Tuesday, April 13, 2010



Oper Leipzig
2 April, 2010

What a deliciously perverse idea!
Hitler’s supposedly favorite opera Rienzi presented on Good Friday in Wagner’s hometown! 

That was the inspiration of Oper Leipzig under the artistic direction of Peter Konwitschny, son of fabled, politically controversial, conductor Franz Konwitschny.  If the sparse attendance at this performance was a reliable barometer, maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea after all.  Leipzig’s operagoers seemed more in the mood for an operetta gala playing at the city’s Musical Komödie.  It was sold out to the rafters.  I caught the first half of this delightful potpourri before racing to the main opera house in time for the start of Rienzi

Too bad the attendance for Rienzi was so slim, because this production was musically, at least, excellent.  Admittedly, I’ve never heard a complete, unabridged Rienzi live -- it takes about six hours to perform, not counting intermissions.  At best, the live performances I’ve heard in New York, Berlin, Bremen, and now Leipzig amount to summaries or highlights.  Each version has featured numbers that were excluded from the others. The current Leipzig production took four hours, including two intermissions, just long enough to savor a smorgasbord of ideas that Wagner was cooking up for his future operas. 

Like most well-organized musical buffets, Rienzi offers generous portions of tantalizing tidbits to abate aural hunger, providing you have an appetite for German operatic cuisine.  And that caveat may irk some operagoers:  a lot of Rienzi is just loud.   Beautiful, yes, but loud.  Its principal dramatic theme is the dynamic of political power, and even the loss of influence does not necessarily mean less volume.  Beefy singers in the leading roles must always be able to run the estimable distance from forte to fortissimo without tiring, and make themselves sound interesting.  

The title role in particular. 

In this production, Stefan Vinke delivered the goods in surprisingly interesting fashion.  All the more surprising, because he has bettered himself in every professional respect since I last heard him in Leipzig as Lohengrin.  Back then (2006), he seemed sufficiently competent to essay the Grail Knight, but his stage demeanor was at best tentative.  That, however, was then, and his voice has now emerged fully armed from Euterpe’s larynx: dark, virile and evenly distributed.  It can sustain itself through distended declamation without degenerating into droning.  In rare moments of quietude, his consummate musicality and affinity to this music evince a deeply felt sensitivity that eludes so many heroic tenors.   Undeniably, the voice has accrued some metal, but it has also retained ample honey.  His account of “Almächt'ger Vater, blick herab” received sustained, richly deserved applause.   The jury is still out on his stage demeanor, but the role doesn’t demand much more than ambling about looking important, which Vinke manifestly succeeded in doing.  

Marika Schönberg as Rienzi’s daughter Irene seemed a bit uncertain at the outset, but proved sufficiently reliable once she hit her stride.  Her stage personality is still in the process of defining itself, but she shows optimistic signs of becoming an A-Class opera singer. 

Charika Mavropoulou stepped in as Adriano for the indisposed Elena Zhidkova.  She also shows signs of heading for major-league opera houses, but she is encumbered with excess weight in a trouser-role that demands quite a bit of running around.  That said, she is in full possession of a ballsy mezzo-soprano that induces thrilling frissons at full-throttle. 

Miklos Sebastien as Colonna, Jürgen Kürth as Orsini and Roman Astakhov rounded out the principal roles without fault. 

Thanks to Matthias Foremny’s richly detailed reading and supernal playing from the Gewandhaus Orchestra, I heard details that I never noticed before in this music.  Take, for example, the elegiac postlude to Rienzi’s prayer.  It's long, seemingly rambling and fitfully anticipates the conclusion to Elisabeth’s prayer in Tannhäuser.  But Foremny and the Gewandhaus made it sound unique unto itself.   

I’ve left mentioning Nicolas Joel’s production to last, because it is the least impressive element of this otherwise superior mounting.  Why Rienzi is dressed in an Ancient Roman tunic, while almost everybody else is dressed in Gangsta Moderne, never becomes apparent.  If it was an effort to distinguish the ill-fated Tribune from everyone else in the plot, the ploy succeeded only in exposing Stefan Vinke’s estimable gams.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Wagner alla Romana

Sam Shirakawa will be in Europe for the next few months, reporting to us periodically on what he sees and hears.

Bremen 2 May 2009
video clips

You may know that Richard Wagner's breakout work was Rienzi, his third opera. It was supposed to have its premiere in 1840 in Paris, but Wagner had to get out of town because of his political activities. The first performance finally took place in Dresden in 1842. Despite its six-hour-plus duration (long even for Wagner), it was perhaps the composer's most frequently performed work during his lifetime. It's often said, that this opera is rarely produced these days, but that's not really the case. A partial list: The English National Opera staged it in 1983, the Komische Oper Berlin mounted it in 1992 and revived it in 1999, the Vienna State Opera put it up for Siegfried Jerusalem in 1998, Oper Leipzig produced it last year, and the Opera Orchestra of New York has presented it twice in concert form.

Wagner himself, of course, eventually found his breakout work to be an embarassment, and his heirs have yet to permit a production of it at Bayreuth--though certain family members have been agitating for mounting ALL of the composer's stage oeuvre at the composer's shrine.

One of those activist clan members is Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the Master and youngest child of Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson and recently retired Lord of the Sanctum Sanctorum. She, along with her half-sister Eva, is now co-director of the annual Festival at Bayreuth. This year she directed a production of it in Bremen, so I trekked all the way to this lovely Hanseatic city to attend its 13th and final performance this season.

The fascistic themes of the plot, based on a book by the 19th century English nobleman, writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton, may have emboldened Katharina to revisit those very leitmotifs that her family has sought assiduously to avoid since the end of World War II. The story revolves around Cola di Rienzi, a medieval Italian politician, who defeats a grim coterie of nobles in behalf of the populace. But the power Rienzi accrues goes to his head, and he ultimately is crushed by his erstwhile supporters.

In a simple stroke of theatrical brilliance, Katharina uses wigs to show how the trappings of power and the futility of vanity are inextricably related in the hero's ascent. Katharina's Rienzi is bald, but donning facsimiles of hair invigorates his political potency: the trendier the wig, the greater his power. She also arms Rienzi with a flame-throwing device that becomes a one-man instrument of annihilation. Katharina's designer Tilo Steffans places a huge faux-alabaster statue of a female deity on a stage-length set of steps. The statue ultimately devolves into a prurient cartoon poster, as the decadence that Rienzi causes turns the Glory that was Rome into a lascivious caricature of itself.

While Katharina's basic take on her great-grandfather's nascent work frequently provokes even as it amuses, it's hard to make out where she is leading us. Yes, power corrupts and ultimately destroys itself. But so what? Rienzi doesn't lose all his hair as he loses power. And yes, I am also aware of the commonplace wisdom that tells us that powerful friends can turn into deadly enemies. (A certain recently elected world leader is learning that sad fact.) Perhaps the point lies in those immoveable steps, spanning the stage. They remain unchanged through bloodbaths and debauchery- They also lead nowhere...

What strikes me as most fascinating about the work as a whole, though, is that Wagner is forced to articulate in a musical language that is not his own. You hear bits and chunks of Tannhäuser and Dutchman straining to burst out, but hardly a trace of Tristan, not to mention Parisfal. Wagner at this stage of his career must still speak through the tub-thumping, rum-ti-tum conventions of early 19th century Italian opera and the inflated gestures that animated Parisian Grand Opera of his time. To experience the eventual revolutionary composer of the Ring "putting out" for paltry approval is both unnverving and, at times, utterly delectable.

No less delectable in this production, which was performed with about half an hour worth of cuts -- not including the 40-minute ballet -- is the singing. Hats off to American heldentenor Mark Duffin in the killer title role. His big, beefy timbre never tires, as it bulldozes its way through page after page of stentorian declamation. While Duffin's tenor runs the risk of turning coarse if he sings like this too often, his musicality prevents it in this instance from taxing the ear.

As Rienzi's sister Irene, Duffin's fellow American Patricia Andress soared effortlessly above the staff, as her role evolved act by act into what might be described as Senta's step-sister. If Andress' professional ambitions are leaning toward Wagner, she already has at least one listener looking forward to her Brühnnhilde.

Why Wagner conceived of Irene's lover Adriano as a trouser-role remains a mystery for me, even though he tailored it for his favorite Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who created the role. But if singers like Tamara Klivadenko are assigned to it, I have no regrets. It's hard to say in which direction Klivadenko is leaning, but her bright and warm Adriano left me with the impression that her options are wide open.
The English National Opera staged it in 1983, the Komische Oper Berlin mounted it

Other standouts in the cast were Pavel Kudinov as Steffano Colonna, Loren Lang as Paolo Orsini and Franz Becker-Urban as Kardinal Raimondo.

Daniel Montané leading the Bremen Philharmonic and the Theater Bremen Chorus brought focus and clarity to a score that seems at times to ramble. Speaking of the orchestra, it never fails to astonish me how much superior the brass and woodwinds sound among so-called provincial pit orchestras in comparison to some of their counterparts in so-called "major" opera houses.

© Sam Shirakawa

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