Moor or less

Verdi’s Otello doesn’t have the big, underlined earworms of his earlier work. Both the music and plot move quickly and themes seem to vanish before you can grasp onto them. When a performance really works—and that isn’t very often—it all swirls into a kind of fateful vortex.

The Royal Opera House’s highly anticipated new Otello, featuring the internet’s favorite and also probably least favorite tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, in his role debut, isn’t quite that vortex. It’s a slightly disorganized storm, uneven and at times a little rote. But mixed in are some things that are really, really good.

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Werther or not

Massenet’s Werther has always been a slow burn opera for me: it’s modest, quiet, it starts slowly. But at some point I notice that it’s got me, and it doesn’t let go. This Met production takes far longer to exert its pull than it should, but it more or less gets there anyway.


Massenet, Werther. Metropolitan Opera, 2/28/2014. New production directed by Richard Eyre, conducted by Alain Altinoglu with Sophie Koch (Charlotte), Jonas Kaufmann (Werther), Lisette Oropesa (Sophie), David Bizic (Albert), assorted drinking buddies and children.

Richard Eyre’s production is inexplicably set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, meaning around the time of the opera’s composition. For the most part it’s a precious, prim, slightly kitschy piece of work. In the first act, Rob Howell’s set mixes the realistic (trees, outdoor furniture) with the slightly distancing (a crooked, cantilevered proscenium frame, and visible stage boards). But the effect is storybook, not Verfremdung. There’s some good Personenregie in the interactions between the characters, and when that takes over it begins to feel like a real story. When Werther crashes into Charlotte’s library in Act 3, there’s a melodramatic lighting cue and there’s a feeling like the story has finally started—from that point there’s some decent angst. But too often Eyre seems more interesting in gilding the lily, ending up with romance rather than Romanticism.

Set for Act II of L’elisir d’amore, I mean, Act II of Werther

In the first act, granted, it’s partly Massenet’s fault—the opera is cluttered with scene-setting, such as lots of singing children and some unnecessarily long-winded drinking buddies. But the production doesn’t stop there. For example, consider the Clair de lune, an interlude during which Charlotte and Werther go to a ball (not pictured) and walk home.* It’s interesting that Massenet didn’t include a scene that actually takes place at the ball (which is in the book), but Eyre provides us with one set to this music: a dreamy not-quite-waltz populated by a good number of dancers, including Charlotte and Werther themselves. It’s not awful, but it enforces a functional, prosaic, public role on music which unstaged, or focused only on our protagonists’ stroll home, is more impressionistic and intimate. (Oh, and there are nature scene video projections throughout, whose presence seemed to mark the production as vaguely current but contributed nothing.)

Clair de lune

Charlotte and Albert evidently have reached the upper and borderline urbane class, particularly evident in their opulent library in Act 3 (which features an embarrassment of fainting couches–I recalled Noises Off, “all these doors!”). They also have a harpsichord, which is…. in period quite strange, I didn’t imagine Charlotte and Albert as the founders of the modern historically informed performance movement. But this production had to make a choice because Werther says, “there’s the harpsichord.” They went for the literal route and put a harpsichord onstage, even though a piano would have made way more sense in this otherwise-faithful rendering of period. Choices!** This opulence only exacerbates one of the opera’s major weaknesses: its plot could be described as First World Problems, and one might wish to tell these very comfortable people to get over themselves.

And somehow among this scenery, Werther doesn’t make much of an impression at all, particularly when his sole distinguishing features are a very large coat and a disinclination to stand downstage center. I mean, you have to believe that he is at least somewhat weird in seeing this ordinary town and ordinary people as magical, right? Here the superficial beauty of the setting renders his enchantment banal and vaguely commodified. What’s more, the choice of time period makes this worse. If it’s the fin de siècle, suffering for love was a basic rite of passage for any self-respecting young man, and marital custom was in what one might call an It Gets Better stage. What makes him so special? (Really, why this setting? Downton Abbey is not a correct answer.)

You need a really vivid performance in the title role (and Charlotte) to overcome these problems, which are hardly unique to this particular production. I’ve seen Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch together in this opera before, in Vienna, so I basically knew what to expect of them (i.e. a lot, they’re really good). I thought they were both somewhat more effective in Andrei Serban’s 1950’s-themed Staatsoper production, which I like more, but they and the excellent supporting cast do a good amount to redeem this Met production’s preciousness, if not totally negate it. And the Met effort is indisputably superior musically, particularly thanks to Alain Altinoglu’s tasteful, elegant conducting. A few of his tempo choices defied my sense of dramatic logic (in both directions), but the overall tone—graceful and clear without being too sweet—was excellent.

Kaufmann doesn’t really come alive until the end of Act 2, at which point the opera seems to shift in a higher gear itself. Before that he basically hung around extreme stage right and kept a lid on his large and gnarly baritonal voice. Though I could always hear him, I wondered why he wasn’t making a bigger impression (in Wien he arguably overacted Werther as weird). But when Werther decides the situation is serious, Kaufmann did too, and the rest of the evening from “Lorsque l’enfant” on was very exciting singing. He went back to the quiet stuff for the death act, which is a ridiculously drawn out scene with at least three Not Dead Yet moments but his gradual downward trajectory was vocally kind of beautiful, so I was inclined not to begrudge him this lengthy period of expiration.

Koch, in contrast, was a fidgety and if anything overly demonstrative Charlotte. From the start she is obviously interested in Werther and only minimally charmed by Albert. It’s hard to believe Koch is only now making her Met debut; she can fill the theater like an expert, and particularly by the end of “Laisse couler mes larmes” she was sounding like our next Fricka (a role I heard her sing in Munich quite well). She’s got a lachrymose, distinctive tone that is quite big for Charlotte, though sometimes it has a bit of a hollow quality. I did not believe for a second, however, that her Charlotte was about to follow in Werther’s footsteps, as the ending of the staging suggested. What about les enfants?

The supporting roles were excellent: David Bizic made a stellar debut as Albert, with a clean and focused baritone, and Met regular Lisette Oropesa’s sparking soprano with its quick vibrato was perfect as a Sophie who, while cheery, still has some backbone.

Worth seeing, but less so if you’ve seen Kaufmann and Koch in this before. The HD broadcast is on March 15. You can watch some short videos on the Met’s website, which are unfortunately not embeddable.

*Related, because it’s around this section: I went to this performance with some undergraduates from my department (thanks for the nice seats, Department!). After the first half, they all had one question: who the hell is Klopstock? They were asking, of course, about two minor characters, Brühlmann and Kätchen, who appear in each other’s arms and utter only three words over a progression that is taking its sweet time to get back to its home base of C major:
He: Klopstock!
She: Divin Klopstock!
See here:

It’s a weird, weird moment. I explained who Klopstock was (eighteenth-century poet who sort of prefigured Romanticism and influence Goethe), but that doesn’t really explain it, does it? Brühlmann and Käthchen seem like an Easter egg, or visitors from another opera, one where Werther’s overabsorption in reading isn’t basically eliminated, Act 3 aria excepted. Or one where the tone is, perhaps, a bit more ironic. Eyre incorporates these two into the dramatic texture, bringing on the other couples on their way to the ball alongside them. But it doesn’t quite normalize it. (Also, trust a bunch of undergraduates to focus right in on this kind of
peripheral but potentially revealing detail.)

**I was chatting with a harpsichordist friend over the weekend and whined about this point. She pointed out that in the nineteenth century many harpsichord cases were given internal organ transplants and made into pianos. So it’s POSSIBLE. But not very likely.

Some more photos (all copyright Ken Howard/Met):

Insel Verlag is always a quality choice

 

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La forza della Bavaria

Was it mere coincidence that both operas I saw during my holiday weekend in Germany both considered free will and fate? Or was it…. something more? Meh. There’s none of Hans Neuenfel’s ambiguity on the fate question in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production of La forza del destino. For director Martin Kusej, fate as explication–particularly when wielded by organized religion–is a handy tool of oppression by the powerful. It’s an interesting production, and more notably this was an unusually excitingly sung production of an exceedingly tricky opera.


Verdi, La forza del destino, Bayerische Staatsoper, 5 January 2014. Production directed by Martin Kusej, set designer Martin Zehetgruber, costumes Heidi Hackl, lights Reinhard Traub. Conducted by Ascher Fisch with Anja Harteros (Leonora), Jonas Kaufmann (Alvaro), Ludovic Tézier (Carlo), Nadia Krasteva (Preziosilla), Vitalij Kowaljow (Marchese di Calatrava/Padre Guardiano), Renato Girolami (Melitone)

Let me start off by saying that my review of the production is a bit limited, because my view of the stage was a bit limited. I was not too badly put out by this, because I managed to snag a ticket to a ridiculously sold out production only two weeks ahead of time and it cost all of 15 Euros. But I recognize that it is not ideal for a review. (I didn’t watch the webstream.)

I love Forza; I think it’s a fascinating and ridiculously underrated piece that presents enormous musical and dramatic interest and possibilities. (I’ve written about it before.) The, er, “plot” is convoluted and sometimes seems to entirely disappear, as do major characters for acts at a time; the tone swings wildly between the most solemn late Verdi drama and La fille du régiment. It’s the biggest argument against Verdi as a dramatist who operates solely in simple and literal terms. He obviously has more abstract fish to fry here, and a staging that doesn’t reflect this complexity… well, maybe that’s why this opera’s reputation is so bad.

Martin Kusej’s production does make a real attempt at dealing with meaning, though in the end I found it to be something of a hedgehog at loose in a fox of an opera. Like the everpresent table onstage, everything comes down to the destructive effects of patriarchal and religious authority and control. We being with a solemn family dinner at that table, presided over by the Marchese with a prominently placed cross (above). In contrast, Leonora’s forbidden boyfriend Alvaro is quite disreputable-looking and seems to exist well outside the system.

Act 2 seems to be constructed of remanants of this first act in a dream-like way–Leonora’s maid Curra becomes Preziosilla, Carlo grows up (and eventually loses the dorky green sweater), the Marchese becomes the Padre Guardiano, and one of the mysterious dinner guests turns out to be Melitone. Leonora still can’t escape, it seems, and finally submits to the Church (as represented by her dead father, the Marchese/Padre Guardiano) in a baptismal dunking apparently lifted from an American church.

The Act 2 inn set evokes a 9/11 disaster photo, prefiguring the American tone of Act 3, which leaves Leonora for an Iraq-like war. This act begins with a startling tableau of images familiar from the US in Iraq. It’s an apt setting for a chaotic conflict that depends on personal trust. (For an American for whom such things remain open issues, the torture stuff felt underexamined and gratuitous–I don’t think I’m ready to see anything about this as a symbol yet. But it was gone fairly quickly.) The staging of the Alvaro and Carlo scenes, however, is strong and intense (what I saw of it).

The music of the following crowd scenes turns comic but the production remains grim, an orgy that seems ordered out of a Regietheater catalog. This made the production seem a bit deaf to the score’s change of tone, and besides I never got any good sense as to who these people represent or what they’re doing here. While their random appearance and manic energy—were the conductor to become a little more energetic, that is—could seemingly be mined for something grotesque and extreme, here it’s a bit generic and deflated. Even a striking scene of rows of dead bodies in the Rataplan is somehow less horrifying than it should be. (Honestly, after an Abu Gharib tableau, I’m not sure if you have anywhere to go.) The production’s low point comes in the opening of Act 4, which seems to have slipped Kusej’s mind entirely. (Act 3 is rearranged, with the Alvaro-Carlo duet moved after the Rataplan.)

Fortunately, the last act is more effective. Alvaro can’t talk Carlo into forgiveness and Leonore, adrift on a giant pile of white crosses, is not granted her wish for peace. While the Marchese/Padre Guardiano does his blessing duty, Alvaro is no longer convinced of the redemptive power of faith, and ends up throwing one of those crosses on the ground and leaving in despair.

While this production was interesting, the performance’s biggest reward was the singing, more glamorous, charismatic, and committed than you usually hear in this rep. If only the cast hadn’t been consistently counteracted by Asher Fisch’s uninspired conducting. While he and the orchestra got off to a strong prelude, elsewhere he proved too laid-back for his own good, failing to build to climaxes and lacking in energy. This particularly dogged the choral scenes, which tended towards the limp. The chorus, though, was excellent.

Anja Harteros deservedly received the largest ovation for her Leonora. The role suits both her big, dark, slightly grainy soprano and her introverted temperament: she always seems conscious and in control of everything she does, and Leonora here is someone who has never been able to express herself freely. While she doesn’t have the vocal warmth or round sound of a more Italinate soprano, she sounds absolutely like herself and is wonderfully musical. While she doesn’t always have the greatest high notes, the ending of her “Pace, pace” was terrific, and she doesn’t shy away from chest voice, either.

No one would accuse Jonas Kaufmann of being Italian either, but his muscular, forceful tenor and surprisingly bright upper range is perfect for Alvaro’s tortured character. He was also endlessly energetic compared to the more withdrawn Harteros (as well as far greasier-looking compared to her elegance). “Tu, che in seno agli angeli” featured some terrific high soft singing. As Carlo, though, Ludovic Tézier was somewhat overparted and sometimes resorted to barking, as well as struggling with the fioriture in “Urna fatale.” He did his best singing in the duets with Kaufmann, where they blended well.

The supporting cast was good: I kind of wondered what had happened to Vitalji Kowaljow after I heard him sing a pretty strong Wotan a few years ago, and it turns out he is a solid Verdi bass as well. This was the second time I heard Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, and while she has the right kind of spicy tone and sass for it and can hit all the notes loudly, she had an awkward break around the bottom of the staff that impeded her Rataplan. Renato Girolami did nothing to make Melitone seem very necessary, but nor was he annoying.

It’s a shame there isn’t going to be a DVD of this. I’m very glad I got to see it in person.


Trailer:

Photos (copyright Bayerische Staatsoper):

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Parsifal: the Met’s knights to remember

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

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


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

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

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

(actually Act 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met. 
Video:

Photos:

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[Tenor] + Wagner

It’s Wagner Year. In case you did not remember that the composer was born in 1813, two very prominent German tenors would like to remind you with their new CDs. (It’s Verdi Year too, but he’ll have to wait.)

Klaus Florian Vogt’s Wagner was released in Europe in January, Jonas Kaufmann’s Wagner internationally this week. The former is, for Americans, a bit tricky to locate, and thus I have not heard it yet. Amazon does have it… out of stock. (It’s not available as a download as far as I can find.) The latter is on iTunes and Amazon and such.

It’s hard not to compare and contrast because the two have extremely different voices yet—particularly if you include their earlier CDs in this fach, Kaufmann’s Sehnsucht and Vogt’s Helden—they are singing almost the same music. No, really, they are:

(*on a different Jonas Kaufmann CD. Also, sorry about the chronological issues above.)

In both cases this includes roles neither has attempted onstage
(yet, at least)—in Vogt’s case Tristan, in Kaufmann’s Tannhäuser, and
Siegfried and Rienzi for both.

(The below will be old news for anyone who has heard these guys, but if you haven’t it should be interesting.) Vogt has an unbelievably pure, angelic timbre that sounds like it is not of this earth. On recordings his voice resembles a very light tenor, but somehow live he projects perfectly over a large orchestra (though as Siegmund I thought his low notes were lacking). He has lovely diction and tends towards dramatic understatement, making his singing hypnotically placid. While he has sung Lohengrin at the Met (a while ago), most of his career is in Europe, as suggested by the minimal American availability of this CD. His most popular role is Lohengrin, here is his “In fernem Land” from Bayreuth in 2011. Andris Nelsons conducts.

Kaufmann is the more internationally known quantity, and his voice couldn’t be more different from Vogt’s: forceful, dark, heavy, and yet still brilliant on the top notes. He tends to sing with great variety of colors and dynamics, as well lots of drama. Here is his “In fernem Land” from La Scala in 2012, you can hear and see the differences. Daniel Barenboim conducts. Annette Dasch is Elsa, as she is for Vogt above.

I don’t want to review either of these CDs yet (I just downloaded the Kaufmann and have listened to it only once so far–but the Tannhäuser and Siegfried excerpts both knocked my socks off). Meanwhile, let’s talk about something superficial that doesn’t require listening to anything: why do all these CDs have such odd cover art? Cast your vote for the “best” in the poll below.

On his first CD, Klaus Florian wants you to join his cult. It’s like Scientology, but with more Leitmotiven. I went to the concert where he recorded this album, by the way, and I wrote about it. He didn’t wear armor.

On his first Wagner effort, Jonas tries to revive the Victorian “living painting” thing.

On his second CD, Klaus Florian has finally located the World Ash Tree! (Probably somewhere in the Englischer Garten.)

On his second Wagner CD, Jonas is auditioning for the operatic adaptation of Taken 2 (Getookt).

Which one is the most epic? (I don’t mean good, I mean, well, memorable.)

Which CD cover is the most awkward/awesome?
KFV Helden
JK Sehnsucht
KFV Wagner
JK Wagner
  
pollcode.com free polls 

(May not work on RSS views–click to the full entry to vote.) You know where you can find me again. (I’ll be reporting after tomorrow’s Parsifal premiere.)

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Jonas Kaufmann’s miller in Jersey

A number of New Yorkers stopped making fun of New Jersey for long enough to go hear Jonas Kaufmann sing Die schöne Müllerin in Princeton last night (at least judging by the small mob headed towards the Dinky at the end). It was worth it: this was a really great performance, and surprisingly  different from his recording of a few years ago. On the whole, this one was far more interesting (and the recording is not bad!).


Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano
. Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin. McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ, 1/17/2013.

I should first say that unlike at Kaufmann’s Met recital and last summer’s Winterreise, this time I actually sat close enough for a proper Lieder experience (and this theater was much smaller, as well), so that might be part of the reason I thought it was so good. You pick up a lot more at close range; this rep wasn’t written for people in the Family Circle.

Kaufmann fully identifies with the miller character rather than going for the slight narrative detachment or touch of ironic commentary of many lieder singers. This might make his Müllerin more compelling than his Winterreise—the miller goes through a much more drastic transformation and range of moods. This was a compelling journey with a not-so-stable character, delivered with beautiful musicality, excellent diction, and an engagingly natural and outgoing stage presence that supported his embodied (rather than narrated) interpretation.

It might be a little hard to buy Kaufmann’s Heldentenor-tending voice as the rather wimpy and tentative miller boy. What hunter wouldn’t run if faced with his mighty high Gs in “Der Jäger”’s “kehrt um”? And the burly heft of the arpeggios in the “Was ich hebe, was ich trage” section of “Am Feierabend” belied this first line of the stanza, “Ach, wie ist mein Arm so schwach!” Peter Pears or Mark Padmore he ain’t. (Not that Padmore can’t work up a good bellow when he wants to, but he uses the visible strain and effort expended for dramatic effect. With Kaufmann there is no obvious effort.) But it makes sense once you think of it as an internal monologue; the miller’s frustrations can be scaled to a Heldentenor range of desperation. And most of this was delivered at a moderate to soft dynamic level, with big voice moments being the exception.

I really liked what Helmut Deutsch did with the piano part, producing a smoothly-flowing brook that never clunked but shifted colors and textures very subtly. Kaufmann was also subtle and varied, particularly in the strophic songs, where he followed the narrative of the text through the repeating music. His miller started off earnest and curious but already by “Dankgesang an den Bach,” the first sign of the girl, less enchanted than perturbed. “Der Neugierige” was one of the highlights of the cycle, the first two stanzas halting and broken, the rest slow and sustained.

The “Dein ist mein Herz” refrain of “Ungeduld” got a varied treatment from soft to thundering, and you got the feeling that the affection between the miller and his would-be girlfriend had never really been mutual. “Des Müllers Blumen” showed a smooth legato, and “Mein!” returned to a kind of rushed desperation. Some of the grace notes may have been sacrificed for the sake of Lohengrin (but in the video linked above Peter Pears misses a few of them as well).

After “Pause,” the rest was pretty much bleak. He already seemed to suspect that green was trouble from its first appearance (it was at this point that I realized I had subconsciously chosen a green sweater that morning–must be reading Intermezzo too much), and “Der Jäger” and “Eifersucht und Stolz” were taken at a rapid pace. “Trockne Blumen” I found most interesting. The final, E major section is often treated as a euphoric vision of the afterlife–the dead flowers in the miller’s grave are transformed into blooming ones, which remind the girl of his faithfulness to her–here the flowers served as a vengeful, nasty reminder that she done him wrong. This miller isn’t about to forgive his (mostly imaginary) girlfriend so easily.

This even extended to “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” mostly done in hushed mezza voce but becoming vehement at “hinweg, hinweg.” Apparently the brook isn’t forgiving either, though very end was more peaceful. Unusually, we got an encore, which was the eminently appropriate “Der Jüngling an der Quelle,” another boy contemplating watery abandonment, with the attendant rippling piano figures.

A really absorbing and interesting performance, and probably the best Liederabend I’ve heard from Jonas Kaufmann.

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Jonas Kaufmann crashes Anna Netrebko’s Bohemian party in Salzburg

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

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

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

A few more thoughts and photos below.

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

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

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

Curtain call:

Spot the non-Bohemian

Production photos, copyright Silvia Lelli

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Ariadne auf Naxos: Ur-iadne auf Salzburg

I went to see Ariadne auf Naxos at the Salzburg Festival and wrote about it for Bachtrack:

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos was first performed in 1912, in a production directed by Max Reinhardt. Unlike the version usually seen today, this first Ariadne was a long-winded play-opera-ballet hybrid, incorporating a full production of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme with dances to incidental music by Strauss followed by the short opera. Less than a decade later these three men would found the Salzburg Festival, so it seems only appropriate that the festival is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Ariadne. While this convoluted production doesn’t make a good case for the piece, strong performances by Emily Magee and Elena Mosuc in the opera’s main roles and a fantastic deus ex machina by Jonas Kaufmann as Bacchus make it worthwhile.

You can read the whole thing here. You can also watch this production live on the internet tonight (August 5) at 20:15 Austrian time from Medici.

While this production was disappointing in a number of ways I’m still very glad I saw it. As you’d guess from my blog name I’ve been obsessed with this opera for ages.

Some more thoughts and photos below.
This was advertised as the 1912 version and in the opera half that is the case (the differences from the standard 1916 version are relatively minor: Zerbinetta’s aria is even more complicated, the commedia characters get some more ensemble material, and Zerbinetta returns to sing more at the end). But the play is radically changed, as I describe in the review. I was disappointed in this first and foremost because Bechtolf is no playwright and the text for the new sections is leaden and directionless, but because it is disingenuous to advertise one thing and then provide something very different.

Ariadne is an intellectual, abstract piece, and staging such a work against its grain (as Bechtolf does) requires squarely confronting the aesthetic argument that is already there (as Bechtolf does not). Ariadne is the rare opera that presents a creation myth for itself (Capriccio and Lulu being two others). That myth, that Ariadne and Unfaithful Zerbinetta have been smashed together only by happenstance, is an important factor. To supersede this myth with another one, that Ariadne is Hofmannsthal’s way of getting under Countess Ottonie’s skirt, creates less a mise-en-abyme than a mise-en-confuse.  I thought it might make more sense if Bacchus appeared as a double for Hofmannsthal, but that’s not quite right either, being ungodly. That’s the problem with these historical interpretations: taking something abstract and making it so historically specific runs the risk of reducing and constraining it.

The commedia players, given an extended role in this version, seem pointless. The drama of the opera seria Ariadne story is alienated by the interruptions by Zerbinetta as well as M. Jourdain, but the autobiographical angle on Hofmannsthal presents Ariadne as a work of Romantic-style artistic inspiration. The result is tangled. Arguably the actual 1912 Ariadne is also a diffuse work, but I see it operating in the manner of the opéra-ballets of Lully and Molière’s time, presenting a succession of delights loosely tied together. Unfortunately Bechtolf’s version is not so delightful.

One scene I left out: in the long dressing-room scene, we are presented with a succession of characters from various Hofmannsthal works–Octavian, the Marschallin, Elektra, the Kaiserin, and several characters from Jedermann (Salzburg!). Why? I’m not sure. It’s Herheim without the dramatic purpose.*

Finally, about that last scene. As a true Zerbinetta, I must admit I’ve never really understood what happens at the end of Ariadne. I mean, I know what they say happens, but how does one become a god, anyway? Is there a flash of lightning? Staging a metaphysical transformation is difficult; usually it’s park and bark wearing togas. This was, well, I don’t know what it really was, with Bacchus creeping around** and Ariadne running away and the awful shiny leopard (panther? I don’t even know) suit and the chandeliers and the wreckage of the pianos and it is tacky and bizarre in the extreme but then again so is the music and the key word here is “extreme” and it actually seemed kind of electric and convincing in a weird way? That might just because Jonas Kaufmann is awesome in this, though. I’m not sure.

Speaking of, I saw Boheme last night and Beczala was ailing and guess who sang Rodolfo from the side of the stage? More on that soon. It was fun.

Thanks to the Zwölftöner for the Kofferwort “Ur-iadne.”

*Herheim is reportedly directing Meistersinger here next year.
**Scene will have to be reblocked for any tenor who is not, um, flexible.

Photos copyright Ruth Walz.
PLAY:

OPERA:

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Jonas Kaufmann’s summer Winterreise

Schubert’s Winterreise is a journey further and further into the narrator’s own psyche. As he wanders he flees the diegetic noises surrounding him–the barking dogs, the posthorn, the cracking ice–and yet the icy cold articulates his inner self, even in its self-deception…

Aw shit, if you care about that you probably know about it already. You just want to hear about how Jonas Kaufmann’s big comeback recital went, don’t you?


Festspiele-Liederabend: Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/18/2012. Schubert, Winterreise.

Kaufmann is returning after an unplanned vacation of three months. He’s near the top of today’s very short list of major operatic stars, and in my mind on an even shorter list of major stars who are, at least most of the time, also genuinely interesting and creative artists. So his welfare seems a matter of public good, besides I tend to like him a lot and was anxious to hear how it was going.

Nothing seems amiss, this recital was beautifully done. After a bit, that is. Kaufmann got off to an unsteady start, and when he began sounding rather growly I wondered if he had spent the three months off becoming a baritone. There were some awkward gear shifts between catatonia and anguish in “Gute Nacht” and some slightly off timing in “Der Wetterfahne.” Helmut Deutsch was, as always, the pianist, and I find it hard to write much about him. He has excellent taste and does some lovely harmonic things and that river was very nice, but he never deigns to take the spotlight.

It was around “Der Lindenbaum” that Kaufmann found his stride, so to speak, durch Eis und Schnee. He sang much of the time around a lovely mf/mp area with creamy and smooth tone, which became darker and gnarlier only at higher volumes and pitches. This was his best dramatic effect–to unleash the Heldentenor when you don’t expect it (such as in the middle of “Wasserflut,” and not in the obvious forte moments). He can also do a remarkable gradual crescendo over the course of a song, notably in “Auf den Flusse” “Die Krähe.”

It was, for the most part, a simple and straightforward interpretation, operatic in the sense that he is more interested in developing a character than a poetic text. But he was notably lacking in gratuitous sentiment and declining to milk many of the obvious moments for excessive pathos. “Irrlicht” was navigated at a very slow, flexible tempo but still somehow maintained a rhythmic pulse, and he let the text do the work at the end of “Einsamkeit” (“war ich so elend nicht”), not overacting vocally. If anything, this performance could have done with more intensity and drama behind the lovely singing (I wished the ending of “Mut!” had been bigger), but there’s a lot to be said for just telling the story in an emotionally honest and compelling way, and the occasional unexpected turn in the phrasing kept us from becoming complacent. The ending was genuinely sad, with a subtle decrescendo into quiet madness through “Die Nebensonnen” and “Der Leiermann,” the latter ending with a creepy crescendo at the very end.

This concert was obviously a big deal for Kaufmann, who at the curtain call seemed more overcome than I have ever seen him. In accordance with Winterreise tradition, there was no encore (because what can you sing after Winterreise?).

As a side note, I wonder who in the Bay Staats was responsible for choosing the stage’s decoration, a lone flower arrangement hanging out stage left, and why they chose sunflowers. As flowers go they are kind of an inspired choice (autumnal, the opposite of the bunten Blumen of May), but still, a random touch.

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