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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Wozzeck: Drowning

Wozzeck is a
nasty, brutal, and short opera. Producing it requires balancing the human and
the inhuman, where a murderer is maybe the most sympathetic figure (unless
you’re counting the little kid). Andreas Kriegenburg’s acclaimed Bayerische
Staatsoper production—it’s what got him the Ring
job—does this expertly, and more, its characters splashing around in ankle-deep
water with no sign of relief.
While putting on a single performance of Wozzeck for a festival is unusual (it
not being known as an audience-pleasing star vehicle that is easy to put together without much rehearsal), when you can get
Waltraud Meier and Simon Keenlyside to do it, you probably should, and the Munich audience seemed to like it as much as I did.

Berg, Wozzeck. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/22/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Lothar Koenigs

Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Chor Sören Eckhoff
Dramaturgie Miron Hakenbeck
Kinderchor Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Wozzeck Simon Keenlyside
Tambourmajor Roman Sadnik
Andres Kevin Conners
Hauptmann Wolfgang Schmidt
Doktor Clive Bayley
1. Handwerksbursche Christoph Stephinger
2. Handwerksbursche Francesco Petrozzi
Der Narr Kenneth Roberson
Marie Waltraud Meier
Margret Heike Grötzinger€

Note: the photos show two previous casts in this production.
Waltraud Meier is in some of the pictures (the other Marie is Michaela
Schuster), the Wozzecks are Michael Volle and Georg Nigl.
This production is, like the Ring, deceptively simple and never strays too far from convention,
and yet its subtle invention is quietly amazing. Much more than the Ring it creates a concentrated visual
language and world for the work. From the opening projection of AKT 1, the
guiding spirit is Brecht. The setting is vague, and doesn’t really
matter.  A enormous, dingy cement cube hovers
over a stage filled with water. Some of the action takes place in this box,
some in the water. The box itself moves upstage and down seemingly of its own
accord. Wozzeck and Marie and their son are relatively normal-looking people,
everyone else is a grotesque, white-faced caricature out of Georg  Grosz. The Captain is disgustingly fat and
naked while the doctor wears a contraption similar to the instrument of torture
he straps Wozzeck into. Many of the minor male characters are exactly the same
variation on Frankenstein’s monster. It is, it seems, the world as seen from
Wozzeck’s own eyes, with Marie as the only refuge among the expressionist monsters.
The child oversees much of the action and learns to make
sense of it, writing PAPA over the father who never acknowledges him, later
adding GELD (money) and HURE (whore).  He
is, we can see, going to turn out exactly like the father who ignores him. That
father seems, unlike the oblivious other characters, hyperalert, and yet
entirely uncomprehending. The Personenregie is not particularly musical, at least not in an analytic sense. I doubt Kriegenburg could tell you much about Berg’s symphonic forms, and he seems to care more about Büchner’s fragmentation than Berg’s cohesion. Much of the opera is delivered in a presentational
style, right out to the audience. It’s simultaneously an alienating tactic and
an apt reflection of the characters’ own alienation.  In another Brechtian
touch, the stage music is played by an onstage ensemble in modern concert
dress. A gloomy crowd of black-clad unemployed watch and occasionally provide
physical support to the action, with platforms for the Drum Major and the
orchestra literally on their backs, in a way similar to the Ring supernumeraries.
But it’s a classical staging as well, just as reluctant as
Kriegenburg’s Ring to take on a
specific social context. This is, that is to say, like the first three parts of
his Ring, not the last. The unemployed
in their coats, the water, the blank cement all speak to a timeless, placeless misery. It
operates on a level of simple images that resonate with the music and
story on a deep level. Except for the splashing through the water, there’s
never any friction between the two. It’s not quite as simple as it looks—and I
expect the Personenregie was considerably tighter on the 2008 premiere than
this one-off revival—but simplicity is its greatest asset.
I don’t think Simon Keenlyside has sung in this production
before, but he seemed to fit in well. Vocally, this role is, like much of the music he
sings these days, a size too big for his lyric baritone. When he struggles to
be heard he tends to sound pressured and grainy. But he seems to have the part
in his bones, and makes a twitchy yet disconnected Wozzeck. Waltraud Meier’s
Marie is the only character who seems to have any life left in her, miserable
as she is. Meier’s voice is still very strong in the higher registers, and she
sings this music with passionate earnestness.
Lothar Koenig’s conducting tended towards the beautiful,
tragic side of thinsg, finding its vocal counterpart in Meier’s almost Romantic
Marie. (He seemed very preoccupied with giving cues to everyone, I suspect this
one-off was not so thoroughly rehearsed.) The orchestra played with sustained
intensity that was, at times, just a touch messy, particularly in the winds. As
might be expected, the strings turned in a Mahlerian rendition of the Act III
interlude. The singers of the supporting roles sang more dramatically than
beautifully, but that’s only in fitting with the production. Having endured his
Aegisth twice I am not fan of Wolfgang Schmidt’s yelpy tenor, but for the
Hauptmann it is just right. Roman Sadnik sounded underpowered as the
Tambourmajor, but had a commanding presence, as did Clive Bayley as the Doctor.
Overall I found this production devastating, while the Ring rarely went beyond nicely poignant. The concentrated intensity of Berg and Büchner are perhaps a better match for Kriegenburg’s austerity, and while when staging the Ring a grand historical vision is non-negotiable, in a 90-minute piece it might be too much. I must admit this was my first time seeing Wozzeck live; it is not often played.
(I have hardly avoided it. In college I studied it in music, German, and
theater classes, at one point making me suspect I was actually majoring in Woyzeck/Wozzeck Studies. For comparison,
I didn’t study Lulu once.) This
performance sold out and received a sustained, enthusiastic ovation, heartening
for a work considered so audience-unfriendly. Kriegenburg’s pitch-perfect
production plus local factors (local language, the relative levels of general musical
literacy in Munich versus New York) have made that rare thing: a high art popular

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl. More follow after the video.

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The Met’s Götterdämmerung: This is how the world ends

If nothing else, I thought, Robert Lepage will know how to make things blow up real good. But the end of his Götterdämmerung last night just sort of fizzled out. Some flames and water were projected onto the now familiar planks, some wee statues crumbled. It was–complete with the misplaced hope that this had been a technical failure in lieu of a more spectacular effect, which it was not–an inglorious but apt ending to a project that always promised something more interesting than it delivered. Musically, things were much better, but the Ring reduced to literalism is a Ring enfeebled.

Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Metropolitan Opera, 1/27/2012. New production premiere directed by Robert Lepage, sets by Carl Fillion, costumes by François St-Aubin, lights by Etiene Boucher, video by Lionel Arnould. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Hans-Peter König (Hagen), Iain Paterson (Gunther), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune), Waltraud Meier (Waltraute), Eric Owens (Alberich)

From a design and mechanical perspective this is the strongest installment of the cycle (disclaimer: I have not yet seen Rheingold). The machine clanked a bit but not as much as in Siegfried, and the dreaded trench in the middle of the stage has finally been banished. The projections were less distractingly mobile and fussy. Lepage even seemed to be trying to make the singers move around more, particularly in Act 2. But the two central problems of the cycle remain: he tells the story through the set rather than through the characters, and his work is illustrative rather than interpretive. It was probably too late to do anything about those.

There weren’t any dumb shows or shadow plays to illustrate backstory in this installment, but the focus didn’t always shift to the storyteller. The Norns wove some giant ropes in the shape of a tree, aided by the Machine, and when they broke the Machine wiggled but the Norns themselves didn’t react physically at all, merely screaming “Es riß!” The only person who managed to overpower this narration problem was the indomitable Waltraud Meier as Waltraute, who was transfixing from her first moment to her last. You could see that she could see what she was narrating, and what she thought of it at each second. But I think that came from the previously well-established truth that Waltraud Meier is the Best, not from Lepage.

The production’s Personenregie failings were felt most acutely in the drama-prone House of Gibich, here represented by a projected wood backdrop and a big table. I should note that I was sitting in the Family Circle so some detail may have escaped me, but this was a very placid and bland bunch. Conventionally, Hagen is the evilest of evil, described by the chorus as “grimmer Hagen,” here he was a complete blank (and Gutrune, weirdly, seemed to really like him). I always have trouble caring about the Gibichungs, here where their affairs were so boring it was nearly impossible. They are not alone: Brünnhilde is severely underdirected in her wedding scene, seeming more mildly upset than traumatically outraged. Just because the direction is less static doesn’t mean it actually conveys dramatic meaning, unfortunately.

But the production is still filled with missteps small and large. One could just make a list. The projections make the geography of the fire mountain quite confusing. Why does Brünnhilde enter the Prologue with Nothung, and alone? (That’s Brünnhilde from Walküre, not Brünnhilde in Love.) Why does the action never seem to respond to the music? Why must so many entrances be made slowly and unceremoniously from the sides–the speed I assume is due to some stairs just offstage–which just isn’t dramatic. Waltraute needs to storm on, not stroll.

But the biggest problem is the Immolation. Here’s what happens. A funeral pyre of logs is built upstage. Brünnhilde lights it up and at the very end mounts her mechanical Grane (who reportedly closely resembles the horse of War Horse) and is rolled slowly towards it. The Machine rotates so we don’t see her burn, and the wall of planks is covered with projections of flames. These slowly give way to water so Hagen and the Rhinemaidens do the Zurück vom Ring bit. Three Five very little statues of the gods, previously seen in the Hall of Gibich (these statues are mentioned in the libretto, I think) appear at the top of the Machine and crumble, an effect that would be put to shame by a provincial production of Samson et Dalila. (From the Family Circle, some stage crew people were visible at this point.) We are left with just the water for the final exchange between the Valhalla and Redemption Leitmotives. It’s a massively anticlimactic staging of the least anticlimactic ending in music. It’s impossible to live up to that music (see: Peter Konwitschny’s ending in his Stuttgart production). But how could you put in so little effort?

Of course the music tells the story, but the staging deflates it and reduces something symbolic to something childishly literal. Still, the musical performance had much to recommend it. Fabio Luisi is an excellent palate cleanser after years and years of Levine. Where the latter can be ponderous and thick, Luisi is lean and dramatically attentive. But I am beginning to think he’s more a rebound relationship than someone I want to marry, Wagner-wise. He gets truly wonderful and sometimes downright luminous playing from the orchestra, the balance is generally good, but I miss the raw excitement, intensity, and weight of other conductors. I actually wanted to hear the orchestra more, for them to be unleashed.
(I am, practically speaking, probably wishing for Christian Thielemann.)
Even the Funeral March was oddly restrained.

Deborah Voigt was in better voice than she had been for any of the previous installments, particularly in the Prologue. Her high notes can be lush, and her middle was more consistently supported this time around. Her German is incomprehensible, and she shows no attention to the text or much musical variety, but in terms of pure voice this was a great improvement. If only she had gotten some better direction in Act 2. Jay Hunter Morris is a very likeable Siegfried, and has a healthier and sweeter tone than many of his breed. His voice is rather small, and towards the end of Acts 2 and 3 showed considerable strain, but what Siegfrieds don’t? In these roles I think both Katarina Dalayman and Stephen Gould of later casts will be worth hearing.

Vocally, the star of the show was Hans-Peter König’s Hagen, whose enormous if not especially dark tone was by far the loudest thing going (rivaled only by Eric Owens’s Alberich, in a memorable duet). If only he had managed to create a character. Wendy Bryn Harmer was a good Gutrune with excellent high notes and the bright tone you usually associate with this role. Waltraud Meier was, as already mentioned, a force of nature as Waltraute, to an extent that you don’t care about her slightly drying voice. Iain Paterson was fine as Gunther, though the production doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. In the smaller roles, Heidi Melton was a marvelous Third Norn and certainly has a big career ahead of her, and Elizabeth Bishop and Maria Radner were excellent as the Second and First ones as well. The Rhinemaidens, however, sounded screechy and often failed to blend, possibly due to a strenuous staging of continuously climbing up and sliding an inclined Machine. The chorus sounded fantastic.

But for better or for worse, every opera performance is the sum of all its parts, a Gesamtkunstwerk of whatever ends up happening. And on that front Lepage badly disappoints, giving us little more than a literal, often clumsy and boring visualization of the story that speaks so simplistically that it tames the drama to literal representation. Music is evocative, and the Ring is magical because it suggests things larger and more powerful than itself, things larger and deeper than our ordinary lives. Lepage’s staging makes us ask, is this all there is?

Götterdämmerung continues in February and will be presented with full cycles in April.

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Parsifal unredeemed for the Viennese

Dontcha know what day it is? Perhaps Easter is a small step downwards in holiness from Good Friday, but I still didn’t expect the staid Staatsoper audience to make their Easter Parsifal into a circus of boos, incomprehensible yelling at inappropriate times, and no fewer than three cell phones in Act 1. Oh, throw in the usual clapping/aggressive shushing fiasco at the end of Act 1.

The actual performance was rather good. Ingo Metzmacher and Waltraud Meier are great news for Wagner, the orchestra was in solid form, and the cast had a few other standouts as well. Christine Mielitz’s production is a mess, but occasionally an interesting one. Too bad about the sideshow.

Wagner, Parsifal. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/24/2011. Production by Christine Mielitz (revival), conducted by Ingo Metzmacher with Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Waltraud Meier (Kundry), Franz-Josef Selig (Grunemanz), Falk Struckmann (Amfortas), Wolfgang Bankl (Klingsor), Ain Anger (Titurel).

This production was yet another of the Holender regime’s attempts at Regietheater, one of the less fortunate ones. Here, an underdeveloped dramatic idea meets iffy design and, now, poorly rehearsed revival performances. Like in her Fliegende Holländer, which was also designed by Stefan Mayer, the set contains a confusing network of moving parts that seem far more fussy than helpful.

Mielitz’s greatest interest is gender issues. Act 1 appears to take place in some kind of school or mental institution, with students in fencing uniforms doing drills and Parsifal intruding in modern street clothes. Kundry appears robed entirely in black and is harassed and threatened by the knights. Parsifal comes from outside the knight’s insulated masculine world. In the production’s smartest bit of staging, we see the climax of the Act 1 Grail ritual from his point of view. He stands outside the main proscenium, lights point out at us in the auditorium, and the circle of knights slowly rises into darkness, revealing a crowd of women and children robed like Kundry, a literal underclass in the cellar below the knights. We, like them and Parsifal, are not initiates and cannot see or understand the ritual. But the women and children still sing, forced to go along.

Klingsor is a scheming schemer whose sleek modern lair, gold lamé suit, and large video screen suggest nothing so much as a James Bond villain (or, for the less mature among us, Dr. Evil). He drugs Kundry in some way, and also has his herd of red-dressed flower maiden slaves. Mielitz seems to be poking cheap fun at the languid quality of their music when a giant disco ball descends and spins for a bit, casting light around the auditorium suggesting that we are also being seduced. Or something. The spear is a bright neon rod that looks like it’s straight out of an Achim Freyer production.

In Act 3, we see an empty stage with a few projections (did they run out of money?) and are again enlightened or implicated by the shining of blinding light into our eyes. Parsifal’s Mitleid seems to consist of bringing Kundry-acquired feminine wisdom to the knights. Kundry gets to hang out with Amfortas, and Parsifal exposes the artifice of the knight’s ceremony as the set collapses and lighting fixtures and set supports become visible. Finally, the knights are revealed weaponless, Kundry rises angelically upwards, either saved or just blowing the joint, and the golden box that was implied to be holding the Grail falls to the ground, no longer needed.

Unfortunately, despite some scattered interesting bits the production lacks an overarching narrative and dramatic focus. Where are the knights in Act 1 and what does it have to do with Klingsor’s place in Act 3? If women are wise, what is the deal with wound? This is an impossible opera, but too much is just left unexplored. It is badly cluttered with action that seems to have little to do with anything (I have left a lot out in the above summary that didn’t seem to fit in thematically), and I really wish it had just been better. Blocking and technical direction were not the most polished.

The musical performance, however, was the best Wagner I’ve heard in Vienna this season with the exception of the season-opening Tannhäuser. Ingo Metzmacher led with transparent textures, monumentality when needed, and little sense of urgency despite fairly brisk tempos (I timed: Act 1 in 1:42; Act 2 1:04, Act 3 in 1:15 for a total of 4:01, closer to Boulez’s 3:39 than Toscanini’s 4:48). Details, coordination, and pacing were excellent and balances solid, which is something considering that I heard Metzmacher got all of two rehearsals with the orchestra (more than some productions get). I could have used with a little more stillness in Act 3, but the clarity was excellent. Why he was loudly booed by about three people on his entrance at the beginnings of Act 2, 3 and at the end completely mystifies me. It was good and uncontroversial work. Is there something I’m missing here?*

The singing was a somewhat mixed lot, but on the strong side. Waltraud Meier’s intensity and dramatic precision are captivating. She is vocally still very impressive and her attention to the text never flags. Somehow her Kundry is the same driven, compulsive woman in all three acts, despite the enormous differences in the drama. No one groans at the opening of Act 3 like she does. However, I did not find this performance to be as astonishingly demented as the last time I saw her as Kundry (in New York in 2007). In Act Two she seemed to find Parsifal a relatively easy lay.

Taking musical honors was Franz-Josef Selig’s Gurnemanz, in a vocally warm and dramatically perceptive performance. Christopher Ventris was a stronger Parsifal than he was a Siegmund. If only the clear, shining power he mustered at some points had been more consistently deployed. He had an unfortunate knack for coming up short at the biggest dramatic moments (both “Nur eine Waffe taugt” and “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” started off underpowered), and didn’t quite, um, redeem himself by singing well elsewhere. Acting was OK but unremarkable. Falk Struckmann also lacks a certain amount of vocal smoothness, but Amfortas doesn’t really require that too much of that, and his anguish was suitably emphatic and vividly expressive. Wolfgang Bankl, however, sounded sung out as Klingsor.

The supporting players were an unusually uneven lot. The flower maidens were disappointingly shrill and harsh, and the nasal Mime voice of Herwig Peccoraro stuck out among the Knappen in a very bad way. The male chorus sounded fantastically good, but the children were unforgivably squeaky and the women a bit uneven.

For Noises Off! Staaatsoper rep, though, not bad. Not bad at all.

*After the applause and boos died down at the start of Act 3, there was also some indistinct yelling from the orchestra section, the only words of which I caught were “raus” (out) and “Staatsoper.” I suspect this had to do with the production, which is extraordinarily unpopular. But such hollering is both rude and unusual. There was something at the end of Act 1 as well. Really, it was a weird spectacle.

Update: Apparently the end of Act 1 it was something about the clapping rule, and at the start of Act 2 it was Nazis who are to be evicted from the Staaatsoper. I should have known that audiences are far more interested in their own reactions than seeing what was happening onstage. Congrats, Staatsoper Publikum, you just Godwined yourselves.

There were also a good number of tourists in the standing room. In Act 1, at least. Very few made it through to the end. They should put a warning label on the standing room for this one.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper

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