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]

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Andsnes; Berliner Philharmoniker/Orozco-Estrada: Strauss, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich

Strauss R., Macbeth, Op.23
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor, Op.40
Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5 in D minor, Op.47

Philharmonie, 18 May 2017

This concert, as the programme told us, featured composers who all were hits, one way or another, with their public – and, I suppose, other subsequent publics. But Strauss tone poems and Rachmaninov piano concertos hardly come less popular than those we heard here.

Strauss’s Macbeth (composed 1886-88) seems at least to be witnessing a small upsurge in its fortunes, and this concert’s conductor, the Colombian Andrés Orozco-Estrada, has recently recorded it with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he has been chief conductor since 2014...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 15 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Andrea Chénier

13 May 2017

I should admit I’ve always had a bit of a troubled relationship with Andrea Chénier, not least because, when I’ve seen it in the theatre, it’s never really caught fire.

I should also admit that that’s only been on a couple of occasions. The first time was in Vienna, in a Wiederaufnahme of Otto Schenk’s lavish production 15 years ago. It starred Violeta Urmana, Johan Botha and Lado Ataneli (with Elīna Garanča, I notice now, as Bersi). There was some impressive singing, obviously, but it left me a little cold.

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I felt similarly about David McVicar’s also-lavish production at Covent Garden (admittedly seen live only at the dress rehearsal, but later also watched on Blu-ray). In Vienna Urmana and Botha didn’t really set the world alight dramatically, I remember, or even in terms of fiery singing. In London, Jonas Kaufmann’s poet struck me as a touch too subtle and sophisticated, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Maddalena heartfelt rather than incandescent.   

It was a joy, then, to see the Deutsche Oper’s staging, with a cast that threw themselves thrillingly into roles surely designed primarily as vehicles for exactly that. Chénier and Madelenna, at least, should sound indeed as though they know they’re for the chop, should sing their hearts out as though it might be for the last time. And that’s exactly what it felt like here.

Marcelo Alvarez’s voice still carries the traces of its more lyrical origins—it’s pleasingly soft-grained rather than excitingly steel-bladed—but he sang Chénier throughout with unstinting generosity and ardour, a slight patch of uncertainty at the start of the final duet notwithstanding. His acting was rudimentary, admittedly, hands and arms moving about in a series of stock tenorial gestures, but it hardly mattered. This was big-hearted singing served up in big, hearty dollops.

Maria José Siri’s Maddalena was nicely acted, and she conveyed particularly well the transition from the mischievous girl of the first act (especially so in this mischievous 1994 production from John Dew) to tragic figure. She channelled a good deal of grandezza and sang in a voice of unmistakably Italian colour: a slight edge to the warm sound, a care for words and a broadness of phrasing that was only slightly compromised by some shortness of breath. She rose brilliantly to a moving, noble ‘La mamma morta’ and matched Alvarez in the unrepentant fireworks of ‘Vicino a te’.

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George Gagnidze was a powerful Gérard, the voice impressively focused and forward, the characterisation broad-brush but persuasive. The were excellent performances in the smaller roles from a raft of Deutsche Oper singers: a strongly sung Bersi from Judit Kutasi, a fantastic cameo from Ronnita Miller as Madelon, a handsome sounding Mathieu from Samuel Dale Johnson.

Once we got past a couple of dodgy moments early on from the orchestra under Paolo Carignani (a late stand-in), the players and conductor hit their stride with big sweeping phrases and a grand, thrilling sound. Musically this was performance was straightforwardly but enormously pleasurable.

Dew’s production stands up well, too, striking the same sort of balance that I described in Götz Friedrich’s slightly later Traviata: a smart, interesting show but a sensible, eminently revivable one too. And Dew’s Chénier, though never undermining the piece, also gives the impression of not ever taking it too seriously.

Act One, therefore, is a riot of grotesquely exaggerated froufrou (José Manuel Vázquez clearly had a lot of fun designing the costumes), its action taking place on a platform beneath which the underclass grumble away threateningly. The act’s conclusion, which sees one side of the platform rise up and these preposterous aristos slide helplessly off it, is a brilliant touch. The same set remains, in various configurations, and there’s another neat touch at the very end, where panels come across and down gradually to enclose Chénier and Maddalena in the shape of the blade that’s shortly to do its worst. A witty end to a rousingly enjoyable evening. 

Gautier Capuçon; Berliner Phllharmoniker/Bychkov: Shostakovich, Strauss

Shostakovich, Cello Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, Op. 107
Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

Philharmonie, 12 May 2017

For this programme with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov chose two works in E flat major, the traditional key of heroism. But it’s hardly possible to imagine two more different treatments of that favourite musical mode.

Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto is often described as presenting an anti-hero, a fruitless struggle against insuperable forces in which we nonetheless see glimpses of defiant humanity. The grandiloquent surface of Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, by contrast, suggests an image of conceited triumphalism...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Deutsche Oper Berlin: Der fliegende Holländer

7 May 2017 — Premiere

Berlin already has a Wagner opera staged by a choreographer in the guise of Sascha Waltz’s Tannhäuser at the Staatsoper. With that work, at least, one can see the justification, even if of course there’s a great deal more to Tannhäuser than the Venusberg—which happens, indeed, to be one of the opera’s primary messages.

Samuel Youn as the Dutchman in the Deutsche Oper's new Fliegende Holländer (photo © Thomas Jauk)

For a choreographer to stage Der fliegende Holländer certainly seems less obvious. But any fears of a riot of dancing sailors and seamstresses were entirely unfounded; concerns that the stage would be flooded with additional dancers, too, were unjustified. This was that rare beast: an opera staging by a choreographer that didn’t feature much dancing at all—or any dancers.

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This is all perhaps to admit my ignorance regarding Christian Spuck (resident choreographer at the Stuttgart Ballet), who already has a handful of opera productions behind him. And this Dutchman indeed felt like the work of an experienced operatic hand: dark, monochrome (with one exception), concentrated and, on the whole, theatrically very effective.

But my heart did sink early on. During the overture a figure sat on the stage, hugging himself in desperation beside a model ship. A misty cloud hung above him, from which rain tinkled very audibly into a shallow rectangular pool  at the back of the stage. Such effects don’t always suggest a director with much interest in the music.

But, though this was distracting in the quieter passages of the overture, it was turned off most of the time during the opera itself, and proved, along with virtually everyone having to make their entrance through the pool, important in helping cement the production’s heavy, wearily dank aesthetic.

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It soon became clear, too, that the crouching figure was Erik, onstage all evening and acted fearlessly by Thomas Blondelle. We were invited to view the whole action from his perspective, events on stage intermittently going into freeze frame as he silently expressed his exasperation or ran from one position to another. 

The only character dressed in colour (in the dull green jacket of the hunter), Erik here stood out as perhaps the one sane—and human—person on stage. And his remarkable dream narration, beloved of early psychoanalysts, here became the whole work’s central pivot: it does indeed sit at the centre of the piece, in the middle of the second of three acts, performed here in their elided, proto-music drama form.

It’s a striking idea, and was realised with striking effectiveness by Spuck, who kept the rest of the production darkly focussed around him. In addition to its paddling pool, Rufus Didwiszus’s single set consisted of black walls with two large doors barely visible at the back. A large mass, later revealed as a phalanx of sewing machines, was hidden under a dust sheet and was ‘sailed’ around the stage by Daland and the Steuermann during Act 1’s final chorus.

Ingela Brimberg as Senta (photo © Thomas Jauk)

This was unveiled as we moved into Act 2, when an off-white tent-like enclosure with a few daubings to suggest an interior was hoisted above it. At the start of Act 3 that was brought down and replaced with a grand black awning. It was an economical, if relentlessly monochrome, way of dealing with the scene changes quickly—but an effective one.

Daland’s crew were dressed in dark greys and blacks, and came traipsing on into the gloom with torches at the start. The Dutchman and his crew arrived through the mist in a black hooded cloaks, and Samuel Youn’s performance was one of intense, concentrated angst and desperation, emphasised by a narrow-bore bass baritone that only ever seems to function at a high level of intensity.

Tobias Kehrer’s Daland was in many ways outstanding, the voice wonderfully rich and rounded in its middle and lower registers. But both he and Youn struggled at the top of their ranges, as indeed did Blondelle in the tricky Helden-bel canto of Erik.

Ingela Brimberg’s Senta, by contrast, only improved as the evening went on, her soprano, initially a little spread in its timbre, achieving terrific focus and thrilling volume by the end, which was pessimistically, unpredictably but not entirely satisfactorily staged in the absence of any ships to sail off in or cliffs to jump off. Ronita Miller dusted off her gloriously fruity mezzo as Mary, and Matthew Newlin was an eloquent, appealing Steuermann.

Ingela Brimberg (Senta) and Thomas Blondelle (Erik) (photo © Thomas Jauk)

The expanded chorus was outstanding, and this is perhaps where Spuck’s direction was at its most impressive, bringing a choreographic unity to their movements, often suggestive of them being blown one way or another by the wind, or tossed from side to side by the waves—the Spinning Chorus and mocking of Senta were directed with a sharp wit, while the chorus’s reactions to the Ballad helped make Brimberg’s fine performance of it all the more gripping.

Keeping the whole thing afloat, though, was the grandly surging sea of sound provided by the Deutsche Oper orchestra under Donald Runnicles. The playing was bracing and rich in tone, the brass burnished, the strings incisive and the wind plangent. Runnicles whipped up the storms thrillingly, as well as bringing bounce and lightness to to the more Weberian passages. Most impressively of all, he managed to tie the whole thing together with an inexorable sense of forward movement, justifying his decision to perform it without any breaks. 

Not perhaps an evening, in Spuck’s dark production, to offer much consolation or redemption, but this was an exciting, concentrated couple of hours of music drama.  

Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle: Bruckner, Holt

Holt, Surcos
Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 in C minor

Philharmonie, 5 May 2017

Simon Rattle has often opted to preface his performances of the great edifices of the Austro-German symphonic repertoire with much shorter works. I remember him bringing the Berlin Philharmonic to London’s Royal Festival Hall six years ago and programming miniatures by Brahms and Wolf ahead of Mahler’s Third. On this occasion, though, it was new music that preceded Bruckner’s Eighth: the latest in the ‘Tapas-series’ Rattle and the orchestra have commissioned, none longer than six minutes, to spread around various programmes as unintimidating tasters of the contemporary scene.

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 8 May 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Die Frau ohne Schatten; Mahler 8

Die Frau ohne Schatten, 29 April 2017, Staatsoper Hamburg
Mahler Symphony No. 8, 28 April 2017, Elbphilharmonie

The sources and influences that helped shaped Die Frau ohne Schatten are countless, creating a complex web that criss-crosses between cultures, centuries and genres. In his writings, though, Hugo von Hofmannsthal hinted a clutch of works by Goethe that were of fundamental importance to his ambitions as a librettist generally and his plan for Die Frau specifically. One of the most important of these was Goethe’s Faust II, which in an essay from 1913-14 he described as ‘die Oper aller Opern’the opera of all operas.
The links between Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s most ambitious opera and Mahler’s grandest symphony, whose second part sets the final stages of Faust II, would therefore seem well worth exploring. Indeed, in a book chapter from 1992, the Germanist Harry E. Seelig noted the common ground in the apotheoses of Mahler’s 8th and Die Frau ohne Schatten, pointing also to the similarity between the winds’ melody at the start of the Mahler’s second half and the melody of Barak’s ‘Mir anvertraut’.
On paper, then, the juxtaposition of both works in Hamburg felt like an important opportunity. My hopes were raised by the fact that among the credits for the performances of the Mahler in the Elbphilharmonie were those for a Dramaturg (Johannes Blum) and ‘Lichtskulptur’ (by rosalie, perhaps best known in operatic circles for providing designs for Alfred Kirchner’s 1994 Bayreuth Ring). To what extent would the Mahler be ‘staged’, and would any attempt, either in the performances of the symphony or in Andreas Kriegenburg’s new staging of the opera, be made to explore any of the possible parallels between the works?
The answers: not at all, really, and no. For the Mahler, the dramaturg credit had seemed to have been dropped from the programme by the time of the performance itself. We just had seven vast rectangular light panels hung from the hall’s ceiling above the stage, on which appeared slowly rippling patterns shifting between blues, purples and greens—essentially the standard screensaver, media player visualiser sort of stuff, presumably realised at considerable cost. Otherwise, despite the lighting being very low (chorus and orchestra relied on lamps to see their scores), this was pretty much a straightforward concert performance.
rosalie's 'Lichtskulptur' for Mahler 8 at the Elbphilharmonie (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
And straightforward not least in the conducting of Eliahu Inbal, stepping in for the indisposed Kent Nagano. The veteran maestro, now over 80, presided over an efficient, sensible account of the score. He marshalled his forces (some way off the 1,000 of legend, but, with an orchestra of some 150 musicians, still an impressive complement) with considerable skill. I detected an understandable pragmatism in his approach, too, and a sense of what was achievable in terms of interpretation in the circumstances: Inbal was announced as Nagano’s replacement only three days before the first of three performances (I was at the second).
He certainly didn’t stint on the big moments, but this was nevertheless a reading characterised by swift tempos, with little feeling of trying to explore the depth of feeling that the two texts—the Catholic ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ of the first half and the pantheistic allegory of the Goethe in the second—inspired in the composer.
In some ways this felt as much a test for the acoustics of Hamburg’s new hall (and it was the first time I’d been in it) as anything else. As such, it passed impressively. The orchestral sound was silky, rich and transparent, the choruses (the Hamburger Alsterspatzen, the Latvian State Chorus and the Chorus of the Hamburger Staatsoper) direct and rousing, their diction coming across well. Even the soloists, marooned between orchestra and chorus, weren’t as drowned out as one might have expected.
The outstanding contributions came, in particular, from Daniela Sindram’s rich, sensuous (Mulier samaritana); Heather Engebretson soaring as Mater gloriosa (her ‘Komm! Hebe dich zu höheren sphären’ delivered from high up in the hall); Kartal Karagedik, a Hamburg ensemble member, as an ardent Pater ecstaticus; and Wilhelm Schwinghammer impressive as Pater profundis. Burkhard Fritz, alas, seemed to be having a bad day in the demanding tenor music.
Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Hamburg (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
There were some signs of tiredness in the Staatsorchester, and one imagines a good number players had been in the pit tackling Die Frau ohne Schatten less than 24 hours earlier (this was a Mahler matinée). There again Nagano had been forced to withdraw, replaced at a late stage by Axel Kober, who conducted a reading – presumably as much dictated by Nagano’s work throughout the preparation period as by Kober’s own interpretation—that was similarly swift and efficient, but none the worse for it.
Certainly there was plenty of care and attention lavished on the score. The voicing of Act 1’s final chords struck me as especially well balanced—a small point, no doubt, but one that seemed to underline the difference in care between Nagano/Kober here and Zubin Mehta’s disappointing conducting of the piece at the Staatsoper in Berlin. Nor did the overall swiftness preclude generous phrasing or warmth, and rarely did the music feel pushed. This wasn’t a reading to explore the score’s extremes, but it was one that emphasised its coherence and dramatic effectiveness.
The performances of Claus Guth’s staging in Berlin were still fresh in the mind, and Kriegenburg’s Hamburg production was interesting in being built on a contrasting, if somewhat counterintuitive premise: whereas Guth had concentrated on the action as existing in the Kaiserin’s mind, Kriegenburg chose to emphasise the Färberin’s development. (As an aside I feel duty bound to quote a letter to Strauss from Hofmannsthal from July 1914, which certainly suggests, for what it’s worth, that the librettist wouldn’t have approved. ‘I would like to draw all your attention to the character of the Empress,’ he wrote. ‘She has not a great deal to say and yet is actually the most important figure in the opera. You should never forget that. It is all about becoming human; she—not the other one—is the woman without a shadow.’)
Lise Lindstrom (Färberin) and Andrzej Dobber (Barak) (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Here the Färberin  had the stage to herself at before the music began, mumbling about wanting to be taken away, and concluding with the Kaiserin’s own words—‘Ich will nicht’—before the orchestra thundered in with the Keikobad motif. She, or a body double, mirrored the Empress a great deal throughout, and she appeared in both forms for ‘Mir anvertraut’, one singing separate from Barak, the other, apparently unwell, being attended to by him.
It was a general feature of the production, in fact, to have many different characters witnessing scenes they’re not involved in. It’s not a bad idea per se, but a recipe for some very cluttered stage pictures: the comings and goings of different characters, doubles and extras in the Emperor’s and Empress’s scenes in Act 2 were a case in point.
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This too seemed to reflect Kriegenburg’s lack of concern for the clear delineations laid out in the libretto. Harald B. Thor’s set consisted of two two levelsthe upper sphere antiseptic and featuring a series of white angled poles, the lower dark and dingy and clutteredwhich were raised up and down. This allowed for fluid movement between spheres, but surely too much of it: the Empress and Nurse not only made their way down to the human world, via the central spiral staircase, but Barak and his Wife were able to wander up to the spiritual realm whenever they fancied. 
Within this context, the members of each realm were nevertheless well differentiated, those from the spiritual realm in wafty white, often accompanied by a similarly dressed group of extras, against whom the Gabriele Rossmanith’s Falke, in bright red, stood out in sharp relief. I also liked the way the Emperor’s stony trajectory was conveyed by his increasing infirmity. The human world featured grubby costumes, with the occasional appearance of a posse of masked businessmen.
The Konzept had some major casualties, however, not the least of which was the Empress, whose own trial and triumph were reduced to a sideshow. This sense was further emphasised by the fact that there was no apparent attempt to deal with or portray the presence of Keikobad, whatever or whoever one might view him as being. This also meant a more general lack of concern for any possible deeper meanings in the work, which reached its apogee in a disappointingly glib and trite take on the finale, staged—without irony, apparently—as a straightforward happy ending. Those businessmen reappeared, then unmasked and partly disrobed to reveal themselves as colourfully dressed children who proceeded to play ball games and pat-a-cake. The Emperor and Empress played along  before joining the Barak and his wife on a pair of park benches at the front for the quartet.
The finale of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Staatsoper Hamburg (photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg)
Despite my misgivings about the production, Lise Lindstrom was impressive in her newly expanded role as the Färberin (and even distantly reminiscent visually of Barbara Hannigan’s omnipresent Lulu in Christoph Marthaler’s production at this house earlier in the year). She’s a fearlessly committed actress and has a striking stage presence. Her voice is a slow-burning lyrical instrument that can take a while to display its steel, but that only helped give the character the extra humanity that the staging demands.
Relegated to also-ran status, Emily Magee’s Empress perhaps unsurprisingly failed to make anywhere near as strong an impression as she had in the role for Guth’s staging at Covent Garden. There’s never doubting her commitment, though, and her gleaming voice still delivered the goods once it had warmed up. The outstanding performance perhaps came from Andrzej Dobber as Barak. The Polish baritone sang in generous, well-filled phrases and with powerful tone, and he acted with a moving sincerity. Though perhaps not strictly a bass baritone (the big Verdi roles are a speciality), Dobber lacked some richness and warmth of tone, but the voice has a directness and honest beauty—not to mention easy volume—that suit the role well.
Roberto Saccà had all the Emperor’s top notes, but struggled with the cantilena that links them together. Linda Watson, who has often sung the Färberin herself, was a powerful Amme here, although not always one with the necessary verbal incisiveness. Among the smaller roles, Bogdan Baciu’s imposing Geisterbote stood out. Some fine things musically, then, but a disappointing staging from Kriegenburg.