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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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:

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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