With the lockdown in Austria now having officially ended on 30 April, I may try to have other distractions in May, but I certainly digested a fair amount of opera during the last seven weeks. Austria is not completely opening for a long time, and of course there is no live music any time soon, but we can at least get out of the house more. Several institutions streaming performances online are now scaling back. Others are moving ahead but beginning to repeat performances (see my reviews here, I suppose, to know what to look out for – or subscribe to the different sites). So maybe I don’t keep updating this blog every week with online highlights. We will see what I do.
Many thanks especially to the Vienna Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, the Vienna Volksoper, the Royal Swedish Opera, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but also to all of the opera houses and orchestras that have streamed so much wonderful music these last weeks – there were many, but even during a lockdown there remain only so many hours in a night, so I merely sampled a selection. Hope to hear you all in person again soon!
Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel (Staatsoper)
Engelbert Humperdinck, a favorite assistant of Wagner at Bayreuth (and who later wrote incidental music for Max Reinhardt productions), turned a lot of fairy tales into operas with a suitably Wagnerian coloring. Hänsel und Gretel has hung around in the standard repertory, and although popular for children at Christmas time, it often attracts quite serious artists. It’s fun to revisit this opera now and then. Here the Staatsoper did a fantasy setting with Margaret Plummer and Chen Reiss in the title roles and Axel Kober conducting.
Weinberg: The Passenger (Bregenz Festival)
This was rough: over on the “Fidelio” streaming site (access courtesy of the Volksoper), I got to finally see Moishe Weinberg’s Auschwitz opera, The Passenger, in its world premiere staging at the 2010 Bregenz Festival. Set in approximately 1960, a German diplomat and his wife are heading off to Brazil for his new posting when she spots a mysterious passenger on the ship, who reminds her of a Polish inmate at Auschwitz. This leads her to reveal to her husband that she had been an officer in the SS and indeed an overseer in the women’s camp at Auschwitz. The rest of the opera mixes flashbacks from the camp with scenes from the boat.
Weinberg’s music is rather grim and never tuneful (but not atonal – typical of Weinberg, the music is dense and complex and plays on multiple levels simultaneously) until close to the end, where the tunes shout defiance. Keeping with communist propaganda, Jews were almost entirely missing from this version of Auschwitz, except for one inmate from Salonika. Of course the Warsaw-born Weinberg knew the truth about the Holocaust, the Germans having murdered his entire family. But even that attempt to follow the Communist Party line did not let his work through the censors. The Soviet regime suppressed this opera, like they did to so much of Weinberg’s other music. Although composed in 1967-68 it was not performed until a concert version in 2006, ten years after the composer’s death. The world premiere staging had to wait until this one in 2010 in Bregenz.
Michelle Breedt sang Lisa, the SS officer and Elena Kelessidi sang Marta, the Polish inmate and the mysterious Passenger (the opera never actually reveals if these are the same person). A very young-looking Teodor Currentzis (an excellent conductor when he sticks to music – as here – and does not attempt distracting performance art) led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the pit. The staging by the British director David Pourtney fully captured the plot, and was effective at moving back and forth between the two periods portrayed without trying to do too much except let the opera speak for itself.
Boito: Mefistofele (Bavarian State Opera)
Opera in Germany became a bad joke several decades ago, to the point it is no longer safe to go to the opera there. So I can promise that I did not turn to this Bavarian State Opera production of Boito’s Mefistofele because I wanted to see what yet another trashy German regisseur, in this case Roland Schwab, was up to (trashy is apparently the right word here, since the description said he opened this setting in a garbage dump). But when searching through the collection available in the “Fidelio” streaming service, this was the only version of Boito’s Mefistofele in the catalogue and I wanted to hear who was singing. My favorite Italian-language opera is not performed often enough (I’ve only managed to see it live once in person, in Prague exactly two years ago), so hearing it with a top-flight cast today was an objective.
As Mephistopheles René Pape himself was worth the listen, balancing a soothing bass-baritone voice – the temptation of the devil – with menace. Joseph Calleja as Faust was suitably dramatic and had a wonderful mezza voce at times, but his voice also tended to crack. Kristīne Opolais was a sensitive Gretchen. Omer Meir Wellber was the conductor, and was neither here nor there – at times I do think he captured the music, but at others it wandered off, although maybe it would have to do with the staging and there’s not much a conductor can do if the director is an idiot who insists on staging something bearing no relation to the opera on the program. It also did not help that part of the prologue (set in heaven, to what is supposed to be mystical, uplifting, open music) sounded like it was pre-recorded on a badly scratched vinyl LP (seriously – not a sound issue with the streaming as far as I could tell, so may indeed have been intentional). Nor that the bumpkins in the audience kept interrupting the performance with gratuitous applause (although they did stop doing this midway through the opera, so someone must have given them a good thwack in the intermission – or maybe they went home and did not come back after the intermission).
- [Recording tip: Nothing has matched the 1974 set featuring the inimitable Norman Treigle in the title role, backed by Plácido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé, with Julius Rudel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Seriously, nothing comes close, and probably nothing ever will. I’ve listened to numerous versions, and extensive excerpts with top-notch performers, and this is the definitive recording in every respect.]
Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)
I could not resist sitting once more through Beethoven’s Fidelio from the Staatsoper in the Otto Schenk staging, which I saw with a different cast last week. I had remembered Anja Kampe’s Leonore and Valentina Naforniţă’s Marzelline fondly from when I saw this production live in 2013, so tuned in to see them again in this streamed 2016 performance. They were every bit what I remembered, and although Camilla Nylund sang a good Leonore in last week’s streaming (from 2017), Kampe easily outdid her in the acting department, with passion and verve. Stephen Milling, whom I admired as Gurnemanz in a Staatsoper streaming of Parsifal earlier in the lockdown (the first time I remembered hearing him) was indeed also impressive as Rocco. Again, the acting added to his fine voice – not that Günther Groissböck (Rocco in the streaming I saw last week) cannot act (he certainly can), but there was more of the humanity in Milling’s Rocco. Klaus Florian Vogt was also a much more believable Florestan than Peter Seiffert (whom I saw last week and who had not even merited a mention in my write-up). And Evgeny Nikitin was that much more of a villain as Don Pizarro than Albert Dohmen’s more basic version last week (Nikitin’s unsavory past makes him personally more of a villain, but famously having had a large swastika tattoo, though making him of dubious character, does not make him a better artist – that comes from him genuinely being a better artist). It’s not that last week’s cast was bad, but with the exception of Chen Reiss being a notch better than Naforniţă (which is not in any way meant as a knock on the younger singer), and Boaz Daniel (Don Fernando) and Jörg Schneider (Jaquino) reprising their roles, this group just made a more convincing whole portrayal. And while Cornelius Meister led a fine performance in the version streamed last week, Peter Schneider in the pit this time just added even more warmth and spirit. The applause from the audience was proportionately grander as well – they knew what they had seen.
Mozart: Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne Festival)
David McVicar has directed a delightful little production of Mozart’s Abduction for the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival. Extended dialogue allowed for much fuller character development than the usual set stereotypes. McVicar could succeed here as well by keeping the singers active on the stage: they were not just singing in an opera and doing the necessary actions, but rather living their lives for us. McVicar also recognized that this opera may be serious, but is filled with comic relief – which he magnified without turning it into a comedy. This is actually Mozart at his best, playful and full of humor but grounded, with a lesson for us all. The cast could act, too.
This production was the opposite of some of those terrible German Regietheater stagings, where I want to hear them but cannot watch. In those cases, I do listen, but can do other things at the same time. But in this case I wanted to watch, yet had to suffer through listening to the performance. It made me realize that I do not know much about Glyndebourne, other than that it has a certain reputation from a cult following, set on some English country estate. I assumed it was a bit like other music festivals, attracting top performers. Maybe it is, but this production had more than a whiff of amateur night to it, which was a shame, though, with McVicar’s truly intelligent and completely thought-through concept.
The Glyndebourne Festival’s orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati, sounded thin and not quite able to stay in tune, which was painful. Of the singers, Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) was perhaps the only one with a solid voice. Brendan Gunnell (Pedrillo) and Mari Eriksmoen (Blonde) were equipped with adequate vocal instruments. Sally Matthews (Konstanze) could sing sometimes but her voice cracked too often to get comfortable with. Edgardas Montvidas (Belmonte) was the most problematic, with a consistently weak and strained tone that often became downright cringeworthy. Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim) thankfully did not have a singing role, just spoken dialogue, which he generally could do although he had a tendency to overact. I’d love to see the McVicar staging live with a proper cast and orchestra, though (I’d stream the film another time through to catch more of the nuances, except I don’t think I could take listening to this version again).
- [Recording tip: My favorite recording of this opera, combining musicality and Austrian charm, is the 1966 one made by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Nicolai Gedda as Belmonte, Anneliese Rothenberger as Konstanze, Gerhard Unger as Pedrillo, Lucia Popp as Blonde, and Gottlob Frick as Osmin.]
Berlioz: The Trojans (Staatsoper)
Berlioz’s opera based on Vergil’s Aeneid rarely gets performed. The French, of course, never understood it, so Berlioz only managed to get a truncated version produced during his own lifetime, that he was not remotely satisfied with. It finally got a full performance in Germany and entered the repertory long after the composer’s death. The Staatsoper’s current staging is by David McVicar – and since he is generally pretty good, I figured this would be a nice version to see.
I’m not sure of the logic, but McVicar set the Trojan War in (perhaps) the 19th century. For the acts set in Troy, McVicar has the Trojan warriors dressed up in ceremonial naval uniforms. The sets were not realistic of anything – they looked a bit like deconstructed naval vessels. The horse itself consisted of lashed-together detritus from old warships (cannons, ship’s wheels) lit up to look like a circuit board. (The jumble reappeared at the end of the opera, reconfigured into a human form as the Carthiginians curse Rome.) The acts in Carthage at least tried to look North African, even if likely not from 3,000 years ago. But it worked, sort of, until the Trojans arrived from the 19th century. Maybe I just write this off as not one of McVicar’s better efforts.
From the musical perspective, this 2018 performance featured strong characterizations by Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas, Joyce DiDonato as Dido, Szilvia Vörös as Anna, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra. Alain Altinoglu conducted.
Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)
The Metropolitan Opera streamed a 1985 performance of Verdi’s Aida, featuring Leontyne Price in the title role (her final on-stage opera performance – she only did concerts after that point in her career), Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris, James McCracken as Radamès, and Simon Estes as Amonasro. James Levine conducted. It was great to hear, but strange to watch, with a minimalist set, stylized mock-Egyptian costumes (a bit over the top, actually), and very static blocking with singers walking slowly and intentionally to specific spots where they just stood.
New York Philharmonic: Mahler
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum posted on their Facebook page a video of a television broadcast by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from 1963, performing Mahler’s Second Symphony in memory of President Kennedy, who had been assassinated two days before the broadcast. This piece is always evocative, and here the orchestra produced a solemn performance, with Bernstein providing the strong punctuation. Tempi were noticeably quite a bit faster than usual, particularly in the first movement, but while rather odd at times this did not undermine the tension. The sound on the recording was oddly crackly (and even warped in places) – other live performances from that period were of far better quality, so one wonders whether CBS (the network responsible for the broadcast) was particularly incompetent – but the tone of the orchestra shines through. Indeed, it is pleasant to remember that the New York Philharmonic once counted among the best in the world.