Wednesday 31 July 2019

Munich Opera Festival (2) - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 27 July 2019


Images: Wilfried Hösl
Hans Sachs (Wolfgang Koch)

Hans Sachs – Wolfgang Koch
Veit Pogner – Christof Fischesser
Kunz Vogelgsang – Kevin Conners
Konrad Nachtigall – Christian Rieger
Sixtus Beckmesser – Martin Gantner
Fritz Kothner – Michael Kupfer-Radecky
Balthasar Zorn – Ulrich Reß
Ulrich Eißlinger – Dean Power
Augustin Moser – Thorsten Scharnke
Hermann Ortel – Levente Páll
Hans Schwarz – Peter Lobert
Hans Foltz – Roman Astakhov
Walther von Stolzing –  Daniel Kirch
David – Allan Clayton
Eva – Sara Jakubiak
Magdalena – Okka von der Damerau
Night Watchman – Milan Siljanov

David Bösch (director)
Patrick Bannwart (set designs)
Meentje Nielsen (costumes)
Falko Herold (video)
Rainer Karlitschek (dramaturgy)
Theresa Schlichtherle (revival director)

Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Beckmesser (Martin Gantner) and Sachs

‘Es klang so neu und war doch ein bißchen alt’? A little more than three years after first seeing David Bösch’s (then new) production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, I looked forward to making its reacquaintance. It struck me then as being, alongside Stefan Herheim’s staging (seen in both Salzburg and Paris), one of the most significant additions to the repertory. There has not, frankly, been much in the way of competition, offerings from Barrie Kosky and Andrea Moses in particular having proved well-nigh disastrous. How did Bösch’s staging measure up now? In some ways, well. It is certainly more coherent than either of the last too named. However, a good deal of what had made it distinctive, and had decided me to include it in this essay, had disappeared, presumably a casualty of the lack of rehearsal for a brief festival revival. Two at least of its most distinguishing characteristics, the violence at the heart of a reconstructed, provincial ‘community’, and a welcome feminist conception of Eva, had respectively been toned down (more likely, perhaps, unknowingly omitted) and jettisoned. A great pity, that, though perhaps not unlikely in the circumstances: a reminder, at least, that what we see in June and July is not always so very close to what was originally envisaged (and seen).


Walther (Daniel Kirch) and Eva (Sara Jakubiak)

I shall try, though, not to dwell unduly on what might have been, on what had been: anyone interested in the 2016 first performances, including Jonas Kaufmann, may consult the initial review. The importance of (multi-)media in transmission of music, art more generally, and indeed life, such as it is, more generally, continues to register, for instance in video footage of plans, instructions, flowcharts, and sketches: there is a thin line, perhaps, between the nerd and the pedant. Press coverage of the mastersong competition flicks through, also on video, when the masters first enter, an important point the centenary 1868-1968 (the first year, of course, the work’s premiere, the second year not an unimportant year in the history of the Left), in which Veit Pogner had claimed the prize. That generation has a great deal to answer for, many of us would argue; at least we were spared the sight of Antony Charles Lynton Blair et al. strutting their wares ‘just more one time’. At any rate, this contest for a bartered bride, as much sport as art, and heavily sponsored by ‘Meister Bräu’’, sums things up nicely. Sport, of course, always gets off lightly, entwining nationalism (and/or localism) and toxic masculinity, as it does. No one dare accuse it, though, given the media interests at stake. (Consider British liberals’ obsession with the appalling 2012 Olympics.) Contrast that with the laudable attempts at self-criticism of most important artistic production since the Second World War. That contrast certainly seems implicit here, although the shock violence initially administered by Beckmesser as Marker to Walther now seems ‘mere’ entertainment: a flashing of lights rather than electric shock. Perhaps, though, as everything becomes more mediated, as Trump, Johnson, and other fascists star in their own game show, impervious to political criticism and activity, there is something to be said for such a degeneration too.


The moment of revolt – or is it further repression – comes through more fitfully in the second act than previously. Can one make a Marcusian case for the apprentices’ thuggery? Probably. Should one? Difficult to say. (One might say the same for Andreas Baader, after all, or the original, far more lethal, RAF.) But the chemistry between Sachs and Eva, the plausibility of their romance, has struck earlier on a very different note. What often seems dramaturgically unconvincing, even odd, here seems quite natural, for want of a better word. Whether that were the case in 2016, I cannot remember, although the artists, Wolfgang Koch and Sara Jakubiak, were the same. Their performances all round were outstanding. If the extremely powerful moment of Eva’s rejection – of the contest – in the third act now seemed to be missing, Jakubiak offered intelligent, vocally alluring singing, as well as accomplished acting. So too did Koch, of course, with a wisdom born of experience not only as Sachs but in many other roles.

Sachs and Beckmesser

Let us return, however, to the production, to the third act. Sachs’s neon-lit van having lost two of its letters, now sighs, in Schopenhauerian style, ‘ACH’. More might have been made of that implication, especially in light of loss of the provincial violence that initially made this act so threatening, so disconcerting. There remain hints, perhaps most notably in the apprentices’ behaviour towards David, homophobic bullying still, I think, implicit. But they are only hints, and would perhaps mostly be noticed by those who had seen the production before. Beckmesser’s return at the very close, to shoot himself, makes far less sense in the absence of such build-up. A pity, as I said, although perhaps there is something to be salvaged in reflection upon continuing degeneration into entertainment.

Walther and Beckmesser

Musically, standards remained high: very high indeed in the case of Kirill Petrenko, the orchestra, and chorus. Of Wagner’s works, this seems very much Petrenko’s best, at least in my experience. Formidable technical challenges – simply marshalling those forces, in a far from simple staging – never seemed to register, however great the art in concealing that art (a Meistersinger virtue in itself). Wagner’s score flowed with all the inevitability of a mighty river. That is never, though, at the expense of detail, overt contrapuntal (and other) virtuosity in which the composer sometimes revels portrayed lovingly, comprehendingly, without degenerating into mere virtuosity itself. It was, moreover, not only in the counterpoint and chorales that Wagner’s Bachian debt was repaid. Wagner’s writing for oboes in particular, played as superlatively as it was here, gave pause to all manner of thoughts concerning connection with Bach’s sacred music too. (Now might we hear a St Matthew Passion or B minor Mass from Petrenko? Even some of the cantatas? Too much to hope? If so, it is surely a victimless crime.)

Eva, Walther, and Magdalena (Okka von der Damerau)

Kaufmann had withdrawn earlier in the week, replaced at very short notice as Walther by Daniel Kirch. There was considerable promise in his performance, although he tired towards the end. At his best in the second act, Kirch showed himself capable of a detailed, variegated performance, both verbally and musically. Earlier on, perhaps still finding his way around the Nationaltheater, he had a tendency to force his voice somewhat, almost as if a Siegfried. There remained, though, much to admire. Martin Gantner’s Beckmesser was first-rate: a sung Malvolio of the highest quality. Allan Clayton’s David proved equally detailed and finely sung, well matched to Okka von der Damerau’s spirited Magdalena. Christof Fischesser made for an uncommonly youthful, virile Pogner, and Milan Siljanov’s Night Watchman suggested a singer from whom we shall be hearing much more soon. More than enough, then, to be going on with until the full revival Bösch’s production unquestionably merits.

Munich Opera Festival (1) - La fanciulla del West, 26 July 2019


Images: Wilfried Hösl

Minnie – Anja Kampe
Dick Johnson – Brandon Jovanovich
Jack Rance – John Lundgren
Nick – Kevin Conners
Ashby – Bálint Szabó
Sonora – Tim Kuypers
Tim – Manuel Günther
Sid – Alexander Milev
Bello – Justin Austin
Harry – Galeano Salas
Joe – Freddie De Tomasso
Happy – Christian Rieger
Jim Larkens – Norman Garrett
Billy Jackrabbit – Oleg Davydov
Wowkle – Noa Beinart
Jake Wallace – Sean Michael Plumb
José Castro – Oğucan Yilmaz
Pony Express Rider – Ulrich Reß

Andreas Dresen (director)
Mathias Fischer-Dieskau (set designs)
Sabine Greunig (costumes)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
Rainer Karlitschek, Lukas Leipfinger (dramaturgy)

Bavarian State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Stellario Fagone)
Bavarian State Orchestra
James Gaffigan (conductor)

Many Puccini cognoscenti will speak of La fanciulla del West as Puccini’s finest opera – or at least his most musically interesting. In the latter case, I think I can hear what they mean, even if I do not agree. I continue to struggle, with the former claim, although this performance at the Munich Opera Festival made the most convincing case I have yet heard for the work. Its virtues were predominantly musical, in keeping with the work’s general valuation.

Whether in the pit or on stage, we were in hands far better, far more musical, than ‘safe’. One would have to travel far and wide to hear superior orchestral playing in Puccini, or indeed anything else, than from the Bavarian State Orchestra – and even then, one might well fail. Its lengthy experience in Wagner truly paid off, the composer’s renewed – not that it ever really vanishes – fascination with Tristan und Isolde there for all to hear: not just as superficial similarity, but as something more generative. For that and much else, the incisive, comprehending conducting of James Gaffigan deserves high praise indeed. Equally apparent here, especially in darker passages, was the related yet distinct haunting of Pelléas et Mélisande and, more broadly, Debussy’s music. It was Allemonde above all, though, that seemed to inspire the (apparent) workings of fate. Gaffigan captured to a tee the ‘American’, almost Gershwin-like character of the opening bars, proving himself – and the orchestra – distinguished guides to all of the score’s twists, turns, and transformations in between.

The principal trio of singers proved equally distinguished, unquestionably Wagnerian guides to the work’s course. Anja Kampe was, thank goodness, no goodie-two-shoes Minnie. In a more flesh-and-blood portrayal than I recall, this was a conflicted woman with, yes, much good in her, but also a beating heart that could take her to places unsafe, unwise, maybe even unwarranted. More than once, I was put in mind of her Kundry (with Daniel Barenboim, in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s magnificent production). I seem endlessly to repeat myself when it comes to performances from Brandon Jovanovich. I am certainly not prepared, however, to vary just for the sake of variation. His performance as Dick Johnson was everything we have come to expect from this intelligent, committed artist, as dramatically powerful as it was verbally acute, as sweet-toned as it was virile. John Lundgren’s Jack Rance was just as impressive: dark, malign, but also comprehensible, no cardboard-cut-out villain. From a fine supporting cast, I should single out Tim Kuypers’s Sonora. I do not think it is just the human agency of the role that has me do so; Kuypers made one feel there was considerably more to it than that.

Andreas Dresen’s production of La fanciulla del West premiered in March this year. (The opera’s first Munich outing, intriguingly, came in 1934, the city by then well and truly the Hauptstadt der Bewegung.) It does not do anything especially interesting with the work, but nor is it unthinkingly ‘traditional’, for want of a better word. A darker setting – literally, as well as metaphorically – is provided for the action, perhaps most notably for the first act at the Polka Bar. Mathias Fischer-Dieskau’s set designs, Sabine Greuning’s costumes, and Michael Bauer’s lighting are very much part of this. There were times when I wished for something more probing, more critical, but at least Dresen steers well clear of the folkloric. For my reservations remain concerning the work itself, more precisely its dramaturgy, and I cannot help but wonder whether a director might fruitfully contribute something more here. 

Some are doubtless more important than others. One can get worked up about the racism. It is well-nigh impossible for a thinking person in 2019 not at least to cringe. But I am not sure that it especially helps, unless one childishly rejects all art of the past on the grounds that it is not of the present. Perhaps, though, something more might be done to address the issue. It certainly is not here – but then, alas, Puccini tends more than any other opera composer of stature to suffer from a lack of critical stagings. The somewhat sprawling nature of the first act perhaps invites greater intervention than we found here.

It is the close, however, that seems most urgently to invite a more critical stance. If I find the happy ending unconvincing – Puccini is surely better dealing with tragedy, and that includes the hollowest of victories in Turandot – then that must, at least in part, pay tribute to the expectations the composer has set up and indeed to his playing with them. I wish Dresen had donea little more with the possibility of undermining that ending. Jack’s fumbling reach for his gun is at best half-hearted; then the curtain comes down, separating Minnie and Dick from the rest. Nor do I think the score escapes charges of sentimentality here. No matter: it is what it is, and perhaps one day I shall come to appreciate it as many others clearly do. For now, the magnificently vile sadism of Turandot will continue to work its magic. Puccini’s wish for a ‘second Bohème, only stronger, bolder, and more spacious,’ seems to me unrealised. Fanciulla is perhaps bolder, if only in aspiration; it is certainly more spacious, if not to its benefit; it is hardly stronger. There was no doubting, however, the strength of these musical performances; in many respects, that was enough for now.

Friday 5 July 2019

Noye's Fludde, English National Opera, 3 July 2019

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

God – Suzanne Bertish
Mrs Noah – Louise Callinan
Mr Noah – Marcus Farnsworth

Lyndsey Turner (director)
Soutra Gilmour (designs)
Oliver Fenwick (lighting)
Luke Halls (video)
Lynne Page (movement)
Wayne McGregor (choreography)
Eva Sampson (assistant director)

Children from Brampton Primary School and Churchfields Junior School
Community Choir
Orchestra of the English National Opera and other musicians
Martin Fitzpatrick (conductor)

First and foremost, the young – in certain cases, less young – performers in this Britten collaboration between ENO and Theatre Royal Stratford East gave all that they had. They will have learned a great deal from the experience: not only in a specifically ‘musical’ sense, but about cooperation, collaboration, being part of something bigger than themselves. They relished their moments on stage and in the orchestra, supported by professional performers; so too, very clearly, did friends, families, and other supporters, not least a wonderfully appreciative child seated not so far from me. Solo spots were often beautifully done, one boy treble in particular. (Alas, I cannot credit the child performers, since all parts were doubled, and I have no indication who was performing on which night.) Some may go on to study and to make music; most will probably not. Many, however, will in other ways recall and build on this experience of community opera. There are lessons social, political, theological, artistic to be learned here, as much by the audience as those on stage. Let us hope that they will be – just as they were in the ‘original’ Chester mystery plays.

Lyndsey Turner’s – and her team’s – production told the story of Noye’s Fludde clearly, directly, and colourfully. I was initially a little surprised to see God begin to divest Herself of Her clothing at the close, but shall not spoil the surprise. The final rainbow could not help but make a point beyond Noah’s tale. Soutra Gilmour’s designs were very much part and parcel of this, likewise Wayne McGregor’s choreography for the raven and dove. Once again, all was considerably more than the sum of its parts, albeit with no disrespect to often considerable parts. It proved a welcome touch to have the Old Testament God as a woman, in a (spoken) performance both declamatory and humane from Suzanne Bertish. Marcus Farnsworth and Louise Callinan proved decidedly luxury casting as Mr and Mrs Noah, rightly taking – and showing – just as much care as they would have done onstage at the Coliseum. The placing of the orchestra was not ideal: on a platform above the stage action, much potential immediacy was lost, at least initially. One’s ears almost always adjust, though; Britten’s construction soon began to take meaningful dramatic and musical shape, after a fashion surely perceptible to all. I can imagine the work having been conducted more incisively than by Martin Fitzpatrick, but his priorities doubtless lay elsewhere in challenging yet rewarding coordination of such varied forces. The hymn sections with which we all joined in imparted enough sense of observance to remind us of the truer purpose of Noye’s Fludde and its performance. Let us hope for more such occasions.