I returned to work from my office in Salzburg for the first time since I fled home to Vienna in March ahead of the lockdown. So that would seem to be a good time to reduce my intake of online streaming, right when most places are also reducing their content. The last part of June anyway had little online that interested me. A few new streamings caught my eye. With one exception, I came away disappointed.
Meanwhile, the Salzburg Festival did its new ticket allocation by algorithm. I got offered, and have now accepted, tickets for nine concerts at this summer’s slimmed-down Salzburg Festival in August. While it may not have been the broader selection I originally booked pre-covid, I emerge happy that the Festival’s algorithm thought I still deserved this assortment. They have limited availability: one meter minimum seating distance between audience members in all directions, no intermissions to avoid people moving around, strict entry/exit protocols in place. I cannot wait to finally hear live music again soon.
Verdi: Don Carlos (Staatsoper)
This was a surprisingly unfulfilling performance of an abridged version of Verdi’s Don Carlos from the Staatsoper, despite a promising cast from 2017. I think I might put the blame on Daniele Abbado, son of the great conductor Claudio Abbado, who created a dark staging, with shapes and lights evocative of nothing in particular, drab costumes that looked like they might have been left over from some provincial theater’s storage, and an impressionistic mood that made no real impression. Did Abbado have a concept? It was not realistic, nor Regietheater, nor minimalist-staging-to-emphasize-psychodrama. What drama there was clearly came from the singers, particularly Plácido Domingo as Rodrigo de Posa and Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Felipe II. Domingo’s voice is of course not what it once was, but he has ably shifted into the baritone role, and his immense talent continues to shine through. Ramón Vargas, singing Domingo’s old role of Don Carlos, paled in comparison – not only was his voice straining in trying to match the level of his colleague, but his melodramatic approach to acting also got shown up next to Domingo doing it right. Krassimira Stoyanova and Elena Zhidkova triumphed as the two main female leads, Elisabeth of Valois and Ana Mendoza of Eboli. Ryan Speedo Green and Alexandru Moisiuc made impressions in the supporting bass roles of Carlos V and the Grand Inquisitor, respectively. But the wholly-unimpressive Myung-Whun Chung added nothing from the pit. Indeed, I suppose the fact that they chose to do an abridged version (there is no standard version of this opera, but here Abbado seems to have wanted to take all possible cuts) may have helped to get this thing done more quickly. Would his father have willingly conducted this muddle?
Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Staatsoper)
When I saw that Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina was on the Staatsoper’s streaming lineup for this month, I got excited – it’s a great opera. But when I actually streamed it, I suddenly remembered why I have avoided going to hear this particular production live.
I’ll start with the positive, since it’s really worth saying. Musically, this performance from 2014 was spectacular. Semyon Bychkov conducted with tremendous pacing and excitement, drawing out every dynamic nuance (by the sound of it, generally using Schostakowitsch’s performing version instead of the standard Rimsky-Korsakov one, which also helped the drama – although I’m pretty sure he did not stick to Schostakowitsch entirely and do not know if that represented his modifications or if he got them from elsewhere). The orchestra and chorus responded with lines of sheer beauty. Among the soloists, Ferruccio Furlanetto stood out as Ivan Khovansky, with extreme vocal presence and full voice – until Khovansky’s power was spent, when he became intentionally hoarse and pained. Andrzej Dobbert (Shakovity) was suitably animated and Elina Maximova (Marfa) had a warm and expressive tone. Ain Aiger (Dosifei) and Herbert Lippert (Golitsin) took a little time to warm up but grew into full-sounding characters. Even small roles, such as Norbert Ernst as the scribe, added to the whole.
Now the negative. Lev Dodin, the director, is not German (would seem to be a Russian Jew whose family had been deported to Siberia) and I found no German training in his biography, so he may have independently come to the conclusion that an opera director need not pay any attention to the plot of the opera he is directing. He set the entire opera on what seemed to be a building construction site at night, the cast riding up and down on freight elevators, mostly in the dark, and rarely interacting with each other, and spending an inordinate amount of time stripping to their underwear and then dressing again. I could not discern any logic for anything. At best the staging was distracting (indeed, the lighting was generally so dark, they would have been better off keeping the stage lights of entirely so the audience would not have to see anything and could just listen to a wonderful-sounding performance). And now I remember being able to get a ticket to see this production a few years ago, but checking it out online first and deciding not to go. Good choice. I wouldn’t pay to sit there. And as an Austrian taxpayer, I certainly hope the Staatsoper has a clause in its standard contract that allows them not to pay Regisseurs who don’t fulfill the most basic requirement to be an opera director: staging the opera they are hired to stage.
Saint-Saëns: Samson and Dalilah (Metropolitan Opera)
Director Darko Tresnjak’s somewhat stylized metallic 2018 staging of Samson and Dalilah by Saint-Saëns for the Metropolitan Opera, with strong colors and shifting lighting and overly-elaborate mock-biblical costumes, though not exactly fit for the period, worked to provide a backdrop and set a mood. But the blocking and acting came across a tad too static (in general – some bits were randomly too bizarrely active, such as when the Philistine soldiers enter to capture Samson at the end of the second act, in which Tresnjak had them literally crawling over the walls like vermin). Part of this would indeed be the blocking, but in general I felt the cast underperformed. It had been the line-up which had made me want to watch: Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča in the title roles, and an excellent-looking (on paper) supporting cast, just sort-of fizzled. Mark Elder and the Met Orchestra in the pit added no excitement to what ultimately resulted in a dull performance, particularly when considering this should have had extra impulse from being the opening night of a new production.
Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsar’s Bride (Mariinsky Theater)
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar’s Bride has a hard enough plot to follow even when staged (although a good staging helps). Here, the Mariinsky streamed an unstaged version from the Mariinsky Concert Hall in 2016, which like the rest of the Mariinsky’s streamings lacked an option for subtitles (which I usually keep off, but find them helpful for some operas). What this did allow, however, was for me to mostly forget about the plot except for the key outline, and to listen more intently to the sumptuous music. Despite the convoluted plot (not the first nor the last opera to have one), this rarely-performed opera really does deserve a better place in the mainstream repertory. Valery Gergiev ably led the orchestra, chorus, and an expressive cast (featuring Olga Trifonova as Marfa and Aleksei Markov as Grigory Gryaznoy, supported by Stanislav Trofimov, Vladimir Felyauer, Yevgyeny Akimov, Olga Borodina, and Oleg Valashov). Always a pleasure to hear this opera performed well.