Sunday, June 07, 2009

Weekend Child

Sam Shirakawa took a break from opera-going to attend the Berlin premiere of a new documentary about Otmar Suitner (this film was shown in at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City in November 2007 as part of the Berlin in Lights festival):

NACH DER MUSIK (English Title: A Father's Music) [105 mins]
A Documentary on Otmar Suitner by Igor Heitzmann
Premiere: Berlin 17 May

Few are the documentaries about musicians that reveal more about their subjects than their audiences already know -- or should know. Little and much is known about the Austrian conductor Otmar Suitner (pronounced Sweet-ner), who is now 87 years old. Little besides the chronological facts is known about him professionally and personally, primarily because he spent most of his career behind the Iron Curtain, making only periodic guest appearances in the West and Far East. A lot, though, is known about him musically through his huge output of recordings on Communist-backed labels and Japanese imports.

The release of a documentary entitled Nach der Musik is remarkable, because it opens the door -- just a crack-- on a man and musician, who coulda-woulda-shoulda become a Titan among conductors in the second half of the twentieth century. And didn't. But the want of giga-stardom seems of no concern to Suitner. Nor does it worry film maker Igor Heitzmann, possibly because of his relationship to his film's subject:

Heitzmann is Suitner's son out of wedlock.

As Music Director of East Berlin's Staatsoper (1964-1989) and a privileged citizen of the Communist Block, Suitner was pretty much free to shuttle between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. What started off as a regular break from the bleakness of Bebelplatz became a regular necessity after he began an extra-marital relationship with a woman living in West Berlin. She eventually bore Suitner a son-- Igor -- a "Weekend Child" as such progeny were then called. Suitner's (recently deceased) wife discloses that she knew about both the relationship and the child, but she never sought to leave him. A telling glance, gesture, and inflection here and there conspire to obviate the necessity for explanation: there could be no other man for her. The same can be said for why Heitzmann's mother, who also appears in the film, remained single.

Heitzmann reportedly spent four years on the project, much of it, I imagine, chasing down archive performances and news clips. He disperses them generously throughout what emerges as an engrossing labor of love -- as rich in subtle detail as it is thoughtful in design. Heitzmann is indeed his father's son. And here is where Nach der Musik forks away from most other music documentaries: We get a cumulative sense of the ineffable human impulse that sparks the inexplicable musical impulse. Sometimes a book or an article can convey that sense, but only a film or video can (with lucky timing) capture it with that's-it! that's-it! immediacy. Heitzmann lucks out frequently.

Suitner all but disappeared from the musical scene shortly before the Wall crumbled in 1989. Many assumed the Stasi or some other evil had caught up with him. Indeed: Parkinson's. Suitner says he quit because he considered the disease unsightly, even though he acknowledges that some other well-known conductors (past and present) have persevered despite their afflictions. But his reasoning proves disingenuous when, in a revealing sequence, he conducts a portion of his favorite symphony (I won't name it) at a recent reunion with his former colleagues at the Staatsoper. A wonderful performance, profound in its simplicity. I suspect it wasn't embarassment that prompted his withdrawal from the podium; it was abrogation of will.

Suitner attended the premiere two weeks ago at Berlin's fabled art-deco cinema, Babylon. We spoke briefly, and he seemed agreeable to a lengthier conversation soon. I hope he keeps his word.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Springtime for Hitler and Berlin

Sam Shirakawa was there for the opening night of The Producers in Berlin. Here's his squib:

Berlin Premiere
17 May 2009
See some video clips

Adolf Hitler returned to conquer Germany this past Sunday... in Mel Brook's The Producers.

It took about eight years to bring the smash Broadway hit musical to Germany, but both critics and glitterati attending the gala premiere at the Admiralspalast -- one of Hitler's favorite theaters -- agreed that it was worth the wait.

Security was extra tight. Any show or film dealing with the Third Reich arouses Angst among Germans. It's unlawful to display the Nazi flag in public, and even pretzels replacing swastikas on banners outside the theater have regularly prompted complaints to the police. But once the crowd filed past the flanks of paparazzi, TV reporters and their crews to settle into their seats, everybody seemed prepared for a Happening.

And a Happening it was. But don't get the wrong impression: at no point did the audience lapse into jaw-gaping, freeze-frame paralysis at what was happening on stage -- possibly the most hilarious moment of the 1968 film. Just uncomfortable silence here and there, when a gag fell short of its mark. But I'll come back to this shortly. First, a little mood-setting.

Mel Brooks had been invited to attend the premiere, but even the lure of receiving the prestigious Ernst Lubitsch Award before the Opening Night crowd failed to draw him away from California. Accepting the award in his place, his long-time collaborator and co-producer Thomas Meehan mumbled perfunctory excuses for Brooks' absence but said in clearly enunciated German, "Sie haben Mel Brooks sehr glücklich gemacht" (You have made Mel Brooks very happy). So the hype, tone and presentation of this event was designed to celebrate Brooks' achievements and revel in his musical. And celebrate and revel they did.

Since many among the glamorous first-nighters appeared to be Broadway-savvy or familiar with Brooks's aforementioned 1968 film classic on which the musical is based, they responded in most of the right places to Philipp Blom's mostly superb German translation of the gags and lyrics -- frequently with that gravelly show-biz-insider guffaw that sounds infectiously the same in any language. What is more important: they got the point of the plot from the very outset. As Frederik Hanssen of Der Tagesspiegel put it, The show is neither about Hitler nor the Nazis, "it's about turning shit into gold."

And truly golden was the cast headed by Cornelius Obonya and Andreas Bieber as Max and Leo. No vestige of Zero Mostel, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick in either of them, thank goodness. They go their own way. But. Both Obonya and Bieber are more accomplished hoofers than Lane and Broderick, and that cuts several ways -- Lane and Broderick had kind of a double left shoe clunkiness that made their terpsichoric efforts all the more endearing, while Obonya and Bieber make their mark by "selling it" all the way. Different folks, different strokes. Terrific all the same.

The posters of the show reveal Bettina Mönch in a semi-reclining position, as the undulating Ulla Inga tor Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson. When she's standing up anywhere on stage, though, her legs are even longer than her character's name. Mönch's voice at full blast also goes right through the roof. She's every bit as impacting in every Fach as the irresistible Cady Huffman was on Broadway, and she is far more alluring than the otherwise wonderful Uma Thurman was in the film of the musical. (Don't get me going on the dreadful 2005 film.)

Now a word about Martin Sommerlatte, as Roger DeBris, the drag queen director of Max and Leo's sure-fire would-be flop. The saga of how the musical took form has it, that Mel Brooks created a whole new section for the original Broadway DeBris, Gary Beach, while he was rehearsing the "Springtime for Hitler" extravaganza. Brooks overheard Beach doing a Judy Garland impression, and Brooks' brain waves went into over-drive. The result was a pastiche/tribute to Judy at the Palace. Sommerlatte as the Teutonic DeBris was hugely effective up to this point in the show on opening night, but it became clear to me that he was not doing Judy Garland. Had it only been Dietrich! If it was Marlene, ya cudda fooled me. Possibly another German-speaking icon -- maybe Claire Waldorf or Zarah Leander or Lilian Harvey? Net-net: Sommerlatte should be imitating somebody in this sequence, and there are plenty of legends -- German and otherwise -- that would work. Nonetheless, the audience scooped him up as though he were freshly churned Schlagsahne.

Herbert Steinböck nearly stole the show as Franz, the alt-Nazi turned author, as he stomped and mummered his way through the hilarious translation of "Haben Sie gehört die deutsche Band?" He would have been even more side-splitting, had he played the Hitler-wannabe with a puerile Austrian accent. A missed opportunity that should be corrected.

Some of the wit, as I said earlier, didn't quite make it around the language barrier. As one reader of the New York Times duly commented, "Be a smarty, come and join the Nazi Party" was translated into something like "Sei kein Barzi/komm zu uns und werde Nazi," or: "Don't be a Bavarian boor, become a Nazi." Huh? "Barzi" is a deprecating slang term for Bavarian and it's neither funny, as the Times reader rightly noted, nor, in my view, appropriate in this context: Weren't the Bavarians Hitler's first and biggest supporters? The line would be both accurate AND acerbic if it went: "sei ein Barzi..." or "Be a (dumb) Barzi, and join the Nazis." But acerbic is also not what the show is about.

What HAS translated well is Nigel West's production -- pretty much the same as Susan Strohman's slick, fast-paced, and often exhilarating original. Leigh Constantine has all but cloned Strohman's choreography, except for an amendment here and there. The bevy of chorus girls in Leo's "I wanna be a producer" number emerge from filing cabinets, but they file off up stage, as the accounting office set splits apart. If I recall the original correctly, they receded back into their filing cabinets, which gave the number one last poignant gesture.

The Producers is set to run through July at the Admiralspalast in Berlin's hotsy-totsy Friedrich Strasse. The theater was often frequented by Hilter. A special box he had installed was only recently removed. The Berlin edition of the show has been dubbed an unqualified critical success, but wags on both sides of the Atlantic are making bets on whether it will be a box office hit. When this production was originally mounted in Vienna, it was hardly a smash. Small wonder. A musical spoofing native Austrian Adolf as a sissy? I don't think so. Certainly not after decades of hard slogging, trying to market Hitler as a German and Beethoven as an Austrian.

But Berlin's public during the Third Reich was never nearly as adoring of the Führer, and theater regulars in the German capital today may well cotton to a show that has its true origins in the wry Jewish humor that flourished in Berlin for decades before the diaspora. Frederik Hanssen of Der Tagespiegel, in fact, all but hailed The Producers as a dazzling precipitate of that bygone age, that Germans today can at best only import.

The Producers in German is by no means going to turn the grimmest page in Germany's history, but it does bring back a cynical, crude, hilarious and curiously humane view of life to the city it once called home.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Sam's Adventures - Part 4

Here's the fourth (and last) installment of Sam Shirakawa's account of his operatic travels in Germany (Blogger has been balking at picture uploads all night, so I will be loading some more pictures later):

Paukenmesse. 18 September 2007

Leipzig boasts one of Germany’s larger opera houses, a separate home for operetta, and the world-famous St. Thomas Boy’s Choir, which gives regular concerts -- many of them free of charge. The MDR Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Leipzig Symphony) is not as well-known as its neighbor, the Gewandhaus Orchestra, but it reaches a wider day-to-day audience through its radio and television broadcasts over its parent organization, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (hence MDR).

Having heard both orchestras in the concert hall they share, it’s hard to understand why the MDRSO has played second fiddle to its more illustrious neighbor. During the decade-long tenure of recently departed Music Director Fabio Luisi (now ensconced at Dresden’s Semper Opera), the orchestra has morphed into a world-class instrument. New Chief Conductor Jun Märkl says, he’s on a Mission of Discovery, and he is promising unusual programs for his orchestra that will be performed at off-beat venues. Since Leipzig is located in the center of the former East German province of Saxony and was largely off-limits to visitors for nearly half a century, the list of fascinating places to “discover” right in the orchestra’s own backyard is nearly endless.

On one of my trips to Leipzig during my recent stay, I attended an MDRSO concert that demonstrated Märkl’s Mission of Discovery in action: five works for orchestra, chorus and soloists by Arnold Schönberg, followed by Haydn’s “Mass in a Time of War.” In what may have been an effort to eschew commentary about current angst-raising political conditions, Haydn’s work was discretely billed on the program by its alternate name, Kettledrum Mass (Paukenmesse).

But the supplicatory theme of the entire program could hardly be missed: Schönberg’s Psalm 130 and Modern Psalm, Three Thousand Years, Peace on Earth, and Kol Nidre, plus Haydn’s Mass -- not exactly a warmer-upper for the Oktoberfest.

Despite the evening’s solemn mood, the resplendent playing and first-rate vocalism were, to say the least, uplifting. Märkl not only has inherited a superb orchestra, but a fabulous chorus, that has its own series of programs that it broadcasts and takes on tours. While the brass and woodwinds could use some balancing, the strings sound was nothing less than astonishing -- consonant, responsive and warm.

Germany has no shortage of wonderful oratorio singers, and a quartet of fine soloists distinguished themselves in the Mass. Soprano Christiane Oelze has been making a name for herself as a lieder singer and Mozart interpreter and has already gained attention at the big summer festivals. Her voice is mid-sized, semi-sweet, and frequently capable of being ravishing. Claudia Mahnke is also a rising star, who commutes between operatic and concert appearances. She appeared to be lightening the brownish texture of her mezzo voice to blend in with her colleagues, and the effect was riveting.

The young fraternal coupling of tenor Christoph Genz and baritone Stephan Genz rounded out the vocal quartet. They were born in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, not far from Leipzig. Who knows what would have become of them, if the Iron Curtain had not fallen? Within a short space of time, though, they have proceeded along the stations to the larger international platforms. It may be a while before their substantial talents find their best expression, but pay attention to them, because they are the genuine articles, and their sibling status makes them a press agent’s dream.

The program offered Jun Märkl the opportunity to display his grasp of radically contrasting musical languages, and he showed remarkable fluency in both. Märkl tends to favor brisk tempi and rich, homogenized sonorities, which, at this concert,
worked to his advantage. But what the MDRSO needs sorely now is a leader who can transform it into an organic instrument that has its own sonic identity. In the
past 15 years, Märkl has proceeded through the small and bigger platforms of his world (including the Met, Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra). He is also Music Director of L’Orchestre de Lyon and now, with in his new position, appears poised for a breakout. If he sticks at it, he has the chance to do for the MDRSO, what Stokowski and Ormandy, Rattle and Levine have done for their orchestras.

DIE FLEDERMAUS. 21 September 2007
Komische Oper

OFFENBACH KANN-KANN. 22 September 2007
Saalbau Neuköln

I’m coupling these two performances because I had not intended to attend either of them, I arrived late at both, and they both center around the undisputed kings of operetta’s Golden Age in the mid and later 19th century. Arriving an hour late for the final dress rehearsal of Fledermaus at the Komische Oper was not my fault. The starting time on the ticket stated 17.00 hrs, but the run-through had already begun an hour earlier. Go figure. I took my seat just as the big party was about to get under way: Prince Orlovsky had just launched into “Chacun a son Gout.” Whoever was singing, it wasn’t Jochen Kowalski, who owned that part for years in its previous incarnation at the Komische Oper.

It went downhill from there. The nadir of disappointment for me about this new production was its unremitting mirthlessness. While a sizable dollop of tart hypocrisy flavors the score of Strauß-the-Younger’s delectable bon-bon, it is the work’s inebriated merriment that enlivens what Anthony Trollope called “the soft sad wail of delicious woe,” which characterizes Golden Age operetta at its finest. The audience at the Generalprobe tittered at some of the sight gags, but the current of enjoyment had been switched off by the time I arrived.

On the next evening, quite by coincidence, I stopped in the lobby of the Saalbau -- a cultural center serving the Berlin district of Neukölln. A performance of Offenbach kann-kann had just begun, and the ticket office was still open. As I entered the auditorium on the second floor, the usher handed me a postcard. The only information on it besides a color production photo was a brief plot summary: Offenbach spends far more than the considerable sums he makes, so he has to keep composing to stay ahead of his creditors. Over the next two and then some hours, we learn how three of his one-act opera-bouffes -- "Tromb-Al-Ca-Zar",
"Häuptling Abendwind" und "Ritter Eisenknacker" were born. And how did Offenbach create them? The old fashioned way: Work, Work, Work.

The underlying problem for the spectator is that it takes a lot of work to get through the mounds of arid dialogue that lead to snippets of ambrosial music. But the slog was worth it, for I learned that there is much more to this underrated composer than Tales of Hoffman and La Belle Hélène. The bouffe was performed by a group of five admirably multi-tasking singers, an actor and two musicians.

You may wonder why I haven’t mentioned any names. In the case of Fledermaus, the event was a dress rehearsal for friends and colleagues and not a performance meant for public comment. If you really want to know more, go to the Komische Oper’s website. And go to see it! The mirth may well have switched on for the paying public. In any event, a Bat in foul mood is better than no Fledermaus at all. As for Offenbach kann kann, no casting information was provided on the postcard-program. Web-surfing yielded the same information on the postcard plus the website of the agency that promoted it.

If you want to see off-beat events in Berlin, a visit to the Saalbau is well worth the 20-minute U-Bahn ride from more familiar areas of the city. It’s set in an elegant row of pre-war buildings in the middle of a colorful multi-ethnic area. The Neuköllner Oper (which had nothing to do with Offenbach kann-kann), and numerous other musical, theatrical and visual arts organizations are based here. The Saalbau complex also has two atmospheric restaurants: Cafe Rix and the recently opened Hofperle. Cafe Rix has long been a hangout for local artists. Both have excellent food at modest prices.

DIE MEISTERSINGER. 22 September 2007

The operagoing public of Halle, birthplace of Georg Friedrich Händel, has not seen a new production of Meistersinger since 1965. The city’s Municipal Opera spared no effort in bringing Wagner’s glorious, issue-ridden work back to life on 22 September: vastly augmented chorus, enlarged orchestra, dozens of supernumeraries -- the works. But the most impressive dimension of this production is that it is cast almost entirely from the house’s resident ranks.

Anke Berndt, I was told, was singing her first-ever Eva, but she sounded as if she was born to the part. It’s hard to believe that she has been engaged at Halle since 1990. Tall, slender, youthful and deceptively demure, she parsed out Eva’s conflicting affections before bursting gloriously into “O, Sachs, mein Freund!” Her estimable talent appears to be arching toward its apogee, and it’s time for capital opera companies to take notice of her.

It was also a first-ever performance of Walther von Stolzing for Gunnar Gudbjörnsson. The husky Icelandic tenor has the requisite vocal weight for Walther von Stolzing, and he seems capable of dramatic shading. But the supertitles told the tale: Gudbjörnsson has a way to go before he knows the role. No small task, for Walther has more music in the first act, than Rodolfo has in all four acts of La Boheme. Time and again, Gudbjörnsson garbled the words and jumped the beat. Some of the gaffes may be written off as first-night fright, but Gudbjörnsson also had issues with ascending toward the top of the staff, especially in the second section of the third act, where Walther transforms his dream into reality with Sachs’ help. The exposed parts of the role rise no higher than A natural, but Wagner’s writing for Walther all but sits around this area. Tenors tackling the role can ill-afford to develop vocal piles.

Friedemann Kunder as Hans Sachs also showed signs of stress starting off, but his voice relaxed as the evening progressed, and he delivered a heartfelt oration in the
final tableau. His Sachs is neither a professor nor a surrogate father, but an acute thinker whose deep feelings about his little-spoken past are sublimated through helping Walther win the jackpot. Kunder’s bass-baritone is an acquired taste, nonetheless. It has a pronounced vibrato that sometimes widens alarmingly. But the salubrious influence of Hans Hotter suffusing his performance transcends all niggling.

Nils Giesecke as David was the other major find. He has been active even longer than the aforementioned Anke Berndt. As he recited the litany of rules to the wannabe master singer, I couldn’t help thinking: Fritz Wunderlich lives! Giesecke apparently makes most of his bread as a concert and oratorio singer. Small wonder I found him in Halle.

The rest of the cast was rounded out ably by Gerd Vogel as an exquisitely mean-spirited Beckmesser, Harold Wilson in excellent form as Pogner and Raimund Nolte’s rewardingly pedantic Kothner. Katharina von Bülow as Magdalene lived up to her musical namesake.

Niksa Bareza’s flexible tempi and palpable knowledge inspired both the orchestra
and singers to exceed themselves. But his skills at the stick were sorely tested by having to follow Gudbjörnsson’s rhythmic vagaries, while keeping everyone else in check. It was knuckle-whitening to witness.

By the way, Andreas Wehrenfennig did a yeoman job playing the Beckmesser harp on stage, keeping one eye on the conductor, watching Gerd Vogel lurk about with the other eye, while wrapping his fingers around some treacherous music. But his moronic yodel-hey-hee-hoo get-up needs to be replaced with something hip, and his hideous Halloween 3 make-up shrieks for Dove Evolution.

The production by Frank Hilbrich has some provoking insights: Walther sings the first strophe of his Trial Song from inside the Marker’s box. He literally breaks out of the box to complete it and make his sub-textual point. The decorative banners in the first and last act draw the lines in the conflict between classic and romantic,
reactionary and radical, old and new.

But Hilbrich plunges from the inspired to the irretrievable at the end of the final scene, when he has the chorus abandon the stage, leaving Sachs alone with a gaggle of fans -- sort of like a latter-day Socrates holding court on banks of the Pegnitz. The image leaves me cold, but the removal of the chorus amounts to a lot worse than mere opera interruptus.

The summation of everything Wagner has to say about the myriad themes he brings up throughout Meistersinger is unleashed in unison through the crowning polyphony of its concluding anthem. To send the chorus to a backstage microphone and squeeze the opera’s grandest moment through the theater’s tinny ill-balanced sound system is to castrate the work and queer the audience. Specious stunts like this reek of dilettantism and heave fodder at those critics who claim that German theaters get too much taxpayer money and have no accountability.

The warrants of full disclosure constrain me to advise you of brief “bleeding chunks” on video. In spite of the idiocy to which the production ultimately succumbs, the musical portions of this Meistersinger are, thanks largely to Bareza’s majestic stewardship, a treasure.

A word about the theater. Halle’s opera house, built in 1886, is home to the city’s music theater and ballet. The house sits on one of Halle’s several hills and is accessed from a gently sloping garden, leading from one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Its prominent location made it a clear target for allied bombers less than two months before the end of the war. The house was re-consecrated six years later. The same management under the direction of Klaus Froboese has led the company, since Germany’s reunification in 1991. For a relatively small house (692 seats) serving about 230,000 people, its management has racked up some estimable achievements recently: the Ring, an on-going Handel revival that includes at least one new production per year -- this season it’s Belshazzar -- and an extensive performing arts program for children.

You may be asking yourself why I haven’t mentioned the new production of Meistersinger at Bayreuth this summer and the controversy it engendered. I didn’t see it, and I haven’t heard a broadcast of it yet. So there. It has been mentioned.

© 2007 Sam Shirakawa

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sam's Adventures - Part 2

Herewith, Part 2 of Sam Shirakawa's account of his recent travels to German opera houses:

PHAEDRA. 10 September 2007
Staatsoper unter den Linden

Hans Werner Henze has legions of devoted fans. I can take him or leave him.

What to make of his new “concert opera?” It’s called Phaedra, the disagreeable tale of a Greek queen’s all-consuming lust for her fatally disinterested step-son Hypolitus. Henze completed it last year when he was 80. His librettist Christian Lehnert has based the text on Euripides, Seneca and annotations by classical scholars.

Several facets of Peter Mussbach’s staging of the work’s World Premiere may be worth mentioning. First: the chamber orchestra of 22 instrumentalists -- the Ensemble Modern -- conducted by Michael Boder was placed at the rear of the house under center loge of the first balcony. A catwalk à la Al Jolson’s Winter Garden concerts bisected the parquet level and connected the orchestra platform to the stage, enabling the singers to commute. (No one, unfortunately, broke into a chorus of “Mammy.”) This semi-thrust arrangement allowed only spectators seated at the sides of the three balconies to have a reasonable view of the proceedings. The arrangement seemed to harken back to the days of theater-in-the-round, when, in the words of Mel Brooks’ immortal impressario, Max Bialystock, nobody had a good seat.

Second: Danish lighting and set designer Olafur Eliasson placed a network of mirrors on the stage and visually doubled the length of the playing area. The relevance of the expansion to the music or the drama escaped me, but the effect was grimly enchanting.

Third: John Mark Ainsley -- that superb singer -- spent a substantial portion of the second act lying nude and supine on a tablet center stage. During the course of this sequence, in which Artemis brings Hypolitus back to life, Ainsley’s scrotum appeared to constrict somewhat, causing his testicles to bulge. Whether this physiological vaudeville was caused by nerves, the somewhat under-heated hall, or both, we may never know. But the vignette may be instructive: Could placement of the genitalia play a role in producing superior vocal emission? I don’t think Manuel Garcia has anything to say about it in his writ on singing. Perhaps a bottom-less production of, say, Billy Budd might illuminate the matter....

Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Phaedra), Marlis Petersen (Aphrodite), Axel Köhler (Artemis), and Lauri Vasar (Minotauris) are also wonderful singers. I look forward to hearing them all again. In something else.

A source of irritation during my visit to the third and final performance of the work this season was having to sort out how Euripides and Seneca each approached the story. I have never read Racine’s take on the story. The scholarly details are to be found in the program notes, of course, but I guess I was looking for a way to remain attentive.

For me in my unwashed condition, Henze’s Phaedra, its unremitting antiphony and dense text, all require much too much knowledge aforethought. To get with the program, you have to be really up on the classics as well as the precious musical materia which constitute Henze’s erudite board game. For a cogent view of the production from a bona-fide initiate, I suggest Anne Ozorio.

Véronique Gens. 12. September 2007
Berliner Festspiele

Berlin has hosted an annual autumn cultural festival for the better part of a century, but the Berliner Festspiele have been running under that name only since 1951. The Festival’s continued success has made Germany’s ever-trendy capital the final stop for summertide festival falcons. The French lieder singer Véronique Gens was among the distinguished visitors to this year’s Festival. Appearing with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit, Gens offered a sultry glance into Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l'amour et de la mer. Hers is a warm luxurious sound, whose amber glow exudes cheerful nostalgia mixed with lachrymose anticipation. Her tall, pastel presence and delicate sad smile spoke silent volumes to such lines from Maurice Bouchor’s text as:

Mon âme unique m'est ravie
Et la sombre clameur des flots
Couvre le bruit de mes sanglots.

My very soul is torn away
And the dark clamoring of the waves
Covers the noise of my sobs.

I concede, though, that after wading through such endlessly gossamer longueurs de melodies, I wished that Madame Véronique might have saluted her German hosts with something un peu éveillant, like Veronika, der Lenz ist da...

Charles Dutoit apparently likes soccer, for he has taken to using referee gestures to communicate instructions to the orchestra -- rolling his forearms around each other and using his hands as levers. The members of the Philharmonia, arguably the finest of London’s five major orchestras, must have enjoyed his divertissements: they played fabulously for him -- especially in La Valse, the crowd-pleasing finisher of the all-French program, and gave him a rousing ovation.

FAUSTUS, THE LAST NIGHT. 13 September 2007
Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Here’s one for the Comparative Cultures Department: A new opera composed by a Frenchman, sung in English and staged for its world premiere in Berlin. Since its first performance last year, Faustus, the Last Night has also been produced in France and at the Spoleto Festival.

The plot -- if you can call it that -- of Pascal Dusapin’s sixth opera follows a middle road between the path to damnation followed by the hero of Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe and the detour to salvation taken by Goethe’s errant protagonist. The fate of Dusapin’s hero is left undecided.

And that, for me, is where Faustus, the Last Night ultimately collapses. If the fate of a man who sells his soul to the Devil is not to be defined in some dramatic way, why are we witnessing his story? Dusapin sprinkles the text with a wide range of allusions, including Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett. Just so we don’t miss how well-read he certainly is, he’s created a character named Togod. It unscrambles into Godot -- get it? (Hasn’t someone else also used this anagram for a character’s name?) Some European critics adored Dusapin’s exhibits of middle-brow literacy, but I failed to see how any of it served to shed light on the nature of a man who has made a choice that everybody faces at one time or another.

The spoken musings of Shakespeare and the quarrels of Beckett’s scrappy personae -- which who Dusapin’s characters resemble -- accumulate compelling counterpoint that speaks hauntingly to the drama of their lot and the tragedy of mankind’s existence. But Dusapin’s clever harmonies and arcane text tend to become distracting. Given the uncertainties with which he ends his work ends, he dissipates the dramatic and moral fiber on which the Faust story feeds.

The principals, Georg Nigl (Faustus), Urban Malmberg (Mephistopheles), Robert Wörle (Sly), Jaco Huijpen (Togot) and Caroline Stein (Angel), under Michael Boder’s direction, all sang the challenging score in good voice. More about them I can’t say, because I’ve never heard any of them before, and I’m not familiar with the score.

Peter Mussbach’s efficient staging places the characters on a huge clock. At first, it seemed like an apt cliché, but the end-effect was oddly disturbing. For me, both Phaedra and Dusapin’s Faustus show advanced symptoms of the same alarming malady: emotional necrosis. Our whining helplessness before powers that control
our existence is as terrifying as never before, but it’s nothing novel, just harder to recognize: The gods and the devils of our times both wear Prada. Truly harrowing are the man-made deities to which we nolens volens have rendered our identities, our innermost longings, and the remnants of our souls. Where is the Arthurian composer who has the vision and courage to write an opera about the tragi-comic consequences of mankind’s unwitting covenant with that fearfully benign repository of all that is We: Google?

© 2007 Sam Shirakawa

More to come . . . .

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Sam Shirakawa's Latest Foray to Germany

Our friend Sam Shirakawa has recently returned from a trip to Germany to see several operas. We always enjoy reading what he has to say about the performances he has seen, so here is the first installment of his reviews from his September trip Germany:

DER FREISCHUTZ. 7 September 2007
Staatsoper unter den Linden (Berlin)

Weber’s Freischutz or The Marksman was an instant hit when it received its first performance on 18 June 1821 in Berlin under the composer’s direction. The poet Heinrich Heine and the young Mendelssohn were in attendance. Weber’s use of Teutonic folk songs and recurring themes of the period -- pacts with the Devil, sorcery, the powers of the forest -- were seized upon and further refined by most of the significant cultural figures of the mid- and late-19th century.

So it was a thrill to hear the work performed in the very theater where it was born. Weber would surely have approved of the musical side of the performance headed by Burkhard Fritz (Max),Carola Höhn (Agäthe),Sylvia Schwartz (Ännchen) and Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Kaspar) under the direction of the Algerian-German conductor Julien Salemkour.

Fueled by obvious devotion to the work, and bound by the language common to them all, the cast embued the performance I attended with an esprit you rarely find in multi-national productions. The stand-out was Müller-Brachmann, who goes from strength to strength every time I hear him.

Given the eccentric stagings of many opera productions these days -- this past summer’s Salzburg Festival production of Freischutz -- the composer also would probably have approved of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s generally respectful production, dating from 1997. Despite some bloody excesses in the Wolf Glen scenes, Lehnhoff’s carefully considered production makes sense and holds up after a decade.

LOHENGRIN. 8 September 2007

Chemnitz once wore the dubious crown of "Dirtiest City" in Germany. Now, nearly 20 years after the nation’s reunification and a relatively corruption-free drive to clean up the environmental mess left by East Germany’s Soviet-backed regime, the former Karl Marx-Stadt is being lauded as the nation’s Cleanest City. But many inhabitants still suffer long-term health problems owing to decades of deadly pollution.

Throughout its environmental and political travails, the city’s Municipal Opera has managed to make quality music continuously. Much of its high standard of operatic excellence in recent years is credited to the team of stage director Michael Heinicke and Niksa Bareza, who completed a distinguished seven-year tenure as Music Director last spring. Among their achievements: a complete cycle of Wagner’s so-called ‘Bayreuth Operas.’

On my current visit, the Opera’s new Music Director Frank Beermann led Lohengrin with a cast of mostly house artists. Despite the disappointment that facing a half-filled house must have given the artists, the performance frequently
generated excitement and yielded two big surprises: Kouta Räsänen as Heinrich der Vogler and Hannu Niemelä as Telramund -- Two Finns, who rattled me out of an attack of jet lag. What a pleasure to hear these steel-reinforced voices buttressing Wagner’s bass lines!

Canadian Nancy Gibson is an irresistibly sympathetic Elsa, and her voice at full-throttle soared over the orchestra. She showed some stress occasionally at the top, and she seemed to tire somewhat toward the end of the Bridal Chamber Scene. But she rallied for Elsa’s final moments in the last tableau.

Albert Bonnema stepped in on short notice for the indisposed Edward Rendell. His Siegfried (Götterdämmerung) has become well known through Stuttgart’s multi-producer Ring. At this performance, he was at his best declaiming, but Lohengrin’s tender moments gave him difficulties. Regrettable, because his outsize voice yields honey, when he deigns to sing softly.

Undine Dreißig struck me as a tiring Ortrud. But I confess that my reaction may have more to do with my aversion to the role’s irritating hectoring than the singer’s vocalism.

Heinicke’s production emphasizes spectacle, by mounting his production on the theater’s massive revolving stage. It’s hard, though, to make out what he is aiming at. In the big finales of the second and third acts, it seems like rush hour on the
shores of the Scheidt -- principals and chorus scurrying to hop aboard the
spinning turntable before blocks of Antwerp shut them off.

Bareza’s successor as Music Director, Frank Beermann, led a fast-paced and nicely pointed reading, but it remains, at the moment, a reading. He needs to submerge himself deeply into the score and mine its mysteries bar by bar. The talent is there and the forces drilled by Bareza are also present to bring him along. Whether he has the obligatory modesty to avail himself of the help at hand remains to be heard.
In the few years since my last visit, the central part of Chemnitz, where the opera house is located, has emerged from its sullen DDR hangover and developed into a colorful multi-cultural venue. The reboubtable Cafe Moskau still brims with "Ostalgie" -- nostalgia for the good ole days -- and a Turkish bistro now resides next to Schalom, a Jewish restaurant, which has managed to thrive more than seven years.

After the performance, I renewed acquaintances with Schalom’s proprietors, Ariel and Uwe Dziuballal, over some Jewish pastry. Ariel, who I met during my last visit, presented me with a bottle of kosher beer that he and his brother have just brought on the market. It has a richer, deeper taste than most pilsners from that area, and it leaves a mild pleasant aftertaste. Ariel says he’s trying to find a distributor in the United States.

Before I left Chemnitz the next day, I visited the newly renovated Protestant Church of St. Petri (1888), which shares the broad plaza dominated by the Opera House. A long, costumed procession began the festive Sunday service, commemorating European Heritage Day -- held each year throughout Europe on the second Sunday of September. The event celebrates all places, buildings and monuments of historic significance and enables visits to many sites that are closed for most of the year.

My visit to St. Petri gave me a chance to hear the colossal neo-Gothic organ, originally constructed by the renowned Friedrich Ladegast. Unfortunately, the music for the service didn’t require full deployment of the organ’s 4,000 pipes, but the sound at full tilt was thrillingly shattering.

© 2007 Sam H. Shirakawa

Stay tuned for more of Sam's adventures.

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