The Gig Economy Bride

Greetings, meine Damen und Herren, I appear among you today to convey my Smetana hot takes, which were simply too spicy for social media to handle. Trust the Germans to make The Bartered Bride dark, right?

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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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Abandon all hope with Christian Gerhaher

In Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a small group of actors and musicians wander through a post-apocalyptic landscape, bringing music and theater to an, empty land. Such is also the world of David Bösch’s dark, sad production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, now in its first revival at the Bayerische Staatsoper, again with baritone Christian Gerhaher in an unusual star turn. While not explicitly post-apocalyptic, it is nonetheless a desolate, nocturnal version of our reality–one even the perky, ukulele-carrying spirit of Music fails to brighten.

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La forza della Bavaria

Was it mere coincidence that both operas I saw during my holiday weekend in Germany both considered free will and fate? Or was it…. something more? Meh. There’s none of Hans Neuenfel’s ambiguity on the fate question in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production of La forza del destino. For director Martin Kusej, fate as explication–particularly when wielded by organized religion–is a handy tool of oppression by the powerful. It’s an interesting production, and more notably this was an unusually excitingly sung production of an exceedingly tricky opera.

Verdi, La forza del destino, Bayerische Staatsoper, 5 January 2014. Production directed by Martin Kusej, set designer Martin Zehetgruber, costumes Heidi Hackl, lights Reinhard Traub. Conducted by Ascher Fisch with Anja Harteros (Leonora), Jonas Kaufmann (Alvaro), Ludovic Tézier (Carlo), Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla), Vitalij Kowaljow (Marchese di Calatrava/Padre Guardiano), Renato Girolami (Melitone)

Let me start off by saying that my review of the production is a bit limited, because my view of the stage was a bit limited. I was not too badly put out by this, because I managed to snag a ticket to a ridiculously sold out production only two weeks ahead of time and it cost all of 15 Euros. But I recognize that it is not ideal for a review. (I didn’t watch the webstream.)

I love Forza; I think it’s a fascinating and ridiculously underrated piece that presents enormous musical and dramatic interest and possibilities. (I’ve written about it before.) The, er, “plot” is convoluted and sometimes seems to entirely disappear, as do major characters for acts at a time; the tone swings wildly between the most solemn late Verdi drama and La fille du régiment. It’s the biggest argument against Verdi as a dramatist who operates solely in simple and literal terms. He obviously has more abstract fish to fry here, and a staging that doesn’t reflect this complexity… well, maybe that’s why this opera’s reputation is so bad.

Martin Kusej’s production does make a real attempt at dealing with meaning, though in the end I found it to be something of a hedgehog at loose in a fox of an opera. Like the everpresent table onstage, everything comes down to the destructive effects of patriarchal and religious authority and control. We being with a solemn family dinner at that table, presided over by the Marchese with a prominently placed cross (above). In contrast, Leonora’s forbidden boyfriend Alvaro is quite disreputable-looking and seems to exist well outside the system.

Act 2 seems to be constructed of remanants of this first act in a dream-like way–Leonora’s maid Curra becomes Preziosilla, Carlo grows up (and eventually loses the dorky green sweater), the Marchese becomes the Padre Guardiano, and one of the mysterious dinner guests turns out to be Melitone. Leonora still can’t escape, it seems, and finally submits to the Church (as represented by her dead father, the Marchese/Padre Guardiano) in a baptismal dunking apparently lifted from an American church.

The Act 2 inn set evokes a 9/11 disaster photo, prefiguring the American tone of Act 3, which leaves Leonora for an Iraq-like war. This act begins with a startling tableau of images familiar from the US in Iraq. It’s an apt setting for a chaotic conflict that depends on personal trust. (For an American for whom such things remain open issues, the torture stuff felt underexamined and gratuitous–I don’t think I’m ready to see anything about this as a symbol yet. But it was gone fairly quickly.) The staging of the Alvaro and Carlo scenes, however, is strong and intense (what I saw of it).

The music of the following crowd scenes turns comic but the production remains grim, an orgy that seems ordered out of a Regietheater catalog. This made the production seem a bit deaf to the score’s change of tone, and besides I never got any good sense as to who these people represent or what they’re doing here. While their random appearance and manic energy—were the conductor to become a little more energetic, that is—could seemingly be mined for something grotesque and extreme, here it’s a bit generic and deflated. Even a striking scene of rows of dead bodies in the Rataplan is somehow less horrifying than it should be. (Honestly, after an Abu Gharib tableau, I’m not sure if you have anywhere to go.) The production’s low point comes in the opening of Act 4, which seems to have slipped Kusej’s mind entirely. (Act 3 is rearranged, with the Alvaro-Carlo duet moved after the Rataplan.)

Fortunately, the last act is more effective. Alvaro can’t talk Carlo into forgiveness and Leonore, adrift on a giant pile of white crosses, is not granted her wish for peace. While the Marchese/Padre Guardiano does his blessing duty, Alvaro is no longer convinced of the redemptive power of faith, and ends up throwing one of those crosses on the ground and leaving in despair.

While this production was interesting, the performance’s biggest reward was the singing, more glamorous, charismatic, and committed than you usually hear in this rep. If only the cast hadn’t been consistently counteracted by Asher Fisch’s uninspired conducting. While he and the orchestra got off to a strong prelude, elsewhere he proved too laid-back for his own good, failing to build to climaxes and lacking in energy. This particularly dogged the choral scenes, which tended towards the limp. The chorus, though, was excellent.

Anja Harteros deservedly received the largest ovation for her Leonora. The role suits both her big, dark, slightly grainy soprano and her introverted temperament: she always seems conscious and in control of everything she does, and Leonora here is someone who has never been able to express herself freely. While she doesn’t have the vocal warmth or round sound of a more Italinate soprano, she sounds absolutely like herself and is wonderfully musical. While she doesn’t always have the greatest high notes, the ending of her “Pace, pace” was terrific, and she doesn’t shy away from chest voice, either.

No one would accuse Jonas Kaufmann of being Italian either, but his muscular, forceful tenor and surprisingly bright upper range is perfect for Alvaro’s tortured character. He was also endlessly energetic compared to the more withdrawn Harteros (as well as far greasier-looking compared to her elegance). “Tu, che in seno agli angeli” featured some terrific high soft singing. As Carlo, though, Ludovic Tézier was somewhat overparted and sometimes resorted to barking, as well as struggling with the fioriture in “Urna fatale.” He did his best singing in the duets with Kaufmann, where they blended well.

The supporting cast was good: I kind of wondered what had happened to Vitalji Kowaljow after I heard him sing a pretty strong Wotan a few years ago, and it turns out he is a solid Verdi bass as well. This was the second time I heard Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, and while she has the right kind of spicy tone and sass for it and can hit all the notes loudly, she had an awkward break around the bottom of the staff that impeded her Rataplan. Renato Girolami did nothing to make Melitone seem very necessary, but nor was he annoying.

It’s a shame there isn’t going to be a DVD of this. I’m very glad I got to see it in person.


Photos (copyright Bayerische Staatsoper):

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La traviata: Death on a summer night

My last
night at the Munich Opera Festival ended happily. Elusive Anja Harteros
canceled her first Traviata, but she
showed up for this one, her second. The other two leads, Ramon Vargas and Simon
Keenlyside, both sounded the best I’ve heard them sing in ages, and the three work
together beautifully: not exactly Italian, but dramatically sensitive and musically
stylish in a way that made for a moving performance. The production is tired
and the conducting was unfortunate, but with Traviata the cast can get you a long way.

Verdi, La Traviata. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/31/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Omer Meir Wellber

Inszenierung Günter Krämer
Bühne Andreas Reinhardt
Kostüme Carlo Diappi
Licht Wolfgang Göbbel

Violetta Valéry Anja Harteros
Flora Bervoix Heike Grötzinger
Annina Tara Erraught
Alfredo Germont Ramón Vargas
Giorgio Germont Simon Keenlyside
Gaston Francesco Petrozzi
Baron Douphol Christian Rieger
Marquis d’Obigny Tareq Nazmi
Doktor Grenvil Christoph Stephinger
Giuseppe Dean Power
Ein Diener Floras Tim Kuypers
Ein Gärtner Peter Mazalán
Alfredos Schwester Demet Gül

production leaves no corners uncut, with vague minimalist settings that either
confuse or just don’t do anything (Act 1 features lots of doors, Act 2 a
children’s playground?). The setting is black-and-white (except Violetta’s red flower) Belle Epoque, with the ladies of the chorus wearing beaded shower
caps and the gentlemen in penguin suits. Act 1 features an inexplicable
multiplicity of conga lines. Sometimes the economy hurts—the ballet consists of
nothing more than the chorus gently bobbing up and down on the beat—but for the
most part it is just an absence. Act 2 Scene 1 features a visit from Alfredo’s
sister, but another problem is that the production keeps the action largely
confined to small areas of the stage. This is fatal in a theater with such poor
sightlines, and I saw almost nothing for this entire scene. I suspect the
people on the other side of the theater saw almost nothing in Act 3, but that’s
not the way to balance it out. Given some decisive Personenregie it might not
be too bad, as it is now it left the singers to their own devices.
Regal Anja
Harteros is a Violetta that anyone could take home to their parents. (I have
seen her sing the role once before, at the Met in 2008. I thought she was
better tonight, and the rest of the cast infinitely better.) As Act 1’s party
girl she doesn’t really convince, though the production has her do nothing more
debauched than twirl around some champagne glasses. In Act 2 her poise and
majesty is of a degree that would certainly impress Germont, but collapses into
a vulnerability that is very touching. She hadn’t shown many signs of weakness
in the first two acts, but apparently this Violetta went downhill very quickly,
and her hacking up of a lung in Act 3 is raw and brutal, with a technically
impressive amount of singing from a horizontal position (unrealistically luxe
pillows providing a suitable angle). Her voice is big but flexible, with a
dark, woody texture that isn’t really Italianate fullness but is uniquely
beautiful in its own way. For someone with a large sound she navigated “Sempre
libera” exceptionally well, but again it’s in the rest of the opera where she
really shows her strengths, with an almost too-slow “Dite alla giovine” and
letter aria sung with long phrases, and “Amani Alfredo” filling the house.

Ramon Vargas
and Simon Keelyside as the Germont family were both much improved from their
earlier Verdi essay in Vienna’s Don Carloin June. There’s something a little gummy about Vargas’s voice, possibly just
wear, but he’s so meticulously stylish; not a note comes out carelessly. (He knows
his limits—no high C. Harteros didn’t try that annoying E-flat, either, thank
goodness.) Simon Keenlyside also sounded more at ease, and developed Germont
with great passive-aggressive nuance, weighing his words and singing with a far
greater variety of color than he did as Rodrigo or Wozzeck (that this has been
my Summer of Keenlyside is purely accidental and unplanned).
Alas, there
was a hitch, and that was Omar Meir Wellbur’s conducting. It was improved over
his Vienna Rigoletto which was maybe
the closest I’ve ever heard to a train wreck in a major new production (FYI, that production of Rigoletto is not, after all, going to be the Met’s, it was, in fact, that bad), but
there were lots of little wrecks (the most obvious being getting a few beats
off  from Harteros in the Act 1 duet and
staying there for a measure or two). He pushed the orchestra into expressive
phrases, but sometimes the various sections didn’t really stay together, even
the usually ironclad strings. More problematic were his speed demon tempos. He
would strike up each cabaletta at a mean clip and the singer or singers would
enter at a slower tempo and a tug of war ensued (Harteros and Vargas won their
battles, Keenlyside seemed to cede defeat and regrouped after the end of each
phrase). Other times, singers seemed perfectly content in holding their high
note fermatas while the orchestra would prematurely reenter and obviously take
them by surprise. You can’t fault him for energy, but there was obvious
disagreement afoot.
Despite the
faults—and not being able to see much of any of Act 2 Scene 1—this was really a
lovely Traviata. Harteros is a frequent canceler and can be hard
to catch, but she’s worth tracking down if you can. This was a fortuitous combination of
three singers with great taste and similar styles. Given how much opera I see
with wildly mismatched casts I suspect it’s a fluke, but a rare and lucky one.

The Festival ends tonight with Rosenkavalier but I’m a little Rosenkavaliered out and am skipping it. See you this weekend from Salzburg, where I will be reporting on Ariadne (DUH) and La bohème.

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl.

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Wozzeck: Drowning

Wozzeck is a
nasty, brutal, and short opera. Producing it requires balancing the human and
the inhuman, where a murderer is maybe the most sympathetic figure (unless
you’re counting the little kid). Andreas Kriegenburg’s acclaimed Bayerische
Staatsoper production—it’s what got him the Ring
job—does this expertly, and more, its characters splashing around in ankle-deep
water with no sign of relief.
While putting on a single performance of Wozzeck for a festival is unusual (it
not being known as an audience-pleasing star vehicle that is easy to put together without much rehearsal), when you can get
Waltraud Meier and Simon Keenlyside to do it, you probably should, and the Munich audience seemed to like it as much as I did.

Berg, Wozzeck. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/22/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Lothar Koenigs

Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Chor Sören Eckhoff
Dramaturgie Miron Hakenbeck
Kinderchor Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Wozzeck Simon Keenlyside
Tambourmajor Roman Sadnik
Andres Kevin Conners
Hauptmann Wolfgang Schmidt
Doktor Clive Bayley
1. Handwerksbursche Christoph Stephinger
2. Handwerksbursche Francesco Petrozzi
Der Narr Kenneth Roberson
Marie Waltraud Meier
Margret Heike Grötzinger€

Note: the photos show two previous casts in this production.
Waltraud Meier is in some of the pictures (the other Marie is Michaela
Schuster), the Wozzecks are Michael Volle and Georg Nigl.
This production is, like the Ring, deceptively simple and never strays too far from convention,
and yet its subtle invention is quietly amazing. Much more than the Ring it creates a concentrated visual
language and world for the work. From the opening projection of AKT 1, the
guiding spirit is Brecht. The setting is vague, and doesn’t really
matter.  A enormous, dingy cement cube hovers
over a stage filled with water. Some of the action takes place in this box,
some in the water. The box itself moves upstage and down seemingly of its own
accord. Wozzeck and Marie and their son are relatively normal-looking people,
everyone else is a grotesque, white-faced caricature out of Georg  Grosz. The Captain is disgustingly fat and
naked while the doctor wears a contraption similar to the instrument of torture
he straps Wozzeck into. Many of the minor male characters are exactly the same
variation on Frankenstein’s monster. It is, it seems, the world as seen from
Wozzeck’s own eyes, with Marie as the only refuge among the expressionist monsters.
The child oversees much of the action and learns to make
sense of it, writing PAPA over the father who never acknowledges him, later
adding GELD (money) and HURE (whore).  He
is, we can see, going to turn out exactly like the father who ignores him. That
father seems, unlike the oblivious other characters, hyperalert, and yet
entirely uncomprehending. The Personenregie is not particularly musical, at least not in an analytic sense. I doubt Kriegenburg could tell you much about Berg’s symphonic forms, and he seems to care more about Büchner’s fragmentation than Berg’s cohesion. Much of the opera is delivered in a presentational
style, right out to the audience. It’s simultaneously an alienating tactic and
an apt reflection of the characters’ own alienation.  In another Brechtian
touch, the stage music is played by an onstage ensemble in modern concert
dress. A gloomy crowd of black-clad unemployed watch and occasionally provide
physical support to the action, with platforms for the Drum Major and the
orchestra literally on their backs, in a way similar to the Ring supernumeraries.
But it’s a classical staging as well, just as reluctant as
Kriegenburg’s Ring to take on a
specific social context. This is, that is to say, like the first three parts of
his Ring, not the last. The unemployed
in their coats, the water, the blank cement all speak to a timeless, placeless misery. It
operates on a level of simple images that resonate with the music and
story on a deep level. Except for the splashing through the water, there’s
never any friction between the two. It’s not quite as simple as it looks—and I
expect the Personenregie was considerably tighter on the 2008 premiere than
this one-off revival—but simplicity is its greatest asset.
I don’t think Simon Keenlyside has sung in this production
before, but he seemed to fit in well. Vocally, this role is, like much of the music he
sings these days, a size too big for his lyric baritone. When he struggles to
be heard he tends to sound pressured and grainy. But he seems to have the part
in his bones, and makes a twitchy yet disconnected Wozzeck. Waltraud Meier’s
Marie is the only character who seems to have any life left in her, miserable
as she is. Meier’s voice is still very strong in the higher registers, and she
sings this music with passionate earnestness.
Lothar Koenig’s conducting tended towards the beautiful,
tragic side of thinsg, finding its vocal counterpart in Meier’s almost Romantic
Marie. (He seemed very preoccupied with giving cues to everyone, I suspect this
one-off was not so thoroughly rehearsed.) The orchestra played with sustained
intensity that was, at times, just a touch messy, particularly in the winds. As
might be expected, the strings turned in a Mahlerian rendition of the Act III
interlude. The singers of the supporting roles sang more dramatically than
beautifully, but that’s only in fitting with the production. Having endured his
Aegisth twice I am not fan of Wolfgang Schmidt’s yelpy tenor, but for the
Hauptmann it is just right. Roman Sadnik sounded underpowered as the
Tambourmajor, but had a commanding presence, as did Clive Bayley as the Doctor.
Overall I found this production devastating, while the Ring rarely went beyond nicely poignant. The concentrated intensity of Berg and Büchner are perhaps a better match for Kriegenburg’s austerity, and while when staging the Ring a grand historical vision is non-negotiable, in a 90-minute piece it might be too much. I must admit this was my first time seeing Wozzeck live; it is not often played.
(I have hardly avoided it. In college I studied it in music, German, and
theater classes, at one point making me suspect I was actually majoring in Woyzeck/Wozzeck Studies. For comparison,
I didn’t study Lulu once.) This
performance sold out and received a sustained, enthusiastic ovation, heartening
for a work considered so audience-unfriendly. Kriegenburg’s pitch-perfect
production plus local factors (local language, the relative levels of general musical
literacy in Munich versus New York) have made that rare thing: a high art popular

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl. More follow after the video.

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Turandot on ice. No, really.

Would you like your opera to include

a) A game of hockey onstage. On actual skates.

b) Breakdancing

c) People waving baguettes

d) All of the above… IN 3D! Get out those Bay Staats-branded red and blue glasses, kids.

If you answered d), this production of Turandot from Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus is for you. Yeah, Turandot, an opera that is already This Close to being irredeemably kitsch. Some would try to retreat from this line, this production runs over it with a Zamboni. It’s like Zeffirelli, with B-grade scifi and LSD instead of brocade and crockery. Musically… eh. The singing and characters are about as important to this thing as they are in Zeffirelli, unfortunately. They did try their best, though.

Puccini, Turandot.  Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/26/12.
Musikalische Leitung Dan Ettinger

Inszenierung Carlus Padrissa – La Fura dels Baus
Bühne Roland Olbeter
Kostüme Chu Uroz
Video Franc Aleu
Licht Urs Schönebaum

La principessa Turandot Jennifer Wilson
L’imperatore Altoum Ulrich Reß
Timur, Re tartaro spodestato Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Il principe ignoto (Calaf) Marco Berti
Liu Ekaterina Scherbachenko

I gather from the program book that this production is about Europe in 2046, when it has been bailed out by and is now controlled by China. This political dimension was not so evident from the production itself, which is just generically futuristic Chinese. It was, Padrissa claims in the program note, inspired by a visit by La Fura dels Baus to China. Padrissa seems blissfully unaware that he is taking Orientalism Central and making it into Futuristic Orientalism Metropolis, so maybe it’s good that he didn’t actually attempt to pursue this political theme. If you are curious about cultural implications, you can read an essay entitled “China through the eyes of occidental poets. A literary-historical foray through contrasting topoi of violence and powerlessness, grandeur and submission, multitude and individual”* in the program. For that matter, you could also watch Rush Hour 2.

The entire thing is ridiculously over-the-top and utterly straight-faced. Padrissa takes the Ice Princess idea really literally and the entire stage is an ice rink, populated at various times by figure skaters, hockey players, and at one point guys with brooms like curlers (Spanish dude tragically neglected Bavarian curling, though, which doesn’t have brooms). The color palette is largely black and white marked by splotches of red, orange, and yellow. Descending at times is an enormous gong on a platform with a hole in the center, where Turandot makes her dramatic entrance and most of the 3D projections also happen. Just in case you though I was joking about the 3D glasses, I wasn’t:

3D is not used often in theater because live people, certain tenors excepted, generally possess three dimensions already. Here, it was just another trippy gimmick in a staging full of them, but I can’t deny that it’s kind of a fun trick. Shame that the projections themselves weren’t that interesting, mostly resembling a spirograph or maybe a screensaver from the Windows 95 era. (The surtitles showed a little glasses symbol when 3D was approaching, and there was a rustle in the theater of everyone putting on their glasses. It was maybe four or five times over the course of the opera, for a few minutes each time.)

Padrissa doesn’t have much to say about the story or characters, and most of the staging is as strong as the spectacle. The big scenes work, the intimate ones don’t so much. Personally I found the whole thing totally ridiculous (I offer this caveat because I think other audience members took it entirely in earnest) but a blast in a “so bad it’s good” sort of way. The reasons for many of the effects—a lot of business with an undulating carpet of skulls for Ping, Pang, and Pong, various spinning acrobats, a crowd of children in white-hooded robes like a small KKK army, what I still swear were baguettes at some point during Act 2—completely eludes me, but it’s kind of fun, no? Not that I can imagine ever wanting to see it again.

There is one significant bit: Padrissa ends with the score as Puccini left it, with Liu’s death, without the big love duet. It is abrupt and musically rather unsatisfying, but for the Konzept, it had to be thus. Liu dies via “bamboo torture,” with a tree growing through her, and we go into a Verwandlung that is nominally Taoist but seems lifted from Daphne, with nature melting the ice and the evil Chinese people getting back in touch with their natural roots. Or something.

The music’s purpose in this staging is principally coloristic. Maybe if I had been closer to the stage I would have had a better sense of the drama, but the enormous costumes and largely park-and-bark blocking for the singers meant that I wasn’t overly involved in their plight. Dan Ettinger led a solid though very loud account of the score. The orchestra sounded good, though some of the singers seemed less than confident about the tempos. As usual, Liu more or less walked off with it. Ekaterina Scherbachenko has a delicate but full lyric soprano and sang with more emotion that she could physically express here, hers is a voice I want to hear again. Marco Berti made a stolid yet solid Calaf, producing a lot of strong, healthy sound and rarely overpowered by the orchestra. But he does very little to shape the music or character. Jennifer Wilson was adequate but somewhat disappointing as Turandot, her large voice sometimes turning shrill though she can sing all the notes. Supporting characters were fine, and in this scheme didn’t make too much of an impression.

This was… something else, that’s for sure. Call it a popcorn opera. You can’t fault the Bay Staats for their commitment, even when the thing they’re committing to is bonkers.

* “China im Augen abendländische Dichter. Ein literaturhistorichesr Streifzug durch Topoi des Kontrasts von Gewalt und Unmacht , Größe und Unterwerfung , Masse und Individiuum”Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl.
Video, more photos follow:

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Tosca jumps again

The Met and the Bayerische Staatsoper might not have much in common but one thing they do is a certain Luc Bondy production of Tosca, hated just as much by the Müncheners as the New Yorkers. I was going to skip it but upon further reflection decided that missing a Bryn Terfel Scarpia would be a crime. So I got a ticket but being tardy it was one that afforded almost no view of the stage. While I love seeing Terfel ham it up, considering the imbecility of this production I do not consider this as great a loss as usual. I cannot offer you any assessment as to how the set looks on the smaller stage of the Nationaltheater, whether Scarpia groped the Madonna or simply flipped her off, or what attitude Tosca assumed while fanning herself at the close of Act 2 (um, for a production we all think is awful, this one has developed quite a few iconic moments, hasn’t it? just saying…). Here’s what I wrote about this production when I last saw it at the Met. In relation to tonight, let’s talk about the singing!

Marco Armiliato conducts Tosca with the verve of a lukewarm glass of beer. He keeps things together and this was a fairly clean reading, except for almost losing the chorus just before Scarpia’s Act 1 entrance. It unfolds nicely in lyrical sections but in the exciting bits it never rises to the occasion, lacking intensity, drama, and weight. The brass played with laser-bright tone that wasn’t my favorite color, but the strings had a nice depth to their tone in the introduction to “E lucevan le stelle.” But how can one of the most perfectly paced of all operas feel so slack and matter of fact?

Luckily the cast had two excellent singers. Catherine Naglestad is a fine Tosca. Her sound is big and just on this side of being blowsy, with a wide vibrato that sometimes turns dry. While she doesn’t have a lot of variations of color, her duskiness feels just right for this role and her top notes are easy and reliable. (Her chest voice, however, is a little funky, not the best thing for a Tosca.) Most importantly, she sings with refined and yet natural musicality, making a grand and impressive, yet still expressive Tosca. Her “Vissi d’arte” had a lovely swell on the final note and an expertly tapered quiet ending. As Scarpia, Bryn Terfel was his usual self, this portrayal is by this point well known. His voice can turn rough and barky at patches, hurting him most in the opening of Act 2, which sounded ragged. But in the declamatory passages his voice is imposing and firm, and he relishes the evil with audible (as I could not, for the most part, see him) glee.

Workmanlike lyric tenor Massimo Giordano sounded overextended as Cavaradossi, and despite generally singing on pitch with acceptable sound his too-small voice and relentlessly flat-footed, unnuanced phrasing kept his Mario from ever developing into an audible character. He has a habit of approaching high notes from a running start of a third or so below, sliding up to the actual pitch (even on Vittoria!), which I assume is supposed to be stylistic, probably also is a technical aid, and definitely is irritating. The smaller roles found the Staatsoper’s usual solid Slavic-tending crew, notably Goran Juric a well-projected Angelotti.

I can offer a few random notes on the staging. The jump at the end was timed better that I have seen it at the Met, but that blackout has to be much blacker for it to be convincing. When the victory cantata’s Starbesetzung is announced in Act 1, the Munich children yelp “BRAVO!” while the New York ones go “OOOOO!” Also, Mario’s painting, in classic Bay Staats fashion, appears to be a blotchy impressionistic rendering of the same image that appeared in New York in far more realistic form. Can’t keep a creative scenic artist down.

Absent some star casting, I’m hoping not to see this particular Tosca again anytime soon.

Puccini, Tosca. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/24/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Marco Armiliato

Inszenierung Luc Bondy
Bühne Richard Peduzzi
Kostüme Milena Canonero
Licht Michael Bauer
Chor Stellario Fagone

Floria Tosca Catherine Naglestad
Mario Cavaradossi Massimo Giordano
Baron Scarpia Bryn Terfel
Cesare Angelotti Goran Jurić 
Der Mesner Christoph Stephinger
Spoletta Francesco Petrozzi
Sciarrone Christian Rieger
Stimme eines Hirten Tölzer Knabenchor
Ein Gefängniswärter Tim Kuypers

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Tales of Hoffmann, Tales of Villazón

This brief Festspiele return of Les Contes d’Hoffmann to the Bayerische Staatsoper was marked by
major cancellations, notably Diana Damrau as the three heroines (preggers) and conductor
Constantine Carydis (presumably not preggers). Ironically, canceler par excellence Rolando Villazón
actually showed up and sang the title role; sadly I spent most of the
performance wishing he hadn’t. It was a bumpy ride, and the production isn’t
Jones’s best, but the three excellent new women, Brenda Rae, Olga Mykytenko,
and Anna Virovlansky, oddly shifted the focus of the opera.

Offenbach, Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/19/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Marc Piollet

Inszenierung Richard Jones
Bühne Giles Cadle
Kostüme Buki Shiff
Choreographie Lucy Burge
Licht Mimi Jordan Sherin

Olympia Brenda Rae
Antonia Olga Mykytenko
Giulietta Anna Virovlansky
Cochenille / Pitichinaccio / Frantz Kevin Conners
Lindorf / Coppélius / Dapertutto / Miracle John Relyea
Nicklausse/Muse Angela Brower
Stimme aus dem Grab Okka von der Damerau
Hoffmann Rolando Villazón
Spalanzani Ulrich Reß
Nathanael Dean Power
Hermann Tim Kuypers
Schlémil Christian Rieger
Crespel / Luther Christoph Stephinger
Wilhelm Andrew Owens

Watching Rolando Villazón in Les Contes d’Hoffmann was sadly similar to seeing Natalie Dessay in
La traviata. The hard-living,
slightly manic writer might seem to be a perfect character for Villazón, who
has been through a lot and has always been slightly manic. But alas, experiencing
artistic difficulties does not assist in rendering artistic difficulties vocally. His voice is barely recognizable. I’d actually only heard him live
once before, back in 2006, shortly before his vocal crisis started. But I
remember a vibrant tenor, tense and pushed but exciting. Now the lower register
is still tense and has some of the same tonal quality while the upper half is
weak and deployed only with extreme caution. I found moments of this performance
bordered on the grotesque, when he was putting in so much bodily
effort, overacting so much, but the voice simply failed to back him up.

Richard Jones sets
the entire opera as a flashback in what might be Stella’s dressing room. The
Muse is no more than a double for Hoffmann himself (poor mezzo Angela Brower
had to don Villazónian eyebrows). The bar emerges by magic, populated by
an identically-dressed chorus of pipe-puffing flaneurs, some of whom who follow
the action in every scene. The furniture of the room only slightly rearranges
itself for each tale, tying them together to show how Hoffmann finally got to
such a pessimistic state. (The loud wallpaper, however, does change, justifying
my nickname for him, Wallpaper Jones, yet again.) Hoffmann’s first love, when he is still in short pants, is a
crush on the Barbie-like Olympia (her blue dress seemingly based on Disney’s
Cinderella), decked out in bright colors and childlike décor. Antonia is the
victim of his teenaged romanticism run amok, with all her passion going towards
the wrong people. Giulietta wears a kind of transparent dress and inhabits a
surreal world of pure lust, her room equipped with a giant shaving mirror for
stealing men’s reflections. At the end, they unconvincingly surround Hoffmann
and salute, of course Twue Wuv the entertainment value of Hoffmann’s tales.

This production does some things well, best of all tying
together the different episodes. But it doesn’t do much with the villains at
all, and John Relyea didn’t have much stature in any of the roles. It moves
along, but in coherence and inventiveness falls below the standard I expect of
Jones. I’ve seen worse Hoffmanns, or rather Hoffmänner, for example at the Met, but it’s not the most exciting. (Edition notes: The ordering Olympia-Antonia-Giulietta is not universal
but I think is considered the more Urtext-adjacent one, and this production also
is for a coloratura Giulietta and does not include the big ensemble version of the
Barcarolle. The program says the score is “based” on the Kaye edition, but not
that it uses it exclusively.)

The production was designed for Diana Damrau playing all the
women (she’s in these photos), but here was performed with three different
sopranos. Personally, I prefer this option (I believe some academic opinions claim
Offenbach never envisioned a single-soprano version, FWIW), because few
sopranos can convince vocally in all three roles and I like the contrast. Here there
was a shift in the drama as well. With a weak Hoffmann and Jones’s flaneurs,
the focus switched from the icky “three women in one” thing to the way society
controls and oppresses the various women, from the admiration of Olympia’s
mechanical and yet feminine charms to the put-upon Antonia to the utterly
helpless Giulietta. Hoffmann is less a victim of feminine wiles than a witness
to patriarchy in action.

Fellow audience members seemed to find conductor Marc
Piollet a major improvement over fall’s apparently very slow Carydis, and he
did lead with zippiness. The chorus and orchestra, however, wasn’t quite
prepared to follow him. Many of the choruses were alarmingly scrappy and the
violins in the Olympia act were a mess. The soloists had an easier time. Villazón
had his best outing in the Antonia act, where some of his middle-voice phrases
had an appealing warmth. John Relyea as the villains did not make much of an
impression, sounding deep but exceedingly wobbly and making no real
distinctions between the roles—perhaps that was a dramatic point, but if so I
didn’t get it.
The real star of the show might have been Angela Brower as
the Muse. Her voice might not be very French—actually, no one in this
production’s was, so whatever—but it has a pure, clear strength that is even
through all the registers and fills the theater beautifully. I hadn’t heard any
of the three women replacing Damrau before and found them all promising and
interesting.  Brenda Rae as Olympia sang
with bell-like tone with a nice warmth up to the top. While her first aria had
a few slips of rhythm, her waltz was quite precise, had some impressive high
interpolations, and showed real spirit and humor. Olga Mykytenko might be a
lyric soprano, but as Antonia she wielded her strong, slightly steely
voice with a blunt force more reminiscent of La Gioconda. It’s a powerful instrument and she uses it excitingly, if not always with the greatest musical delicacy. As
pure voice goes the pick of the three was Anna Virolansky’s Giulietta, sung
with round and sweet tone as well as agility in the coloratura. Supporting
roles featured various Bay Staats regulars. I’m not sure if Frantz’s aria
really works if you sing it as nicely as Kevin Conners did, and I’ve seen it
much funnier. As Crespel, Chistoph Stephinger may have outsung Relyea.

Hoffmann is an
opera of almost Don Giovanni-like
complexity in the number of moving parts and dramatic problems. (By the way, I think it is also one of the most underrated of scores. Offenbach is an incredibly wonderful composer, and this one is a troublesome masterpiece, on a level with Carmen.) This one
was problematic in some big ways, but there were things to like too.

Excerpt (Kleinzach), where Villazon sounds more even than he did in person:

Documentary (featuring Rolando Villazon’s amusing German):

All photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.

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Mitridate at the Prinzregententheater

I went to see Mitridate, re di Ponto at the Prinzregententheater (as occupied by the Bayerische Staatsoper) and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

Mozart wrote the opera seria Mitridate at the age of fifteen. The Bayerische Staatsoper’s clever and strangely beautiful production positions it as the work of a child, full of rebellious teenagers and projected scenery seemingly drawn from a primary school art class. But unfortunately even excellent singing and much directorial invention cannot disguise that this is a rather bland opera, and its four hours pass slowly.

Read the whole thing here. On second thought, closing out a busy week with four hours of Mozart seria juvenilia may not have been the best plan! But the production and singing were lovely, and I enjoyed them, which I think means I am not being unfair to find the opera itself dull. The score has charm but it doesn’t do much for the characters or plot. This is, of course, a stock complaint for the opera seria genre, but not one with which I agree, on the whole. But for this piece it applies.

It was also great to see Lisette Oropesa in a bigger role! She has a lovely voice and presence and is horribly underused by the Met. I’m not sure if this coloratura-heavy role was quite right for her talents, though. She can sing it just fine but it’s not her strongest point, and I would rather hear her as Ilia or Despina or Zerlina.

Director David Bösch was also responsible for the Bay Staats’s touching Elisir d’amore, which is in a similar style.

A bit about the theater: it’s a beautiful small space located in the eastern Munich neighborhood of Bogenhausen. The wide, raked arena auditorium was built to be a near-exact copy of Bayreuth. The only major differences are an open pit (currently, at least), more elaborate decoration, and more lobby space. I didn’t hear an acoustic similar to Bayreuth’s, either, but comparing Mozart and Wagner is really difficult. Today the Prinzregententheater hosts a variety of groups both theatrical and musical; unfortunately the theater is too small to make putting on Wagner practical, though it has been done in the past. (They still manage at Bayreuth, but that’s special.)

Continue to see a lot more pictures of this pretty pretty production.

These photos show last year’s Aspasia, Patricia Petibon. Petibon has the gift of Crazy, which this year’s Anja-Nina Bahrmann didn’t, and I could have seen her working a little better dramatically speaking. The rest of the cast is the same except for Marzio. Unfortunately the very nice projections aren’t really visible (I think projection scenery doesn’t photograph well?).

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.

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