Strauss, Salome

The Volksoper started today’s performance of Salome by Richard Strauss at an unusual time – 4:30 p.m. – meaning it ended early enough to make it to the Stadttempel for the beginning of Rosh Hashanah services.  For me, that was a clear sign of what to do in the final hours of the year 5772.

I saw this same production when it opened last season, and indeed with much of the same cast.  But I don’t get to hear it live every day, and I don’t get too much live music in Albania at all, so I gave it another go.  This time, as John the Baptist we had Egils Silins.  Silins is a hulking Latvian baritone I have heard before in Moscow, and he provided good heft to the role, as well as acting which made the prophet come across as deranged to balance Salome’s equal madness.  This portrayal underscored the characterization of the Baptist by the other characters that no one could understand what he was talking about.  As with the previous setting, I still object to the offstage miking for lines sung from within the cistern – Silins has a big enough voice that he could have been heard without the artificial-sounding amplification.

Annemarie Kremer and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, as Salome and Herod again (as last year) did creditable jobs.  Kremer was possibly not in as strong voice as last year, though.  Alfred Eschwé conducted today’s performance.  Known mostly as a operetta conductor, Eschwé’s direction, through clear and concise, was not as dark and driven as this opera needs to be.  This element is likely what made today’s performance less fulfilling than last year’s.

One area of improvement came with the staging.  The original staging last year was OK, but just not always fully-thought-through.  While the concept seems still not to be complete, the director clearly has done some additional thinking.  So the nice touches of using the Baptist’s blood-red robe in different contexts was now extended to other garments and even the scrim which partly hid the opening scene, which now all found themselves put to different uses as if to complete the previously-incomplete overall design, although I was still not always clear on the concepts employed.  Salome now does something that makes it look like she is trying to dance during the Dance of the Seven Veils, even if she still does not really dance.  And, importantly, the end of the opera is now more sensible: whereas before Herod’s order to have Salome killed resulted in Herod himself collapsing dead and Salome then walking off naked but fully alive into the cistern, now Salome has already left the stage (mostly clothed) when Herod gives the order, and it is believable that Herod’s men would carry it out; meanwhile, Herod himself, though emotionally exhausted, does not drop dead.  This makes the staged ending consistent with the text, always a good thing.


Fall, Madame Pompadour

The Volksoper gave me as a birthday present a ticket to tonight’s performance of Leo Fall’s operetta Madame Pompadour.  This operetta, about Louis XV’s chief mistress, had its premiere 90 years ago last week and was apparently all the rage back then.  Nothing wrong with the music or the convoluted plot, but the operetta has not aged well at all.  Some fanciful ditties, although nothing that sent me home singing, but mostly the music came across as very staid, with very little development, in the tradition of Lehár and Kálmán but without their originality.

The Volksoper cast and orchestra performed well and kept the pace, under the baton of Adreas Schüller.  Ursula Pfitzner made her debut, to great impression, in the title role.  Mark Adler balanced her well in the lead male role, René d’Estrades.

National Opera Orchestra of Albania

Zoraqi, Jakova, Laro, Ilo, Smetana, Dvořák

Attended a “gala concert” tonight at the Albanian National Opera, put on to celebrate 90 years of Czech-Albanian diplomatic relations.  I suppose what made it a “gala” was that there were dignitaries there, people dressed nicely, and drinks were served afterwards in the foyer.  Also, the Czech Ambassador and Albanian Foreign Minister spoke beforehand, and the orchestra played both national anthems.

The program contained an assortment of Czech and Albanian classical music, all romantic-period in style (although the Albanian compositions were mostly written a century after the Czech ones).  The Albanian works opened with Nikolla Zoraqi’s Festive Overture, which sounded like movie music (which I suppose makes sense, since he mostly wrote movie music), and continued with an aria from Prenk Jakova’Scanderbeg (which I saw complete in June), Kujtim Laro’s moving tone poem Freedom or Death, and a song (“I love Albania more“) by Spiridon Ilo, a signer of the Albanian declaration of independence who wrote patriotic songs as a hobby.  The Czech works were excerpts from Smetana’The Kiss and Bartered Bride, and Dvořák’Rusalka and 9th Symphony.

The orchestral playing, by the opera orchestra, was sufficient.  Valmir Xoxa, whom I saw conduct the Barber of Seville recently, conducted the Albanian pieces, while Karel Smékal, the Czech Deputy Ambassador who trained as a conductor, took the podium for the Czech works.  Czech soprano Barbora Perná had a nice enough voice with a warble on the higher registers; while Elson Braha (Nemorino in last April’s Elixir) still has his pleasant but weak voice that cracked at volume but otherwise was good on the ears.

Throughout the concert, the organizers projected a slide show on a cheap movie screen behind the orchestra, showing photos of the Czech Republic in a loop that lasted about three minutes and repeated the whole night.  The screen was big enough to be distracting, but small enough so we could not really make out the slides well, especially since the stage lights were up so the orchestra could read its music.

Nevertheless, a pleasant evening with good live music, something that does not come often enough.