Nuremberg’s Got Talent

If the Met’s performance Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg of last Saturday were one of its own characters, it would be Veit Pogner. Pogner, Eva’s father, is aging, jovial, traditional, filthy rich (he is, after all, a goldsmith), not a great thinker, and maybe hasn’t quite thought through all of the implications of his grand plans. This was a solid Meistersinger, and it was a pleasure to have Wagner back at the Met after too long an absence. Most of it was good and a few things were more than good. Except for Michael Volle’s fascinating Hans Sachs, it was not daring and it was not exciting, but some meat and potatoes Wagner like we haven’t gotten in a while.

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La Bohème: Your hand is cold

The Munich Opera Festival part of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s season rolled on with a shot at what is known in these parts as a Sternstunde–famous names being providing luxury singing to gratify your pleasure principle. But for this to work you need more than glamorous singing, there has to be a real connection among the cast and with the audience too. That wasn’t happening so much last night. Angela Gheorghiu and Joseph Calleja are a beautiful match in terms of pure sound, and both have the voices for these roles. But theatrically they are a disaster, encouraging each other’s worst qualities. Gheorghiu only loves Gheorghiu, and I saw few convincing signs of Calleja loving anything at all.
I remain an enormous fan of Gheorghiu’s sound, which has a uniquely beautiful silvery smokiness and sounds perfect in this music. Would that we could hear more of it. When she finally sung out in Act 3, it was glorious, but up to then she had maintained her characteristic 75%–never quite inaudible but not loud enough either. Her self-conscious diva persona would never work so well for Mimi, but she was at her most self-absorbed this evening, reacting only for her own and our benefit and never interacting with the cast around her. She apparently got some new dresses for this production, which seemed to be of the upper middle class rather than of a simple seamstress (which sticks out because the costumes of the rest of the cast are actually fairly faithful to class), but also followed her usual preference of displaying maximum cleavage during her death scene.

Joseph Calleja also has a beautiful sound, and sang the music with much more straightforward musicality than Gheorghiu, who tends to be capricious in regards to phrasing. On a CD, his “Che gelida manina” would be a real winner, with easy high notes, smooth legato, and that golden tone with its distinctive fast vibrato. But he never does anything to make it interesting. He did more to engage with his fellow Bohemians, but his acting remains a series of indications rather than a character, and in terms of chemistry he and Gheorghiu are not so happening.

The supporting cast was mostly drawn from house locals and sounded more Eastern European in style than Italian, but were great company and way more fun than our leads. I wondered if light soubrette Laura Tatulescu had been cast as Musetta as to present minimal competition to Gheorghiu (and their timbres do make a good vocal match–they’re both Romanian, if that means anything), but while her voice is small she projected consistently and effortlessly, and managed to be full of character without overacting, a rare thing in Musettas. The pick of the Bohemians was Levente Molnár’s big-voiced, lively Marcello, showing great life and warmth, but the others were fine as well. Alfred Kühn’s bio has the telling debut date of 1963, and I suspect he has been singing repertoire like Benoit the whole while. I will just say that he is a local favorite and at least he wasn’t cast as Mime.
Dan Ettinger conducted like someone who knows his way around this tricky score, managing the remarkable tasks of rarely covering up Gheorghiu and also staying with her wayward beat. The Act 2 chaos was reasonably clean and if the orchestra was, as I suspect, playing this on little to no rehearsal, I am very impressed. Ensembles were oddly balanced and scrappy but hey, this is the Festival, with Angela Gheorghiu.
Otto Schenk’s production is a traditional job with none of the opulence of the Met’s Zeffirelli extravaganza. I have to say I like it a lot more than that one. Like Ettinger, it doesn’t try anything fancy but it puts things where they need to be to give Angela Gheorghiu something to bounce her voice off. (We’ll leave the actual productions for another day.) Act 2 is busy without ever losing track of the protagonists, the garret could arguably use some sprucing up (how long has this production been going? a while, I’m guessing) but I guess looking like that is the point of a garret. The snow scene is the most artistic of the sets, but still doesn’t dwarf the main characters. The opening of Act 4 was unusually clearly directed. I do wish that opera houses would realize that their rubber fishes are all embarrassments, though.
Admittedly, this has never been one of my favorite operas (I’m not exactly sure why), but this one left me exceptionally dry-eyed. Considering the musical merits, a disappointment. In a few weeks I’ll be seeing the new Salzburg production with Netrebko and Beczala, which I hope will have more to offer.

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.

Puccini, La Bohème. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7.17.2012.
Musikalische Leitung Dan Ettinger

Inszenierung Otto Schenk
Bühne und Kostüme Rudolf Heinrich
Chor Stellario Fagone

Mimi Angela Gheorghiu
Musetta Laura Tatulescu
Rodolfo Joseph Calleja
Marcello Levente Molnár
Schaunard Christian Rieger
Colline Goran Jurić 
Parpignol Dean Power
Benoît Alfred Kuhn
Alcindoro Tareq Nazmi
Ein Zöllner Tim Kuypers
Sergeant der Zollwache Peter Mazalán

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Der Rosenkavalier in Munich: Die schöne Musi!

The Marschallin seems like a role that the elegant, meticulous soprano Anja Harteros was born to sing. She finally did it at the Bayerische Staatsoper this season, and repeated it with the fabulous Octavian of Sophie Koch at their Festspiele this Saturday (the July “Festspiele” consists of a few new productions plus a retrospective of the season with most of the same casting, fancier audience members, fewer rehearsals, and higher prices–fun but a little unpredictable). While Otto Schenk’s production would benefit from a good fumigation and energy injection, the all-star cast made this worth it.

Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier. Bayerische Staatsoper/Münchner Operfestspiele, 7/23/2011. Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by Constantin Trinks with Anja Harteros (Marschallin), Sophie Koch (Octavian), Lucy Crowe (Sophie), Peter Rose (Ochs), Piotr Beczala (Tenor).

This Rosenkavalier is an Otto Schenk extravaganza, similar but more opulent than Vienna’s Schenk. This run was originally planned as a new production this season, but intendant Nikolaus Bachler decided to keep the Schenk at the last minute, supposedly a bone thrown to staging conservatives. While the sets and costumes are in fine physical shape, age is still a problem. Most seriously, the Personenregie has gaps: there are many points where the singers simply stand still while the music cries out for stage action. As the Marschallin would point out, you can’t stop time.

Visually, the cluttered aesthetic is not to my taste–the von Faninals seem to gunning for a record for the largest china collection outside the Hofburg. But the level of detail (such as the inclusion of visible and detailed antechambers behind the main set) is impressive if you like that kind of thing. The Act 3 inn is more convincingly seedy than some other productions’, though the action in the opening was not as clearly laid out as it could have been. If you want to see this production in action back in its glory days, such as they were, you can do so on this excellent DVD conducted by Carlos Kleiber with Gwyneth Jones as the Marschallin.

I can’t really comment on many of the acting details of this performance, because, as is often the case at the Nationaltheater, my view of the stage was hopelessly bad. I could see the set and, once in a while, the singers, but as for most of what they were doing beyond the big rote blocking action you get in a standard issue Rosenkavalier (which is what this was), I’m not too sure.

Late replacement conductor Constantin Trinks (GMD in Darmstadt) seems like a good find, particularly when you allow for the limited rehearsal time of these festival productions. It wasn’t the most precise Rosenkavalier I have ever heard, and both stage-orchestra coordination and the faster orchestral business were off at times. But the light spirit, indulgently slow ending, and general sense of shape and dramatic timing worked really well, with a clear path through a score that can meander. Balance was something of an issue in Act 1, when the orchestra overpowered the singers, but improved over the course of the evening.

Anja Harteros has a wonderful way with the text, with beautiful diction and wit, and a conversational musicality that sounds both natural and graceful. Her voice is a little smoky and grainy, in a good way that makes her sound unique, and her middle voice has the strength needed for this role. Most notable is the detail and musicality she puts into every phrase, which is particularly good for Straussian style. Once or twice she sounded studious, but she is already my pick for the Marschallin of today.

Sophie Koch is an experienced Octavian. Like Harteros, she tends towards the aristocratic side of her role, welcome after too many slap-happy, excessively hormonal productions. But she is still convincingly youthful and masculine, funny in Act 3 without being over-the-top, and sings with expansive, lustrous tone, only sometimes sounding a little thin on the very top notes (Octavian did, after all, start as a soprano role).

The rest of the cast was perhaps not quite their match, though Lucy Crowe’s Sophie was very good, sung with richer, fuller sound than the thin twitterers you sometimes get, and acted with confidence but never brattiness. Unfortunately the pitch of her high notes wavered occasionally. Peter Rose’s Ochs is one of the better ones out there, more bumpkin than lecher and sung with style and fluidity, but his voice is rather hollow at both top and bottom. Supporting roles were universally solid and well-rehearsed.

In a delightful bit of luxury casting, Piotr Beczala appeared and knocked the Italian Tenor aria out of the park. Sure, it’s a kitschy bit of music, but given such a luscious rendition, it’s the best two minutes of tenorial bliss you could ask for.

Despite the boring production (which I couldn’t see too well anyway), a festival-worthy performance.

Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.

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Die Fledermaus: Bring your own fizz

Appreciation of the Wiener Staatsoper’s ritual New Year’s Fledermaus depends on your appreciation of Viennese rituals in general, of jokes about current Austrian politics in particular, of the simple joy of watching a tenor fall on his ass, and most of all on the amount of Champagne you have drunk. I missed the legendary special-guests New Year’s Eve showing (this year: Netrebko and Schrott) and went to the hangover special the next day instead. Once you get past the sociological aspects, this was a mostly first-rate cast threading their way through the greasy cogs of an ancient schticky Otto Schenk production with varying degrees of aplomb. Not bad, but magic only in a Viennese imagination.

Johann Strauss, Die Fledermaus. Wiener Staatsoper, 1/1/2011. Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by Patrick Lange with Markus Werba (Eisenstein), Camilla Nylund (Rosalinde), Angelika Kirchschlager (Prinz Orlofsky), Michael Schade (Alfred), Daniela Fally (Adele), Adrian Eröd (Falke), Helmuth Lohner (Frosch)

The sets and the tragic hair on the heads of the women suggest that this Otto Schenk production dates from the mid- to late-1970’s. It’s impressively lavish but rather cluttered and visually speaking strictly by-the-book realist (documented on this 1980 DVD with Gruberova, Popp, and Weikl). The turntable that took us to Prinz Orlowsky’s dining room got applauded, which tells you all you need to know.  The direction features quite a lot of silly choreography in the ensemble numbers. But this two-performance run did not seem to be well-rehearsed, and this kind of thing requires very good ensemble timing to pull off with flair. The dramatic beats were signposted and underlined by the cast as they all tried to get into position for the next moment, and interaction was minimal. It seemed more sketched than realized, and some moments, like the Unter Donner und Blitz ballet, were just clumsy. This is too bad, because most of the cast was excellent and I’m sure they could have had an outstanding Fledermaus in them, even in this dated production. When they were able to loosen up in their solo moments, they were universally better.

Fally, Werba, and Nylund

Unfortunately the cast had a weakness at its center, and that was Markus Werba’s Eisenstein. This seemed to be a case of a Leporello being cast as Don Giovanni: too young, not sufficiently bourgeois, and vocally not authoritative. He was completely overshadowed by Adrian Eröd’s arch and polished Dr. Falke, probably the best overall role portrait of the evening (does he sing Eisenstein? also, nice handstand). Almost as good was Daniela Fally’s Adele. Unlike her Sophie of last week, her singing was precise, light, and full of humor, and her acting again very good (spoken with what sounded to me like credible Viennese dialect). Angelika Kirchschlager’s Orlowsky was similarly accomplished, with some of the best singing of the evening and appropriately off-kilter acting in this unfortunately short role. Alfred Sramek was similarly amiable as Frank, particularly in the third act’s drunken extravaganza.

Camille Nylund has a large voice for Rosalinde, but navigated the acrobatics quite well, though the end of the Csardas was not her best moment. While a good actress, she did not have quite the touch for comedy as some of the rest of the cast, and emerged as the straight woman of the production. Michael Schade as Alfred was willingly the simple buffoon, with gleefully parodic singing, many pratfalls, and tenorial in-jokes and references (I believe these are attached to the production rather than him, but I counted La Bohème, Parsifal, Lohengrin, Die Walküre, and Fidelio, I’m probably forgetting a few).

Particularly in Vienna, Act 3 of Fledermaus is a drawn-out affair, with sparse music and plot development and lots of unrelated stand-up comedy (much of which is not explained in the English titles, by the way). Last night our Frosch was veteran actor Helmuth Lohner, and while I could understand almost all of what he was saying, my grasp of current Austrian politics was not sufficient to appreciate many of the jokes. While drunken physical comedy doesn’t depend on cultural knowledge, I still thought it was far too long, and I wanted to return to the plot.

I’m still sad they cut Murray the Comic Canadian in Act 2, though. (I realize that everyone does this, but come on, guys, he’s a comic Canadian! Michael Schade could do it, Alfred isn’t in Act 2!)

Up-and-coming stick-waver Patrick Lange boasts an impressive head of Conductor Hair but led unobtrusively, and while his account was well-judged and phrased, it lacked the headlong rush and brilliance this opera can reach. I appreciated that he was not a young conductor speed demon, but it could have been more exciting. The post-Neujahrskonzert orchestra sounded suitably sparkling in the overture and perfectly fine elsewhere (though it was more Donner and less Blitz in the ballet). Strings better than the occasionally bumpy winds, as usual.

Had things managed to gel a little better, this could have been an outstanding performance, but it was something less than the sum of its parts. Alas, such is the repertory norm.

This post concludes for now my survey of Otto Schenk at the Wiener Staatsoper; soon I will turn to productions of these same operas by some modern enfants terribles (some not so jeunes) for comparison. I am posting from Munich, where I just saw Claus Guth’s brain-teaser of a Luisa Miller at the Bayerische Staatsoper. It required more thought than all the Otto Schenk productions put together. I didn’t like everything about it but it felt like a giant relief to have something to chew on after all this literalism. Singing was also excellent. Turntable used a lot but not applauded once.  No Schenk comparison for this one but I didn’t want to skip it.  More on all of this in coming days.

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Der Rosenkavalier: Wie du warst, wie du bist

While Otto Schenk’s Wiener Staatsoper Der Rosenkavalier have been spiffed up and the staging is showing alarming signs of rehearsal, a great Rosenkavalier still requires a great cast. While Adrianne Pieczonka’s Marschallin is very fine, neither she nor her less distinguished costars quite lit up the stage. With the exception of the excellent orchestra, this wouldn’t have rated above a solidly routine Rosenkavalier in most houses. In Vienna, a city that takes its Rosenkavalier almost as seriously as its Mozart, it ranks as a disappointment.

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L’elisir d’amore: Your love is my drug

Sometimes the Wiener Staatsoper has a Noises Off! quality to it.  I’m not talking about onstage mishaps, though those happen also, or middlebrow artistic attitudes, though those are far too common as well.  No, I mean cast changes!  When ensemble member Benjamin Bruns fell ill and couldn’t sing Nemorino last night, Ramón Vargas, in town for Un ballo in maschera, took it on.  I’ve always thought Vargas a likeable guy and these one-off performances can be great fun, so I spent my beer Beerenpunsch money on a gallery standing room spot.

Bonus: it helps me organize my study of the art of Otto Schenk.  Because here we have ur-Schenk.  It’s CUTE!

Donizetti, L’elisir d’amore.  Wiener Staatsoper, 12/21/2010.  Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by Guilermo García Calvo with Julia Novikova (Adina), Ramón Vargas (Nemorino), Tae Joong Yang (Belcore), Alfred Sramek (Dulcamara), Elisabeta Marin (Giannetta)

I’ve never found never found Ramón Vargas’s forrays into bigger rep very convincing; he lacks a certain vocal heroism and stage authority (his earlier, more lyric efforts are excellent).  But those would be liabilities when you’re Nemorino, and last night he turned in a free-wheeling performance of joyous singing and wonderfully undignified acting.  It wasn’t very polished in an acting sense, but come on, it’s Nemorino, the primary task is to be endearing and dumb.  And Vargas has that down, much more than Flórez in October.  Vocally he sounded better than I’ve heard him in ages, with sweet tone and unbroken legato, though he sings pretty much everything forte and the one time he tried a piano (cadenza of the Lagrima), he immediately went flat.  But such are the costs of the spinto years.

Yes, that’s La Netrebka. Only photo I could find.

Julia Novikova was a more vivacious and capricious Adina than Sylvia Schwartz in October.  She has a beautiful upper range and easy coloratura, and showed sensitive phrasing in “Prendi.”  But in a lyric role her voice is perilously small for the Staatsoper, and her sound got lost in ensembles.  Tae Joong Yang’s Belcore has grown in comedy since October and is now quite funny, but he struggled with intonation in the aria and elsewhere sounded blustery.  Vienna favorite Alfred Sramek sleep-walked through Dulcamara’s aria and somewhat compensated with tired schtick elsewhere.

I didn’t notice anything distinctive coming out of the pit but Guillermo García Calvo kept things together a lot better than Yves Abel did in October.

Otto Schenk’s production makes a better visual impression from the gallery than it did from the Parterre Stehplatz, because you can appreciate the depth of the stage and don’t see the dopey and wrinkly backdrop that clearly.  But it still has the colors and details of a picture postcard and none of the texture that brings something to vivid life, or the ideas that would focus the story in any particular direction beyond a children’s book.  People really like skipping around in circles in this production.  It’s totally kitsch, and while L’elisir d’amore isn’t exactly an opera of extremes, if can be more touching and human and less old-fashioned cute if you give it a push.

Of course it probably looked better in 1973, when this production premiered.  A coat of paint would do wonders, though it wouldn’t make it be about anything.  Remember, you can see this production on DVD with Anna and Rolando.  But if you’re just looking for an Elisir, I recommend Angie and Roberto in happier days more highly.

This is the first full entry in my series Schenk/Anti-Schenk.  The Anti-Schenk counterpart will be David Bösch’s Bayerische Staatsoper production, which I’ll see in early January.  Also, I am prepared to take whatever consequences I deserve for this post title.  But if L’elisir d’amore were pop music, it wouldn’t be Radiohead in terms of intelligence, would it?

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Christmas G’Schenk

Otto Schenk!  Love him or hate him, his productions are a staple if you’re a regular at the Wiener Staatsoper or the Met.  The Viennese actor/director celebrated his 80th birthday in June and is still going strong, and many of his productions are… well, let’s just say they’re still going, though his Met Ring is on the way out.  Today, many of his monuments to comfortable naturalism bear his imprint in name only (and sometimes not even that, reduced to “after Otto Schenk” in Vienna), their sets faded and their original direction nowhere to be seen.  But we must see the Schenk that we are given (that we are geSchenkt?), not the Schenk we may wish we had.  His productions, often in their beat-up repertory forms, represent the aesthetic mainstream of late-20th century operatic conservatism.

Over the next few weeks, I will be conducting a survey which pits a row of Schenk productions against (drumroll)… THE WORLD.  When “the world” means “directors who are not very conservative.”  First I shall see the Viennese Schenk productions, and then after New Year’s I shall go to Germany for the anti-Schenk productions of the same operas.  This plan is actually pure happenstance, but due to the inclusion of an anniversary opera (Rosenkavalier, 100 years) and a holiday operetta (Fledermaus), it’s not much of a coincidence.

The program:
L’elisir d’amore: after Schenk (Wiener Staatsoper, reviewed here in October), then David Bösch (Bayerische Staatsoper)
Fidelio: Schenk (Wiener Staatsoper, DVD), then Calixto Bieito (Bayerische Staatsoper)
Der Rosenkavalier: Schenk (Wiener Staatsoper), then Stefan Herheim (Staatsoper Stuttgart)
Die Fledermaus: after Schenk (Wiener Staatsoper), then Philipp Stölzl (Staatsoper Stuttgart)

Unfortunately, Vienna isn’t seeing fit to haul out their Schenk Fidelio (yes, they have one) just for the sake of symmetry in my schedule, so I will try to take a look at that one on DVD.

The Vienna Rosenkavalier is notable because Schenk actually has been rehearsing it, as the Staatsoper is proud to announce.  So at least in this case, I will be able to consider what Schenk is about beyond his preferences in decor.  But Schenk himself seems OK with the usual under-rehearsed laxness, recently saying to the Salzburger Nachrichten, “There are almost 30 productions at the Staatsoper. It would be a job in itself, a major assistant director job, [to rehearse them all].”

In the Salzburg interview linked above, Schenk also says some things about directors more adventurous than himself: “I do not have the talent to find in a piece another piece.  I can’t say that doing so is always wrong, actually sometimes I greatly admire such things.  For example, the Don Giovanni in the forest in Salzburg [directed by Claus Guth -ed.] and the fatally ill, wounded Don Giovanni.  That was so thoroughly worked out and moving, as if it were a work by Mozart.”  The problem with this is that Schenk is imposing his own aesthetic and finding a new work within works as much as Guth or any other director is.  But this is still more open-mindedness than I expected of him.

Schenk can be seen persönlich acting in Klaus Pohl’s play Einmal noch, currently playing at the Theater in der Josefstadt.  I was going to go, but the only review I could find didn’t make it sound like a very good time, so I reconsidered.  Besides, I think I have enough Otto on my schedule as it is.

Also, non-Schenk related, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants are playing Rameau in concert at the Theater an der Wien on Sunday, and I’m not about to miss that.

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