Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy hour @ Hunding's Hovel

Sam Shirakawa went to Essen recently to see Wagner's Die Walküre:


WAGNER: DIE WALKÜRE
ESSEN
11 JUNE 2009
[see Video Clip]

The curtain goes up long before the house lights dim. The audience attending Dietrich Hilsdorf’s new production of Die Walküre at Essen’s Aalto Theater has little choice but to contemplate a huge faded reception hall, fungus-stained green paint peeling from the walls and columns. The salle de réception, which doubles as a banquet hall, is designed in the mock-Hellenic style that characterized many bourgeois German mansions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A few chairs, a long banquet table covered with a white table cloth, and a coal-burning stove are the only noteworthy furnishings. An enclosed staircase leads to an upper floor, and a wide escalier center-stage leads somewhere below. It’s a place that’s notable for its palatial size. The joint has seen better days.

So This is supposed to be Hunding’s hovel?

Yup.

Oh, so that rod with a handle sticking out of the column at stage left is really the sword Nothung!

Yessiree.

And that’s why the stove is so close to the column -- so the flames can light up the sword during Siegmund’s big solo!

In fact, this unit set is going to serve as the environment for all the proceedings that take place during the First Day of The Ring.

In his program note, Hilsdorf explains why he instructed his designer Dieter Richter to create such a room for all the action in Walküre:
“Hunding’s abode distills the essence of the world as the setting for the struggle for power and its loss. Despite changes in physical locale [throughout the opera], the inner setting remains unchanged.”
It’s a fascinating metaphor: A decaying mansion as the setting for power plays that ultimately produce no winners, only losers; its main remaining feature -- a banquet table where deadly deals are served.

Unfortunately, Hilsdorf doesn’t work his fecund conceit out. Once the idea of the idea is set forth, the players are left pretty much on their own -- to sit, stand and move around the banquet table -- sometimes rather awkwardly. For some reason almost everyone is dressed in evening clothes -- the Valkyries in crimson gowns and red Dorothy-in-Oz pumps, Fricka in a blue and white number, custom-tailored for a Cecil Beaton portrait sitting. Brünnhilde is in a party mood in her initial appearance, as she fills goblets of wine while flinging out the high notes of her Brindisi -- i.e. the War Cry. When Wotan puts his errant daughter to sleep, he leaves her slumbering erect at the banquet table, not on it.

A rude awakening awaits this Hilde: She’ll have to do the dishes...

We may never know which detergent Brünnhilde favors because Hilsdorf won’t be supervising next season’s new production of Siegfried. Essen is following the trend set by Stuttgart’s wildly successful Ring Cycle, which assigned each of the four operas to different directors.)

In one of Hilsdorf’s hilarious violations of the text, Sieglinde shows up in the second act very much in the family way. My, how time flies when you’re committing incest! Have the Wälsung Twins managed to elude Hunding, his henchmen, and their dogs for eight months between act one and two? Did they motel hop all that time? Slum with friends? (I thought neither had any.)

Oddly enough, though, the performance I heard on 11 June was spellbinding, owing primarily to Stefan Soltesz’ masterful leadership of a superb cast and orchestra. At age 60, Soltesz is becoming something of a cult figure. He’s well known on podiums throughout Europe, South America, and the Far East, but his appearances in the United States have been spotty. His well-deserved reputation as General Music Director in Essen brings visitors to his performances from far beyond the Ruhr area -- including me. His appearances are always well attended, if not sold out.

His view of The Ring has aroused huge expectations.

From the sound of Walküre, Soltesz is fulfilling those expectations. He served part of his apprenticeship under Karl Böhm, and the much-missed maestro’s influence is unmistakable. Soltesz tends to favor brisk tempos; the drive behind the tempo seems to be ruled more by the exigencies of the moment than a structural vision. At least, that’s how it sounded a few days ago. I’m looking forward to hearing how he takes things at a future performance.

Thomas J. Mayer is one of four Wotans cast for the current run of this production. (The others are Egils Silins (see photos), Terja Stensvold and Almas Svilpa.) Mayer is a bitter and angry Wotan -- bitter at how badly his shady deals have turned out; angry at himself for letting things slip so far and so fast. His fury is all the more alarming as he confronts his favorite errant daughter before her sisters. Through it all, Mayer never resorts to shouting out notes or barking to make a point. It’s clear that he’s heard Thomas Stewart’s recordings of the role at least once, and that by no means is a bad thing.

Idilko Szönyi as Fricka is truly a bad thing for Mayer’s Wotan, as she cooly exploits her diesel middle register to harass her wayward husband into submission. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Fricka sung with such elegant bitchiness.

Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde could use a bit more shading, but for me, she can do no wrong, after the mini-vaudeville moment she essays, batting out those hellish Bs and Cs way over the Green Monster while, with steady hand, she fills goblets with Zinfandel. The glasses, helas, didn’t shatter. (But can she also rap out the War Cry while juggling a half-dozen raw eggs, and balancing a unicycle perched on a high-wire?)

Jeffrey Dowd sounds better, even more attractive, each time I hear him. He’s narrowed the vibrato in the upper register and deepened his middle and lower voice. His Siegmund is boyish and nervy -- especially effective in “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater,” but his gestures and movements betray not merely an American Wälsung, but a Ziggy from New York. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it takes a bit of getting used-to.

Marcel Rosca’s Hunding also takes a bit of getting used-to. He’s not nearly as menacing as you might expect from a Hunding, but his svelte bass charms the ear. He may be better suited for Philip or Mephistopheles. In truth, he may be hampered by Hilsdorf's staging: His Hunding is a sappy middler, doomed to fall because of a mess that’s not entirely of his own making.

Now for the major find: I often wonder what Regine must have sounded like before she became Crespin. If a certain Danielle refuses to pack it in for family and security, she stands an excellent chance of becoming Danielle Halbwachs, the Sieglinde to be reckoned with. She’s sympathetic, warm and her immense soprano gains strength and amplitude as it rises above the staff. What she still lacks, though, is interpretive insight; her Wälsung sibling emerges at this point from her head, not from her heart. Despite a second act maternity costume that makes her look as though she’s just shoplifted a honeydew melon, it’s Danielle Halbwachs’ voice, a gorgeous instrument, that lingers in the memory.

No standouts among the Valkyrie Sisters, but they were all up for it.

© Sam H. Shirakawa 2009

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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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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tristan via Monorail

Sam is on to Wuppertal to see yet another Tristan und Isolde:

WAGNER: TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
WUPPERTAL
24 MAY 2007

Wuppertal has a brand new opera house. Well, almost brand new. The theater building underwent a major overhaul during the past several years at the cost of a gazillion euros and re-opened last autumn. The renovations have produced a brightly lit creme and gold auditorium of about 800 seats, distributed over the progressively widening parquet and two steeply raked balconies. All price ranges have democratized views of the stage.

The acoustical characteristics struck me as typical of newly constructed spaces meant for music: generous reverb and rapid response from top range to bottom. The litmus test, though, is whether the acoustics amplify the singers over a large orchestra. Few works are better suited to providing the tough questions than Tristan und Isolde, which I heard this past Sunday. The house passed the test admirably, at least from my seat in a box at the side of the first balcony: The voices thrust forward over the pit, even when the orchestra was going full-tilt. The ambiance, though, tends to favor male singers.

The acoustical qualities of the house came into sharp relief for me, as I was listening to Marion Amman as Isolde. A couple of weeks ago, I heard her in the same role in Cologne, where she simply sounded better -- bigger, brighter, a more varied timbre in the upper middle register -- aural peculiarities that have nothing to do with how she was singing, which was superbly. Amman is a singer to be reckoned with no matter where she performs.

The acoustical quirks of the house were especially unkind to Anette Bod, whose Brangäne seemed acidic at the bottom and shrewish at the top. Her dark mezzo has size, and she has abundant musicality going for her, but her sound in Wuppertal struck me as hectoring rather than heartening. Maybe elsewhere...

On the other hand, the acoustics seemed to caress John Uelenhopp's unhappy Tristan. His is not the most beautiful voice you're likely to encounter in the role, but it projects boldly under pressure, retains its virility in soft passages and, most importantly on Sunday, did not tire in the fevered throes of Tristan's third act mad scene.

Kay Stieferman as Kurvenal also benefited from the ambiance. His baritone is a powerful engine that also yields rich subtleties, though the lower end of his range has yet to come fully into its own.

As King Marke, Gregory Reinhart delivered a compelling oration in the second act.

The backstage area has undergone a complete update too, but producer Gerd Leo Guck, who is also General Manager, apparently decided to abjure a splashy display of the theater's state-of-the-art technical facilities. Instead, his designer Roland Aeschlimann provided him with literally a blank page -- a series of stark black-white rectangular frames, one behind another. No hint of place, except from subtle lighting changes dominated by shades of blue. For some reason, the characters are dressed mostly in muted Japonaiserie costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. But in a jarring costume switch, Isolde shows up to bid Tristan farewell dressed in a black haute-DDR evening gown.

I don't get it. Are we meant to be in Cornwall, Kareol, Kanagawa or Karl-Marx-Stadt? But I also admit, that the production is attractive and doesn't get in the way of the music.

Speaking of which, the performance was delayed for nearly 40 minutes because conductor Toshiyuki Kamioki was caught in traffic. It's a miracle that the show got started at all, if he drove as slowly as he led parts of the first and second acts. As noted by one critic, who wrote enthusiastically about the premiere, Kamioki not merely conducted, but celebrated Tristan. That was obvious from the belated start. But if there's a line separating celebration from self-indulgence, Kamioki crossed it by a kilometer. The sluggishness that crept in during those doncha-just-love-it? passages didn't bother me as much as his stop-light running races to get to the next Big Moment. Oddly enough, though, he managed to create remarkable tension in some spots. But Kamioki reveals himself still in the formative stages of an interpretation-in-progress.

Absent a ragged entrance here and there, the orchestra played for him with polished verve.

Again, no program credit for the English horn soloist, who played with reedy passion. Can't the musician's union do something about such omissions?

And now a confession: the really really fun part of visiting Wuppertal for the first time, was discovering the monorail that took me four stops from the main train station to Adlerbrücke, where the opera house is located. The Schwebebahn runs through most of the city, hovering over the (river) Wupper for much of its eight-mile route. It was designed by Eugen Langen, known best for his part in developing the gas engine, and completed in 1901. It's the oldest monorail system in the world and is unique in Germany. It suffered massive damage during the Second World War, but it was hastily rebuilt and has operated almost continuously ever since. If your travel plans take you through the Ruhr area this summer, a stop in Wuppertal is well worth a detour, just to take a ride over the city on its Schwebebahn. The whole trip takes only a half hour and costs less than two dollars per person.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Or Am I Losing My. . . Head?

Sam Shirakawa has moved on to Lübeck, where he caught a performance of Salome:

RICHARD STRAUSS: SALOME
LÜBECK
22 MAY 2009

Lübeck is an amazing city. Quite apart from its fame as the birthplace of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, this quaint northern port city on the Baltic coast has had a lively cultural scene since the 18th century. The population numbers about 220,000, but the city maintains a calendar-crowded concert hall and a 900-seat Jugendstil theater completed in 1908, as well as several other spaces that serve as focal points for its musical and theatrical offerings. Conductors who cut their teeth here include Wilhelm Furtwängler, Hermann Abendroth and Christoph von Dohnányi.

To celebrate the centenary of its theater building, the game management is mounting several productions of operas and plays that relate to Thomas Mann's wide-ranging interests -- including Wagner's Ring and, in a cunning move, Richard Strauss' Salome, which I heard this past Saturday. Scheduling any Strauss work in this context is a shrewd move, because Mann apparently loathed Strauss, and the hostility was fully reciprocated.

Knowing that Mann disliked Strauss, I was hoping for a production that would reflect the Nobel laureate's enmity: ugly sets, hideous costumes, putrid orchestral playing, exaggerated vocal lines and something deliciously disgusting in the eminently spoof-able Final Scene. No such luck. If only the late and much lamented Charles Ludlam could rise from the grave, be brought to Mann's hometown, and do with Strauss' breakthrough opera what he did in New York with Wagner's Ring...!

As it turns out, Roman Brogli-Sacher, doing double-duty as conductor and stage director of Lübeck's Salome, has avoided opening old wounds between Strauss and Mann and seems intent on reflecting the city's well-known pragmatic values. Rightly so, perhaps. Lübeck remains much as it was in Mann's youth: a town of hard-working, thrifty, no-nonsense citizens, retaining the bourgeois values that inform Mann's novel Buddenbrooks. In fact, the building that housed the Manns' family business and became the inspiration for the setting of Buddenbrooks now houses a museum devoted to the Mann Brothers that is one of the town's must-visit attractions.

Swiss-Born Brogli-Sacher takes his cue for the production from the masterful color mixing and quasi-musical qualities of the large format painting by Paul Klee "Ad Parnassum." Small wonder. Klee was well known for inspiring musicians. Gunther Schuller's Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee speaks for Klee as much as it does for Schuller. Steinway even produced a limited edition of grand pianos called "The Paul Klee Series" in 1938.

Designer Ulrike Radichevich in turn takes her cues from Klee's hues -- cool blue, musty grey and warm orange -- for her unit set and oriental-flavored costumes.

They work.

On the musical side, Brogli-Sacher has two advantages that are not necessarily available to conductors who attempt such a difficult work as Salome at so-called provincial houses: an excellent orchestra (especially the brass section) and a cast that's up for the task, right down to the Fifth Jew.

The major excitement generated by this production, for me at least, was Manuela Uhl in the title role. I heard her sensational Ricke in Franchetti's potboiler Germania a couple of years ago in Berlin, and I was eager to hear how she's sounding these days. The audience mumbled worriedly as a house spokesman -- possibly the General Manager himself -- appeared to say, that Uhl had just undergone an eye operation. More mumbling. Nonetheless, she would sing, he continued, but she might have to don sunglasses and possibly nurse her voice, should the rigors of singing irritate her retina. Grateful applause.

So how did Uhl sound? Sensational again, though understandably not in peak form. Not, at least, until that protracted Final Scene. While Uhl was running on four cylinders up to that point, she shifted into high gear, as she launched into "Ah, du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund Küssen lassen..." The impact of this well-known phrase may have sounded more powerful than might usually be expected because she had been husbanding her resources somewhat, but it was turbo-charged nonetheless. Uhl's unpremeditated sexual allure and commanding stage presence converged in her voice as she revelled in Salome's mortifying triumph -- her mulberry middle
register opening out with steely pinions as it ascended fearlessly beyond the staff. Helga Pilarczyk came to mind, but Uhl grew more intense at these heights than my recollections of Pilarczyk in this scene.

Even the unplanned designer shades worked. After all, wasn't Salome the Original Jewish Princess?

Antonio Yang as Jochanaan articulated disdain and impending doom with every note. His acting needs some Stella Adler, but the turbulence driving his voice intimates the devouring potential of Scylla in his bass, and the gale-force promise of Charybdis in his baritone. Yang is yet another South Korean on the threshold of a major career. Is it the water that's producing such a bumper crop of South Korean F-clef singers of late?

The surprise finds of this performance, though, were the Herod of Matthias Grätzel and the Herodias of Roswitha C. Müller, who both appear regularly in Lübeck. Grätzel is apparently concentrating on developing character roles, but he may want to consider upgrading to major parts: This was the first time, I've heard Herod sung as though it was Tannhäuser. Müller has a lush, ear-rattling mezzo that has both a snifter of madeira and a smattering of Jean Madeira. Thrilling.

Daniel Szeili's Narraboth displayed a resplendent tenor that could, at this stage of his burgeoning career, go in several directions. He reportedly is already a masterful Tamino, but his Narraboth reveals a glimmer of Faust.

To experience Salome in a relatively small theater is always a treat. To have heard it sung with such ample voices and no-holds-barred orchestral playing under a bolt heaving conductor was like attending a rock concert.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Monday, May 18, 2009

More Than Glamor?

Sam has moved on to Berlin where he caught Jonas Kaufmann's Cavaradossi:


PUCCINI: TOSCA
Deutsche Oper Berlin
16 May 2009

Germany now has a star tenor and he's getting the star treatment: Photographs on music magazine covers, and billboards, shallow interviews, plus a High-C contract to be the bedroom eyes behind the wheel of BMW.

His name, by the bye, is Jonas Kaufmann.

A sold-out celeb-strewn crowd flocked to the Deutsche Oper in Berlin to hear him as Cavaradossi this past Saturday. The assembled Prussians, many dressed to the tens, gave him a hero's welcome, even though he's a native Bavarian. Nobody's perfect.

It would have been His Night, if it hadn't been for the Tosca -- Nadja Michael -- and the Scarpia -- Ruggero Raimondi, both of whom were willing to share the stage with Kaufmann but not concede it to him.

In fact, Raimondi received the biggest hand at the final curtain calls -- and with good reason. It was he who gave the most involved portrayal of the evening. What a pleasure to find that some opera singers are as good if not better than they ever were. While Tito Gobbi's Scarpia often left the impression of a sadistic bureaucrat, Raimondi, who made his Met debut in 1974, delivered an object lesson in implied, unspeakable malevolence.

Nadja Michael reportedly is no favorite among rear rung regulars at the Deutsche Oper, but she managed to keep the usual booing at bay at this performance. Hers is a huge but wieldy voice, capable of dynamic swings that sound inevitable rather than interpolated: an especially effective "Vissi d'arte."

Which brings me to swingin', I mean, singing Kaufmann. No doubt: he has more than glamor -- He manifests intelligence and imagination. His large, dark tenor is already casting a shadow toward late Verdi and, of course, the W word. In fact, he's set for Lohengrin at the Munich Festival this July. But for me on Saturday night, he also cast a shadow on his musical taste -- milking alargandi nearly to the point of full stop -- crooooooning "O dolci mani..." with enough syrup to induce sugar shock. Bitte, nicht so schleppend, Lieber Jonas!

It's not clear if veteran conductor Pier Giorgio Morandi -- who is new to me -- had a hand in the liberties Kaufmann took. Even though he received some catcalls, no one could deny that Morandi steered the orchestra effectively, while eliciting some details that I've seen in the score, but rarely have heard.

The production by Boleslaw Barlog dates from 1969. Like Barlog himself, who is now in his 90s, it shows no signs of wear.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Barber in the Bull Ring

Sam is still in Cologne - his latest squib is on the final performance of Barber of Seville of the season:

ROSSINI: IL BARBIERE DI SEVIGLIA
COLOGNE
10 May 200
9

It was only a matter of time before an opera director would come up with the idea: Plop a new production of Rossini's Barber of Seville in the middle of a bullfighting arena. The time came two seasons ago at the Cologne Opera. A production team headed by Christan Schuller dumped the action into the bullring of a bisected stadium. Mini sets, placed on stage wagons of various sizes, rolled on and off by choristers and supernumeraries, gave the audience a notion of where the proceedings were actually taking place.

I don't know what kind of reception Schuller and company received at the premiere, but this past Sunday afternoon, an attentive, nearly full house of spectators responded enthusiastically to this season's final performance of the production's revival. Much of the enthusiasm focused on the cast, which dutifully went through the motions of the staging while focusing their efforts on fleshing out Rossini's delightful score.

She's not ideally suited to the role, but Regina Richter was vocally a cunning Rosina. She rattled off her flights of fioritura with ease and drew wit and irony from the outset with her "Una voce poco fa."

Richter had a versatile foil in Gerardo Garciacano's Figaro, who proved himself as equally at home with Rossini as he was comfortable with Mozart a few days earlier. Garciacano's partner in mischief at that performance of Cosi fan tutte, Benjamin Bruns, turned up again, this time as Almaviva and pursued the Count's amorous adventure with a secure, mellifluous line.

Maurizio Muraro turned out to be a sympathetic Bartolo, while Wilfried Staber turned Don Basilio's "La Calunnia" into a showcase of sonority. Enrico Delamboye returned to the pit on a short turnaround, following a nerve-wracking but successful evening on the podium at the premiere of the Cologne Opera's new Samson et Dalila. His way with Rossini could use a bit more zest, but maybe he and the excellent Gürzenich Orchestra were recovering from a bout of Saturday Night Vibe.

In fairness to the musicians as well as the performing artists, though, much of the sparkle was vitiated by Schuller's middle-brow Barber-in-the-Bullring concept, which he has not thought out clearly. If his view of the mise en scene makes Bartolo the ill-fated bull, as it perforce must, does Rosina embody his ears? Or tail? The concept is further muddied by Jens Killian's brown-dominant stadium and shlock house garments. And where are the blood-thirsty crowds? The stands remain empty for most of the proceedings.

There's a gaping hole here, that Schuller makes no apparent effort to close: Bullfighting rings are places for a blood sport that is tragic at its crux. Il Barbiere di Seviglia is bloody good fun and comedic to its core.

This Barber needs a haircut. And a makeover.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Do Me, Dalila!

Sam Shirakawa is still in Cologne, this time attending the premiere of Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila:
SAINT-SAËNS: SAMSON ET DALILA Premiere
COLOGNE
9 MAY 2009

I think it was Mae West who said, "Call me anything, just call me often."

The Cologne Opera has been called a lot of things -- and often -- over the past year. Scandal Number 69: After a variety of problems forced the premiere of its latest new production to be postponed by a week, the curtain finally went up on Camile Saint-Saen's Samson et Dalila before a sell-out crowd this past Saturday evening, 9 May. The time-line of the tempest runs like this (sort of): The originally cast Dalila dropped out about a week before the premiere was set to take place on 2 May, claiming the violent excesses of Tilman Knabe's production were distressing her to the point of indisposition. Her replacement, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (no, the name is NOT taken from The Producers), fell prey to a throat ailment, thereby increasing the suspense -- and the publicity. Meanwhile, a goodly number of chorus members called in sick, because of said production excesses.

Determined to go on with the show nomattawhat, the Cologne Opera management scraped together a quorum of choristers and hastily recruited Irena Mishura from Geneva to sing Dalila from the side of the stage with score in hand, while Ursula Hesse van den Steinen mimed the role.

Did it work? Mostly. In fact, as Mishura vocalized her sultry she-devil with the gratifying confidence of a seasoned courtesan, glancing over at her from time to time over the course of the intermission-less evening became a merciful respite. Here's why:

First of all, Samson et Dalila, apart from two top-o'-the-charts arias, is a third-rate opera by a fifth-rate composer; frequent distractions of almost any sort are a blessing. Second, Knabe's production is not dynamic enough to keep the attention focused on center-stage for the duration. Neither are Beatrix von Pilgrim's sets sufficiently eye-catching to hold undivided attention. Nor do Kathi Maurer's costumes -- including a ticki-tacky seduction outfit for Dalilah -- compel unconditional surrender. Nonetheless, I look forward to attending a future performance, in which Ursula Hesse van den Steinen juggles stage business and singing along with simulated shtupping. (Her Dalila turns two tricks -- the High Priest and Samson -- within a half hour and still comes up like she's humming for more!)The lip-sync compromise would have worked perfectly as a diversion, had it not been for the mesmerizing, nuanced Samson of American and long-time Cologne Opera member Ray M. Wade, Jr. Whenever he opened his mouth, all eyes and ears gravitated to him alone. Whenever I’ve heard him previously, he invariably essayed a large, disciplined, but dynamically invariable spinto tenor that hardly betrayed a trace of the Gallic heroism required by such a hefty role as Samson. Maybe he's been tutored under the care of an expert in la Style Français, or maybe he's just listened closely to recordings left us by the likes of Paul Franz and Emile Scaramberg -- or maybe both. Whatever. Ray purveyed the pay-off of his studies on Saturday night with stentorian passion and muscular grace. He's made a break-through with Samson, and intendants at international houses might do well to pay heed. This production, though, raises a serious issue, that could prevent Ray from attaining the heights he otherwise deserves. That matter I will discuss in discursive terms shortly.

Another worthy distraction took shape in the High Priest of Eglis Silins, whose virile, athletic vocalism matched his colleagues note for note. This lanky Lithuanian bass-baritone has an easy-going sensuality in both his singing and stage demeanor that renders him international star material. Why the stars have yet to align in his favor in a big way remains one of the mysteries of contemporary opera politics.

Nearly forgotten in the midst of all the hoo-ha: the idiomatic and fluidly paced conducting of Enrico Delamboye. He won a huge ovation from the audience at the curtain calls, as well as a round of floor stomping in the orchestra pit.

For all the outrage and external noise the production has aroused, the opening night crowd sat still through the scenes of amok-running on stage and, minus a boo here and there at the curtain calls, gave the production team a big hand. The magazine Das Bild has dubbed the event "brutally good."

Now a couple of thoughts about Tilman Knabe's production. He's updated the period from Biblical antiquity (11th century BC, I believe) to the current age, so muted machine gun fire replaces sabre-clunking. (It's not clear who the Philistine soldiers are supposed to be in this frame of reference.)

No matter.

The operative word in viewing the scenes depicting sex, mass rape and genocide is "simulation." Given the numbing glare of today's real-life prurience and violence on TV news, cable and the Internet, Knabe's simulations of human behavior at its ugliest strike me as anemic. If he knows what it's like to be in the midst of a combat zone, he is obviously at a loss to portray convincing tableaux of it. Much too tame, lieber Knabe! Give us some real violence on stage! Why not, for example, slay the uppity prima donna and rebellious choristers, five or six at each performance, and eviscerate them in full view of the audience? But even that seems old hat, given the plethora of snuff films floating around.

So here is where Knabe and other "artists" paint themselves into a corner, when they try exploiting gratuitous violence in the theater of our times. It's cold coffee. They might succeed in offending a few colleagues, but the shock-inured public is way ahead of them. On Saturday evening, some audience members, far from being outraged, were snickering dismissively. The only viable option left to stage directors who keep pushing the violence envelop is, in my view, to co-opt and advance the animation-driven, blood-drenched universe of certain best-selling video games: Out-grand Grand Theft Auto, by splashing mindless beheadings and such in blown-up detail beyond the limits of the proscenium arch. And go 4-D by dousing the audience with genuine cold blood. Do Next-Level Wannabes like Knabe, though, have the stomach for truly upsetting bourgeois audiences?

All of which is not to say, that Knabe's staging failed in inducing Aristotelian awe, pity and so on. Far from it. I cannot recall a moment throughout years of theatre-going, in which I felt so seized with grim amazement, as when Ray M. Wade, Jr., shucked his trousers to mount Ursula Hesse van den Steinen in the second act seduction scene, baring girth so gargantuan that it mocked Biblical proportions, flashing corpulence so awesome, that I wanted desperately to look away. But couldn't. Was it really socially responsible for Knabe to treat us to the breath-stopping harvest of Ray's evident penchant for massive consumption? Would Knabe have been so needlessly flesh-forward had he been directing Pavarotti?

But now, at least, I suspect I know the real reason why the originally cast Dalilah pulled out: she found the role too heavy.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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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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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Wagner alla Romana

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

WAGNER: RIENZI
Bremen 2 May 2009
video clips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Sam Shirakawa

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Monday, May 04, 2009

Selective Listening

Sam Shirakawa heard the Met's first Götterdämmerung of the season, but he didn't see it. He explains:

WAGNER: GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG
METROPOLITAN OPERA
25 APRIL 2009 Season Premiere

Have you ever felt glad that you didn’t get into an opera performance you really wanted to attend?

Through quirks of fortune, I was unable get to the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance this season of Götterdämmerung--which happened to take place on last Saturday´s broadcast matinee. So I tuned in to the radio at home--late--just in time for the Brünnhilde-Siegfried Duet that caps off the Prologue.

Ugh!

In my recent report on the Met’s first Siegfried of the season, I said that Christian Franz in the eponymous role had learned to refrain from squawking out notes, an annoying proclivity that had marred his previous performances, when I had heard him elsewhere as Siegfried.

I spoke too soon.

Apart from barking out note-less words here, there, and a lot, Franz was also afflicted on this occasion with a nasty wobble that often straddled at least two semi-tones.
Incipient motion sickness I was beginning to experience from that wobble was little helped by Katerina Dalayman’s squally Brünnhilde. She hit the top C in the duet squarely on target, but her mid-size voice appeared to be laboring fruitlessly under the weight of the role.

What to do?

Listening via radio or computer allows you do other things at the same time or just tune out. So, I opted for the latter and went outside to enjoy a beautiful spring afternoon--pitying, from time to time, those sea-worthy Wagnerites consigned to stay afloat in their seats at the Met.

When I returned home, the live performance was over, but a delayed transmission of the third act was about to begin online by way of a European station [Editor: Ireland's Lyric FM]. The Rhine Maidens were in good shape. A good omen maybe? If it was, Franz’ pneumatic delivery of the Hunting Narrative fell short of it. Some tender moments, yes, but I nonetheless found myself craving Siegfried's demise.
The Funeral Music came as an ear-cleanser. Levine’s Spell held the Met Orchestra in thrall. Great playing.

The phone rang, so I didn’t hear much until Brünnhilde’s Big Moment.
Dalayman had the energy for her Immolation Scene but not the gravitas. Rarely have I been so grateful for Brünnhilde to catch fire; this is no role for a pleasant, pushed-up mezzo. Several years ago, I heard Dalayman as Lisa in Pique Dame in Munich, and she was wonderful. She should stick with roles in which she sounds wonderful.

Judging from snippets I heard, John Tomlinson as Hagen was a study in malevolence, Margaret Jane Wray was a good Gutrune and Iain Paterson, making his Met debut as Gunther, was a revelation--a singer on the threshold. Don’t be surprised if he soon becomes a star Amfortas, Dutchman, and, of course, Sachs.

I am told the Schenk/Schneider-Siemsen/Langenfass production is not being dismantled after this season. Is the Met hedging its bets on the new production of the Ring, set for 2010? No matter. If the news proves true: O tidings of comfort!

© Sam Shirakawa

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Sam Shirakawa attended the opening performance of this season's run of Siegfried at the Met, on Saturday afternoon/ Here's his squib:

SIEGFRIED

METROPOLITAN OPERA
18 APRIL 2009 Season Premiere

Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs has, in my view, two major inciting incidents. The first takes place in Rheingold, when Alberich curses love and steals the ring. The second incitement happens in the third act of Siegfried, which the Metropolitan Opera mounted for the first time this season at Saturday’s broadcast matinee -- the penultimate installment in the first of three Ring Cycles this season. Wotan’s mortal grandson challenges him at the proverbial crossroad and breaks his spear, thereby ending the god’s control of the world he created.

None of the nine Ring productions I’ve witnessed makes much of the spear-breaking. Except for a lightning flash in some stagings, it’s over in a blink. Wagner doesn't make much of it either: no anguished soliloquies, no Mozartean ensemble numbers, not even a da-da-da-dum from the orchestra to denote Destiny Descending. And yet, it marks the Beginning of The End, for which Wotan longs during his tortured narrative in Day One of the saga. Siegfried is now at liberty to go his merry way and do whatever he wants.

So what’s a liberated, horny teen love-child of an incestuous union to do? Commit incest, of course. And who better to guide him through the ins and outs of banging, than the archetypal Older Woman, namely his equally virginal but knowing great-aunt, Brünnhilde. (We’re not privy to the party that proceeds after the curtain falls on Act Three, but presumably, they know instinctively what goes where, when it comes to doin’ what comes unnaturally.)

Siegfried has occasionally been dubbed the “happy opera” of the Ring Cycle, given it’s flame-throwing dragon, chatty bird, nasty ogres and Sleeping Beauty. But while it has its sanguine moments, it’s really a somber setup for the six-hour tragedy to come in Day Three of the saga.

I’ve often complained that Siegfried has too many men barking at each other for far too long, before we get some feminine ear candy. But thanks to James Levine’s priorities, which places cantilena always at the top, we heard some wonderful singing from the guys bickering and bellowing during the first two acts on Saturday afternoon.

For me, the big pleasure of the afternoon was Christian Franz, making his Met debut as the eponymous hero. I’ve heard him several times over the past couple of years -- mostly in Berlin -- and was little impressed with his tendency to bark out phrases for emphasis, in much the way you expect from the Drum Major in Wozzeck. While he still yelps out some notes, this is essentially an all but reborn Christian. A Heldentenor in the Melchior vein Franz is not, but who is? Nearly always tone-perfect, he managed to maintain the requisite energy for this killer role all the way from the Forging Scene to the exhausting Awakening Duet at the finish.

The second major pleasure of being in the house on Saturday afternoon was hearing and seeing Irene Theorin as Brünnhilde. The role is comparatively small, but its pitfalls are huge, and Theorin avoided them all. Appearing even more radiant than she had looked in Walküre, she soared confidently from strength to strength, making the fitful transition from goddess to woman seemingly effortless. Hers is not a mega-voice, nor is it an emotional button-pusher like, say, Susan Boyle’s. But it shows a telltale sign of emerging major Wagner sopranos: a predisposition for grandly invigorating the dynamics Wagner prescribes. Its grace under pressure and the two bang-on high Cs reminds me of how Gwyneth Jones sounded all too rarely.

The sound of James Morris as Wotan/Wanderer was focused, on pitch and by turns effectively condescending in the Quiz Scene with Mime, cunningly brutish in dealing with Alberich, and just plain desperate in Wotan’s big scene with Erda in the third act.

Robert Brubaker is a bit tall to qualify as a dwarf, but his unctuous way with a whine makes him a memorable Mime. Richard Paul Fink turns Alberich into a fascinating portrait in slime.

It struck me as unfortunate that the role of the Fafner in dragon form (sung off-stage) prevents John Tomlinson from singing on stage. If his days as a top-notch Wotan and Sachs are behind him, he still has plenty of mileage left to portray backbench Wagner heavies.

The much-missed Lili Chookasian spoiled me for anybody else singing Erda, but Wendy White brings a dark, slender imperiousness to her brief appearance scolding Wotan for making a mess of Everything. Lisette Oropesa as the Woodbird sounded as if she had been placed too far off-stage, but the young native of the Big Easy has the right stuff for bigger things to come.

The legendary Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall often said the big challenge in taking on the Ring is finding the right basic tempo. After years of imposing phlegmatic pacing on his readings of late Wagner, James Levine at last has found the right basic tempo that works for him and his listeners. And the relatively brisk pacing he’s taking currently enlivens the tetralogy immeasurably. You can feel the pulse arching over the entire work. There is finally a sense of inevitability in his Ring that makes it Levine’s Ring once and for all.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, April 10, 2009

DIE WÄLKURE - Season Premiere

Sam Shirakawa, peripatetic Wagnerian that he is, was at the opening night of Die Walküre at the Met on Monday night. His squib:

Season Premiere 6 April 2009
Metropolitan Opera

The Muses were in attendance at the Met on Monday night. I never thought “riveting” would be an appropriate way to describe James Levine’s reading of any score, but absent a lapse here and there, his umpteenth traversal of Wagner’s [who else’s?] Die Walküre was indeed riveting. The pacing seemed livelier, the dynamic thrust more propulsive than ever before.

After a briefly tentative start, James Morris sang possibly his finest Wotan at the Met to date. Few veteran singers get to show what they have learned over the years, because their voices give out before they get the chance. Morris is one of the lucky ones. Drawing from a wealth of acquired and innate reserves, he rendered a deeply moving account of an embattled god, forced to sacrifice two of his most beloved children. On Monday, though, his soft and heartbreaking farewell to his love child was overshadowed by the orchestra. Too loud, Jimmy!

The much anticipated curiosity of the evening was the debut of Iréne Theorin, a hastily recruited Brünnhilde, replacing the indisposed Christine Brewer. The Swedish soprano has an ample voice that’s evenly distributed from top to bottom, and she showed no signs of strain in scooping up to those treacherous Bs and Cs in the valkyrie’s signature war cry. What her voice lacks at this point in her young career is a personality that is distinctive and lingers in the ear. Withal, Theorin proved herself an effective actress on her first showing, and she needed no extra makeup to highlight her estimable comeliness.

The same can hardly be said of Jan Botha’s appearance. The stage lights may have been kept on extra low wattage to mask his corpulence. Ah, but the rotund sound of his Siegmund! Think Jon Vickers meets Franz Völker: seductive, sweet and potent. Too bad Wagner kills the Wälsung off at the end of the second act.

Too bad, too, that the composer also kills off Hunding almost at the same moment. Especially when the role is so deftly portrayed by John Tomlinson -- another veteran Wagnerian, who’s made a well-deserved name for himself as Wotan and Sachs over the years. As an acquaintance sagaciously commented during the first intermission, Tomlinson purveys a depth of understanding about the role that makes Hunding far more complex than a brutish cuckold. And it’s not all about the singing, about which: no complaints. The way he listens to Siegmund’s tale of woe and becomes aware that he’s giving hospitality to his arch-enemy; the way he makes his long-suffering trophy wife stand up so that he can sit down.

And speaking of that long-suffering wife, Waltraud Meyer is back again as Sieglinde. I’ve always liked her, but I don’t care for mezzo-Sieglindes. I long for that slightly girlish inflection that real sopranos bring to the role. But Meyer was in full possession of her dark powers on Monday night, and satisfied customers gave her huge ovations.
Yvonne Naef is a cooly bitchy Fricka in her Virginia Woolf encounter with Morris. When she quits the stage with no loss of perspiration, you know it’s Game Over.

The eight Valkyrie Sisters -- all in great shape.

Monday’s cast is set to appear on the broadcast matinee. Theorin will also appear in Siegfried, which is fortunate. But not, apparently, in the broadcast of Götterdämmerung, which is unfortunate.

A sidebar to Monday night’s performance: It was marred by the cacophony of cellphones beeping and jangling throughout the performance. The hall frequently sounded like an intensive care unit. Isn’t it time for a full-page ad opposite the cast listing in the program, telling patrons to shut off? Or maybe the security personnel at the entrances should make it mandatory. Even better, why not create a firewall around the building to prevent incoming calls? If Wotan could do it for Brühnnhilde way back in those pre-digital days of yore, certainly the Met management can do it for its public now.

© Sam Shirakawa

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Passion Punch

Sam Shirakawa was at the Met on Tuesday evening for the season premiere of L'elisir d'amore. Here's his squib:

L’ELISIR D’AMORE

METROPOLITAN OPERA
SEASON PREMIERE
MARCH 31,2009


When the Metropolitan Opera mounts a good production, new or old, there’s nothing like it.

On Tuesday night, the delightful setting of Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore by John Copley and Beni Montresor returned to the schedule with Angela Gheorghiu as the village belle Adina and Massimo Giordano stepping in for the ailing Ramon Villazon as Nemorino.

There was little doubt beforehand, that Gheorghiu would succeed. What I found surprising was how well she succeeded. If the reports that she can be a vixen are true, she certainly has channeled that penchant into an irresistibly coquettish Adina. She moves about the stage as if she owns it, interacts both musically and dramatically with her colleagues, as though she’s known them forever, all the while making flawless runs up and down the scale. Thinking back on her glamorous but somehow vague portrayal of Magda in La Rondine earlier this season, she seems infinitely more comfortable as Adina. I for one am dreading her Carmen, set for next season. Don’t do it, love! Don't! If you must do it, have them replace the Card Scene number with “Dunque io son...?” You know-- that thing from The Barber of Seville?

While some critics seemed to miss Villazon on Tuesday -- he’s supposed to be back for future performances -- Giordano proved to be an able deputy. His voice is big bright and flexible, and he too has comedic talent. But a peculiarity in his coloratura technique is worth mentioning: Certain notable sopranos of the past, Leyla Gencer, for instance, may have gotten away with aspirating vowels --- instead of ah-ah-ah-ah (correct), ha-ha-ha-ha. But Giordano sounds as though he’s just hyperventilating. Otherwise, he has the right stuff and delivered an unusually impassioned “Una furtiva lagrima.”

Simone Alaimo meanwhile aspirates a quantum of fun with every word he utters as Dulcamara and with every move he makes. Franco Vassallo embodies an attractive pre-nuptial foil as Sergeant Belcore. Ying Huang sounds like an aspiring big-league Adina.

It’s easy to dismiss any conductor leading L’Elisir as a timekeeper, but Maurizio Benini’s light touch with tempi laced the passion punch with plenty of Asti.

Hard as it may be to believe, the lovely storybook sets by the late Beni Montresor (1926-2001) date from 1991. Some sets at the Met, thankfully, never look outdated.

© Sam H Shirakawa

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One for the Price of Two

Sam Shirakawa attended this past Monday's performance of Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci at the Metropolitan Opera. As always, we hereby present his take:

CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA

I PAGLIACCI


METROPOLITAN OPERA 30 MARCH 2009


A reviewer of the Met’s current Cav/Pag revival complains that Franco Zeffirelli’s 1970 production is beginning to look old -- maybe too old.

Rubbish.

In fact, the sets and costimes, which Z also designed, are beginning to look exactly as they should have when they were brand new -- sun-bleached, dusty and a bit tatty.

Depending on what you think of the Met’s current casting policy, though, some patrons may feel shortchanged: Cav/Pag is usually cast with two tenors, one for each opera. In the current run, Roberto Alagna sang Turiddu and Canio in a few performances, and now Jose Cura is taking over to do double duty.

I skipped Alagna because he doesn’t pique my interest in either role. Cura is another matter. His voice is sufficiently “brown” to bear the pressures both roles impose with the kind of swagger they demand. The animality in Cura’s sound -- brash but vulnerable -- sparks the imagination.

As it turned out on Monday evening, he seemed more involved as the rake Turiddu than as the cuckold Canio. I had the impression that he was rushing the tempo in Pag and looking for a peg on which to hang his costume, rather than sinking into the morbid brooding that drives his character to tragic action.

His Turiddu, on the other hand, rocked with chauvinistic testosterone, brandishing portamento like a deadly weapon. There was more there in Cura's Turiddu, possibly because his Santuzza is far more compelling as a foil than his Nedda.

I first heard Ildiko Komlosi about ten years ago in Mannheim, when she stepped in on short notice as Octavian. She was a pleasant though somewhat reticent surprise on that occasion; she was a wow on Monday night. Komlosi has spent her time expeditiously and her talent wisely in the intervening decade. She sounds like she’s targeting the gap left by Cossotto and Verrett. From the way she cut loose in “Voi lo sapete” and in the protracted duet, she's aiming in the right direction.

Nuccia Focile has a pleasant stage personality, but her vocal profile sounds like it’s in transition from lyric to spinto. Only in the final moments of the play-within-a-play did she finally display the conviction she earlier was trying to muster.

Which brings me to the pair of elements that glued Monday evening’s performance together. Alberto Mastromarino also did double duty as Alfio in Cav and Tonio in Pag. You might want a bit more deadly assurance in the former and a larger dollop of grease in the latter, but his account of Tonio’s prologue had just the right cautery, topped off with an ecstatic A natural.

Pietro Rizzo drew marvelous playing from the Met Orchestra and reminded me again of what wonderful music both scores contain.

Cav and Pag are incessantly derided as warhorses, but when they are treated with the care that the Met is giving them at the moment, they are exciting to ride again and again.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

TOXIC ASSETS

Sam Shirakawa attended the Opening Night of this season's run of Das Rheingold at the Met on Wednesday evening. Here's his squib:

Das Rheingold

Season Premiere 25 March 2009
Metropolitan Opera

If Das Rheingold is on the boards, it must be springtime now and Ring time again at the Metropolitan Opera. Otto Schenk has returned to supervise the final incarnations of his grandly representational production dating from 1987. The new version of what one critic has called “the ultimate mini-series” is set for 2010 and promises to be something entirely different.

This year, there are extra performances of Rheingold and Walküre to supplement the usual three cycles beginning at today’s matineé broadcast and continuing through early May. Expect to hear a lot of Japanese, German, Brit-English and Russian spoken during intermissions. Even in these wretched economic times, the Met remains Mecca for financially intrepid Wagnerites.

The first performance of Rheingold this season turned out to be only the 150th time the company has mounted the work -- by far the least performed of the four Ring operas.

Many of the singers who appeared at the premiere of this production have long since retired, but in an age when change happens too fast and too often, it is comforting to many to have James Morris back once again as Wotan. The incursions of time have diminished his vocal powers, but he was able to summon the requisite strength at the most critical moments -- especially in “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” -- the god’s articulation of relief at the completion of Valhalla. The rest of the cast was about as fine as money can buy these days: Yvonne Naef (Fricka), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia), Jill Grove (Erda), John Tomlinson and Franz-Josef Selig respectively as Fafner and Fasolt -- all in fine form. In a cast of equals Kim Begley (Loge), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and the trio of Lisette Oropesa, Kate Lindsey and Tamara Mumford as the Rhine Maidens were incandescent.

The other holdover from the production’s premiere, of course, is James Levine. Of some 20 odd times I’ve been present to hear him conduct Rheingold in the house, Wednesday evening’s performance was arguably his finest to date -- primarily because he seems to have discovered, finally, the recondite magic and sad sense of wonder in the work, which he palpably missed in his previous excursions into Nibelheim.

All of which led me to reflect afterwards on what take-away the performance may have offered. If nothing else, Rheingold, indeed the entire Ring, is about the Grand-Daddy of all Toxic Assets. The forged ring ultimately ruins everybody in a cumulative tidal wave of devastating collateral. The dire warnings of this intermittently hummable tale, adumbrated so seductively in swathes of wicked harmonies, continue to go unheeded, as the world sucks itself into the Augean stables of fiduciary feculence.

Sooner or later, though, what may get even worse gets better: We are, it seems, living out the Shakespearean-Wagnerian Dialectic. But how long in really real time is the journey between that deceptive E flat pedal which begins the infelicitous tetralogy in whose midst we now find ourselves -- and our arrival enfin at the redemptive D-flat Major coda that only the love which transcends understanding can win?

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mortal Longings

Sam Shirakawa attended the Opening Night of Rusalka on Monday night. Here's his squib:

Dvorak : Rusalka Season Premiere

Metropolitan Opera
9 March 2009

Why would an immortal want to shuffle onto this mortal coil? An answer is to be heard in Antonin Dvorak’s most famous opera Rusalka, now on the boards at the Metropolitan Opera.

Why, Love for a mortal, of course!

But renunciation on such a scale demands commensurate sacrifices. Once the beautiful water nymph Rusalka falls in love with a mortal prince, who has taken a dip in her pool, if you’ll pardon the expression, she must give up all her supernatural perks in order to join him in the earthly universe, as well as submit herself to being stricken mute.

As fairy tales would have it -- The Little Mermaid for example -- her beloved prince rejects her. Why any guy in a marrying frame of mind would snub a prospective spouse who can’t talk back or sass him is a mystery librettist Jaroslav Kvapil never solves. And the impediment also creates a problem for Dvorak because it prevents his lead character from uttering a peep for a significant portion of the opera.

But when Rusalka does speak, she sings gloriously, especially when she’s portrayed so movingly by Renée Fleming, who has also taken the role with success in the Met’s past two revivals of Otto Schenk’s delightful 1993 production. Now that she’s mistress of the part, the question is whether you like her interpretation. She’s not nearly as other-worldly as, say, Gabriella Beňačková, but you’re hard put to reject the passion she puts into a character, who gets the cold shoulder from the mortal to whom she is fatally attracted.

The object of Rusalka’s affections is taken by Aleksandrs Antonenko, making his Met debut. There’s no doubt that the young Latvian newcomer can interpret beefy parts, but the question is whether you like his voice. If you’re used to big-vibrato tenors from the former Eastern Bloc, Antonenko’s voice, despite an occasional squeeze at the top, will please you. If you’re accustomed to rapid-fire vibrato in your heavyweight tenors, you may find him an acquired taste -- though worth the required patience.

Stephanie Blythe drew audience appreciation for her humor-laced inflections as the witch with the right potion for what ails you. As the Foreign Princess, Christine Goerke effectively rendered a different kind of witch. Brenda Patterson made an impressive showing in her Met debut as one of Rusalka's playmates.

Apart from steering the performance with rhythmic incisiveness, Jiri Belohlávek inspired the Met Orchestra to produce waves of gorgeous sound.

Rusalka may be a fairy tale, but it speaks to every age. The Met’s revival also arrives at a moment in our history when it offers more than pretty music: The water nymph renounces her anxiety-free existence for an environment fraught with danger and damnation -- all for the sake of love. And what she ultimately gets is not love requited but its true and withering flip-side: indifference. Her story belongs to the long tradition of tale-telling that exposes the human soul alone, sliding into an alien societal conundrum, deprived of the assets and skills necessary for survival. Depressing maybe, if you care to view the tale as solely reflecting the maze of impecuniosity through which humankind willy-nilly is now groping. But it’s ultimately cathartic too, for unlike Rusalka, we are not, at least for the moment, alone.

Note: The Met's Rusalka has been performed whenever Schenk's Ring Cycle is mounted. Especially on matinee Saturdays. Are some or all of the sets by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen for both productions interchangeable? If yes, it's a shrewd move. Whodda guessed? And is Renée a standby for one of the Andrew Sisters in Walküre...?

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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