Saturday, April 17, 2010

MORE MEISTER SINGING

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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Friday, October 02, 2009

Disdaining the Master's Art

Sam Shirakawa went to Cologne last week to see Wagner's Die Meistersinger:

WAGNER: DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG
26 September 2009
Cologne

As I was leaving the Cologne Opera House, following a performance of Die Meistersinger last Saturday night. I couldn’t help but overhear two women conversing behind me:

“I didn’t understand the production at all,” said one in a distinctive Kölner accent.

“Neither did I,” replied the other.

I could barely keep myself from turning around to add: “And neither did I.”

Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s new production starts off with all the characters, with the exception of Walther von Stolzing, in period costumes--possibly the Wilhelmenian era. He is sporting a tie-less black suit that could possibly bear a Hugo Boss label. He is also snapping photos with a camera that is presumably digital. (The flash didn’t function on Saturday night.) The set sketches out a church -- presumably St. Katharine’s Church in Nuremberg. Is Walther then a visitor from the future?

In the second Act, the outdoor setting, top hats and bustles suggest the same period. Walther’s white satin dress coat suggests that he has quickly adjusted to the fashions of the times.

The interior of Hans Sachs’ house in the final act, though, is decked out in what looked like 1960s Bargain Outlet or maybe DDR Moderne. And the final scene takes place, not on the meadows outside Nuremberg’s walls, but on the plaza outside the Cologne Opera House -- presumably NOW. A mini-Jumbotron flashes a video montage of Cologne’s history over the past century, using archive photos, newsreels and other films, many of which I have never seen before. As a bonus, televised excerpts of from an earlier production of Meistersinger (no sound though) are interspersed with the other images.

Confusing? Distracting? No, just awful.

Thanks largely to Markus Stenz’s leadership at the podium, the performance withstood most of the on-stage shenanigans. Stenz’ love of Wagner was palpable in every measure of the score, as he moved the musical impulses in a seamlessly ascendent direction from start to finish. Only in the final scene did the powerful images on the Jumbotron overwhelm the thrust of the music. Despite a flub here and there, the Gürzenich Orchestra produced continuous incandescence.

Before the performance started an announcement from the stage informed the audience that Marco Jentzsch (Walther) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser) were suffering from colds and asking for indulgence. Kränzle fared better of the two. In fact, his scrivener was one of the most touchingly sung I have experienced live. Kränzle plays Beckmesser as an infatuated middle-age schoolboy. The desperate desire to please in his protracted second act serenade was well-nigh embarrassing.

Jentzsch, singing the role for the first time, got through the first two acts with style and in full, rounded voice. In the third act, he nursed his voice through the first scene and managed to deliver a prize-winning Prize Song in the finale. Given the circumstances, it’s difficult to assess what appears to be potential revealed, rather promise fulfilled. Jentzsch is young, tall and good-looking with a bright sizable tenor in the middle range. Since he sang most of the exposed upper notes between F and A in half voice, it’s impossible to say whether he’s in full possession of The Right Stuff for middle-weight Wagner.

Astrid Weber delivered a charming, occasionally neurotic Eva. Her voice shows signs of turning acidic at the top, but it retained its focus throughout the long evening.

Carsten Süß as David has two voices -- a candy-sweet lower and middle voice and another voice in the upper register that falls back into the head. If he can knead the two voices into one instrument, he could become a Lohengrin to be reckoned with.

The two glories of the evening were Bjarni Thor Kristinsson as Pogner and Robert Holl as Sachs. I never have heard Kristinsson before, and I wondered where I’ve been keeping myself. If you remember Gottlob Frick and Kurt Boehme, remember this: they live on in Kristinsson.

I’ve heard Robert Holl here and there for many years, but it’s hard to believe that nearly four decades have gone by since he started making the rounds on the international opera circuit. He is one of those blessed few singers who last long enough to implement the experience they acquire. Holl is still going strong and sounding better than ever.

As he struck a solid F in Sach’s peroration, I wondered what he thinks of some of his colleagues, who, though much younger, can barely make it through a performance.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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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:

R. STRAUSS: CAPRICCIO NEW PRODUCTION
COLOGNE
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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Monday, May 11, 2009

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:

WAGNER: TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
Cologne
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
WAGNER: TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
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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