Adrian Eröd (Beckmesser), Norbert Ernst (David), Georg Zeppenfeld (Veit Pogner).

This production is already available on DVD, but it has undergone some changes in recent years. You can see a bit of the DVD at the end of this post.

The setup is clear enough. The masters are part of a museum-like space or academy dedicated to the worship of dead art, with the uniformed apprentices as their students. Their art is not just singing but, in vaguely-Gesamtkunstwerk-ish fashion, a little bit of all the arts. Scattered around the set are a cello, a piano, some Dürer and other paintings, and an enormous number of Reclam books (little yellow paperback editions of classic German literature). The worship is even takes the form of religion, with a communion-like ceremony around one of the Reclams.

Among this reactionary, mindless, and rule-bound worship of the past (David spends his rules lesson photocopying Reclams, and the apprentices take a good 10 minutes to assemble a big table in faultlessly ordered fashion), Walther is an action painter or graffiti artist who splashes paint on whatever is nearby, preferably some icon of past culture like a piano or a cello. The use of visual art as a realization of the various singer characters’ performances is a theme of the entire production, and ultimately for me its biggest sticking point. In Act 1, it’s clear enough: Given a giant jigsaw puzzle of Nuremberg, Beckmesser assembles it “correctly” and Walther makes an Escher-like crazy landscape.


After the heavy-handed, single-minded Act 1, Act 2 is more scattered. The apprentices, seated at tables, show no excitement about the upcoming party, content with their rules. Sachs, who flirted with Eva at the very opening and spent the trial scene as a barefoot hippie without the robes of the other masters, is also a creator of a sort, daring not to photocopy but to use a typewriter. There’s no shoemaking, and he pounds on the typewriter during the hammering song, but not on the beats that you would expect (this actually really bothered me). However, it does start raining sneakers at this point. Make of that what you will. Eva’s idea of flirting with Walther is to let him paint all over her. The Wahn that breaks lose in the riot involves a lot more thrown paint, more a large-scale act of performance art than anything violent. (After the curtain opened on the second and third acts, a whiff of paint remover gradually wafted through the theater.)

Beckmesser 2.0

This production wants to be a drama of ideas. Unfortunately, the first two acts have such a narrow concept that it turns obvious and repetitious. The stage is usually in motion, but without character development. You can only watch people dump paint on things for so long before you lose interest. This seems a shame for Meistersinger, which more than any other Wagner work is populated by accessible human characters. Katharina (sorry, her last name obliges us to be on first-name terms) doesn’t seem to be interested in that, and there’s not enough else going on.

The Act 3 staging is the stage direction equivalent of the Act 2 riot, and the content gets a lot more diverse and interesting. But suddenly there’s so much happening that it’s hard to keep up. Hans Sachs turns out to not be such a liberal after all, and tutors Walther in the painting of a realistic image of trees, later elaborated in the final scene’s Preislied into a tableau vivant stage set of old-school Wagnerian medieval kitsch. Walther’s supposed aesthetic realignment is one of bourgeois conformity, as in the quintet when he and Eva, David and Magdalene form picture-perfect nuclear families. He exchanges his purple pants, and Sachs his casual outfit, for fancy business suits.

Scary Sachs

As we move into the meadow, a bunch of icons of German thinkers in their underwear with oversized masks tie Sachs to a chair and perform a weird dance. This went right over my head. Somewhat clarifying was the subsequent appearance of a conductor, stage director, and designer, who bow and are then stuffed in a dumpster and melted down to form a golden stag (calf?) of some sort. Creativity has been demolished in favor of a new conservatism.

In turn with Walther’s transformation, Beckmesser becomes like the Walther of Acts 1 and 2, performing a weird performance art piece at the trial involving a sand sculpture and some naked people. The crowd, an identically-dressed group who could be Bayreuther Festspiele-goers, prefers Walther’s Mastersinger-like vision over Beckmesser’s incomprehensible avant-garde, and he is awarded a the golden calf, plus a giant check from the Nürnberger Bank like he just won a reality TV show. As Sachs warns about the threatened sacred German art, the stage dims to make him a sinister, solitary figure. The tyranny of the reactionary masses has triumphed again.

Katharina seems to owe something to Adorno. She suggests that Wagner’s argument in favor of revolutionary art is a mixed message, cloaked as it is in a decidedly non-revolutionary form, and reminds us that its subsequent legacy (particularly at Bayreuth) has been not an endorsement of artistic freedom but of arch-conservatism. This is interesting, and it’s a shame that the show itself is often so inept, poorly paced and blocked that it isn’t transmitted more clearly and engagingly.

I also think the interpretation works much more closely with the words than the music. It sets up the metaphor of mastersinging to visual arts, but then stages a transformation in both Walther’s and Beckmesser’s styles of painting that is not reflected in their music. Walther’s style changes between Act 1 and Act 3, but only in a matter of degree, not the radical shift of his painting aesthetic from splashing to realistic landscape. And Beckmesser’s Act 2 and Act 3 music is stylistically consistent, but his painting is not. This seems like a case of wanting to have one’s Regie cake and eat it too.

She also did not have the benefit of a good cast. The first problem was Sebastian Weigle’s soggy conducting. Granted, the Festspielhaus does not present an ideal acoustic for Meistersinger, but only he can be blamed for the weirdly quiet brass, leaden tempos (losing Sachs at several points during the Hammering Song, because he could not sing slowly enough), and complete lack of grandeur. The orchestral playing was mostly OK, though the woodwinds went out of tune a few times.

The singing was rather below A-list level and, despite enthusiasm, genuine charisma was in short supply. According to some regulars, last year’s Klaus Florian Vogt lent a degree of charm to this bratty interpretation of Walther, but I can say that this year’s tenor, Burkhard Fritz, most certainly did not. While he was rarely inaudible and never really made ugly sounds (more than can be said of many Wagner tenors), his completely underpowered, seemingly lyric tenor was colorless and lacking in thrust and ardor. Resembling, tragically, recent Mickey Rourke, he was more an aging B-list rocker than a revolutionary.

James Rutherford was a very youthful Sachs, and his cavernous but unfocused voice carried little gravitas. Michaela Kaune made an acceptable Eva, though sounded a bit overripe. Highlights were surprisingly two Wiener Staatsoper regulars: Adrian Eröd’s accurate and funny Beckmesser and, most of all, Norbert Ernst’s brightly sung David, who overpowered Fritz at times. With all due respect to Ernst, when David is your vocal highlight, that’s a Meistersinger with some problems. The other smaller roles were finely sung and well rehearsed.

My first Bayreuth performance was still a memorable experience, due to it being Bayreuth, but luckily I returned later in the week for what turned out to be an infinitely better experience. More on that shortly.

Photos copyright Enrico Nawarth/Bayreuther Festspiele

DVD trailer:

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There’s gold in that Rhein

Like a tired god who hasn’t had his apple a day, Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s bargain-basement Ring trudged back onto the Wiener Staatsoper’s stage last night. You could say it’s devoid of cheap effects, but the problem is that it’s basically devoid of any other kind of effect as well. A last-minute conductor swap from ailing music director Franz Welser-Möst to Adam Fischer also did the evening no favors, and a few overacting singers couldn’t salvage it single-handedly. This is the start of a cycle I’m planning on going to all of. I’m worried.

Wagner, Das Rheingold. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/6/2011. Production by Sven-Erik Bechtolf (revival), conducted by Adam Fischer with Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), Adrian Eröd (Loge), Tomasz Konieczny (Alberich), Michaela Schuster (Fricka), Anna Larsson (Erda), Günter Groissböck (Fafner)

This Ring got off to an inauspicious start, with loud and out-of-tune horn entrances in a heavy-handed Vorspiel. More like the Donaukanal than the Rhine. Despite the orchestra’s ever-impressive sound, the mushy textures, poor balance, and general shapelessness made this evening a trial. Things improved a bit over the course of the performance but this was really uninspiring stuff. I don’t want to blame last-minute substitute Fischer too harshly; it was surely the orchestra’s fault as well. Some individual moments worked, but just as many fell flat, and momentum was lacking. Earth to the anvil folks doing the dotted rhythm part: you were totally out of sync with the others.

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production, designed by Rolf and Maria [sic in the program, it’s Marianne] Glittenberg, is minimalist to the point of being a void. Some static images are starkly striking, but there is no vision of the drama. A bare stage is adorned with some styrofoam rocks, and at least at this revived point there’s little characterization to fill in the story. This production caused conflict between Bechtolf and former intendant Ioan Holender, and Bechtolf at one point asked his name be removed from a revival due to the amount of rehearsals it was getting. His name did appear on the program last night, but I don’t think a whole lot of rehearsals were a factor now, either.

The dress is Bechtolf’s pet early twentieth-century period, though what this means is never clear. A few other Bechtolf trademarks are present: Fricka’s glittery art deco gown, scattered female body parts (this time the Rheingold itself, previously he stuck these into Lulu). Alberich’s um, action with the gold and later casting of it into said female body parts suggests that his renouncing of love thing had major Freudian effects, but that’s all I got for meaning. The big set pieces are disappointing and anticlimactic, with only vague video projections providing Alberich as a serpent and a rainbow bridge. The interpersonal stuff comes across a little better. Though the interpretation is all utterly conventional, it is at least less static than last week’s Anna Bolena. The white suits and occasionally unintentionally comic blocking give it the feeling of a fin-de-siècle sitcom, which I’m going to dub Oh My Gods!. Also, Donner carries his hammer in a glittery hammer-shaped case. Just saying.

As often happens in these sorts of evenings, a few canny singers noted the vacuum and attempted to fill it. Most notable was Adrian Eröd as Loge in the required Oh My Gods! sitcom role of Wotan’s Gay Best Friend, a shamelessly campy and over the top performance but still the most fun thing going on. Hearing his light baritone in this role was strange and while he managed it well I think I prefer a brighter tenor sound. Michaela Schuster is not vocally memorable but made an interesting Fricka with great attention to the text and acting details.

Günther Groissböck was a last-minute substitute for ill Ain Anger as Fafner and while the two identical giants covered in black foam balls do not allow for much in the way of charismatic performance, he sounded excellent. Tomasz Konieczny offered a solid, loud, reliable Alberich with an excellent Curse. He tore into the role with gusto (including his Rhine swimming, which seemed to involve an invisible Hula Hoop), more sleazy than sinister but vocally more commanding than Juha Uusitalo’s bland and underpowered Wotan. Nevertheless, Uusitalo gave a somewhat more dynamic and insightful portrayal than I have seen from him in the past. Anna Larsson sounded good in her signature role of Erda, and the supporting roles were filled well enough. However, a general musical slackness pervaded the evening.

I hope things improve for tonight’s Walküre, which is my favorite of the Ring operas music dramas.

Photos copyright Alex Zenninger/Wiener Staatsoper

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Billy Budd, indomitable

Surprise! For once a Wiener Staatsoper production that is more rather than less than the sum of its parts. The “musikalische Neuinstudierung” of this Billy Budd has gone a long way, and the ensemble and chorus of the Staatsoper get to shine. That means, do your best to ignore most of the principals. The production isn’t going to do much to get your attention either. But it’s pretty good, all told.

Britten, Billy Budd. Wiener Staatsoper, 2/9/2011. Production by Willy Decker (revival), conducted by Graeme Jenkins with Neil Shicoff (Vere), Adrian Eröd (Billy), Peter Rose (John Claggart), lots more.

Willy Decker’s austere, elegant production is from 1996 but is only in its 26th performance. (You probably know Decker from his famous “red couch Traviata,” seen recently at the Met and earlier at the Salzburg Festival.) Nevertheless, it seems like a shell. Contra the protests of my standing room neighbor, there is nothing radical about it. The costumes are traditional period, though Billy wears pure white while everyone else wears marine blues. Whatever could that mean? The sets are more abstract. The outer deck shows a ship whose prow faces upstage (rather like Act I of Dieter Dorn’s Met Tristan). Onstage ship settings are always challenging, because if you want to be realistic those things are cramped, but Decker and set designed Wolfgang Gussmann leave the nautical allusions to the costumes and the one outer set, keeping the other sets cavernous and minimal.

Unfortunately, the direction consists largely of transitions between pretty stage pictures stripped of their motivation. Choruses move as masses, but they don’t really communicate anything at this point. Some bits of remaining Personenregie are a little over-the-top, such as Claggart crawling around the stage. One interesting element is the connection of Billy’s stammer to his bursts of violence, as his stammer is accompanied by spasms. I don’t doubt that this production worked very well when Decker was on hand supervising it all and making sure the characterizations came through, but today it doesn’t seem to have much to say about the piece. It’s beautiful, but empty. It’s neutral, if you want to be more positive about it.

(Note: The pictures in this post show the cast I saw with the exception of the one at the very top.)

Adrian Eröd sang Billy quite well, his dry, clear baritone a good fit for Britten and his last scene powerful. But he suffered from a charisma deficit, seems too knowing and wise at key points, and in a role that makes unusual demands of physical presence he is not going to land on the Barihunks blog anytime soon (he seems a bit of a lightweight). (The Barihunks blog: comprised mostly of potential or current Billys.)

Neil Shicoff was announced as indisposed in a notice that mixed an unnecessary quantity of medical detail with a few too many entreaties that he was singing anyways out of the goodness of his heart for his adoring public. He is very popular here, but come on. I don’t know to what extent this indisposition motivated him to sing Captain Vere like he was Dick Johnson, but it’s not to my taste. It was loud, loud, and louder, and while convincingly tortured he did not seem the type to have ever picked up a book. Introspection and delicacy were nowhere to be found. Verismo Vere worked in Act 2, and his wobbles calmed down for some quite impressive singing, but he had been so tortured all evening that it didn’t feel like a high point. The overstatement was both vocal and acting, so it could not have been entirely due to illness.

Peter Rose was the most idiomatic of the leads as an imposing, loud Claggart, and was effectively acted if broadly-drawn. Some of the staging given to him in Act 1 did not seem to fit naturally, but his interactions with the rest of the cast were compellingly creepy.

The real winners in this production were the ensemble and chorus, seemingly involving every 2nd Guard, Nazarene, and Servant I’ve seen at the Staatsoper all season. I don’t know this opera well so I can’t pick out too many people individually, but the overall level was impressive, and the way they all sang together more so. I would like to highlight Alfred Sramek as Dansker (as usual in a role requiring more avuncularity than voice) Markus Eiche as Mr. Redburn, Clemens Unterreiner as Lieutenant Ratcliffe (I think it was him) and Norbert Ernst as Squeak. English was a little off in some places (the Cabin Boy’s German accent was kind of hilarious), but mostly comprehensible. The chorus in particular showed wonderful ensemble and expression.

Much of the credit for the above ensemble also belongs to conductor Graeme Jenkins. The orchestra was also a little less than idiomatic, with a lustrous Old World sound sometimes lacking in leanness and tension. But for what it was it was gorgeous, the clarity of texture was remarkable, and balances and tempos spot on (with a few inevitable exceptions, this is very exposed music). It had, on the whole, a reflective, almost meditative quality–exactly what I thought was missing from Shicoff’s Vere. It was a shame that the set movers had to be so noisy during those heartbreaking chords near the end. You know the ones I mean.

Despite the issues, this is well worth seeing, and a powerful evening. Would that more Staatsoper shows came together so well! Plenty have better raw ingredients than this one and yet inferior results.

(One more comment from my offended elderly British neighbor in standing room. He was mansplaining the opera to me before the show, and carefully warned me that there were no female roles. In simple sincerity, he asked, “Do you like men?” I replied, as deadly serious as I could possibly be without giggling, “Yes. I like men.” Because I’m actually 13 years old. Luckily this flew right over his head. Was tempted to add, “And I don’t mind that this opera is gay gay gay gay.”)

There are two performances remaining: 13 and 17 February.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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Die Fledermaus: Bring your own fizz

Appreciation of the Wiener Staatsoper’s ritual New Year’s Fledermaus depends on your appreciation of Viennese rituals in general, of jokes about current Austrian politics in particular, of the simple joy of watching a tenor fall on his ass, and most of all on the amount of Champagne you have drunk. I missed the legendary special-guests New Year’s Eve showing (this year: Netrebko and Schrott) and went to the hangover special the next day instead. Once you get past the sociological aspects, this was a mostly first-rate cast threading their way through the greasy cogs of an ancient schticky Otto Schenk production with varying degrees of aplomb. Not bad, but magic only in a Viennese imagination.

Johann Strauss, Die Fledermaus. Wiener Staatsoper, 1/1/2011. Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by Patrick Lange with Markus Werba (Eisenstein), Camilla Nylund (Rosalinde), Angelika Kirchschlager (Prinz Orlofsky), Michael Schade (Alfred), Daniela Fally (Adele), Adrian Eröd (Falke), Helmuth Lohner (Frosch)

The sets and the tragic hair on the heads of the women suggest that this Otto Schenk production dates from the mid- to late-1970’s. It’s impressively lavish but rather cluttered and visually speaking strictly by-the-book realist (documented on this 1980 DVD with Gruberova, Popp, and Weikl). The turntable that took us to Prinz Orlowsky’s dining room got applauded, which tells you all you need to know.  The direction features quite a lot of silly choreography in the ensemble numbers. But this two-performance run did not seem to be well-rehearsed, and this kind of thing requires very good ensemble timing to pull off with flair. The dramatic beats were signposted and underlined by the cast as they all tried to get into position for the next moment, and interaction was minimal. It seemed more sketched than realized, and some moments, like the Unter Donner und Blitz ballet, were just clumsy. This is too bad, because most of the cast was excellent and I’m sure they could have had an outstanding Fledermaus in them, even in this dated production. When they were able to loosen up in their solo moments, they were universally better.

Fally, Werba, and Nylund

Unfortunately the cast had a weakness at its center, and that was Markus Werba’s Eisenstein. This seemed to be a case of a Leporello being cast as Don Giovanni: too young, not sufficiently bourgeois, and vocally not authoritative. He was completely overshadowed by Adrian Eröd’s arch and polished Dr. Falke, probably the best overall role portrait of the evening (does he sing Eisenstein? also, nice handstand). Almost as good was Daniela Fally’s Adele. Unlike her Sophie of last week, her singing was precise, light, and full of humor, and her acting again very good (spoken with what sounded to me like credible Viennese dialect). Angelika Kirchschlager’s Orlowsky was similarly accomplished, with some of the best singing of the evening and appropriately off-kilter acting in this unfortunately short role. Alfred Sramek was similarly amiable as Frank, particularly in the third act’s drunken extravaganza.

Camille Nylund has a large voice for Rosalinde, but navigated the acrobatics quite well, though the end of the Csardas was not her best moment. While a good actress, she did not have quite the touch for comedy as some of the rest of the cast, and emerged as the straight woman of the production. Michael Schade as Alfred was willingly the simple buffoon, with gleefully parodic singing, many pratfalls, and tenorial in-jokes and references (I believe these are attached to the production rather than him, but I counted La Bohème, Parsifal, Lohengrin, Die Walküre, and Fidelio, I’m probably forgetting a few).

Particularly in Vienna, Act 3 of Fledermaus is a drawn-out affair, with sparse music and plot development and lots of unrelated stand-up comedy (much of which is not explained in the English titles, by the way). Last night our Frosch was veteran actor Helmuth Lohner, and while I could understand almost all of what he was saying, my grasp of current Austrian politics was not sufficient to appreciate many of the jokes. While drunken physical comedy doesn’t depend on cultural knowledge, I still thought it was far too long, and I wanted to return to the plot.

I’m still sad they cut Murray the Comic Canadian in Act 2, though. (I realize that everyone does this, but come on, guys, he’s a comic Canadian! Michael Schade could do it, Alfred isn’t in Act 2!)

Up-and-coming stick-waver Patrick Lange boasts an impressive head of Conductor Hair but led unobtrusively, and while his account was well-judged and phrased, it lacked the headlong rush and brilliance this opera can reach. I appreciated that he was not a young conductor speed demon, but it could have been more exciting. The post-Neujahrskonzert orchestra sounded suitably sparkling in the overture and perfectly fine elsewhere (though it was more Donner and less Blitz in the ballet). Strings better than the occasionally bumpy winds, as usual.

Had things managed to gel a little better, this could have been an outstanding performance, but it was something less than the sum of its parts. Alas, such is the repertory norm.

This post concludes for now my survey of Otto Schenk at the Wiener Staatsoper; soon I will turn to productions of these same operas by some modern enfants terribles (some not so jeunes) for comparison. I am posting from Munich, where I just saw Claus Guth’s brain-teaser of a Luisa Miller at the Bayerische Staatsoper. It required more thought than all the Otto Schenk productions put together. I didn’t like everything about it but it felt like a giant relief to have something to chew on after all this literalism. Singing was also excellent. Turntable used a lot but not applauded once.  No Schenk comparison for this one but I didn’t want to skip it.  More on all of this in coming days.

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Reimann’s Medea: Keeping it in the family

 Aribert Reimann is not easy listening.  His music is modernist with no trace of post-: dense, dissonant, non-tonal, and deadly serious.  But his opera Medea was a surprise hit when it premiered at the Wiener Staatsoper last February, and in its first revival at the house it was not hard to see why.  The libretto is clear as can be, the drama incredibly intense as well as emotionally accessible, and the music, despite its density, tells the story with a directness that is easy to hear even on the first time through.

Reimann, Medea. Wiener Staatsoper, 12/7/2010.  Production by Marco Arturo Marelli, conducted by Michael Boder with Claudia Barainsky (Medea), Adrian Eröd (Jason), Michael Roider (Creon), Stephanie Houtzeel (Creusa), Elisabeth Kulman (Gora), Max Emanuel Cenic (Herold)

(FIRST a quick reminder if you are on the Twitter to follow me on the Twitter so my follower count isn’t pathetic.)

Reimann’s source material is not Euripides or Ovid or Seneca (or even Corneille) but rather the third part of Franz Grillparzer’s trilogy of plays The Golden Fleece (1822).  Reimann adapted the text directly from Grillparzer without a librettist, Salome-style.  This works well.  The language and psychological world of the work feel remarkably modern, with complex characters who are all to some extent sympathetic.  We begin as Medea and Jason seek refuge with King Creon in Corinth, and even many of the thematic concerns of the plot–Medea is a racial outsider who must discard her headscarf–feel all too relevant.

The set represents a hilly, rocky landscape that could be the surface of the moon (and that is how much comfort it seems to give the characters).  An austerely bare modern room sits stage left, rising and falling, sometimes stage level and sometimes connected to the ground by stairs.  This is the home of the “civilized” world of Creon, and he and his tribe wear pure white while Medea, her nurse Gora, and her children wear colorful, vaguely Middle Eastern robes in warm red and purple.  Jason acquires white clothes once he has been brought back into his former home, and the children do as well once they are adopted by Creusa.

Reimann’s music is angular and violent, but each character does develop a distinctive voice.  Orchestrally, there is a lot going on (particularly in the percussion section), but the balance is pretty good.  Medea is one of those insane dramatic coloratura roles characteristic of post-war German opera, she is yet another suffering woman singing high Fs. (See also Die Soldaten, Simplicius Simpiccisimus, the ur-source Lulu, and almost anything else in the repertoire of Claudia Barainsky.  Sometimes I wish Strauss had never opened Pandora’s coloratura box by composing my namesake.)  Medea rages from high notes to low, skipping around everywhere in between.  To my ear her music often sounded vaguely pentatonic, but this may have been my imagination used to pentatonic exotic characters.  Jason’s music (lyric baritone) is no more stable but not as extreme in range.  Creon is a muscular tenor of no great imagination or variety, and Creusa (lyric mezzo) gets the most memorable profile of all, a flurry of silly, bouncy coloratura showing her unknowing superficiality.

It’s an exciting score, and the tension barely lifts from the ghostly start until just before Medea’s (offstage) infanticide. Her solo scene leading up to her murder of her children is a tour de force, starting in haunting quiet and building to the rage she had shown throughout the opera.  But the post-murder coda is full of astonishingly placid lyricism, a cathartic and beautiful end to a score that is otherwise very harsh.  It’s a powerful piece of work, harrowing without the over-the-top, numbingly cruel misery of some modern opera, it’s tragic in the best sense.  (Only in a period like this could a work in which a woman kills her own children be called restrained.)

The production is straightforward and effective.  Jason forcibly leaving Medea in the ascending room stage left, she clinging to his hand, is a particularly memorable image.  Medea’s magic disturbs the (volcanic-looking) rocks upstage–unfortunately as they roll down the hill their unlikely weightlessness is unmistakable.  The blocking is impressively detailed for such complicated music (not to mention for a Wiener Staatsoper revival), and kept everything psychologically clear.

Putting on Reimann in a repertory house is a major challenge, of course.  The singers in this production were the same as in the premiere, with the exception of Claudia Barainsky in the title role (premiere cast Marlis Petersen was to appear in this revival but is ill; Barainsky sang the work’s German premiere this fall) and Stephanie Houtzeel as Creusa.  Note that all these photos show the premiere cast.  But all the singers were spectacularly good with this impossibly difficult music.  Barainsky has a narrow, focussed soprano with considerable power.  She made an earthy, instinctual Medea; according to some other audience members, Petersen was more aloof.  Adrian Eröd was a smoothly sung, dramatically conflicted Jason, and Houtzeel sang Creusa with flowing tone and skipped around like she was in a Mozart opera.  There wasn’t a weak link in the whole cast, really, Elisabeth Kulman’s dramatic Gora, Michael Roider’s Herod-like Creon, and Max Emanuel Cencic’s forceful countertenor Herold were all strong.

Michael Boder did an excellent job balancing orchestra to singers.  It’s hard to tell in this kind of score if everyone is together or not, but I did get the impression the orchestra was hanging on by the skin of their collective teeth at times. There were attacks that I believe were supposed to be together that were not.  Passagework was dicey, and sections on opposite sides of the pit sounded questionably coordinated.  But I’m not sure if I can really blame them for this.

This was the last performance of this opera this season.  If you’re interested in seeing this work–and I hope you are–a DVD of the premiere is now available.  (It’s available at the Staatsoper, at least, I can’t find it on Amazon yet.)

Next: Tomorrow night is the premiere of Il Postino at the Theater an der Wien, but I think I will be going next week.  I’ll be at the premiere of the new Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper on Saturday for sure.

Bows.  The fellow in the suit on the right is Reimann himself:

Production photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper.

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