Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Lucia di Lammermoor

17 September 2017

There’s been a few grumblings around recently about operas being set in museums. Chicago’s new Elektra, if one’s to trust the reviews, is a case in point. Closer to the land of Walter Scott’s Lammermoor, one thinks back to John Fulljames’s faintly ridiculous Harris Tweed-sponsored Donna del Lago at Covent Garden. I saw a few more examples mentioned on Twitter, too.

Pretty Yende as Lucia at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
The Deutsche Oper’s Lucia, however, is a genuine museum piece. It dates from 1980, but Filippo Sanjust’s designs seem already to have been deliberately old-fashioned even then. Tromp l’oeil curtains frame the stage, and a drop curtain features an illustration of a waify stray with windswept hair and white dress rushing across some barren landscape.

The stage itself for the first two scenes is pretty rudimentary: a backdrop with a distant castle, a couple of unimpressive two-dimensional outcrops of rock, one featuring a static waterfall. Things get a little more concrete in subsequent scenes as we get into some impressive-looking interiors, but there’s no escaping the essential fustiness of it all. 

The costumes continue the trend, with flouncy frocks and ringlets for the ladies and, for the men, austere period outfits whose manifold details, I suspect, could be named only by historians of dress. (There were hints of tartan, but at least no anachronistic kilts.)

The edition used, too, was a period piece, with the loss of both the Enrico-Edgardo scene at the start of Act 3 (we went straight into the ‘D’immenso giubilo’ chorus) and a final scene that began with ‘Tombe degli avi miei’. Fans of the glass harmonica will have been a little disappointed, too, since Lucia’s mad scene was accompanied by the then traditional flute (excellently played, though, by Robert Lerch). Ivan Repušić conducted straightforwardly and dutifully, and certainly could have done more to enliven the recits.

Then again, with direction at the basic end of the spectrum – it was notable how Pretty Yende’s Lucia manoeuvred herself to prime centre-stage position for the start of ‘Quando repito in estasi’ – this was Donizetti less as drama than as bel canto showcase. It was also a showcase for the 2011 edition of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition: Yende and her Edgardo, René Barbera, shared the top prize that year. 

Happily they both delivered the goods. Yende’s voice is pearly and seductive, bright but never strident, and beautifully controlled. It also extends with apparent ease right to the very top of the range – she tossed in a few top notes beyond the standard embellishments. Dramatically she doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths, and I wondered even if her irrepressible likability as a performer and the inherent sunny optimism of the voice actually detracted from the tragedy. I suspect that a strong directorial hand in a less somnambulant production would have helped a great deal in that regard, though.

Barbera was similarly left to deliver a stock dramatic performance. But it’s a pleasingly clean voice, light in both colour and size, and he sang with real elegance, focus and lovely legato. His great final scene was beautifully delivered – with some fine work from the orchestral soloists. There was an impressive, suitably unstinting Enrico from Noel Bouley, a Deutsche Oper ensemble member with a notably stentorian top range. Riccardo Zanellato deserves a mention, too, for his consoling tones as Raimondo, about the only even half-decent male character in the whole show.

Pretty Yende as Lucia at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Bettina Stöß)
The last production I saw of this work had been Katie Mitchell’s for the Royal Opera House in London, a staging I disliked but which was at least interesting for attempting to give the opera’s heroine some agency, to make her more than simply a passive victim. This production, though, presents her as just that, in pretty frocks that only pick up the merest hint of blood in the dainty off-stage murder of her husband. 

It underlines the irony, too, that the character’s passivity was traditionally contrasted with editions of the score that placed her musically centre-stage, at the expense, particularly, of Edgardo. As such, though, this museum piece does at least offer an interesting glimpse into the operatic past. It also just let its cast get on with it, offering a great showcase for some outstanding singers of the present – and future.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Gundula Janowitz: 80th birthday Interview

‘Is it halfway drinkable?’ Gundula Janowitz interrupts herself to check I’m happy with the tea she’s made, particularly worried that it might not be up to an Englishman’s exacting standards. Go back an hour earlier, and I’m hovering nervously outside in a quiet street in Vienna’s Wieden district, south of the famous Naschmarkt and west of Schloss Belvedere, plucking up the courage to press the ‘Janowitz’ buzzer...

[read the full interview on the Gramophone website]

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Bayerische Staatsoper: Die Frau ohne Schatten

2 July 2017

In his semi-serioso “Ten Golden Rules” for conducting dating from the early 1920s, Richard Strauss suggested that Salome and Elektra should be conducted “as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy Music”. He didn’t make any similar public pronouncements about Die Frau ohne Schatten, which is, of course, Fairy Music, if not exactly in the Mendelssohnian mould...

Read the full review at Bachtrack

Monday, 29 May 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: Don Carlo

26 May 2017

Any opportunity to see Don Carlo(s) is difficult to resist, and happily it’s possible in Berlin to allay any sorrow at missing the Royal Opera House’s latest revival with the fact that both the Staatsoper and the Deutsche Oper have it on their Spielpläne this season. This was the penultimate performance at the former, and I'm already eyeing dates at the latter—although Anja Harteros’s planned appearances there in the Deutsche Oper’s Verdi-Tage next May are likely to also be on several people’s radar already.

At the Staatsoper we had the standard four-act Italian version. Philipp Himmelmann’s 2004 production is an austere, concentrated affair with one main idea, as far as I could tell, that it sticks to with admirable persistence: domesticating the grand world-historical forces that define the drama (or at least as Verdi and Schiller portray it).

Click to enlarge
We opened then with a tableau of an awkward family meal—and this is certainly a family with a few reasons for awkwardness—that reminded me in passing of the opening tableau of Philipp Stölzl’s Forza del destino in Munich. This table remained central throughout the evening, the other elements of the drama often having to work around it.

Eating, drinking and even ironing played a constant role: Elisabeth feeds the Comtesse D’Aremberg a slice of consolatory cake during ‘Non pianger, mia compagna’; in a clever little touch we get a hint of Philip’s philistinism as he merrily over-salts a dish before tasting it; the whole evening climaxes with a distraught Elisabeth having to pour tea for the Grand Inquisitor.

Eboli is perhaps most interestingly developed in this new take on the piece, portrayed as a voracious vamp in the Veil Song, at the head of what looks like the militant wing of St Trinians. She often appears in striking silhouette at the back of the stage—Johannes Leiacker’s set, helped by Davy Cunningham’s lighting, makes powerful use of sliding panels—and features, to powerful effect, at the start of the introduction to ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, finishing off a clearly joyless sexual encounter with Philip.
Marina Prudenskaya performs the role magnificently, turning in an impressively agile Veil Song and an impassioned, powerful ‘O don fatale’ and throwing herself gamely into all the challenges of the production. René Pape’s Philip also gains in complexity as a character from the encounter at the start of his big scene. He sings in powerful, smooth phrases throughout, but achieves touching melancholic grandeur here, the scene leading into a compelling encounter with Mikhail Kazakov’s implacable, bitingly sung Grand Inquisitor.

Fabio Sartori’s Carlo is tirelessly sung, offering real ringing power if the occasional rough edge. Massimo Cavalletti (one of two late replacement Posas) has a pleasingly grainy and Italiniate sound. He was a little inconsistent at the top of the voice early on, but settled down for a potent account of the death scene. Lianna Haroutounian remains a very decent Elisabeth and sings with commitment and, especially in the impressively focused top of the voice, technical security. but for me doesn’t quite command the regal quality—vocally or theatrically—that the role demands.

Similarly, Massimo Zanetti’s conducting here failed for some of the evening to capture the dark grandeur of Verdi’s score, occasionally feeling a little efficient. There was some terrific playing from the Staatskapelle (to which one can add the pleasure of hearing this opera in the relatively modest Schillertheater), though, and Zenetti’s account seemed to gather accumulated weight as it went along.

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Schubert Symphonies II

Franz Schubert
Symphony no. 5 in B flat major, D.485
Symphony no. 4 in C minor, "Tragic", D 417
Symphony no. 6 in C major, D.589

Pierre Boulez Saal, 25 May 2017

There are pros and cons when it comes to the programming of cycles. And sometimes doing so seems little more than an excuse to smuggle in yet more performances of works we already hear too often under the cloak of completism. But if Schubert’s final two symphonies hardly need a helping hand, the first six rare visitors to the concert hall in my experience. Daniel Barenboim’s Schubert cycle with his Staatskapelle Berlin at the Boulezsaal, which reached its midway point with this second concert, is making as eloquent a case as possible for them.

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: L'elisir d'amore

23 May 2017

Repertory houses are full of surprises, or at least gems hidden away in their Spielpläne. In the autumn it was Anja Harteros’s Tosca for a couple of performances at the Deutsche Oper. And here it was the first of two performances of L’elisir d’amore with Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak as the lovers (the second is on May 27).

L'elisir d'amore at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Monika Rittershaus)

It was a performance to restore some faith in humanity on a day when such a thing was sorely needed—an opera, too, that in its own joyous, honest and moving way, celebrates life and love, as well as humour, mischief and the qualities of a good (or even bad) Bordeaux.

Click to enlarge
Irina Brook’s staging does a pretty good job of communicating all that, despite rather than because of its main Konzept. It sees Adina recast as the leader of a travelling troupe of actors (think a female Canio, without the temper) that is putting on a dramatic performance of the Tristan and Isolde story. Noëlle Ginefri’s set consists of a rickety stage, surrounded by the troupe’s trailers. It’s all kind of modernish dress (costumes by Sylvie Martin-Hyszka), but it’s difficult to tell—many of the chorus mill around in their medieval Cornish outfits, and this far into the Italian countryside clearly no one’s up with the main trends of the fashion world.

Some of the troupe warm up before the show begins, and there are a couple of times when they rehearse during the evening, before, at the close, Adina and Nemorino take to the stage in costume—presumably as the ill-fated Cornish couple—at the close. The Tristan references are of course a clever little joke that Felice Romani took from Eugène Scribe’s libretto for Le Philtre, one given even greater piquancy by Wagner’s subsequent treatment of the subject, but Brook seems to take it onto another meta-level that Donizetti’s little opera can’t quite sustain.

Click to enlarge
It also raises questions. Nemorino seems to be some sort of cleaner, but does he travel around with the actors? Is he there to clean this rustic piazza? Do Belcore and his regiment follow them around as well? Wouldn’t a troupe of cynical and, by definition, well travelled actors prove a tough audience for Dulcamara’s shtick, or be unimpressed by the magic, here, of his assistant, ‘Nick’?

I didn’t let such questions detain me for long: they and the Konzept itself could happily be tidied away into the background and ignored, not least because of the sheer sense of fun brought to the piece. And at least the production did allow for plenty of impressive tomfoolery from Alagna, who threw himself into his characterisation with infectious glee. His singing, too, was filled with sunlight. The tone is a little looser these days, and he seemed to have a bit of a frog in his throat in ‘Una furtive lagrima’, but it’s still a voice of rare Italianate warmth and a pleasure to hear, especially in this lighter repertoire—although he did unleash a Manrico-esque top note or two, and occasionally wandered a little from the the conductor's tempo.

L'elisir d'amore at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Monika Rittershaus)

Kurzak’s Adina is hardly less enjoyable, her bright, creamy timbre employed in a performance of quick-witted verve and bounce, her coloratura despatched with applomb. Her new role in this production risked turning her into an unlikeable diva. But she struck that balance well, retaining more than enough of the character’s original charm. Her ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’, for me far and away the most beautiful moment in the score, was exquisitely done—and it was accompanied with the utmost sensitivity by the orchestra under Moritz Gnann, whose conducting was a model of bel canto fluidity and flexibility throughout.

Mikheil Kiria was a terrific Dulcamara, mixing clean articulation with a bright, lively baritone; and Thomas Lehman was suitably strutting and handsome-sounding as Belcore. Alexandra Hutton’s Giannetta was a constantly vivid presence, not least in gamely leading a couple of dance routines.

A few things to argue with in the production then—not least its basic premise—but this was a gentle, joyous and memorable L’elisir, in which everyone on stage seemed to be having at least as much fun as I was.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Oper Leipzig: Cinq-Mars

20 May 2017

You’d be forgiven for never having heard of Cinq-Mars – either Gounod’s 1877 opera or the historical character who gives the work its title. The 11th rarity to be revived by the Centre de la musique française at Palazzetto BruZane, and recorded with their support, it now follows Felicien David’s Herculaneum (staged at Wexford last year) in also receiving a first production since the 19th century. Oper Leipzig, whose Generalmusikdirektor and Intendant, Ulf Schirmer, conducted the recording, has done it proud...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]