Troy again

 Les Troyens is a wonderful, unique, and rare opera (also REALLY BIG), but it’s not one that sells itself. Without an equally strong and unique cast and production–from each of the principals to the chorus and choreography–its five and a half hours can become a bit of a slog. While there are some considerable virtues in the Met’s current revival, it’s only an intermittently satisfying affair.

Berlioz, Les Troyens. Metropolitan Opera, 12/17/2013. Production by Francesca Zambello (revival), conducted by Fabio Luisi with Susan Graham (Didon), Deborah Voigt (Cassandre), Marcello Giordani (Énée), way too many more, see here

Francesca Zambello’s production is fairly traditional, with a few Virgilian Easter eggs and non sequitur insertions that pass for vision. Maria Bjørnson’s multi-level George Tsypin-esque set is neither particularly effective nor intrusive, though its textured strips of metal make it resemble a high-end corporate lobby. (The sight lines are bad, too. In Act 2 I couldn’t see the ghost of Hector at all.) The costumes are traditional colorful robes and armor in the Troy portion and in the Carthage half consist of lots of all-white robes and royal purple. Zambello tends towards the heavy-handed and cluttered. Some plot points are underlined and circled, such as Ascagne taking Dido’s ring and Andromache’s screaming, while other developments seem quite badly timed, such as Dido and Aeneas finding love at the beginning of the Hunt kind of robs the rest of the act of its point.

After having seen three different productions of this opera live (this one, David McVicar’s in London,* and David Pountney’s in Berlin), I have come to three conclusions (besides that Troy is far, far easier to effectively stage than Carthage):

    1.    The Carthaginians don’t have chairs. They lounge on cushions.
    2.    The Carthaginians always look like the members of a New Age cult. White robes, little in the way of gender differentiation (apparently a side effect of having a queen?).
    3.    The dancing is usually awful, and goes on for far too long.

I actually liked Doug Varone’s choreography of the Chasse royal a lot, where he has a chance to build the drama to some developmental music, and wished Dido and Aeneas hadn’t been providing visual distraction as well as premature macking. But the insertion of dance at other points, such as Iopas’s song and the jazz hand-filled Laocöon ensemble, is irritating, and the long dance sections of Acts 3 and 4 outstay their welcome. Overall, at least as revived here it’s a generic, uninspired production–in Carthage considerably less egregious than David McVicar’s recent effort but also far less visually arresting in Troy. I must say that this production’s moderately-sized, literal horse is far less impressive than both McVicar’s steampunk fire-snorter and the Pountney production’s take, where giant feet kicked at the Trojans from overhead.

The problem with a lackluster Troyens is that you become acutely aware of how uneven the piece is. It’s not that much of it’s bad (I think it’s 98% genius, and the 2% is mostly the Dance of the Nubian Slave Girls), but it doesn’t fit together without consistent energy and vision. In this performance, I was not convinced that we really needed two peripheral beatific tenor arias, plus, well, I adore the whiny soldiers in Act 5. They’re my second favorite whiny soldier duo in opera, beat only by Nero’s guard in Poppea. The glance into their lives, plus the respite of Hylas’s music, are what gives the opera its epic quality. But if they don’t have some spirit you just want to get on with it.

next up: Dance of the Campaign Pollsters

The best thing about Fabio Luisi’s conducting is that it kept everything moving. I liked his work in the quieter music best, such as the lovely Didon-Anna duets, where he found a nice gentle flow. And the processions and choruses had a good solid momentum, with only a few coordination issues early on. The chorus, by the way, might be the real star of Les Troyens, and while I found the Met chorus somewhat less impressive than the ROH’s last summer, it was still a strong showing. Where I thought Luisi was less satisfying was in the quirky stuff that makes Berlioz so special, stuff like the ostinatos, the irregular phrases, the sudden turns. Stuff like this moment. Luisi has a tendency to make it all sound like early Beethoven, and pleasantly bland early Beethoven at that. More lurching energy, more neuroticism was needed.

Besides the chorus, Susan Graham is the star of this production. Her Didon is absolutely beautifully sung and acted, with more depth and intensity than I remember in her performance on the Châtelet DVD. She expertly balances musical grace with the text, giving her Didon dignity and stature, convincingly regal but also human. Her voice is bright but also slightly grainy, a perfect size for this role and by the end she becomes a real tragedienne at the end. Her only issue is high notes: the big and prominent B flat in “Chers Tyriens” simply entirely failed to come out both times, leading to a somewhat anticlimactic end. I’m guessing there isn’t a lot of time with Octavian in her future (which is a shame, because she is otherwise outstanding there!).

I wonder if Marcello Giordani took the widespread rumors of his imminent replacement personally. (How could you not?) For the first three acts he seemed to be giving it his all, and managed a little better than I expected. His voice is aging, the high notes extraordinarily loud but not very pretty, the disconnected lower range hollow-sounding and weak. It was in Act 4 where the problems really began to show, with a can belto “Nuit d’ivresse” that completely drowned out Graham’s more appropriately nuanced efforts, and his Act 5 “Inutiles regrets” were indeed regrettable, involving something resembling a high C and some B flats but also a lot of vaguely rhythmic, somewhat pitched shouting towards the end. His acting is acceptable but not exactly dashing or charismatic. I would not at all be surprised if he were sent packing to, uh, Italie before the HD broadcast (“he’s not Italian! he’s Sicilian!” -my relatives, my family comes from southern Italy). The rumored replacement is Bryan Hymel, who, with indisputable competence if not terribly much beauty, sang the role earlier in London this year.

Deborah Voigt’s wan, poorly sung Cassandre made me long for London’s brilliant Anna Caterina Antonacci. Voigt was always a Chrysothemis, someone who plants themselves in front of the conductor and makes a glorious sound. Cassandre is a role that requires the charisma and madness of a mystic, which Voigt has never possessed. What’s more, the sound is gone, the voice small and sour, a shadow of her past. She vocalizes through the music with rather unpleasant tone and unclear French, rarely looking at her Coroebus. Very disappointing.

The army of supporting cast was strong, for the most part. Karen Cargill’s warm, rich low mezzo as Anna was a highlight, and she made an excellent contrast to Graham. Paul Appleby sang Hylas with a sweet tenor and honest, simple phrasing. In contrast Eric Cutler was a Iopas with a large but uneven voice and fussy phrasing (with a fussy staging from Zambello), somewhat miscast and unaware that less is sometimes more. Julie Boulianne sounded clear as Ascagne with some strange flirty direction. Stephen Gaertner stood in for Dwayne Croft as Chorèbe and showed a strong, full dark baritone. The two most prominent basses, Kwangchoul Youn (long time, no see!) as Narbal and Richard Bernstein as Panthée, were both excellent.

There’s great stuff in this production, but it requires patient waiting through considerable quantities of not so great stuff to get to all of it. Still, recommended under the general “come on, it’s Troyens” rule.

Les Troyens continues through December with an HD broadcast on January 5.

*Like the set of David McVicar’s London production, this Met one (which
came first) also features, in the Carthage set, a raked circular thing center stage
that has little buildings on it (these look more like building blocks
while McV’s were very clearly a city). Unfortunately I have no pictures
of the NYC incarnation; here is the London one:

Coincidence? Errrrr.

Photos copyright Met.

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The Met’s Götterdämmerung: This is how the world ends

If nothing else, I thought, Robert Lepage will know how to make things blow up real good. But the end of his Götterdämmerung last night just sort of fizzled out. Some flames and water were projected onto the now familiar planks, some wee statues crumbled. It was–complete with the misplaced hope that this had been a technical failure in lieu of a more spectacular effect, which it was not–an inglorious but apt ending to a project that always promised something more interesting than it delivered. Musically, things were much better, but the Ring reduced to literalism is a Ring enfeebled.

Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Metropolitan Opera, 1/27/2012. New production premiere directed by Robert Lepage, sets by Carl Fillion, costumes by François St-Aubin, lights by Etiene Boucher, video by Lionel Arnould. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Hans-Peter König (Hagen), Iain Paterson (Gunther), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune), Waltraud Meier (Waltraute), Eric Owens (Alberich)

From a design and mechanical perspective this is the strongest installment of the cycle (disclaimer: I have not yet seen Rheingold). The machine clanked a bit but not as much as in Siegfried, and the dreaded trench in the middle of the stage has finally been banished. The projections were less distractingly mobile and fussy. Lepage even seemed to be trying to make the singers move around more, particularly in Act 2. But the two central problems of the cycle remain: he tells the story through the set rather than through the characters, and his work is illustrative rather than interpretive. It was probably too late to do anything about those.

There weren’t any dumb shows or shadow plays to illustrate backstory in this installment, but the focus didn’t always shift to the storyteller. The Norns wove some giant ropes in the shape of a tree, aided by the Machine, and when they broke the Machine wiggled but the Norns themselves didn’t react physically at all, merely screaming “Es riß!” The only person who managed to overpower this narration problem was the indomitable Waltraud Meier as Waltraute, who was transfixing from her first moment to her last. You could see that she could see what she was narrating, and what she thought of it at each second. But I think that came from the previously well-established truth that Waltraud Meier is the Best, not from Lepage.

The production’s Personenregie failings were felt most acutely in the drama-prone House of Gibich, here represented by a projected wood backdrop and a big table. I should note that I was sitting in the Family Circle so some detail may have escaped me, but this was a very placid and bland bunch. Conventionally, Hagen is the evilest of evil, described by the chorus as “grimmer Hagen,” here he was a complete blank (and Gutrune, weirdly, seemed to really like him). I always have trouble caring about the Gibichungs, here where their affairs were so boring it was nearly impossible. They are not alone: Brünnhilde is severely underdirected in her wedding scene, seeming more mildly upset than traumatically outraged. Just because the direction is less static doesn’t mean it actually conveys dramatic meaning, unfortunately.

But the production is still filled with missteps small and large. One could just make a list. The projections make the geography of the fire mountain quite confusing. Why does Brünnhilde enter the Prologue with Nothung, and alone? (That’s Brünnhilde from Walküre, not Brünnhilde in Love.) Why does the action never seem to respond to the music? Why must so many entrances be made slowly and unceremoniously from the sides–the speed I assume is due to some stairs just offstage–which just isn’t dramatic. Waltraute needs to storm on, not stroll.

But the biggest problem is the Immolation. Here’s what happens. A funeral pyre of logs is built upstage. Brünnhilde lights it up and at the very end mounts her mechanical Grane (who reportedly closely resembles the horse of War Horse) and is rolled slowly towards it. The Machine rotates so we don’t see her burn, and the wall of planks is covered with projections of flames. These slowly give way to water so Hagen and the Rhinemaidens do the Zurück vom Ring bit. Three Five very little statues of the gods, previously seen in the Hall of Gibich (these statues are mentioned in the libretto, I think) appear at the top of the Machine and crumble, an effect that would be put to shame by a provincial production of Samson et Dalila. (From the Family Circle, some stage crew people were visible at this point.) We are left with just the water for the final exchange between the Valhalla and Redemption Leitmotives. It’s a massively anticlimactic staging of the least anticlimactic ending in music. It’s impossible to live up to that music (see: Peter Konwitschny’s ending in his Stuttgart production). But how could you put in so little effort?

Of course the music tells the story, but the staging deflates it and reduces something symbolic to something childishly literal. Still, the musical performance had much to recommend it. Fabio Luisi is an excellent palate cleanser after years and years of Levine. Where the latter can be ponderous and thick, Luisi is lean and dramatically attentive. But I am beginning to think he’s more a rebound relationship than someone I want to marry, Wagner-wise. He gets truly wonderful and sometimes downright luminous playing from the orchestra, the balance is generally good, but I miss the raw excitement, intensity, and weight of other conductors. I actually wanted to hear the orchestra more, for them to be unleashed.
(I am, practically speaking, probably wishing for Christian Thielemann.)
Even the Funeral March was oddly restrained.

Deborah Voigt was in better voice than she had been for any of the previous installments, particularly in the Prologue. Her high notes can be lush, and her middle was more consistently supported this time around. Her German is incomprehensible, and she shows no attention to the text or much musical variety, but in terms of pure voice this was a great improvement. If only she had gotten some better direction in Act 2. Jay Hunter Morris is a very likeable Siegfried, and has a healthier and sweeter tone than many of his breed. His voice is rather small, and towards the end of Acts 2 and 3 showed considerable strain, but what Siegfrieds don’t? In these roles I think both Katarina Dalayman and Stephen Gould of later casts will be worth hearing.

Vocally, the star of the show was Hans-Peter König’s Hagen, whose enormous if not especially dark tone was by far the loudest thing going (rivaled only by Eric Owens’s Alberich, in a memorable duet). If only he had managed to create a character. Wendy Bryn Harmer was a good Gutrune with excellent high notes and the bright tone you usually associate with this role. Waltraud Meier was, as already mentioned, a force of nature as Waltraute, to an extent that you don’t care about her slightly drying voice. Iain Paterson was fine as Gunther, though the production doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. In the smaller roles, Heidi Melton was a marvelous Third Norn and certainly has a big career ahead of her, and Elizabeth Bishop and Maria Radner were excellent as the Second and First ones as well. The Rhinemaidens, however, sounded screechy and often failed to blend, possibly due to a strenuous staging of continuously climbing up and sliding an inclined Machine. The chorus sounded fantastic.

But for better or for worse, every opera performance is the sum of all its parts, a Gesamtkunstwerk of whatever ends up happening. And on that front Lepage badly disappoints, giving us little more than a literal, often clumsy and boring visualization of the story that speaks so simplistically that it tames the drama to literal representation. Music is evocative, and the Ring is magical because it suggests things larger and more powerful than itself, things larger and deeper than our ordinary lives. Lepage’s staging makes us ask, is this all there is?

Götterdämmerung continues in February and will be presented with full cycles in April.

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Siegfried at the Met: Old swords in new forges

 The third installment of Robert Lepage’s new Ring cycle planted itself on the Met stage last night. This was the first of the three that I have seen live (I saw Walküre in a movie theater), and I am a little confused as to how so many computer screensavers projected onto a spinning picket fence help tell the story. And Lepage doesn’t really seem to have any idea of how to stage Wagner’s music as opposed to the words. But musical values were very good. That’s life at the Met.

Wagner, Siegfried. Metropolitan Opera, 10/27/2011. New production premiere directed by Robert Lepage with sets by Carl Fillion, costumes by François St-Aubin, lighting by Etienne Boucher, video by Pedro Pires. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Bryn Terfel (Wanderer), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Eric Owens (Alberich), Hans-Peter König (Fafner), Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Mojca Erdmann (Forest Bird), Patricia Bardon (Erda).

As you probably have read elsewhere, the entire cycle works on a unit set known as the Machine. A narrow raked apron downstage is backed by a trench, where much of the action happens with really wonky sight lines. Above the trench hover a line of gigantic slats that spin on a horizontal axis into various configurations. The apron and slats are smooth light gray metal and serve as a surface for various video projections, the trench is black. Supposedly some of the video projections used 3-D technology this time around, but from my seat in the Family Circle and lack of previous shows to compare to I didn’t notice anything. The design has a central dissonance. The costumes, projected images (trees, a mountain landscape, a waterfall) and set pieces placed in the trench area are all raggedly naturalistic, with rough surfaces and earth tones. It’s a look similar to the old Otto Schenk production that this one replaces. But the Schenk was at least uniform: the set covered the whole stage and was similarly craggy. Here, the Machine and its surroundings are all smooth and clean futurism, cool black and gray and sharp edges. It’s a weird melange that for lack of any unifying idea makes everything look unfinished and oddly antiseptic. There’s no aura.

The undercooked visuals are symptomatic of the project’s larger lack of a plan. The Machine can’t move at many speeds, and the projections are often busily flitting away with waterfalls and fire and such, and both seem oblivious to the motion of the music–as does Lepage’s work with singers, as when Siegfried bounded onstage to Mime’s motive at the beginning of Act 2. Overall, there is no real suggestion of what the Ring could possibly be about, just a bunch of grunge band types standing still and singing. (According to this story in Opera News, the non-static parts of Act 1 of Walküre came only thanks to direct intervention by Jonas Kaufmann and James Levine. I don’t even know what to say to that.)

We see some intervening time pass during the prelude, including a rather unpleasant implication for Mime that I’ve already considered. Mime’s workshop in Act 1 is placed in the Machine’s trench, and it’s mighty cramped down there, with little blocking to speak of (and Lepage’s penchant for realism doesn’t extend to giving Siegfried tongs to hold his sword–which still produces steam when thrust into a projected pool of water–apparently heroes can handle very hot objects). Act 2 finds the Machine doing a forest act, and, yes, the bird is a projection. Fafner is a snake-like dragon who is not very mobile. Act 3 was plagued with groans from the Machine during some very delicate music, as well as some crashes and yelling from backstage. We switch from the Nature Images screensaver to the vague outer-spacey one my MacBook calls Flurry. Erda emerges as a cool mirrored fin de siècle type dress, which kind of doesn’t go with anything except the Machine, and Wotan inexplicably gets a giant yoga mat with runes on it. The final scene I found the most effective from a staging perspective, as the machine works best when it turns a bit less realistic, showing fire on the sides and mountain in the middle.

Fabio Luisi’s conducting (deputizing for again-injured Levine) owed more to the aesthetic of the Machine than the costumes. Luisi is great at bringing clarity and order to these monster scores, fishing out out details and keeping everything totally together while remaining very singer-friendly. But in this performance I found his work too brisk and controlled and efficient at first, and not exciting enough. (His tempos are significantly faster than Levine’s.) The orchestra’s sound was impeccable, but lacked weight and intensity. Luckily they seemed to gain momentum over the course of the evening. The Forest Murmurs were lovely, and the horn solos excellent.

The production suffered an even later replacement in Jay Hunter Morris’s Siegfried, who only joined the production last week. He sang a lyrical Siegfried unusually, amazingly beautifully, with strong and pleasant tone and consistent musicality, not really running out of steam until the final scene. Thanks to Luisi’s sensitive conducting, he was rarely drowned out (except for his entrance), but unfortunately the voice is ultimately too small to have enough presence and heft to really score in the heroic moments of the role. The first half of the Forging Song (the melting portion) was taken at an
unusually slow tempo, and he did not have the necessary exuberance. This was perhaps a necessary trade-off for his sensitivity elsewhere, and in all not a bad compromise. He’s a very energetic stage presence, though his characterization was unsurprisingly generalized (and I was watching this from the very distant Family Circle, remember).

Bryn Terfel’s Wanderer was less resonant and plummy than his Wotan in Walküre, sometimes sounding shouty, but his command of the text and music was tremendous and moving, despite being burdened with the costume from hell. Gerhard Siegel was a more sweetly sung Mime than most, lacking the hard nasal edge that you usually hear in this role. It sounded much nicer than usual, but in a production that didn’t give the role a clear profile ended up a little bland. Eric Owens was a cavernous marvel as Alberich, though he and Terfel sounded awfully similar in their short scene. Hans-Peter König was also very loud and deep as Fafner. Patricia Bardon sang with feeling as Erda, but the role seems a strain for her. Mojca Erdmann sang the Woodbird with a very wide vibrato and mushy German.

Deborah Voigt went in and out as Brünnhilde, getting off to a strong start with “Heil dir, Sonne!” Unfortunately after that her voice sounded extremely uneven, with wobbles in the lower and shrieks in the extreme upper areas. A few notes around the top of the staff are still very strong, and she’s loud, but this was not good. I am a little worried about her Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde.

But as for the whole cycle, well, I don’t think there’s much hope at this point. I must say that I’m really looking forward to Andreas Kriegenburg and Kent Nagano’s cycle in Munich, though, which I will hopefully be seeing next summer.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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Die Walküre from the Met: Die Maschine ohne Ghost

I went to the Live from HD broadcast of Die Walküre on Saturday! For writing about this I recruited the help of NYC correspondent “Pélleas,” who saw it live. We chatted for a little while on Sunday. Or, a lot while. The Machine! James Levine, actually conducting! Valkyries falling on their asses! All right ahead!

Zerbinetta: Just to be really clear, I went to the broadcast on May 14 in Vienna in the romantic surroundings of the Donauzentrum shopping mall and you saw it live at the opera house in New York on…
Pélleas: April 28th. So, how did it come across in the film version? I saw the Rheingold movie broadcast and I must say that the whole effect of the planks worked much better in person.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, I hope so. (I didn’t see Rheingold at all.) Because it was really weak on the broadcast. It was all shot in closeup so you could only see the whole machine occasionally (when it did shit) and the rest of the time it basically looked like a really expensive projection screen.
Pélleas: The planks basically are an expensive projection screen, but during the couple of set piece moments that they have they can be very spectacular. I found their transformation from a snowy wasteland to a forrest of trees in the beginning very cool. And the bit with Brünnhilde being left on the mountain in her ring of fire was also really cool. That is, when you weren’t worried for the safety of the stunt double given the injury that happened because of The Machine earlier in the night (more about that later).

Zerbinetta: OH you were at THAT one. Anyway, I was very disappointed in the design work. It looked strangely unfinished, like there was the machine and nothing else. Projections always look bad close up but it seemed like they forgot to add any kind of texture or life to any of the stage pictures. Hunding’s table looked like it came from Ikea. Too many smooth flat surfaces. It was just all SO DAMN LITERAL and unimaginative. And not just the design.
Pélleas: Yep. I totally agree with you there. The only time they tried to give some sort of originality to anything it came off as really tacky. And there was basically no original psychological insight into any of the characters or the staging.
Zerbinetta: It was also very very static. Like the Ring I saw in Vienna in April didn’t have much insight either but at least everything kept moving pretty well.
Pélleas: About the accident, though. One of the valkyries took a hard landing sliding off of her horse. I didn’t see it, so I’m not sure how she landed, but I heard it. She either caught her leg in the stage at the end, or landed really hard on her butt. She exited the stage immediately, returned a couple of minutes later (to applause), and sang her part. But she didn’t appear at the curtain call. (Ed. note: she was OK.)
Zerbinetta: I thought the end really lost the emotional thread when Brünnhilde left the stage to be replaced by a double. You need that farewell ritual to be about the character.
Pélleas: A lot of people complained about that, but I didn’t really mind it. I was still emotionally invested in the scene, because the music was simply so beautiful, and the stunt double did a good job of imitating the way her body was slouched into Wotan.
Zerbinetta: The problem with the ending in the HD was they didn’t want to show the double close up to show that it was a double so the entire opera is in closeups and then HELLO wide angle!
Pélleas: Well, it’d be hard to get the majesty of the entire set if you did closeups. And that is the one moment where the set as a whole really shines.
Zerbinetta: The switch was disconcertingly abrupt. Didn’t go with the music. Especially when Levine’s magic fire was burning soooo slowly. So about the conducting. ????
Pélleas: Everyone was of course totally enthused that Levine was alive enough to conduct. I was generally extremely pleased with his conducting.
Zerbinetta: I liked bits of it but overall it felt kind of too slack, especially the really slow Act 2. Act 3 was majestic, though. Orchestra sounded good, though I suspect I am spoiled by Vienna. How was the balance between singers and orchestra?
Pélleas: It was generally very good. I didn’t have any trouble hearing any of the singers, and vocally it seemed to be a much better evening than the opening night performance that got reviewed. Westbroek was able to sing through the entire evening, and she was marvelous. Her final notes simply soared above the orchestra with such great volume and power, for such a long time. A.— and I looked to each other with grins on our faces. I think it was the vocal highlight of the evening.

Zerbinetta: I thought Westbroek sounded glorious, she has this shining and effortless tone that is just amazing and visceral. But she looked nervous and hesitant. Anna Nicole wasn’t a good use of her vocal talents, but it did show she can be a much better actress than she was as Sieglinde here. My biggest surprise was Terfel, I think. I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a fun ham, but this was really subtle and powerful and beautiful. Also his German and use of the text were just gorgeous. Usually I think Wotan is a big bore and I didn’t this time.
Pélleas: He was really great. He kept me emotionally engaged during his Act 2 monologue, which is one of my favorite parts of the opera, but one that is really easy to make boring. And the absolute disdain that he packed into his command to Hunding to die was chilling.
Zerbinetta: Yeah, but the staging of the fight was pathetic. Lots of people standing around.
Pélleas: Believe it or not, it actually came off as exciting live. But that’s because so much else was boring…. And let’s be honest, none of the singers were really required to act in this production. The emotional engagement they produced through their acting was really in spite of the production, not because of it.
Zerbinetta: I think the idea is that there’s a spectacular background for the singers to do their thing in front of, but really, you need more directorial interpretation get the Ring to hold together and get the singers to act together instead of independently. I think it’s lifted out of Chéreau but I loved when Siegmund recognized Wotan and then died in his arms at the very end of Act 2. Probably the only theatrical moment between two characters I thought was really emotionally genuine and touching.

Pélleas: If only we could bring in Freyer to explain the emotional/mythological resonances of these characters BETWEEN each other! A good example is Fricka’s scene with Wotan. She does a great job of projecting wounded power while asserting that her pride will never be completely killed (and Blythe was amazing as always) and Terfel did a great job of expressing his descent into madness and grief at that moment – seeing all of his plans unravel because of his own hubris and his need to obey his wife’s command. Both acted convincingly enough in that scene, but they were pretty much doing it independently of each other.
Zerbinetta: The lack of detailed direction really showed in the closeups. Everyone spent a lot more time looking towards Levine that they did at each other. Also, that awkward dinner scene in Act 1 with everyone sitting around the table giving each other side-eye including very avuncular Hunding and you couldn’t see them below the knees? Looked like a TV show to me. This TV show is super-dramatic, it puts the opera back in soap opera, and it is called “One Tree Sword.” Ratings, um, gold! Even against Eurovision. (I am still sad I missed Eurovision.)
Pélleas: Yeah, hated that staging. A.— tried to say that it made it more emotional when they declared their love for each other and they came out so you could see them below the knees, but I don’t buy it. At least Kaufmann seemed to not always be looking at Levine. And he was the one person to be constantly moving about, as if he actually was young and spry. And the hottness factor and great voice doesn’t hurt.
Zerbinetta: You are obviously aware that Jonas Kaufmann is the Bestest is one of the guiding principles of this blog. I liked him a lot, the Wälses weren’t actually that great but the lyrical parts were, dramatic but also subtle. And the Todesverkündigung was so beautiful. From him. Not so much from Voigt.
Pélleas: I found Voigt’s voice beautiful enough (and Jonas’s absolutely heartbreaking and thrilling). But it didn’t help that the WORST STAGING EVER happened during the annunciation of death.
Zerbinetta: It made me want to run home and watch shirtless Peter Hofmann and Gwyneth Jones on YouTube in the Chéreau. The horns at the beginning of that scene always give me chills. It is in fact my favorite scene in all of Wagner.
Pélleas: You can’t have a moment of such gravity be announced with Brunhilde simply WALKING onto the stage looking exactly as she had before. Even the drab and literal Schenk staging had her wear a cool warrior’s mask to give that scene some amount of gravitas.
Zerbinetta: I agree! Also, why didn’t Sieglinde wake up at some point considering how Siegmund was shaking her? This is a production that leads you towards silly literalism, because its terms are so literal. And yet its look is so unfinished plus the giant traditional costumes that if I were seeing it in Germany I would suspect some weak-ass Verfremdung was going on. But about Voigt: she was miles better than the Brünnhilde I saw in Vienna in April and I liked her sassiness, but I didn’t like her tonal color much, often sour below the top notes. And after the OK hojotoho her German was pretty bad and she didn’t put across the meaning of the text like Terfel and Kaufmann did (Blythe was also interpretively bland, I thought, but THAT SOUND). And there were a few moments wherein she grinned inappropriately when I thought she really needed a director to get her to put together the emotional beats more clearly.

Pélleas: A lot of the more intimate moments could have been much more emotional if thought had been given to him. I think Lepage recognized this and tried to do something interesting during the long monologues (Sigmund’s in Act I and Wotan’s in Act II), but his solution was to do more of his techno wizardry. For the record I disliked the shadow fight in Act I because it was so damn literal and liked the Eye of Color in Act II simply because it was less literal. Except when it mentioned the Ring and an image that was probably licensed from New Line popped up. As if we didn’t already know that Lord of the Rings and Wagner are the same thing.
Zerbinetta: But you had A.— with you, she could probably read the Elvish on the Ring (she is going to kill me if she reads this).
Pélleas: haha
Zerbinetta: Bechtolf did the shadow thing in much less elaborate fashion in Vienna’s Ring, in some of the same places even, and I thought the same thing. Doesn’t add anything, and distracts from the fact that the act of narration itself and the viewpoint of the narrator is a loaded concept in Wagner. Siegmund and Wotan’s stories aren’t neutral exposition. Neither director seemed to appreciate this (though there was the eye, implying some kind of viewpoint, oh damn, I’m just going to go back to Herheim while I still can), but Lepage has so many bells and whistles that it is less obvious that he has nothing to say and an equally simplistic view of the piece. My concern is that this staging has no soul. The Machine lacks a Ghost (yes I thought of that line partway through the show last night).
Pélleas: The only emotional investment is what each individual singer brings to the table. Which can sometimes be sufficient for individual scenes, but doesn’t lead to a sense of continuity across the opera(s). To be clear though, I left the opera house extremely happy and excited, as did A.—. Because the singing was almost uniformly excellent (or above par) the orchestra exciting, and the staging had some really exciting moments that can overshadow the drabness. But it’s like a contact high, when you think about it afterwards you realize there wasn’t really much there. Whereas with Freyer I was thinking for days or weeks afterwards and kept having fun doing so. I’m jealous of you for seeing the whole Freyer Ring btw. In case you didn’t already know that 😉
Zerbinetta: Freyer yes! As for Lepage I kind of had a similar reaction but more moderate (I guess because I didn’t get the big effects very well). The singing really was very good and the performers involving by sheer force of will. But all flash and little depth. More broadly, I guess that’s what bothers me most about the Met’s current artistic direction. It’s so anti-intellectual. I mean not everything has to be hard but they seem so unwilling to challenge audiences at all. (I’m saying this from the happy position of publicly funded Europe.)
Pélleas: I don’t think we’re going to be getting any Regie anytime soon unfortunately
Zerbinetta: Tchnerniakov is on Met Futures for Prince Igor! That’s hard-core Regie right there. Decker’s Traviata seemed to go well and that’s legit Regie. So I have some hope but mostly for imported productions.
Pélleas: But there’s also the option of genuinely beautiful. The Met’s staging of Tristan for example isn’t particularly difficult, but the austere set and props has a beautiful aesthetic that Lepage lacks, precisely because it doesn’t try to be literal.
Zerbinetta: There definitely is a place for genuinely beautiful austere productions. I just wish we could have a place for all sorts of productions that could co-exist happily like a little operatic We Are the World.
Pélleas: Just looking at Met Futures right now. They’re having LePage direct The Tempest??? mrrr
Zerbinetta: Apparently? I’m not a big Adès fan so I don’t really care too much to be honest. I’m mostly worried about the prominence of Bartlett Sher. I can’t stand Bartlett Sher
Pélleas: I LOVE Thomas Adès
Zerbinetta: I should listen to more Adès. I’ll try. Anna Nicole actually got me into Turnage. But I have to go and eat something before the Sellars show tonight. Is there anything we must say about Walküre that we have not said?
Pélleas: I don’t believe so. Enjoy Sellars & co!
Zerbinetta: Have a great afternoon over there.
Pélleas: I shall. talk to you soon!
Zerbinetta: ciao! (as they say, improbably, in German.)
Pélleas: wtf? silly Germans.

It occurred to me later that we left out an important factor: how will this staging age? In 10 years will the Met still be stuck with a Ring that looks like how Space Invaders looks to us now, only not so cutely retro? In my opinion, storytelling ages better than gadgets, but we’ll see.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met Opera.

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Parsifal unredeemed for the Viennese

Dontcha know what day it is? Perhaps Easter is a small step downwards in holiness from Good Friday, but I still didn’t expect the staid Staatsoper audience to make their Easter Parsifal into a circus of boos, incomprehensible yelling at inappropriate times, and no fewer than three cell phones in Act 1. Oh, throw in the usual clapping/aggressive shushing fiasco at the end of Act 1.

The actual performance was rather good. Ingo Metzmacher and Waltraud Meier are great news for Wagner, the orchestra was in solid form, and the cast had a few other standouts as well. Christine Mielitz’s production is a mess, but occasionally an interesting one. Too bad about the sideshow.

Wagner, Parsifal. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/24/2011. Production by Christine Mielitz (revival), conducted by Ingo Metzmacher with Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Waltraud Meier (Kundry), Franz-Josef Selig (Grunemanz), Falk Struckmann (Amfortas), Wolfgang Bankl (Klingsor), Ain Anger (Titurel).

This production was yet another of the Holender regime’s attempts at Regietheater, one of the less fortunate ones. Here, an underdeveloped dramatic idea meets iffy design and, now, poorly rehearsed revival performances. Like in her Fliegende Holländer, which was also designed by Stefan Mayer, the set contains a confusing network of moving parts that seem far more fussy than helpful.

Mielitz’s greatest interest is gender issues. Act 1 appears to take place in some kind of school or mental institution, with students in fencing uniforms doing drills and Parsifal intruding in modern street clothes. Kundry appears robed entirely in black and is harassed and threatened by the knights. Parsifal comes from outside the knight’s insulated masculine world. In the production’s smartest bit of staging, we see the climax of the Act 1 Grail ritual from his point of view. He stands outside the main proscenium, lights point out at us in the auditorium, and the circle of knights slowly rises into darkness, revealing a crowd of women and children robed like Kundry, a literal underclass in the cellar below the knights. We, like them and Parsifal, are not initiates and cannot see or understand the ritual. But the women and children still sing, forced to go along.

Klingsor is a scheming schemer whose sleek modern lair, gold lamé suit, and large video screen suggest nothing so much as a James Bond villain (or, for the less mature among us, Dr. Evil). He drugs Kundry in some way, and also has his herd of red-dressed flower maiden slaves. Mielitz seems to be poking cheap fun at the languid quality of their music when a giant disco ball descends and spins for a bit, casting light around the auditorium suggesting that we are also being seduced. Or something. The spear is a bright neon rod that looks like it’s straight out of an Achim Freyer production.

In Act 3, we see an empty stage with a few projections (did they run out of money?) and are again enlightened or implicated by the shining of blinding light into our eyes. Parsifal’s Mitleid seems to consist of bringing Kundry-acquired feminine wisdom to the knights. Kundry gets to hang out with Amfortas, and Parsifal exposes the artifice of the knight’s ceremony as the set collapses and lighting fixtures and set supports become visible. Finally, the knights are revealed weaponless, Kundry rises angelically upwards, either saved or just blowing the joint, and the golden box that was implied to be holding the Grail falls to the ground, no longer needed.

Unfortunately, despite some scattered interesting bits the production lacks an overarching narrative and dramatic focus. Where are the knights in Act 1 and what does it have to do with Klingsor’s place in Act 3? If women are wise, what is the deal with wound? This is an impossible opera, but too much is just left unexplored. It is badly cluttered with action that seems to have little to do with anything (I have left a lot out in the above summary that didn’t seem to fit in thematically), and I really wish it had just been better. Blocking and technical direction were not the most polished.

The musical performance, however, was the best Wagner I’ve heard in Vienna this season with the exception of the season-opening Tannhäuser. Ingo Metzmacher led with transparent textures, monumentality when needed, and little sense of urgency despite fairly brisk tempos (I timed: Act 1 in 1:42; Act 2 1:04, Act 3 in 1:15 for a total of 4:01, closer to Boulez’s 3:39 than Toscanini’s 4:48). Details, coordination, and pacing were excellent and balances solid, which is something considering that I heard Metzmacher got all of two rehearsals with the orchestra (more than some productions get). I could have used with a little more stillness in Act 3, but the clarity was excellent. Why he was loudly booed by about three people on his entrance at the beginnings of Act 2, 3 and at the end completely mystifies me. It was good and uncontroversial work. Is there something I’m missing here?*

The singing was a somewhat mixed lot, but on the strong side. Waltraud Meier’s intensity and dramatic precision are captivating. She is vocally still very impressive and her attention to the text never flags. Somehow her Kundry is the same driven, compulsive woman in all three acts, despite the enormous differences in the drama. No one groans at the opening of Act 3 like she does. However, I did not find this performance to be as astonishingly demented as the last time I saw her as Kundry (in New York in 2007). In Act Two she seemed to find Parsifal a relatively easy lay.

Taking musical honors was Franz-Josef Selig’s Gurnemanz, in a vocally warm and dramatically perceptive performance. Christopher Ventris was a stronger Parsifal than he was a Siegmund. If only the clear, shining power he mustered at some points had been more consistently deployed. He had an unfortunate knack for coming up short at the biggest dramatic moments (both “Nur eine Waffe taugt” and “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” started off underpowered), and didn’t quite, um, redeem himself by singing well elsewhere. Acting was OK but unremarkable. Falk Struckmann also lacks a certain amount of vocal smoothness, but Amfortas doesn’t really require that too much of that, and his anguish was suitably emphatic and vividly expressive. Wolfgang Bankl, however, sounded sung out as Klingsor.

The supporting players were an unusually uneven lot. The flower maidens were disappointingly shrill and harsh, and the nasal Mime voice of Herwig Peccoraro stuck out among the Knappen in a very bad way. The male chorus sounded fantastically good, but the children were unforgivably squeaky and the women a bit uneven.

For Noises Off! Staaatsoper rep, though, not bad. Not bad at all.

*After the applause and boos died down at the start of Act 3, there was also some indistinct yelling from the orchestra section, the only words of which I caught were “raus” (out) and “Staatsoper.” I suspect this had to do with the production, which is extraordinarily unpopular. But such hollering is both rude and unusual. There was something at the end of Act 1 as well. Really, it was a weird spectacle.

Update: Apparently the end of Act 1 it was something about the clapping rule, and at the start of Act 2 it was Nazis who are to be evicted from the Staaatsoper. I should have known that audiences are far more interested in their own reactions than seeing what was happening onstage. Congrats, Staatsoper Publikum, you just Godwined yourselves.

There were also a good number of tourists in the standing room. In Act 1, at least. Very few made it through to the end. They should put a warning label on the standing room for this one.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper

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