Wiener Staatsoper

Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier

An absolutely charming Otto Schenk production of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss at the Staatsoper this evening.  Schenk paid fine attention to all of the little details, in a thoughtful staging first produced in 1968.  Schenk’s intelligent direction and love of theater proved that directors can make audiences think about the plot without having to shock the audience with nonsense, and made me lament even more the creepy German directors who plague the world these days.

In this version, Schenk played up the concept of the Marschallin as the driving force in the plot.  She knows Ochs, and she knows Octavian, so when presented with an opportunity in Act One, she knows well what will happen if she suggests Octavian to perform the role of the Rosenkavalier.  Indeed, the predictable indeed happens in Act Two, and when she reappears in Act Three she ensures everything turns out as she planned.

As for small details, these were everywhere – from the maid in Act One who makes the bed while the Marschallin is having her morning audience, being sure to spray the sheets and pillows with perfume from a period perfume dispenser; to Ochs in Act One flirting with every female who enters the room during the Marschallin’s audience, but while flitting about has a moment to playfully pet the puppy carried in by the animal dealer; to the detail in which the servants apply the Marschallin’s make-up, comb her hair, and get her ready for the day.  In Act Two, when Octavian hurls his wine glass angrily to the ground in Faninal’s house, a servant appears immediately from nowhere and quickly and quietly sweeps up the glass as would have happened in real life.  These are all little touches, but show a love for the opera and an attention to detail that is sadly missing from most new productions these days.

The cast responded to such a staging by acting their parts.  The blocking was excellent, and stage directions clear (and often sensuous), and the acting was strong.  The cast was a typical Wiener Ensemble cast – the only big star was Franz Gundheber in the secondary role of Faninal, but everyone strongly filled their roles, in a complete way that seemingly only happens in Vienna.  This included the Sophie, Daniela Fally, who was a very last-moment substitution.  Adrienne Pieczonka, as the Marschallin, displayed excellent stage presence, capable of directing the action through her voice, inflections, and demeanor.  Alfred Muff was a playful Ochs, who realized too late what the Marschallin was up to – including coming to the realization that the Marschallin and Octavian had been lovers, and although he was subject to pillory for his infidelities, she had one-upped him and turned the Luck of the Lerchenau upside down.  When he fled the scene in Act Three, he had almost become sympathetic.  Stephanie Houtzeel came across as a convincing young Octavian, unaware of the world but sure of his love.

The orchestra, of course, probably knows this work by heart, but a steady conductor is nevertheless a prerequisite to hold the whole opera together, especially with so much activity on the stage.  Asher Fisch pulled this off effortlessly.

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Ensemble LUX, Schoenberg Center

Berg, Hensel, Wolfram Wagner, Wagendristel, Schoenberg

I suppose I knew it would be an odd concert when the most musical piece on the program was the one by Arnold Schoenberg.  But Ensemble LUX played everything about as well as this music can ever be performed, which I suppose made up for the music itself.

The concert opened with Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata #1 transcribed for string sextet.  The transcription actually worked quite well in this arrangement, but made me wonder throughout how unbelievably awful this piece would have sounded in its original version for piano.  I’m certain I do not want to find out.

Next came three pieces by living composers (two in attendance – the third was not there because his flight got stuck in a snowstorm in Frankfurt), which I understand were fun to play but less fun to listen to.  The first two (Klärchens Lied by Daniel Hensel and Five Moments by Wolfram Wagner) at least qualified as curiosities, but the third (Double Trio by Alexander Wagendristel), being given its world premiere, was utter nonsense.  The concept of this last piece was intriguing – rather than writing for sextet, Wagendristel wrote for two trios.  But if he was doing that, he should have written two separate but related trios played simultaneously; that would have shown talent and imagination.  Instead, I am not really sure what we got but a pile of notes, shrieks, and thumps, where the only innovation was seating the sextet violin-viola-cello-cello-viola-violin.

The final piece was Schoenberg’Verklärte Nacht in its original version for sextet.  Good performance, but I prefer this piece in its revised version for string orchestra.  The original version for sextet performed here just comes off as too thin, even when the instrumentalists are good.

Stanislavsky Opera

Rimsky-Korsakov, The Tale of Czar Saltan

When I bought a ticket for today’s afternoon performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tale of Czar Saltan at the Stanislavsky Opera, I was warned it would be full of children.  The 2 p.m. start time, the fairy tale storyline by Pushkin, and the accessible music by Rimsky-Korsakov would combine to ensure it.  However, from my experience in Moscow, the children who attend such performances are usually very well-behaved and their parents, who probably would not attend the opera if not dragged there by the kids, are the real problem.  I bought the ticket anyway, for the same reason kids would see this opera, plus for the chance to see a rarely-performed opera (usually only known on account of its orchestral suite) in what was supposed to be a good setting.

The audience was indeed about 80-85% children.  Unfortunately, these were not the well-behaved children I’ve seen at other performances, and they had about as much interest in the opera as their parents.  In fact, I suspect that the theater must have been full of kids from the Moscow equivalent of the alternative hippie-inspired elementary school I attended as a child in Philadelphia – with the philosophy to expose children to culture but not to manners, because behaving in public might be too restrictive on their creativity.  In this case, though, there was one discernible difference: the parents of the children were probably not as stoned as the parents (and teachers) of most of the kids at my elementary school.  That makes it worse, because this means there is no way they did not notice that neither they nor their kids wanted to be there – leaving the question as to why exactly they all bought tickets in the first place.

The child of indeterminable sex directly behind me chattered incessantly with its adult minder in a street voice the entire afternoon.  The adult woman to my right spent half the performance on her mobile phone, and for the other half joined her friend and their kids (strewn about in the next several seats) in finding more of interest inside their handbags and attempting to determine the inner workings of the folding theater seats than what was being performed on stage (that is assuming they were even aware that a performance was going on – this was not clear to me).  The rotund kid to my left snored loudly.  Meanwhile, I think middle-school soccer matches periodically broke out on the balcony, since I could hear lots of little feet scurry from one side of the balcony to the other every so often, with intermittent cheers.

From what I could hear of the opera, it was indeed quite nice, and should be performed in front of an audience that might actually want to be there.  The staging, like many at the Stanislavsky, was simple but suggestive, and captured the fairy tale nicely.  Lavish sets are not necessary when the director gives thought to the production.  The orchestra, under Yevgeny Brazhnik, sounded crisp, although the unruly crowds destroyed any mood it might have produced.  What struck me above all, though, were the voices.  The Stanislavsky sent out its A cast, and despite the nonsense their voices had to contend with in the theater, they penetrated the crowd and gave an extravagant portrayal of this opera.

Highlighting the cast was Dmitry Styepanovich, overmatched and not dark enough as the Demon in October, but with a voice much better suited for Czar Saltan.  Mikhail Vekua, the diminutive Georgian who performed Siegmund in the Russian National Orchestra’s production of Walküre last month, presented a lively Prince Gvidon.  Irina Vashchenko and Yevgeniya Afanasyeva gave striking characterizations of Empress Militrisa and of the Swan-Princess, respectively.

Russische Staatskapelle, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Tschaikowsky

Back at the Tschaikowsky Hall for my final time this calendar year for another all-Tschaikowsky program, again with the Russian Staatskapelle under the baton of Valery Polyansky.

Tonight was the best I have heard this particular orchestra sound.  While still not top-flight, the orchestra tonight demonstrated an accuracy it has not exhibited previously.  Part of this may have come from the strikingly poor attendance: the sparsely-populated hall simply did not have enough bodies in it to absorb the sound.  On the other hand, this reason cannot account for the orchestra’s sudden ability to play the notes.  However, the empty hall also exposed the acoustical problems, resulting in a noticeable imbalance.  From my seat, the middle strings, clarinets, and high brass were too faint, and the first violins, basses, other woodwinds, and low brass more bombastic, for reasons that clearly did not stem from Polyansky’s interpretation nor – judging by the positive reaction of people sitting on the other side of the hall – from the orchestral playing.

Polyansky has a great sense of drama, which has allowed him to craft the theatrical readings I have heard him produce in previous concerts with this troupe.  The Hamlet Overture-Fantasy which opened the program allowed him to demonstrate this talent, in a presentation worthy of Shakespeare.  We experienced not just a simple concert overture, but the drama of the play that Tschaikowsky intended the piece to introduce.

The Staatskapelle Chorus then joined for the next work, a seldom (if ever) performed cantata, “Moscow,” written by Tschaikowsky in a hurry for the coronation of Czar Aleksandr III.  A rousing work, Tschaikowsky dutifully fulfilled his otherwise botched commission (not the composer’s fault the organizers botched the commission; they paid him for a rousing piece, so he wrote a rousing piece as fast as he could assemble it, but there is a reason it is never performed, nor did he ever give it an opus number).

The chorus, as usual, sounded great.  The mezzo soloist, Lyudmila Kuznyetsova, who is obviously a frequent collaborator with Polyansky and the Staatskapelle, has failed to impress me in German, and obviously prefers to sing in Russian.  She is also not really a mezzo, which may explain the more fundamental reason I have not been impressed.  The musical line in this cantata was far too deep for the advertised mezzo voice, and really calls for an alto, and ironically Kuznyetsova was actually better suited as a result.  She should stick to alto parts (whether labeled as such or not), since she demonstrated a gorgeous lower register.  She should also stick to singing in Russian.

Sergey Toptigin sang the bass solos.  This is the same normal-sized fellow with the huge lungs I heard perform the Beethoven Ninth with these forces in October.  His voice tonight sounded in healthy form whenever the musical accompaniment was quiet, however it quickly became overwhelmed by the orchestra as the music began crescendo.  The only explanation I have for this would come from where he stood on the stage and which direction he faced, relative to where I was sitting.  I think his voice projected over to the other side of the hall and the acoustical design never brought it properly to me (see my comments above about the imbalance in the orchestra).  Since he has such a big voice, and it never came to me, for all I know it may have gone out the far exit and into the big square in front of the hall, a scene of frequent political rallies.  I hope the people waving the Russian flags in the square tonight enjoyed his performance.

After the intermission we heard the Orchestral Suite #3.  Not exactly a dramatic work, it is less suited for Polyansky’s talents.  Pretty enough, the music itself does not really say much.  In the final movement, Polyansky managed to make the clearest impression: the movement consists of a long series of variations on a theme, and Polyansky got the orchestra to create a different mood for each variation, to produce a very intelligent performance of an otherwise not-so-sensational work.