What a day for an auto-da-fé (Don Carlo in Vienna)

Don Carlo is a notoriously difficult opera to cast, but this new Wiener Staatsoper production looked promising on paper, including René Pape, Krassimira Stoyanova, and Simon Keenlyside. I’m rather baffled at how the result turned out to be so aggressively, mind-numblingly boring on nearly every level. Intendant Dominique Meyer’s Regieprobleme aren’t getting any better.

Verdi, Don Carlo. Wiener Staatsoper, 6/22/2012. New production directed by Daniele Abbado, “Bühnenkonzeption” by Graziano Gregori, sets by Angelo Linzalata, costumes by Carla Teti, lights by Alessandro Carletti. Conducted by Franz Welser-Most with René Pape (Philipp II), Ramón Vargas (Don Carlo), Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo), Krassimira Stoyanova) Elisabeth von Valois, Luciana D`Intino (Prinzessin Eboli), Eric Halfvarson (Il Grande Inquisitore), Valentina Nafornita (Stimme von oben)

The Staats is using the four-act Italian version, which
starts awkwardly with the Monk calling out to Carlo and then the duet with
Posa. Reminiscences appear without their antecedents, the Italian text is far
inferior to the French, and it’s a lot of development of something for which we
never had exposition.

Franz Welser-Möst
got the actual Philharmoniker to conduct (Rattle has been touring with the
second string), and you could tell from the showiness of the playing.
But while it was something, it wasn’t like any Verdi I’d ever heard before. Welser-Möst may have been proud of getting this
bunch at the Staatsoper, but he never seemed to notice the singers or the
drama. Crashing effects alternated with gratuitously picky dissection of
the orchestral fabric. The singers struggled against the volume and
inflexibility emanating from the pit, and ensembles showed a wide variety of tempo
choices simultaneously. (The choruses were generally better.) It really didn’t
“Why this awful lighting? WHY????”
None of the singers succeeded in developing any kind of
characters, which is rather remarkable considering their amount of talent. The
first problem was that Daniele Abbado’s production (yes he’s Claudio’s son) lights them almost entirely
from behind, and even then only sparsely. They could have been the best film-style actors in the world and I
wouldn’t have been able to tell, because their faces were almost never illuminated.
The rest of the production doesn’t do anything else either. A series of sliding walls (Bartlett Sher
writ large) slightly alter an empty, barn-like unit set. The setting is, for no
particular reason, the early nineteenth century, with simple costumes that for
the women resemble the ball dresses still so loved in these parts. While Abbado
has nothing to say about this piece and what it’s about, with good
Personenregie it still could have been effective drama of a sort. Alas,
everyone basically stands still. Even would-be exciting bits, like Carlo being
sucked up by the Monk at the end, were botched (moving far too slowly and well
before the gesture is indicated in the score and libretto). The gesture of
choice seemed to be, tellingly, a shrug. The only good things I’ve heard from anyone about this production is that it will be very easy to revive. Who knows, if they fix the lights maybe some later singer can bring something inspired to it. But it won’t ever be a complete drama. I would give more details but honestly most of it has flown out of my head already.
The most distinguished performance of the evening came from
René Pape as Filippo II, whose honeyed bass-baritone was at full force despite Welser-Möst’s unhelpful tempos. Still, he was much
better in the role back at the Met in 2006, which was a tired revival of an old
production but still gave him something to work with. Simon Keenlyside is a
singer I like a lot but he made very little impression here, adequate
and nothing more. He appeared to have drawn the hotness card among this cast
but I really think one should button up one’s shirt in the presence of the
King. Krassimira Stoyanova was announced as indisposed, which was a shame
because I think she could sing a fine Elisabetta. This one had some fine
moments but was short on volume at the top and only sometimes came into focus.
Her best quality onstage is a sweet simplicity, which for a queen is a little
“Flanders? Nah, I’m sending you back to the new Probebühne.”
Luciana D’Intino’s Eboli was a showcase for her fearsome
deployment of chest voice.While the lone representative of Italy among the
cast, she doesn’t do much with the language, and her presence is more queen
mother than king’s mistress (her costume was not doing her any favors). Somehow
I have left Carlo for last, which is not entirely unusual. This role is a
graveyard for lyric tenors (from what I heard Piotr Beczala was originally cast
in this production but wisely decided not to attempt it and is here singing in Lucia instead–maybe he chatted with Villazon or Filianoti). Ramón Vargas is too
smart to be done in by its demands but doesn’t exactly conquer it either. He
lacks the spinto heft at the top and his tone tends to turn pale and weak above
the passaggio. Some middle-range phrases had full tone and phrasing but like
Keenlyside he seemed to mostly struggling to be heard and stay with the
orchestra. Valentina Nafornita was a bright spot as the Voice from Above. She won Cardiff
a few years ago and certainly deserves better casting than this.
I love this opera and generally find something to enjoy
in it even in flawed performances, but this one was uniquely boring, possibly
one of the most confounding evenings I’ve had at the opera in a while. The argument seems to be we’re
the Wiener Staatsoper and hence we put on opera at a world class level. But drama needs some impetus, some reason why we’re here
seeing this thing, and most of the time last night I wished I were somewhere
else. It might be a bad way of putting it, but someone needed to provide a
photos copyright APA, because the Staatsoper site is less than forthcoming.
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Nina Stemme comes out ahead in Carnegie Hall’s Salome

I went to Salome at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra and Nina Stemme and Eric Owens and Franz Welser-Möst and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

“When I looked at you, I heard secret
music,” says Salome in her monologue to the severed head of John the
Baptist. Richard Strauss’s opera trades in the unseeable and the
unknowable—from the range of metaphors applied to the moon to the nearly
impossible staging of a ten-minute striptease performed by a dramatic
soprano—which makes it unusually well suited to concert presentation.
Strauss’s high-octane, atmospheric music can seem all the more lurid and
mysterious when its subjective visualization is left to the imagination.
When the stage seems to agree with Herodias and show that the moon is,
in fact, merely the moon, things are rather less interesting than the
swirl of images in the orchestra.

In Thursday night’s presentation by the Cleveland Orchestra at
Carnegie Hall, these depths were reached only sporadically, and the
performance served largely as a showcase for the stunning performance of
Nina Stemme in the title role.

You can read the whole thing here. Stemme was magnificent and Welser-Möst disappointing. Do all the conductors now consider swiftness and textual transparency the absolute highest virtue (HIP birds coming home to roost?)? Or have I just overdosed on Fabio Luisi? I’d kind of like to hear someone try something dense and thick for a change. Stemme could certainly handle it. Most of my recent Salomes have been lyrics with ambition and I found a real dramatic voice refreshing, particularly Stemme, who is loud but at the same time still so nuanced. I am greatly looking forward to hearing her sing Brünnhilde this summer.

photo © Roger Mastroianni

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Kat’a Kabanová in the big city

The Wiener Staatsoper’s season closed last night, and I finally got to see the new production of Janáček’s Kat’a Kabanová, conducted by music director Franz Welser-Möst and directed by André Engel. First: There is a myth that the Wiener Philharmoniker is the pit orchestra at the Staatsoper under a different name, but this is almost never true. Usually at the Staatsoper you hear a mix of aspiring Philhamoniker members, dead-end would-be Philharmoniker members, and subs. How else could they play at the Staatsoper and Musikverein simultaneously? Last night, however, it actually was genuine Philharmoniker. And they had rehearsed, and hoo boy, could you tell the difference. I haven’t heard anything like this coming out of the pit all season.

The cast was a bit overshadowed, and the less said about the production, the better. But I’m going to say it. It’s not any good.

Janáček, Kat’a Kabanová (Kátja Kabanová). Wiener Staatopser, 6/30/2011. New production directed by André Engel with sets by Nicky Rieti and costumes by Chantal de La Coste [sic?]. Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Janice Watson (Kat’a), Deborah Polaski (Kabanicha), Klaus Florian Vogt (Boris), Marian Talaba (Tichon), Norbert Erst (Kudrjás), Stephanie Houtzeel (Varvara), Wolfgang Bankl (Dikoj).

Kat’a Kabanová is an adaptation of Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, and originally takes place in an isolated Russian village. Engel’s production is set in what he calls “Little Odessa” in NYC, among Russian immigrants in around 1950. You may know this neighborhood as Brighton Beach. Why is he calling it by a more obscure name? Unfortunately the whole production suggests that it is because he didn’t think this through very well. The libretto harps on the restrictions of Kat’a’s claustrophobic country life contrasted with the vague promise of the distant world of Moscow. This doesn’t mean a city setting couldn’t work; Christoph Marthaler’s Salzburg production, set in a grim Communist apartment block, is wonderful. But the immigrant experience is the exact opposite from Kat’a. Kat’a is about provinciality and isolation, while life as an immigrant is about being in the middle of a foreign world and confronting the unknown. Like her cousin Katherina Ismailova of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (also partially based on The Storm), Kat’a is suffocating, and shine of Manhattan’s skyline does not fit with that.

The set produces a large number of clean, eerily empty and dead city scenes. Seriously, if this is New York, where are the people? The score does not require the chorus to be onstage and no supernumeraries appear, resulting in desolation and an exceptionally underpopulated storm shelter in Act III. The visuals look oddly low-rent and incomplete, short on individual detail but not in a stylized way, and the whole thing lacks atmosphere and poetry. A major reason for this is the blocking, which is functional but poor, with no attention to the gestures of the music or the small details of characterization that make this kind of drama come alive. Some vaguely lesbian Varvara-Kat’a stuff seems inserted solely for The Male Gaze, and there is a spanking scene between Kabanicha and Dikoj that really should not have happened. I thought the production’s worst moment was its last, in which Kabanicha kicks Kat’a’s dead body. We know she’s evil, and to end the performance with such a cartoonish gesture, as the music practically cries for Kat’a, is just horrible. The opera is not about Kabanicha’s cruelty, and to end with her is all wrong.

However, the real stars of this performance were in the pit. It’s been a rough season for music director Franz Welser-Möst, getting off to a good start with Tannhäuser and Cardillac but satisfying no one with disastrous productions of Don Giovanni and Figaro and missing most of the Ring due to illness. But after repeatedly proclaiming his love for Janáček, he backed it up with a layered, lyrical performance that was still exciting. I’ve rarely heard such fine playing from the pit here, from every section. Despite my antipathy to the Philharmoniker on political grounds, when they put in some effort they can be super. This was a very orchestral performance that frequently overpowered the singers, but it sounded damn good.

In the title role, Janice Watson was OK but didn’t make a very strong impression. She seemed to know exactly what the music should sound like, but her voice wasn’t always backing her up. Her tone was sometimes threadbare, other times coming nicely into focus, but her top notes stayed squally throughout the “flying” scene. She was more on the dreamy and fragile than the hysteric side of things, but I lost the inner glow and yearning that Kat’a needs to transmit. Deborah Polaski was excellently cast as Kabanicha and has all the power you could wish for, but the production let her down in the acting department. Despite her ability to cast scornful looks, between the kvetching and the spanking and the corpse-kicking, it was not exactly coherent.

Klaus Florian Vogt is a really special singer, but didn’t have more than a few moments of real memorability as Boris. He’s not the type who can do a lot with a smallish role (Boris doesn’t get a big scene as such), he needs a moment where that weird and wonderful voice can shine. That voice–a light, transparent Mozart tenor gone Wagnerian in size–does seem to be a good fit for Czech repertoire, and he had more success against the orchestra than the rest of the cast. But he’s not a stage animal, and tended to be overshadowed, though I’m not entirely sure by what.

Norbert Ernst gets my vote for most reliably solid male Staatsoper ensemble member, and was a good Kudrjás, though what he was doing with that microscope and test tube at the opening escapes me. That’s another way of saying that fellow ensemble member Marian Talaba is not one of my favorites, and while he seems stylistically at home in this music his voice is always gargly and strained. At least his less-than-dashing stage figure was actually appropriate as hopeless husband Tichon. Stephanie Houzeel, who has also had an uneven season as an ensemble member, sounded OK this time around as Varvara, and knowing Vienna her legs will probably make the season retrospective picture book.

This seems like an ideal production for the Staatsoper to end on, because it demonstrated quite well what the house can do and what it can’t when it comes to new productions. The orchestra can pull out a truly remarkable performance once in a while. And the chorus is great, though they didn’t do much in this opera. But casting, while illustrious, can be not quite right (to be fair, they suffered from a late cancellation in the title role of this production), and is sometimes weighed down by iffy ensemble members who mysteriously stick around for years. And nearly every new production is a theatrical mess, no matter how traditional or untraditional you like your opera. Hopefully Dominique Meyer will be able to improve things in coming years.

That’s it for Wien, folks! On to the festivals!

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Welser-Möst to director Martinoty: Senti questa!

 Looks like Dominique Meyer and Franz Welser-Möst’s first joint year as intendant and music director of the Wiener Staatsoper, which began so warmly, has hit a rocky patch. As Intermezzo points out and neatly summarizes, Welser-Möst has let loose a withering critique of director Jean-Louis Martinoty’s work on the house’s two new Mozart productions, to which he himself contributed competent but uninspired conducting.

Welser-Möst says Martinoty didn’t learn from his mistakes, didn’t collaborate and listen to the singers and musicians, and didn’t have the will to assemble a coherent concept. Meyer dismisses it as a matter of artistic differences.

As Intermezzo says, this kind of dissent is unusual. But the utter dreadfulness of Martinoty’s productions was also unusual. I don’t know about Martinoty’s rehearsal process, but Welser-Möst nails the stagings’ lack of coherence. Here is my review of the least funny Figaro to ever happen, and here the least interesting Don Giovanni. The Figaro was an import from Meyer’s previous house, the Théatre des Champs-Elysées.

Martinoty is somewhere far from the A-list of opera directors, but he is a friend of Meyer. The directors of the two remaining new productions of the season are similarly French and obscure in Austria–Eric Génovèse in Anna Bolena (premiering 2 April with both Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca) and André Engel in Kat’a Kabanová (not until June)–but both have somewhat more distinguished credentials. We’ll see how that goes.

Photo: Meyer and Welser-Möst (not Martinoty)

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Figaro’s prenup at the Wiener Staatsoper

At least they didn’t have it on Valentine’s Day. Unless you’re Cherubino, you would have been disappointed. There are few operas that offer a more comprehensive overview of the intersection of love, sex, and class than Le nozze di Figaro, but Jean-Louis Martinoty’s “new”* Wiener Staatsoper production irons out this complex into a rush of pure teenage hormones. Everyone gets some, but what it means, I don’t know. Most of the music isn’t anything to remember either. How can Mozart be so boring? Let us investigate.

*First seen at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées, 2003. [Insert offensive cliché about French people and sex here.]

Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro. Wiener Staatsoper, 2/16/2011. New production premiere by Jean-Louis Martinoty with sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Sylvie de Segonzac, lights by Fabrice Kebour. Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Sylvia Schwartz (Susannah), Erwin Schrott (Count), Dorothea Röschmann (Countess), Anna Bonitatibus (Cherubino), Daniela Fally (Barbarina), Sorin Coliban (Don Bartolo).

After his fiasco of a Don Giovanni, director Jean-Louis Martinoty is back and not very welcome this time (there were many resounding boos at his curtain call). Like the Don, his Figaro aspires to detailed Personenregie but its overall effect is consistently blunted by his failure to conceive of characters or concepts beyond the level of small-scale gestures. It’s superficial interpretation that is happy to take Barbiere or La mère coupable into account, but won’t actually answer any important questions about what Figaro is about, and declines to approach its more serious themes. There are many trees, but there is no forest. There are notes, but no phrases. On the whole, it is a little better than the Don, because it is less ambitious–there are no random time-traveling missions–but what’s there is profoundly uninspiring and amazingly dull. Watch, this is my favorite opera, I’m about to get really really offended. Because I think this direction of this production is borderline-incompetent, certainly not worthy of a major opera house.

The stage is raked with the twisted proscenium arches familiar from Don Giovanni. The only explanation I can formulate of the set is that Martinoty had set designer Hans Schavernoch’s plans sitting on his desk next to the book of inspirational paintings sent by his dramaturg, and sent the latter to the shop by mistake. Each setting is a different background collage of vaguely relevant artwork of various sizes. We get lots of animal parts in Act 1 (hunting for something? trophies?), ladies’ desk objects and the lower half of a huge crucifix in Acts 2 and 3, and giant wheels of cheese at the start of Act 4. (I got really hungry at this point! Because, cheese. While all the characters were also busy being hungry. Hungry for LOVE.) Later, obviously we got paintings of flowers. Furniture is sparse and augmented by some out-of-period cushions, which jar with the rest of the design. Also, the Count keeps a skull on his desk, sitting on top of a large tortoise. Don’t ask me, I just watched the thing.

The paintings don’t do anything for the drama except distract, their symbolism alternating between too obtuse to do anything and too obvious to do anything. Oh, they cause acoustic problems, there’s that. The lighting by Fabrice Kebour is better than that of Don Giovanni, with fewer random changes. But it is still fussily complicated and leaves key spots of the stage too dark to make out the action at times, even in Acts 1 and 2.

The one uniform theme of the production is the juvenile quality, straight from the model of Slutty 18th Century. The costumes (by Sylvie de Segonzac) are plain, non-extravagant period jobs, but heavy on the cleavage, and everyone feels everyone else up indiscriminately. This makes differences in class, age and status disappear, as does the generally casual atmosphere of the action. I don’t think Figaro and Susannah’s relationship is the same as Cherubino and Barbarina’s, and certainly not as the Count and Countess’s or the Countess and Cherubino’s (which is here very touchy-feely, safe to say that Martinoty read a summary of La mère coupable), but here they all act basically the same way. It cheapens the importance Susannah and Figaro put on foiling the Count’s plan, AKA the key plot conflict of the whole opera. It’s just not interesting, and also not at all sexy. A little innuendo would have gone a lot further than this much groping.

The staging of “Deh vieni, non tardar” annoyed me in particular. Susannah begins it from upstage, behind one of the paintings (which are scrims in this act, here lit to be translucent) while the Countess mimes it for Figaro’s benefit. Conventionally, Figaro doesn’t see Susannah in this number, so he doesn’t wonder why she is wearing the Countess’s dress. Here, he is given the Countess in Susannah’s dress to look at. Obviously, Martinoty is thinking of another “Deh vieni,” Don Giovanni’s serenade mimed by Leporello. But Susannah is a much more honest character than the Don, and with this intermediary of the Countess, she never gets her personal moment of glory, and we never get that moment of genuine affection. It also fails to emphasize that Figaro recognizes Susannah by the sound of her voice, as is important later in the act. What do we gain? Nothing, so far as I can tell.

He is content to tinker in this way. I do not object to any of his ideas because they depart from convention, rather because due to a lack of a guiding theme they do more to confuse than advance the narrative. And, since this small-scale busy handwork is the most substantive thing in the production, I think it’s worth examining it closely to see if it holds up to scrutiny. Here’s another example. Like in the DVD of this production, the Act 1 unveiling of Cherubino is oddly complicated. Cherubino surreptitiously moves from the covered chair into a chest but leaves his boots sitting in front of the chair, and when the Count unveils the chair, apparently here not just describing the moment but seeing the boots and thinking that Cherubino is there, he then takes off the cloth and is surprised not that Cherubino is there as usual but rather is surprised that he is not there. Cherubino emerges from the chest shortly afterwards. But it’s the surprising collapse of the Count’s story and the actual presence of Cherubino that makes the moment work (I remember Simon Keenlyside as the Count doing a priceless double take upon seeing Cherubino at this point), and here one of the best revelations in opera is destroyed.

For the most part, Martinoty plays by the book. But, in what I suspect in an attempt to look casual, much of the comedy ends up too imprecisely timed to be funny (have you ever seen Susannah’s “senti questa” fail to get a laugh? welcome to this production). The biggest laugh was stuttering Don Curzio, which is not a good sign. Serious moments are also fluffed: “Contessa perdono” is sung by the Count staring straight out at the audience, not looking at the Countess at all, as the set opens up to a heavenly blue sky. This leads to a confusing final image that suggest the Countess might actually prefer Figaro over her husband, which would be interesting if it had been pursued anywhere else in the staging, but as far as I could tell it wasn’t. (Who’s betting Martinoty was thinking of “Dunque son” from Barbiere? He loves talking about these connections in interviews.)

Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting was OK.  In the recap of the overture there were some surprising coordination issues between the various sides of the string section, and some stage-pit problems in Act 1 (particularly in Bartolo’s aria), which improved over the course of the evening. Generally things worked fairly effectively. But I wish he had taken command a little more, it was a little slack and more routine than brilliant, and some tempos were in my HIP-oriented mind lacking in verve. My HIP self greatly appreciated the presence of tasteful ornamentation in “Dove sono” and “Deh, vieni,” however. Recitative tilted heavily towards speaking, however I’m OK with this. I could do without the smartass continuo quoting bits of Marcellina’s Barbiere aria on her entrance. We get it.

The cast was not bad, but the overall level was disappointing and failed to catch fire somehow. Luca Pisaroni is a charming Figaro with a light, somewhat generic but technically secure voice, but didn’t really have the stature to command the evening (except in the literal sense, he is very tall), and neither did anyone else.

Dorothea Röschmann’s voice has darkened and lost some control and flexibility in the last few years, and her high notes can turn shrill, but she remains a elegant singer. As the Countess, she was the most glamorous voice onstage by a long shot. Unfortunately, the childish interpretation of the Countess prescribed by the production (including breaking her china at the opening of Act 2) didn’t seem to fit her personality, and while her flirtiness was sometimes charming, she lacked emotional depth. Her “Dove sono,” honest, involved that skull on the Count’s desk. At the end, she crossed center stage and planted herself with the steely determination of a Konstanze about to speed up at the end of “Marten aller Arten,” which did not feel right somehow. But she provided the best singing of the evening.

Erwin Schrott was making his role debut as the Count, and I think eventually he will be fine in the role. His voice is lower-pitched than most Counts’, but while the high parts didn’t exactly open out, the lower sections, of which there are many, sounded more solid than usual. The aria was not bad; he fluffed the coloratura, but who doesn’t? (Peter Mattei doesn’t, I guess, but he’s special.) His acting is on the fey side, and rather funny. Surprisingly, though, he doesn’t have the more violent and dangerous side yet, and was hard to take seriously. The production wasn’t exactly helping him there.

Like in Don Giovanni, there was a vocal reversal here by casting a lower-voiced Count than Figaro, but this didn’t bother me as much as it did there, somehow.

The Cherubino, Anna Bonitatibus, has an intriguing voice with a dark and kind of spicy sound, but her style is straight out of high drama seventeenth-century stuff and her phrasing lacks the musical purity for Mozart, with too many pauses and sighs. While a decent actress, she was not particularly individual. As Susannah, Sylvia Schwartz also failed to be memorable, with a flexible but somewhat unfocused and small voice and conventional acting. Daniela Fally’s strumpet Barbarina was finely sung, though I don’t understand the production’s idea here in making her a mini-Carmen with extensive boobage and very bright red lipstick. I’m not saying it couldn’t work, but here it was inexplicable.

One can hope that this production will get better in later performances and perhaps with other casts. There are four more performances: February 19, 21, 24, and 26.

I did see Anna Netrebko in the audience, back from New York already to see her man grab every woman onstage.

Photos except below copyright Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn.


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Don Giovanni: Love in a boring climate

The Wiener Staatsoper’s new production of Don Giovanni was begging to be stolen all night.  Had anyone shown a little initiative and done something exciting, they could have walked off with it in their pocket.  But no, we had a balanced ensemble, and a milquetoast evening it remained to the end.  From the scattered mess of a production to the respectable but not quite distinguished singing, it reminds you that there’s no Don worse than a boring Don.  The orchestra was the best thing about it.

This is historically possibly the single most central work in the Staatsoper’s repertoire, and the disappointment among the premiere crowd was palpable.  Watch out, Herr Meyer, the Stehplatz masses are restless.

Mozart-Da Ponte, Don Giovanni. Wiener Staatsoper, 12/11/2010.  New production premiere by Jean-Louis Martinoty, sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Yan Tx, lights by Fabrice Kebour.  Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (Don Giovanni), Alex Esposito (Leporello), Sally Matthews (Donna Anna), Roxana Constantinescu (Donna Elvira), Sylvia Schwartz (Zerlina), Saimir Pirgu (Don Ottavio), Albert Dohmen (Commendatore), Adam Plachetka (Masetto)

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An article in the Staatsoper magazine trumpets the learned director Martinoty’s consultation of many other Don Giovanni tales (and he name-drops lots of them in the program book interview).  I don’t know whether to suggest he should have spent more time with Mozart and Da Ponte’s text or just to note that he obviously hasn’t found his own version yet.  Because this is a morally confused, interpretive black hole of an opera, and Martinoty does nothing to suggest who Don Giovanni is, or any of the other characters for that matter.  He sticks in some novelties, but there’s no vision or concept to speak of in an opera that demands one.

The production is set in post-war Spain, for no perceptible reason (maybe 1950’s, but I’m not sure! sometimes it looks more recent).  The stage is steeply raked, with a twisted series of proscenium arches.  The sets by Hans Schavernoch consist of a few projected backdrops of Seville, something that looks like a wine cellar to meet Donna Elvira (?), a hotel lobby for Zerlina and Masetto’s wedding, Don Giovanni’s Baroque party room, a rather nice church in lieu of a cemetery, and Don Giovanni’s banquet hall.  In the latter, the statue–a skeleton–confusingly remains from the cemetery, visible for the entire scene, making its dramatic vocal arrival somewhat anticlimactic.  Finally, the Commendatore shows up in person, despite not having appeared except as bones in the previous scene (see the photo at the top of this post).  The curtain frequently comes down for set changes, never for too long, but the interruption in the flow is unfortunate.  So are the cast traffic jams at the too-small exits.

Fun fact: this is the second production of Don Giovanni I have seen in Vienna that is set in a hotel!  But Keith Warner’s Theater an der Wien job was a sleazy, wild masterpiece, which this one isn’t.

The costumes by Yan Tax are blandly 1950’s-ish until everyone dresses up in period finery for the Act 2 finale, some retaining it for Act 2.  The significance of this masquerade is unclear (because glittery suits are fun, and now there are men with ruffles, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW, traditionalists?).  The armies of Mozart lookalikes in the stage bands are amusing, though. Of the lighting, by Fabrice Kebour, welch’ Dunkel hier!  I understand a lot of this opera is supposed to take place in the dark, but, for example, shouldn’t we be able to see Donna Anna’s face for her crucial narration of her abduction by Giovanni?  (Putting her far upstage didn’t help either.)  There are a few scenes of highly designed painterly beauty, but the rest of the opera seems to have been forgotten.  Some illumination is provided by a mysterious bare hanging fluorescent tube, which looks like it was a housewarming gift to Dominique Meyer from Achim Freyer.  But no one took any pictures of it, because it looked weird!

While some of the direction is lively and physical, it doesn’t do a very good job of developing the plot or characters or their relationships.  Sometimes logic fails.  Why doesn’t Leporello react before noting the presence of people in the introduction?  What happens in the confusing duel involving a sword umbrella and a flashlight?  Why does Donna Elvira have a voodoo doll?  Why doesn’t Zerlina look at Don Giovanni during “La cì darem la mano”?  What the hell is going on with that statue?  But in the big picture everyone seems to like Don Giovanni: he and Donna Anna apparently have a consensual S&M thing going on, Donna Elvira just wants him back (despite voodoo), and even Don Ottavio is a good buddy.  And Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Don seems like a good guy.  He’s friendly, maybe a little aggressive on the romantic side of things, but basically decent.  And that doesn’t make for a very interesting show.

Donna Elvira (Roxana Constantinescu)

In the arias, Martinoty frequently brings in extra characters to give the singers someone to act against–Leporello has a girlfriend in the opening, Donna Elvira gets a priest in “Mi tradi,” and a random servant girl appears repeatedly.  A commenter here already pointed out the concatenation of the Catalog Aria with Zerlina’s wedding, which is nicely done except for shorting out Donna Elvira.  There’s a monk praying through all of the final sextet, who I was expecting to be a reincarnated Don (because the Don dresses up as a monk in the church scene earlier), but nothing so interesting, he was just a monk.  Unfortunately I think this technique ended up being more a crutch than anything else.  And the ending, with its everpresent statue, has none of the crazy intensity that it needs (though Donna Elvira has apparently become a nun), and the descent to hell passes so quickly as to have very little impact. 

Sorry to say so much, but I feel like I had to to describe everything, because this production doesn’t organize itself into easily-summarized coherence.  It doesn’t ever develop any direction or guiding idea.  There’s stuff there, but what’s it all about? AAAHHHH! I DON’T KNOW!!!!

Musically, the highlight was the orchestra, which knows this score inside out and can play it without breaking a sweat.  But there were some conducting issues.  Franz Welser-Möst’s account was more shaped on the orchestral than vocal side, and had coordination issues with the stage.  The tempos tended to be odd, and the pacing lacked drama.  Unfortunately the singing was accomplished without being memorable.  Many of the arias were loud and unsubtle, the ensembles were better.  Appoggiaturas were in oddly short supply.  I prefer baritone Dons to basses, and while D’Arcangelo was perfectly fine, with a darkish lyric tone, he failed to seduce me.  Er, I mean, he’s no Erwin Schrott in the acting department, and didn’t show much in the way of seductive tendencies (and some of us may have found Leporello better-looking, sorry, I’m superficial).  I could have also used more vocal floating in the serenade.  It takes skills to sing the Champagne Aria and take your shirt off at the same time, though.

Donna Anna (Sally Matthews)

Alex Esposito was a vocally solid if not particularly outstanding Leporello, with a very good Catalog Aria and a lighter and higher-sounding tone than his master.  Their relationship didn’t go anywhere, though Esposito was a sparkier presence than D’Arcangelo.  The best of the women was Sally Matthews’s Donna Anna, whose cloudy, sometimes constrained soprano has a vaguely Gheorghiu-esque quality, though more pointed.  She took some time to warm up but gave a committed, grand performance with good coloratura and long phrases.  Roxana Constantinescu’s mezzo Donna Elvira was hindered by a wide vibrato and a lack of contrast and acting detail.  Sylvia Schwartz’s Zerlina was lyric and sweet but understated. Saimir Pirgu sang Don Ottavio with attractive tone but phrasing right out of Puccini, wringing every bit of drama and sentiment out of his two (yes we got both) arias and blasting every “-te” of “morte” in “Dalla sua pace.”   Albert Dohmen disappointed as the Commendatore, not sounding bass-like at all.  Except him, none of the principals were weak, but none really remarkable.

I think a few more tech rehearsals would have done this show good.  I wondered if someone was writing the lighting cues as they were giving them, because they were that bumpy and randomly timed.  Lights would abruptly change in the middle of scenes for no reason, making me suspect a cue was pages late or early.  The trip down to Hell went about three times too quickly and started a good two pages too late, severely screwing up the drama.  If you’re not going to get this kind of thing right at a new production prima, when are you going to?

There was rather a lot of booing at the end, particularly by generally-friendly Vienna standards, though there was also some enthusiastic cheering.  The consensus in the standing room was that it fell short of Wiener Staatsoper standards for both Mozart singing and staging.  “It would be OK for Zurich,” one Stehplatz member said.  “Or Germany.  But in Vienna?”  In my experience Zurich and Germany generally come up with something more interesting than this production-wise, but point taken.

We’re getting a full Da Ponte cycle from this production team.  The Figaro, already seen in Paris and already considered via DVD here, will premiere in February, the Così in two years’ time.

Also, typo in the cast list!  They misspelled “Masetto” as “Masseto”.

Bows–the statue is not THE statue, it is only A statue:

Production photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper, except the first one, copyright APA/Robert Jäger

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Things that are golden: The Philharmoniker, and more Cardillac

This week I’m the hostess with the Möstest.  I’m just back from Franz Welser-Möst’s Philharmoniker Wagner and Bruckner Philharmoniker short-notice job (standing in for an ill Esa-Pekka Salonen) at the Musikverein.  Full program information here.  Technically superlative, of course, but this lightweight and sometimes fussy Prelude and Liebestod had nothing on Haitink last week, though this was only the bread of the Tristan sandwich.  I strongly dislike Bruckner, and if I hadn’t already bought a ticket to this gig back when it was a Salonen/Mahler concert, I would never have gone to hear his Symphony No. 9, which sounds to me like an endless chain of foursquare antecedent-consequent phrases connected by melodic sequences.*  With some loud patches.  Albeit exquisitely played!  I could write bitchy Bruckner quips all night (all the symphonic ingredients are there, but the chef’s on break), but I’d rather provide a public service.

I’m not talking about sneaking into the Musikverein organ loft and unfurling a giant banner reading “AREN’T THESE SEXIST BASTARDS GREAT?” over the orchestra at the end of the next Philharmoniker concert.  Though I would dearly love to do that as well.

No, I mean here is a roundup of the reviews from Maestro Welser-Möst’s other gig this week, the Cardillac prima at the Wiener Staatsoper.  There are a lot of them.  Most of them are more enthusiastic than my generally positive take (apparently it’s Welser-Möst Conducts Music I Don’t Like Week), but I also get the feeling that everyone really wanted this to be a success, especially the locals.  Voila.  All except the last one are in German.

I’m glad that my remaining events of the week–that would be the Jonasabend at the Konzerthaus, Tolomeo at the Theater an der Wien, and possibly Elisir d’amore with the JDF–all involve music I actually like.

*I know this could describe a lot of music, but you’re not supposed to notice it.

Photo: Die Welt Online

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Cardillac: Es ist ein schönes Ding, das Gold

Everyone at the Wiener Staatsoper can breathe a sigh of relief: the first new production premiere of the Meyer/Welser-Möst regime is a success.  Hindemith’s opera isn’t easy to love, but it’s hard to imagine a more effective production of it than this one.  A few missteps aside, Sven-Eric Bectholf’s expressionist staging and a solid cast made this simultaneously overheated and distant work a compelling morality play, and Franz Welser-Möst’s loud orchestra made it an exciting one.  Pure gold?  Close, at least.

Hindemith-Lion, Cardillac (1926 version).  Wiener Staatsoper, 17/10/10.  New production premiere directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf with sets by Rolf Gilttenberg, costumes by Marianne Glittenberg, lights by Jürgen Hoffmann.  Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Juha Uusitalo (Cardillac), Juliane Banse (Die Tochter), Herbert Lippert (Der Offizier), Ildiko Raimondi (Die Dame), Matthias Klink (Der Kavaliere), Tomasz Konieczny (Der Goldhändler).

Despite having had to play lots of it, I’ve never warmed to Hindemith’s music, and this opera isn’t really to my taste.  It is intentionally lacking in sympathetic characters, unsubtle, and, while loud and aggressive, emotionally distant from the happenings onstage (only Cardillac gets a real name).  That would be the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (new objectivity) movement.  1926 is a bit early to give music this label, but you can see the signs, and Bechtolf goes on about it in the program book interview.  Apart from some hats, the Romanticism of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s source story, Die Fräulein von Scuderi, is nowhere to be found in the opera or in this production.

My preeeecioussssss..

Hindemith and Ferdinand Lion’s version of the plot, in brief: people in Louis XIV’s Paris are being murdered.  All of them had recently purchased something from the meticulous goldsmith Cardillac.  Cardillac’s daughter wants to run off with a man, he says whatever, I still got my gold.  Unfortunately the would-be son-in-law (the Officer) buys something from Cardillac before they elope.  Of course, the murderer is Cardillac himself, who can’t let go of any of his creations (but apparently armed robbery just doesn’t cut it).  But he is caught in the act before killing the Officer, and while the Officer initially refuses to identify his father-in-law as the culprit, the mob gets the idea and Cardillac is done for.

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production finds the perfect visualization of this score.  As mentioned earlier here, his source is silent film.  This shows up in the black-and-white color palette (the only other colors are gold, of course, and a few bits of red) and in the stiff, stylized gestures of the whole cast (well, most of them).  The numbers of the score naturally become separate scenes.  Like silent film is drained of its sound and color, the naive, non-psychological opera and its detached music are missing something: a third dimension, an aura.  The primitive, stiff visual language makes the music more potent rather than less, giving it a concentrated and economic energy.

The chorus is an indistinguishable, violent black mass in stovepipe hats and capes against an abstract black and white cityscape.  Cardillac’s workshop is a bright golden room at the end of a long tunnel.  His death transfigures him into a a gold statue; his creations are all that is left of him.  The King appears in miniature, accompanied by a hulking Nosferatu figure. There are a few problem spots: the new court established to catch the murderer is associated with dancers wielding briefcases that burst into flames, some black body-stocking dancers slinking around looked more silly than scary, and I could have done without the gold-light outline of a top hat at the end. And I couldn’t help but thinking of the gold-painted living statue Mozarts on Kärtnerstrasse upon Cardillac’s transformation.  But these all go by quickly, and overall the concept is brilliant.  (It is not an entirely new thing for Bechtolf, check out his Lulu, also conducted by Welser-Möst.)

If this opera has a heart, it’s Juliane Banse’s fragile Tochter.  She made everyone else’s gestures look amateur, finding great expression in a limited range of movement (her bio says she trained as a dancer, I can believe it).  She also got most of the opera’s most delicate music, including a gentle opening scene and a major role in the pentatonic-ish finale, all of which was sung with lyric sweetness and natural ease.

Herbert Lippert also found great success as the Offizier, also with a lyric voice that rose to the climaxes, for the most part.  All of the cast was on the lyric side, actually, which would not have been a problem had Franz Welser-Möst kept the (fairly lightly-scored) orchestra down more, but just about everyone got drowned out at some point or another.  Juha Uusitalo’s voice made a bigger impression here than it does at the Met, but he still lacked variety of color and his Cardillac was still a black hole of presence.  He also did not seem to have internalized the same gestural language as everyone else.  Alas.  A great Cardillac could have tipped this production from very good to super.

In smaller roles, Matthias Klink and Ildiko Raimondi as an early Cardillac victim and his ladyfriend nobly fought the orchestra and slinked around with great style.  Tomasz Konieczny was once more the loudest low male voice onstage as the Gold Dealer.  The excessive orchestra sounded terrific, playing with surprising violence and bite, contrary to their usually-genteel style.

Judging from the number of personalities other people in the standing room were pointing out (I didn’t recognize most of the names), this was quite the social event.  It got a very enthusiastic ovation at the end, particularly for Lippert, Welser-Möst, and the production team.  No boos that I could hear.  A very good night for the Staatsoper.

There are four more performances: October 20, 23, 27, and 30.  The 23rd will be broadcast live on ORF.
Photos copyright APA.

Next: I bought a ticket for Tuesday’s Salonen/Mahler Philharmoniker concert, which in the meantime has metamorphosed into a Welser-Möst/Bruckner concert.   Nothing against Welser-Möst, but that’s a bait-and-switch, Philharmoniker.  You know I hate Bruckner.  Not sure if I will blog about this one or just grumble about it privately.

Also, did someone say there’s a Jonas Kaufmann recital at the Konzerthaus on Wednesday?  OH YES THERE IS.

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Tannhäuser: Crazy in love

This looks familiar, I’m not sure why.

Dich, teure Halle, grüss’ ich wieder!  After four years with no Wiener Staatsoper in my life, I returned last night, and if this Tannhäuser is any kind of omen I’m glad I did, because it was awesome.  Welser-Möst is doing great things with the orchestra, there’s some fantastic singing, and well, if the virgin-whore complex is getting you down (it certainly gets old for me), Claus Guth has a production for you.

Wagner, Tannhäuser (Dresden version).  Wiener Staatsoper, 8.9.2010.  Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Johan Botha (Tanhäuser), Anja Kampe (Elisabeth), Matthias Goerne (Wolfram von Eschenbach), Michaela Schuster (Venus), Ain Anger (Hermann).  Production by Claus Guth.

Guth sets the opera in fin-de-siècle Vienna in the early days of Freud and Schnitzler.  Venus is a figment of Tannhäuser’s imagination, his attempt to live with emotional truth and unearth his unconscious mind rather than the live with social hypocrisy of his comrades (who keep their sex lives more neatly compartmentalized).  Unfortunately, this obsession results in ostracism and (socially induced?) mental illness.  The self-harming pilgrims are, post-pardon, confined to a psych ward, Tannhäuser’s voyage to Rome seems to be in the mind only, and Elisabeth kills herself with an overdose of Tannhäuser’s pills.

We open to see… not the usual orgy but another curtain, exactly like the one that just parted (no ballet, it’s the Dresden version).  For a second I thought I had stepped into a Robert Carsen production by mistake.  But no, it is the stage on which Tannhäuser imagines a double of himself cavorting with Venus, a fantasy he finally leaves.  But even afterwards, the oddly stopping and starting action, rooms that fall apart, and surreal moments suggest that large sections of what we see are through Tannhäuser’s unstable eyes.

I liked this production a lot.  It’s arguably an indirect interpretation, avoiding much of what Wagner would have thought the opera is about (the artist-opera aspects are solely metaphoric), but Guth wants to show that Wagner’s good woman/bad woman and redemption thing aren’t unearthly matters at all, they are just means of social control (we’re still in pre-Tristan land, remember).  Virtue and Christianity are all social constructions, ones which Tannhäuser attempts to defy at his peril.  In Act 3, this gets a little on the convoluted side–I was not always sure where Tannhäuser’s social outcast status stops and his apparent actual madness starts–but it mostly works.  The program claims this is the Dresden version, but Venus does come back at the end so I think it’s a Paris-Dresden combo.

The production speaks largely through images and tableux rather than acting.  Much of the blocking is stylized and static.  Maybe this is because it’s an underrehearsed revival, maybe it’s because many of the singers don’t seem to be able to act, but it seems like it’s a part of the production.  (According to a woman I spoke with during intermission, the June premiere of this production was a lot more detailed on the Personenregie end.)  The sets are gorgeous, the prologue and pilgrims wandering through a mostly-empty stage (the shepherd is a junior-sized Tannhäuser double), the more concrete places all reproductions of actual places in Vienna. 

Tannhäuser reenters the world via the seedy, faux-exotic Hotel Oriental (which still exists), where his comrades relieve their unconsciouses by discreetly renting by the hour, unlike Tannhäuser’s more prolonged and indiscreet escapades.  The hall of song is nothing other than part of the Staatsoper itself (the room with the composer’s busts that faces the balcony looking out over the Ring).  Setting the opera in the opera house itself is kind of an overused trick but it never stops working.  This room is a Baroque imitation and social space, here representing a stiff and self-conscious society with the outdated custom of the song contest.   Finally, Act 3 takes place in Otto Wagner’s asylum in Steinhof, this era’s attempt to deal more rationally with its outcasts.  The costumes are all realistic fin-de-siècle, and it looks very good as well as being functional and unfussy.

The Staatsoper’s orchestra was in excellent form.  Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting was grand, losing a bit of impetuosity but making up for it with nobility.  Tempos were moderately quick but never rushed (though the violins came to grief on one or two of those many long downward runs).  Ensembles were mostly clear and balanced. At the loudest moments the orchestra occasionally overpowered the soloists, but for Wagner this was very singer-friendly conducting.  The chorus sounded super.

Johan Botha sang Tannhäuser with astonishing ease, beauty, and tireless power.  After what usually passes for Heldentenor singing to hear something like this is balm for the ears.  But with that amazing ease seemed to come a lack of dramatic involvement, musical shaping, and variations of color for most of the score.  You felt he might as well be reading the phone book, and while him reading the phone book would be pretty and loud it would not be interesting.  His singing is impressive, but rarely affecting.  And the man cannot act his way out of a paper bag (it must be said, a very large paper bag).  So an incredible and memorable performance in some ways, but lacking in others.

At the end, Tannhäuser finally sees Venus in the guise of Elisabeth.

Anja Kampe as Elisabeth was new to me, and I thought she was fantastic.  She’s got a big, silvery, bright voice that seems destined for bigger and less lyrical roles than this one, but did a good job with the delicate parts of the score as well as raising the roof with the loud ones.  She was also the best actor in the production, making the cardboard Saint Elisabeth close to a real and confused young woman.  (If the ticket gods of Bavaria are generous, I should be seeing her as Leonore in Fidelio in Munich later this season, and I really hope I will.)

Michaela Schuster sounded shrill as Venus, but put everything into it and vamped convincingly.  Matthias Goerne sang Wolfram von Eschenbach with velvety tone (excluding some weak top notes) and great musicality, but was quite stiff onstage.  His Evening Star song was lovely, but, staged as a contemplation of suicide, rarely has someone pointing a gun at their own head been so dull.  The action’s all vocal here.

A great start to the season, I hope this is representative.  Forza del Destino and possibly also Semele next week.

Bows (sorry, hopefully my in-house photography will improve soon, the one with flash was even worse):

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