Friday 29 November 2019

Die Zauberflöte, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 28 November 2019

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Monastatos (Florian Hoffmann) and Pamina (Serena Sáenz)

Sarastro – René Pape
Tamino – Julian Prégardien
Pamina – Serena Sáenz
Papageno – Florian Teichtmeister
Papagena – Victoria Randem
Queen of the Night – Albina Shagimuratova
Speaker, Second Priest – David Oštrek
Monostatos – Florian Hoffmann
First Lady – Adriane Queiroz
Second Lady – Natalia Skrycka
Third Lady – Constance Heller
First Armoured Man – Jun-Sang Han
Second Armoured Man – Frederic Jost
First Priest – Andrés Moreno Garcia
Three Boys – Members of the Tölz Boys’ Choir

Yuval Sharon (director)
Mimi Lien, Marc Löhrer (set designs)
Walter Van Beriendonck (costumes)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Hannah Wasileski (video)
Markus Böhm (sound design)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Anna Milukova)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Julien Salemkour (conductor)

As operatic hits go, The Magic Flute takes some beating; it does even so far as Mozart is concerned. Unquestionably Mozart’s greatest popular success as composer—it is difficult not to sentimentalise or at least to dramatise, and say ‘too late’—it saw twenty performances in its first month alone. Soon almost every German city would have staged the work, usually in German but even in Italian translation (Giovanni De Gamerra, Mozart’s librettist for Lucio Silla) as Il flauto magico, for theatres and cities where that suited prevailing tastes. It had reached as far as St Petersburg by 1797, only six years after its premiere; Berlin in 1794, not actually here at the Linden house, but at the nearby Royal National Theatre on the Gendarmenmarkt (predecessor to Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus or, as it stands today, Konzerthaus). If ever there were a Viennese work, it is surely this, but it is above all a work for the world—and Berlin takes just pride in its particular tradition. Schinkel’s celebrated 1816 set designs for the Court Opera—today’s State Opera—live on, reconstructed in August Everding’s 1994 production: loved by many, though theatrically inert when I saw it ten years ago. Since then, it has continued in repertoire, reappearing most seasons, but was earlier this year joined by a companion version from Yuval Sharon.

Tamino (Julian Prégardien)
The question of ultimate agency is, I think, an important one in this opera. Who, ultimately is running the show? In part, that relates to the ludicrous claim, never quite killed off, that the libretto was not actually the work of Emanuel Schickaneder, but actually of the actor (First Slave at the premiere), writer, explorer, and later Dublin Professor of Mineralogy, Carl Ludwig Giesecke. (As with similarly absurd ‘controversies’ concerning the authorship of Shakespeare plays, there is not a little snobbery at work there, fascinating character though Giesecke may be.) A thesis entirely without external warrant—for most of us, internal too—of an incoherent wrench in plot direction, so that initially ‘good’ forces become ‘evil’ and so on has, for certain fertile imaginations, become connected with a change in authorship. That Mozart knew nothing of any of this is, apparently, neither here nor there.  Beyond that, however, questions remain. If change of standpoint there be, a change relating to Tamino’s and our enlightenment—Enlightenment too?—then how is that effected? Who are the Three Boys—note that they only sing—what are their powers, and who, if anyone, has sent them? What is the foundation of Sarastro’s and others’ authority, and what lies beyond it? I could go on, but you will get the idea. The point in this context is that children are pulling the strings: in a welcome nod to Heinrich von Kleist—and to Salzburg—we are in a marionette theatre, one that necessarily looks back, but is more of today than a rose-tinted remembrance of 1816.

Pamina and Papageno (Florian Teichtmeister)

As the curtain rises, we see the outline of a theatre within our theatre. Characters emerge on strings, seemingly coming to life—like Schikaneder’s libretto, some might say—with Mozart’s music. Sometimes they are suspended in mid-air, sometimes on the floor; sometimes they even break free of their strings (although that nagging question of agency and authority does not seem quite to be resolved there; perhaps it cannot or should not be). Their appearance, however, seems more calculated, not unreasonably, to appeal to today’s children than to older people’s idea of today’s or even yesterday’s children. There is something of the comic book to them, especially to our heroes Tamino and Pamina—although rightly, in a cosmos as varied as this, there is considerable costume variation. I cannot say that I was wild about some of the rewriting and reordering, but should one approach this as an opera for children—I am far from convinced one should, yet German tradition looms large—there is warrant enough for that. The lack of trials of fire and water, however, seems to me a great pity. Tamino and Pamina retreating into a kitchen (of marriage, presumably) to make a light evening meal does not seem calculated to appeal to a considerable proportion of children, fraught questions of gender notwithstanding, let alone to those of us who might appreciate a little light undercutting, at least, of the opera’s patriarchy and heteronormativity. Some effort, though, is made at least to address problems of race, Monastatos, a black robotic toy, has his treatment discussed by children, as the dialogue veers off-piste.

There is nevertheless an apt and—I suspect, for the target audience, winning—sense of theatrical wonder, even when, as on this evening, the stage machinery broke down part way through the second act, requiring an extra pause to put things right. Revealing the children, whose recorded voices we have heard throughout intoning the dialogue at the close, pulling the strings as the theatre is cut down to size is doubtless necessary, but it deflates any sense of triumph, of enlightenment, indeed of anything much but children somewhat irritatingly running around, at the close. I cannot help but wonder whether they would have been better shown at the start. Moreover, if I am honest, their voices, in place of those a little more theatrically experienced, did become wearing after a while.

Dancers and Tamino

Musically, the picture was somewhat mixed. Conductor Julien Salemkour seemed strangely concerned to keep the orchestra down, to limit it as much as possible to mere ‘accompaniment’. Although it was clearly small in size—I could not see how small from where I was seated—an unfounded fear of overwhelming the singers seemed paramount. Either that, or unaccountably, he did not much like the sound of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which, insofar as one was permitted to hear it, sounded warm and cultivated as ever. It was a pity, since, a couple of cases aside, Salemkour adopted sensible tempi and mostly—there are doubtless particular problems with a staging such as this—kept pit and stage together. If only Daniel Barenboim would finally conduct this opera here.


I enjoyed most of the singing, though I wondered whether some had been understandably inhibited by demands of aerial acrobatics. There was one peculiar exception, though, with which I had better to deal first. The cast list declared that Florian Teichtmeister was assuming the role of Papegeno ‘in the tradition of Emanuel Schikaneder,’ as ‘an actor’. Well, yes and no. Schikaneder was an actor; he was a good many things, including composer—and singer. Unless one were to take the view—surely a slander on many singers—that singers are incapable of acting, it seems a decidedly peculiar virtue, in an opera house, to insist that a non-singer play the part. Teichtmeister did his best; he can certainly act. Ensembles in particular were uncomfortable, more through the miking this apparently necessitated than through any difficulty with pitch. This was surely an idea that should have been firmly knocked on the head. Otherwise, Julian Prégardien and Serena Sáenz made for a lovely central couple, both performances palpably sincere and beautifully sung. That René Pape’s Sarastro is a well-known quantity should not lead one to take it for granted; evidently, no one did. The role still suits him perfectly—and perfectly is how he responded to its requirements. Albina Shagimuratova’s Queen of the Night sounded somewhat distant on account of her placing onstage—or rather, above stage—but emerged as bright and precise as anyone has right to expect. If smaller roles made less impact than often they do, I think that was similarly more for stage than for vocal reasons.  

A welcome alternative, then, to Mahlerian tradition as Schlamperei? Yes, I think so, albeit with reservations. Sharon’s production certainly stands worlds away from what by 200 had already become essentially a non-production, singers were left to fend for themselves in front of ‘beloved’ sets. I was grateful not only for the alternative as such but for the thoughts it provoked. If nevertheless I felt that it could have gone further dramatically and conceptually and that technical complications came a little too close to becoming the point, perhaps I just need to see it again. If the choice were this or Everding, which I understand will continue to be the case, I should have no hesitation. Ambition may sometimes exceed achievement, but that is surely the right way around and leaves room for the production to develop: 'tradition' in the truest sense.

Thursday 28 November 2019

Samson et Dalila, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 27 November 2019

Images: Matthias Baus

Dalila – Elina Garanča
Samson – Brandon Jovanovich
High Priest of Dagon – Michael Volle
Abimelech – Kwangchul Youn
Old Hebrew – Wolfgang Schöne
First Philistine – Andrés Moreno Garcia
Second Philistine – Jaka Mihelač
Philistine Messenger – Javier Bernando
Samson Double (Dancer) – Nikos Fragkou
Dalila Double (Dancer) - Lisa Schramm

Damián Szifron (director)
Étienne Pluss (set designs)
Gesine Völlm (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Tomasz Kajdański (choreography)
Romain Gilbert, Heide Stock (assistant directors)
Jana Beckmann (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Hand on heart, I have never seen anything quite like this. From curtain rise to reveal a dog running across stage—accompanied by palpable audience bewilderment and highly audible laughter—to a bizarrely offensive final act seemingly co-directed by David McVicar and ‘Mad’ Melanie Phillips, film director Damián Szifron’s first foray into opera afforded the very definition of a car-crash. Much as one may have wished to avert one’s eyes, such was alas never an option. There was, to be fair, unwitting entertainment along the way. Yet seeing—and hearing—outstanding artists such as Elina Garanča, Brandon Jovanovich, and Michael Volle wading and occasionally, Dagon help us, dancing through the non-ironic polystyrene debris of a scenic cross between Cecil B De Mille, Franco Zeffirelli, mid-budget 70s science fiction, and the day’s nth Spectator columnist endorsement of Boris Johnson, was ultimately the stuff of nightmaresor at least of end-of-term revues.

Let us start with the good, musical news. All three of those soloists were on fine musical form. I have never heard anything other than an excellent performance from Jovanovich; this was to be no exception. Tireless, committed to words and music, heroism and humanity, in equal measure, his Samson could hardly be bettered. That neither he nor Garanča could be visually recognised beneath their extraordinary costumes was doubtless no bad thing for either. Garanča brought all the virtues one might have expected to her Dalila: similar precision and professionalism, with a mezzo as rich as it was even of tone. Volle, to whom my heart especially went out when in a ‘religious’ bathrobe, proved vocally intelligent and inviting as ever. Save for unfortunate appearances from Kwangchul Youn and Wolfgang Schöne, the rest of the cast, chorus included also impressed. The latter’s slightly rocky start did not preclude performances of welcome heft and dramatic direction.

At least as impressive as the central trio were Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. The promise held out by their all-Saint Saëns subscription concert a couple of weeks earlier was fulfilled in a performance suggesting, however great the illusion, this to be music they played almost as regularly as Wagner. (To be fair, Barenboim has a recording of the opera to his name, but even so.) As ever with Barenboim’s performances, it was founded upon harmony, making fine sense of Saint-Saëns’s medium- and longer-term tonal plans, yet without sacrifice to detail. Not for the first time, his handling of neo-Bachian elements had one long for him to conduct more of the real thing one day. If the opera’s conclusion remains strangely perfunctory and the preceding Bacchanale problematic in its orientalism, there is little that can be done about that. An array of gorgeous orchestral playing, transparent and weighty as required—not infrequently, both—offered more than ample compensation for shortcomings in the score. At least, it would have done, had it not been for the unfolding catastrophe on stage.

Dear reader, it is to the tale—or tail—initiated by that mysterious, never-to-be-seen live stage hound, lodged indelibly in the visual memory, that we must return. Poor Rover, we knew him all too little, yet he deserved our gratitude for running across the stage—not unlike the equally mysterious ENO nude lady of yore, presumably awarded a block booking—and thus briefly distracting us from Étienne Pluss’s still more risible ‘Biblical’ landscape. It matched, I suppose, Gesine Völlm’s ‘Biblical’ costumeswere one in the market for a Life of Brian sequel without the (intentional) jokes. And it provided a space—someone had to—for breathtakingly amateurish blocking and choreography. Such was leavened-or, according to that rarest of commodities here, taste, further depressed—by hapless acts such as having Samson appear on stage dragging, with mixed success, a slaughtered bull, from which he would extract a horn to gorge a few passing Philistines.

A ballet scene, in which Samson and Dalila doubles danced their inexplicable desires, Dalila at one point wandering offstage to emerge with child—cue, yes, much rubbing of her ovular miracle—was bewilderingly accompanied by a sun/moon that moved ever so fitfully in various directions. A technical hitch, perhaps? More likely trying to escape this cosmos from embarrassment. And so it went on, not so much as an idea, let alone a Konzept, in sight. Dalilla’s cave, seemingly located on a stage simplification of a set for a spin-off from Peter Davison-era Dr Who, offered a location for what, in this ‘aesthetic’, we should probably call ‘lovemaking’. That was certainly, in the pejorative sense, what it looked like; thank goodness it was cut short; one could sympathise with Philistine desire to arrest at least one of its participant.

Following a visit to Samson’s Gaza dungeon, its abattoir ‘look’ weirdly out of kilter with what we had seen previously, we moved to a Temple of Dagon in whose representation Szifron appeared to be trying to outdo Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s execrable Bayreuth Parsifal for Offensively Orientalist Staging of the Year (bonus points for implied Islamophobia). I say ‘appeared’ because I suspect much of it was not even intended and instead the product—as with so much that had preceded of it—of having enlisted a director without knowledge or experience of opera, or even a cursory interest in the genre. Toe-curlingly un-erotic orgies are in keeping with actually existing opera’s history on stage: not for nothing did Schoenberg touchingly prescribe the events around his Golden Calf as an explicitly ‘erotic’ orgy. However, youthful executioners’ bewilderment at ongoing proceedings, as witnessed by their vacantly staring at female breasts, came across as anything but knowing. Bloodsoaked assassins – Assassins with a capital ‘a’, I fear—did what ‘exotic’, ‘Eastern’ people would. Could not Barenboim have introduced Szifron to the work of Edward Said? All the while, Volle as High Priest wandered around quizzically in bath robe and staff topped with not un-crescent-like 'symbol'. If Jehovah were unwilling to draw such proceedings to a close, He would have been a crueller, more vengeful God than even Voltaire would have charged. As it was, the Great Director in the Sky took His time: understandable on musical grounds, yet otherwise…

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Scott Brothers Duo - Rossini, Guilmant, Debussy, Franck, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Scott, and Dukas, 26 November 2019

Apollo Saal, Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Rossini, arr. Jonathan Scott: Il barbiere di Siviglia: Overture
Debussy, arr. J Scott: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Alexandre Guilmant: Scherzo in D minor, op.31
Franck: Prélude, Fugue et Variation, op.16
Saint-Saëns, arr. J Scott: Danse macabre
Saint-Saëns: Six Duos, op.8: ‘Fantasia e fuga’
Gounod, arr. J Scott: Méditation – Ave Maria
Tom Scott: Dances for harmonium and piano
Guilmant: Ariane, op.53: ‘Adagio’ and ‘Danse des songes’
Dukas, arr. J Scott: L’Apprenti sorcier

Jonathan Scott (harmonium)
Tom Scott (piano)

It is not every day one hears a recital for piano and harmonium duo; still less often, I suspect, might one hear such a recital in which novelty of combination and sonority takes second place to captivating quality of performance. Here with arrangements and no fewer than four pieces written originally for the combination were the Scott Brothers Duo, Tom on piano and Jonathan on harmonium, the latter a new Mustel instrument acquired by the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

A Rossini overture will always prove, performance permitting, a sparkling way to open a concert. Performance here permitted—and it proved an excellent choice in accustoming our ears and, more generally, expectations. The introduction alternated between piano and harmonium playing in concert, sometimes doubled and sometimes complementary, and antiphonal writing, Jonathan Scott’s arrangement here as elsewhere skilful, catching, indeed beguiling. His registration choices proved imaginative without eccentricity and balance never proved a problem in the slightest. Rossini’s music put a smile on one’s face, as it should. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is a different kettle of fish, to put it mildly, but Scott’s arrangement proved just as adept. The opening flute solo swelled on his instrument, answered with piano arpeggios. Taken through various, often magical transformations, this was quite an ear-opener, again for the quality of the performances more than the novel instrumentation.

A piece for harmonium solo followed, Alexandre Guilmant’s post-Mendelssohnian Scherzo in D minor, op.31. As fleet as imaginable in performance, Mendelssohn soon took second place to something not unlike Rossini and, less surprisingly, the world of the nineteenth-century French organ. Music by Guilmant for piano and harmonium would appear during the second half. I cannot say that the ‘Adagio’ and ‘Danse des songes’ made me long to hear the rest of his ‘symphony-cantata’, Ariane, but it was pleasant enough for a while, if not without sentimentality. Still, one item to which I struggled to respond in a programme of this kind was pretty good going. Speaking of sentimentality, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria preceding it was beautifully shaped, both as arrangement and performance; I am not sure I did not prefer it to the vocal ‘original’.

Returning to the first half, Franck’s Prélude, Fugue et Variation, op.18, was the real thing, written with the surest command of the unusual combination of instruments, and performed with flair and security. It had impetus; it grew; and ultimately, there was a fine sense of cyclical return. Perhaps the highpoint for me, though, was Saint-Saëns’s ‘Fantasia e Fuga’ from his Six Duos, op.6, which opened the second half. Opening piano cascades set against harmonium chordal progression? The more one truly listened, the less simple such generalisations were. How, moreover, could one fail to listen in so inviting a performance? Not all fugues are fun—it would be a peculiar, embarrassing description for those in late Beethoven—but this most certainly was. I should have loved to hear more from this collection; leaving an audience wanting more is, however, not an unsound tactic. The remaining piece written expressly for this combination of instruments was Tom Scott’s own Dances for Harmonium and Piano: unapologetically tonal and even, for want of a better word, ‘popular’ in style, a waltz, sarabande, and minimalist (!) gigue were written and performed with typical ease and panache.

Two tone poems completed the two halves: Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre and Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Both offered clarity and imagination in arrangement and performance. In the former, one probably heard more strongly than ever the composer’s debt to Liszt. There was a nice death rattle too. In the latter, equally full of rhythmic impetus, one perhaps listened more clearly to Dukas’s often extraordinary harmonies; I was reasonably sure that I heard things I had not noticed before. Not, of course, that registration failed to ring the colouristic changes. Along with winning introductions and commentary throughout—all in German—we were treated to two encores: a virtuosic account of Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás and an intimately expressive Fauré Après un rêve. A lovely evening, then, to which the Apollo Saal audience responded with great enthusiasm.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Wozzeck, Bavarian State Opera, 23 November 2019


Images: © Wilfried Hösl

Wozzeck – Christian Gerhaher
Drum Major – John Daszak
Andres – Kevin Conners
Captain – Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke
Doctor – Jens Larsen
First Apprentice – Peter Lobert
Second Apprentice – Boris Prýgl
Fool – Ulrich Reß
Marie – Gun-Brit Barkmin
Margret – Heike Grötzinger
Marie’s Child – Alban Mondon
Lad – Jochen Schäfer
Soldier – Markus Zeitler

Andreas Kriegenburg (director)
Harald B Thor (set designs)
Andrea Schraad (costumes)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Zenta Haerter (choreography)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Bavarian State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Stellario Fagone)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Hartmut Haenchen (conductor)

It would be an extraordinary, even an unimaginable Wozzeck that failed to move, to chill one to the bone. This was certainly no such Wozzeck; Marie’s reading from the Bible, Wozzeck’s demise, the final scene with their son and the other children: all brought that particular Wozzeck combination of tears and horror. At its heart, in every sense, lay Christian Gerhaher’s Wozzeck, Gun-Brit Barkmin’s Marie, and their child, touchingly sung by Alban Mondon.

I have heard some fine Wozzecks over the years; Gerhaher must surely rank alongside the finest. He has been selective in his opera roles; it would, however, be an over-simplification verging on distortion to say that he is more at home in the concert hall. Wozzeck is, of course, a very different role from his fabled Tannhäuser Wolfram and is surely the sterner dramatic test, perhaps especially for someone with so heartbreakingly beautiful a voice. Or so it might seem on first glance, but Gerhaher is an artist at least as celebrated for intelligence and humanity. His way with words, music, and gesture too simply had one believe that this was the character he was playing. Verbal nuance without pedantry, attention to musical line without a hint of self-regard, harrowing facial expression that demanded our sympathy: yes, this was a compleat Wozzeck. Barkmin’s Marie, equally well sung (and spoken), equally sympathetic, made for a fine complement indeed. Through her artistry one felt her hopes as well as her devastation, her pride as well as her capacity for love. Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke’s Captain, John Daszak’s Drum Major and Jens Larsen’s Doctor skilfully trod the line between character and caricature, no mean feat in a production that often called upon them to accentuate the grotesque. Kevin Conners as Andres and Heike Grötzinger as Margret impressed too, carving out their own dramatic potentialities, even as we knew them no more likely to succeed than the opera’s central couple. Cast from depth, this was a fine Wozzeck for singing-actors.

Hartmut Haenchen’s conducting proved efficient most of the time, albeit with a few too many discrepancies between sections of the orchestra as well as between orchestra and pit. To be fair, there were also passages—often the interludes—in which all came together to offer something considerably more than that. Haenchen’s reading was not for the most part, however, one to offer any particular revelation. He clearly knew ‘how it went’, yet the post-Wagnerian orchestra as dramatic cauldron had its juices emerge only fitfully.

Andreas Kriegenburg’s production seemed conceptually a little unsure of what it was trying to achieve. Straddling the divide between Expressionist grotesquerie—some arresting images there—and social realism—with a curious twist of Brechtian image, not dramaturgy—is a perfectly reasonable strategy. Communication of how the two might intertwined proved more elusive. Updated to what seemed to be more or less the time of composition, the production left no doubt of the gross injustice and poverty pervading the world in which these events took place. I could have done without all the splashing round in the lake below. Kriegenburg often scored, however, in particular dramatic touches: above all, the acts of Wozzeck’s son, keen to learn from his ill-fated father: watching, listening. and in some cases, acting, as when this evidently wounded child broke his mother’s heart by painting the accusation ‘Huren’ (‘whore’) on her wall. All was lost, then: a moment of devastation. Already we knew what fate, or rather society, had in store not only for Wozzeck and Marie, but for their child too. ‘Wir arme leut’…

Monday 25 November 2019

Die tote Stadt, Bavarian State Opera, 22 November 2019


Images: © Wilfried Hösl

Paul – Jonas Kaufmann
Marietta, Marie’s Apparition – Marlis Petersen
Frank, Fritz – Andrzej Filończyk
Brigitta – Jennifer Johnston
Juliette – Mirjam Mesak
Lucienne – Corinna Scheurle
Gaston, Victorin – Manuel Günther
Count Albert – Dean Power

Simon Stone (director)
Maria-Magdalena Kwaschik (assistant director)
Ralph Myers (set designs)
Mel Page (costumes)
Roland Edrich (lighting)
Lukas Leipfinger (dramaturgy)

Chorus and Children’s Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus director: Stellario Fagone)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

I approached this evening as something of a sceptic regarding work and director. My sole prior encounter with Simon Stone’s work had not been, to put it mildly, a happy one. Nor do I count myself a subscriber or even affiliate to the Korngold fan club, considerable in number and still more considerable in fervency. Some of Korngold's music I have responded to warmly, some less so. (It would still take some persuasion, though now less than before, to drag me to another performance of Das Wunder der Heliane.) My experience with Die tote Stadt has been mixed too. That, however, is bye the bye, for this new production and still more the performances within it, superlatively conducted by Kirill Petrenko, made for a splendid evening that more or less had me forget reservations hitherto entertained.

Petrenko’s conducting and the playing of the Bavarian State Orchestra could hardly have been bettered. There was no doubting the care taken in his preparation, nor his ability vividly and meaningfully to communicate understanding of the score in the theatre. Once the harmony becomes more interesting, during the second and third scenes, Petrenko showed himself equally alert to its shorter-term expressive potential and, score permitting, longer-term tonal implications. There is greater progress in such terms here than in, say, Schreker’s more harmonically—and dramaturgically—adventurous Die Gezeichneten, which ends up going round and round in circles, having one thank God for Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Petrenko likewise showed skill surpassing that of any conductor I have heard in communicating Korngold’s motivic working as dramatic past, present, and future. The orchestra, moreover, offered a far more variegated sound than I heard from the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg in 2005; if that calorific frenzy impressed in its own way, this was ultimately a more revealing sound as part of an overall dramatic conception. Where some performances of what we may broadly call ‘late Romantic’ music—a term I generally avoid on account of chronological absurdity and levelling generalisation—all too readily become congested, here was a panoply of orchestral colour that shifted before our ears so as to suggest, at least during the most skilfully composed passages, ready understanding of Straussian phantasmagoria.

For whereas in Salzburg, Willy Decker’s staging (later seen at Covent Garden too) was very much in ‘period’ keeping not only with Korngold but also with George Rodenbach’s Bruges la morte, Fernand Khnopff, et al.—and as such will I suspect greatly have appealed to enthusiasts—Stone’s production offered a welcome contemporary—to us—alternative for those who, like me, find the opera’s laboured symbolism both stifling and a little empty (as well as curiously dated for 1920). Here, Paul’s house (no.37: no evident symbolism to me, though you may know otherwise) is the focus for a cancer bereavement—as we learn when we later behold Marie’s apparition—from which he shows no sign of recovering. One room’s every wall is covered with pictures of her; he hangs her hair in his bedroom; some of the house, furniture covered, goes unused; and so on. His housekeeper, Brigitta, and friend, Frank, are clearly, justifiably concerned. However, a psychonalytical dream sequence appears to offer the route to recovery. Having at least begun to work out some of his issues with Marie/Marietta in a dream in which all manner of strange things can happen and do—the dead town comes into its own, multiplying Doppelgänger, Pierrot-troupes, accusations thrown as freely as underwear, etc.—there is perhaps some hope for the future in what uncannily looks and sounds like the morning of a fresh start. Ralph Myers’s revolving set permits the house to transform itself, almost as if it were turning itself inside out, as do the characters, their acts, and their neuroses. ‘It was all a dream’ may or may not be a satisfactory solution; if not, that remains a problem with the work itself. Stone’s production makes uncommon, if arguably reductive, sense of a text that can readily seem somewhat silly.

Vocally, this was unquestionably an evening to savour. Jonas Kaufmann’s voice is a very different instrument from that of a few years ago. Sounding more baritonal than ever, Kaufmann had lost nothing, however, of his ability to float and turn a long line, nor to forge from word and tone that particular, peculiar alchemy of song. In opera, further alchemy is required, of course, with the art of gesture; this was as compelling a stage performance—and I have seen a few—as I have seen from him. Kaufmann’s Paul remembered, lived in, and came close to final suffocation from times past, but in its final freshness, shared in the hope suggested, if only suggested, by Petrenko and Stone alike. Marlis Petersen’s Marietta proved the perfect foil, a high-spirited heir to Strauss’s Zerbinetta, albeit with the vocal reserves and finely spun line of something more Wagnerian. Her acting skills proved just as impressive, as did those of other partners onstage. Jennifer Johnston’s no-nonsense yet compassionate Brigitta, Andrzej Filończyk’s sympathetic and beautifully sung Frank, the rest of an excellent supporting cast, estimable choral forces: all contributed to a dream performance in every sense. In the intelligence of its accomplishment of values both musical and theatrical, I suspect this Munich Tote Stadt will set a gold standard to successors.

Sunday 24 November 2019

Lohengrin, Bavarian State Opera, 21 November 2019


Ortrud (Karita Mattila)
Images: © Wilfried Hösl

King Henry the Fowler – Christof Fischesser
Lohengrin – Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa – Anja Harteros
Friedrich von Telramund – Wolfgang Koch
Ortrud – Karita Mattila
King’s Herald – Martin Gantner
Four Brabantian Nobles – Caspar Singh, George Virban, Oğulcan Yilmaz, Markus Suihkonen
Four Pages – Soloists from the Tölz Boys’ Choir
Gottfried – Lukas Engstler

Richard Jones (director)
Ultz (designs)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Silke Holzach (video)
Lucy Burge (choreographical assistance)
Rainer Karlitschek (dramaturgy)

Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus director: Stellario Fagone)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Lothar Koenigs (conductor)

An exceptional Lohengrin, this. I had better explain. Yes, it was exceptional in the quality of much of the singing, especially the two principal female roles, yet also in luxury casting such as Martin Gantner as the King’s Herald. It was also—and perhaps more surprisingly to me—exceptional in that fine musical performances rescued the evening from one of the silliest and most bizarrely irrelevant productions of the work I have ever seen. (For what it is worth, staging Lohengrin is an issue to which I have given a good deal of attention; it is, for instance, the subject of a chapter in one of my books, After Wagner.) Increasingly, I have felt that opera performances working only as music—shorthand, I know—and not as theatre have little interest for me any more; I may as well stay at home and listen to a recording or read the score. This, however, was exceptional in that orchestra, singers, and conductor managed to convince me that I had experienced a dramatic performance of Lohengrin, acting included, that had little or nothing to do with what Richard Jones had served up.

Telramund (Wolfgang Koch), Lohengrin (Klaus Florian Vogt), Elsa (Anja Harteros)

Jones presented a banal tale, if one may call it that, of a middle-aged, middle-class heterosexual couple—a neglected group of whose experience we all should hear more—marrying somewhere provincial and building a new house there. That seemed to be it, save for when the house project did not work out as planned and the house was no longer present. There was occasionally promise of something else: brown-shirted uniforms suggested something obvious at the start, yet disappeared in favour of an eccentric combination—at least in any circles I know—of Tracht and tracksuits. (Maybe savings needed to be made to finance the crane that hoisted the roof onto the house.) For some reason, a difficult-to-read floral inscription in the front garden imitated that on the front of Wagner’s Wahnfried villa. Doubtless one could propose all manner of symbolic explanations concerning what various things might have meant; one would have to, really, since the production appeared not to bother. I am sure we are all, ‘in a very real sense’, as an Anglican bishop might have it, building a house, and so on and so forth, but really. King Henry the Fowler appeared to be a marriage celebrant, not unreasonably confused by proceedings around him; quite who most of the others were eluded me. Swords sat awkwardly with the narrative, to put it mildly, yet at least reminded us that Wagner’s opera has a more involving story to tell. All was blocked well: credit where credit is due to the Abendspielleitung (Georgine Balk) and, presumably, to the original production. I cannot imagine otherwise what else, if anything, ran through Jones’s head. O for a Hans Neuenfels, a Peter Konwitschny, a Stefan Herheim…

Ortrud and Elsa (Anja Harteros)

Lohengrin ‘itself’ fared much better. Anja Harteros took a while to warm up, her first act Elsa veering in and out of focus, verbally as well as musically. Once focus had been achieved however, hers was a battle royal with rival Schillerian queen—and sometime Elsa—Karita Mattila. To see and hear the two was to experience something akin to a duet between finest woodwind principals, timbres contrasting yet complementary, albeit with finely honed words and gesture too. The greatest Ortruds command attention even during the first act, the character onstage yet having little to sing. Waltraud Meier did the first time I saw her on stage; so here did Mattila, her interpretative and communicative zeal amply compensating for the vacuity of Jones’s production. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin did not settle immediately and is famously not to all tastes. For me, it works considerably better than his other Wagner roles, a sense of unearthly ‘purity’ not at all inappropriate; like his Elsa and Ortrud, he offered a consummately professional performance throughout. So too did Wolfgang Koch as Telramund. An estimable, always likeable artist, he sometimes seemed slightly out of sorts, but there was no doubting the intelligence of his properly Wagnerian blend of word and tone; likewise Christof Fischesser’s King Henry. Gantner’s excellent Herald fully lived up to expectations, as did the Tölz trebles acting as pages and their Brabantian noble colleagues.

Lohengrin, King Henry the Fowler (Christof Fischeser), Elsa

If the orchestra was not always quite on peak form, the first act Prelude a little bumpy at times, one would have had to be wishing to find fault to be disappointed. Its strings sounded golden, more Vienna or Dresden than, say, Berlin, though there were naturally darker passages too, not least during the Prelude to the second act. Characterful woodwind and a brass section capable of sometimes breathtaking tonal variegation offered further orchestral pleasure and insight. Lothar Koenigs’s direction of the whole was sane, sensitive, and unassumingly purposeful. It certainly never drew attention to itself, which, after a certain conductor at Bayreuth this summer was more than welcome, but instead gave the impression of ‘natural’ communication of Wagner’s melos. There were a few cases of surprising disjuncture between pit and chorus, but they were rectified soon enough and did little to spoil one’s enjoyment of some fine choral singing. All in all, then, an interesting evening—if not quite in the way one might have expected.