Wednesday 26 July 2023

Munich Opera Festival (5) - Tristan und Isolde, 21 July 2023


Tristan – Stuart Skelton
King Marke – René Pape
Isolde – Anja Kampe
Kurwenal – Wolfgang Koch
Melot – Sean Michael Plumb
Brangäne – Jamie Barton
Shepherd – Jonas Hacker
Steersman – Christian Rieger
Young Sailor – Liam Bonthrone

Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
Malgorzata Szczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Kamil Polak (video)
Claude Bardouil (choreography)
Miron Hakenbeck, Lukas Leipfinger (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus director: Johannes Knecht)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Lothar Koenigs (conductor)

Images: Wilfried Hösl
Tristan (Stuart Skelton) and Isolde (Anja Kampe)

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Tristan, first seen two years ago, marking an end to Nikolaus Bachler’s intendancy, is on first sight at least, a puzzling affair. There are ideas, certainly, though quite how they connect, let alone cohere, lay largely beyond me. They seemed, moreover, to bear precious relation to this most treacherous of works, perhaps the most resistant of all operas—if one may call it an opera at all—to intervention from without. Its action is almost entirely interior, and directors forget (or fail to realise) that at their peril. The only production I have seen to take a fair shot at divesting Tristan of its metaphysics was Dmitri Tcherniakov’s for the Berlin Staatsoper in 2018, though I seem to have been largely alone in responding positively to its provocations—and had, I admit, to do a considerable amount of reading against the grain. 

Strange mannequins were seen first in the opening Prelude. Was there some sort of cyber-intent here? Perhaps, but if so, again I am at a loss as to what or why. A whole family of them, puppets added to the two original actors, joined Tristan at his table in Kareol. It was presumably a metaphor for something, or perhaps Warlikowski just liked the look of them. If we were entering the world of the posthuman, it was a tentative entry that appeared to be revoked. 


Malgorzata Szczęśniak’s designs were not entirely dissimilar to Tchernaikov’s. A luxury ship, albeit in darker wood, served for the rest too, including what seems during much of the first act also to be some sort of treatment facility, Brangäne as nurse. These are damaged people, I suppose, as Christoph Marthaler at Bayreuth insisted on telling us (without saying anything else much), but who was who and why they were doing what they were doing to whom often eluded him. Quite why the Sailor, for instance, was being blindfolded and abused as he was for much of the act, before abruptly disappearing and never being seen again, I could not tell you. I liked the keen sense of the hunt, both in scene and costume design, in the second act; that framed very nicely what transpired on stage. An alternative action unfolded on film, though, in which Isolde made her way to a hotel room, eventually joined by Tristan. Whatever their motive, it was not a night of passion that unfolded, but rather a bit of pacing, sitting, and lying down. I do not think this was to send up the plot; Carry on Tristan did not seem either to be the intention or the result, but I am not entirely sure. 

The lovers were together at the end on film, having necessarily died separately onstage. (Whether Isolde dies at all should be an open question, but anyway...) I assume this was some sort of greater reality, or maybe it was ‘just’ a fantasy, though in that case, whose? For if the words Isolde sings are delusional, a sort of locus classicus of what George Steiner diagnosed –as, ironically, had Wagner and Nietzsche – as Christianity’s death blow to the tragic impulse, her ‘transfiguration’ (Verklärung) has wonders, to put it mildly, of its own. A couple lying chastely and smiling at each other on a hotel bed, having attempted suicide and perhaps (who knows?) about to die, has fewer if any such wonders to offer. I realise this may be a reference to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, yet in itself, so what? The extraneous does little good in Tristan and, for the most part, simply gets in the way. Contemporary directors may view metaphysics with suspicion, yet to tackle this work they should do it the courtesy of treating its claims seriously before denying them. If loneliness were Warlikowski’s ultimate guiding concept, and I think it may have been, surely he cannot have been suggesting Tristan or what ‘happens’ in it offered some sort of cure?


Tristan and Isolde

Musically, we were on firmer, coherently moving ground. Eight years ago, Waltraud Meier sang farewell to Isolde  in this theatre, in Peter Konwitschny’s far more single-minded production. Anja Kampe proved every inch her successor. I have never heard anything but excellence from her; this Isolde, imperious, tender, and almost every shade in between, proved no exception. She had a grand manner when called for, but it was part of her portrayal, not a singer’s persona; words, music, and gesture were married in properly Wagnerian harmony. As Tristan, Stuart Skelton certainly had heft, yet he offered here, to an unusual extent for this role, an interiority founded on verbal detail and consequent colouring. Perhaps one missed a little of the soaring intensity of some Tristans, but one cannot have it all—and, with some, one has precious little at all. This was rare compensation. René Pape’s King Marke was as fine a performance as I have heard from him. There has never been any doubting the beauty of his voice, but the portrayal seemed to have gained depth, not only in his way with words but his mournful, steadfast stage presence too. Jamie Barton’s Brangäne was sincere, communicative, richly resonant. Wolfgang Koch’s Kurwenal offered a sardonic bite otherwise only really experienced in Kampe’s Isolde. From the rest of the cast, all roles well taken, Sean Michael Plumb’s Melot was vocally bright, even vivid, in a performance having one wish he had more to sing. Liam Bonthrone’s Sailor offered a clarity in song Warlikowski denied him conceptually.

Tristan and King Marke (René Pape)

The Bavarian State Orchestra played with a mastery born of years’ immersion in this score and Wagner in general that must have been apparent to all. There are doubtless several ways to be ‘right’ here; prescription is neither necessary nor desirable. But there was no doubting that this was one of them, the Munich strings dark yet glowing, fundamental in more than one sense to the mysterious surging of the Schopenhauerian Will. Lothar Koenigs’s quietly confident leadership of the performance proved impressive in cumulative effect. One did not notice a conductor’s personal ‘ideas’ about the score; one fancied one simply heard the score, whose power built until the end of each act left one reeling. How much more powerful this might have been with a stronger staging, we cannot know, but there was enough Wagner here to satisfy any listener.

Sunday 23 July 2023

Munich Opera Festival (4) - Dido and Aeneas/Erwartung, 20 July 2023


Dido/A Woman - Aušrinė Stundytė
Aeneas – Günter Papendell
Belinda – Victoria Randem
Venus – Rinat Shaham
Sorceress – Key'mon W Murrah
First Witch – Elmira Karakhanova
Members of the opera-ballet of the Bavarian State Opera – Aaron Amoatey, Erica D’Amica, Ahta Yaw Ea, Arnie Georgsson, Moe Gotoda, João da Gracia Santiago, Serhat Perhat, The Thien Nguyen

Paweł Mykietyn (music)
Maria Magdalena Gocał (vocalist)
Jarowsław Regulski (sound design)

Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
Malgorzata Szczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Kamil Polak (video)
Claude Bardouil (choreography)
Christian Longchamp, Katharina Ortmann (dramaturgy)

Bavarian State Orchestra
Supplementary Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus director: Sergej Bolkhovets)
Andrew Manze (conductor)

Images: Bernd Uhlig

Purcell and Schoenberg: my kind of double-bill. Puritan ‘authenticity’, or whatever it is calling itself at the moment, is so all-pervasive when it comes to the seventeenth century that the fantasy has had little chance—until now. To be fair, the Frankfurt Opera last season revived ts Barrie Kosky double-bill of Dido and Aeneas and Bluebeard’s Castle, but I am not aware of any previous pairing of Dido with Erwartung. (Bluebeard and Erwartung, by contrast, is an accepted if hardly frequent match.) But is it, is it really my kind of double-bill? I think so; I cannot see why not and could certainly come up with arguments, persuasive or otherwise, in its favour. Sadly, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production does not mark his finest hour, reducing Dido in particular to a level of almost risible banality, despite the evening’s musical virtues. That was more the case once I had read dramaturge Christian Longchamp’s brief conceptual summary in the programme than when watching, when I (more or less) simply felt baffled. 

What I initially saw was a woman notably more serious than her fun-loving companions, but who did not in any sense appear to be Queen of Carthage or any such equivalent. She stayed in a glass cabin close to a forest, apparently North American, whilst they came and went, Aeneas and Belinda apparently conducting an affair or at least having casual sex. Dido seemed to be in some danger during the second act as the Sorceress and her – his/their, since a countertenor had been cast? – entourage surrounded the cabin. She held up signs saying ‘HELP’ and ‘VAMPIRES’, so I assumed the latter to be the US popular culture equivalent to witches. That made some sense (sort of), even if I could not discern any particular motive, let alone political element. 

Once she had died, a transformational ‘interlude’ began, offering film of a voyage through an endless tunnel, some electronic music by Paweł Mykietyn, and members of the opera’s ballet corps excellent in contemporary dance. Since Dido rose at the end of that and the ‘vampires’ had been busy for much of it, I presumed she too had become a vampire and would join them. Instead, though, she went back to her cabin, which at some point had mysteriously separated into two, and with a rifle shot Aeneas and Belinda dead without feasting on their blood. Erwartung consisted scenically of Dido in that half of the cabin and a dancer in the other changing his clothes and preparing dinner, which she went over to taste but may not have cared for, since she left more or less immediately. There you have it; there was more, but I am not sure it would help to go into further detail, even if I could remember it. 

The vampire thing was, for better or worse, a red herring. It seems that much of what we saw had been in Dido’s imagination, in a concept at least verging on the misogynistic. I may as well quote Longchamp’s scenario (also given in English translation) in full; there seems little virtue to paraphrase in this case.


On the edge of a forest, a woman named Dido lives in a house that does not belong to her. She is a fugitive. Nothing is known about her except that she comes from far away. Her behaviour, her recurring references to very old stories, her fears suggest a psychological fragility. Past and present, reality and imaginery [sic] are so intertwined in her that one does not know whether the mysterious figures and evil spirits that appear at times inhabit the forest or her mind. Dido feels a mad, exclusive love for a man who is also a fugitive, Aeneas.

Together with two women, also uprooted, they make up this provisional community.

One evening Dido immerses [s’enfonce] into the forest or into her fantasies. 

One major problem is that very little of that may reasonably be deduced from what one sees on stage. We surely cannot be expected to have read the programme before the performance; the production team needs to do some work here. Even a verbatim projection would have helped. More fundamentally, though, to reduce the character of Dido to a ‘madwoman’, quite divorced from matters of state or any plausible substitute, is a pretty poor production concept. Dido is not unstable; she is wronged. Aeneas is not an apostle of free love. And so on. For some reason, the fourth member of this ‘community’ is, we learn from the cast list though nowhere else, is styled ‘Venus’ and assumes performance of what is left of the vocal writing. I cannot tell you what part the goddess of love is held to play in this reimagined drama. Perhaps it is just a name. Video projections of forest deer added less than nothing. And moving into Schoenberg, might we not at least have had a spot of psychoanalysis? 

Were it not for the genuinely impressive contribution by the dancers, which did, in its way, link both halves, I could not give you a single argument derived from this double-bill for trying to connect the two operas at all. The problem lay far more with the treatment of Dido than that of Erwartung. Once reduced to the level chosen for Dido and divested of its dramatic interest, the stage was literally set for the rest: strange and a genuine pity, since Warlikowski has show in productions such as his Paris Iphigénie en Tauride and his Salzburg Bassarids, as well as his work in spoken theatre, that he is perfectly capable of dealing interestingly with issues of political power and eroticism. To have a ‘mad’ woman possibly/probably imagine strange things was, sadly, nowhere near enough.


Aušrinė Stundytė offered a powerful, indeed extraordinary locus of musical connection and certainly did what she could with Warlikowski’s scenario, her acting evoking pity, even sympathy, in the first part, even if we did not really know why. As Dido, she was vulnerable yet proud, her English diction superb. As A Woman, Stundytė mastered Marie Pappenheim’s libretto, Schoenberg’s lightning response, and the alchemy of their combination with an ease that gripped despite, not on account of, the staging. Colour, articulation, dynamic contrast, phrasing, and so much more combined to offer as complete a portrayal as we are likely to here. Above all, and like Andrew Manze and the Bavarian State Orchestra, she treated the drama musically and not as a succession of effects.

Manze is a musician of wide and generous sympathies. From a ‘Baroque’ violinist background, he has always shown interest in earlier and different performing practices. It seemed to me that he relished the opportunity to perform Purcell with this orchestra and on this scale; it certainly sounded that way. There were a couple of odd textual decisions I did not follow, but this was a reading tender and powerful, ably supported by the excellent work of the house’s ‘supplementary’ chorus in the pit. However wide those sympathies, I doubt Schoenberg would be the first composer anyone would associate with Manze, but he did a fine job here too, very much at one with Stundytė’s approach, enabling the orchestra to present a host of voices, near-Brahmsian possibilities taking different turns with all the dramatic-psychological implications that suggests. Balance and colour were equally well projected, in what emerged as a grand operatic scena, almost an outsize accompagnato, albeit one that seemed over – as, in any performance worth its salt – in a thirty-minute flash. 

Aeneas is a dramatically thankless role, all the more so in this production, but Günter Papendell did what he could, emerging with credit. Victoria Randem greatly impressed as Belinda, her clear, stylish, yet never remotely precious soprano just the thing for the role. She can certainly act too. Key'mon W Murrah made an excellent musical case for a countertenor Sorceress in a performance of considerable dramatic verve. There was, indeed, nothing to disappoint on the musical front, and much to admire. What a pity it was to have memorable performances so sorely let down by a disappointing production.

Saturday 22 July 2023

Munich Opera Festival (3) - Mozart and the Munich Hofkapelle, 19 July 2023


Johann Christian Cannabich: Quintet for two flutes, violin, viola, and cello in F major, op.7 no.1
Mozart: Quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, in F major, KV 370/368b
Mozart, arr. Rafaela Seywald: Concert Arias: ‘Ma, che vi fece … Sperai vicino il lido,’ KV 368; ‘Misera, dove son … Ah, non son’ io che parlo,’ KV 369
Mozart: String Quartet no.14 in G major, KV 387

Jasmin Delfs, Talia Or (sopranos)
Vera Becker-Öttl, Edoardo Silvi (flutes)
Heike Steinbrecher (oboe)
Pascal Deuber, Stefan Böhning (horns)
Matjaž Bogataj, Immanuel Drißner (violins)
Adrian Mustea (viola)
Benedikt Don Strohmeier (cello)

To the Munich Residenz’s Rococo Cuvilliés-Theater, once simply the Residenztheater, for a fascinating concert entitled ‘Mozart and the Munich Hofkapelle’. It was here, on 29 January 1781, that Idomeneo received its first performance; this programme encircled without including that wonder of the operatic world. 

First, we heard a quintet for two flutes, violin, from Johann Christian Cannabich, since 1774 leader of the celebrated Mannheim orchestra, and who had moved to Munich in 1778 shortly after his prince, the Elector Palatine Charles Theodore, succeeded as Elector and Duke of Bavaria. Violinist, composer, and Kapellmeister, Cannabich conducted that Idomeneo premiere. His quintet, given a warm, cultivated, even Mozartian performance by members of the Bavarian State Orchestra, the Hofkapelle’s post-Wittelsbach incarnation, proved to be a typically pleasant galant work, if a little short-breathed and regular at times for those of us with ears accustomed to Mozart and Haydn. The first two movements proceeded as one would expect and never outstayed their welcome; the third, one of those strangely lengthy minuet final movements, might, again at least for modern ears, have benefited from an editor. But then, Cannabich was not writing for twenty-first-century ears and would never have imagined his chamber music being performed for an audience in such a setting the best part of 250 years on. The scoring inevitably had one hear the two flutes as soloists, with the violin, Cannabich’s own instrument, and viola as inner voices, often interestingly and always gratefully conceived. Benedikt Don Strohmeier provided here, as throughout, exemplary playing for the cello bass line. 

Another work for Munich, Mozart’s own Oboe Quartet, followed. Flautists Vera Becker-Öttl and Edoardo Silvi were replaced with the equally mellifluous Heike Steinbrecher, today’s incarnation of Friedrich Ramm, whose playing so impressed Mozart and inspired him to stretch the instrument’s (newly acquired) range to its near limits.  This is a work of greater magnitude in every sense, treasured by oboists, string players, and of course audiences the world over. Here the oboist is at best first among equals, a chamber musician like the rest. Interest is dispersed throughout each part and, above all, in their harmonic and contrapuntal combination; that, moreover, was how it sounded here, in a performance that seemed to delight in the liberation afforded. It probably does not last much longer than Cannabich’s piece, yet seems to take in so much more, whilst also sounding over far too soon. All movements emphasised the proximity, indeed mutual fertilisation, of Mozart’s instrumental and operatic writing, the Adagio here a grave central aria, flanked by ensembles as full of character in every sense as their counterparts not only in Idomeneo but the operas to come. 

The parts of Ilia and Elettra were first taken by Dorothea and Elisabeth Wendling respectively, sisters-in-law and two out of four Idomeneo participants from the Wendling family, also from Mannheim and whom the Mozarts had known there first. (Johann Baptist Wendling, Dorothea’s husband, was a flautist in the orchestra—and may therefore have played Cannabich’s quintet. He certainly played in Idomeneo.) Introduced by Cannabich to Elisabeth, ‘Lisl’, née Sarselli, Mozart seems to have been equally taken by her looks and her artistry. At any rate, he wrote the concert aria, : ‘Ma, che vi fece … Sperai vicino il lido,’ for her, here performed in one of two arrangements for instrumental ensemble by Rafaela Seywald, with soprano Jasmin Delfs the exemplary soprano soloist. Brilliantly supported by Munich musicians from a different vintage, Delfs showed herself fully in control of the technical and expressive requirements, turning them to thrilling ends. Listeners, as well as composers, would doubtless have had personal favourites then as now. If I found myself favouring Delfs’s cleanness of gleaming line over the more generous vibrato of Talia Or in Dorothea’s concert aria, ‘Misera, dove son … Ah, non son’ io che parlo’, hers was also an excellent performance of a nicely complementary piece, heading in different, sometimes surprising directions, and similarly conceived and nurtured in the Metastasian text and Mozart’s response. 

For the final item on the programme, we looked to the following year, when Mozart had moved to Vienna and was learning if not quite a new craft, then one in which Haydn was so far unquestionably his superior. With the G major Quartet, KV 387, Mozart opened his celebrated set of six dedicated to Haydn—and over which he struggled, if not quite in Beethovenian style, then more so than was his custom (Romantic semi-myths of divine ease notwithstanding). Again, we heard cultivated playing, and there was much to admire and note, not least in the seriousness with which Mozart approached and eventually crowned his task. I did not always feel, though, that the players were inside the music as they had been earlier. There were a few cases of tentative openings and I struggled to discern the line in the finale. Perhaps that was my fault; it was a very hot evening and had naturally become more so as time in the theatre had progressed. This is also incredibly unsparing music, regularly performed by the world’s leading permanent quartets and perhaps lending itself to odious comparisons. I nonetheless wondered whether programming something else from 1780-1 might have proved more persuasive: an arrangement or two from Idomeneo, perhaps. No matter: there was more than enough to enjoy and by which to be enlightened for one evening.

Friday 21 July 2023

Munich Opera Festival (2) - Semele, 18 July 2023


Semele – Brenda Rae
Jupiter – Michael Spyres
Apollo – Jonas Hacker
Athamas – Jakub Józef Orliński
Juno – Emily D’Angelo
Ino – Nadezhda Karyazina
Iris – Jessica Niles
Cadmus, Somnus – Philippe Sly
High Priest – Milan Siljanov

Claus Guth (director)
Michael Levine (designs)
Gesine Völlm (costumes)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
rocafilm (video)
Ramses Sigl (choreography)
Yvonne Gebauer, Christopher Warmuth (dramaturgy)

Bavarian State Orchestra
LauschWerk (chorus director: Sonja Lachenmayr)
Gianluca Capuano (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus

I was sceptical, I admit, for the first two acts of Claus Guth’s new production of Semele, but it came together and offered an anthropological and psychoanalytical interpretation of Handel’s opera such as I have not encountered before. It is not really my way of thinking, but that is neither here nor there. And what I had initially seen as a disappointingly ‘stylish’ (that is, stylish, but not much more) production, rather in the manner of Christof Loy, albeit with suggestions of something closer to Romeo Castellucci, proved considerably more than that, demanding that the end be read back into the beginning, the work very much treated as a whole. Semele meets Die Frau ohne Schatten? Not quite, yet not so far off either. And if my initial response to ‘why not?’ might have been ‘why?’, a good case was made. 

At the centre of Guth’s production – and this is, of course, shorthand for the production team as a whole – is a wedding, that of Semele and Athamas. That is how the work begins in any case, but here it extends over the entire three acts. Not only is the closing, alternative wedding, in which Ino takes Semele’s place, very much the same thing; no one has actually gone away, and time seems to have stood still. During that standing – should that make any sense – and partly superimposed upon it, is the action that leads to that replacement and Semele’s displacement. Guth’s reckoning seems to be that the apparently empty ritual of the modern, secular wedding is anything but. Indeed, its importance may in some respects actually have grown as people endlessly reproduce their ‘experience’ for the world to see. Depressingly or otherwise, marriage and its status are here to stay. After all, the promise of female and subsequently queer liberation from the deadly institution has largely been replaced with that of ‘equality’ within.

Semele and her doubts thus become all the more interesting. We have seen her and her vanity as manifestations of celebrity culture, whether ‘then’ or now. But what if she is actually right, even if not for entirely the right reasons? Has she seen a truth – withdrawn, if you like, the Schopenhauerian veil – and been traumatised so that her immortality is that of a ghost, albeit one who will bear Bacchus? To some of us, it makes more sense to use the Greek Dionysus. In a sense, then, The Bassarids, Dionysus’s revenge, awaits: Handel and Henze rather than Handel and Hofmannsthal. Apollo’s prophecy is brought to instant life as Semele sits, no longer ecstatic (screams of delight at the end of the first act), terrified (screams of fear at the end of the second), but numb save for her cradling role, to quote Andrea Leadsom, ‘as a mother’. The festivities continue without her, though Ino’s sisterly concern seems genuine. Perhaps, notwithstanding a greater love than what had essentially been an arranged marriage, she even fears amidst the rejoicing that she will make the error Semele managed, however catastrophically, to avert. There is much to disentangle, to consider, even to deconstruct here, but that broadly is what I took from the production. 

Not that it is all sober and serious. There is a crucial element of display which might initially seem superficial but proves rather more than that. Dance is employed, not only as ‘movement’ but as entertainment within an entertainment. In between – wherever that may be and whatever that may mean – the bored Semele finds herself unmoved by whatever show the increasingly desperate Jupiter puts on for her. In a stroke of luck, though, Guth has in Jakub Józef Orliński a breakdancer as well as singer at his disposal. When brought to life by Jupiter, suddenly the faltering Athamas can sweep Semele off her feet. That, intriguingly, is the dreamed (?) entertainment that fulfils her wishes. When the spell is cancelled, Athamas returns to earth, presumably remembering none of what had happened, if indeed it had. (It is a pity Guth resorts to having him take off his glasses to gain confidence and attraction, but there we are.) 

In the title role, Brenda Rae proved fully equal to the role’s challenges and added a few more of her own in the ornamentation stakes. Her performance was always tailored to the qualities of her voice, rather than sopranos who might have taken it on in the past, and it showed. Coloratura was spot on and, more to the point, a tool of the drama. Michael Spyres’s Jupiter proved strangely likeable – in a good way – and again musically outstanding. Orliński’s display of various kinds was typically excellent; he likewise offered a vividly human portrayal, as did Nadezhda Karyazina’s Ino. Emily D’Angelo’s Juno offered a decidedly class act, and all the smaller parts were well taken.

Jupiter (Michael Spyres), Semele (Brenda Rae)

If the first scene had a few too many disjunctures between chorus and pit, such difficulties were resolved thereafter. (It is perhaps worth recalling at this point that Handel’s oratorio writing, which is what it is, was never intended to be staged and presents very particular challenges for such a performance.) The young singers of LauschWerk acquitted themselves very well, both as singers and actors, Munich’s Statisterie also contributing considerably to the greater good. Gianluca Capuano’s direction of the Bavarian State Orchestra was, especially once past those initial teething difficulties, estimable and refreshingly non-doctrinaire. There were moments of real power and grandeur, sadly so often lacking in modern Handel performances. There was intimacy too, of course, as there were fireworks. Indeed, the range of Capuano’s interpretation, seemingly very much in sympathy with Guth’s, was not the least quality to a fine evening in the theatre.

Semele, Athamas (Jakub Józef Orliński)

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Munich Opera Festival (1) - Così fan tutte, 17 July 2023


Fiordiligi – Louise Alder
Dorabella – Avery Amereau
Guglielmo/Gulielmo – Konstantin Krimmel
Ferrando – Sebastian Kohlhepp/Jonas Hacker
Despina – Sandrine Piau
Don Alfonso – Johannes Martin Kränzle

Benedict Andrews (director)
Magda Willi (set designs)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Mark Van Denesse (lighting)
Katja Leclerc (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus director: Kamila Akhmedjanova)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

Images: ©Wilfried Hösl
Don Alfonso (Johannes Martin Kränzle), Despina (Sandrine Piau)

It is refreshing to find a Così fan tutte that takes the very greatest of Mozart and Da Ponte’s three masterpieces (for the most part) seriously. The amount of nonsense I have seen and heard said of it at least matches that for Don Giovanni. That the nonsense may be genuinely ‘felt’ is neither here nor there, we are not supposed to say that; uninformed misunderstanding is just that, whether it concern an artwork, politics, or particle physics.

Benedict Andrews’s production takes its lead, as probably must any serious attempt, from the work’s subtitle, La scuola degli amanti (‘The School for Lovers’). It opens with Don Alfonso in a black mask – contemporary fetish rather than classic Venetian (or Neapolitan) – taking candid Polaroid snaps of Despina. His lair has all the anonymity of a hotel room, though it may be some similarly liminal space: an empty office or flat, for instance—empty, that is, save for the mattress. He is no pimp, though, at least not conventionally. It appears to be as much a game, perhaps instruction, as anything else, for he does as he seems to have promised, destroying the evidence. When Gulielmo (the spelling used here) and Ferrando arrive, full of young, male confidence and concomitant naïveté, they fool around with Alfonso’s toys, but it is he who will instruct them. According to a programme interview with Andrews and music director Vladimir Jurowski, the two have their ‘own fantasy concerning him to develop: Don Alfonso therein is Don Giovanni’s elder brother, who however never had the sex appeal and courage of his younger brother.’ I only read Jurowski’s claim afterwards, so it played no role in my understanding of what I saw; nor should it have done, since it does not seem to be presented onstage. It is perhaps, though, worth mentioning out of interest, and to show that, quite rightly, both Andrews and Jurowski understand Così as following on from Don Giovanni. For what it is worth, I do not think Don Alfonso ‘needs’, at least on a tactical level, to be so irresistible as Don Giovanni; he has other strengths, is in some respects subtler, and is a survivor. But it is true: he is more limited, and probably must be, in order that the lovers may grow. 

Andrews and his ingenious Alfonso, Johannes Martin Kränzle, take the lovers through the requisite trials. We are not, after all, so far away from Die Zauberflöte, if heading in the opposite direction, as many might think. (At the very least, we might do well to consider ‘love’ in the latter work through the former’s prism, rather as Wagner tells us we must Die Meistersinger via Tristan’s.) They happen more or less as they should, though sometimes with a degree of viewing that is perhaps important to the framing, though could probably be left aside in the name of clarity and elimination of narrative confusion. That may, of course, not be the priority, but there is a danger, intriguingly if somewhat frustratingly also apparent in the musical direction of pushing the work beyond an ideal minimum of coherence—at least for me.

Some devices arguably work better than others. (The double entendre was not initially intended, yet seems apt enough to welcome to the show.) Sudden appearance of something esembling an underground walkway, replete with direct yet unenlightening graffiti such as ‘TITS’ and ‘My penis is huge’, added little; it quickly disappeared. An inflatable, Disney-like castle, first seen in miniature, then blown up undercutting (unnecessarily?) Ferrando’s ‘Un’aura amoroso’, is subsequently restored to suggest gateway orifices and turret protusions. That sort of works, and has a winning, Alfonso-like cynicism to it, although Andrews’s inability to go beyond Alfonso is perhaps a problem. Indeed, I suggest ‘unnecessarily’ because where Andrews for me unquestionably errs is in insistence that the ‘love’ on offer here must only be erotic, or perhaps better in a delimitation of the ‘erotic’ that the Christianity of both Mozart and Da Ponte – something neither Andrews nor Jurowski seems to accept – would always rightly deny. Across Europe and beyond, even in France, not only religion but the Church stood at the very heart of the Enlightenment. 

Gulielmo (Konstantin Krimmel), Fiordiligi (Louise Alder), Don Alfonso

That Andrews offers a garden – an open goal so often missed by directors – is a definite advantage; for me, it recalled, if without the cruel yet magical fantasy, the sadomasochistic delights of Hans Neunefels’s Salzburg production in 2000 (the first I saw). Pathways, petals, and the liberation of being outside – the ‘Zephyrs’ libretto and score present so eloquently and enticingly included – deserve better than the casual omission they often suffer. 

The crucial thing about teaching, of course, is that good pupils will go beyond their teachers. The violent anger Gulielmo and Ferrando show towards Fiordiligi and Dorabella at the close is shocking for all manner of reasons, starting with the fact that the wager was theirs, not their lovers’. This extremely powerful moment, when one wants to avert one’s eyes yet cannot, indeed should not, will linger long in the mind. But it is, of course, through musical means, through Mozart, that the lovers surpass their instructor. Don Alfonso, who arguably has least musical character of his own – partly a reflection on the singer for whom Mozart wrote, but also an opportunity, not least to go beyond Da Ponte – takes them forward yet could never comprehend what they and we have learned or, at least, been confronted with. That this ultimate truth is lacking in the staging is no bad thing, though the programme interview does not necessarily suggest awareness of it, for it is arguably something to be musically rather than scenically realised. (I see no reason why it should not be both, and indeed every reason given the musical inattentiveness of most audiences why it should, but that is a slightly different matter.) There were some strange textual choices, but no version is forever; it is not as if we shall never have chance to hear another Così.

Don Alfonso, Dorabella (Avery Amereau)


What, then, of Jurowski? I heard him conduct relatively little Mozart in London, a little more Haydn, so I had no particular preconceptions. There is, on this evidence, no doubting the thoughtfulness of his approach. Nothing is taken for granted; everything has clearly been considered, perhaps on occasion a little too considered. (Am I asking the impossible? Utter spontaneity, whilst taking the work as seriously as it deserves? Perhaps, but that is part, at least, of the Mozartian riddle.) There were some strange textual choices, but no version is forever; it is not as if we shall never have chance to hear another Così. Tempi were varied: some a little odd to my ears: I have never heard ‘Soave sia il vento’ taken anything like so quickly. Yet, even when in a hurry – and there was a good amount of lingering too – Jurowski did not harry. It was, perhaps, a little like what Nikolaus Harnoncourt might have managed, had he had a better sense of harmonic rhythm. There was fussiness, for instance in some strange tailing off of pieces, but there remained a sense of the greater whole, and also a delight in instrumental colour, especially from the woodwind. The use of period trumpets and drums is something I recall from his LPO Haydn; here, he made a better case for it than there, though it is neither something I like nor understand. 

Far more troubling, I am afraid, was the hopelessly exhibitionist continuo playing. One might have hoped this fad had reached its ne plus ultra with René Jacobs, but it seems alas we still have some way to go. Here the fortepianist – harpsichordists generally seem more sparing – never missed an opportunity to signal his presence. The odd witty or even would-be-witty aside is fine, but taking us into the realm of ‘easy listening’, with frankly inappropriate and anything but ‘period’ harmonies, is rather less so. It has nothing to do with Mozart; this is not where his music ‘leads’. And it is not what continuo playing is for. Matters were not helped through much of the performance by pervasive electronic interference: perhaps from a hearing aid. Doubtless the person concerned had no idea, but it made for very difficult listening at times. Mozart may or may not lead to Stockhausen, but the concept would need to be more fully realised. 

An excellent cast did everything that was asked for it and more. Louise Alder’s Fiordiligi, spun from finest Egyptian cotton, was equally possessed of due heft and spirt. That her second-act aria suffered both from that interference and from something less forgivable, premature applause, did not detract from her achievement. Avery Amereau made for a splendid counterpart as Dorabella, properly different in character and very much an enthusiast once fully enrolled in Don Alfonso’s ‘school’. I doubt anyone has ever had to do quite what she did whilst singing ‘È amore un ladroncello’, but she graduated with flying (orgasmic) colours. Konstantin Krimmel’s Gulielmo was dark, dangerous, even impetuous, yet always fully in vocal control. Sebastian Kohlhepp was unwell, though one would never have known from his excellent first-act performance; after the interval, though, he continued to act, whilst ensemble member Jonas Hacker put on an equally excellent vocal performance, splendidly at ease with Da Ponte as well as Mozart, from the wings. Sandrine Piau’s knowing, fun-loving, easily intelligent Despina will surely have been loved by all. And as master of ceremonies, Kränzle brought a typical match of musical and dramatic intelligence to his role. It was his school, after all: we followed his lead and felt a properly Mozartian twinge of regret when he was no longer required.

Monday 17 July 2023

Médée, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 16 July 2023

Médée – Sonya Yoncheva
Jason – Charles Castronovo
Créon – Peter Schöne
Dircé – Slavá Zámečníková
Néris – Marina Prudenskaya
Dircé’s Handmaidens – Regina Koncz, Maria Hegele
Children of Jason and Médée – Fritz Bachmann, Nathan Kamsu

Andrea Breth (director)
Martin Zehetgruber (set designs)
Carla Teti (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Oksana Lyniv (conductor)

Images: Bernd Uhlig

Cherubini’s best-known and surely greatest opera, Médée, continues to hover on the edge of the repertory. It had a high-profile outing in Salzburg in 2019, about which production if not performance the less said the better. The previous year, Andrea Breth’s staging came to the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. I missed it then, but caught (just) its first revival in February 2020, shortly before theatres closed for longer than any of us ever imagined. Now it receives its second revival and will feature next season too. I caught it just in time, making not only the final performance of this run but of the Staatsoper’s season. It made for an excellent finish, quite the way to go out, and acclaimed as such by an enthusiastic audience. 

Médée continues, in various ways, to seem a strange work, though it may be our categories and reference points that are at fault there rather than the opera itself. Some of its arias seem long for their role, as if transplanted from a pre-Mozartian seria world that yet cannot evade the Salzburger’s influence (and why should anyone wish to?) At the same time, the influence of reformist Gluck – and, I think, Niccolò Jommelli – is felt strongly, accompagnati and increasingly dramatic orchestral writing included. If one can tell, or at least speculate, why Cherubini and Beethoven would have held such mutual respect, it is Berlioz who, perhaps surprisingly, comes to seem closer as the work proceeds. Breth and Sergio Morabito have drastically shortened the dialogue. One can understand why, especially with a non-Francophone cast – Charles Castronovo fared notably better in spoken French than the rest – but, as with Fidelio, to which in some respects it stands quite close, that has mixed implications for its proportions and dramatic flow. At least it is treated (more or less) properly as an opéra-comique – which does not in any sense imply comedy! – rather than receiving the Italian treatment popularised by Maria Callas.

Médée (Sonya Yoncheva)

The production, very much a collaborative effort, designs and lighting making powerful contributions, presents a closed or at least inaccessible world, with more than a little of the underground to it, perhaps even a bunkered existence for Créon’s regime. Médée, clearly not of that world and thereby assuming powers against as well as enmity from it, gains access and must be banished. The people are largely external to these quarters, though they are shown what Créon wishes them to see—and prevented from seeing what he does not wish them to see. I do not want to go on again about the decision to adopt ‘exotic’ skin colouring for Médée. It seems to me at best unnecessary; there are – and were – other ways to connote ‘otherness’. But if one can live with it, the production largely permits the work to play out and introduce us to its particular qualities. There is a fine Götterdämmerung-in-miniature quality to its final act.

In the wake of Callas, the opera has often been treated as a ‘vehicle’. Again, one can understand why, but it is far more than that, and deserves better. That is not to say that Sonya Yoncheva’s performance lacked star quality, quite the contrary: it was sensational. But it was dramatically grounded, just as it might be in, say, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (which, now I think about it, would be just the piece for her). Yoncheva sang, but also she spat; she wept, but also she exulted. I find it difficult to believe the role can ever have been more mesmerizingly played. Drama arose from the score, out of the extraordinary range of colours and modes of delivery she conjured, whilst she maintained tight yet generous focus on trajectory. In that, she perfectly complemented Oksana Lyniv’s conducting, which I admired in 2020 but which now seemed to acquire greater tragic depth and breadth as the evening progressed, without the slightest loss to precision and clarity, for which of course the Staatskapelle Berlin must share credit.

Médée, Jason (Charles Castronovo)

Castronovo, who sang at the premiere but not at the first revival, was equally impressive—or would have been, had the role permitted. In what may be the finest performance I have seen and heard from him, he fully inhabited Jason’s slithery character and world, treading a tightrope between undeniable allure and the contempt we should feel. In a microcosm, we experienced this on his first appearance: having struck a bargain with Créon, he managed also to have his desultory way with one of Dircé handmaidens, witnessed by Dircé herself (as was his first confrontation with Medée). Slavá Zámečníková thus evoked our sympathy as Dircé, cleanness of line in her first aria approaching a metaphor for an innocence shared by none around her. Wherever fault may lie, it is not with her. Marina Prudenskaya gave a typically excellent performance, alert and considered, as Médée’s slave, Néris. Peter Schöne was properly unsympathetic as Créon, here notably in Médée’s thrall too. The chorus was also on fine form indeed, a crucial contributor to as well as observer of the unfurling tragedy.

There will be other opportunities over the coming years to experience Cherubini’s opera, though perhaps not many. This, when it returns in the autumn, demands and will reward anyone’s attention.

Sunday 9 July 2023

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera, 8 July 2023

Royal Opera House

Figaro – Mattia Olivieri
Susanna – Siobhan Stagg
Bartolo – Maurizio Muraro
Marcellina – Dorothea Röschmann
Cherubino – Anna Stéphany
Count Almaviva – Stéphane Degout
Don Basilio – Krystian Adam
Countess Almaviva – Hrachuhí Bassénz
Antonio – Jeremy White
Don Curzio – Peter Bronder
Barbarina – Sarah Dufresne
Two Bridesmaids – Helen Withers, Miranda Westcott

David McVicar (director)
Tanya McCallin (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Leah Hausman (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Joana Mallwitz (conductor)

Images: Clive Barda
Cherubino (Anna Stéphany), Figaro (Mattia Olivieri), Susanna (Siobhan Stagg)

Figaro is the opera that a critic sees most often, and it is right that it should be.’ An opera critic I greatly admire wrote those words concerning a relatively early outing for this production in 2008. Michael Tanner proceeded to commend Charles Mackerras’s conducting of that revival of David McVicar’s staging, first seen in the Mozart Year of 2006, comparing it favourably even to that of his fellow knight of the realm, (Sir) Colin Davis. He even found that what had previously irritated him in McVicar’s staging, bar the intrusive ‘action’ that drowned out the Overture, did no longer, seemingly preferring Leah Hausman’s revival direction to the original. Seeing and hearing the same thing, I was notably cooler, in some ways downright hostile, though we certainly agreed on the distinction of the cast. I am not sure I should have expected still to be seeing the same production fifteen years later, but here we are. And though I am not certain, I think I may have seen Figaro more often than any other opera. Surely only Don Giovanni or perhaps The Magic Flute would rival its frequency, though I am well aware how often Covent Garden presents La traviata for those less impervious to its charms than I.

Marcellina (Dorothea Röschmann

I cannot claim to like McVicar’s staging any more than I did, and with the best will in the world, it looks tired and – partly a function of its mysterious updating to the nineteenth century – heavy, for all its playing-to-the-gallery silliness and strangely inconsequential Upstairs, Downstairs busyness from an additional troupe of actors. There could doubtless be a host of reasons to shift the action to what seems from the costumes to be at least the 1830s, but none comes through here, other than a liking for its fashions. That a class-based society, as that increasingly was, needs to be distinguished from one still largely founded on social orders seems not to have occurred to the director. If we want 1780s-themed anachronism, we can turn to Der Rosenkavalier. There seems, though, to be no message here, no justification for its move from where it ‘should’ be. A large part audience, though, seems enamoured of both the designs and the additional activity; there is little accounting for taste, it seems, let alone for judgement. 

That Mozart’s music is phenomenally difficult to conduct, or more generally to perform, ought to go without saying, though it seems to bear repeating. I never cared for Mackerras’s Mozart, though many did, and I admired him greatly in a good deal of other repertoire. Having heard Sir Colin in this music spoils one forever, though it also offers the instructive that one does not need to ‘do’ much. (See also Bernard Haitink.) There was doubtless a great amount of accumulated wisdom behind that ability to do little, as there was on the numerous occasions I saw Daniel Barenboim cease conducting his orchestras altogether, trusting in them and they in him. Joana Mallwitz did not get in the way and set largely sensible tempi: that already distinguishes her from far too many conductors, some of them ‘period’-inclined, some not. There was little of the former to her performance, at least overtly; her performance had, in the best sense, something of the Kapellmeisterin to it. That is to say, it was not about her; she was supportive, reasonable, and largely drew good playing from the orchestra. If there were a few disjunctures between pit and stage, that often happens, especially on an opening night, and she dealt with them with minimum fuss. Why the fortepiano rather than the harpsichord  it is certainly not historically 'correct'  I do not know, but the affectation is now commonplace.

I cannot get used to the ‘Moberly-Raeburn’ reordering of the third act, which places the sextet before ‘Dove sono’, nor do I find arguments for it remotely convincing, but I think it has generally been adopted in this production; it was unlikely, at any rate, to have been solely Mallwitz’s idea. (If I remember correctly, Davis and Mackerras used it too.) Likewise the ‘traditional’ excision of two arias in the fourth act, said to ‘hold up the action’, but in reality (and good performance) doing nothing of the kind.

The production has had its fair share, perhaps more than that, of excellent casts. Those who have attended a few times over the years will have our favourites. Comparison would be odious and, more to the point, unrevealing. It speaks well of the Royal Opera that it granted role debuts to two fine singers as Figaro and Susanna: Mattia Olivieri and Siobhan Stagg. I am reluctant to speak of the advantages of having ‘native’ Italian speakers in the cast; the last thing this international art form needs is any form of nativism. But Olivieri’s ‘natural’, readily communicative way with the language seemed to act as an energising presence to all around him, as well as to enable him to present a myriad of different ways of singing: from parlando to ardent lyricism. He has a splendid stage presence too, balancing the necessarily cocksure with hints, and sometimes more than that, of something more wounded and vulnerable. That he looks good in livery certainly does no harm either. Stagg sounded just ‘right’ in her role, at least for me. ‘Soubrette’ can sound dismissive; I certainly do not intend it that way, when I say that it formed the basis of her approach, tonally and otherwise, permitting growth in stature as she revealed more of the character to her. It is, we should always remind ourselves, a lengthy and difficult role; Stagg navigated its challenge with winning ease. 


Stéphane Degout is more of a known quantity on London stages. He offered a duly commanding Count Almaviva, complemented and put properly to shame by Hrachuhí Bassénz’s Countess, whose ‘Dove sono’, audience disturbance notwithstanding, brought tears to the eyes. So did their final moment, beseeching and granting forgiveness. Anna Stéphany’s was a classic Cherubino: very much what would one expect, and certainly none the worse for that. It does not seem so long ago that I saw Dorothea Röschmann on this stage as Pamina for McVicar (and Davis). Now she is Marcellina, and what a wonderful job she made of it, a more fully drawn portrait than I can recall: a woman in her prime, no mere has-been, with feelings of her own that demand to be heard. Krystian Adam’s sharply observed Don Basilio marked him out as one to watch, as did Sarah Dufresne’s Barbarina. 


Opera is, of course, theatre, and that, for better or worse, entails theatre audiences. Sadly, last night’s offered behaviour that seriously detracted from the ability to appreciate, even to hear, what was going on. The uproarious laughter – do they really find these things quite so funny? – was one thing, at least until the unforgivable (ironically) disturbance following ‘Contessa perdono’. Anyone listening to Mozart, or indeed simply to Degout’s Count, would have known there is nothing remotely amusing to this infinitely touching moment. But if one could, by and large, deal with that, what of applause within numbers, ‘Dove sono’ included, widespread use of mobile telephones, and the stench of goodness knows what foodstuff somewhere in the Balcony? There is no real ‘etiquette’ to this, merely an imperative to show consideration for others; or at least there should be. A great pity.

And with that, with the opera I may have seen more often than any other, it is time to say au revoir to London stages and halls. I shall be spending the next academic year on research leave in Berlin and hope to be writing regularly of the musical riches on offer there. There is nothing about poor audience behaviour that is exclusive to London or the United Kingdom; I have experienced as bad in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and elsewhere. But without, I hope, being unduly pious, perhaps we might all try a little harder to refrain from impinging upon the appreciation of others in the audience. Anyone can fall victim to a fit of coughing, but (almost) no one need chatter, look at telephones, and the rest. Theatres and concert halls are places of precious experience not to be readily be recreated elsewhere. Without undue gatekeeping, let us try to keep them that way. They and we, in all our fallen humanity, are worth it.