Sam Shirakawa Reviews the Chemnitz Ring
We plan to start featuring reviews of opera performances from around the world. As a first step, we have offered this forum to our friend Sam H. Shirakawa, who recently returned from a trip to Germany to see Wagner's Ring in Chemnitz, Germany. You may know of Sam as the author of The Devil's Music Master: the Life and Times of Wilhelm Furtwängler. I will be posting his review of the Ring, as well performances he attended of Tristan und Isolde and Kienzl's Evangelimann in Chemnitz, and (by way of palate freshener) a performance of Strauss's Wiener Blut in Eisenach. What follows is the first of four installments. All four installments will be posted here by Christmas. Enjoy!
Chemnitz (population: 247,000), in case you don’t know, is located about 80 miles southeast of Dresden. Before World War II it was a bustling industrial city with a rich cultural life. It suffered extensive damage from Allied bombing and fared poorly under the exploitations of the Soviet occupation. Throughout it all, the cultural life of Chemnitz managed to survive, even flourish. Despite severe cutbacks in state support for the arts in the years following Reunification, the Chemnitz Municipal Theater continues presenting formidable repertory season after season.
Chemnitz is hardly one of Germany’s garden spots, but she, like Brünnhilde, is awakening from a long sleep. Despite Germany’s sluggish economy, extensive construction projects are underway, and one of the nation’s leading department store chains, Kaufhof, has recently opened a full-service store in the city’s gradually reviving downtown area.
Chemnitz Opera House from the Plaza Photo © Dieter Wuschanski
The Opera House, built in 1909, and most recently renovated in the early `90s, dominates a huge sunken plaza a short walk from the main train station. The Municipal Museum borders one side of the square, a 19th-century church and a ritzy hotel line the other side. One of the streets marking off the plaza is named after Richard Tauber, the renowned tenor who made his debut in Chemnitz in 1913, while his father was the theater’s general manager. From September through June, the 714-seat house plays more than 250 performances of operas, operettas, musicals, plays, ballet, children’s events and concerts. While few evenings are complete sellouts, paying patrons occupied up to 95 percent of the house at the performances I attended -- even the Ring at hiked ticket prices, ranging from $22 to about $64 (Euros 18.75 - 48.00).
Inside the Chemnitz Opera House Photo © Dieter Wuschanski
Performance practices at Chemnitz are typical of German provincial houses. Casts are drawn almost entirely from the house ensemble, and Chemnitz has the good fortune of having enough high-octane singers to produce Wagner and Richard Strauss largely from its own ranks.
Over nine days in November 2004, several contract artists worked hard for their money, some of them appearing in five significant roles during that period. Such practices were once common, even at major opera houses, but today, few theaters have such solid bench strength at their disposal. The Theater presented a complete Ring, plus Tristan and Kienzl’s Evangelimann thrown in between - irresistible temptations for a Wagnerite. But an enticement loaded with risks. Let’s face it, even the prospect of hearing Wagner performed at the musical meccas of Europe and America is becoming a sobering thought these days: wretched singing, awful productions, etc. How much worse must it be in the hinterlands? Since all five performances of Wagner in Chemnitz had the same producer (Opera Chief Michael Heinicke) and conductor (Music Director Niksa Bareza), neither of whom are were familiar to me, and the same Brand-X singers appearing from one opera to the next, my journey to one of the remote corners of the former DDR threatened to provide over 22 hours of sheer torture. But it turned out to be quite different from what I was fearing.
The legendary Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall once said he really didn’t feel qualified to interpret Wagner’s mature works until he was nearly 70 and cautioned conductors to wait until they are ready. At age 68, Niksa Bareza is indeed ready. The basic tempo of his Ring and Tristan is swift, measuring out the broad sweep of the storyboards in bold strokes. But he relaxes the pace in moments of intimacy without sacrificing tension - notably in the first act of Walküre, the final scene of Siegfried, and the love duet in Tristan- culling delicately turned phrases out of the instrumentation, while cutting enough slack for singers to articulate subtle details. Bareza is one of the former Eastern Bloc’s hidden treasures. Born in Split, he’s made stops at a long line of stations including St. Petersburg, Zagreb and Zurich, before becoming Music Director at Chemnitz. As far as I know, he has never appeared in the United States. Perhaps the time has come.
Despite some rough-edged playing here and there, Bareza is well served by the Robert Schumann Orchestra, which is becoming one of Germany’s most versatile ensembles. The strings and brass lack the luster of some better known opera house orchestras, but the players never go wanting in discipline and vigor, producing exhilarating moments in the final scene of Walküre and Siegfried’s Funeral March.
13 November 2004
The performance on November 13 began the eighth cycle of Michael Heinicke’s production and showed no sign of attrition since its premiere in 1998. Designer Wolfgang Beilach’s sets rise and fall on a revolving platform, whirling the eddies of the Rhine, as the Maidens taunt Alberich; opening out to reveal the expanses of Valhalla, turning in on itself to expose Nibelheim. The Giants emerge from the mouths of two menacing cranes, lowered from the wings. No social commentary or political overlays here. The production team views the Ring as an adult fairy tale full of grim wonders. It’s a fluid production that’s fun to watch.
All four operas were also a good listen. In Rheingold, with the possible exception of Nancy Gibson (Freia), who appears often in the States, who, outside greater Germania has heard of, let alone heard, Hans-Peter Scheidiger (Wotan), Piotr Bednarski (Loge), Jürgen Mutze (Mime), Peter Lobert (Fafner), Donna Morein (Fricka), or Regine Köbler (Erda)? There was no weak link among them, and they deserve to be heard everywhere, but the politics of current hiring procedures may condemn most of them, sadly, to shuttling from one fine performance to another without arriving at international renown.
Confronted with such uniform strength, it’s tough to pick a stand-out, but pares-inter-pares is surely Jürgen Freier as Alberich. Huge, sonorous and coal-black, there was enough worsted grey in his voice to canvas the depths of the pathetic creature’s agony. Freier’s deadly blessing on the snatched ring is was as chilling as I’ve heard from the likes of Otakar Kraus and Gustav Neidlinger.
Jürgen Freier (Alberich) and Hans-Peter Scheidegger (Wotan) Photo © Dieter Wuschanski
The cast of Walküre sported at least one brand name. Endrik Wottrich scored impressively with his first Parsifal at last summer’s Bayreuth Festival and confirmed his credentials in his Chemnitz debut as Siegmund. Wottrich turned to singing professionally after completing his musical training as a violist at Juilliard. His baritonal tenor is beefy from bottom to upper middle register, bursting out into a ringing top. While his solid musicality made his portrayal compelling, Wottrich rarely sings softer than mezzo-forte, which ultimately enervates the ear. He is blessed with good looks and an attractive presence, and he is well-advised to develop his formidable package of gifts with care.
Astrid Weber, an up-and-coming mezzo-Sieglinde, and also a compelling stage personality, maintained vocal stability, while assuming some awkward-looking postures. Weber has some shallow spots at the lower end of her range, but she has youth and time on her side to fill them in.
Astrid Weber (Sieglinde) Photo © Dieter Wuschanski
The American soprano Susan Marie Pierson started off her Brünnhilde with a thrilling war-cry, whooping up to the top notes and sitting on them. She sustained the rest of the part with requisite verve, but she needs to think carefully about what she wants to do with the role. Her inflections follow the score to the letter, but still ahead is the task of transforming them into the conflict of a goddess caught between the rock of human compassion and the hard place of divine command. The voice is oddly reminiscent of Eva Marton in her prime - large, lithe and loud. The potential for a major career is already evident.
Susan Marie Pierson (Brünnhilde) Photo © Dieter Wuschanski
Hans-Peter Scheidegger portrayed Wotan as a young chief executive, stoically facing the overwhelming repercussions of the fatal choices the god of gods makes in Rheingold. He encountered some alarming vocal problems on November 14 in the final scene, but he kept his cool and recovered fully just in time to invoke Loge’s magic fire.
Hans-Peter Scheidegger (Wotan) Photo © Dieter Wuschanski
Donna Morein at first seemed a rather placid Fricka, but it soon became clear that hers was a passive-agressive goddess, quietly prosecuting offenses against her domain. Morein’s Fricka was pitiless, rejoicing grimly in painting her feckless husband into a corner. She made a welcome encore as Waltraute in the final act.
It’s hard to imagine a sympathetic portrayal of Hunding, but that’s what Yue Liu managed to evince in a role for which he is less than ideally suited. Endowed with an essentially a lyric and warm voice, Liu played a stolid cuckold, who somehow sadly knows that brute strength will ultimately prove impotent in seeking justice for being doubly duped by his wife and brother-in-law.
The Valkyrie Sisters Scene - often a scream fest even in major opera houses - was carried off in admirably disciplined fashion by Kerstin Randall, Nancy Gibson, Heidrun Göpfert, Regine Köbler, Britta Jacobus, Sylvia Schramm-Heilfort and Monika Straube. They are all members of the Chemnitz ensemble and sing major roles in other operas throughout the season. Certainly, there is more than one future Wagner star in this group.
Sam H. Shirakawa has written for the New York Times and other periodicals in the United States and in Germany. He is the author of The Devil's Music Master: the Life and Times of Wilhelm Furtwängler, which is being released in a Japanese translation this winter. He wrote the libretto for Sam Belich's opera Laius and Chrysippus and recently completed the text and lyrics for Kanga: a fable for children. His work in film documentaries has earned him two Individual Craft Emmy nominations.
Thanks to Sam for giving us all a fascinating window into the current state (healthy apparently) of "provincial" opera houses in Germany. Watch this space later this week for the continuation of Sam's review of the Ring, Tristan and Evangelimann, all from Chemnitz and the Wiener Blut from Eisenach.