With the world still on indefinite lockdown, I spent a fourth week perusing archival performances streamed online. I am nocturnal, so am normally awake through the night and usually spend the hours reading. The lockdown has changed my patterns, so that I now do a lot less reading and a lot more opera-gazing.
Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera, and Berlin Philharmonic)
This being the Holy Week in the Western Church, my week’s selections were dominated by three versions of Wagner’s Parsifal (and I will add a fourth new version next week). Two were staged (the previous production at the Staatsoper and the current one at the Metropolitan Opera) and one was a concert version (Berlin Philharmonic). I will move on to the Staatsoper’s current staging next week. This is such a wonderful transformative opera, and when I get fully immersed into it I really do get into it.
I saw that previous Staatsoper staging live in 2006 – yet another abomination by a German director, in this case Christine Mielitz. So I had absolutely no desire to see her nonsense again. But I did want to listen to this cast, from a 2015 performance, and the sumptuous sounds of the Staatsoper orchestra crafted by Ádám Fischer. Danish baritone Stephen Milling, as Gurnemanz, was the real revelation here with his warm and all-encompassing voice.
That said, I did look into the streaming a few times on this production, including the final scene. Mielitz’s travesty was every bit as imbecilic as I remembered, but she does seem to have made some adjustments between 2006 (when I saw it live) and 2015 (this video). So now Parsifal, with help of the spear, embraces Amfortas and Kundry in a big bear hug towards the end, which both healed Amfortas’ wound (the key event of the entire opera, which had been completely missing in her original) and in the same process clearly blessed Kundry (another key plot point Mielitz completely left out before) who instead of walking off the back of the stage into what looked like a backstage construction site (when I was there in 2006) now got onto a lift and was transported up to (presumably) heaven. It wasn’t satisfying, but it least showed that Mielitz may actually have decided to read the plot sometime after she had done the staging, and attempted to make the staging more closely approximate the plot by reintroducing some key actions. (Reminder to trashy German Regisseurs: please read the plot before staging an opera; is that really too much to ask?). I still saw no Grail. But maybe if I rewatched the whole thing I might have found other corrections – but I am not watching the whole thing (and the snippets I did see did not make me hopeful; even if she did make corrections in the final scene, that scene still failed miserably).
From there it was over to the Met for their 2013 new production by Canadian director François Girard. The Met Orchestra is not the Vienna Philharmonic, and the dull Daniele Gatti on the podium lacked the intellectual stature of Ádám Fischer, so the Met forces were not as lush nor able to provide the same driving coloration. Girard’s concept probably required more from the pit, since his staging was oddly modern but timeless, minimal but semi-realist, focusing on the psychological elements of the opera rather than the action (such as it is – this is indeed a very long opera with very little action). I do not think it really worked. It was all blood and darkness and ominous cloud formations (and in one case something that looked like a huge Mars gone into eclipse). Klingsor’s magic garden was transformed into a blood-soaked hewn cave, for example (Klingsor himself was a bloody mess). The chorus generally stood around, sometimes contorting itself (often with arms outstretched to mimic the crucifixion – but in Parsifal Wagner actually used the story of the grail knights as a myth, and while the final act takes place on Good Friday the symbolism is generally not Christian and Jesus never gets a mention at all). Girard’s blocking was questionable, but partly balanced by camerawork which allowed those of us watching from home to focus in ways it would have been harder to do in person.
The third act took place in a post-apocalyptic setting, opening with the knights, visibly unhealthy and in tattered clothing, burying their dead from a plague – obviously not a reference to the corona virus (this was filmed in 2013), but a bit disturbing in the current context. The dark foreboding lighting (even at noon – enter Mars under eclipse at that point) did not so much make this production transformative and mystical, but rather gloomy and depressing.
Jonas Kaufmann, the Met’s Parsifal, was more convincing than the Staatsoper’s Johan Botha. Botha may have had the bigger voice, but Kaufmann was more lyrical and sympathetic (it also did not help that Botha forgot the words at times). If Kaufmann was undermatched for the Heldentenor role of Siegmund in Walküre, Parsifal falls more within his vocal strengths. René Pape, the Met’s Gurnemanz, was in his usual fine form (especially warm in the third act), but on hearing these two performances back-to-back when juxtaposed next to Milling was simply outperformed (I am not sure I had heard Milling before, but I definitely intend to again).
Since it’s hard to get too much Parsifal once I start immersing myself, I migrated over to the Berlin Philharmonic archive they’ve opened up this month, and found a 2018 concert performance under Simon Rattle. Since it was not staged, the entire focus could go onto the music. A good staging (particularly of a mystical opera such as this) augments that message, but bad stagings detract. So in this case, particularly since this was being performed in Germany, where incompetent opera direction reigns, a concert version made for a really good idea. Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic captured that mystical level. Stuart Skelton sang an excellent Parsifal (he who recently sounded so good as the Met’s Tristan, there felicitously placed opposite Nina Stemme as Isolde, who sang Kundry here for Berlin). Franz-Josef Selig was in absolute top form as Gurnemanz, who is really the key character in this opera.
- [Recording tips: When it comes to selecting a “best” recording of Parsifal, I think the biggest discussion is not which conductor but rather conceding that some of the best are by Hans Knappertsbusch, then which version conducted by Knappertsbusch deserves that distinction. I favor the live 1951 Bayreuth Festival performance by virtue of the best overall cast balance. Wolfgang Windgassen sings the title role, with Ludwig Weber as the critical Gurnemanz. George London (Amfortas), Arnold van Mill (Titurel), Hermann Uhde (Klingsor), and Martha Modl (Kundry) round out the lead ensemble. For excerpts, there are several exciting recordings of the second act duet with Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, of which the best may be the one recorded in Philadelphia in 1940 with the Victor Symphony Orchestra under Edwin McArthur. A recording of the “Good Friday Spell” from Act Three, with Alexander Kipnis as Gurnemanz and Fritz Wolff as Siegfried, recorded at the 1927 Bayreuth Festival with Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s son, on the podium, has never been equaled.]
Strauß II, Zigeunerbaron (Volksoper)
I actually started the week on a much lighter note, with Johann Strauß II’s Zigeunerbaron. This was unfortunately a confused and humorless new production – the last premiere at the Volksoper before the coronavirus lockdown – by German director Peter Lund. Despite the nationality of the director, I had better expectations, since Lund had managed to successfully capture Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür in this house a few years ago, which I assume got him invited back for this. But now he demonstrated no understanding for the Straußian Austro-Hungarian idiom, and his clumsy sets left no room for charm (so, indeed, the cast, orchestra, and conductor – all of whom will remain nameless here so as not to drag them down for something not their fault – could provide none).
- [Recording tip: A lot of Viennese operetta is best experienced live. I have happy memories of a performance of Zigeunerbaron at the Volksoper in December 1987. I did not grow up speaking German, but had begun to study it as my fifth language only in September 1986. Of course, I had heard Viennese German regularly growing up, since my father spoke to his parents in Viennese (but they all, for some reason, spoke to me in English), so that influenced my dialect, but clearly this was not my native language and my father liked to laugh at my pronunciation as a beginning German-speaker (at that time only a year into when I started speaking the language), which sounded to him like I came from one of the Monarchy’s Kronländer – maybe Slavic or even Hungarian. After listening to the thick Hungarian accents in the Volksoper’s Zigeunerbaron, my father smiled at me…. Recordings do not quite capture the spontaneity of live performances, so critical for this genre. But I lean towards one in particular, on the basis that it is sufficiently Viennese to capture the humor, even if it is a tad too “grand.” But its mostly Viennese performers all would have performed this in a less serious manner, and understood the Fach: a 1961 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic under Heinrich Hollreiser, with a cast including Staatsoper (and Volksoper) ensemble stalwarts Hilde Güden, Karl Terkal, Walter Berry, Erich Kunz, Anneliese Rothenberger, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, and Kurt Equiluz.]
Strauss, Elektra (Staatsoper)
From a purely musical perspective, this performance of Elektra by Richard Strauss was electric. Waltraud Meier and Christine Goerke were in full voice, and Semyon Bychkov provided the perfect amount of sound and powerful framing from the Staatsoper pit. Yet Uwe Eric Laufenberg, another worthless German director, staged something other than Elektra, and the only advantage of not being in the opera house live (where the music sounds so much better) is that I really don’t have to watch this Prussian nonsense. I thought initially maybe I would watch, and see what Laufenberg offered, but life really is too short. I listened happily while doing other things.
What is strange about this opera is that, for no apparent reason, I have never really gotten into it. I own one recording – a classic 1953 West German Radio recording conducted by Richard Kraus with Astrid Varnay in the title role – which is fine but I will make no claim that it is necessarily the best available – which I may have listened to only 2-3 times since I bought it 20 years ago. And I am not sure I have listened to the opera otherwise in that period (maybe a Met radio broadcast at some point – assuming it has even been in the Met’s repertory – but if so then certainly never paying much attention). So it was great to hear it properly like this and scratch my head as to why I haven’t listened to it more often. I do have a ticket for Elektra should the Salzburg Festival go ahead this Summer (which looks unlikely – although Austria is opening up gradually starting next week, the government has clearly indicated it wants to keep the borders closed until there is a vaccine, which won’t be until mid-2021 at the earliest, so travel in and out would remain blocked; under those circumstances, I could envision a shrunken Austrian-only Festival, but not the normal one).
Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)
The Met’s staging of Verdi’s Aida is monumental, but this cast was not. The blocking was poor and the cast in general could not act (I wonder if these facts were related: did they give up on blocking to accommodate a cast that couldn’t act, or was the cast unable to act because the director thought monumental sets alone would substitute for stage direction?). Within those constraints, the two female leads, Anna Netrebko (as Aida) and Anita Rachvelishvili (as Amneris), could at least sing really well. Netrebko has been doing this for a while. But as a rising talent, Rachvelishvili has a unbelievably powerful round and dark lower register (which I heard live in Salzburg last summer) but still handled the high notes with dexterity – hers is quite a remarkable voice in every respect. As Radamès, Aleksandrs Antonenko was awful – his voice screeched even on those rare occasions when he was not trying to locate his pitch. Nicola Luisotti did what he needed to in the pit.
- [Recording tips: My preferred recording of Aida does not seem to rank on most people’s lists, but I’ll stick with it anyway. Erich Leinsdorf’s 1971 set with the London Symphony Orchestra, featuring Leontyne Price (Aida), Grace Bumbry (Amneris), Plácido Domingo (Radamès), Sherrill Milnes (Amonasro), Ruggero Raimondi (Ramfis), and Hans Sotin (Pharaoh) simply captured this drama better than most. For something different, if I may, there is a 1955 live Staatsoper recording led by Rafael Kubelik floating around on the market and worth searching out, sung in German with Leonie Rysanek (Aida), Jean Madera (Amneris), Hans Hopf (Radamès), George London (Amonasro), and Gottlob Frick (Ramfis).]
Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Staatsoper)
I had never seen Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen before. I am not sure I had even heard it – if I had, it was on in the background at some point and I was not paying attention. While it may not be performed too often, it does appear regularly, and I meant to see it at the Staatoper before but never got around to it. It is a strange little opera: a fantasy, it has a dose of hard realism; almost a children’s tale (most of the characters are animals), it has adult themes; and although a comedy, it is sad. I like Janáček’s music, although unlike the bolder music in his other dramas or his orchestral works, here he stayed restrained, moody music shimmering in the forest. Tomáš Netopil conducted with feeling. Chen Reiss sang a playful Vixen. Roman Trekal pulled together the arc of the story as the Forester.
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel (Mariinsky Theater)
Another seldom-performed work, which I also had never seen before (although I do own a recording), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel was on offer from the Mariinsky Theater. Rimsky-Korsakov did not originally mean this as a children’s story but it is easily accessible as one, in its world of fantasy, here in a fairy tale staging by the young Russian opera director Anna Matison. Aida Garifullina was in great voice as the Queen of Shemakha. Valery Gergiev conducted in the Mariinsky Second Stage, a modern state-of-the-art theater behind the original Mariinsky. The house opened in 2013 and for which the visionary Gergiev himself was the mastermind (I actually visited the construction site with him late one night in 2010, when it was still a hole in the ground).
Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Mariinsky Theater)
The best opera performance I attended in 2010 (the night Maestro Gergiev showed me that hole in the ground) was Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina (in the performing version by Schostakowitsch) at the Mariinsky main stage (a performance I already reviewed on this blog back then for 2 June 2010). They have now streamed a 2012 performance on their website with a similar cast (so this performance let me see Sergey Alekshashkin as Khovansky, Nikolay Putilin as Shaklovity, Vladimir Vaneyev as Dosifei, Olga Borodina as Marfa, and Vladimir Galuzin as Andrei again; Yevgeny Akimov as Golitsin was the only major character with a different singer this time) with Gergiev in the pit. It was as thrilling this time through as well (although it is always better to see opera live). One thing that was obvious during my time living in Russia was that Russian opera singers are taught to act, which produces much more dynamic portrayals across the board. This stood out here in contrast to some of the poor acting I have seen in other non-Russian productions these last few weeks.
- [Recording tip: Surprisngly for such a tremendous opera there are not exactly a ton of recordings. And even then, most use the standard performing version by Rimsky-Korsakov. Mussorgsky died with the opera unorchestrated and not tidied up, so there are options. Rimsky-Korsakov did the first clean-up, but his result is actually not very satisfying even though it became the standard. Stravinsky and Ravel later did another version together (each taking different parts rather than jointly working on the same parts). By all accounts, the parts orchestrated by the incompetent Ravel were terrible (he had an undeserved reputation as a good orchestrator based on his quite excellent version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but otherwise never produced much of value, whether orchestrating his own work or the work of others), although Stravinsky’s contributions are still sometimes heard. Schostakowitsch did a new orchestration, which had its premiere at the Mariinsky in 1960 with the same staging they use today, and it is probably the most fulfilling and respectful of Mussorgsky’s wishes. So if I narrow down to recordings of the Schostakowitsch version, there aren’t a lot to choose from. But there is an especially good one by Claudio Abbado (who substituted Stravinsky’s version of Act Five instead of Schostakowitsch, for intelligent reasons he explains in the liner notes), with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast including Aage Haugland, Paata Burchuladze, Vladimir Popov, Anatoly Kotchega, Marjana Lipovšek, and Vladimir Atlantov.]
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky
Since the Mariinsky is putting up concerts, not just operas, during its corona streamings, it is nice to hear the rarely-performed full score of Stravinsky’s Firebird and not just the oft-performed suite. Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theater Orchestra carried it off with drama and suspense, with even the normally-omitted bits bringing their intrigue. This is raw music, which usually gets sanitized when cut into the suite (not that the suite isn’t good, just that this is even more exciting). They prefaced the Firebird with a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, in this case presenting the opposite problem: made me wish for the full length opera (itself almost never performed). A late Rimsky work, it crosses the composers rich tone-painting with more experimental chromatics. Rimsky-Korsakov’s student Stravinsky followed on this musical language with the Funeral Song #5, written upon the older composer’s death. That piece was performed once at the memorial service in 1909 and then the score was lost until being rediscovered in 2015 and given its first public performance at this 2016 concert. In that it formed the missing link in the musical progression from Kitezh to the Firebird.