Highlights

It looks like live music will resume in Austria in June – the Vienna Symphony Orchestra is testing out performing the same concert multiple times back-to-back (a different program each week – mostly Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year) for an audience at each of 100 people in Vienna’s Konzerthaus.  The Salzburg and Grafenegg Festivals will go ahead in modified forms later this summer.  But in the meantime, there is still online streaming (not as good, but I do get to watch a ridiculous amount of opera – this week, two by Mozart, one by Strauss, one by Wagner, two by Berlioz, one by Schreker, and two by Schostakowitsch).

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (Staatsoper)

Mozart’s Zauberflöte can take a lot of stagings, being fantasy and allegory and all.  But a staging still has to make sense.  I have no idea what I just watched from the Staatsoper.  This was not Regietheater, since it did seem to at least allude to the opera (key elements appeared at every point when they were supposed to) and it followed the plot (thank goodness).  But otherwise I could find no rhyme or reason in anything from random setting (a stripped-down disused theater backstage, maybe?), the costumes (no consistency – although there looked like there may have been a reason each character got the costume they did, the costume style did not match up among the characters), or props (actually, these were the key elements that were supposed to be there, but they seemed out of place with everything else).  I have seen minimalist productions, which work since they allow focus on the key elements (or at least on the acting) to augment comprehension – but when the framing is not minimalist but irrelevant, it detracts from the focus on and understanding of the plot. Two directors were listed as being responsible for this: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who are apparently a Paris-based couple.

The cast in this 2017 performance was mostly from the Vienna Ensemble, keeping up the baseline standards of this house and ensuring good chemistry among them.  The only big visiting name was René Pape as Sarastro, who works in this house often enough to be part of the extended family at least.  Thomas Tatzl was a playful Papageno (joined later by Ileana Tonca as Papagena), Jörg Schneider was fine but not quite dashing enough as Tamino, Olga Bezsmertna made a fine Pamina, and Hila Fahima was uneven as the Queen of the Night, but this is judging her by the high standards of this house, which she attained – generally, the Vienna Ensemble puts stars in other houses to shame, so it is important to consider the success of the cast as a whole unit.  Ádám Fischer conducted a wonderfully lilting performance, capturing all of the musical charm.

  • [Recording tips:  Otto Klemperer’s 1964 set with the Philharmonia had possibly one of the best Zauberflöte casts ever assembled top-to-bottom: Nicolai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry, Lucia Popp, Gottlob Frick in the major roles, but luxuries like Franz Crass, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Marga Höfgen, Ruth-Margret Putz, Gerhard Unger, Agnes Giebel, Anna Reynalds, and Josephine Veasey in the assorted smaller roles.  The main fault of the set, however, is that it excludes the dialogue, which makes listening to it as a “complete” recording rather disconcerting.  Better to hear it as extended excerpts.  For a complete recording with dialogue from around that period, there is a wonderful recording from the 1959 Salzburg Festival, with George Szell leading the Vienna Philharmonic with Leopold Simoneau, Lisa Della Casa, Walter Berry, Erika Köth, and Kurt Böhme that may lack the brightness of some later live recordings of better technical quality, but still captures its period very well.]

Mozart: Don Giovanni (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper gave us three streaming options for a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni by director Jean-Louis Martinoty, so I picked the one that looked most promising, from 2017, mostly to see the ever-lively Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni, and with the cerebral Ádám Fischer conducting.  Neither disappointed.  As Giovanni’s sidekick Leporello, Erwin Schrott made a good tandem with Keenlyside.  Ileana Tonca (Zerlina) and Dorothea Röschmann (Elvira) both excelled, while the rest of the cast gave an appropriately strong Staatsoper baseline performance.  However, Martinoty’s staging itself was at times busy and confused, with different sets unrelated to the plot (or maybe they were, but Martinoty just put them in the wrong places) and sometimes extra people hanging around on stage, which made the production more distracting than helpful.

  • [Recording tips: Don Giovanni is perhaps another one of those operas where everyone has a favorite recording, and I simply will not weigh in to that debate.  Without declaring it the best one available, I will say that the recording I return to most often is a historic 1955 performance from the Staatsoper, right after the house reopened after it was restored from having been hit by a bomb in 1945 during the final weeks of the war.  The Staatsoper put on what amounted to a mini-festival of standard repertory with leading casts, and this all-star collection, under the baton of Karl Böhm, included George London in the title role and Erich Kunz, Sena Jurinac, Lisa Della Casa, Anton Dermota, Ludwig Weber, Irmgard Seefried, and Walter Berry.  Some people might resist this recording because they used the alternate libretto by Hermann Levy, and while it is true that Lorenzo Da Ponte’s original version is a work of art, Levy’s version, in the tradition of great 19th century literary translations, fully captures that original art but in Mozart’s German vernacular – and indeed it may why other German versions are so jarring.  The Nazis had a problem with this opera, which they otherwise liked very much, because both the Italian and the German libretti were written by Jews, and so they dropped the Levy version and either performed it in Italian with no librettist credited or commission less-good German versions, some of which have remained in circulation since that period.  The Staatsoper gets credit here for restoring the Levy script. 
  • In addition to mentioning this complete version, I would be remiss to not point out one excerpt that should be in everyone’s collection: Richard Tauber may have been the greatest lyric tenor of all time, and while he may be most remembered for operetta, of which he recorded a lot and took on tours, he was first and foremost a Mozart tenor and had sung many lyric roles in the Vienna Staatsoper Ensemble.  No one has ever matched his mezza voce.  No one has ever matched his Austrian charm either – Richard Strauss once remarked something like that if someone wanted to understand nostalgia for the way Vienna once was, they just needed to listen to Richard Tauber sing.  There are two recordings of “Dalla sua pace” that I am aware of, one in the Da Ponte version and one in the Levy version (“Nur ihrem Frieden”).  The Italian one came later with better recording sound.  If I were to spotlight a small number of Tauber recordings that best demonstrated his lyricism, this would be one.  And for real collectors, there are some excerpts available – albeit in poor sound – from Tauber’s final performance of this role.  The Austrian Tauber turned down an offer from the Nazis to be declared an “honorary Aryan” and ultimately fled to England.  In 1947, with their house bombed out, the Staatsoper went on tour and stopped in London, where their run included Don Giovanni.  They invited Tauber, by that time dying of cancer, with one lung removed and the other one barely working, to perform Don Ottavio one last time with the Vienna Ensemble.  Most of the audience was not aware that he was singing on half a lung, nor is it obvious from the recordings that survive.  He died just over three months later.]

Strauss: Salome (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper streamed Salome by Richard Strauss in a staging Boleslaw Barlog first produced in 1972.  Barlog, a German from the days when Germans knew how to stage opera by sticking to the plot, did not have much to say, but his timeless, moody setting (which indeed sticks to the plot) allowed Strauss’ music to do the work.  I saw this Klimt-inspired production in 2015 with some of the same cast, particularly Lise Lindstrom in the title role and Herwig Pecoraro as Herod.  Pecoraro was as sardonic as I remember.  Lindstrom fell a bit short in this performance, coming in off pitch more often than not, and sometimes warbling when she did find the pitch.  As John the Baptist this time around, Michael Volle did not quite completely fill the role, which could have been bigger, darker, or warmer.  For this performance from earlier this year, Michael Boder conducted but failed to add from the pit, the opera even ending on a whimper.  In all, if the Staatsoper wanted to stream Salome, one wonders why they chose this performance of all of the ones presumably in their archive.

  • [Recording tip: Perhaps the most-charged version of Salome available is a recording with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1994, reassembling most of a cast that had triumphed at the 1992 Salzburg Festival: Catherine Malfitano (Salome) and Byrn Terfel (John the Baptist).]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Staatsoper)

David McVicar’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Staatsoper is a decent panacaea for the version from the Met during the lockdown that I listened to but could not watch.  It actually is not necessary to do over-the-top natural stagings – minimal works too, when the director understands the plot and tries to make it understandable for the audience.  I myself have never gotten the hullabaloo about this opera – the only one of Wagner’s mature operas that does not speak to me.  But I did give it another time through this evening, and found that McVicar captured this over-philosophical work well, and at least I could understand the opera better even if I still don’t really get it.  The cast (from a 2015 performance) sounded terrific and acted out the changing and confused emotions well.  Peter Seiffert and Iréne Theorin sang the title roles, amply supported by Tomasz Konieczny (Kurwenal), Petra Lang (Brangäne), Albert Dohmen (King Marke), and Gabriel Bermúdez (Melot).  Peter Schneider led the drama superbly from the pit.

Berlioz: Damnation of Faust (Metropolitan Opera)

The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz is a notoriously difficult opera to stage, and it is anyway based on Goethe’s mystical play, which makes it fine to do it as fantasy.  This Metropolitan Opera production by Robert LaPage, started off with me confused as to whether the fantasy worked, but it grew on me as the opera progressed.  The stage was a set of square boxes, with characters generally inside them (today, in the age of zoom, this format does not look out of place – although in this case there were usually multiple people in each frame).  Sometimes scrims fell in front, with projections screened onto them.  This allowed multiple thoughts to occur at once, often suggesting alternative realities which in their way reinforced the main thread.  Unfortunately, Marcello Giordani was a weak-voiced Faust.  John Relyea was not dark enough as Mephistopheles.  Susan Graham was bolder as Margarethe.  James Levine conducted this 2008 performance.

  • [Recording tip: I have oddly never found a recorded version of this opera I have especially been enamored of.  Although its poor sound makes it a problematic choice, there is a fascinating live recording from the 1950 Luzern Festival conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, with Frans Vrooms as Faust, Hans Hotter as Mephistopheles, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Margarethe.  The sound quality is so poor, it is necessary to use imagination as to how it must have sounded live, but it is nevertheless distinctive.

Berlioz: The Trojans (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met also has kept Berlioz’s Trojans in its repertory.  The current version, directed by Francesca Zambello, creates a grand spectacle, with some illusions to make it seem even larger than it already was.  But at the same time it remains human and intimate.  The sets were not realistic, but more mood-setting; not quite abstract, but more representative.

Given the decision to keep all of the dancing in this version, and to do it on a big scale, realism was not the objective.  Berlioz incorporated extensive ballet into the opera not according to the silly French tradition, but more for his own purposes of interpreting Vergil with all possible tools at his disposal.  Yet the dancing, uncut, did become tedious, particularly in the fourth act, and in the end this contributed to the scenes in Carthage ultimately dragging in ways the scenes in Troy had not.

The two acts set in Troy also benefitted from wonderful little moments, included the tragically tender scene between Coroebus (Dwayne Croft) and Cassandra (Deborah Voigt) in Troy, who sing past each other in the plot.  But Croft and especially Voigt really did provide the impulse for those acts.  In the final three acts, Susan Graham made a very personable and approachable Queen Dido.  Bryan Hymel was Aeneas, and his strong voice held.  Fabio Luisi conducted this 2013 performance.

Schreker: The Smith of Ghent (Flanders Opera-Ballet)

Looking around the online offerings, it is nice to find something different.  Having seen Franz Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang during the lockdown, I moved along to his last opera, Der Schmied von GentDer Ferne Klang apparently had entered the standard repertory in the German-speaking world, but was of course banned by the Nazis as “degenerate” music (Schreker’s father was Jewish) and has rarely been performed since.  Der Schmied von Gent had its premiere in 1932, and never had time to enter the repertory before the Nazis came to power in Germany.  The Austrian Schreker died in 1934, and his music has mostly been forgotten.  But as I thought with Der Ferne Klang, the music represents a cross between the language of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and even if he did not necessarily rise to that level, there is no reason his music should not get performed more often (plenty of far less original or far less musical stuff has entered the standard repertory – and Schreker’s work is both original and musical).

Schreker called this particular work a “grand magical opera” – it is a folly, a fantasy, even if set in a historical period (the end of the 80-years war in the 16th century) there is too much magic to make it realistic.   So I suppose it was OK that the setting made by Ersan Mondtag for the Flanders Opera-Ballet earlier this year (before the lockdown) was cartoonish.  The main problem was that while Mondtag made it more phantasmagoric, he somehow left out the actual fantasy elements that appear in the libretto.  Some remained as allusions and could be assumed listening to the words, but why not show those instead of introducing other elements?  The staging generally followed the plot, but for an opera almost no one is familiar with, Mondtag did not exactly enhance understanding of what it was about.  And that was already before his non sequitur deviation in the final act: when Smee (the smith in the opera’s title) died, Mondtag had him dress up as the genocidal Belgian King Leopold II before heading out to try to get into either Heaven or Hell (the real Leopold II would absolutely be consigned to Hell, but there is no logical reason to link Smee with Leopold).  Hell turned out to be a Congolese art gallery, where various characters stood and listened to Patrice Lumumba declare Congo’s independence (we got a far-too-long excerpt of his speech over the loudspeaker – what this had to do with the opera is a mystery).  After Smee was denied entry into Hell, he tried to get into Heaven, where he was made to watch a film that had scenes from Congo’s history, including the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match staged by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  To cut to the end, after Smee was allowed into Heaven and gave a royal wave to the assembled crowd (in his persona as Leopold II), Heaven changed suddenly into Hell (that Congolese art gallery again – now with red lighting and devils), and the main she-devil ripped Smee’s beard off and said to the audience: “really?”

To that, I have to say: “really?”  It should not surprise anyone that Mondtag is a German Regisseur.  So he’s probably trying to make a point that we should think how clever he is because he can completely miss the plot.  It is a shame, because for the first two acts, I could almost accept his cartoonish staging as consistent with Schreker’s intention to make a “grand magical opera” – if only Mondtag had kept in the actual fantasy elements.  But then he “jumped the shark” (to use the American pop expression).  Boo.

Baritone Leigh Melrose sang Smee, the title character, who pretty much stays on stage the entire opera and therefore is critical to hold it all together, which Melrose certainly did.  Alejo Pérez (whom I saw conduct Gounod’s Faust at the Salzburg Festival four years ago) again showed he could advance the music and the drama no matter what dreadful German directors put on the stage.

Schostakowitsch: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Dutch National Opera)

The Dutch National Opera provided a 2006 performance of Schostakowitsch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the pit under its then-music director Mariss Jansons.  This performance was probably not as brash as the last time I saw this opera performed (also with Jansons conducting, with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival), with an emphasis now on the dancing melodies – if disturbed ones at that.  It ended almost with restraint, representing not the harshness of Siberia but the hopelessness of it all.  Then again, some of that differentiation may have come from hearing it here recorded and not live, and some of it may have been to match the staging.

Although an Austrian, the director Martin Kušej has spent most of his career in Germany, which is immediately obvious from the terrible staging.  This is such a brutal opera that it’s actually hard even for a German director to shock – which must frustrate them.  So while this staging did not really make any sense, it did at least keep more or less to the plot.  Eva-Maria Westbroek starred as Katerina Izmailova and Christopher Ventris was Sergey, both giving as convincing a performance as might be possible in this staging.  The most convincing of the cast was actually Vladimir Vaneyev as Boris Izmailov.

Schostakowitsch: Cheryomushki (Mariinsky Theater)

At the other end of the spectrum from the brutal Lady Macbeth for Schostakowitsch’s opera works was his comic operetta Cheryomushki, here presented by the Mariinsky in a semi-staged version (without scenery and minimal costuming – main characters acting in front of a fixed chorus, with the orchestra in the sunken pit) in the Mariinsky Concert Hall.  The singers came from the Mariinsky’s in-house training academy.  Pavel Petrenko conducted this 2015 performance.

I streamed this to hear a work I have heard about but never actually heard.  It was fun to hear how someone like Schostakowitsch might write more “popular” music.  Within an identifiably-Viennese operetta style of which he was familiar and which apparently remains popular in Russia to this day as I discovered much to my surprise when I first moved to Moscow, Schostakowitch used parodies of historical Russian musical styles from the mediaeval to the great 19th century Russian composers to set an operetta mocking Soviet corruption and bureaucracy (how he got away with it I am not sure).  Unfortunately, the Mariinsky does not provide subtitles for their streamings, so this was a bit harder to follow without a full staging to provide clues about the action (I do not normally watch with subtitles, but for a non-standard work in a comic operetta style, they would have been appreciated under these circumstances).  I could find a plot summary online, but I mostly just listened and enjoyed without worrying too much.

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