Saturday, April 17, 2010


Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg
Cologne 5 April 2010

If you’re an opera lover (and if you’re not, why are you reading this?), you probably know that Europe is the place to be at Eastertide. Nearly every major city, and even a lot of minor municipalities mount non-stop lyric theater events. The choices you have to make can be bewildering. If you found yourself in the westernmost part of Germany this past Easter Monday, did you attend a Traviata in Bonn, a Gypsy Baron in Pforzheim, or a Parsifal in --let’s see now-- Stuttgart, Frankfurt or Düsseldorf?

I opted for Meistersinger in Cologne because it had three things going for it: of all the alternatives, it’s my favorite opera, the opera house is a 10 minute trolley ride from where I’m staying at the moment, and the cast featured an only-appearance-this-season appearance by Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther von Stoltzing. I can’t get enough of this voice, and Vogt, wisely, doesn’t sing that frequently.

I was sort of dreading my final choice, because Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s controversial staging has several complicated moments for Walther. But the cash-strapped Cologne Opera found the stash to fund sufficient rehearsals for the performance, which went much more smoothly than when I attended the production’s first performances last autumn. Not necessarily a good thing, for its infelicities, especially in the final scene became all the more apparent.

In place of the meadows outside Nuremberg, Laufenberg puts the Song Trial in a recreation of the plaza outside the Cologne Opera House. The set is dominated by a jumbotron that shows, among other scenes, video of the Mastersingers and honored guests entering the theater before taking their places on the stage. That makes sense enough. Mixed in with these proceedings, though, are a newsreel of vignettes showing Cologne before, during and after World War II plus scenes from a previous production of Meistersinger. Huh? When Walther finally takes the stage for his Prize Song, the projections switch to close-ups of Vogt looking dreamy before a background of amber-hued landscapes. To put it charitably, it’s distracting, not to mention awful.

Nonetheless, Vogt sang with even greater persuasiveness than in Berlin several weeks ago in the same role. His is a phenomenal voice: bright, light, penetrating and, for me, soulful. Admittedly, it is so unusual, that it’s not to everyone’s taste. A vocal professor I met during the breaks complained of a “disembodied” quality that left him cold. That quality is evident in the broadcasts of Meistersinger at Bayreuth, where Vogt is currently cast as Walther in Katharina Wagner’s production under Christian Thielemann. The microphone does not love him.

Vogt was partnered in this performance by Barbara Haveman, stepping in for ailing Astrid Weber. She was no disappointment, projecting a well-focussed sound that retained its sucrose in the heftier portions of “O Sachs, mein Freund...” and the Quintet.

The other principals in the cast have grown into their parts since the production’s premiere (see my report). Especially rewarding was Robert Holl as Sachs. Could but all singers mature with such grandiose gracefulness! Despite a moment of breath-catching in Sach’s Oration, Holl’s shoemaker was indeed a masterful singer.

General Music Director Markus Stenz led the Gürzenich Orchestra and the augmented chorus with sensible tempi and majestic sweep, but he still needs to parse out the dynamics. The outset of the prelude to Act One is marked “mezzo-forte.” And with good reason: the forte at the conclusion of the prelude must sound significantly louder Throughout the performance, the difference between loud and loudest was minimal.

All told, though, a richly satisfying performance.

©Sam H. Shirakawa
Photos: Forster

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Chicken or the Egg

Sam Shirakawa is back in Cologne to see a new production of Strauss's Capriccio:

30 May 2009

Which comes first in creating musical theatre – the music or the words?

Who cares? Of all things to be concerned about in 1942, as Armageddon approaches!

The premiere of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio took place that year on 28 October in Munich. The War was now in its fourth year, food rationing had begun, the deportation of Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables to death camps had been initiated. The Gestapo was everywhere, the number of wounded soldiers on leave was increasing daily.

Despite the huge costs of prosecuting the aggressions the Nazis had initiated, the performing arts continued to function with lavish support approved by Hitler himself. Keeping up the appearance of normalcy on the home front and distracting the public from worrying about the war were top priorities for the regime. According to historian Gerhardt Splitt, more than a dozen new books appeared that year, in addition to premieres of 17 new plays, seven films and three operas, including Capriccio.

If the intent of all state-sanctioned works at the time was distraction, what better theme for a distracting opera than what comes first --words or music? Strauss was particularly concerned with textual matters at the time, because he had long since lost two valued collaborators: Hugo von Hoffmannstal had died in 1929, and Stefan Zweig was forced to emigrate because he was Jewish. Strauss ultimately set the text of Capriccio himself, with the help of Clemens Krauss, who conducted the World Premiere in Munich.

What must it have been like to be a performing artist during that period? On the one hand, musicians, singers and actors had certain privileges, such as extra food rations, military exemption and preferred living accommodations. On the other hand, a false step could mean dismissal, even death. Strauss felt compelled to be especially circumspect, because he was protecting his Jewish daughter-in-law.

Such is the milieu in which Christian Götz sets his production of Capriccio at the Cologne Opera, which opened this past Saturday 30 May. Everything happening on stage takes place under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo. The backdrop at first shows a tilt-up view of a winding staircase leading to a dome showing mythological maidens dancing around the perimeter. Later, it depicts the staircase crumbling from an explosion and one of the maidens falling from the dome. Everybody tries to act normally, but even the act of acting takes on peculiar tension, as the Gestapo in grey leather trench coats reveal their menacing presence amid the bright silks, powdered wigs and 18th century costumes.

Götz has come up with a superb conceit that gives new meaning to the seeming triviality of the text and even the music, which many listeners have deemed a work of finely-laced drivel? In fact, the “Reichsdramaturg”Rainer Schlösser submitted a report on the premiere in which he called the libretto “a lovely Nothing, out of which Strauss could have composed a magical Something, had both [Krauss and Strauss] not become so talky.” But Götz and his designer Gabriele Jaenecke transform the prattle-filled dialogue into nervous gibberish, as the characters try to function under the stress of surveillance. Strauss’ self-pastiche is also turned into neurotic repetition, as he not-so-subtly reminds his Nazi masters of his past glories, with not-so-subtle whispers from Rosenkavelier and Ariadne. What sounded in the past like senile pastiche becomes through Götz' production a heartbreaking testament of a once-masterful composer broken by intimidation and reduced to pandering.

It’s still crap, you may argue. No rebuttal. But Götz takes his point from the Beatles: try to see it his way. And if you try, as I did after attending this performance, you can’t help but be moved.

Götz’ view was aided in no small part by a uniformly superior cast, as well as a born Strauss-sympathzer at the podim. At times, Solveig Kringelborn as the Countess, looked and even sounded like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, perhaps the most-admired interpreter of the role. But Kringelborn makes the role her own, not merely through her soaring lifts in the Countess’ monologue, but by parsing out a series of telling gestures and glances that probably would never have occurred to the late great Liz. Only at the final moment, after delivering the Countess’ impassioned plea for an opera with words and music that avoid triviality, does it become clear who and what she really is: she changes clothes, dons an extravagant fur coat, picks up two suitcases, and is led away by the Gestapo… Both Götz' staging and Kringelborn are better than Capriccio deserves.

Lest one forgets the estimable contributions of Kringelborn’s colleagues, they were submitted in no special order, by Ashley Holland as the Count, Martin Homrich as Flamand, Miljenko Turk as Olivier, Michael Eder as La Roche, Dalia Schaechter as Clairon, Johannes Preißinger as Monsieur Taupe, Csilla Csovari and Benjamin Bruns as the Italian Singers, Ulrich Hielscher as the Hausmeister, and Luisa Sanch Escanero as the Dancer.

Cologne Opera’s Music Director Markus Stenz is proving himself as capable at steering late Strauss as he is in driving postdiluvian Wagner. The orchestra was in superb form.

Capriccio was the opera in which Kiri Te Kanawa took leave of the Metropolitan Opera. She’s hitting the job market again, by returning to the boards in Cologne next year. Maybe she’ll retread the Countess here too.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, May 15, 2009


Sam revisited Samson et Dalila in Cologne:

13 MAY 2009

I couldn't resist returning for a second visit to the Cologne Opera's scandal-ridden new production of Samson et Dalila, on Wednesday night (13 May), even though I knew full well, like Samson himself, that yielding to such temptation could prove catastrophic. In my report on the premiere, I rehearsed the series of issues that led to two singers portraying Dalila. Net-net: last-minute substitute Ursula Hesse van den Steinen contracted a throat ailment, so she ended up miming the role, while Irena Mishura (who has portrayed the role at the Met) was flown in from Geneva to deliver Dalila from a bridge over the orchestra pit.

At the second performance, Ursula Hesse van den Steinen (is there a marquee anywhere wide enough for this name?) was supposed to mime and sing Dalila, but an announcement from the stage informed us, that she had not yet sufficiently recovered, so Ms. Mishura again did voice-over duty from stage-left. While I couldn't help looking over at the singing Dalila at the premiere, a big-haired woman blocked my view this time around, forcing me to keep my eyes on stage-center.

Several widely circulated opinions about the premiere expressed bewilderment at all the noise surrounding Tilman Knabe's violence-filled production. I fully agree. Truly offensive spectacles are readily available on the tube. What passed nearly unnoticed at the premiere but impressed me most at this performance was the dazzling erotic energy displayed by Ursuala Hesse van den Steinen and the horny High Priest of Eglis Silins in their scene that begins the second act. The heat coming off them as they circled an outsize bed, eyes locked in fervid foreplay: that kind of animal sensuality is found rarely in a live performing framework, much less at the opera. In addition to Ursula's gifts as singer (I've heard her before), -- her dime store negligee reveals a stacked body. Correspondingly, Eglis Silins moves his tall, slender and paunchless frame to and fro with gainly amble. So why, apart from unzipping his fly, does Knabe make him keep his clothes on?

The question is salient, because Ray M. Wade, Jr. as Samson does remove his trousers in the ensuing seduction scene, unfurling a mega-monumental midriff and thundering thighs that herald nothing short of a tsunami. This is a directorial decision that is far more shocking than any truly gross exhibition of violence that Knabe could have concocted. What is the frigging point? Is this well-nigh obscene spectacle of obesity a perverse hommage to Shirley Stoler in Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties? Is Knabe issuing a declaration of himself a chubby chaser? What is clear is that this scene is embarrassing, most specifically for Mr. Wade. This, at the very moment of his hard-won triumph in one of the most demanding roles in the Tenor Fach.

By the way, the singing was uniformly top drawer, and Enrico Delamboye's conducting compared favorably once more to vintage Gewurztraminer -- intense and piquant.

I'm still looking forward to experiencing Ursula multi-task. Meanwhile, I implore Knabe to let Ray keep his pants on.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Barber in the Bull Ring

Sam is still in Cologne - his latest squib is on the final performance of Barber of Seville of the season:

10 May 200

It was only a matter of time before an opera director would come up with the idea: Plop a new production of Rossini's Barber of Seville in the middle of a bullfighting arena. The time came two seasons ago at the Cologne Opera. A production team headed by Christan Schuller dumped the action into the bullring of a bisected stadium. Mini sets, placed on stage wagons of various sizes, rolled on and off by choristers and supernumeraries, gave the audience a notion of where the proceedings were actually taking place.

I don't know what kind of reception Schuller and company received at the premiere, but this past Sunday afternoon, an attentive, nearly full house of spectators responded enthusiastically to this season's final performance of the production's revival. Much of the enthusiasm focused on the cast, which dutifully went through the motions of the staging while focusing their efforts on fleshing out Rossini's delightful score.

She's not ideally suited to the role, but Regina Richter was vocally a cunning Rosina. She rattled off her flights of fioritura with ease and drew wit and irony from the outset with her "Una voce poco fa."

Richter had a versatile foil in Gerardo Garciacano's Figaro, who proved himself as equally at home with Rossini as he was comfortable with Mozart a few days earlier. Garciacano's partner in mischief at that performance of Cosi fan tutte, Benjamin Bruns, turned up again, this time as Almaviva and pursued the Count's amorous adventure with a secure, mellifluous line.

Maurizio Muraro turned out to be a sympathetic Bartolo, while Wilfried Staber turned Don Basilio's "La Calunnia" into a showcase of sonority. Enrico Delamboye returned to the pit on a short turnaround, following a nerve-wracking but successful evening on the podium at the premiere of the Cologne Opera's new Samson et Dalila. His way with Rossini could use a bit more zest, but maybe he and the excellent Gürzenich Orchestra were recovering from a bout of Saturday Night Vibe.

In fairness to the musicians as well as the performing artists, though, much of the sparkle was vitiated by Schuller's middle-brow Barber-in-the-Bullring concept, which he has not thought out clearly. If his view of the mise en scene makes Bartolo the ill-fated bull, as it perforce must, does Rosina embody his ears? Or tail? The concept is further muddied by Jens Killian's brown-dominant stadium and shlock house garments. And where are the blood-thirsty crowds? The stands remain empty for most of the proceedings.

There's a gaping hole here, that Schuller makes no apparent effort to close: Bullfighting rings are places for a blood sport that is tragic at its crux. Il Barbiere di Seviglia is bloody good fun and comedic to its core.

This Barber needs a haircut. And a makeover.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Do Me, Dalila!

Sam Shirakawa is still in Cologne, this time attending the premiere of Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila:
9 MAY 2009

I think it was Mae West who said, "Call me anything, just call me often."

The Cologne Opera has been called a lot of things -- and often -- over the past year. Scandal Number 69: After a variety of problems forced the premiere of its latest new production to be postponed by a week, the curtain finally went up on Camile Saint-Saen's Samson et Dalila before a sell-out crowd this past Saturday evening, 9 May. The time-line of the tempest runs like this (sort of): The originally cast Dalila dropped out about a week before the premiere was set to take place on 2 May, claiming the violent excesses of Tilman Knabe's production were distressing her to the point of indisposition. Her replacement, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (no, the name is NOT taken from The Producers), fell prey to a throat ailment, thereby increasing the suspense -- and the publicity. Meanwhile, a goodly number of chorus members called in sick, because of said production excesses.

Determined to go on with the show nomattawhat, the Cologne Opera management scraped together a quorum of choristers and hastily recruited Irena Mishura from Geneva to sing Dalila from the side of the stage with score in hand, while Ursula Hesse van den Steinen mimed the role.

Did it work? Mostly. In fact, as Mishura vocalized her sultry she-devil with the gratifying confidence of a seasoned courtesan, glancing over at her from time to time over the course of the intermission-less evening became a merciful respite. Here's why:

First of all, Samson et Dalila, apart from two top-o'-the-charts arias, is a third-rate opera by a fifth-rate composer; frequent distractions of almost any sort are a blessing. Second, Knabe's production is not dynamic enough to keep the attention focused on center-stage for the duration. Neither are Beatrix von Pilgrim's sets sufficiently eye-catching to hold undivided attention. Nor do Kathi Maurer's costumes -- including a ticki-tacky seduction outfit for Dalilah -- compel unconditional surrender. Nonetheless, I look forward to attending a future performance, in which Ursula Hesse van den Steinen juggles stage business and singing along with simulated shtupping. (Her Dalila turns two tricks -- the High Priest and Samson -- within a half hour and still comes up like she's humming for more!)The lip-sync compromise would have worked perfectly as a diversion, had it not been for the mesmerizing, nuanced Samson of American and long-time Cologne Opera member Ray M. Wade, Jr. Whenever he opened his mouth, all eyes and ears gravitated to him alone. Whenever I’ve heard him previously, he invariably essayed a large, disciplined, but dynamically invariable spinto tenor that hardly betrayed a trace of the Gallic heroism required by such a hefty role as Samson. Maybe he's been tutored under the care of an expert in la Style Français, or maybe he's just listened closely to recordings left us by the likes of Paul Franz and Emile Scaramberg -- or maybe both. Whatever. Ray purveyed the pay-off of his studies on Saturday night with stentorian passion and muscular grace. He's made a break-through with Samson, and intendants at international houses might do well to pay heed. This production, though, raises a serious issue, that could prevent Ray from attaining the heights he otherwise deserves. That matter I will discuss in discursive terms shortly.

Another worthy distraction took shape in the High Priest of Eglis Silins, whose virile, athletic vocalism matched his colleagues note for note. This lanky Lithuanian bass-baritone has an easy-going sensuality in both his singing and stage demeanor that renders him international star material. Why the stars have yet to align in his favor in a big way remains one of the mysteries of contemporary opera politics.

Nearly forgotten in the midst of all the hoo-ha: the idiomatic and fluidly paced conducting of Enrico Delamboye. He won a huge ovation from the audience at the curtain calls, as well as a round of floor stomping in the orchestra pit.

For all the outrage and external noise the production has aroused, the opening night crowd sat still through the scenes of amok-running on stage and, minus a boo here and there at the curtain calls, gave the production team a big hand. The magazine Das Bild has dubbed the event "brutally good."

Now a couple of thoughts about Tilman Knabe's production. He's updated the period from Biblical antiquity (11th century BC, I believe) to the current age, so muted machine gun fire replaces sabre-clunking. (It's not clear who the Philistine soldiers are supposed to be in this frame of reference.)

No matter.

The operative word in viewing the scenes depicting sex, mass rape and genocide is "simulation." Given the numbing glare of today's real-life prurience and violence on TV news, cable and the Internet, Knabe's simulations of human behavior at its ugliest strike me as anemic. If he knows what it's like to be in the midst of a combat zone, he is obviously at a loss to portray convincing tableaux of it. Much too tame, lieber Knabe! Give us some real violence on stage! Why not, for example, slay the uppity prima donna and rebellious choristers, five or six at each performance, and eviscerate them in full view of the audience? But even that seems old hat, given the plethora of snuff films floating around.

So here is where Knabe and other "artists" paint themselves into a corner, when they try exploiting gratuitous violence in the theater of our times. It's cold coffee. They might succeed in offending a few colleagues, but the shock-inured public is way ahead of them. On Saturday evening, some audience members, far from being outraged, were snickering dismissively. The only viable option left to stage directors who keep pushing the violence envelop is, in my view, to co-opt and advance the animation-driven, blood-drenched universe of certain best-selling video games: Out-grand Grand Theft Auto, by splashing mindless beheadings and such in blown-up detail beyond the limits of the proscenium arch. And go 4-D by dousing the audience with genuine cold blood. Do Next-Level Wannabes like Knabe, though, have the stomach for truly upsetting bourgeois audiences?

All of which is not to say, that Knabe's staging failed in inducing Aristotelian awe, pity and so on. Far from it. I cannot recall a moment throughout years of theatre-going, in which I felt so seized with grim amazement, as when Ray M. Wade, Jr., shucked his trousers to mount Ursula Hesse van den Steinen in the second act seduction scene, baring girth so gargantuan that it mocked Biblical proportions, flashing corpulence so awesome, that I wanted desperately to look away. But couldn't. Was it really socially responsible for Knabe to treat us to the breath-stopping harvest of Ray's evident penchant for massive consumption? Would Knabe have been so needlessly flesh-forward had he been directing Pavarotti?

But now, at least, I suspect I know the real reason why the originally cast Dalilah pulled out: she found the role too heavy.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Love’s Labours Belaboured

Sam Shirakawa was back in Cologne to catch a performance of Mozart's Cosí fan tutte:

7 May 2009

Having heard most of the Mozart’s stage works that I've attended performed in large international opera houses, I’m always struck by the pleasure I find in even a faulty production, whenever I hear it in theaters less cavernous than, say, the Met or Covent Garden. Mozart composed for the masses, but in small gatherings. The architecturally distinguished home of the Cologne Opera is hardly a hole-in-the-wall, but it’s just the right fit for the revival of Michael Hampe’s virtually fault-free, no-frills 2006 production of Cosí fan tutte.

He’s retained the locale – the Bay of Naples – but he’s moved the period from the 18th century to what looks like the 1930s, if his sets and Carlo Tomassi’s quietly elegant costumes are anything to go by. Despite a penchant for grey, their production still sparkles by leaving most of the pep-work to Mozart’s contrapuntal wit and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s cheerful irony.

The rest of the labors, of course, are carried out by Christopher Mould’s stylish conducting and a cohesive cast that’s drawn from company’s resident roster. Katharina Leye and Adriana Bastidas Gamboa as Fiordiligi and Dorabella respectively have just the right weight and agility to convey their weaknesses as characters, as they fall prey to their lovers’ scheme to test their constancy. Gerardi Garanciano’s Gugliemo and Benjamin Bruns’ Ferrando purvey more than enough charm to outshine the peculiar side of their characters: Have these guys nothing better to do than to embarrass their sweethearts? Werner van Machelen as the instigator of the plot Don Alfonso gives the winking impression that his bet against the ladies' fidelity is a guaranteed win. Claudia Rohrbach’s irresistable Despina consistently proves that a resourceful maid is always mistress to her mesdames.

It would be churlish to pick out arias and the way this singer or that one has with them in this performance. The artists work as a team, interacting and relating to one another in ways that you rarely find at international houses, where Grabbing the Spotlight is the name of the game. Which leaves me to wonder whether I'm getting the right point of all the delightful shenanigans the Mozart and da Ponte concoct: If all women are fickle, aren't men all the more fatuous for loving them no less?

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Aural Viagra (or Tristan Redux)

Sam went back to the Cologne Tristan to see if he could catch lightning in a bottle ... he claims to have captured "aural Viagra" instead:

8 May 2009

To discover a dream singer before the Great Unwashed is told what to think: It makes all those ho-hum hours of so-so opera-going worthwhile. There’s little else to compare with the thrill of hearing–-to name only a few--Regine Crespin, Jon Vickers, Marilyn Horne, Kiri te Kanawa, René Pape, Juan Diego Flórez before they became big stars. But to discover within a week not one but two turbojet singers who may be destined to join their ranks... that’s aural Viagra!

Recently I reported on finding mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova at the Cologne Opera, belting out what I called a “hair-raising” Brangäne. I could hardly believe it, so I returned a few days later to the succeeding performance of Tristan. She took a few dozen bars to really get with the program this time, but she nonetheless confronted me again with a voice that diddles the nerve-endings and invigorates those arcane longings that only a select few larynges can induce.

At this performance, a second discovery: Samuel Youn as Kurwenal. This South Korean bass-baritone, now in his mid-30s, was reportedly one of the few cast members who drew approval at the production’s much maligned premiere two months ago. (I have no doubt, that some readers may well be muttering: You’re only discovering him now? Catch up, Sam,– this guy’s already appeared at Bayreuth in Christoph Schlingensief’s production of Parsifal!. To which, I with abject contrition can only reply: Silly me, who could possibly forget that fabulous Second Knight on the radio four years ago...?)

Youn’s curriculum vitae shows that he’s been around and around, and he’s used his time profitably in honing his voice into a force to be reckoned with. It’s big, bright and it lingers in the ear -- a baritone with a distinctive vocal (and stage) profile. Unfortunately, Wagner gives Kurwenal only one real crack at taking command of the stage, but Youn made the most of it on this occasion in his third act duologue with Tristan.

The Cologne Opera has in Youn and Zhidkova a pair of powerhouse vocalists, and its beleaguered management should make sure it doesn't miss a golden opportunity to market their respective and combined merits. Here’s a proposal for the suits to consider: Cast Zhidkova as Dalilah in the current dropout-ridden new production of Samson, whose scandals are making it fodder for ridicule. Nobody will give a damn about the production if she’s on stage. (If she hasn’t learned the role yet, lock her in a rehearsal room with a coach or just have her sing it from the vocal score.) Mount Rigoletto and Il Tabarro for Youn. Recast Barbiere and revive Don Carlo for them both. Top line them in a Germany's Got Talent monster benefit concert. If you don’t do it now, somebody else soon will...

Two other noteworthy cast changes at this performance: Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter as Isolde and Mischa Schelomianski as King Mark. I first heard Schneider-Hofstetter as Minnie about seven years ago in Wiesbaden, when big plans for her were being hatched. A number of them have materialised. The voice has also grown in the interim – large enough to give Zhidkova a breath-baiting sprint for the money. Their first and second act exchanges raised the decibel level way into the red zone -- unusually exciting Can Belto -- more commonly heard on Pasta Nights. In its current estate, Hofstetter's soprano is evenly distributed and brightens metallically under pressure. She also possesses two pigments that complete the picture Gabriella Schnaut tried with variable success to paint: a pair of secure, well-placed and sustained high-Cs. (In fact, Gabi could manage neither top C convincingly, when she visited Cologne with Siegfried Jerusalem in Gunter Kramer's laser-lousy production a couple of years ago.)

If the audience applause level at the curtain calls was any indication, Schelomianski is a house favorite. He has a rich, compelling sound, but I would have welcomed a more plaintive articulation of King Mark’s self-pity.

Robert Gambill’s Tristan was in far better form that in his previous performance. His top, especially in the third act, seemed freer and more luminous than it was five days earlier. In fact, Gambill enacts the role more effectively than a couple of better known Tristans, who have appeared at the Met lately.

Some ragged entrances and intonation issues – an oboe was at one point markedly out of tune in the third act – diminished the otherwise grand sweep of the orchestral playing somewhat, but the Cologne Opera’s music director Markus Stenz maintained the impression he initially gave me of a master Wagner conductor well into the making.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A Lotta Night music

After Bremen, Sam went to Cologne to see their controversial new production of
Cologne Opera
3 MAY 2009

The once mighty Cologne Opera has been having a tough time of late. This season the company has met with much printed and public disapprobation. In the latest scandal, the premiere of a new Samson et Dalilah, set for 2 May, had to be postponed a week. The originally announced Dalilah quit, after finding the production -- reportedly redolent with violence and rape -- too distressing. Her replacement dropped out at the last minute, citing illness.

On the following afternoon, I arrived from Bremen, just in time to witness the specter of another roundly heckled new production on the boards of the opera house. Few, it seems, liked David Pountney's setting of Tristan und Isolde when it was unveiled back in March. Even fewer liked the principals. Not much could be done about the production, but several cast changes were effected, and the show has been going on with hastily engaged replacements. The performance I was now witnessing sort of amounted to a somewhat newer new production of Tristan.

Since I was not present at the premiere, comparisons are not just odious but impossible. Pountney certainly has his detractors, but I certainly have been subjected to productions of Tristan that struck me as far worse. The only substantive objection I have to Pountney's staging is its visual disconnect between the middle and outer acts. Designer Robert Israel sets the first act with a grey ship on a grey Irish Sea. The last act is set in a similarly grey-hued cemetery. The second act, however, looks like an outsize fun house you might find in the toy section of a department store-- bright colored slabs of geometric constructs, strewn about a slowly revolving turntable.

None of this bothered me in the slightest, because nearly everything else about this performance was so surprising, so bodacious!
Swiss soprano Marion Ammann was a last-minute replacement, but she looked, moved and above all sounded as though she had been the chosen Isolde all along. But be warned -- especially those awaiting the Second Coming of St. Birgit: Ammann is different and quite possibly a throwback to an earlier epoch. How such a solid but beautiful sound can emanate from such a slender, willowy torso is truly a wonder. And, ah, the sweet sorrow that informs her glance as her tall, tortured Isolde remembers how she became powerless to prevent herself from dropping the sword, as she tried to kill Tristan: simply haunting. Those who recently heard Irene Theorin at the Met might summon comparisons, but Ammann is warmer, more vulnerable: Germaine Lubin resurrected.

Ammann also had the good fortune of playing off American Robert Gambill, another replacement whose grandly nuanced Tristan sounded and acted as though weeks of rehearsal had come to satisfying fruition. Gambill is a Tamino-turned-Tristan, who I first heard as Siegmund about eight years ago. He looks like a leading man and moves graciously. His voice has heft and stamina, but it tends to recede as it ascends beyond F, which puts a clamp on the tone, where it ought to open out. Nonetheless, Gambill shows signs of neither wear nor tear, as he finds himself in what appears to be a golden period of his career.

Some years ago, when Soviet mezzo-soprano Elena Obratztova took the Free World by storm, I wondered (perversely) how she would sound as Brangäne. Now I know. But putting it this way does disservice to both Obratztova and a diminutive, Lolita-looking singer named Elena Zhidkova. How often can you describe a singer portraying Brangäne as "hair-raising?" As big-voiced as Amman and Gambill are, Zhidkova's is by far bigger and ballsier than you're likely ever to get without invoking Sigrid Onegin. And like Onegin, she is also capable of mystical subtlety, as evidenced in her exchanges with Ammann. So mind your backs ladies, and I mean YOU -- Olga, Ewa, Larissa, Magdalena et cie: this one's for real and her handlers are comin' straight atcha!

Thomas J. Meyer was a virile sounding Kurwenal, Gerardo Graciacano a malicious Melot and Alfred Reiter an unusually introspective King Marke.

The performance was ultimately made cohesive by the direction of Markus Stenz, the Cologne Opera's music chief, who induced the kind of orchestral tension that I have come to expect mostly from much older Wagner conductors. He shows the kind of innate understanding of this work, at which recordings under great conductors hint, but never teach. Too bad, he chose to perform it with standard cuts -- no Tag und Nacht, etc.

Whoever played the English horn solo (no program credit) in the third act was marvelous.

The takeaway: Forget about the noise surrounding this production. This performance ranks among the all-time top five of the 40-odd Tristans I have attended thus far. The other four? Don't ask.

© Sam Shirakawa

Tristan Production Photo courtesy of Opera Cologne (© Klaus Lefebvre)

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