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, July 01, 2009

Hum Along

Sam Shirakawa was in Cologne last Sunday for the performance of a German operetta thought to have long been lost...

Abraham: Die Blume von Hawaii
Cologne
28 June 2009

Not long into the first act of Die Blume von Hawaii in concert form at the Cologne Philharmonie this past Sunday, I became aware of an unsettling sound. The score calls for some unusual instruments, including two Hawaiian guitars, but the sound resembled... I’m not quite sure what.

Then it struck me. Vast sections of the audience (everybody donning colorful Hawaiian leis) were humming along with the music! The median age among the near-sellout crowd must have been around 90, but everybody stayed awake and paid enthusiastic attention. The work represents in many ways a pair of bookends for many of these spectators: its first appearance took place in 1931, two years before the Nazis banned it as “Degenerate Art,” and its reincarnation happened soon after the war. It was filmed twice. Once before the Nazi takeover and again in 1953 [Editor: There was also an adaptation made for TV in 1971]. It was a big hit in both periods.

Paul Abraham’s operetta was the second of four successive hits he composed between 1930 and 1932 (the others are Viktoria und Ihr Hussar, Ball im Savoy and Die Privatsekretärin, which actually was a film musical). Die Blume von Hawaii, according to many accounts, is a groundbreaking work: Abraham and his librettists Alfred Grünwald and Fritz Löhner-Beda sought to free operetta from the bonds of sentimental waltzes and soapy story lines. In the former, Abraham was largely successful. In the latter, the team stuck to the formula of romantic threads that become entangled, only to get disentangled by the final act finale.

The operetta format was rapidly atrophying by 1931, when Blume von Hawaii, with its mix of South Seas exotica and Continental chic, received its world premiere in Leipzig. What is astounding about this work is the ease with which Abraham integrates musical elements that were new or unusual into the operetta form. Among the requisite waltzes and marches, you also hear foxtrots of varying tempi, the charleston, swing, and, of course, jazz. A lot of English is also evident in the lyrics. And the words -- whether in German, English, or occasionally in French and Italian, utter what all "classic" operetta expresses: nostaligia.

Abraham had to flee Germany after the Nazis seized power and eventually landed in New York. His works meanwhile were banned by the Nazis and his recordings and sheet music were deleted or destroyed. It was believed that the full score to Blume von Hawaii had also met this fate.

Abraham was never able to establish himself in musical circles in the United States and had to be committed to a hospital in 1946, following a mental breakdown. It has also been reported that he was suffering the effects of secondary syphilis. Ten years later, friends and fans in Germany heard about his plight and established a foundation, which enabled him to live out the remaining four years of his life together with his wife, Charlotte, in Hamburg.

Before he fled Berlin, Abraham left the key to a large cabinet with his butler. The chest reportedly contained over 300 manuscripts, including songs for operettas, musicals, cabaret and for specific performers. His butler promptly sold many of the manuscripts to hacks, who shamelessly profited from passing off Abraham’s music under their own names. Years later, it turned out that the documents entrusted to the butler apparently included the autograph score to Blume von Hawaii, which eventually was sold to a private collector, who preserved it among his vast treasury of important musical artifacts.

The autograph, however, was not complete. Two musicologists, Matthias Grimminger and Henning Hagedorn, recently went to work on reconstructing the score, using recordings, films, and hints from other more complete scores by Abraham to flesh it out.

The fruits of their labor of love were produced in a full-scale concert performance in the Cologne Philharmonie on Sunday evening 28 June. To make sure the massive efforts that went into the enterprise don’t disappear, WDR (West Deutsche Rundfunk) produced the concert and recorded it for broadcast on 3 July (on WDR4). Despite some lapses in stylistic matters, the performance is a thrilling achievement, and one worth hearing on internet radio. A significant piece of history, once thought to be lost forever, will be revived.

If you have even a mild interest in operetta, you should listen to this broadcast, so I don’t want to jade you by commenting extensively on the performance, except to point out three performers who were standouts. Two of them are Americans. Puerto Rico born Melba Ramos in the eponymous part is accruing a formidable repertoire as a member of Vienna's Volksoper. She started off as a lyric coloratura, but her voice is darkening while retaining its evenness and dexterity. On Sunday, she displayed the right mix of exotic allure and world-weary sophistication.

Melvin Edmondson as Jim Boy has been living in Germany since the 1980s after racking up credits with Harry Belafonte and on Broadway. His account of the Al Jolson pastiche “Nur ein Jim Boy” (Just a Jim Boy) included a rousing tap-dance routine, which, trust me, was worth the price of admission.

Kay Stieferman was the big surprise. His superb Kurvenal in Wupperthal last month gave no indication of his glamorous way with lighter music. His bright, evenly distributed baritone reminded me of early James Morris.

The others in the sparkling and largely home-grown cast included Dominik Wortig, Stephan Boving, Heike Susanne Daum, Anja Metzger and Boris Leisenheimer.

Rainer Roos, sporting a dazzling white satin dinner jacket, was called in as a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled conductor, but his command of a score that obviously was new to him suggested that his versatility has more going for it than the biography inserted into the program booklet indicates. Roos has something few up-and-coming conductors have but need: the common touch. He was helped, of course, by the versatile WDR Orchestra and Chorus, whose members seemed to be really enjoying themselves. Purists may sneer at the score as mere show music or salon drivel, but listen closely and you may find that Abraham’s melodies, played so stylishly, are too infectious to be dismissed.

The event in itself proved to induce a bit of nostalgia for me. While the Metropolitan Opera and other performing arts institutions in the United States present broadcasts regularly, the days of weekly concerts as radio and television broadcasts, replete with a host/emcee have long since gone the way of The Voice of Firestone and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. If you understand a bit of German, by all means tune into the broadcast of Blume von Hawaii on 3 July. The host Winfried Fechner takes you through the operetta’s plot complications between numbers -- just the way Milton Cross, Ben Grauer and other hosts of bygone radio days once did -- but with a good deal more wit and humor. While the WDR no longer has a regular slot for broadcasting live concerts, it still maintains its own symphony orchestra and chorus as NBC and CBS also once did. The classical department of the WDR broadcasts an astonishing variety of live music every week of the year. (In fact, each regional government-sponsored network in Germany has its own orchestra, chorus and broadcast schedule.) How much longer this paradisal policy can continue in the wake of the world-wide economic crisis is a matter few want to think about.

© Sam H. Shirakawa 2009

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sam's Adventures - Part 3

Herewith Part 3 of Sam Shirakawa's travels:

DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER. 14 September 2007

AachenWhen you walk up to the stately portico fronting the opera house in Aachen, you’re seized with a sense of "occasion." Justifiably so, when you consider that this city near Germany’s current western border, has been producing opera steadily since 1753. The interior of the current theater building -- erected in 1901 -- was bombed out during World War II, but the huge Ionic columns and the façade they shelter survived with minimal damage. Once inside the recently refurbished foyer, you might notice discreet busts of Beethoven and Herbert von Karajan flanking the portals into the parquet promenade. Karajan? Actually, Karajan began his conducting career at this theater in 1934. There are no statues, however, honoring some of the truly illustrious artists who paid their dues at this Triple-A way station, notably Leo Blech, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Karl Burrian, Tiana Lemnitz -- and more recently Kurt Moll, Linda Watson and Luana De Vol, as well as film luminaries Max Ophüls and Jürgen Prochnow.

Aachen’s new production of Fliegende Holländer that I visited on 14 September was mostly a treat to hear, but somewhat confusing to watch. The program notes say, that young Bulgarian soprano Irina Popova studied the fife before turning to singing -- worth noting because she supports her immense voice with an apparently endless supply of air on one breath. It tends, nonetheless, to blanch at full-blast. Her Senta was impassioned and soulful, though she would do well to give more thought to the subtleties of the Senta’s cantilena.

At age 33, the Korean bass-baritone Woong-jo Choi might do his career a favor, by abjuring the Dutchman until he has repeatedly endured such rites of passage as Colline, Wurm, and the Herald. Choi is among a growing number of outstanding Asian singers making their way through Germany’s operatic venues. But he must learn, as Leontyne Price has often advised, to sing on the interest, and save the principal.

Polish bass Kristof Borysiewicz proved that experience counts, as he presented a stylishly burly account of Senta’s father Daland. This up-and-comer already has a number of major roles under his belt, and he navigated his way around Daland’s music with bodacious ease.Tenor Gary Bachlund had an uncomfortable evening as Erik. His lackluster showing may have amounted merely to an off night. On the other hand, he might be taking on an unsuitable role or showing signs of vocal issues. But his is an attractive voice, and I look forward to hearing it again.

The Steersman is one of the roles on which tenors aspiring to Tannhäuser and Tristan cut their teeth. It’s too soon to tell if Andreas Scheiddeger will develop sufficient bite for a Wagner singer, but he has wisely been developing his Mozart repertoire. If he confines himself to such roles for a while longer, his imposing talent could eventually elbow out numerous pretenders.

The performance was led by Marcus R. Bosch, who has been Aachen’s chief conductor for the past five seasons. His appetite for the instrumental details in Holländer was undeniable, but knowingly or not, he frequently sacrificed the balance between stage and pit in favor of letting the brass section have its way. No great sin for an up-and-comer, if you recall Levine’s thump-happy days in the not-so-long ago.


A mesmerizing image informs the final act in Alexander Müller-Elmau’s production. Villagers unravel the veils of Senta’s wedding dress, after the Dutchman mistakenly accuses her of duplicity. The tableau connects the yarn spinning scene in which she vowed to disentangle the Dutchman from his unhappy fate to her now threadbare state of abandonment.

Had costume designer Julia Kaschlinski left Ms. Popova with something a tad more alluring than an ill-fitting slip, the metaphor might have worked brilliantly: Senta alone and shamed, vulnerable and frail. But Ms. Popova’s va-va-voom torso makes her ripe for a chat with Isaac Mizrahi.

Ergo, the image ravels like a crocheted sweater made in China.


JENUFA. 15 September 2007
Cologne


Operas almost always are about the vicissitudes of love, and they rarely end happily. Janacek’s Jenufa is singularly depressing: a morose menage involving two half-brothers and the titular heroine, whom only one of them wants to marry. Factor in a Jenufa’s illegitimate baby that her step-mother drowns, and you’re set for an evening of chest-clenching bawling.

The production team led by Katharina Thalbach, though, has served the Cologne Municipal Opera an oddly restrained view of the work. Winter is everywhere in Momme Röhrbein’s sets and Angelika Rieck’s grey-hued costumes. Not necessarily a bad thing, because the chilly mood puts Janacek’s sizzling vocal writing in bold relief.

The eponymous heroine held no terrors for Irish soprano Orla Boylan. Those who have heard her Donna Anna at the NYCO are familiar with her velvety upper register and crisp intonation. Dalia Schaechter, a Cologne regular, keeps growing artistically. She was at her best confessing Kostelnicka’s murderous face-saving deed. Texan Roy M. Wade, Jr. is also a member of the Cologne Opera and was entirely at home in the conflicted role of Laca. Hans-Georg Priese as Steva, rounded out the unhappy quartet, making the most of a thankless part.

Audiences reportedly went wild for Lothar Koenigs when he conducted Jenufa at La Scala last spring. The public in Cologne was appreciative on the night I attended. I didn’t hear anything new or notably charismatic in his reading, but he moved the pit band to play marvelously. Janacek fans and Koenigs’ followers might do well to keep an eye on Lyon’s opera calendar. He’s embarked on a complete cycle of the composer’s operas there.

Les Troyens. 16 September 2007
Duisburg-Düsseldorf


Sunday, 16 September was an unusual day for an inveterate operagoer: two performances of the same opera in two different cities. Well, almost two operas. Berlioz’ monster Les Troyens taxes the resources of any opera house that produces it. The Deutsche Oper am Rhein ("DOamR") went double-duty by presenting Part One -- The Siege of Troy as a matinée at its theater in Duisburg, and by setting up Part Two -- The Trojans at Carthage -- at its opera house in Düsseldorf. A shuttle jitney sped a handful of intrepid spectators wanting to see both parts in one day from Duisburg to Düsseldorf 15 miles away.


It was a strange experience for me, because Part One is the bigger opera in its historical and dramatic sweep. But I heard it at the smaller of the two houses. (Duisberg has 1,118 seats, Düsseldorf can accommodate 1,342 spectators). I felt as though I was watching the epic destruction of Troy through a close-up lens, and the intimacies of Dido and Aeneas through a wide-angle attachment. All in all, though, it was a sensational day’s journey into night, albeit a long one, further lengthened by "technical issues," which delayed the start of Part Two by more than 20 minutes and eliminated supertitles.

Evelyn Herlitzius as Cassandra appeared only in Part One, but her spectre as Cassandra dominated both performances, much as Hector’s ghost pervades both the opera and Virgil’s Aeneid, on which the work is based. She is, as a friend recently described her, a "very loud Pilar Lorengar." While she is no insane stage personality, like Anja Silja, Herlitzius unleashes a tragedy-laden storm, as her Cassandra desperately tries to save the Trojans from themselves.

Steven Harrison
as Aeneas has virtually all the makings of a superior dramatic tenor, except vocal variety. His monochromatic delivery wearies the ear and may prevent him from attaining lasting above-the-line billing in the big leagues. Three other singers, on the other hand, had the style and beauty to make you sit up and want more. Jeanne Piland was a compelling Didon. She brought dignity and grace to Didon’s tragic passion for Aeneas, especially in the big love duet. Mirko Roschkowski as the poet Iopas and Norbert Ernst as the home-sick soldier Hylas regretably had too little to sing. Here are two supernal voices worth a detour to hear.

Masterful crowd control is key to the coherence of any Troyens production, and Christopher Loy proved himself to be a good traffic cop in Part One. But mayhem threatened to reign in Part Two. Piland nearly had to elbow her subjects out of the way to get to her spot in the opening scene. Carthage residents and visiting soldiers often seemed constantly at odds with each other throughout the remaining three hours.Despite tableau turmoil Loy has some interesting ideas: The besieged Trojan women, for example, gas themselves along with their Greek captors in their underground hideout, as the ruins of Troy tumble on Part One.

American John Fiore led an animated, reading that was nearly note-perfect, even though he did not have the full cadre of instrumentalists demanded by the score. Possibly agitated from the rush to get from Duisburg to the podium in Düsseldorf, though, he seemed out of sorts in finding rapture in the rhapsodic portions of Part Two. But he caught the amble and sweep of the work unerringly. Fiore has been Music Director of the DOamR since 1999, and has been honing the musical forces at both theaters into a disciplined, highly flexible mechanism. If he could just get his musicians to put a little more heart into their playing, he might have a band to beat the Met’s.

© 2007 Sam Shirakawa

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