Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Konzerthaus

Yabuta, Korngold, Bruckner

Tonight’s concert at the Konzerthaus presented three works in reverse chronological order, providing a somewhat nostalgic view of the program.  As part of its celebrations of the 100th anniversary of its construction, the Konzerthaus sponsored composition contests.  Shoichi Yabuta, a 30-year-old Japanese composer won the category for large symphonic work with “Anima,” received his prize before the concert began, and then got to hear the world premiere, with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Cornelius Meister.

Yabuta indicated in the program notes that he tries to blend eastern and western harmonics in his music through a concept called “heterophony.”  I was not clear that I heard any particular harmonics at work in this piece.  However, he used a Bruckner-sized orchestra to its fullest – not only in terms of the massive sound potential, but also in the ability to mix and match instruments, performing in an aggressive and muscular manner, somehow in context with each other. The result: surprisingly good, and enjoyable on an intellectual level.  Yabuta also kept the work at under about 15 minutes, understanding (as so many other modern composers do not) that the creation of so much creative noise becomes grating and unwelcome after a short period.  The piece included three movements, with sharp internal and external edges, so this never became dull and switched up sufficiently to maintain interest among the audience, which gave Yabuta a warm applause after.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto followed.  Korngold wrote this piece in 1945, dedicating it to Alma Mahler.  As a refugee from occupied Vienna living in the US, he had turned to Hollywood and produced film music, back when serious composers did such things.  Taking some of his favorite tunes from various movies, he recombined them into this concerto.  He also indicated that he did not write it for a latter-day “Paganini” to performon the violin, but rather for a “Caruso” – he wanted the violin solos to sing.  Tonight, French violinist Renaud Capuçon followed Korngold’s instructions, giving a softer and more melodic tone to thesomewhat sentimental music.  No hard edges here.

In its way, the single work after the intermission – Anton Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony – managed to link the two previously-performed works.  While I am not sure Meister offered a new interpretation on its own, the fact that he juxtaposed this symphony with the other two works on the program, and put it after the more modern pieces, did allow for a new consideration of Bruckner’s unfinished final masterpiece.  On one hand, it contained the usual soaring harmonies, a spirituality to match the Korngold concerto’s sentimentality.  On the other hand, Meister had the orchestra muscling its way through much of the new work – and particularly the second movement – and accentuated the organ stops and the drum highlights, thus tying Bruckner’s work to the Yabuta one at the start of the evening.  This was not a relaxed Bruckner Nine.

The orchestra itself sounded somewhat better than when I last heard it earlier this year in the Musikverein.  It has still fallen off from the level it had attained at the time it nearly got closed a couple of years ago, unfortunately.  I would say that perhaps it might know this music better than the works in the previous concert – this would likely apply only to Bruckner, though; the film-music of Korngold at least feels familiar even if it is seldom performed; but the Yabuta was certainly unfamiliar and very difficult.  Meister tried to keep things clear, but the orchestra repeatedly missed cues and did not always have accurate attacks.  Overall, however, it produced a much more open and strident tone than what I heard in the Musikverein eight weeks ago.  Tonight’s odd manner of eliciting nostalgic feelings may also have helped – this is still Vienna after all.

Landestheater (Innsbruck)

Korngold, Die Tote Stadt

For many years, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt has been on my list of operas I have wanted to see but never have the chance.  Great music, but too-rarely performed.  This scheduling made for a nice trip out to Innsbruck’s Landestheater.

Puccini and Mahler both had a high regard for young Korngold’s innate talent.  Korngold composed he opera in 1916, when he was only 19, but although employing twentieth-century harmonics the opera is in many ways a throwback, marking an end to an era that was crashing down around him in World War One Vienna.  Korngold did not live up to his potential after the war, despite a few short-lived successes.  When the Germans banned his music after 1933, he moved to Hollywood and eventually won two Oscars for movie scores.  Still, his concert and stage music reached a level of sophistication which remains under-appreciated to this day.

The Landestheater offered a very dramatic cast.  Wolfgang Schwaninger as the male lead, Paul, and Wagnerian baritone Joachim Seipp as Frank, both of whom sang in strong voice providing forceful portrayals of their roles.  Anna Maria Dur, as Brigitte, also matched the two male roles, but as the female lead, Jennifer Maines as Marietta and Marie’s ghost, lacked the same strength of voice, accurate pitch, or acting ability, just getting through the role with a bare level of competence.  While not bad for a provincial theater environment, she clearly underperformed her colleagues.  Alexander Rumpf conducted the Tyrol Symphony Orchestra in the pit.

Once again, however, a German director let everyone else down with a senseless staging.  Ernö Weil tried to keep things simple, which would not be bad for a psycho-drama, but rather than allowing this acting cast to then develop their roles, he became silly and clichéd.  Korngold’s opera can take many interpretations, but as a dream within a dream (possibly within another dream), it depends entirely on complex psychology.  Paul’s wife has died at a young age, and the devastated man needs to overcome his obsessive mourning.  Weil seems only to have understood the sexual level, and treated us to a display of supposedly-erotic (although in a German sort of way) quasi-pornographic overdrive, neither subtle nor nuanced.  If Weil could not capture, or perhaps even understand, the drama, then I guess he supposed that sex sells. The characters kept their clothes on, but the pseudo-eroticism was blatant – no more so than during the second act, when some dancers, presumably representing ghosts or spirits, pranced, slithered, and cavorted all over stage in what appeared to be costumes (for lack of a better word) made out of plastic refrigerator wrap highlighting sexual organs.  In the third act, veering away from the sexual, Weil projected black and white film onto a scrim showing scenes from a church service, Jesus on a cross, and close-ups of the character Paul’s face – presumably this was meant to represent yet another level of Paul’s dreams, but since it did not match the rest of the staging, it came across as out-of-place and demonstrative of a lack of originality or understanding on Weil’s part.  On the whole, the staging could have been much worse, but because the overall concept was simple it did not overwhelm the performance. But it added nothing to the understanding of this work.  The cast tried its best to ignore the nonsense and just act, but the role of the director is to enhance their ability to do so, not to make acting more difficult.  Someone really needs to slap a ban on German opera directors until they sort themselves out up there.


Tschaikowsky, Yevgeny Onyegin

Back to the Staatsoper for the third time in a week, this time for Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, with a superb cast headlined by Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role and Anna Netrebko as Tatyana, and Andris Nelsons conducting.  From the way it sounded, this cast certainly knew its way around the parts, and all of the singers commanded their roles.

Nelsons kept the orchestra tense, as it should be for such a psychodrama.  His pacing, tone, and emphasis were all exemplary.  Hvorostovsky’s voice cut through the air, slightly bitter (although I have long admired his voice since I first saw a broadcast of the Cardiff competition in 1989, this was surprisingly the first time I have heard him live, and he sounds exactly as he does in his recordings).  Netrebko pulled off a stunning mezza voce in the letter scene, sung partly on her back, which wafted through the House with practically the same fullness as her normal singing voice.  She was certainly on top of her game tonight, although not as young-looking as she once was (happens to all of us).  The young and dashing Dmitry Korchak as Lensky had a wonderful tenor, most strident when he told Onyegin they were no longer friends and most melancholic when he reflected on his life in Act Two before Onyegin killed him.  Alisa Kolosova portrayed a full but tender Olga.

The problem came with the Regisseur, yet another useless German import, Falk Richter.  Why no director from (or trained in) Germany seems capable of producing intelligent stagings in the last half century continues to bewilder me.  This staging was, at least, not offensive and not shocking (making it a big improvement over most of the nonsense coming from German opera directors).  However, I could not understand the point. The program booklet contained a long interview with Richter, but even in that forum he proved unable to explain anything coherently.

I have seen this opera twice in Moscow with minimal sets (at the Stanislavsky Opera in 2009 and at the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center in 2011), so a grand staging is not necessary if it remains sensible and allows the singers to emphasize the drama.

But tonight’s minimal stage provided just enough of a set to distract from the drama.  The chorus and ballet corps either stood around like blobs doing nothing when they should have been doing something or they pranced around like circus clowns (either way they made a distraction); snow fell constantly throughout most scenes (including one scene indoors); Tatyana appeared to go sleep in a cut-out igloo; the second act ball scene contained an ice bar literally crawling with lobsters; the third act ball appeared to take place in a tacky and tasteless ultra-modern shiny-black hangout for oligarchs that I tried to avoid when I lived in Moscow, hosted by a too-young Prince Gremin – presumably the oligarch-in-chief – in his diamond-encrusted tails.  Costumes were contemporary to today.

At no time did the staging either seek to draw out the drama (contained in the words and music, not the action, as typical in Tschaikowsky operas), nor even simply minimize itself to allow the cast to do this on their own.  I suppose the staging not only distracted me, but also must have distracted the cast.  So while they all sang wonderfully, it sounded like they were simply going through the roles from their staple repertory.  Since they have likely performed these roles together before, they managed some personal interaction, but on the whole it was a rote performance devoid of any coherent concept.  By process of elimination, if the problem was not the orchestra, the conductor, or the cast, then it must be the director.

For a simple staging, the scenes also came far too disjointed.  Every scene brought a scrim down, followed by silence as the orchestra had to wait (why?  the sets were so simple they could have been rotated or changed quickly).  The only intermission came two and a quarter hours into the opera – between the second and third acts – with only forty-five minutes to go once the opera resumed. For an opera with no action, that had the audience squirming.  If they needed (or just wanted) to pause for long scene changes anyway, breaking up any continuity, they should have had at least two intermissions.

As a final quibble, the scrim often had Russian written on it: either just the exclamation “Onyegin!” or the text of Tatyana’s letter to Yevgeny.  The problem was that it was written in the Cyrillic alphabet according to today’s spellings, and not the correct pre-Soviet spellings used by Tschaikowsky and Pushkin (for example, the original second vowel in Onyegin was abolished by the Soviets). So these Russian scribbles were simply contextually incorrect.  Falk Richter is an idiot.


Verdi, Rigoletto

Back to the Staatsoper this evening for Verdi’Rigoletto.  I saw this same production a few years ago, but a promising cast and an available ticket brought me back.

The British baritone Simon Keenlyside portrayed Rigoletto almost acrobatically – rolling a cartwheel to make his onstage entrance during the Prologue.  He did not stay still, although his actions never became hectic or frantic but rather measured, as a good court jester would understand. He also successfully navigated the two mutually-exclusive halves of Rigoletto’s tortured personality: the professional fool who is hated by the court for speaking truth and the doting father who tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to protect his treasured daughter from an evil world.

Young Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko made her Staatsoper debut as Rigoletto’s dear Gilda.  Her voice and her demeanor graced the stages suitably delicately, as appropriate.  Her range impressed, but while her upper and lower registers produced the purest tones, her middle register wobbled quite a bit too much.

As the Duke of Mantua, American Matthew Polenzani cut a dashing figure – a one dimensional character played to the fullest. Kurt Rydl, a menacing Sparafucile, and Elena Maximova as Maddalena rounded out the main ensemble roles.  Sorin Coliban, in the minor role of the Count of Monterone, deserves special mention, in that his character, although having only two brief appearances on stage, curses Rigoletto, thus driving the plot and sending Rigoletto into ultimate despair.  Without a strong curse, the whole plot can collapse.  Coliban’s commanding voice projected from the back of the stage, hitting and devastating poor Rigoletto.  Keenlyside picked up the plot from there.

Jesús López-Cobos conducted the State Opera Orchestra from the pit, but appeared to have a smile on his face as he looked over the orchestra to the active and fully-engaged cast.


Smetana, Verkaufte Braut

The Volksoper has unveiled a new productionof Smetana’Bartered Bride this year.  It is a much simpler updated staging than what I saw in this house in 1987, but it worked.  The entire action took place on a single set, which looked like the inside of a large barn painted white, with long benches and tables serving as props.  Although this came across as odd at first, it ended up working in its simplicity.

Costumes were slightly updated to be what villagers might wear at the beginning of the twentieth century – the program notes explained that life really did not change much in rural Bohemia between the time Smetana wrote the opera in the 1860s and the First World War, so the exact time did not matter.  Why the director picked the end of that period specifically, however, remains unclear from the notes.  Mostly this worked, except at the end when the villagers all showed up in black and white outfits, and Marie got to wear a turquoise weddingdress.

The two leads, Ursula Pfitzner as Marie and Mehrzad Montazeri as Hans, matched up nicely, with expressive singing and clear diction.  Martin Winkler as Kecal, the marriage broker, also cut a fine and devious (or dubious) figure.  A very young conductor, Gerrit Prießnitz, kept the orchestra moving at a lively pace, making for delightful folk-inspired music and dance.


Beethoven, Fidelio

A fantastic Fidelio at the Staatsoper.  Otto Schenk originally designed this production for the Theater an der Wien in 1970, and in 1991 a modified version moved to the big stage on the Ring (with Erich Leinsdorf on the podium).  Simple and appropriate, the staging allowed the music to provide the drama.

Indeed, Beethoven’s music indeed marks the triumph of this opera.  This is an opera that everyone knows and which people have heard recordings of frequently, but somehow (based on an unscientific survey among my friends) no one ever actually sees (better to hear than to see, I suppose).  I think I have seen it twice myself, both times at the Met (first under Leinsdorf and later under Klaus Tennstedt) in the early 1980s, but not since.  The first act is a bunch of set pieces according to operatic tradition of the time – beautiful music but little drama.  The second act provides a monument to human freedom, couched in a typical nonsensical period rescue plot to pass the censors, with the music doing the heavy lifting. So in a successful production of Fidelio, the music must take precedence, and the staging should only provide a venue for the music.

And what better placeis there to enjoy this music?  Shortly after the Russian occupation forces withdrew from Vienna in 1955, the Staatsoper (which had taken a direct hit froman American bomb in the closing days of the Second World War) reopened from the ruins.  Fidelio was the first opera on the newly rebuilt stage. In this year featuring many commemorations of the Anschluß 75 years ago, the Staatsoper has dusted off the Schenk production and a Vienna Ensemble cast.  The Orchestra, under the baton of Adam Fischer (a Hungarian Jew who recently resigned as Music Director of the Budapest State Opera due to increasing anti-Semitism in Hungary), played in full dramatic form.  From the first strains of the Fidelio Overture through the final chorus, the music brought everyone to the edge of our seats, toyed with our emotions, and lifted us up.  The Leonore Overture #3, used as an interlude in the middle of Act 2 as per the Vienna tradition started when Gustav Mahler led this opera house, particularly brought down the house, and forced the orchestra to take several standing bows.

The Vienna Ensemble cast also mostly did not disappoint.  Anje Kampe headed the effort as Leonore.  The Moldovan Valentina Naforniƫă, the winner of the 2011 Cardiff competition which has justifiably launched the careers of so many worthy stars in the past (including Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel splitting the honors in the famous 1989 competition), has recently joined the Vienna Ensemble and providedan exceptional Marzelline.  Norbert Ernstas Jaquino and Walter Fink as Rocco ensured that the quartets in Act 1 remained balanced at a fine level, with strong projection, clear tones, and expressive acting.

The Staatsoper may have engaged Lance Ryan, the Canadian tenor making a guest appearance as Florestan, in order to guarantee that the only non-Vienna cast member provided the disappointment, singing consistently sharp and wobbly.  At first, I assumed he must have intended to produce these sounds as special effects for his character, who appears in weak condition after two years in deplorable conditions as a political prisoner.  However, as Act 2 progressed, it became clear that this ugly instrument was indeed his voice.  By the final curtain calls, when everyone got roaring approval from the audience, the polite members of theaudience simply refused to clap for him (I, for one, stopped clapping during his curtain call), while others went further in a hail of boos.  But the overall drama of the night more than overshadowed Ryan, and if he was the only flaw in the package then I would gladly accept to sit through that performance again and again.