Saturday, April 17, 2010


Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg
Cologne 5 April 2010

If you’re an opera lover (and if you’re not, why are you reading this?), you probably know that Europe is the place to be at Eastertide. Nearly every major city, and even a lot of minor municipalities mount non-stop lyric theater events. The choices you have to make can be bewildering. If you found yourself in the westernmost part of Germany this past Easter Monday, did you attend a Traviata in Bonn, a Gypsy Baron in Pforzheim, or a Parsifal in --let’s see now-- Stuttgart, Frankfurt or Düsseldorf?

I opted for Meistersinger in Cologne because it had three things going for it: of all the alternatives, it’s my favorite opera, the opera house is a 10 minute trolley ride from where I’m staying at the moment, and the cast featured an only-appearance-this-season appearance by Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther von Stoltzing. I can’t get enough of this voice, and Vogt, wisely, doesn’t sing that frequently.

I was sort of dreading my final choice, because Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s controversial staging has several complicated moments for Walther. But the cash-strapped Cologne Opera found the stash to fund sufficient rehearsals for the performance, which went much more smoothly than when I attended the production’s first performances last autumn. Not necessarily a good thing, for its infelicities, especially in the final scene became all the more apparent.

In place of the meadows outside Nuremberg, Laufenberg puts the Song Trial in a recreation of the plaza outside the Cologne Opera House. The set is dominated by a jumbotron that shows, among other scenes, video of the Mastersingers and honored guests entering the theater before taking their places on the stage. That makes sense enough. Mixed in with these proceedings, though, are a newsreel of vignettes showing Cologne before, during and after World War II plus scenes from a previous production of Meistersinger. Huh? When Walther finally takes the stage for his Prize Song, the projections switch to close-ups of Vogt looking dreamy before a background of amber-hued landscapes. To put it charitably, it’s distracting, not to mention awful.

Nonetheless, Vogt sang with even greater persuasiveness than in Berlin several weeks ago in the same role. His is a phenomenal voice: bright, light, penetrating and, for me, soulful. Admittedly, it is so unusual, that it’s not to everyone’s taste. A vocal professor I met during the breaks complained of a “disembodied” quality that left him cold. That quality is evident in the broadcasts of Meistersinger at Bayreuth, where Vogt is currently cast as Walther in Katharina Wagner’s production under Christian Thielemann. The microphone does not love him.

Vogt was partnered in this performance by Barbara Haveman, stepping in for ailing Astrid Weber. She was no disappointment, projecting a well-focussed sound that retained its sucrose in the heftier portions of “O Sachs, mein Freund...” and the Quintet.

The other principals in the cast have grown into their parts since the production’s premiere (see my report). Especially rewarding was Robert Holl as Sachs. Could but all singers mature with such grandiose gracefulness! Despite a moment of breath-catching in Sach’s Oration, Holl’s shoemaker was indeed a masterful singer.

General Music Director Markus Stenz led the Gürzenich Orchestra and the augmented chorus with sensible tempi and majestic sweep, but he still needs to parse out the dynamics. The outset of the prelude to Act One is marked “mezzo-forte.” And with good reason: the forte at the conclusion of the prelude must sound significantly louder Throughout the performance, the difference between loud and loudest was minimal.

All told, though, a richly satisfying performance.

©Sam H. Shirakawa
Photos: Forster

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010



Oper Leipzig
2 April, 2010

What a deliciously perverse idea!
Hitler’s supposedly favorite opera Rienzi presented on Good Friday in Wagner’s hometown! 

That was the inspiration of Oper Leipzig under the artistic direction of Peter Konwitschny, son of fabled, politically controversial, conductor Franz Konwitschny.  If the sparse attendance at this performance was a reliable barometer, maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea after all.  Leipzig’s operagoers seemed more in the mood for an operetta gala playing at the city’s Musical Komödie.  It was sold out to the rafters.  I caught the first half of this delightful potpourri before racing to the main opera house in time for the start of Rienzi

Too bad the attendance for Rienzi was so slim, because this production was musically, at least, excellent.  Admittedly, I’ve never heard a complete, unabridged Rienzi live -- it takes about six hours to perform, not counting intermissions.  At best, the live performances I’ve heard in New York, Berlin, Bremen, and now Leipzig amount to summaries or highlights.  Each version has featured numbers that were excluded from the others. The current Leipzig production took four hours, including two intermissions, just long enough to savor a smorgasbord of ideas that Wagner was cooking up for his future operas. 

Like most well-organized musical buffets, Rienzi offers generous portions of tantalizing tidbits to abate aural hunger, providing you have an appetite for German operatic cuisine.  And that caveat may irk some operagoers:  a lot of Rienzi is just loud.   Beautiful, yes, but loud.  Its principal dramatic theme is the dynamic of political power, and even the loss of influence does not necessarily mean less volume.  Beefy singers in the leading roles must always be able to run the estimable distance from forte to fortissimo without tiring, and make themselves sound interesting.  

The title role in particular. 

In this production, Stefan Vinke delivered the goods in surprisingly interesting fashion.  All the more surprising, because he has bettered himself in every professional respect since I last heard him in Leipzig as Lohengrin.  Back then (2006), he seemed sufficiently competent to essay the Grail Knight, but his stage demeanor was at best tentative.  That, however, was then, and his voice has now emerged fully armed from Euterpe’s larynx: dark, virile and evenly distributed.  It can sustain itself through distended declamation without degenerating into droning.  In rare moments of quietude, his consummate musicality and affinity to this music evince a deeply felt sensitivity that eludes so many heroic tenors.   Undeniably, the voice has accrued some metal, but it has also retained ample honey.  His account of “Almächt'ger Vater, blick herab” received sustained, richly deserved applause.   The jury is still out on his stage demeanor, but the role doesn’t demand much more than ambling about looking important, which Vinke manifestly succeeded in doing.  

Marika Schönberg as Rienzi’s daughter Irene seemed a bit uncertain at the outset, but proved sufficiently reliable once she hit her stride.  Her stage personality is still in the process of defining itself, but she shows optimistic signs of becoming an A-Class opera singer. 

Charika Mavropoulou stepped in as Adriano for the indisposed Elena Zhidkova.  She also shows signs of heading for major-league opera houses, but she is encumbered with excess weight in a trouser-role that demands quite a bit of running around.  That said, she is in full possession of a ballsy mezzo-soprano that induces thrilling frissons at full-throttle. 

Miklos Sebastien as Colonna, Jürgen Kürth as Orsini and Roman Astakhov rounded out the principal roles without fault. 

Thanks to Matthias Foremny’s richly detailed reading and supernal playing from the Gewandhaus Orchestra, I heard details that I never noticed before in this music.  Take, for example, the elegiac postlude to Rienzi’s prayer.  It's long, seemingly rambling and fitfully anticipates the conclusion to Elisabeth’s prayer in Tannhäuser.  But Foremny and the Gewandhaus made it sound unique unto itself.   

I’ve left mentioning Nicolas Joel’s production to last, because it is the least impressive element of this otherwise superior mounting.  Why Rienzi is dressed in an Ancient Roman tunic, while almost everybody else is dressed in Gangsta Moderne, never becomes apparent.  If it was an effort to distinguish the ill-fated Tribune from everyone else in the plot, the ploy succeeded only in exposing Stefan Vinke’s estimable gams.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, February 19, 2010

A Wagner Valentine

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
February 14, 2010

Berlin’s Deutsche Oper gave its supporters a valentine of sorts on Valentine’s Day: a performance of Die Meistersinger. Nothing special about that, were it not for the presence of Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther von Stolzing. Despite a uniformly upper drawer cast that included Michaela Kaune as Eva, James Johnson as Sachs, and Markus Brück, Kristinn Siegmundson and Paul Kaufmann as Beckmesser, Pogner and David respectively, it seemed as though the stage darkened to a pin spotlight on Vogt, whenever he was on the boards, which, as those familiar with the work know, is most of the time.

In the seven years since I first heard Vogt as Lohengrin in Bremen, he has become, justifiably, I think, internationally known as one of the finest Wagner tenors of this age. Considering how few really great Wagner singers there have been in any age, his emergence into pre-eminence may be more a matter of luck than talent simply outing itself. What is extraordinary is that he is also emerging as one of the great voices of this or any other age. That is a real accomplishment in the light of how many singers of widely varying quality are vying for attention via their press agents, recording companies and media machines.

Some listeners have described his unusual sound as “boyish” while others have called it sort of “androgynous.” Actually, it is neither. Vogt played the horn at Hamburg’s Staatsoper, before a vocal teacher suggested that he might have a brighter future singing above the pit, rather than playing out of it.
Sometimes things work out.

Vogt’s sound in its current disposition is indeed reminiscent of a French horn played by Philip Miller or Dennis Brain: sweet in soft passages, penetrating and dominant under pressure. It is immediately recognizable, it commands attention even in the thick of competition from other voices and other instruments. It never tires the ear. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It is, in the grandest sense of the word, unique.

Wagner created a real character in Walther von Stolzing, and the role gives Vogt an opportunity to act. His Walther is youthful, quick to anger and ardently passionate, but the passion is imbued with intelligence and humility. You get the impression that he’s really listening to Sachs, matter-of-factly sung by James Johnson, when the Master of the Mastersingers gives him a lesson in songwriting in the third act. And the Prize Song in the next scene becomes, in Vogt’s voice, a cumulative rather than repetitive precipitate of the Master’s tuition.

With such masterful singing in a work about the Art of Singing (among a few other things), it’s hard to comment on the able efforts put forth by Vogt’s colleagues: the aforementioned aural pin-spot on Vogt tended to occlude them. Nontheless, Michaela Kaune was an effectively flirtatious Eva, Markus Brück portrayed a delightfully irritating Beckmesser, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s height enabled him to present a grandly imposing Pogner, Ulrike Helzel sounded pleasantly youthful as Magdalena, and Paul Kaufmann as David showed hopeful signs of becoming an Almaviva with whom to be reckoned.

The Deutsche Oper’s new Music Director Donald Runnicles stepped in for the originally designated conductor, so his somewhat lackluster reading may have been the result of brief rehearsal time and the effort to avoid disasters in such a wildly complex work.

Götz Friedrich’s production from the mid-90s hold up well, primarily because it never strays far from the composer’s stage directions. In fact, it is a delight to see the festival in the final scene look and feel festive.

The current run of Meistersinger is part of the Deutsche Oper’s Wagner Weeks, in which most of the composer’s works -- including a new production of Rienzi -- are being presented over the course of several months. Rienzi has attracted a lot of press coverage, largely because its producer has turned it into a quasi-allegory in which the eponymous hero bears the appearance of a certain Austrian-born dictator. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t report much more, except to say, I’m looking forward to hearing the Leipzig Oper’s production this spring with none less than Elena Zhidkova as Orsini.

If you’re in Berlin this weekend, do what you must to get a ticket to Meistersinger on Sunday, providing that Vogt is singing. There’s only one bad seat in the house: the one you don’t get. But caveat emptor: it’s pretty much sold out.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, February 05, 2010

A Rocket to Mannheim

National Theater, Mannheim

Why do you want to come all the way to Mannheim just to hear such an old production of Die Fledermaus? asked a lifelong Mannheimer and operagoer.

“Because I need some ear candy,” I replied.

Mannheim has supplied an estimable variety of ear candy to the world for well over three centuries. Most notably: Mozart visited the city four times and spent a total of 176 days here. Some of the venues where he made music are still functioning. The so-called Mannheim School made its home here. The Court Orchestra under Carlo Grua (1700-1773) won renown as one of Europe’s finest ensembles. In the last century, its opera house, first established in 1779, became a way station for such up-and-coming musicians and singers as Artur Bodansky, who led the German wing of the Metropolitan Opera from 1915 to his death in 1939, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Donald Runnicles, Jun Märkl, Adam Fischer; Inge Borkh, Diana Damrau, Franz Mazura, Jean Cox and Scott McAlister.

With such a formidable history that is continually in the making, performers in Mannheim have a lot to live up to, and they know it. Of the 30 odd performances I’ve heard here since 1990, only a few have been lackluster. (A couple of disasters -- yes -- but interesting catastrophes.)

During my most recent stay, I attended two consecutive performances at the National Theater: a production of Die Fledermaus, dating from 1978, and the premiere of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux in concert-format, apparently the first time ever that this opera has been performed professionally in Mannheim. So it came as a surprise to me, how lively and vital the 30 year-old production of Fledermaus came across, whereas the premiere of Devereux seemed somewhat phlegmatic in comparison.

I doubt that any Fledermaus can match the sparkle and fizzle that the Metropolitan Opera’s mounting nearly always manages to produce, but Mannheim comes close. Friedrich Meyer-Oertel clearly conceived his production with fun as the guiding principal, and the principals, bit-players and chorus at this performance were determined to play out this comedy of manners with mirth always in mind.

Particularly rewarding for me was to hear Eisenstein sung by a tenor, as Johann Strauss originally intended. I never heard Uwe Eikötter before, but I’d like to hear him again. He has precisely the right lilt in his voice as he tries to play a not-so good-natured trick on his wife. A mellow sweetness in the timbre suggests he might do well to attempt a more ambitious Fach than Melot, Monostatos and Pong -- parts he apparently regularly sings.

Cornelia Ptassek took a while to get inside Rosalinda, but by the time she got to her rousing Czardas in the second act, she turned into a spouse not to be trifled with.

I’m told that Diana Damrau made Adele into one of her signature roles during her stay in Mannheim, but Katharina Göres at this performance left little to long for. She has clean coloratura, a bright top and an attractive stage personality -- a package that could take her to stages far beyond Germany. Whether she has Damrau’s dramatic range and vocal allure, remains to be seen.

Edna Prochnik as Orlovsky was delightful to experience, not merely because she reveals an incipient vocal temperament that portends bigger roles. She is also a refreshing change from the counter-tenors that I’ve encountered too frequently in this role. Which brings to mind a suggestion for the idea-starved directors, whose da-duh productions of this wonderful work I’ve had to endure in the past couple of years: How about an Orlovsky performed by a counter-tenor in an evening gown?

The big surprise of the evening, though, was Wolfgang Neumann as Alfredo. Yes, the Wolfgang Neumann everybody who has survived his Siegfried and Tristan loves to hate! Rarely, have I experienced Alfredo so electrifyingly sung and non-acted! And on this occasion, he was even funny. Neumann sings his farewell this spring in Mannheim, but surely he has more than enough voice left to return for an occasional turn as Alfredo.

At this performance, Lars Møller, Thomas Jesatko and Uwe Schönbeck were cast as Dr. Falke, Frank and Frosch respectively. Møller eschewed the manipulative side of the role and made the most of the merry side of Eisenstein’s sidekick. Jesatko enlivened the party scene, and Schönbeck clearly had the audience in his bottle the moment he stepped on stage as the inebriated jailer. Oskar Pürgstaller’s Blind was a treat.

The linking entity between Fledermaus and Devereux was Alexander Kalajdzic on the podium. He is among the batch of younger conductors cutting their teeth on the international circuit. Currently, the Zagreb native is wrapping up his tour of duty as first Kappelmeister in Mannheim. Next season, he moves on to become Generalmusikdirector at Bielefeld’s opera house.

On Friday night he generated high voltage with his reading of Fledermaus. It became clear at the outset of the overture, that he has Strauss the Younger in his blood, and he communicated his affinity with this music with bodacious enthusiasm. On Saturday, though, his wattage sputtered: possibly because the house orchestra, still after nearly 300 years one of the finest in Europe, seemed disinterested during Devereux. Several back-stand violinists were leaning back in their seats throughout the evening, and the winds and brass generally lacked punch in the big ensemble passages. I would have expected this at Fledermaus. After all, it was the upteenth performance of an old production, but the musicians played like New Year’s Eve. Devereux was a premiere and a First for Mannheim. Yet, the orchestra sounded as though nobody wanted to go to the party.

The seeming lack of enthusiasm among the players seemed to infect the principals, all of whom were performing their respective roles for the first time. Ludmila Slepneva has sufficient power and technique to essay Elizabetta, but she seemed preoccupied with the notes rather than the music. And the notes to which she devoted such care were thrifty on ornamentation. Her voice on this occasion also had a tendency to spread at the top in some instances, while turning shrewish at others. Nonetheless she turned out an effective “Vive Ingrato” in the final scene. Comparisons with singers of the past who have scored in this role are admittedly silly. But Slepnova has formidable competition in this Fach from contemporaries such as Alexandrina Pendatchanska. There’s an Elisabetta!

Marie-Belle Sandis fared better as Sara, Elisabetta’s rival for the affections of Roberto Devereux. Hers is a dark mezzo that retains its warmth from top to bottom. She is not exactly suited for Sara, but she came closest to surmounting the lethargy around her.

Juhan Tralla in the eponymous role sounded the most energetic of the three principals, but it became apparent that he has yet to master his part. He has a pleasing and flexible lyric instrument that holds up under pressure, but he too seemed preoccupied with getting out the notes, rather than enlivening them.

The rest of the principal roles were capably rounded out by Thomas Berau (Nottingham), Mihail Mihylov (Raleigh) and Christoph Wittmann (Cecil).

Thinking back on these two performances and the marked contrast in effect, it occurs to me that Fledermaus is a German/Austrian work that was performed by German-speaking artists, whereas Devereux is an Italian work that was played out on this occasion with quite possibly no Italians onstage. Admittedly, most of the live performances of Devereux I’ve heard have been sung by non-Italians, but the Italianate stylistic panache was always there. At the same time, I failed to sense a Germanic or northern European approach to the music, as is palpable in numerous pirate recordings of Donizetti operas in German. Are we now in a New Age of an intra-national style of performing opera?

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Disdaining the Master's Art

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

26 September 2009

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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Friday, September 18, 2009

Is Lust Also Blind?

Sam Shirakawa was recently in Amsterdam where he caught a performance of Halévy's La Juive:

(see a video clip)

For some reason, the opera world has seen a revival resurgence in recent years of Halévy’s La Juive -- possibly because the number of competent singers willing to take on the four demanding principal roles has increased. The opera was a triumph for Caruso, when the Met mounted a new production for him in 1919. According to the Met archives, Eleazar proved to be his final appearance at the House.

Following World War II, Juive was seldom performed anywhere until the turn of this century. Currently, it can be heard in a surprisingly well-cast production at the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. Dennis O’Neill is a superb Eleazar. His voice has darkened with maturity, but it has retained its balance between registers. He fires off those killer top notes will little sign of effort, and his grasp of that elusive Gallic style is impeccable.

O’Neill unfortunately has also put on quite a bit of weight -- much more girth than required for even the heaviest roles. While he nimbly scales the stairways to the upper level of the set, the burden he bears is bound to take a toll--at least on his legs.

The surprise find of the performance I heard on 12 September was Angeles Blanca Gulin. Of the three Rachel’s I have heard, she by far is the most dynamic; captivating pianissimi, bracing high notes, an intense stage personality. Plus a big instrument with a tight vibrato under pressure. (NOTE: This is not the soprano of the same first and surname, who had an estimable international career in the 1970s and 1980s. But I must confess to detecting a faint similarity in the timbre of the middle and upper registers.)

American John Osborn as Leopold/Samuel took a bit to warm up, but eventually produced a solid, sympathetic Leopold/Samuel. I would caution him to refrain from taking the part often.

Alastair Miles in the role of Cardinal Brogni balanced his thin low notes with a ringing middle and upper register. But the Vatican enforcer is not really suited to him.

I quite liked Annick Massis when she debuted at the Met as Lucia in 2002. I am not so mad about her Princess Eudoxie in Amsterdam. The notes were all there, but her heart appeared to be elsewhere.

Carlo Rizzi led a clearly focused traversal of the score and drew some excellent playing from the Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest.

Pierre Audi’s staging was hampered by the constricted playing space imposed by George Tsypin’s massive chrome girders, built on three levels. A layer of grates carpeting his stage floor clattered relentlessly every time the singers made a move.

La Juive has lots of pretty music that’s also challenging to the prinicipal singers. But it also labors under a libretto that strains credibility. A major part of the plot, for example, hinges on Leopold’s confession to his lover Rachel, who is Jewish, that he is not. If they are lovers, wouldn’t she have drawn the hood from his secret long before the opera began? If love is blind, is carnal lust then borgne?

It has been some years since I visited Amsterdam, and it was comforting to find that most of the central district of the city remains architecturally unchanged. Het Muziektheater, which Nederlandse Opera calls home, seats about 1,600 spectators, distributed over a wide shallow parquet (17 rows) and two upper circles. The acoustics are bright with ample bass reverb. Its terrace overlooks a triangular plaza and one of Amsterdam’s wider canals. The people are as friendly and helpful as they always were. The food is another story. Cheap, tasty meals are hard to find. It was not always so.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Being Bohemian

Picture, if you will, a student production of Puccini's La Boheme, staged as an opera within a documentary. Well, Sam Shirakawa was in Munich on June 17th for the premiere of just such a production. He reports:
A production by
the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding, Munich

Premiere 17 June 2009

I usually anticipate attending student productions of operas with a mix of curiosity and dread. They bait curiosity because you never know if a future Caruso or Callas may be taking the stage. They arouse dread because there is nothing quite so dreadful as a vocally dreadful performance of an opera.

In recent years, though, I’ve found that student opera performances of opera are getting better. Professional preparatory academies seem to be turning out singers who appear more confident in knowing they have the right stuff. The tension arising from having a now-or-never opportunity to prove it endows their performances with that extra dollop of excitement that’s becoming increasingly rare at “big” opera houses.

That shared anxiety between performers and audience produced an especially exciting performance of La Boheme on 17 June at the Theater Academy of Bavaria August Everding (Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding) in Munich, primarily because the singing was so good. I frequently had to remind myself that these are students -- most of them around 30 years old and taking their vocal training at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München -- because they’re not merely ready for prime time, they are performing as though they are in prime time.

The Mimi, Myung-Joo Lee, from South Korea, is in full possession of a warm lyric soprano that opens out effortlessly above the staff. Her “Mi chiamamo Mimi” had a melancholy timbre reminiscent of Ileana Cotrubas. But she had her own way with the sad nostalgia reflected in “Donde lieta uschi...”

As her lover Rodolfo, Jun-Ho You, also from South Korea, displays a tightly focused lyric-spinto tenor, some of whose inflections remind me of Jussi Björling. His upper register is thrilling, but maintaining its bracing freshness is the challenge he and all those with similarly bright potential face.

American-born Vanessa Goikoetxea is a Musetta who is a born showgirl -- leggy and shamelessly flirtatious. Her middle and upper registers contain a fine resin that gives her voice an unusual personality. Her options are wide open.

Christian Ebert’s sonorous Marcello is a guy who can’t live with his Musetta, but can’t live without her either. His ample warm baritone points to Posa via Onegin. Nice sound. I wonder if he’s listened to Gerhard Hüsch....

Benjamin Appi and Tareq Nazmi are excellent respectively as Schaunard and Colline. The roles of Benoit and Alcindoro are so well characterized, that you need to check the program to realize that Thomas Stimmel sings both. Mauro Peter deserves a bigger part than Parpignol.

The cast has the good fortune of having a first-class professional orchestra in the pit, the Munich Radio Orchestra, under the steady guidance of Ulf Schirmer, whose stints include the Vienna State Opera and, beginning next season, Music Director of the Leipzig Opera.

Both singers and orchestra are blessed with the superior acoustics of the Prinzregententheater, which is the Akademie's own performing space. Small wonder. The house was completed in 1901 by architect Max Littman, who based his concept on the designs of Gottfried Semper and Otto Brückwald for Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. The acoustics of the "House on the Green Hill" are unique, but the

sonorities of the Prinzregenten Theater are thrillingly similar, especially after its recent renovations, which have also revitalized the Jugendstil decor in the access areas. It is a spectacular setting for any kind of performance. The building's interior is a must-see if you visit Munich -- but you must have a ticket for an event.

The singers also have a good deal more to do than sing. Balazs Kovalk's staging sets out to capture a slice of life through a documentary-in-the-making about bohemian life in modern-day Paris. The concept is relevant because Puccini’s music is the mother of all western film scores. (And how many shows have you seen that are shameless recycles of Boheme and Butterfly?) So the cast must not only enact the lives of starving Parisian artistes, but also enact those lives before multi-cams and crews. The audience can see portions of the taping on monitors and scrims and witness the difference between “Being and Seeming,” as a program note puts it -- or reality and appearance.

Theoretically it works: you get a behind-the-cameras look at Life In The Making. But I couldn’t help remembering what Wolfgang Wagner once told me, when I asked him why Leonard Bernstein never conducted at Bayreuth. “Bernstein insisted that his contract include a documentary on the rehearsals and preparations for the production,” he said. “I learned long ago, that when you allow film crews, everybody plays to the cameras. You lose the impact of what is LIVE. You can’t really rehearse for the performance.”

Indeed, the presence of a camera crew on stage vitiates the impact of the drama and tends to siphon off the impact of the music into a separate realm. There are simply too many people on stage in the love scene of the first act, for example, when only two of them -- the lovers -- really matter.

Bertolt Brecht might have loved this view of Boheme. Intentionally or inadvertently -- I can’t discern which -- Kovalik’s production gives new meaning to the term Brecht invented: Verfremdungseffekt, or, for want of a better translation, alienation. Brecht coined this term to force his audiences to pull back from emotional involvement in the plot and characters and to push them toward viewing the proceedings on stage critically.

The intervention of a video/film documentary crew within any setting, not to mention a love duet, rudely yanks everybody back from plugging into “reality.” But here is where Kovalik ups the ante: the shots the crew is recording -- close-ups, wide angles, pans, and so on -- are shown on monitors and mini-Imax screens, thereby thrusting the audience in the direction of yet another reality. Or the appearance of another reality.

Exploring levels of reality -- or the illusions of those realities within the framework of the stage as “the place devoted to articulating the conflicts between past and possible worlds, the dialogues between our perceptions of mundane experience and our desires” -- is at the root of the Akademie’s primary objectives under the guidance of Klaus Zehelein, who has been its president since 2006.

Zehelein was General Manager of Stuttgart’s State Opera for 15 seasons before he came to lead the Akademie. During his tenure, the Annual Survey of German Critics voted the Stuttgarter Staatsoper “Opera House of the Year” six times. He has accrued international recognition as both pedagogue and all-around man of the theater. When he decided to make a change, he received offers from several high-profile theaters including the Salzburg Festival and the Berlin State Opera. Zehelein declined them all, opting to take over the Akademie, one of Germany’s foremost teaching institutions for the performing arts. He explained at the time, that he wanted to do his part in securing the future of the performing arts by bringing young artists and technicians to the highest standards.

He also wants to further the cause of live theater as a forum. As he warns in the Welcome Page of the Academie website:
“If we abandon the stage, by consigning it to the compromises of mundane superficialities, we betray that part of our lives that constitutes an indispensable necessity for existence, which we risk losing beyond recall.
In times when the prospects of continued financial support for the performing arts look increasingly grim, Zehelein appears to be steering the Academie on a steady course. Hopes for his ability to enable the Academie to surmount the economic realities that are now threatening the arts everywhere may prove illusory. But his leadership through the challenges he now faces may well turn out to be exemplary, indeed the stuff of legend.

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Production photos © A. T. Schaefer

Revised 6/23/09 - 1:45PM EDT - added production photos; removed some theater photos.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Happy hour @ Hunding's Hovel

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

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?


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


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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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Weekend Child

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

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

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

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

Heitzmann is Suitner's son out of wedlock.

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

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

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

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

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Chicken or the Egg

Sam Shirakawa is back in Cologne to see a new production of Strauss's Capriccio:

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:

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:

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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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Springtime for Hitler and Berlin

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

Berlin Premiere
17 May 2009
See some video clips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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