Ratty Lohengrin

Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Festival Lohengrin has become an improbably beloved production. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin is justifiably the most popular performance of the festival and the score sounds amazing in the space, even though it predated the Festspielhaus. But the production: famous for its chorus of rats, it seemed like the kind of thing that would be remembered for one weird image, put into a collective Strange Opera photo album along with Neuenfels’s Nabucco with bees and that Bieito Ballo that no one can get over. Instead it became an almost instant classic. In part it is memorable for the rats’ indexicality, yet the rats are not only an image but a compelling idea. And while the rats would seem to preclude the romantic knight in shining armor aspect of this opera, that’s not really what happens.

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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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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.)

TRAILER.
 

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

More photos:

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Klaus Florian Vogt at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

I usually don’t go to these aria concert things, but I made an exception for Klaus Florian Vogt last night, because I like him, don’t get to hear him often, and since it was at the Deutsche Oper it was a relatively classy affair. Also because I have not seen him sing any of his signature roles but here could at least get a sample of them. And I enjoyed it and I wrote about it for Bachtrack, and you can read it here.

“In recent years the German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt has gained fame for his lyrical portrayals of Wagnerian characters like Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Walther von Stolzing in Die Meisteresinger von Nürnberg. His concert at the Deutsche Oper Berlin with conductor Peter Schneider and the house orchestra showed a wider range of repertoire, but it is still in his home Wagnerian territory that his greatest strengths lie.”

On the one hand I can totally see and appreciate his expansion of his repertoire, it show artistic range and I can’t imagine that singing three roles over and over for your entire career would be fun. But on the other hand he was just so much better as Walther and Lohengrin than in most of the other rep in this concert. I think his Czech exploits elsewhere were fairly successful but I wasn’t too convinced by his “Winterstürme” here, Siegmund needs more torment. Maybe if I heard the whole thing I would think differently, however, and I can imagine his Todesverkündigung would be a stunner. I am much more dubious about his apparent upcoming Cavaradossi, because, REALLY? But who knows, he is already a surprising singer, so maybe he’ll surprise us again.

(A major plus of this concert was the conducting of Peter Schneider, who defines stalwart in certain Germanic opera houses. I know that Schneider’s value is usually considered to be purely neutral but compared to what you usually get at these aria concert things he, plus the excellent orchestra, helped take things a good level above your average evening of Opera’s Greatest Hits.)

Here is Vogt in his greatest hit. This is from 2006 and I think he sounds richer and does more with the text now, but this is all the YouTubes have got:

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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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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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