Der Rosenkavalier at the Met

That’s no silver rose, that’s a whole silver rose shrub.

The Met’s new Rosenkavalier is a pleasant surprise. It’s good and you should see it, but maybe not for the reasons you expect.

While much heralded as Renée Fleming’s farewell to the operatic stage, she’s not its primary attraction. She’s fine and deserves a nice send-off for a distinguished career, but she is too pallid to be this production’s star. Yet the Met has, seemingly accidentally, ended up with something way more interesting and harder to achieve than a Marschallin showcase. Robert Carsen’s production is a creative and coherent interpretation of a piece which is often more exhumed than directed, and the Met has found something I didn’t even know existed: Günther Groissböck’s actually good take on Baron Ochs.

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Die Walküre: Put a Ring on it

After a very disappointing Rheingold, the Wiener Staatsoper’s Ring picked up a bit for last night’s Walküre. Adam Fischer’s conducting was more exciting, and Edith Haller and Christopher Ventris made an acceptable pair of Wälsungs. The rest, uh, I’m still worried.

Wagner, Die Walküre. Wiener Staatsoper, 3/7/2011. Production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, conducted by Adam Fischer with Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), Eva Johansson (Brünnhilde), Edith Haller (Sieglinde), Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Michaela Schuster (Fricka), Günther Groissböck (Hunding).

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s Walküre isn’t quite so bare-bones as the Rheingold, with a few more enigmatic symbols scattered about, but it still doesn’t work. The Ring is too complex and epic to reduce to minimal character work, particularly when the direction is as generic and unilluminating as it is here. I’ve seen many productions at the Staatsoper that have been more desperately static than this one–actually, the blocking keeps things moving pretty well. But the determined lack of vision and meaning is fatal. It’s not a political Ring, it’s not a mythic Ring, it’s not even a look-at-this-fancy-stage-tech-shit Ring. It’s not an anything Ring. Seriously, if you’re not going to be ambitious when you put on the Ring, when the hell are you going to be?

The unit set is slightly different from that of Rheingold, this time consisting of looming white art deco-ish walls. These eventually serve as a giant projection screen for the expected leaping flames. Chez Hunding is adorned with a single ash tree trunk going through the simple dining room table; these trees multiply for the second act (which otherwise features the same styrofoam rocks as the mountaintop of Rheingold). For Act Three, we get a lot of horse statues. Dress continues to be vaguely early-twentieth century, but not strong enough to make a point. The Valkyries are wrapped in tinfoil prom dresses as they manhandle various heroes, and Brünnhilde’s glittery taffeta gown–with a drop waist and pleats, words cannot do this dress justice–recalls the faded fashions of Viennese ballgoers. Between this and Anna Bolena, I suspect some fabric baron left a giant bequest of iridescent taffeta to the Staatsoper.

Beyond the looks, there’s not a lot to talk about, staging-wise. A dead wolf is hanging out in Act Two and the scattered golden heads seem to suggest bits of the remaining Rheingold (huh?). The Valkyries’ excited swarming around Sieglinde as soon as her pregnancy was announced (OMG babyz!) really ticked me off. Much of the action is too dimly lit, particularly the end of Act Two, where we can barely see the Todesverkündigung and fight (the latter is also placed awkwardly far upstage). Also, note to Siegmunds who wish to dramatically reach over their heads and behind them to pull swords from trees: it kind of ruins the effect when you look up.

I’m sorry about the shortage of pictures in this post, but the Staatsoper website didn’t provide any others. I assure you that you aren’t missing much.

Adam Fischer again stood in for ill music director Franz Welser-Möst, and his conducting had greater tension and more drama this time around. Unfortunately, a lot of ensemble problems remained, and the clarity was still less than optimal. Putting the two halves of the brass section on the extreme opposite ends of the pit (horns are house left, trumpets and trombone and tuba house right) can produce a great enveloping effect, but they seemed to have issues playing together, particularly in the prelude. But pit-wise it was adequate, if not top rank.

Edith Haller was a bit of a puzzle as Sieglinde. She has a white, old-fashioned sort of sound that is interesting and distinctive, but can turn opaque and seem short on overtones, particularly on her thin high notes. Her production was uneven and nervous at times, but she’s a good and natural actress in this most impassioned of Wagner roles. Christopher Ventris made an alright Siegmund, with consistent, clear tone that while powerful was short on heroic weight. I can imagine why he is better known for singing Parsifal, which he will be doing at the Staatsoper later this month. His performance was also marred by a number of pronunciation mistakes. His first “Wälse!” seemed to acquire an “r” at the end, leading my companion in the peanut gallery to quip, “I was sure he was going to add ‘-Möst.’”

Among the godly, things were shakier. Eva Johansson’s Brünnhilde suffered from faulty intonation, a giant wobble and screamed high notes. She did seem to be giving it her best, and was physically convincing onstage (though her collapse at the end was cringe-inducing), but the singing was often painful to hear. Juha Uusitalo’s Wotan ran out of gas before the end of some of the long monologues and was often overpowered by the orchestra, and he remains a blank as an interpreter. Yet this was still a more alert and nuanced performance than is his norm.

The supporting singers suggested a higher standard than was sustained by the leads, as can happen at the Staatsoper. The Valkyries were a solid, wobble-free yet loud bunch. Günther Groissböck again stood in for Ain Anger, this time as Hunding, and while healthy of voice he read a bit youthful and vocally compact for the role. Michaela Schuster’s vicious Fricka was again great fun, despite her sometimes blowsy singing.

Without great conducting and a more coherent production, this Ring continues to be less than the sum of its not very impressive parts.

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There’s gold in that Rhein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos copyright Alex Zenninger/Wiener Staatsoper

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Rusalka in Munich: Not part of this world

Martin Kušej’s new Bayerische Staatsoper production of Rusalka is not a happily tragic fairy tale.  Rusalka’s lake is a dark, damp cellar, where she is imprisoned with her sisters by her abusive father.  But once she finally escapes, she is thrown mute and alone into an equally brutal world where she is utterly unequipped to survive, and he increasingly looks like a protector.  It is a deeply unsettling and, for the most part, enormously effective production.

Dvořák, Rusalka, Bayerische Staatsoper, 10/26/2010.  New production by Martin Kušej, sets by Martin Zehetgruber, costumes by Heidi Hackl, lights by Reinhard Traub.  Conducted by Tomáš Hanus with Kristine Opolais (Rusalka), Klaus Florian Vogt (The Prince), Günther Groissböck (The Water Goblin), Nadia Krasteva (The Foreign Princess), Janina Baechle (The Witch).

We open to see a giant photographic cyclorama of an idealized alpine vista, flat and fake.  In front of this is are the accoutrements of a run-down living room and the house’s occupants, a man in track pants and a bath robe and an indifferently caftaned woman with long curly hair.  Wait, what?  Then this room rises to reveal a wet, dark, filthy cellar below, populated by a group of imprisoned girls of various ages.

Yes, the concept is based on the Fritzl and Kampusch cases.  The light on the water of the opening is the man above (for he is the Water Goblin, their father) shining a flashlight down through a trapdoor from the room above, before he climbs a ladder into the cellar to abuse them.  Rusalka’s moon is a bare neon globe; how she has spotted the Prince is left unsolved.  She begs her mother–Jezibaba–for freedom, but when she finally gets it she’s given a pair of Dorothy-like red heels that she can’t even walk in, deprived not only of her voice but also her grace.  Unsurprisingly, she attaches herself to the first person who happens upon her, the Prince, even if he meets her while pointing a gun at her.

The second act opens with the Gamekeeper systematically dismembering a deer with occasional breaks to grope his niece, the Kitchen, um, Girl (usually a pants role).  So, you know, not that much of an improvement for Rusalka.  She’s tottering around mute and lost and utterly helpless, confronted by wedding guests in tacky Alpine Tracht that recall nothing so much as the mural of Act 1.  Rusalka discovers the Prince enjoying a pre-marriage bump with the Foreign Princess against a wall and runs back to her abuser/guardian.

For the first two acts, it’s a brutal but rather brilliant exploration of Rusalka’s battered outsider status, and her twisted relationship with her father.  But like in many of these sorts of productions, in Act 3 things get a little too complicated.  The Gamekeeper and the Kitchen Girl corner the Water Goblin, who unexpectedly stabs the Gamekeeper to death, but it seems that this was some kind of sting operation as police officers jump out to catch the Water Goblin (their timing is a little off).  The daughters are all put into a mental institution that, while a plausible consequence, in the plot resembles a deadly serious version of the jail in Act 3 of Fledermaus: everyone keeps inexplicably showing up there.  The Prince reveals unexpected and implausible depths of guilt and kills himself, Rusalka is left broken and alone with her similarly insane sisters.

The visual vocabulary of this production could be a winner in any game of Regie bingo: the icky father figure in a bathrobe toting Aldi bags, the Prince’s wallpaper almost matching that of the opera house, the dead animals (more dead deers are wielded by a crowd of brides in a horrific wedding ballet), the deflation of Alpine kitsch.  (I know by now that as soon as anyone steps onto a German opera stage wearing lederhosen that they’re about to do something horrific.)

But for all its occasional reliance on cliche and its unrelenting darkness, I loved this reinterpretation of Rusalka’s character.  The nymph is usually a spirit of longing, not a character but a collection of romantic desires in passive feminine form.  Kušej is usually described as a total misanthrope (his productions of Don Giovanni and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk bear this out), but I thought he gave her, for once, a revelatory humanity.  This soul adrift is not pretty in her yearning, she’s a woman who has been destroyed by total alienation and abuse and has only instinct left.  You can read this (and I would like to) as an implicit critique of the tradition that has given us all these beautifully longing spirits in the first place, and as a challenge to an art form that still often stages female objectification without thinking twice.  Like many operatic characters, Rusalka cannot control her own fate or even or own body, but for once we can’t miss the inhumanity of that loss.

Kristine Opolais had a theatrical triumph in the title role, acting with raw commitment and an utter lack of diva vanity, stumbling and trembling the entire evening.  Her voice is also raw and pushed, and her senses of rhythm and pitch sometimes approximate.  But while this is not a lusciously sung Rusalka, it’s a heartbreakingly vivid one.  Less earthy was Klaus Florian Vogt’s Prince, sung with exquisitely crystalline tone that effortlessly fills the theater.  For all its beauty it can be a somewhat bloodless, unvarying sound, though he acts with a passion his voice can’t really command.  His unearthly Prince and Opolais’s tough Rusalka were a fascinating reversal of the usual sounds in these roles.

All the musical values were top-notch and Tomáš Hanus conducted a beautifully contained performance with great lyricism and transparency.  He never lapsed into sappy sentimentality, but found the kind of romantic sweep you need in the big moments.  And the orchestra was excellent.  But this was a performance more memorable for its production than its music.  The Personenregie was detailed and across-the-board convincing to a rare degree down to the small roles (particularly the haunting nymphs, who also all sang wonderfully).  Günther Groissbock sang the Water Goblin with a medium-sized, very secure bass, and gave a creepy but, even creepier, never overacted portrayal, defined by his extremely ambivalent relationship with Rusalka.  Nadia Krasteva was a glamorous Foreign Princess and sang well, though it is odd to hear a mezzo in this role.  Janina Baechel’s Jezibaba had no magic, but was another fascinatingly conflicted, ambiguous character, and sung with authority and precision.

There’s a place for fairy tales, but to see something that dismantles them so thoroughly and devastatingly is not to be missed.  Leave the kids at home, though.

N.B.: I had a restricted-view seat for the first two acts (found something slightly better for Act III) and missed some of the things happening on stage left.  This production is being filmed for DVD, there were cameras all over the place, so I’m looking forward to seeing it again with more complete visuals.

And I saw someone who looked like Katharina Wagner, but I’m not sure if it was her or not.

Next: What’s this mermaid opera I’m seeing tonight?  Oh, yeah, Rusalka again!  This time at the Volksoper.
Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper except the two below.
Edited because diacriticals are critical.
My most successful bows photo yet:

Nationaltheater under a very Bavarian sky:

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