The castle is old and sad

I wanted to see Stefan Herheim’s new Glyndebourne staging of Pelléas et Mélisande in part out of perverse curiosity. What would happen when opera’s most hyperactive extrovert directs opera’s least flamboyant, er, opera? I was on my way to the Nineteenth-Century Music Conference in Huddersfield so I went to Glyndebourne first. Also I remembered I have a blog so I decided to write about it here.

And unfortunately I think Debussy might be Herheim’s kryptonite.

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The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam


Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is an opera that swerves between the apparently conventional and the obviously unsettling. As Dostoevskian antihero Herman crashes through 1790s St. Petersburg in search of the three cards that will always win, we can never quite tell what’s real and what’s the product of his feverish, anachronistic mind. And that’s before Stefan Herheim got around to directing it.

But now Herheim has, and on the way to Berlin for some work I went to Amsterdam to see it.

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Tales of Herheim at the Bregenz Festival

If you’re one of those people who fill comment sections with impassioned arguments about different editions of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, has Stefan Herheim ever got something for you. (If you aren’t, you’ll find plenty to like too.) This production, which premiered on Thursday night at the Bregenz Festival, is not an attempt to create a definitive, authentic edition of one of the most convoluted operas in the repertoire. It’s about what’s at stake in such a search for authenticity–about subject and object, what it means to control and/or love someone, and whether we ever can escape our own heads.

And rarely has the search for the true self looked so much like a twisted Busby Berkeley musical!

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Regie Update

Herheim Meistersinger

Peter Gelb is in Salzburg and dropping big hints about the Met’s future, which include importing Stefan Herheim’s new production of Meistersinger, an unnamed production by Calixto Bieito, and producing Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, he tells Gert Korentschnig in the Vienna paper Kurier. (Something may have been lost in translation here, since he says that Bieito will direct at the Met again, which is impossible since he hasn’t yet.) While all of this rates highly on the awesome-o-meter, he also says that Robert Lepage will be back again (urg).

Why didn’t he give this interview to the Times‘s Anthony Tommasini, who is also in Salzburg; or the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, who is as well? This is quite rude to loyal Met audience members who care about these things. Some of them will be hostile to this development, but many would welcome it, and it seems bad form to talk about it behind New York’s back.

(While Tommasini did mention the Herheim Meistersinger news, I believe the rest is new. Of course it’s possible Gelb told Tommasini and the Times just didn’t run it. And Alex Ross pointed out to me that he generally doesn’t cover this kind of news. Which reminds us how few options there are for music coverage in New York, alas.)

Thanks to Intermezzo for picking this up. Also, take it all with a grain of salt. Some previous rumored adventures in Met Regie have fallen through.

If you aren’t in Salzburg–as I, sadly, am still not–there’s still plenty to watch on the internet:

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Parsifal from Bayreuth–watch online

This year Stefan Herheim’s revelatory Bayreuth production of Parsifal was taped and broadcast on TV. You can now watch it online. Don’t miss this one.

Herheim takes the story of Parsifal as the story of Wagner and Bayreuth
themselves, a journey from isolation to disaster to the possibility of
redemption. It’s challenging but will make you see the piece and hear
the music in many new ways. I saw this production live last year, with a slightly different cast and, from what I hear, slightly different production (I am watching this video tonight, so I can’t yet say how different). Here is what I wrote about it then. I also recommend’s short introduction, which has links to many more reviews.

To be a ridiculous elitist, I expect the video is a poor substitute for the live experience. Camera direction is a problem with filmed Herheim–there’s always a lot going on and the camera strictly controls what you see, including some things and excluding others and governing when you move from one part of the stage to another. (I think Rusalka in particular was far more exciting live.) But this production is also about the journey you took to get to Bayreuth, and why you made that not uncomplicated trip.

That’s not meant to discourage you from watching this, indeed it would have been a travesty had this production not been filmed. (This is the last year it will be seen in Bayreuth before being replaced.)

The videos are on YouTube; I recommend downloading them because who knows how long they will stick around.

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

Postscript: I warn you against listening to Parsifal and Bohème in close proximity. At some point you will hear, in your head only, Rodolfo crying out “Mimì!” followed by the Heilesbuße-Motiv (the descending arpeggio), and it will be really weird.

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Carmen: Stefan Herheim’s night at the museum

“Oh no! The art has escaped again!” So yelps a diminutive curator by the name of Lillas Pastia when he goes downstairs to check on the storage room in his museum. He sees the remnants of “Les triangles des sistres tintaient,” but we just saw all of it: a panopoly of characters from paintings, opera, and literature–many of them femme fatales–who have broken free from their authors to perform a rousing song and dance number. There’s Salome with the head (she premiered in Graz, natch), Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth I, a Degas dancer, Marianne with her tricoleur, and, er, Jesus.

So what does this have to do with Carmen? Rather a lot, actually. This production (first seen in 2006 and now in its first revival) probably helped Stefan Herheim earn the reputation for being incomprehensible, but if you can keep up there’s a fascinating dissection of the nature of artistic representation, gender roles and a lot more. Plus it’s a ton of fun. Rarely has the explication of Nietzsche employed so much glitter.

Bizet, Carmen. Oper Graz, 6/27/12. Production by Stefan Herheim (revival) with new dialogue by Stefan Herheim and Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. Conducted by Johannes Fritzsch with Kirstin Chavez (Carmen), Jean-Pierre Furlan (Don Jose), David McShane (Escamillo), Gal James (Micaela).

As usual, I will add more photos to this post when I’m working on internet that doesn’t have a clock on it. In the meantime you can see a gallery here.

The basic conceit of this production is simple. The setting is an art museum, where Don Jose is a security guard and Carmen is a cleaning lady. The action is a series of fantasies inspired by and happening in the paintings surrounding them. The big idea–that we are shaped by the artistic representations that our culture values (or, in this museum, even enshrines), and those who produce those images wield inordinate power–is familiar from many Regietheater stagings, but the twist from a self-reflexive theater setting to a museum of paintings allows all sorts of fresh tricks and twists. (Laurent Pelly also used a museum setting in his more recent Paris Giulio Cesare, which I haven’t seen.) 

Much of the staging is quite witty. The opening chorus is sung by an ordinary crowd of museumgoers admiring the funny people in the paintings; the children’s chorus is a school group on a field trip. Don Jose’s regiment tumbles out of a canvas depicting them. The men describing the cigarette women emerging from their factory are a troupe of artists armed with palettes and giant berets, and the women appear with a cloud of steam (it’s an ironic cloud of steam, but as I recall in Francesca Zambello’s ROH production the ladies enter here with a non-ironic cloud, alas). Yet while the cloud produces gypsies, the artists are all painting images of the ultimate Virgin, Mary.

Carmen isn’t just Don Jose’s fantasy, she is enjoying her own fantasy of freedom as well, having a good time with her Habanera and taking control of Don Jose by painting the flower onto his uniform. (He finally smashes a Mary painting to great shock from all surrounding.) Micaela is a prim modern girl, not from a painting, but the fight between the two groups of women plays out between an army of Micaela doubles and an army of Carmens. The women definitely have it harder than the men when it comes to living with these images–and among the women only Carmen manages to wield a paintbrush herself.

Herheim has given himself the liberty to rewrite all of the spoken text to fit this scenario, though many familiar parts remain. The second act, taking place in the museum’s basement, shows the representations free from their creators. Escamillo similarly emerges from a painting. The act is most spectacularly interrupted by some chatter from Carmen and Micaela’s opera queen drag doubles, who alternately seem like a pair of Parterre commenters enjoying exceptional sympathy with the opera’s characters, arguing about the outcome of the plot and anticipating the tenor aria as well as a burlesque dialogue version of Der Fall Wagner. They are, in fact, Dancairo and Remendado, who need the fun ladies Frasquita, Mercedes, and Carmen. The act ends with all the representations holding their own canvuses proclaiming their liberty–with Marianne waving her flag in the middle, of course.

The third and fourth acts (I’ve always thought it was four, though the program lists the third as having two scenes) loses a bit of steam, though there are some spectacular moments. The characters retreat into a pastoral landscape painting (we also see a mise en abyme of endless frames within frames), but all does not go well. Fortune in the form of cards rain down from above, and Escamillo and Don Jose appear as doubles (a must in any Herheim production). Micaela, a refugee from reality, is rather out of place and is casually shot by Escamillo (my distinguished operagoing companion thought this was hilarious, but I’ve always liked Micaela and felt bad for her). The last act presents us with Don Jose attempting to paint his own portrait of Carmen to get her back (through some kind of cheesy projections, he seems to found abstract art at this point), and the crowd of observers appear in an amphitheater setting mirroring us, the audience, observing (an old but nonetheless effective Regie trick dating back to Hans Neuenfels’s Aida if not earlier to Wieland Wagner). The security guard and the cleaning lady aren’t the only ones influenced by representation, we are too, as we watch Carmen. In a final, mind-bending trick, Escamillo has painted Carmen as she really is, as a cleaning lady. Don’t ask what this means, this is a Gerheheimnis to me right now, but it’s fascinating in a lot of different ways.

It’s one of those productions that you would ideally see twice to get all the detail, but it’s thrilling and exhilarating to see it all go by even if you don’t get all of it. It’s busy, and relating the conventional plot as such isn’t high on the agenda, but what’s there is mostly fabulous. As distinguished operagoing companion noted, it seemed to draw primarily from two sources: Susan McClary and Nietzsche. If you ask me, that’s a combination not be discounted. Unlike some other operas that are Regie bait (Lohengrin, anyone?), Carmen is rarely subject to directorial creativity greater than changing the time period, so this fresh insight is especially welcome here.

The Oper Graz has done a great job of reviving this production, Christiane Lutz’s direction is sharp and detailed. Kristin Chavez’s Carmen and Jean-Pierre Furlan return from the first run while the rest of the cast is, I believe, new. Both Chavez and Furlan are excellent actors but probably sounded fresher in the 2006 run. Chavez’s spicy mezzo was unevenly projected much of the time, but when she smoothed it out showed a warm, sensual sound. Occasional scoops and slides made me wonder if her inspiration was a chanson singer, but it mostly worked. Furlan’s sinewy tenor has, sometimes, brutal force, but it’s a rough sound and not too flexible. His French was, at least, excellent. Not so David McShane’s as Escamillo, which sounded too high for him. Gal James as Micaela was the best singer in the cast, though her silvery soprano sounds more Straussian than Bizetian. Supporting roles were solid. Unfortunately the Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester remains a weakness of this house and is lacking in precision, particularly in the strings. Johannes Fritzsch’s conducting kept things together at reasonable tempos.

This production is a treat and it’s a shame it’s so obscure. You want to stage a good Carmen, New York City Opera?

Photo(s) copyright Karl Forster.
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Lulu, the destroyer destroyed

“Ich habe nie in der Welt etwas andres scheinen wollen, als wofür man mich genommen hat, und man hat mich nie in der Welt für etwas anderes genommen, als was ich bin.” 
(“I’ve never wanted to appear to the world as anything other than what I am perceived to be, and no one in the world has ever taken me for something other than what I am.”)

In this dark and dazzling performance, Lulu wears many guises. She is the star attraction of a circus, drawing a succession of honest citizens into her deadly orbit. But she succeeds only as much as she is a projection for what they want, even if they can’t publicly admit it.

Lulu is an opera that demands superhuman efforts, and the Dresden Semperoper has, unusually, found that in cast, orchestra, and production with an embarrassment of riches, from Gisela Stille’s Lulu to Cornelius Meister’s conducting to and Stefan Herheim’s fascinatingly strange production.

Berg, Lulu. Semperoper Dresden, 6/19/2012. New production directed by Stefan Herheim, set by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Völlm, lights by Stefan Herheim and Fabio Antoci. Conducted by Cornelius Meister with Gisela Stille (Lulu), Christa Mayer (Gräfin Geschwitz), Nils Harald Sodal (Der Maler/Ein Neger), Markus Marquandt (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper), Jürgen Müeller (Alwa), Ketil Hugaas (Schigolch), Almas Svilpa (Ein Tierbaendiger/Ein Athlet)

I’m not going to summarize this staging at length because
James Jorden already has in impressive detail. (He saw it in Copenhagen but
there seem to be only a few changes.) A lot has been written on this production already but everyone seems to see something different in it–dense cryptic spectacles are like that–so I’m happy to add my bit about what it, uh, “means.”

Lulu is a circus
from the very start: the opera opens with the Animal Tamer inviting us into his
show. Generally that is the end of that and we proceed into the Painter’s
workshop in proper quasi-realistic operatic manner. But Herheim organizes the
opera as an opposition or even dialectic between the circus (grotesques, a
surreal atmosphere, ghosts, the id) and the bourgeois world of operatic
performance (propriety, a miniature version of the opera house’s stage, Lulu’s
lovers before they become ensnared, the actual composition of Lulu, we the audience, the superego).
Lulu herself is the passage between these two realms, and as acted by Gisela
Stille, somewhat inside and outside the action at once, always aware but rarely

Lulu appears first as Eve, the original tempter of men,
seemingly nude but wearing, it becomes obvious, a garishly painted bodysuit.
(Are we supposed to notice this or pretend we don’t? Yes, it’s OK that we
noticed, it is later clarified.) She is haunted by a band of clowns who observe from an upper level and help
along the action by providing props and ultimately
encouraging the demise of each of Lulu’s husbands. After each one dies, the
clowns forcibly recruit him into their ranks, dragging him over to a makeup
table and painting his face white, and Lulu reappears wearing a wedding dress,
ready for her next. The clowns, it seems, are all former lovers of Lulu, condemned in
their postmortem state to serve her backup team (she can see them but
no one else can). Notably, the three we meet when they are already in her grasp
and are not destined for marriage—Schigolch, the Acrobat, and the
Schoolboy–already appear circus-like. Geschwitz stays bourgeois, never able to
join this world. It’s not a production of realistic or psychologically
developed characters but rather types who fit together to tell the story—Geschwitz is the only one who is kind of left out in this, and often played for
Lulu looks different in every scene, her dress and hairstyle
morphing to fit each circumstance (though with some respect to the piece’s symmetry). But the surroundings of Heike Scheele’s funhouse set stay oddly the same, the same set pieces rearranging themselves slightly for each scene. Lulu’s image is an obsession of the
characters—the Painter’s paintings, we see, are all of her—but it’s at the same
time entirely unstable. Her autonomy is limited, though her self-confession
(the Lied der Lulu, quoted above) gets a round of applause from the clowns,
still under her spell. Yet we seemingly see her true self a few times: first
when she peels offs that bodysuit for Dr. Schön immediately after the Painter’s
death, later proclaimed to be the one man she ever actually loved. The second I’ll get to in a second.

Running through the whole production is a, wait for it,
metatheatrical deconstruction thing. (Never saw that coming.) Lulu performs at
times—her dance, her modeling–on a miniature stage replicating that of the
Semper Oper (which apparently was the old Copenhagen opera house when the opera
was performed there), and panels replicating the auditorium interior dot the set. Another tiny model of the theater hangs out stage left. Most significantly Alwa is revealed as the composer of Lulu, starting to scribble at the “one could write an interesting
opera about this” line and continuing to write occasionally for some time.
Sometimes the characters read from music he hands them, prominently Lulu’s “ist
das noch der Diwan” line. She’s only doing what Alwa is telling her, only
behaving as the dark side of his own desires.

Of course in Act 3 things get interesting. This production
uses a new completion by Eberhard Kloke rather than the standard Friedrich Cerha
one. Based on what I understood of
Cerha’s work (which obviously was mistaken), I was surprised at how much was
very different, but suffice it to say that Kloke departs much more from Berg’s
style than Cerha did. Kloke has a tendency to put things in quotation marks,
ensembles becoming oddly opera buffa and the Wedekind song quote leaping out. I didn’t find it very convincing, mostly fragmented and doodly. He also wrote several virtuosic solos for violin, accordion, and piano, which
is where Herheim comes in again.

The musicians playing these solos appear onstage, and they
are all doubles for Lulu. I took this as a commentary on Lulu’s incompletedness. The act began with a little pantomime where
Alwa and the actual conductor argue about who gets to start, but it becomes
clear that Alwa and the establishment in general are no longer in charge (just
as Berg is not in control of the score), their standing and control falling
faster than Jungfrau Railways stock. The solos show Lulu herself is trying to
take over and playing the tune.

But Lulu is powerless
without powerful men who want her, and the world has seemingly decided it is time
for her to be punished. Her doubles playing the solos are usurped by a
mechanical instrument, a hurdy-gurdy. It only needs to be given a crank to take
over, reasserting the force of the composer and of the opera house (the score
quotes a tune by Wedekind, the hurdy-gurdy takes the place of the tiny stage on
a cart and later in larger form the small Semperoper stage). Lulu is
ensnared again and she’s off to London. The rest plays as an even more
nightmarish version of the first acts, with the clowns finally taking their
revenge. In another bit of dark comedy, she is stabbed with an umbrella, like the one she played with in the very first scene (symmetry again).
It’s all an amazingly elaborate spectacle (though less cluttered than Herheim’s Rosenkavalier or Parsifal—not that clutter is bad, those are some glorious
clutters), but we get the story with unusual clarity and immediacy. It’s just
augmented with the constant interrogation of why we are telling it.
The musical values were really wonderful and could stand up
against those of any opera house and I could easily write a post just about
them (cue a few commenters asking me why I didn’t—if you haven’t noticed, guys,
I have some other favorite topics). Cornelius Meister conducted the excellent
orchestra in a very tense and dark interpretation, with a post-Romantic,
Mahlerian weight to the more melodic passages (you know the one I mean). He’s a conductor to watch, he’s going places. Lulu
is a role where even weakness is impressive, and strapping on the required false
eyelashes constitutes a brave act. But while many seem owned by Berg’s music,
Gisela Stille has made it her own. Her voice is impressively forceful and full
in tone, with steely certainty through the scariest passages without ever
leaving the character. She might not have the ultimate ease at the very top,
but her strength throughout the rest of her range more than compensates.
As Alwa Jürgen Müller was in much-improved form from his
weak Florestan on Sunday, though his voice is not exactly fresh it was
consistently solid. Alone among the cast he tended to overact, though in this
case hamminess kind of works, Alwa is already quite taken with himself. Markus
Marquandt was a young-ish Schön with an impressive voice and authority, and a
genuinely frightening appearance at the end of the opera. The production
neglected the Gräfin Geschwitz a bit, but Christa Mayer sounded excellent.
One thing that is not
high on Herheim’s priority list is the intricacies of Berg’s twelve-tone
technique. Berg’s stage directions are notoriously numerous and, to analysts,
portrayed in the musical texture with a degree of complexity and integration
surpassing anything in Wagner. Herheim follows many of those directions, but
adds a lot that doesn’t have a specific antecedent in Berg’s musical-dramatic
structure. That he does not take a gnostic analyst’s approach is a grave sin
according to some (like the aptly-named Zwölftöner), but I have to say I
don’t mind a bit. Not that I would object to a staging that does incorporate
this kind of analysis—even if 99% of the audience doesn’t know about the
significance of that B natural (and half of those who do only hear it because
George Perle told them to), those details add up to create a full drama.
But I think there’s more than one way to make a meaningful Lulu. I don’t think 12-tone analysis should be accorded any inherent
privilege as the only valid option. Herheim’s production was to me new, exciting, and meaningful, and thus
has value. (I do admit that a few times I was very aware that he was not
staging the music, most blatantly when Geschwitz stared at the painting without
the accompaniment of the portrait chords.) The problem with Perle’s argument regarding performing Lulu is the basic premise that there is one correct way to do most of it. But it’s a rich, multifaceted piece, and as elusive as the
title character itself, and the theorist’s approach is only one way to
illuminate its depths.
Go see this one if you can!
Photos copyright Matthias Creutziger

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Serse: Stefan Herheim goes for baroque

Like every utterance of “Frau Blücher!” in Young Frankenstein makes a distant horse neigh, the pastoral piping of recorders in Stefan Herheim’s Serse has the power to summon animals, in this case a small and jolly herd of dancing sheep. Elsewhere we get slightly creaky stage machinery, big shiny costumes, and some jokes that can only be described as corny (or, um, German). It’s good fun, and for what you expect out of this director and this opera house, mild-mannered madness indeed.

Handel, Serse. Komische Oper Berlin, 6/15/2012. German translation by Eberhard Schmidt adapted by Stefan Herheim. New production directed by Stefan Herheim, sets by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Vollm, lights by Franck Even. Conducted by Konrad Junghaenel with Stella Doufexis (Serse/Xerxes), Karolina Gumos (Arsamenes), Brigitte Geller (Romilda), Julia Giebel (Atalanta), Dimitry Ivanshchenko (Ariodates), Hagen Matzeit (Elviro).

See more photos at the end of this post.
Maybe Stefan Herheim is the opposite of Robert Lepage.
Lepage limits himself to literal representation; Herheim dissolves the work as
we know it into a sea of symbolism, references and shifting time frames and
perspectives. While this dreaminess comes naturally to Parsifal and Rusalka,
Herheim obviously recognizes that Handelian opera rests on the firmer ground of
dramatic formula. The fantasies of our collective unconscious are replaced by
the more readily explained magic of stage illusion.
This is yet another metatheatrical, theater-in-a-theater
production, a device that has been done to death over the past few years. The
setting is an eighteenth-century theater populated by a troupe of opera singers
very like those of Handel’s premiere. As in David McVicar’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the miniature
theater onstage rotates to reveal itself in profile and the backstage action in
the rear. Some of the opera’s action takes place onstage and some off.  The stage features the expected
period-appropriate flat scenery of trees and columns, stormy painted waves,
drops, and a beautiful perspective view of a London street. The libretto never
puts us in London, of course, but here the boundaries between life and art are porous.
Herheim wisely does not attempt to establish two separate sets of
characters, and the drama flits on and offstage freely. Serse is a divo,
Romilda the diva, Atalanta her jealous rival attempting to usurp her position,
and so on. (Romilda and Atalanta appear as doubles and for a shorter period
Arsamene and Serse, which is quite confusing. The point is that in the plot’s love triangles they want to take each others’
places.) That the singers’ onstage personae are the same as their offstage ones
is the entire point: the hoary mechanics and outsized passions of the plot find
their analogue in the machinery and colorful personalities of the world of the
theater. The opera is determined by the social environment that produced it. (This is what Herheim meant by describing the opera as a Muppet show–everyone has their particular role to fulfill onstage and off.)
It’s a great point.
What annoys me about these lampshade-hanging stagings (most egregiously Mary
Zimmerman’s Met Sonnambula ) is their pointed
winking that indicates the drama is so ridiculous it can only be portrayed as
something self-consciously fake, that the revelation of the illusion is an
apology for its implausibility. Herheim instead shows why we love opera: it’s
our life, only with fancy costumes and music. Dressing up is awesome (also sometimes tacky, ridiculous, and immobilizing, but don’t we love the shiny crap anyway), but the
emotional situations are real, and our own.
Handel never tries to create a “Persian” (the opera’s
nominal setting) tone, and for all his exploitation of ornate
eighteenth-century gesture and image (also switching between German and Italian–Italian taking place only “onstage” in the loftiest of the music) Herheim is also decidedly
twenty-first-century. Just as the characters never leave their
eighteenth-century selves, the singers never leave their present-day ones either,
as Herheim somewhat heavy-handedly reveals at the production’s conclusion by
revealing the chorus in contemporary dress.
There are some spectacular aria stagings that are both
inventive and revealing of eighteenth-century culture: I particularly liked the
succession of weaponry brought by Atalanta to Serse as he proclaims his hatred
of Romilda (a knife, a gun, a poisonous snake, a teeny tiny cannon that hilariously breaks the backdrop, and finally
a crossbow that even more hilariously downs a small plaster cherub from the rafters). In one of the big “I want it” arias, Serse’s name gets
spelled out in lights and then reversed into, yes, the German is Xerxes so figure out what that is backwards for yourself. Only at one point does the production hint at a darker
side, when Atalanta’s adoring fans begin to get a bit too close for comfort. It’s
not quite historical—the more spectacular visuals are far more Versailles than
London—but I think the homework has been done. Amastre may be the least
convincing cross-dresser ever, but even if Herheim doesn’t actually have any
castrati the gender bending of this era is never far from his mind (Elviro’s
flower-seller getup is apparently a My
Fair Lady
tribute). The fourth wall is broken and the orchestra gets to
join in on the action. Sometimes the singers address the audience with a disarmingly
self-conscious directness. Winton Dean would entreat us to remember that Serse is a sophisticated comedy and not
a low farce, but I laughed at Serse humping his favorite tree and Dean can stuff
it, opera has far too much good taste going around as it is. (If you whine that
present-day opera is as a rule not classy enough, I suggest you take up
collecting stamps.)
But switching between offstage and on requires some
compromises. The drama feels episodic from one big set piece aria to the next, the
stakes are never high and the dramatic arc is, well, lacking. The main plot
line is shifted into the background, so how valuable is that which displaces
it? Herheim has something to say about baroque opera, but he doesn’t have much
particular to Serse, and this staging
with small alterations could be applied to basically any moderately comic
eighteenth-century opera. I know that’s kind of the point but I have to wonder
if it’s one that lasts for three and a quarter hours of performance. (Herheim not dense enough? I cannot believe I am typing this. Really, this was very uncharacteristic work.)
If Herheim is always asking us to take another step back and
question our perspectives and motivations, that’s what I’m going to do with his
production. I like his message, but the performance of eighteenth-century
formulas in quotation marks has become a cliché in itself. As Herheim insists,
these conventions might work again and again, but I’m not sure if their modern unmasking
via self-conscious imitation maintains the same novelty value when repeated ad
infinitum. If you have any familiarity with the playbook of, say, the early
work of Peter Sellars, Nicholas Hytner’s Serse,
David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare (and Adriana, I suppose, whose setting is baroque)
and even the dread Enchanted Island, you’ve
seen a lot of this before. The rhythmic shaking on the coloratura, the chorus
of sea creatures, the cutout ships, the self-conscious gesture, none of this is
new. For all Herheim’s spirit and joy—for execution  I would rank this production at the very highest
level, it’s only that Herheim sets very high standards with regard to Konzept— and always exceptional musicality,
I have to say I would prefer Herheim to go nuts and expected something a little more fresh. Can we stop
the theater in theater thing now, please?
As usual with Herheim, the cast is dynamic and fully present
at every moment. Stella Doufexis’s Serse is hilarious, toothily and awkwardly
grinning at every opportunity and, for all the bluster not in command of
anything impressive. Her clarinet-toned mezzo sounded a little windy in “Ombra
mai fu” (way to open with the opera’s greatest hit), but warmed up to sound
clear and precise on each note, though she was drowned out a few times during “Crude
furie.” Karolina Gumos as Arsamenes commanded a warmer, rounder sound, probably
my favorite of the cast, and her “Si, la voglio” (sorry, not sure what the
German incipit was) showed excellent coloratura. Brigitte Geller was sweet and
lyric as Romilda though a little brittle at the top of her range. Julia Giebel
was the first Atalanta I didn’t find insufferably annoying, which is something,
and sounded good too. Katarina Bradic as Amastre couldn’t really boom at the
bottom of her range, but she has a lovely mahogany tone and musicality. Hagen
Matzeit as Elviro was announced as ill, which is why I suppose we were deprived
of his Bacchus aria, a pity, otherwise Sprechstimme was fine for this comic role.
Dimitry Ivashchenko was an exemplary Ariodates.
The orchestra was modern but the continuo period and
conductor Konrad Junghaenel had clearly coaxed some period practice into the
modern players. The playing was crisp and precise but light and didn’t use too
much vibrato. Ensemble was excellent both within the orchestra and through the
playful interchange between orchestra and players, and the continuo included a
theorbo and a baroque harp. Eberhard Schmidt’s German translation had been
given an “Einrichtung” by Herheim and was so clear and straightforward that
even I could understand almost all of it, though sometimes it put a few too
many syllables in where the Italian had required far fewer.
It’s a totally fun evening out, but maybe not quite what you
expect from Herheim, perhaps bearing a hint of baroque dilettantism (it is, in
fact, his first second? baroque opera). But if more baroque productions, and more of
these metathetrical things, had this kind of loving spirit, I’d be happy. (I
might be even happier if there weren’t so many metatheatrical things, though?)
Photos copyright Komische Oper.

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Parsifal in Bayreuth

That this production is the last performance I will be writing about in this European year is more or less accidental–I saw Die Frau ohne Schatten afterward but was obliged to file quickly on that one–but it is fitting, because I’m not sure if anything could top this.

Wagner, Parsifal. Bayreuther Festspiele, 7/28/2011. Production by Stefan Herheim (revival), conducted by Daniele Gatti with Simon O’Neill (Parsifal), Susan Maclean (Kundry), Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor)

The current Parsifal in Bayreuth, directed by Stefan Herheim and conducted by Daniele Gatti, premiered in 2008 and has since become the festival’s most acclaimed production (and one of its tougher tickets). Parsifal in Bayrueth has a special meaning like few other musical works–the theater and the opera were designed for each other and for decades this theater was the only place the Bühnenweihfestspiel could be seen. Herheim’s production is geared towards Bayreuth, too. Along with telling the story of Parsifal, Herheim traces the history of the opera’s reception and its place in Bayreuth in particular, including the issues that confront the festival today (this is a festival that considers its legacy sufficiently important that a brief production history is printed not in the program book but the paper casting pamphlet). Additionally, the production’s complexity enables the many Bayreuth regulars to see something new each year.

It’s a beautiful production of many striking and haunting images and seamless stagecraft. As in other Herheim productions, we shift cinematically through time and space (so to speak). There is no ready key to the profusion of images and narrative; their well of associations and interconnections, keyed more to the music than the libretto, multiplies and gradually comes into focus. And everything moves with the music in a natural, truly Gesamtkunstwerk way. It’s difficult to summarize or describe, because described literally the production would sound chaotic and scattered. And it is. It’s in your head where everything comes together. Not instantly, either–I felt quite confused up to Act 3, but then everything that came before somehow began to make sense, and in the next few days it was still changing shape. I guess I’m saying that summarizing what happened onstage in my usual fashion is very different from describing my experience.

But the thematic material itself does demand description, because it’s fascinating and brilliant. There are several plot threads. Simultaneously, we watch the story of Parsifal, sometimes seen quite literally, along with the reception history of Parsifal the work in the context of the Bayreuth Festival (from its premiere to sometime in the 1950s), and the path of German history itself from Bavaria’s entrance into the unified Germany through both world wars. All go through interconnected journeys of discovery, seduction, maturation and an ambiguous kind of redemption (or more accurately Erlösung). Parsifal and Parisfal grow through history.

The main set replicates the backyard of Wagner’s Bayreuth house Wahnfried. The prompter’s box is transformed into Wagner and Cosima’s grave, the center of the stage is taken up by a (functional) fountain, the house is in the back. Here is the set (the bed, site of birth, death, sleep and seduction, is where the fountain will appear) and below a picture I took myself of the house:

In the staged Vorspiel, we see Parsifal’s mother Herzeleide in a bed in the center of the stage. This red-haired woman resembles the militant figure of Germania in the painting hanging above the fireplace (where the mirror is in the picture above), Friedrich-August von Kaulbach’s “Deutschland–1914.”:

This gives you an idea of the kind of cultural references that go through this whole production. The women are all variations on the Germania figure, with Herzeleide and Kundry (considering their relationships to Parsifal, rather disturbingly) morphing into each other. In the prelude, Parsifal builds a small wall on Wagner’s grave. This is the theme that will dominate Act 1: repression and shelter. Parsifal is sheltered by Herzeleide, Parsifal is sheltered in Bayreuth by Cosima. There is even an allusion to the work’s anti-Semitic elements when Kundry in the form of a maid threatens to steal Herzeleide’s baby. (That’s in the transformation scene, in which we see Parsifal born. I’m sorry. I warned you that this summary would probably not make any sense. And I feel kind of dishonest writing this because it’s only the tip of the iceberg.)

At the end of Act 1, the boy Parsifal wakes in his bed and his guardian Gurnemanz and asks if he understands (at this point I would have agreed with him: no). Was this all a dream? The dreamlike quality is further emphasized by the giant black wings worn by most of the characters (but not the Christ-like Amfortas, who also carries echos of Wagner’s insane patron Ludwig II). They also prefigure the swan and (German) eagle that will dominate the work. The adult Parsifal shoots the boy Parsifal with his bow (a [Bavarian] swan crest simultaneously falls from the proscenium), ending his childhood and beginning his journey into the world. The Grail temple is a replica of the one from the opera’s premiere (see photo at top of this post), the dead boy Parsifal, symbol of sheltered, traumatized innocence, momentarily plays the part of the Grail. The knights are a collection of ordinary people, both men and women.

In Act 2, Germany and Parsifal have gone out into the world, and started a jolly tragic war. The scene is a World War 1 hospital (one also thinks of The Magic Mountain or of Freud), and Klingsor is a cabaret transvestite, an outcast of a decidedly fin-de-siècle/Weimar sort. The flower maidens are both nurses to comfort the dying war victims and a succession of showgirls. Parsifal is seduced by them and finally by a Marlene Dietrich-like tuxedo’ed Kundry, who envelops him in her wings. Then comes the biggest coup de théâtre of the production. Amid a crowd of suitcase-carrying refugees, Parsifal realizes he must purify the world and heal Amfortas, and enormous swastika flags unfurl and the hospital/castle collapses around him in a giant crash. A boy (the young Parsifal again?) appears in a brown uniform, surrounded by SS officers and bearing Amortas’s spear (the Nazi’s Wunderwaffe?). Parsifal points the spear at Wagner’s grave.

Act 3 opens with my favorite theater-in-theater effect, showing a miniature version of the Festspielhaus proscenium behind the main one (above). But this is a wonderful use of this device, because this is a deconstructive staging, and the history of Parsifal is bound up with the history of this theater itself. Wahnfried has now collapsed, the Wagner regime, German nation and Grail order are in ruins. Parsifal arrives in a heavy medieval outfit like a refugee from a traditional production, but is transformed into a red-haired Germania figure identical to Kundry. The staging, which up to this point had been tremendously busy, suddenly is almost drained of all activity. The work has stopped signifying anything outside itself; we seem to be inside a giant Wieland Wagner tribute scene. With the return of the spear, the Wahnfried fountain begins to bubble, an attempt to wash away the past. Parsifal, Kundry, and Gurnemanz sing This is finished off with another tribute: the Wirtschaftswunder in the form of a procession of workers in front of the stage (a reference to Götz Friedrich’s 1972 Bayreuth Tannhäuser).

As we move to the last scene, in a nod towards Syberberg’s Parsifal film, Titurel’s motive prompts a giant projection of Wagner’s death mask. He is still haunting the festival, but it, like the boy Parsifal in the prelude, is soon blocked by a wall. And we see a 1951 proclamation from then-Festspiel leaders Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner, requesting that audience members refrain from political discussion in the Festspielhaus. But politics, obviously, remain. In the last scene, we are in the West German Bonn Bundestag. The wings are gone by now, but the giant mirror reflects the West German eagle in the floor. Amfortas speaks at a podium where the Grail once stood. But Parsifal’s arrival is ambiguous. The giant reflected eagle, first turning red, is washed of its blood by the appearance of the grail, as water from the fountain washes over it and is seen in the reflection. But, the mirror finally shows the audience and, rather shockingly, the normally concealed conductor and orchestra. The magic veil of the temple of Bayreuth has been lifted. This isn’t a mythic, holy object, it’s something we create and participate in, and also have the power to renew. Or is it just something that we’ve made, our own neuroses?

Musically, the highlight was as expected the Klang of the orchestra, beautifully played and clear and balanced, and never overpowering the singers despite being by any measure pretty loud. Daniele Gatti took slow tempos judging by numbers (around 4 hours 10 minutes, I think Metzmacher in Vienna back in April was around 3:45), but it never felt slow. This was in part because there was so much going on onstage, but the pacing was excellent and variety in color and phrasing fantastic.

The cast was, for the most part, good. Simon O’Neill (above) as Parsifal was the weakest link. He has a fine upper range, with powerful and clear high notes, but his lower range has an unfortunate tinny and nasal tinge, and his singing was neither very musical nor idiomatic in its treatment of the text. His acting did not detract from the production but nor did it help–yes, Parsifal is largely a passive character, so this was OK, but it was not ideal. Susan Maclean’s Kundry was not beautifully sung either, but this is Kundry we’re talking about. It isn’t bel canto, it’s more important that she have scary intensity and shriek well, and for that Maclean was great, with spontaneous and clear singing and hair-raising moments of Crazy. Her Marlene Dietrich impression is really very good, so it seemed a shame she almost seemed to adopt a Dietrich tinge to her voice at that point as well.

While O’Neill and Maclean were new this year, the rest of the main cast remained from the premiere. Kwangchul Youn was a resonant and warm-toned Gurnemanz, but lacked something in gravitas and personality. Detlef Roth has a small voice for Amfortas, but in the favorable Bayreuth acoustic could still be heard, and offered a wonderful singer-actor type integrated performance with extremely physical acting. Thomas Jesatko was a Klingsor also more memorable for acting than singing, but likewise excellent. The chorus, flower maidens, and acting of the supernumeraries (particularly the unnamed Act 1 boy) were all great.

Herheim’s Yevgeny Onegin in Amsterdam
Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger in Bayreuth
Nikolaus Lehnhoff’sParsifal in London
Christine Mielitz’sParsifal in Vienna

Despite the above being mostly about Herheim’s vision, this is a great production because it is such a Gesamtkunstwerk, a model not of artistic megalomania but of collaboration. And how wonderful to see everyone working together to create something so intellectually challenging, beautiful, and unique!

Per-Erik Skramstad at has a good essay about this production with a compilation of reviews from the premiere year.

The best way to get a taste of this production without going to Bayreuth is in these videos, first a longish story from German TV and then two short intros from dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. They’re only in German, sorry:

Photos copyright Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele (some from previous years)

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Last year at Oneginbad with Herheim and Jansons

You can escape into romantic fantasy if you like–for example, at the opera. But it’s not the best way of solving your problems, and you might end up touching off the Russian Revolution. Such is the message, more or less, of Stefan Herheim’s production of Yevgeny Onegin at the Nederlandse Opera. Modern Onegin is wandering around a bunch of bored nouveaux riches when an obsessively repeating bit of recorded dance music triggers his memory, the live orchestra starts the prelude, and away we go on a journey through Russian history.

This is a show that really goes for broke and is a triumph on just about every count. That live orchestra is no less than the Royal Concertgebouw, with Mariss Jansons conducting, and the all-around strong cast is led by Krassimira Stoyanova’s arguably absolutely perfect Tatiana. And there’s that production…

Chaikovsky, Yevgeny Onegin. De Nederlandse Opera/Holland Festival, 6/20/2011. New production by Stefan Herheim, sets by Philipp Fürhofer, costumes by Gesine Völlm, lighting by Olaf Freese. Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest conducted by Mariss Jansons with Krassimira Stoyanova (Tatiana), Bo Skovhus (Onegin), Andrej Dunaev (Lenski), Mikhail Petrenko (Gremin), Elena Maximova (Olga), Olga Savova (Larina), Guy de Mey (Monsieur Triquet).

First I want to say that this production will be broadcast on June 23 on Mezzo TV and presumably later available on DVD. I encourage you to watch it, and perhaps do so before you read my review–I didn’t read anything about the production before I saw it and I think it was more effective that way. Spoilers, as they say, ahead.

Past and present overlap in this production. Onegin looks back on the chance he lost through the lens of 19th century Russia, and Tatiana also reflects back on the days when she was more of a dreamer. In Pushkin’s poem, Onegin is a “superfluous man,” rich, intelligent, and idle. In Herheim’s production, Onegin’s search for a place in society is equated with Russia’s own perpetual identity crisis. Lensky and Gremin are in part his alter-egos. Lensky is the 19th-century poet who sacrifices himself for his ideals, Gremin is the modern Putin-age capitalist and functionary. Onegin himself is caught in between, passive and powerless.

We enter the story at the moment after Onegin’s Act 3 arioso–which you will know right off if you recognize the recorded music at the start. (That this recorded music, placed somewhere upstage, is more “realistic” than the much richer sound of the actual orchestra is only the first of the production’s ironies.) Until we reach that point in Act 3, everything is a dreamy flashback. The unit set is the tacky marble-walled salon of the opening, but a diamond-shaped glass room in its center unveils Onegin and Tatiana’s memories, first revealing Larina and Filipevna. Later, the room produces peasants resembling colorful Russian dolls (who sing together with the modern guests from the opening), and a full-fledged nineteenth-century ball.

Sometimes the staging is straightforwardly plot-oriented but makes you understand the characters in a whole new light: when Onegin and Lensky first appear, Olga is interested in Onegin, not Lensky, and Onegin seems to go to Tatiana just to tease her. Lensky is even something of an ignored loser. The events that lead to the duel suddenly make a lot more sense.

But it’s not all that simple. In the Letter Scene, Tatiana lives or relives her writing as Gremin sleeps, and Onegin simultaneously writes a letter to her or takes her dictation (remember how he sings the music from her aria in Act 3?). She gets to sing it to him as she imagines him, and he gets to witness what he missed (she even manages to transform the Gremin in her bed into Onegin by the end of the scene). It’s a gratifying change for everyone, audience included–usually we don’t get to see Onegin and Tatiana in love with each other but here we do and awwwww–but, still, it’s only in their imaginations. That, in fact, is the point.

Other fantasies are more dangerous. In the midst of a fancy ball complete with giant dancing bear (the turntable of the glass room is used to great effect, none of the poem’s provincialism here), the Baroque M. Triquet summons a large star that shoots sparks, setting his giant wig on fire, to general hilarity. Um, was that just a joke or was it the revolution of 1905? Watch out for those stars. Challenging Onegin, Lensky gets ahold of Tatiana’s red book and the glowing star is replaced with a flaming iron one, and the ball is invaded by armed men. Welcome to the Russian Revolution. As history, its interaction with the plot is dubious–I guess the poet loses his innocence and takes violent action (while still depending on the fantasies found in his books, this time a red one). But the sense of honor involved in a duel doesn’t fit with that. As theater, however, my jaw may have literally dropped.

After the personal drama of the first half (which extends up to the first ball), the second half is comparatively scattershot and aims some jokes at giant Soviet targets. But it’s still massively entertaining. In the duel, Onegin kills off nineteenth-century Romanticism by shooting Lensky in the back. In the Polonaise at the ball that follows, we see a parade of Soviet icons: ballet dancers, cosmonauts, steroid-enhanced Olympic athletes, etc., none of whom can help Onegin or Russia find their way. Tatiana and Gremin now appear in kitschy glitter. And we have gotten to the point where we started. At the very end, Gremin encourages Onegin to shoot himself, but takes out the bullets first. Onegin is powerless to the very end.

In a production as complex and involving as this one, the specific musical choices tend not to stick out–not because they aren’t important, but just because there is so much to look at and think about. That was not the case here, which was close to musically ideal. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit was a rare luxury, and sounded exquisite, though not Russian at all. This was Jansons’s approach, which favored delicacy and transparency over bombast and soupy sentimentalism and showed beautiful details of texture and phrasing. They also proved to be considerably better accompanists than the very loud Berliner Philharmoniker, and despite a shallow orchestra pit balances were excellent. The chorus also sounded very good. (It must be noted that Jansons must be using a Von Karajan 2000 XTall Edition podium, and was very visible at all points.)

Bo Skovhus was a good Onegin for many of the same reasons he was miscast as Mandryka in Vienna in March. His lyric, expressive voice and urbane air are perfect as this confused but unusually personable Onegin, though he overacts at times. The real vocal highlight of the performance was Krassimra Stoyanova’s glorious Tatiana, sung with ease, beautifully rich and slightly dark tone and perfect musicality. She tends to be a cool actress, but here found a very sympathetic restrained warmth and vulnerability that was touching without ever being too much. (Overacting must be tempting in Herheim productions. You’ve got a lot of competition. Did I mention the giant dancing bear?) Andrej Dunaev sounded ardent and impassioned as Lensky, perhaps a bit too ardent and consistently loud at times. A little more expressive subtlety would have helped in the aria. The three other ladies were excellent, particularly Elena Maximova’s sparky Olga. Mikhail Petrenko was onstage a lot more than most Gremins (though his role was defined by a lack of personality), and sang the aria with expansive but still lyric tone.

In all, a marvelous night at the opera. Don’t miss this one, even if you have to wait for the DVD. Performances continue in Amsterdam through the beginning of July.


The Muziektheater in Amsterdam is a modern venue, located in the same building as the city hall and shaped like an arena similar to the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg (though considerably smaller). It’s not beautiful and the many little light bulbs look like a movie theater, but it’s a lot better than the Opéra Bastille. Logistically, however, it seems to suffer something of a shortage of bicycle parking (this is Amsterdam), leading to a lot of clutter outside.

Production photos copyright Forster.

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