Turandot and the culture industry

It is a little-known fact that when Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in Dialektik der Aufklärung that “amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display… at its root is powerlessness,” they were thinking of Franco Zeffirelli’s Met Opera production of Turandot. Despite it being performed year in and year out, this Friday was the first time I have seen this ridiculously outsized spectacle, because I try to avoid things that I know will make me angry, afraid that I will be compelled to unleash the blogging equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. But on Friday to the Met I went, and it was just about as bad as I feared, if not worse.

Turandot’s China, as composed by Puccini, is a vast, cold machine, its people an anonymous mob and its princess ice. But who should appear but quasi-European Calàf, who manages to, like Don José, conquer the resistant feminine Other. (Think of Liù as Turandot’s Micaëla.) Zeffirelli’s vast stage machines, the sets massive and gratuitously detailed and crowded with scurrying extras, leave little space for human feeling and individuals. Perhaps Turandot’s realm is actually his ultimate achievement as a director. It fits the music in a way where his Traviata was merely ridiculous, but it exacerbates the problems of the score.

That Viennese Turandot where all the characters were insects was onto something–if you hang onto the Chinese setting, it’s hard to do so in a way that doesn’t feature a) awful cultural appropriation and b) the direct portrayal of the Chinese as soulless savages. If you don’t see what’s wrong with this I recommend you read this. And Zeffirelli’s kitsch is dire in this regard. I might add that the last scene, where Calàf comes pretty close to raping Turandot before she decides she wants it at the last second, makes me really unhappy. While I find ending the opera with Liù’s death (the point where Puccini’s score ends) overly abrupt, maybe it has more going for it than I realized when I saw that version in Munich last summer (that production that is not the last word in self-consciousness but in comparison to this one is positively enlightened).

Anyway, Zeffirelli’s theme park visuals still get applause, particularly the epic Act 2 set, but this is the sort of opera that I feel like I always need to apologize for: visuals that beat the viewer into submission, casual racism, and careless treatment of the characters and story. The Emperor and Turandot begin Act 2 so far upstage that they are rendered nearly inaudible, and it’s often hard to pick the leading characters out of the masses onstage. It has, when combined with the vivid banging of the score, an undeniable potency, but it’s not something I want anything to do with. The audience seemed to think they had gotten their money’s worth, but if you want to see something artistic I recommend redirecting yourself to Un ballo in maschera.

Musically this production was satisfactory, and in that respect I enjoyed it, though I wish the sets had not swallowed the singers’ voices as well as their presences. Conductor Dan Ettinger knows his Turandot–he conducted the Munich performance I saw last summer as well–and except for a few snafus with the chorus (and an unfortunate trumpet crack right before “Straniero, ascolta,”) the orchestra was strong. The vocal highlight was debuting soprano Janai Brugger as Liù. Granted, it’s easy for Liù to steal Turandot, but Brugger’s crystalline yet full lyric soprano was beautifully controlled and expressive, portraying a rare moment of vulnerability in this tank of a performance. Less happy was Marcello Giordani as Calàf. This incredibly uneven singer had a night that was more bad than good. While some high notes still can ring out with power and squillo, all but the top few notes are sour and hollow, and even a few notes sounded like yelps. As Turandot, Iréne Theorin had sufficient power (though the set wasn’t helping her), but I found this less impressive than her Brünnhilde last summer. Her vibrato seemed unwieldy and her tone often turned shrill. But she is a lovely actress in a role that is usually just stood through. James Morris was a horribly wobbly Timur, Dwayne Croft was a fine Ping but Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes were unfortunately less than audible as Pang and Pong, as was Bernard Fitch as the Emperor. Ryan Speedo Green made an impressive Met debut in the small role of the Mandarin, a bass-baritone ringing out through the crowds.

But you’d have to pay me to go see this again.

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Die Walküre: Bring up the bodies

This Munich Ring cycle seems to be
slowly moving through time, having started Rheingold
in a timeless prehistory with a communal pagan celebration of nature and Walküre attaching itself firmly to the European fin de siècle. This is a period beloved of many a Wagner
director (above all Chéreau), who map the powerful but declining gods onto the
fading aristocracy. Kriegenburg isn’t as specific as Chéreau when it comes to
filling in the details, and the whole thing works more by vague suggestion than
allegory. The crowds of people, in Rheingold
representatives of natural elements and then Alberich’s slaves, are now
servants in a world that has developed social hierarchies.

That wasn’t much of a lead-in, sorry, I wanted to get right to the point because this was an excellent Walküre!
First: if you’d like to see this cycle for yourself, you can watch Götterdämmerung live on the Internet (or on a giant screen in Max-Joseph-Platz, should you be in Munich), free, tomorrow 15 July at 17:00 Munich time. I highly recommend it! More information here.

Wagner, Die Walküre. Bayerische Staatsoper Ring Zyklus B, 7/11/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Kent Nagano

Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Siegmund Klaus Florian Vogt
Hunding Ain Anger
Wotan Thomas J. Mayer
Sieglinde Anja Kampe
Brünnhilde Iréne Theorin
Fricka Sophie Koch

Sorry to be getting behind with the writing but this cycle hasn’t been getting much attention in English so I wanted to find time to do my usual medium-long form thing. I wrote most of the staging portion before I saw Siegfried on Friday. I will try to get to writing about that before I go see Götterdämmerung on Sunday.

The wheel is not being reinvented in this cycle, or perhaps more accurately it isn’t rolling anywhere it hasn’t rolled before. But it has a dramatic honesty and nuance that just works very consistently and naturally.

We open to see a slightly weakly choreographed battle between Siegmund and a bunch of people (Siegmund has perhaps been too busy of late taking the next swan to Bayreuth [along with Wotan, apparently] to keep up with his fight rehearsals, but he was in fine vocal health), then switch via stage elevator to chez Hunding. The expected tree is decorated with hanging bodies and populated by a silent and mysterious handmaiden staff. Hunding takes “this house looks like a funeral parlor!” to a whole new level by having the ladies washing corpses on some tables as the action proceeds. All together, this made me think of it as a less immortal variation on Valhalla, complete with Wunschmädchen and dead heroes. Siegmund and Sieglinde aren’t able to get close to each other for a long time and tend to tell their stories more to us than to each other, but when they finally do look at each other they make it count.

Valhalla is, in contrast, orderly, with a male staff. Hanging on the wall is a murky 19th-century landscape—an ironic gesture to the sort of gloomy backdrop so often used for this piece as well as the natural world the gods have subjugated. Fricka seems to be the forgotten trophy wife trying to keep the house together, and both she and Wotan repeatedly break glasses of water in anger, again overpowering a natural element. In the next scene the servants become corpses or rocks littering the Wälsungs’ escape route, where they are watched by Brünnhilde well before the start of her scene. As Siegmund fights Hunding, the two rise on the rear stage elevator, heartbreakingly far from Sieglinde’s reach. The act ends with Wotan running to kneel over Siegmund’s body.

Act III begins with the now-notorious horse ballet, a troupe of silver-clad ladies (more like very determined flamenco dancers than tappers) stomping and gasping at length a capella, which you can see on video at the bottom of this post. So far it is just about the only thing in the production unusual enough to upset anyone, but it’s a big thing and a few minutes into it the audience started yelling, a few with a force that suggested they should audition for Siegfried. I could take it or leave it, myself, I’m not offended but didn’t think it added anything and it made me wonder if I should be thankful that Kriegenburg hadn’t been more creative elsewhere. The following Ride of the Valkyries is excellent in the scary rather than the hearty mode, with the dead heroes in the form of bodies on tall sticks. The rest proceeds as expected with actual flames (smallish ones) surrounding Brünnhilde at the end, whose flickering seems much more appropriate to the music than their more popular, smoother projected cousins.

Kent Nagano’s conducting was more assertive this time around, and while it was still short in terms of tension and energy the situation was not as dire as Rheingold. The orchestra, while sometimes a little sloppy in the details, has a great sound when they get going.

The cast was very strong. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde was the highlight of the performance for me. Though I am just about always susceptible to Sieglinde, Kampe has an incredibly vivid and sympathetic presence, abused and downtrodden but emerging as tragically triumphant. She sang with real abandon and her edgy high notes are exciting, her less than opulent middle voice not as much but she lives the music. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Siegmund was the rest of the audience’s favorite. He’s an odd duck, with a clear, almost blank voice that projects effortlessly despite its featherweight tone. Some of the music works well form him, notably a sweetly lyrical Winterstürme (also on video at the bottom of this post) and the clarion higher phrases of the Todesverkündigung, but this is a very low-lying role and many of the deeper parts were completely inaudible. As Siegmund I would prefer to hear a voice with more heroic heft rather than a Lohengrin innocent, but he had some moments. His acting is nothing like Kampe’s but he’s natural enough.

Iréne Theorin stood in for the ill Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde (Dalayman appears in the photos). She made her energetic, fist-pumping entrance straight from another, less subtle production (and proceeded to let out an exceptionally good battle cry), but over the course of the evening toned it down to fit in a little better. She is vocally convincing, with a big attractive tone and good sense for the musical line sometimes impeded by a large vibrato and a tendency to go sharp. For a last-minute replacement, a very classy performance.

Thomas Mayer was a fine Wotan and an improvement over Rheingold’s Johan Reuter. His voice is not large but is well-projected enough to always be audible, and his declamation of the text is clear and strong. He tired and delivered a slightly wooly Farewell but was both magisterial and sympathetic–I really like how this production shows the gods on a human scale without histrionics. Sophie Koch was again an impressive Fricka, and a physically very energetic one. Ain Anger was a young and lyrical but appropriately nasty Hunding. The only real vocal hitch was the Valkyries; it is hard to believe that the Bavarians couldn’t get together a stronger, more convincingly dramatic bunch. When all were singing together it was alright, but individually many sounded underpowered or ragged.

While this production is somewhat quiet, I’m finding a lot to like in its subtlety and humanity. (The only thing that really escaped me in this evening was some V-Effekt business with water bottles during the final scene that seemed to come out of nowhere.) I’m not sure how it will revive—it is the detailed character work that largely makes it special—but right now there’s a lot to like.

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl. (More photos appear below the videos.)


The Horse Ballet (only a bit of the dance, then the Ride of the Valkyries)

More photos:

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