Der Rosenkavalier at the Met

That’s no silver rose, that’s a whole silver rose shrub.

The Met’s new Rosenkavalier is a pleasant surprise. It’s good and you should see it, but maybe not for the reasons you expect.

While much heralded as Renée Fleming’s farewell to the operatic stage, she’s not its primary attraction. She’s fine and deserves a nice send-off for a distinguished career, but she is too pallid to be this production’s star. Yet the Met has, seemingly accidentally, ended up with something way more interesting and harder to achieve than a Marschallin showcase. Robert Carsen’s production is a creative and coherent interpretation of a piece which is often more exhumed than directed, and the Met has found something I didn’t even know existed: Günther Groissböck’s actually good take on Baron Ochs.

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Elektra at the Met


The late Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra is surely the highlight of this season at the Met. We’ve known that it was going to be for a while. It arrives a known quantity; acclaimed from its European performances, the fame of its director and cast, and its DVD. There’s something off about a “new production” which has already been available on video for a year and a half and whose director died in 2013.

Yet I suspect this is how the Met prefers it. As Peter Gelb stated repeatedly in a brief interview during the Manon Lescaut HD broadcast, the Met is in the masterpiece business (he even used this descriptor when discussing new opera, which is a whole different problem). When we roll theater and production into the operatic experience, as Gelb has tried to do, this makes new productions tricky to sell: though new, they also have to embody some of that timeless masterpiece solidity. And importing a brand-name, already-acclaimed Masterpiece from somewhere else (this Elektra is from Aix-en-Provence), is simpler than forging your own from scratch. Lest you think I’m spending too much time thinking about what is essentially marketing copy, let me remind you that this discourse shapes the way much of the Met’s audience thinks and talks about opera (I hear it from students all the time).

It’s not that Chéreau, surely one of the most important and influential directors of opera of the past 50 years, doesn’t deserve honorifics or a respectful tribute. It’s that “masterpiece” is a blunt instrument primarily used to confer status. When you’re discussing Elektra, a shabby little shocker with lurid orchestral colors and bodies that are rotting from the inside, that sacred cultural capital becomes even stranger.

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Christine Goerke, Andris Nelsons, Gun-Brit Barkmin

Does a concert Elektra dance? Does she stash her axe under the podium?

Elektra is performed in concert relatively frequently, and for good reason. (So is Salome, for the same reasons.) Strauss’s scores showcase a major orchestra and conductor to thrilling and very loud effect. It also has a drama whose decadent horrors—particularly the constant invocations of bodily decay and disease in Hofmannsthal’s libretto—can effectively be left to the imagination of the listener, an approach sometimes superior to the inevitable disappointment of ratty costumes and a dim unit set of suspiciously styrofoam rocks.

Productions of Elektra almost end up as screaming, over-the-top camp extravaganzas. And despite its comparatively minimalist visuals, this concert presentation with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was actually no exception! I mean that, however, in the best possible way. Andris Nelsons and Christine Goerke made the kind of epic, high octane, extremely loud, occasionally touching opera that you don’t see nearly often enough. It’s the kind of excess that works because it’s done with utter conviction.

Even though there was no set, this was not an Elektra that left everything to the imagination. None of the singers used scores and it would be more accurate to call it semi-semi-staged. In the first scene, when Elektra glowers at the maids without saying anything, there’s no musical reason for her to appear onstage—and yet there she was, loitering between the first and second violins. Most of the stage directions were present in so much as to make the text intelligible—Chrysothemis raises her hands before Elektra asks her why she is doing so, and, yes, the performance ended with a fine stomping Elektra dance. There was, however, no axe, and the Fifth Maid escaped Maids #1-4 unscathed.

The floorplan was smartly devised: two clear areas on either side of the podium. (This put Nelsons further from the orchestra and he seemed to be relying on his baton rather his usual frequently hands-only style.) The amount of space was limited but allowed for Elektra and Chrystothemis to start their scene on either side of the podium, and then Elektra and Klytemnästra, and eventually Elektra and Orest, and well, for the most part Elektra doesn’t like being near anyone, really, and this was a good way of doing that. It also probably assisted in the performance’s exceptionally flattering balance. The singers were nearly always audible, even without the pit. (It is a far preferable setup to the platforms behind the orchestra that you sometimes get at Carnegie Hall.)

The center of the performance was Christine Goerke’s formidable Elektra. Wearing a tomato-red dress, she made Elektra crazed from the very beginning. Fortunately she has the vocal goods to back this up, singing with a huge, rich middle and lower voice. She doesn’t just sing this score tirelessly but also musically! The ending of the Recognition Scene, the moment of some of the role’s most lyrical writing, was both expressive and sung with a beautiful legato line. Her top notes are not as large as the rest of the voice but nonetheless have a piercing intensity.

It’s a performance that embraces the tradition of demented excess. When you start the opera at 11 you arguably don’t have anywhere to go but Goerke has the resources to sustain and vary that intensity for the whole opera. Her moments of sanity tended to be snarky: her asides to lovelorn Chrysothemis, some of her comments to her mother. At times, however, I wondered what a more internalized portrayal would look like, probably because I watched the Chéreau production on DVD (the one that is soon coming to the Met) before this performance. Without going into detail about that, it made Goerke’s approach seem a little Ryan Murphy, a little gothic. But commenting that Elektra is too much probably means that Elektra is not your thing.

As Chrysothemis, Gun-Brit Barkmin had a vibrant way with the text and the clearest diction in the cast. I could understand all the words and they sounded unusually spontaneous. Her voice is lean, focused, and pretty big, but I would have preferred more warmth and plushness in the sound in this particular role. Her top notes sound squeezed rather than open, and the end of her opening monologue didn’t really quite come off as it should. She is a striking performer (and her 1920s outfit was fabulous) but I don’t think it’s a beautiful voice.

As Klytämnestra, Jane Henschel was powerful, but sometimes her singing seemed more a collection of special effects–growls, whispers, sudden breaks into the upper register–than an organically coherent performance. Her Klytämnestra was a relatively by the books madwoman, effective but not as convincingly original. On the male side, Gerhard Siegel made a vivid cameo as Aegisth, establishing an oily character in no time and then vanishing almost as quickly. (Longtime comprimario all star Mark Schowalter did something similar in the even shorter role of the Young Servant.) In the longer role of Orest, James Rutherford got off to a nice, deep, Wagnerian sort of start but failed to build through the Recognition Scene as Goerke ran off with it. The gaggle of maids was solid and I was impressed by Mary Phillips as #3 (I don’t know the score that well but they were helpfully lined up in numerical order) and I happy to see and hear Nadine Secunde as the Overseer.

But the other major star of the performance was, of course, Nelsons and the orchestra. He is a major conductor and this was very exciting, tense conducting, perfectly milked at the climaxes and not afraid of the crunchier moments. He can get real texture in the intimate moments, notably the fluttering winds in Klytämnestra’s monologue. The brass sounded terrific, but I do think there’s a missing ingredient from Nelsons and the orchestra’s Straussian recipe: something about the strings. They were there and they were doing their thing, but Nelsons’ Strauss is almost all glower and no glow. That radiance has to peek out occasionally, and it’s usually in the violins. Perhaps this is because I still have the sound of the Wiener Staatsoper faintly in my ears, but I wish he had found more of those moments that gives some light to this violent score.

Nelsons and co. repeat this Elektra tonight in Boston and in New York next week and you absolutely need to see if it you can. The Met’s Elektra this spring is going to be very different. And did anyone else notice this YNS Elektra later this fall? Hmm.

Elektra. Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Boston, 10/15/15. Conducted by Andris Nelsons with Christine Goerke

photos copyright Boston Symphony Orchestra/Liza Voll

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Ariadne auf Philadelphia

Prepare yourselves, for Curtis Opera has given us the Gilligan’s Island-themed Ariadne auf Naxos we’ve all been waiting for. But while that might be this production’s most memorable feature–we always have a tendency to identify productions by a signature, the [opera] with the [gimmick], like “the Così with the hippies” or “the Bohème with the UFO”–it’s hardly the production’s only feature.

This is a co-production between Opera Philadelphia and Curtis, but the performers are Curtis students (with one alum, no prizes for guessing which role). The 600-seat Perelman Theater is an ideal space for this opera and for these singers. Like most Curtis productions, the performers are enthusiastic and all at different points in their development. And, like most Curtis productions, it’s inventive and more than the sum of its parts.

Ariadne auf Naxos. Opera Philadelphia and Curtis Opera co-production, 3/4/15. Production directed by Chas Rader Schieber, sets by David Zinn, cosumes by Jacob Climer, lights by Mike Inwood, conducted by George Manahan with Heather Stebbins (Ariadne), Ashley Milanese (Zerbinetta), Kevin Ray (Bacchus), Lauren Eberwein (Composer).

Let’s start with the production first. The prologue is set in a Brutalist bunker of some modern one-percent Richest Man (sets are by David Zinn). The Composer is an earnest prepster while the comedians are relaxed Californian types.  While the setting is contemporary, nothing is really updated–this is a text which is colloquial enough that it doesn’t have to be and the modern dress fits in very well. It’s a shame that the very concise surtitles leave out many of the funniest lines (and sometimes they just don’t make sense–why change the desert island to just a desert?). It’s also laid-back and almost naturalistic in style, without being slow–or at least it is less cartoonish than one often sees (a few moments such as Bacchus’s wig excepted). This works well in the small theater.


Considering what we know about the Richest Man, it’s quite fitting that the opera should take place among a vaguely sea-themed collection of pricey modern art (a Damien Hirst-esque shark and golden skull, an ocean photograph, some neon art). Ariadne is surrounded by a circle of stones. The opera seria people, including the nymphs and Bacchus, are all in white, while the comedy crew eventually roll/walks in, Flintstones style, in the Professor’s bamboo car.

Personally, I’ve always hoped for a Lost or Survivor Ariadne, but Gilligan’s Island is more visually distinctive and, well, probably fits the opera audience demographic more closely (even though it aired well before the entire cast–or I–was born). My careful internet research (=Google) suggests that Zerbinetta is Ginger, Harlequin is Gilligan, and the other comedy guys are Thurston Howell III, the Skipper, and the Professor. It’s a pretty good, entertaining frame for the piece, contrasting the arty (but, of course, extremely commodified) world of high and modern art with the world of TV. It was obvious that this audience is more on the side of TV. I don’t think I needed this production to figure that out. But the uproarious response to the references brings out the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in unusually direct, vivid fashion. The two sides also interact more than in many productions–particularly the nymphs.

The ending is a more difficult matter. To be fair, no one knows what to do with this: Bacchus arrives and is transformed, Ariadne is transformed, there is talk of a “love cave,” they both sing about this very loudly (personally I love this incredibly garish music but it is a difficult thing to deal with in context) and at length but it’s unclear if there is any way to depict transformation visually. It’s not Daphne. I’ve seen it staged straight, straight again, ironically, and as high kitsch, and, yeah, it’s always still a puzzle. This production puts Bacchus in the white clothes of the seria characters, and the effect is rather of an elderly cult leader finding his new acolyte. I’m not sure if that’s really where we want to go.


(I brought a number of Swarthmore German and music students to the dress rehearsal of this production, though I also went to opening night and am reviewing that here. I am saying this to thank Curtis and Opera Philadelphia for having us and to quote one of our students, who said, “Bacchus has to be a pick-up artist, right? You wanna get onto my ship?”)


Now for the singing: honestly, I’m not quite sure of the best approach–this is presented by Opera Philadelphia and the students are all extremely talented, but they are students and there are some things they haven’t quite mastered yet. The most complete performances in the cast were given by Lauren Eberwein as the Composer and Ashley Milanese as Zerbinetta. Eberwein has a full, slightly dark mezzo which is just the right color for Strauss, and she has no problem with the high notes. She ripped through the role with unwavering committment and enthusiasm. The soft parts weren’t as easy as the loud parts and her German could be better, but it was an exciting performance. Milanese is also exciting, and already has the technique to sing a very accomplished Zerbinetta. Her voice is light but not thin, the coloratura is good, and her only real hurdle is a spotty trill. Acting-wise, she was likeable and effective without quite putting together all the pieces into a full character.

As Ariadne, Heather Stebbins has a big, bright, cutting voice. She’s also a convincing, specific actress, was touching in her opening scenes, and did all the heavy lifting in the finale. But her ideas weren’t always coming through in her singing, which lacked a degree of finesse and control. She is definitely a talent to watch, however. Class of 2012 tenor Kevin Ray sang Bacchus, and he got through the part with somewhat leathery, unvarying tone. (Why do so few Bacchuses react to their own transformations, by the way?) In smaller roles, Johnathan McCullough was an agreeable Harlequin, Dogukan Kuran a good Wigmaker, and the three nymphs had serious blending problems. As the Major-Domo, Dennis Chmelensky had extremely good German (he may BE German? not sure).

One disappointment was the orchestra, under George Manahan. This is hardly ever a problem for Curtis but the prelude and prologue showed some rhythmic uncertainty and ensemble issues. The second half was better, and some of the solo playing was outstanding.

Still, I highly recommend this opportunity to see a fun production in a small theater. The production runs through Sunday; it is sold out but returns may be available.

Postscript, 3/9: I read this Inquirer review with interest (and only after I wrote the above). I think I understand the criticism that the cultural references are too specific, but it’s not something that occurred to me at all because, well, I’m not so tuned in with Gilligan’s Island. It took some research for me to figure out how specific they were. I am kind of amused, however, that the newspaper’s high art critic is so much more receptive to high art references (Hirst, Richter) than low culture ones (TV).

Previously here in Ariadne auf Naxos:
By the book at the Met Opera (the inspiration for my blog’s header image)
A very old production at the Wiener Staatsoper
An unusual, interesting production at the Theater an der Wien
“Ur-iadne”: the 1912 version at the Salzburg Festival with some of the kitschiest sets I have ever seen


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Das war in Ordnung, Mandryka

I am sorry not to blog; I have been facing major academic deadlines and decisions every day. When I finish working, I have found myself too spent to consider writing something else. But I saw Arabella at the Met last Friday, and I have thoughts. I enjoy this opera a lot, probably more than it strictly merits. The beatific parts like the Act 1 soprano duet, Act 2 love duet, and last five minutes are, for a Strauss fan, just so good in their extraordinary concentration of what we love about Strauss opera. And even the talkier passages are enlivened with brilliant orchestral details. Hofmannsthal’s libretto is an interesting, subtle allegory of Gründerzeit Austro-Hungarian politics (Austrian Arabella needs to reconcile with Mandryka, the uncouth East). This is something that almost no one seems to notice–probably because it tends to be concealed by the color and expressive directness of Strauss’s music. But I’ll stop. As may be obvious, I’ve “worked on” this piece (as academics say), and you can read that essay later (it isn’t out yet).

This Met revival is, alas, not a particularly good Arabella. It has the odd misfortune to get the single most difficult role unusually right–that would be Michael Volle’s excellent Mandryka–and have issues in the comparatively easy lyric soprano department. Word was that this revival was originally scheduled for the phenomenal Anja Harteros, who withdrew a while ago. Her replacement in the title role, Swedish soprano Malin Byström, was new to me. She certainly has a lovely, warm tone, and the voice is very big in the middle. But her registers are unbalanced, and the warmth stopped around the F sharp at the top of the staff. Alas, Arabella is a role that really depends on easy, beautiful high notes at the big moments, and there Byström suddenly sounded insecure and thin. She is a decent but generic actress, lacking a certain glamor and vulnerability to bring this part off (my friend thought she was matronly–she certainly didn’t seem like the flirt Zdenka calls her).

She didn’t have much help from the pit or rest of the cast. Philippe Auguin’s busy conducting had little sense of the work’s flow, nor did those beatific bits glow as they should. Juliane Banse was a later replacement as Zdenka, and was unhappily cast. I’ve enjoyed her singing in other roles, but honestly her Zdenka days are past her by a decade or so. Her grainy, dark, smallish voice sounded labored, particularly in the higher ranges, which have to be even sweeter and easier than Arabella’s. This is not a difficult role to cast and I wonder why the Met could not locate someone more suitable, even on short notice.

Roberto Saccà similarly sounded underpowered and worn as Matteo. He was nearly sung off the stage by Brian Jagde as third-in-line suitor Elemer. Jagde is a powerful Heldentenor-in-training. I’m not sure if he could sing Matteo–it’s rather high–but I certainly would like to hear him in something where he has more to do. The other supporting roles such as Adelaide, the Fortune Teller, and Waldner were uniformly poorly sung. One suspects that all the good Arabella supporting players are in Salzburg at present. I feel sorry for anyone who is obliged to sing chirpy Fiakermilli, but I still should report that Audrey Luna sounded very nasal.

“Mandryka, you look dehydrated.”

The main redeeming singer, however, was Michael Volle as Mandryka. This is an awfully difficult role and almost no one sings it well. (I say this having seen the opera a few times and having seen every Arabella DVD in print and several that aren’t in print. See above, academic work.) Volle does it with ease and character, a solid warm tone and good diction. He’s a bit too comic for my taste–his Mandryka is very much a bumbling, fumbling bumpkin–and reads on the older side (he’s not Bernd Weikl in the Schenk TV movie), but he gives the character texture and life, and his singing has real dignity.

The Otto Schenk production can perhaps be blamed for the dramatic blandness. Productions of this opera tend to tilt towards Strauss’s opulence rather than Hofmannsthal’s grit, and this one is no exception. If the Waldners are so broke, I would suggest to them that they still have a lot of knickknacks they could put in hock. The staging of Act 3 in particular is cluttered and over-busy. (I also think this act also benefits from some cuts–I think this might have been the least-cut Arabella Act 3 I’ve seen.) When a lighting gel fluttered down from the flies during Arabella and Mandryka’s love duet, it would have been a Verfremdungeffekt if we were in certain German opera houses, but here it really wasn’t.

I don’t think I’ve yet seen a fully convincing production of this opera, one which balances the alternating enchantment and motor-like energy of the music with the hardheaded, operetta-like libretto–is it too foolishly optimistic to suggest that the Met try to come up with one should they produce it again? Or to some other opera house: has the often-underrated Claus Guth directed this one yet? He has a real eye for this period, and for the thin line between fantasy and reality. I think he might be your guy.

I also have thoughts about Platée from the other week. More precisely, I want to write about Simone Kermes, because she is something else. Maybe soon!

Strauss, Arabella. Metropolitan Opera, 4/11/14.

Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Met.

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Strauss’s Feuersnot at Carnegie Hall

Jacquelyn Wagner and Leon Botstein

Feuersnot is like the Richard Strauss of the tone poems invading the opera house. It’s his second opera, from 1901, a short exercise in post-Wagnerian nose-thumbing that is more a series of picaresque adventures than a grand coherent drama. But it’s got some fun music and I’m glad that the American Symphony Orchestra dusted it off at Carnegie Hall on Sunday.

The plot would seem to offer a real playground for a creative director, though this presentation was in concert. On Midsummer’s Eve in medieval Munich, the sorcerer Kunrad is spurned (and mocked) by Dietmut, the maidenly object of his affection. In return, he extinguishes all of the town’s fires (“Feuersnot”–want of fire). Dietmut is persuaded to change her mind and her deflowering provides the most lyrical Straussian music of the opera (orchestral–but rather calmer than the Rosenkavalier prelude).

That doesn’t sound like much of a plot but there’s some congenial local color of Bavarian drinking songs and local citizenry and such, and a bit of backstory too–Kunrad (AKA Strauss) is taking the place of a departed, older sorcerer (identified musically as Wagner) and is trying to figure out a new way of going about things. The story amounts to a parody of Wagnerian metaphysics: a Tristan love duet parody complete with Stabreims just before Kunrad is left hanging midair in a basket (I tell you, a staging of this opera would be a good time) and, in the finale, a redemption by love that is abrupt and really more like a redemption by lust. Strauss–and, even more importantly, librettist Ernst von Wolzogen–seem to suggest the emptiness of these idealistic Romantic gestures. It’s unclear what their replacement would be—I guess you have to wait for Salome for that—but in one act of around 95 minutes, Feuersnot does not wear out its welcome.

Alfred Walker

This early twentieth-century satire is such a perfect fit for Leon Botstein that it’s kind of surprising he hadn’t conducted it long ago. He pretty much kept it together: it’s an uneven score but some of the loud bits are rousing and the love scene has authentic Straussian Schwung. The Singspiel-like bits that portray Old München are less interesting. Most impressive in this performance was the Manhattan Girls Chorus, whose part in the score was long and complex (often involving what I presume were either old Bavarian folk songs or verses intended to sound as such). The Collegiate Chorale was also excellent. While Strauss is, I think, criticizing much of Wagner, he did seem to enjoy writing Meistersinger-like crowd scenes, too.

The soloists were also very good. As Dietmut, Jacquelyn Wagner’s even, clear soprano is ideally suited to Strauss, and her high notes were particularly strong. This can’t be an easy role and she was consistent and rock-solid throughout. As Kunrad, Alfred Walker projected well with a bass-like sound (he’s credited as a bass-baritone) that sounds like it could be impressive in Wagner, though his monologue could have benefitted from a little more variety that’s also Strauss’s fault. There are a ton of supporting roles, none of whom are given a terribly distinct musical profile (as the army of Rosenkavalier supporters are, for instance). Dietmut has a trio of Rhinemaiden-like friends and most of the professions of München are represented. Most of the singers were on point if not particularly memorable, two exceptions were Branch Field’s gruff Innkeeper and Clay Hilley’s large-voiced Baliff (given the magnificent name of Schweiker von Gundelfingen). Despite a note proclaiming that Bavarian dialect would be in use, it mostly sounded like Hochdeutsch to me.

It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s an amusing work that I was glad to hear.

Strauss, Feuersnot. American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, 12/15/13. Conducted by Leon Botstein with the Collegiate Chorale, Manhattan Girls Chorus, and many soloists.

Photos copyright Jito Lee

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Richard and Hugo’s Pregnancy Patrol (Die Frau ohne Schatten)

Any sighting of the big and complicated Die Frau ohne Schatten at an opera house is an event. Strauss’s score is one of his most varied and exciting and unique (it’s not violent like Salome or Elektra, but nor is it hyper-romantic like Rosenkavalier or Arabella). The libretto is, shall we say, obscure, mixing spirits and mortals, symbols and talismans like a Zauberflöte without the proverbs, and even less logic. Where Die Frau ohne Schatten excels is majesty. This musically distinguished and beautifully designed Met revival captures that magic, and is definitely one of the must-sees of the fall season.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Met Opera, 11/12/13. Production by Herbert Wernicke, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski with Anne Schwanewilms (Empress), Ildikó Komlósi (Nurse), Christine Goerge (Dyer’s Wife), Johan Reuter (Barak), Torsten Kerl (Emperor), Richard Paul Fink (Messenger), Jennifer Check (Falcon).

Before this performance, I read Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s novella version of the story. It’s a beautifully written story and clears up some of the more immediate confusions of the libretto. But on the larger issues I can’t say I’m that much more enlightened. (It’s only available in German, unfortunately.) The story is about a spirit brought into the world of humans by marriage to the Emperor–thus she is made the Empress. To remain in the human world, she needs to acquire a shadow (also meaning become pregnant). Her Nurse decides to manipulate a poor dyer’s wife out of her shadow and thus fertility. This does not go too well.

The clearest message that can be extracted from the libretto—that the Empress and Dyer’s Wife need to stop thinking so much about themselves all the time and realize their essential function as baby-making factories—is, um, not my favorite conclusion in all of opera. (It, as well as the novella’s obsession with food, probably have something to do with the time of the opera’s composition right after World War I, though it was begun before that.) While the music seems to make it all make glittering sense, productions of Frau have struggled to find a visual realization for the spectacular and causally confusing events, e.g. the earthquake at the end of Act 2, the Fountain of Life, and even the titular shadow. The last production I saw, Christoph Loy’s in Salzburg, threw in the towel entirely and put the whole thing in a recording studio (weak sauce).

On that front, Herbert Wernicke’s Met production is a great success, and actually lives up to the music’s energy and atmosphere. First performed in 2001, it’s being revived for the first second time and first since 2003. Wernicke died at a tragically young age in 2002, and the direction here is credited to J. Knighten Smit. The design—all by Wernicke—is the primary attraction. The world of the Empress, Emperor, and Nurse is a mirrored box, whose transformations are seen in various dramatic flickering lighting effects. In contrast to this glamour, the Dyer’s house is in a gritty sewer or subway, located below the box and connected by a fire escape staircase (one of the best uses of the Met’s scenic elevator I’ve seen). The upper level is timeless and mythic, the lower contemporary and realistic (Act 1 ends with the dyer Barak poignantly staring into an open refrigerator). The implication is vaguely Marxist: the Empress (surrounded by narcissistic mirrors) is exploiting the literal underclass, for whom she gradually learns compassion. The finale is Brechtian–or lieto fine-ian—with the lighting scaffold descending to reveal the stage mechanism and the singers addressing the audience directly. Since the music does not follow suit in any way, I found this gesture a little ineffective, but overall this is a very strong and convincing production.

The larger problem was the distinct lack of direction of the singers. The images are strong enough that I trust Wernicke’s vision remained at least partially intact, but it would have been a lot more engaging and stronger with less park and bark. The singers seemed left to their own devices, with varying and dissonant results. Anne Schwanewilms was a blank, impassive Empress, intentionally so, and her slim, cutting soprano also sounds otherworldly. It’s a very German sort of sound, somewhat squeezed and instrumental. The highest notes were difficult for her, and her enunciation of the words was not very clear, particularly for a native speaker. Overall, I found her performance of this role in Salzburg a few years ago more satisfying.

In contrast, Christine Goerke’s Dyer’s Wife was earthy and personable. This has been a major career breakthrough for her, with the kind of singing where we ask where she has been for the last five years (the answer does not involve an Incongruous Former Profession like morning radio host or roller skate saleswoman, she’s been singing in Europe, plus the Foreign Princess at the Met a few years ago). Her voice has an all-encompassing size and dark, rich color, best in the middle and bottom. She can blast out the high notes, too, as in the end of Act 2, which was great. Her Dyer’s Wife is a shy, unsatisfied housewife–a drastically different interpretation from the high octane Evelyn Herlitzius in Salzburg. I must admit I found Herlitzius’s edgy, intense singing more viscerally exciting, but Goerke is sure a whole lot more accurate and reliable, as well as more likable. (They are a textbook example of Ethan Mordden’s typology of the “Stimmdiva”–Goerke–versus the “Kunstdiva”–Herlitzius.)

The other singers were less notable, though all were pretty good. Ildikó Komlósi sounded worn and shrill as the Nurse, but this role is not exactly a walk in the park. Torsten Kerl coped with the high-lying role of the Emperor capably and reasonably musically (he repeatedly gets the opera’s One Big Tune, representing his and the Empress’s first encounter and the choice of the postshow subway sax/flute player), but did nothing resembling acting and his voice sounds a little on the small side. Johan Reuter made a very human Barak, but also a very lyrical one, and was not ideally audible. Richard Paul Fink as the Spirit Messenger was rather better on the volume front, and countertenor (!) Andrey Nemzer was alarmingly loud as the other messenger. The Young Man and the Falcon were both amplified, and sounded quite artificial.

Of course the orchestra is one of the main stars of any Frau, so I’m sorry to have arrived here last. Vladimir Jurowski conducted a beautifully delineated, controlled, very vertical account of the score. I heard lots of details and the singers were only occasionally drowned out. He is restrained, saving the full Straussian power for a few big moments. I kind of wish he were less parsimonious? It was a very beautiful and elegant reading, but Strauss is not a composer who thrives on frugality, and I would have appreciated a bit more sonic extravagance. (Caveat: I was in the damn rear orchestra again, where acoustics are bad. If i didn’t have so much work, I’d go again and sit in the Family Circle.) I also missed the momentum of Christian Thielemann’s Salzburg rendition, which I preferred by a small margin.

But this is nonetheless a musically distinguished and scenically remarkable production; go see it.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.

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Elina Garanca’s Carnegie Hall recital

I went to hear Elina Garanca’s New York recital debut on Saturday and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Elina Garanča can always be counted on
for a coolly polished performance. Her silvery mezzo is beautiful, even
throughout her range, and impeccably on pitch. She is musically
tasteful, and her sound has grown in recent years. But something often
seems to be missing. While she’s too accomplished to call bland, her
performances rarely show evidence of a beating heart. On Saturday night,
her Carnegie Hall recital debut kept in character, showing an excellent
singer rather than an effective communicator.

You can read the rest here. For all I know Elina Garanca is the nicest, warmest person in the universe, but she still has trouble portraying humanity onstage. This recital was very well-prepared and she really was trying, but the effort was all too obvious.

I’ll be going to Giulio Cesare at the Met at the end of this week.

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Ariadne auf Naxos: Ur-iadne auf Salzburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos copyright Ruth Walz.


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Epic Met Lieder from Jonas Kaufmann

(Not at the Met.)

Just because one can sell almost the entire giant Met singing an arty Lieder program, as Jonas Kaufmann managed to do this afternoon, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea to do so. That being said, he showed up, hair decorously tamed for the occasion, and is singularly equipped to succeed in this format. He has the elegance and musical refinement to sing art songs but never quite loses the large-format emotionalism of a singing actor. I had trouble shaking the feeling that I was watching from Central Park, but a good concert it was.

Jonas Kaufmann in Recital, Metropolitan Opera, 10/30/2011. Helmut Deutsch, piano. Program: Liszt, “ Vergiftet sind meine Lieder,” “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome,” “Freundvoll und leidvoll,” Der König in Thule, Ihr Glocken von Marling, Die drei Zigeuner. Mahler; Five Rücker Lieder. Duparc, L’invitation au voyage, Phildylé, Le Manoir de Rosamunde, Chanson triste, La vie antéieure. Strauss, Schlechtes Wetter, “Schön sind, coh kalt die Himmelsterne, Befreit, Heimliche Aufforderung, Morgen!, Cäcilie. Encores: Strauss, ”Breit über mein Haupt,“ ”Ach weh, mir unglückhaftem Mann,“ Freundliche Vision, Zueignung; Lehár, ”Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.“

I’m getting a lot of Googlers who want to ID the encores. They were “Breit’ über mein Haupt,” “Ach weh, mir unglückhaftem Mann,” Freundliche Vision and Zueignung (all Strauss) and Lehár, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” (Yes, I knew them all from ear, but I’m a Strauss nerd.)

This was mostly the same program I heard Kaufmann give last July (the Strauss set, whose order I did not like at all in July, has thankfully been reconfigured), and my impressions are pretty similar, though I thought Kaufmann was possibly in even better voice today than his excellent July outing. His tone is dark and substantial but he maintains a remarkable liquid legato and dynamic control that is amazing for a voice of his size, and he has formidable musicality and attention to detail. He can fill the Met and even raise its roof when required, but it still took me some adjustment to scale to something so delicate in a hall of this size.

I again didn’t think the Liszt set was that great, but maybe these songs are just not my cup of tea. (I am ready for Liszt Year to be over, honestly.) They are so generic in expression that they came off more as lessons in beautiful piano singing (“Ihr Glocken von Marling”), declamation (“Vergiftet sind meine Lieder”) or flowing rhythms (“Der König in Thule”) than as dramatic statements. Only the spooky “Drei Zigeuner” really picked up speed. (The Met obviously didn’t check with Kaufmann as to whether he was going to sing the coda of this song, which is marked as optional in my score–he did not but the text was still in the program. I think it’s better without.)

Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, however, were extremely good, with Kaufmann’s talent for singing and not getting lost in extremely long phrases allowing for slow tempos in “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” the latter registering particularly strongly in its stillness and desolation. I missed the woodwind glissandos in “Um Mitternacht” but for this song the piano version gets a great intense claustrophobia.“Um Mitternacht” was placed at the end, my preferred ordering (on my CD Bernstein puts “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” last, which makes the surrender of “Um Mitternacht” far less powerful and besides is just a bummer). Here the size of the Met actually began to prove useful, and Kaufmann put a lot of heft into the final section to good effect.

The second half’s Duparc set was less idiomatic; Kaufmann’s voice has warmth but it’s more like a fireplace than a sunbeam and the climax moments sometimes sounded a bit too muscular. But his French is excellent and his pianos continued to be gorgeous. Despite fabulous modulations, Duparc’s music can sound to me a little monotonous at times so I appreciated Kaufmann’s variety in tone color. I still haven’t figured out what in tarnation the secret of “La Vie Antérieure” could be, maybe I should write this M. Baudelaire and ask him. (Sorry if you could not tell I’m writing this after some wine.)

The naturalness and comfort of his Strauss made the Duparc sound downright studious. Strauss has this way in his songs and sometimes his operas of careening towards high As and Bs that sends most non-soprano singers for a total train wreck (it being difficult to careen up towards something)

from “Schlechtes Wetter”

but Kaufmann treats them like they’re not only the easiest thing but the best thing to show off his excellent and powerful high notes. “Befreit” might be sappy but it’s a song that always gets to me and as I said on Twitter afterwards that this particular rendition left me like a 13-year-old who has just seen The Notebook, I am not kidding here. These were mostly not witty Strauss songs (though we got one of those in the encores) but their big expression and sweeping romanticism were a good fit for the giant hall.

I have not mentioned Helmut Deutsch’s piano playing up to this point, which I think is fitting. He is absolutely correct and impeccably supportive, but very much in the background. Sometimes I think a stronger hand would have been more interesting, but there was nothing to object to by any means (except the clunker at the very end of “Cäcilie,” the final song of the program, when we got a major and a minor chord simultaneously–not a good end, and Deutsch stretched out the coda of “Breit’ über mein Haupt,” the first encore, perhaps in recompense).

Actually choosing the huge Met for his New York recital debut (as this was, amazingly) might have played rather well to Kaufmann’s strengths. He’s not working on as many levels as a Quasthoff or Gerhaher would be (I am also including the recitals I’ve seen him do in much smaller venues here), he’s doing tasteful, beautiful singing with direct expression that could reach me up in the Family Circle. So not such a bad idea at all. We got a whole cartload of encores, all Strauss (the highlight of which was an impassioned “Zueignung”) up to a marvelously schmaltzy “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” from Franz Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns, which is way less familiar here than it is with the blue-haired contingent in Austria and Germany, but still went down very well.

See you from the Tucker Gala next weekend, if not sooner.

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