Friday, February 05, 2010

A Rocket to Mannheim

National Theater, Mannheim

Why do you want to come all the way to Mannheim just to hear such an old production of Die Fledermaus? asked a lifelong Mannheimer and operagoer.

“Because I need some ear candy,” I replied.

Mannheim has supplied an estimable variety of ear candy to the world for well over three centuries. Most notably: Mozart visited the city four times and spent a total of 176 days here. Some of the venues where he made music are still functioning. The so-called Mannheim School made its home here. The Court Orchestra under Carlo Grua (1700-1773) won renown as one of Europe’s finest ensembles. In the last century, its opera house, first established in 1779, became a way station for such up-and-coming musicians and singers as Artur Bodansky, who led the German wing of the Metropolitan Opera from 1915 to his death in 1939, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Donald Runnicles, Jun Märkl, Adam Fischer; Inge Borkh, Diana Damrau, Franz Mazura, Jean Cox and Scott McAlister.

With such a formidable history that is continually in the making, performers in Mannheim have a lot to live up to, and they know it. Of the 30 odd performances I’ve heard here since 1990, only a few have been lackluster. (A couple of disasters -- yes -- but interesting catastrophes.)

During my most recent stay, I attended two consecutive performances at the National Theater: a production of Die Fledermaus, dating from 1978, and the premiere of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux in concert-format, apparently the first time ever that this opera has been performed professionally in Mannheim. So it came as a surprise to me, how lively and vital the 30 year-old production of Fledermaus came across, whereas the premiere of Devereux seemed somewhat phlegmatic in comparison.

I doubt that any Fledermaus can match the sparkle and fizzle that the Metropolitan Opera’s mounting nearly always manages to produce, but Mannheim comes close. Friedrich Meyer-Oertel clearly conceived his production with fun as the guiding principal, and the principals, bit-players and chorus at this performance were determined to play out this comedy of manners with mirth always in mind.

Particularly rewarding for me was to hear Eisenstein sung by a tenor, as Johann Strauss originally intended. I never heard Uwe Eikötter before, but I’d like to hear him again. He has precisely the right lilt in his voice as he tries to play a not-so good-natured trick on his wife. A mellow sweetness in the timbre suggests he might do well to attempt a more ambitious Fach than Melot, Monostatos and Pong -- parts he apparently regularly sings.

Cornelia Ptassek took a while to get inside Rosalinda, but by the time she got to her rousing Czardas in the second act, she turned into a spouse not to be trifled with.

I’m told that Diana Damrau made Adele into one of her signature roles during her stay in Mannheim, but Katharina Göres at this performance left little to long for. She has clean coloratura, a bright top and an attractive stage personality -- a package that could take her to stages far beyond Germany. Whether she has Damrau’s dramatic range and vocal allure, remains to be seen.

Edna Prochnik as Orlovsky was delightful to experience, not merely because she reveals an incipient vocal temperament that portends bigger roles. She is also a refreshing change from the counter-tenors that I’ve encountered too frequently in this role. Which brings to mind a suggestion for the idea-starved directors, whose da-duh productions of this wonderful work I’ve had to endure in the past couple of years: How about an Orlovsky performed by a counter-tenor in an evening gown?

The big surprise of the evening, though, was Wolfgang Neumann as Alfredo. Yes, the Wolfgang Neumann everybody who has survived his Siegfried and Tristan loves to hate! Rarely, have I experienced Alfredo so electrifyingly sung and non-acted! And on this occasion, he was even funny. Neumann sings his farewell this spring in Mannheim, but surely he has more than enough voice left to return for an occasional turn as Alfredo.

At this performance, Lars Møller, Thomas Jesatko and Uwe Schönbeck were cast as Dr. Falke, Frank and Frosch respectively. Møller eschewed the manipulative side of the role and made the most of the merry side of Eisenstein’s sidekick. Jesatko enlivened the party scene, and Schönbeck clearly had the audience in his bottle the moment he stepped on stage as the inebriated jailer. Oskar Pürgstaller’s Blind was a treat.

The linking entity between Fledermaus and Devereux was Alexander Kalajdzic on the podium. He is among the batch of younger conductors cutting their teeth on the international circuit. Currently, the Zagreb native is wrapping up his tour of duty as first Kappelmeister in Mannheim. Next season, he moves on to become Generalmusikdirector at Bielefeld’s opera house.

On Friday night he generated high voltage with his reading of Fledermaus. It became clear at the outset of the overture, that he has Strauss the Younger in his blood, and he communicated his affinity with this music with bodacious enthusiasm. On Saturday, though, his wattage sputtered: possibly because the house orchestra, still after nearly 300 years one of the finest in Europe, seemed disinterested during Devereux. Several back-stand violinists were leaning back in their seats throughout the evening, and the winds and brass generally lacked punch in the big ensemble passages. I would have expected this at Fledermaus. After all, it was the upteenth performance of an old production, but the musicians played like New Year’s Eve. Devereux was a premiere and a First for Mannheim. Yet, the orchestra sounded as though nobody wanted to go to the party.

The seeming lack of enthusiasm among the players seemed to infect the principals, all of whom were performing their respective roles for the first time. Ludmila Slepneva has sufficient power and technique to essay Elizabetta, but she seemed preoccupied with the notes rather than the music. And the notes to which she devoted such care were thrifty on ornamentation. Her voice on this occasion also had a tendency to spread at the top in some instances, while turning shrewish at others. Nonetheless she turned out an effective “Vive Ingrato” in the final scene. Comparisons with singers of the past who have scored in this role are admittedly silly. But Slepnova has formidable competition in this Fach from contemporaries such as Alexandrina Pendatchanska. There’s an Elisabetta!

Marie-Belle Sandis fared better as Sara, Elisabetta’s rival for the affections of Roberto Devereux. Hers is a dark mezzo that retains its warmth from top to bottom. She is not exactly suited for Sara, but she came closest to surmounting the lethargy around her.

Juhan Tralla in the eponymous role sounded the most energetic of the three principals, but it became apparent that he has yet to master his part. He has a pleasing and flexible lyric instrument that holds up under pressure, but he too seemed preoccupied with getting out the notes, rather than enlivening them.

The rest of the principal roles were capably rounded out by Thomas Berau (Nottingham), Mihail Mihylov (Raleigh) and Christoph Wittmann (Cecil).

Thinking back on these two performances and the marked contrast in effect, it occurs to me that Fledermaus is a German/Austrian work that was performed by German-speaking artists, whereas Devereux is an Italian work that was played out on this occasion with quite possibly no Italians onstage. Admittedly, most of the live performances of Devereux I’ve heard have been sung by non-Italians, but the Italianate stylistic panache was always there. At the same time, I failed to sense a Germanic or northern European approach to the music, as is palpable in numerous pirate recordings of Donizetti operas in German. Are we now in a New Age of an intra-national style of performing opera?

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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