Parsifal: the Met’s knights to remember

The most enthralling section of Met’s new production of Parsifal is a portion that, in most productions, is the most dreaded: the first two-thirds of Act 3. Too often it’s a bore, but here it’s hypnotic, sinking the audience deeply into the ritualistic and the very slow, from the music to the movements onstage. It is drama like this–grave and mysterious–that this production does best.

In many ways this performance was a big win for the Met. This is a musically outstanding Parsifal with great performances that balance the human and the mythic. There are many disturbing and sad things in it. The production is beautiful and has some striking visual moments. But these moments aren’t quite enough to make an interpretation, and I was left moved but with some big questions.

Wagner, Parsifal. Metropolitan Opera, 2/15/2012. New production premiere directed by François Girard, conducted by Daniele Gatti with Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Peter Mattei (Amfortas), Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor)

The setting of François Girard’s production is quite abstract. Before the performance, an undulating reflection of the opera house’s lights on the curtain informs us that this is a story about us. The staged prelude shows a lineup of anonymous men and women. Only Parsifal stands out, smack in the middle but not participating. The men take off their jackets and ties and separate from the women. This is not very much to occur during the 14 or so minutes of prelude (bless you, Gatti), and it goes by, like the music, with ceremonial gravity.

The lights come up on a brown-orange desert wasteland bisected by a dried-up river (Michael Levine is the set designer). On the cyc, projections show, for now, a serious of scary storm-is-a-comin’ clouds. These evolve later into a series of planets, vague plumes of smoke, and what looks like extreme closeups of naked skin (the Met should hire the designer, Peter Flaherty, to do a makeover on the Lepage Screensavers). The men form a single tight circle on the right, the women loiter on the other side of the river on the left. All the male knight characters emerge from this circle; Kundry never crosses the river.

(actually Act 3)

The stage pictures are fairly static but the acting gives the characters real humanity and vulnerability–Amfortas is dragged around by two knights, unable to stand alone, and Parsifal collapses when he hears of his mother’s death (whether Parsifal should have as much Mitleid for the swan and Act 1 Amfortas as he shows… well, I’m not as sure about that). But there’s also a ritual quality to the knights’ choreographed prayer movements and occasional simultaneous reactions, preserving (along with the abstraction of the setting) a sense of mystery. This combination is the best thing about the production. Other things are quite traditional: Kundry is given a conventional crazy lady interpretation, and the grail is a glowing golden goblet in a box. The swan is a swan, though also a symbol of femininity, brought on by a Flower Maiden and kept only on the women’s side of the stage.

At the end of the act, the dried-up river opens up into a chasm and Parsifal looks down into it. In Act 2, we’re down there, and it’s Klingsor’s lair, and it’s also Amfortas’s wound, which we get because of the enormous pool of blood covering most of the stage (the looming walls with a gap upstage center it also look like a giant vagina–somehow Act 2 of Parsifal is the locus classicus of vaginal set design). While the first act mixed the aesthetic with the symbolic, here the aesthetic takes over nearly completely. Klingsor is a bloody version of the knights, the flower maidens a mixture of dancers and singers with knee-length black hair and white dresses and their own spears (the very effective choreography is by Carolyn Choa). Everyone splashes around in the blood, Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal (none too sexily here, it comes across as maternal if anything) on a conveniently appearing bed that also starts seeping blood, and finally Parsifal claims the spear with a gesture that I couldn’t quite identify and a straightforward grab from Klingsor.

Act 3 returns to the wasteland, this time pocked with waiting graves for the dying knights. Parsifal reappears, first as a decrepit, unidentifiable (meaning that he is wearing a cloak over his face, in lieu of armor) pilgrim, walking only with the assistance of the spear, then gradually turning into a (shirtless) ecstatic mystic. He also, after baptizing Kundry, crosses the magic river onto the women’s side, and gets the white shirt that marks him as a Grail knight. The return to the Grail Temple reveals knights who can no longer stand together in a circle (or apparently notice the male-female divide). Amfortas ends up in Titurel’s grave, when Kundry (!) finally appears with the Grail box. Then Parsifal shows up, indicates to the women to intersperse themselves with the men, restores the Grail’s power by sticking the spear into it. He lifts up the grail, Kundry collapses lifeless (Wagner says “entseelt”–her soul has finally departed), and all are blessed. (No dove.*)

So it is in many ways a very moving production, with Peter Mattei’s agonized Amfortas and Jonas Kaufmann’s messianic Parsifal taking acting honors. Some of it feels familiar from Syberberg and Lehnhoff (particularly the post-apocalyptic atmosphere), but that’s OK. It is, for the most part, enthralling to watch. But I have to say I have grave doubts as to the Meaning of it All. I think preserving a sense of mystery and wonder is crucial to Parsifal’s appeal. But this production does make several big gestures towards having a vision of the drama’s allegorical meaning, too. They aren’t plentiful, as a maximalist who has watched the Herheim Parsifal too many times I find it intellectually quite sparse. Since it doesn’t venture too much, I’m not inclined to cut the production a lot of slack for things that don’t make sense, and I think it has some big issues.

The production’s thesis seems to be that the world–as exemplified by Monsalvat– is out of joint, the men and women separated and the knights closed into themselves. By making them mix it up and giving Kundry a role in the Grail ceremony, Parsifal restores balance. But by choosing gender as the signifier of spiritual imbalance, Girard makes things very hard for himself. The production ignores the really crucial and pernicious portrayal of women in Act 2. Inside the wound or not, they’re still women. (It’s a too infrequently noted hypocrisy of Parsifal that the opera argues that women are the source for the evil from which the knights have to be purified, and yet indulges the work’s audience in a prolonged scene of women singing together and besieging the male hero. Lord, make me chaste, but let me spend a long weekend at the Venusburg first.)

Girard’s idea of the women’s exclusion from society as the source of the knights’ problems really appeals to me. But I’m afraid that if you stage Act 2 as a conventional male gaze sensual extravaganza, which he does, it doesn’t really convince. Parsifal is a confusing work, sure, but it has some central themes that are pretty clear: the knights have been tainted by sensual temptation. Redemption can only come from a pure fool (Parsifal), who first needs to learn compassion. He becomes a sexual ascetic after refusing Kundry’s seduction. So Girard’s idea of inverting this demands some serious intervention in the portrayal of seduction as the source of the knight’s problems as well as Parsifal’s awakening to asceticism, something that he does not do.

The production is largely, sorry, redeemed by the strength and humanity of its performances, and the music. Conductor Daniele Gatti gave a lyrical, mournful rendition of the score, with very slow tempos (a bit faster than his even slower Bayreuth ones). Gurnemanz’s Act 1 monologue, Amfortas’s Act 3 speech, and “Nur wine Waffe taugt” were particularly extreme: the first static, the second spent, the third majestic. “Hier war das Tosen”–the first Flower Maiden section–was, on the other hand, hard-driven. Gatti impresses more through his subtlety than his brilliance, but this was a rendition with a great deal of dramatic gravity. The orchestra sounded better than they have in some time, with the exception of some unfortunate clams in the brass, including a very prominent one in the prelude.

The cast is probably one of the best you could assemble today. Jonas Kaufmann is a fantastic Act 3 Parsifal and an excellent Act 1 and 2 one. He sings and acts this score with remarkable subtlety and musicality, evolving from a bright-sounding and curious boy to an exhausted and finally triumphant mystic, the latter with remarkable stage presence and a darkened sound in which the years between Acts 2 and 3 were audible. He was audibly pacing himself, but sounded great at the biggest moments, most memorably the final section of “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” (you can see a video of the first part of this below). Peter Mattei is a highly unusual Amfortas. This role is usually barked and spat out, but he sings it with warmth and somewhat Italianate style, and acts it with enough agony that never became aimless flailing. He also can cope with Gatti’s extreme tempos, and make them meaningful. René Pape is a Gurnemanz of depth and honeyed tone, who makes those monologues go by as quickly as they could, and with rare authority and nobility.

Katarina Dalayman as Kundry had a rough Act 1, with a rather unruly dramatic soprano that didn’t always sound quite when it needed to. But lack of control isn’t always a bad thing in a Kundry (nor is trouble with high notes, and she had that as well), and she actually managed the lyrical moments in Act 2 very well, building up to the dramatic high points with excellent timing. It’s a shame that the production didn’t do more with her character. Evgeny Nikitin (he of the Bayreuth tattoo scandal) was a suitably nasty Klingsor. As Titurel, debutant Rúni Brattaberg sounded cavernous, but it’s hard to judge as I believe he was amplified from above. The Flower Maidens were a good group, and the minor knights were fine. The Voice from Above experienced some intonational issues.

It is well worth seeing, first and foremost for the music. The production provides an engrossing sensory experience that should be accessible for those not familiar with the opera, but more experienced Wagnerians may be somewhat troubled by the logical gaps and selectivity of the production. It remains, however, a big win for the Met.

More photos below the video. Parsifal continues through February and early March; the inevitable HD broadcast is on March 2.

*Wagner literalists: I want to see someone stage Amfortas’s vision exactly as he describes it in the libretto, with the letters in the air.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met. 


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Jonas Kaufmann crashes Anna Netrebko’s Bohemian party in Salzburg

I went to a
Very Special Performance of La Bohème
at the Salzburg Festival and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

When Salzburg Festival intendant Alexander Pereira stepped onto the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus last night to announce that one of the cast members of La bohème was sick and unable to sing, he faced a chorus of hisses from the audience… Piotr Beczala had decided a mere ten minutes earlier that his vocal cords would not be up to singing Rodolfo that night. We would have to wait forty minutes for a replacement. Further hisses. Fortunately Pereira had an ace up his sleeve: the replacement would be another star, Jonas Kaufmann.

You can read the rest here. This review
has everything: Anna Netrebko. Special surprise Rodolfo Jonas Kaufmann. Me
saying nice things about the Wiener Philharmoniker. You’re not going to believe

A few more thoughts and photos below.

If you go to
as many performances as I do eventually you’ll see something crazy like this. As
I said in July when I wrote about a very different Bohème, this opera has never been one of my particular favorites.
That performance didn’t change my mind. But this one may have. The set design isn’t
great and doesn’t do much for the drama, but the Personenregie is remarkably nuanced. The characters were less idealized than usual, but for me that made them much more sympathetic, because they seemed real. As for the big cast change,
the singer/actor split is never a good thing but this staging is never static
and there would have been no way in hell to work anyone new into it on short
notice without severe damage. And I’m glad that they didn’t do that.

The scene at
this performance was incredibly glitzy. It’s a Salzburg irony: the festival
glories in the red carpets and paparazzi, yet many of the productions that draw
this crowd (before we even consider the smaller or more niche events) are far from
a Zeffirellian celebration of opulence for its own sake. (Think of the Decker Traviata. Or Frau ohne Schatten.) This was a case in point: the audience looked
far more glamorous than anyone onstage, except maybe Musetta.* (Including, however, Kaufmann, who really did
look like they had pulled him off the street, though not the same street these
Bohemians were occupying.)

And this
ridiculously last-minute slapped together substitution added a further human
touch and charm to something almost too fancy to bear.  There was widespread hissing when Pereira
announced the delay, because these are people who don’t like to wait, and then not
long after we’re all happily watching Jonas Kaufmann emerge stage left with his
shirt untucked, look slightly confused, disappear again, and return dragging a
very large chair. Getting a big-name replacement is a Salzburg sort of luxury, and the
singing was certainly of that class, but I loved how the trappings were pure
(Though if
Beczala was feeling ill all day, as Pereira said, shouldn’t they have started
scouting for a replacement Rodolfo a little earlier? Or at least given Kaufmann
a chance to be warned that with Gatti “Che gelida manina” was going to be a special preview of the Parsifal they’re doing together at the Met next year? Seriously, doing
this without rehearsal must have required nerves of steel in the first place
but when one of the weirdest conductors in the business is involved it’s even
worse. On an absolute scale there were coordination issues but under the circumstances I’m going to say it was damn good.)
This was far
from the Bohème that I expected but
it was certainly a Bohème to
remember. That’s all for me in Europe this summer, but this was an excellent finale.
*Except for
me. It had been raining buckets and while it everyone else had seemingly arrived
by helicopter, their outfits perfectly intact (not really, but as press
I got a nice seat), I had walked from the Neustadt and despite having an
umbrella resembled a drowned rat.

Curtain call:

Spot the non-Bohemian

Production photos, copyright Silvia Lelli

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Parsifal in Bayreuth

That this production is the last performance I will be writing about in this European year is more or less accidental–I saw Die Frau ohne Schatten afterward but was obliged to file quickly on that one–but it is fitting, because I’m not sure if anything could top this.

Wagner, Parsifal. Bayreuther Festspiele, 7/28/2011. Production by Stefan Herheim (revival), conducted by Daniele Gatti with Simon O’Neill (Parsifal), Susan Maclean (Kundry), Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor)

The current Parsifal in Bayreuth, directed by Stefan Herheim and conducted by Daniele Gatti, premiered in 2008 and has since become the festival’s most acclaimed production (and one of its tougher tickets). Parsifal in Bayrueth has a special meaning like few other musical works–the theater and the opera were designed for each other and for decades this theater was the only place the Bühnenweihfestspiel could be seen. Herheim’s production is geared towards Bayreuth, too. Along with telling the story of Parsifal, Herheim traces the history of the opera’s reception and its place in Bayreuth in particular, including the issues that confront the festival today (this is a festival that considers its legacy sufficiently important that a brief production history is printed not in the program book but the paper casting pamphlet). Additionally, the production’s complexity enables the many Bayreuth regulars to see something new each year.

It’s a beautiful production of many striking and haunting images and seamless stagecraft. As in other Herheim productions, we shift cinematically through time and space (so to speak). There is no ready key to the profusion of images and narrative; their well of associations and interconnections, keyed more to the music than the libretto, multiplies and gradually comes into focus. And everything moves with the music in a natural, truly Gesamtkunstwerk way. It’s difficult to summarize or describe, because described literally the production would sound chaotic and scattered. And it is. It’s in your head where everything comes together. Not instantly, either–I felt quite confused up to Act 3, but then everything that came before somehow began to make sense, and in the next few days it was still changing shape. I guess I’m saying that summarizing what happened onstage in my usual fashion is very different from describing my experience.

But the thematic material itself does demand description, because it’s fascinating and brilliant. There are several plot threads. Simultaneously, we watch the story of Parsifal, sometimes seen quite literally, along with the reception history of Parsifal the work in the context of the Bayreuth Festival (from its premiere to sometime in the 1950s), and the path of German history itself from Bavaria’s entrance into the unified Germany through both world wars. All go through interconnected journeys of discovery, seduction, maturation and an ambiguous kind of redemption (or more accurately Erlösung). Parsifal and Parisfal grow through history.

The main set replicates the backyard of Wagner’s Bayreuth house Wahnfried. The prompter’s box is transformed into Wagner and Cosima’s grave, the center of the stage is taken up by a (functional) fountain, the house is in the back. Here is the set (the bed, site of birth, death, sleep and seduction, is where the fountain will appear) and below a picture I took myself of the house:

In the staged Vorspiel, we see Parsifal’s mother Herzeleide in a bed in the center of the stage. This red-haired woman resembles the militant figure of Germania in the painting hanging above the fireplace (where the mirror is in the picture above), Friedrich-August von Kaulbach’s “Deutschland–1914.”:

This gives you an idea of the kind of cultural references that go through this whole production. The women are all variations on the Germania figure, with Herzeleide and Kundry (considering their relationships to Parsifal, rather disturbingly) morphing into each other. In the prelude, Parsifal builds a small wall on Wagner’s grave. This is the theme that will dominate Act 1: repression and shelter. Parsifal is sheltered by Herzeleide, Parsifal is sheltered in Bayreuth by Cosima. There is even an allusion to the work’s anti-Semitic elements when Kundry in the form of a maid threatens to steal Herzeleide’s baby. (That’s in the transformation scene, in which we see Parsifal born. I’m sorry. I warned you that this summary would probably not make any sense. And I feel kind of dishonest writing this because it’s only the tip of the iceberg.)

At the end of Act 1, the boy Parsifal wakes in his bed and his guardian Gurnemanz and asks if he understands (at this point I would have agreed with him: no). Was this all a dream? The dreamlike quality is further emphasized by the giant black wings worn by most of the characters (but not the Christ-like Amfortas, who also carries echos of Wagner’s insane patron Ludwig II). They also prefigure the swan and (German) eagle that will dominate the work. The adult Parsifal shoots the boy Parsifal with his bow (a [Bavarian] swan crest simultaneously falls from the proscenium), ending his childhood and beginning his journey into the world. The Grail temple is a replica of the one from the opera’s premiere (see photo at top of this post), the dead boy Parsifal, symbol of sheltered, traumatized innocence, momentarily plays the part of the Grail. The knights are a collection of ordinary people, both men and women.

In Act 2, Germany and Parsifal have gone out into the world, and started a jolly tragic war. The scene is a World War 1 hospital (one also thinks of The Magic Mountain or of Freud), and Klingsor is a cabaret transvestite, an outcast of a decidedly fin-de-siècle/Weimar sort. The flower maidens are both nurses to comfort the dying war victims and a succession of showgirls. Parsifal is seduced by them and finally by a Marlene Dietrich-like tuxedo’ed Kundry, who envelops him in her wings. Then comes the biggest coup de théâtre of the production. Amid a crowd of suitcase-carrying refugees, Parsifal realizes he must purify the world and heal Amfortas, and enormous swastika flags unfurl and the hospital/castle collapses around him in a giant crash. A boy (the young Parsifal again?) appears in a brown uniform, surrounded by SS officers and bearing Amortas’s spear (the Nazi’s Wunderwaffe?). Parsifal points the spear at Wagner’s grave.

Act 3 opens with my favorite theater-in-theater effect, showing a miniature version of the Festspielhaus proscenium behind the main one (above). But this is a wonderful use of this device, because this is a deconstructive staging, and the history of Parsifal is bound up with the history of this theater itself. Wahnfried has now collapsed, the Wagner regime, German nation and Grail order are in ruins. Parsifal arrives in a heavy medieval outfit like a refugee from a traditional production, but is transformed into a red-haired Germania figure identical to Kundry. The staging, which up to this point had been tremendously busy, suddenly is almost drained of all activity. The work has stopped signifying anything outside itself; we seem to be inside a giant Wieland Wagner tribute scene. With the return of the spear, the Wahnfried fountain begins to bubble, an attempt to wash away the past. Parsifal, Kundry, and Gurnemanz sing This is finished off with another tribute: the Wirtschaftswunder in the form of a procession of workers in front of the stage (a reference to Götz Friedrich’s 1972 Bayreuth Tannhäuser).

As we move to the last scene, in a nod towards Syberberg’s Parsifal film, Titurel’s motive prompts a giant projection of Wagner’s death mask. He is still haunting the festival, but it, like the boy Parsifal in the prelude, is soon blocked by a wall. And we see a 1951 proclamation from then-Festspiel leaders Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner, requesting that audience members refrain from political discussion in the Festspielhaus. But politics, obviously, remain. In the last scene, we are in the West German Bonn Bundestag. The wings are gone by now, but the giant mirror reflects the West German eagle in the floor. Amfortas speaks at a podium where the Grail once stood. But Parsifal’s arrival is ambiguous. The giant reflected eagle, first turning red, is washed of its blood by the appearance of the grail, as water from the fountain washes over it and is seen in the reflection. But, the mirror finally shows the audience and, rather shockingly, the normally concealed conductor and orchestra. The magic veil of the temple of Bayreuth has been lifted. This isn’t a mythic, holy object, it’s something we create and participate in, and also have the power to renew. Or is it just something that we’ve made, our own neuroses?

Musically, the highlight was as expected the Klang of the orchestra, beautifully played and clear and balanced, and never overpowering the singers despite being by any measure pretty loud. Daniele Gatti took slow tempos judging by numbers (around 4 hours 10 minutes, I think Metzmacher in Vienna back in April was around 3:45), but it never felt slow. This was in part because there was so much going on onstage, but the pacing was excellent and variety in color and phrasing fantastic.

The cast was, for the most part, good. Simon O’Neill (above) as Parsifal was the weakest link. He has a fine upper range, with powerful and clear high notes, but his lower range has an unfortunate tinny and nasal tinge, and his singing was neither very musical nor idiomatic in its treatment of the text. His acting did not detract from the production but nor did it help–yes, Parsifal is largely a passive character, so this was OK, but it was not ideal. Susan Maclean’s Kundry was not beautifully sung either, but this is Kundry we’re talking about. It isn’t bel canto, it’s more important that she have scary intensity and shriek well, and for that Maclean was great, with spontaneous and clear singing and hair-raising moments of Crazy. Her Marlene Dietrich impression is really very good, so it seemed a shame she almost seemed to adopt a Dietrich tinge to her voice at that point as well.

While O’Neill and Maclean were new this year, the rest of the main cast remained from the premiere. Kwangchul Youn was a resonant and warm-toned Gurnemanz, but lacked something in gravitas and personality. Detlef Roth has a small voice for Amfortas, but in the favorable Bayreuth acoustic could still be heard, and offered a wonderful singer-actor type integrated performance with extremely physical acting. Thomas Jesatko was a Klingsor also more memorable for acting than singing, but likewise excellent. The chorus, flower maidens, and acting of the supernumeraries (particularly the unnamed Act 1 boy) were all great.

Herheim’s Yevgeny Onegin in Amsterdam
Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger in Bayreuth
Nikolaus Lehnhoff’sParsifal in London
Christine Mielitz’sParsifal in Vienna

Despite the above being mostly about Herheim’s vision, this is a great production because it is such a Gesamtkunstwerk, a model not of artistic megalomania but of collaboration. And how wonderful to see everyone working together to create something so intellectually challenging, beautiful, and unique!

Per-Erik Skramstad at has a good essay about this production with a compilation of reviews from the premiere year.

The best way to get a taste of this production without going to Bayreuth is in these videos, first a longish story from German TV and then two short intros from dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. They’re only in German, sorry:

Photos copyright Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele (some from previous years)

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Wiener Philharmoniker buries Mahler again

Mahler died 100 years ago yesterday. This we know, thanks to a great deal of recent hullabaloo. While alive, Mahler was fond of thinking about death, which for his fans has endowed his passing with an outsized symbolic importance. This has led to a rash of morbidity and dubious biographical interpretation of his music (did you know the Symphony No. 6 was prophetic?*). I’m not a guest at this party. Death comes to us all, Mahler the Übermensch included. It’s something tragic and personal, not a piece of performance art. Memorialize the richness of the life, don’t fetishize its end. I do enjoy hearing Mahler’s music, though, and I went to the Wiener Philharmoniker’s memorial concert at the Staatsoper (Mahler’s old haunt) last night.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been boycotting the Philharmoniker for the past few months due to their sexism and general distastefulness, but the proceeds of this concert went to earthquake relief in Japan, so I made an exception.

Based on this performance, in which Daniele Gatti conducted the Symphony No. 9, the Philharmoniker didn’t care much about this event either. If they rehearsed for this concert, it didn’t do much good. This was disastrously sloppy playing with terrible ensemble, lots of intonation problems, and more wrong notes than you could shake a Wunderhorn at. (I’m looking at you, hornist in the second movement. BLAH bum bum bum Bum Bum. And you, flutist who got lost in the development in the first movement.) The brass and woodwinds (and out of tune chimes) were the primary culprits, but even the usually invincible strings sounded scrappy.

Gatti is an eccentric conductor, and the oddness of his stretched-out climaxes, dramatic pauses, lack of contrast, and strange balances only made things worse, losing any sense of shape in the first movement. The attempt at a thrilling accelerando at the end of the third movement fell apart in missed notes and poor ensemble. The strings came into better focus in the last movement, where Gatti alternated loud and full playing with intimate sections, but the ending was rather shaky. Total running time was around 90 minutes, on the slower side but not extreme. I assure you that this was not Gatti-is-weird interpretive peculiarity but objectively poor playing. I know this is an orchestra incapable of feeling shame, but I was actually shocked that they couldn’t do a little better for the Mahler memorial concert.** Silly me.

If this concert gets good notices in the press, I may scream. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer recently, I really want to write positive reviews, but that requires good performances.

If you want to watch Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s less geographically apt but probably infinitely less embarrassing memorial concert instead (with the Adagio from the Symphony No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde), you can do so here.

*We were told all about this at an inane pre-concert lecture by dilettante Gilbert Kaplan, along with every other of the Top 20 Mahler Clichés. “Every emotion possible appears in Mahler’s music,” you know that?

**Conspiracy theories: a) since they weren’t being paid, were they stingy with rehearsals? b) Two women in woodwinds suggest presence of some ringers (yes this is pathetic but there are no women in the wind section on the roster). c) This symphony was originally scheduled for last fall but canceled due to a conductor change, and was not given a planned rehearsal workout then.

Gustav-Mahler-Gedenkkonzert (Symphony No. 9). Wiener Philharmoniker at the Wiener Staatsoper, 5/18/2011. Daniele Gatti, conductor.

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Fidelio in Munich: Led to freedom

Of all composers, it’s Beethoven who we think we understand. The greatest achievement of Calixto Bieito and Daniele Gatti’s strange Bayerische Staatsoper Fidelio is how it disrupts our expectations and banishes calcified certainty and cliché. The prison exists only in the minds of the alienated characters, and Leonore finds that freeing her husband isn’t quite as simple as finding him and dressing him in a suit. The production’s fragmented dreaminess and vaguely unfinished quality can be frustrating, but its handful of revelatory moments and wonderful performances add up to a powerful experience.

Beethoven, Fidelio. Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/5/2010. New production by Calixto Bieito, sets by Rebecca Ringst, costumes by Ingo Krügler, lights by Reinhard Traub. Conducted by Daniele Gatti with Anja Kampe (Leonore), Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan), Franz-Josef Selig (Rocco), Wolfgang Koch (Don Pizarro), Laura Tatulescu (Marzelline), Jussi Myllys (Jaquino), LazArt Quartett.

Sit back, guys, this one is going to take a good amount of space. Also, I again had a restricted-view seat, and the chance I missed something important is pretty good, alas.

This production does not take place in a literal prison. The set is a shifting maze of glass and metal, in the first act a vertical structure of floors and ladders and, in Florestan’s cell, a horizontal one of hallways. Each character is a captive of this strikingly beautiful Borgesian labyrinth, each inside their own private mental prisons, alienated by the proverbial Modern Condition. Each has an obsession that prevents them from reaching the labyrinth’s center and the freedom found there. It’s a Bildungsroman for the Cormac McCarthy set.

Before the overture, Leonore opens the opera by reciting a Jorge Luis Borges poem. Here it is in English (it’s from In Praise of Darkness).  Maybe the labyrinth doesn’t have a center at all; whether there is any escape is a key issue of the production:

There’ll never be a door. You’re inside
and the keep encompasses the world
and has neither obverse nor reverse
nor circling wall nor secret center.
Hope not that the straightness of your path
that stubbornly branches off in two,
that stubbornly branches off in two,
will have an end. Your fate is ironbound,
as is your judge. Forget the onslaught
of the bull that is a man and whose
strange and plural form haunts the tangle
of unending interwoven stone.
He does not exist. In the black dusk,
hope not even for the savage beast.

The overture that follows is not the Fidelio but full-blown Leonore No. 3, here given a schizophrenically dissociated performance by Gatti, moving between Zen-like waves of crescendos and decrescendos and frantically fast sections. Onstage, Leonore takes off her shirt and binds her breasts. This is important: it is the denial of her sexuality and single-minded need to find Florestan that prevents her from escaping the labyrinth, not the lack of Florestan himself. (Giving the woman her own purpose in life, what a concept!)

Bieito has eliminated the spoken text almost entirely and inserted short quotations from Borges and McCarthy in its place. But they do not serve remotely the same function; most are some variation on “I am trapped in the labyrinth,” offering a few moments of spoken interlude between the musical numbers. The series of musical numbers does not present us with the plot but the various characters’ more or less independent psychological prisons, all products of the constraints of modern society. Rocco wants money. Marzelline wants sex, and Jaquino is, as could be expected, a rapist. Don Pizarro wants power. Leonore, determined and capable but denied a full life, struggles with literal ropes attached to the labyrinth in “Komm, Hoffnung.” In the Prisoners’ Chorus she puts pictures of Florestan’s face on the scattered prisoners, as if that would transform these momentarily free men into her husband and thus free herself. When some bits of the plot intrude into the sung texts it is as if they are fragments from some other world.

The first act exists entirely in this kind of timeless abstraction; in the second the labyrinth is lowered to a horizontal position and we disconcertingly enter the world of characters and events (we also acquire a number of hanging acrobats who descend from the flies, symbolizing floating freedom and such). What exactly is wrong with Florestan is unclear (perhaps mental illness, perhaps resigned into an exceptionally bad case of modernist alienation), but despite his vision of Leonore and attempts to climb out of the labyrinth, he is mentally elsewhere and scared of anyone who comes near him. Leonore dispatches Pizarro with both a bottle of water smashed over the head and acid thrown in his eyes.

The marital reunion begins euphorically, and Leonore ditches her man clothes for a dress and Florestan his asylum-like pajamas for a suit, but after “O namenlose Freude” they draw away from each other, Florestan unsure of leaving and Leonore not sure who this is that she has finally found. Then, where Mahler and Bernstein put Leonore No. 3, a string quartet descends from above and plays an excerpt from the slow movement of the Op. 132 string quartet, the Heiliger Dankgesang (only the molto adagio, not the “feeling new strength“ section). It’s a moment of perfect peace and stillness, and the hanging musicians seem to represent the consolatory, freeing, yet abstract power of art (cue Beethoven biography reference, and the program includes the text of the Heiligenstadt Testament). And yet it is only a momentary respite.

The finale confused me a bit. Don Fernando arrives in the personage of the Joker from The Dark Knight (some other parts of this production kind of recall Inception–I suspect that Bieito is a big Christopher Nolan fan), a deus ex machina who enters from the audience. He proceeds to shoot Florestan. While he does not remain dead onstage, I think he actually does die. Because the utopia of the finale is a freedom that can’t exist (especially when you’re in a Calixto Bieito production), and considering Florestan’s mental state, he isn’t going to be able to piece his life together again in this world, wife or no wife. The only release for him is death. The rejoicing of the reunion continues in some other space. But what does this mean for Leonore?

This is my biggest problem with the production: the characters exist in such isolation from each other. I think it may be too abstract for me; I miss having a plot and real characters instead of symbols of a vague existential struggle, and it was only during the more concrete action of the second act where I was fascinated (as evidenced by my descriptions–I really thought the treatment of the reunion was brilliant). The first half of Fidelio is inevitably a dramaturgical challenge, but this solution seems weirdly lacking in ideas, almost incomplete. And I missed the good old struggle for justice, however naive it might be. I guess I’m sentimental.

But the best thing about this production is how unnaive and unsentimental it is, how it expresses the power and desire of Beethoven’s score without lapsing into cliché. As intendant Nikolaus Bachler said at the post-show discussion, “The curtain goes up and there’s ironing! Always ironing!” But beyond avoiding ritual staging, Bieito expresses the central theme of freedom while pretty much destroying any comfortable historicist paean. He avoids the ideological truisms of black and white truth and Western idealism that are attached to Beethoven and this work in favor of something more unique and intensely personal. (My problem with most Beethoven presentations is encapsulated in the subtitle of Edmund Morgan’s Beethoven biography, The Universal Composer, a phrase that presents so many cultural problems that I don’t even know where to start.  Bieito is an antidote to this.) It might be neither fuzzily inspirational nor coherent, but it has many other virtues, and its freshness and complexity are definitely some of them.

Musically, Daniele Gatti seemed like almost the right conductor for this production. He is willfully strange, with weirdly slow tempos and unexpected shifts, sometimes overwhelming the singers and sometimes lacking in coordination and rhythmic crispness (from the stage, this could have had to do with the production). But the static quality and unexpected twists seemed to fit with a production this unconventional, and his strange waves of music certainly sounded alien. The orchestra, particularly the strings, sounded very good, though occasionally a little bewildered.

Anja Kampe made a tremendously badass Leonore. Her large, rich voice sometimes struggled through Beethoven’s murderous vocal writing and Gatti’s slow tempo in the first half of her aria. But her singing was expressive and heroic throughout, and her giant high Bs ideal for this role. She acted with remarkable sincerity through the considerable demands of the production, and her naturalness and honesty provided most of its soul. Jonas Kaufmann navigated the terrors of the aria with great dramatic eloquence, including a daring crescendo at the beginning and a trumpeting ending with strong high notes. And his vaguely autistic, tic-ridden Florestan was a formidable piece of acting. But after the aria he sounded under the weather, and sometimes was drowned out in the ensembles. (This was his return to the production after several illness-related cancelations, and he coughed several times mid-aria. Hilariously, half the audience immediately broke out in sympathy coughs.) Laura Tatulescu and Jussi Mylls were animated as Marzelline and Jaquino, both singing with clarity through their considerable acrobatics. Wolfgang Koch made an oddly soft-grained Pizarro. Franz-Josef Selig was an excellently sung Rocco with robust, round tone. As usual in a Bieito production, the acting and commitment from the cast was across-the-board great.

I found parts of this production massively frustrating, but there is more of it that will stick with me.  And, as you can see by the amount of words it took me to explain my thoughts about it, it certainly gave me something to think about.  As much as I love the triumph of justice, it’s going to be a little tricky to go innocently back to the ironing after this.

All photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.
Trailer (3 minutes):

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Verdi Requiem at the Musikverein: Halloween special

In a rare display of programming wit from the Musikverein, this year you can hear the Verdi Requiem on two fitting dates: Halloween and All Saints’ Day.  (Theologically speaking All Souls’ Day on Tuesday would probably have been most appropriate, but I guess the schedule didn’t allow for that.)  But Daniele Gatti’s unshakable control in last night’s performance didn’t allow for anything spooky.  It was an epic cathedral of a performance, but not a thrills and chills one.

This year for Halloween I went as a Catholic.

Verdi, Requiem.  Musikverein, 31/10/10.  Orchestre Nationale de France and Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien conducted by Daniele Gatti with soloists Krassimira Stoyanova, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Francesco Meli, and Tomasz Konieczny

Daniele Gatti is a micromanager of a conductor, beating subdivisions and keeping a very careful eye on solo sections.  This wasn’t a very spontaneous performance and sometimes lacked momentum and excitement, but it was majestic, monumental, and mmm… awe-inspiring.  It was an interpretation of extremes, beginning almost imperceptibly softly (thanks, Musikverein acoustics!), broken up with exaggerated Luftpausen, and exploding into the louder sections.  Sometimes Gatti’s precision seemed counterproductive, as in the hesitant and oddly shaky fanfare beginning the Tuba mirum.  Tempos were slow with a running time of almost an hour and 35 minutes.  The most exaggerated slowness came in the Dies irae, here not a roller coaster but a monumental block, the wind lines emerging with unusual clarity.  The Orchestre Nationale de France sounded excellent and followed Gatti though all of his precisely planned changes of scenery–much more so than the excellent but enormous and not as subtle Musikverein chorus, which sometimes drowned the orchestra out.

The soloists didn’t blend very well, but since only two of them were the originally scheduled people I suppose you can’t really blame them (why do I have to write something like this for EVERY SINGLE THING that I see?).  Krassimira Stoyanova in the soprano part was the best match for Gatti’s style, singing with elegant control and reserved passion.  She never pushed and sometimes was drowned out by the chorus in the Libera me, but nailed the pppp high B-flat on “Requiem” and sounded generally fabulous.  Marie-Nicole Lemieux gave a more extroverted reading of the mezzo/alto part with a big voice that sounds like a real alto.  She has great low notes, but a very large vibrato.  Francesco Meli, substituting in the tenor part, has a nice Italianate timbre and fine phrasing, but sounded too lyric for this piece with occasionally strained tone and some tremulous piano singing.  Tomasz Koncieczny in the bass part was a very late replacement and sounded solid but not terribly coordinated with the others.

This concert will be repeated tonight.

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