Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 9)

Highlights

The government this week released some guidelines for the resumption of public performances.  It was not all that clear how they will work in practice (basically they won’t).  The Bregenz Festival announced it would skip this year.  The Grafenegg Festival will go ahead reconfigured with outdoor performances featuring musicians based in Austria (we certainly have plenty).  And the Salzburg Festival announced what we already knew: it will take place in some form, but nothing resembling what was planned… details by the end of May.  As for the return of concerts and operas in the Fall, who knows.  What a mess.  So I remain, sampling offerings online.

Wagner: Parsifal (Bayreuth Festival)

Having seen some absolutely atrocious stagings of Wagner’s Parsifal last month, I felt I needed something better.  The “Fidelio” streaming service (courtesy of the Volksoper) provided me with a production from the 1981 Bayreuth Festival, directed by the composer’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner.  The production was actually rather simple, in some ways basic with inexpensive-looking costumes (not that a lot of monks in the early middle ages would have had expensive clothes), painted backdrops substituting for scenery, and melodramatic acting.  Actually, maybe the acting was a bit too melodramatic.  But even without providing new insights it did not get in the way of a basic understanding, something that could not be said about the stagings I streamed last month.

Hans Sotin carried the role as Gurnemanz.  As Parsifal, Siegfried Jerusalem matured noticeably (and not just from gaining a beard in the final act) through the opera from fool made wise through pity to king of the realm of the Grail.  Eva Randová provided a multi-faceted Kundry.  Bernd Weikl sang better than he acted, although this may have been Wolfgang Wagner’s stage direction rather than a fault from Weikl.  Horst Stein may have gone a little fast in his tempi.  But then the slow-motion stage direction might have been unbearable if Stein had kept more traditionally-paced tempi.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Bayreuth Festival)

I stuck with Bayreuth and a staging by Wolfgang Wagner for Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  On the whole, this 1984 production was effective.  While it may not have pushed the realm of giving any new understanding to the opera, it remained relatable.  The characters in this opera are not gods nor figures from legend, but humans, and the staging made them human.  They may not have always interacted naturally, or pulled off their acting assignments generally, and glossed over some of the humor (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy, after all), but they still generally presented a couple of (albeit fictitious) days in the life of their town.  And the strong cast generally sang their roles idiomatically.

The nice sets, although grand, also came across as almost intimate: Act 1 took place in the corner of the church; Act 2 in a leafy square; Act 3, scene 1, in a simple room in Sachs’ home that was almost cell-like (although perhaps too grand a space for a cobbler, even a worldly one as the real-life Sachs had been); and Act 3, scene 2, indeed took place in a field (as it is supposed to be, but without Nürnberg in the background).  The blocking was playful, if not always obviously comic.  There was some strange camera work during the second act fight scene, using lots of close-ups, but since the people fighting were the chorus and not professional stuntmen, this came across as rather silly.  Normally the fight can be disguised a bit in the theater (and we all know they are opera singers and not street brawlers), but the close-ups exposed that the fighting just was not very realistic, compounded by the funky expressions on everyone’s faces.  That said, I do suppose Meistersinger is a comedy.  And the flying leap that David made onto Beckmesser, which set off the brawl, was indeed quite humorous in its way.  In the final act, instead of running away, Beckmesser goes into the crowd to watch Walther’s prize song, and even he in the end is won over.  At the very end, Sachs even shakes his hand – an act of reconciliation.

Bernd Weikl starred as somewhat haughty Sachs (pretending to be modest, but he knew who he was).  Hermann Prey’s Beckmesser took some getting used to – while a bit of a caricature, it was also clear why he is also a mastersinger and should have a lyrical voice.  Siegfried Jerusalem was a dashing Walther von Stolzing, and Graham Clark a lively David.  Mari Anne Häggander (Eva) and Marga Schiml (Magdalena) portrayed their roles as somewhat much older than they should have been, although vocally they were fine.  Horst Stein conducted again.

Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci (Metropolitan Opera)

David McVicar’s staging of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Metropolitan Opera took place not in a village, but on a large rotating wooden stage surrounded by villagers who moved their chairs around, pranced flailingly, or who knows what they were doing besides distracting everyone.  McVicar is generally quite good but has a tendency to create busy stagings – which work when they focus on the plot, but don’t work when they are just busy for the sake of it.  When the villagers were not around, the intimate scenes and interactions between the main characters more successfully elucidated the story, particularly for Marcelo Álvarez (Turridu), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Santuzza), and Giorgi Gagnidze (Alfio).  Álvarez and Westbroek strangely had trouble at times staying on key, as did the chorus, making me wonder if something was off with the streaming even though nothing obvious was.  Fabio Luisi conducted.

In the second half of the double-bill, McVicar also gave Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci a peculiar staging, opening in what looked like some tacky vaudeville theater to reveal behind the curtain: the mid-1900s.  This actually worked quite a bit better than his odd setting of Cavalleria – the change in time was not really material, and the busy details here contributed to a lively interpretation (especially the twentieth-century slapstick update of the Commedia dell’Arte that had inspired it).  It is precisely in these sorts of detailed thoughtful interpretations that McVicar succeeds best.  Álvarez (as Canio) and Gagnidze (as Tonio) returned, now with Patricia Racette (as Nedda).

Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera)

I started to watch this version of Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the 2013 Met Opera staging (by Michael Mayer, apparently some trendy hack from Broadway) was too absurd, set in a sleazy casino with the Duke seemingly the casino singer, Monterone an Arab sheikh, and I did not stick around long enough to figure out who everyone else was supposed to be.  So I just listened, particularly to Piotr Beczała’s charming Duke and Željko Lučić’s on-edge Rigoletto (who could still show such tenderness for his daughter Gilda, here portrayed by Diana Damrau), who made it worthwhile.  The Met’s orchestra sounded a tad thin under Michele Mariotti.

Donizetti: Don Pasquale (Staatsoper)

A bit of a silly staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale from the Staatsoper – by the Frenchwoman Irina Brook.  It was thankfully not Regietheater but somewhat of an updating of the plot into a modern nightclub with Don Pasquale apparently as the proprietor.  I’m not sure what her point was, though.  The 2016 cast featured Michele Pertusi in the title role and Dmitry Korchak as Ernesto, backed by the Vienna Ensemble, notably (and happily for my ears) Alessio Arduini as Malatesta and Valentina Naforniţă as Norina, all keeping their humor up on stage.  Frédéric Chaslin conducted.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Howell, Elgar, Weinberg, Knussen

Poking around the “Fidelio” streaming service to see if it had more music by Moishe Weinberg, I came up with a concert from the Royal Albert Hall and the 2019 Proms, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla performing Weinberg’s Third Symphony.  This made quite a contrast to the only other work by Weinberg which I could find on the “Fidelio” service, his opera The Passenger, which I watched a couple of weeks ago.  Whereas the opera was brutal, brash, but ultimately defiant, the symphony was lyrical but wistful, charming but sad.  I had not heard this symphony before, but as with most of Weinberg’s compositions, it was well worth discovering.  I listened twice to make sure I heard every brilliant nuance (Weinberg’s music is so brilliantly complex on so many levels that I am sure I still missed a few).  Gražinytė-Tyla is a skilled interpreter and promoter of his music, now at the helm of her own orchestra (which ranks alongside the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich in a class by themselves of top European provincial orchestras).

The first half of that concert opened with the tone poem Lamia by Dorothy Howell, which had its premiere at the Proms one hundred years before (making this an intentional commemoration), when the composer was 21 years old.  It, in turn, was based on a poem by John Keats, which he had written exactly one hundred years before that.  The music, by an otherwise forgotten British composer, worked fine as a tone poem, but was in the end not more than a curiosity that will likely return to oblivion (it’s not bad, and who knows why some works of less quality become more standard parts of the general repertory, but there is also no reason this should get more attention).  The same could not be said of Edward Elgar, whose Cello Concerto followed: this is a work which started off mostly ignored (despite being championed by such greats as Pau Casals) but gradually became a standard.  A then-twenty-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason as the soloist was nothing short of impressive – this is a difficult work to pull off even for a fully-mature artist, full of passion and deep feeling, but the young cellist more than mastered it.  He added a Saraband for solo cello by Weinberg as an encore.  The concert’s first half concluded with “The Way to Castle Yonder,” an orchestral excerpt from Higglety Pigglety Pop! – a children’s opera based on a Maurice Sendak book – by Oliver Knussen.  I had heard of Knussen before, but do not believe I had heard anything written by Knussen before.  So now I have.

Vienna Philharmonic: Beethoven, Bruckner

The “Fidelio” service also has in its archive Bernard Haitink’s last concert at the Salzburg Festival, the third-to-last stop of his farewell tour of Europe with the Vienna Philharmonic before he took his “sabbatical” (from which it is widely believed he knows he will never return).  I attended this concert, but found it worth listening again to hear Haitink lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4 (with Emanuel Ax) and Bruckner’s Symphony #7.  My impressions from last summer have held up on a second listen. (My review from 31 August 2019 is on this blog – incidentally, the stream edited Ax’s encore out completely, so I still have no idea what he played.)

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

The Boston Symphony has decided to continue to post on its site (for a limited but not-specified amount of time) a curated selection of performances from its archives, which it considers transformative, now going up weekly rather than daily.  These are generally individual works rather than entire concerts.  To highlight Erich Leinsdorf’s farewell spring as the Orchestra’s music director in 1969, they posted a warhorse: Tschaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony.  This is one of these far-too-often-performed works that I have said should generally be removed from concert programs unless people have something new to say (such as a spectacular performance of it I heard in Dresden a few years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin).  Here, indeed, Leinsdorf and the BSO rose to the occasion.  The first movement had a relentless pacing (not fast, just strident).  The second captured lyric nuances in the winds which often get blurred, over an underlying tension.  The third movement danced, as it should, but the dance increasing went on its edge: could be in despair, except that it led into the triumphant final movement.  This performance produced more sound than the BSO normally manages, and indeed the stage looked crowded, but Leinsdorf had indeed expanded the BSO’s repertory, and nothing prevents more intimate-sounding orchestras such as the BSO or Leipzig Gewandhausorchester from doing justice to the larger works.  And it is performances such as this one which keep this particular symphony in the forefront of the repertory.  It is also such special performances like this that mean most other orchestras and conductors should remove it from their repertories completely.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Verdi

The Philadelphia Orchestra offered a performance of Verdi’s Requiem from 2012, one of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first concerts as Music Director, starting the Orchestra’s reemergence from its doldrum years under Eschenbach and Dutoit.  The musicians were there, so it’s not like the orchestra itself required an overhaul, but having good leadership makes a huge difference.  In this concert, that became palpable.  It started off quietly, almost delicately, remarkably so for what grows into a bombastic piece, but this just highlighted Verdi’s powerful writing (even the soft passages have their own fateful power).  Excellent soloists (Marina Poplavskaya,Christine Rice, Rolando Villazón, and Mikhail Petrenko) – who themselves did not try to be bombastic but rather provided sympathetic and almost lilting lines.  The Westminster Symphony Choir added wonderful color.

There was a certain catharsis with this concert – the Orchestra knew that happy days were ahead, and this requiem mass may well have been a mass for the Orchestra’s lost decade.  In the end, Nézet-Séguin held the silence out – especially noteworthy considering that American audiences tend to be quick to applaud and do not necessarily respect that hold.  But here the audience remained mute for the duration until Nézet-Séguin lowered his arms long after the music ended.  From the knowing looks on the musicians’ faces, they felt it too.  Welcome back to the pantheon, Philadelphia Orchestra – it’s been a stellar rise since then too.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 2)

Highlights

Another week of lockdown, another week of online streaming.

Puccini: Tosca (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s offers this week included a classic staging (by the Austrian Margarethe Wallmann) of Puccini’s Tosca with a selection of recent casts.  I chose a 2019 performance with Piotr Beczala as Cavardossi and Thomas Hampson as an elegant Scarpia.  Hampson’s voice has clearly tired with age, but he remains a tremendous stage presence.  Baron Scarpia is the bad guy in this opera, but to pull off the part requires a certain grace rather than just performing the role as a one dimensional villain.  And it was precisely that level of intelligence that Hampson provided.  Sondra Radvanovska, as Floria Tosca, was the least impressive of the three lead characters – adequate but not in Beczala’s or Hampson’s league.  The always-reliable Marco Armiliato conducted.

  • [Recording tips:  I think purists generally agree – and I don’t argue – that the standard recording against which every other should be compared is the 1953 La Scala version with Maria Callas in the title role, Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi, Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, and Victor de Sabata conducting.  However, I might also propose another recording which I often default to instead: a 1967 Russian-language studio recording with Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra.  My attention will always be drawn to recordings of great Georgian dramatic tenor Zurab Anjaparidze, indeed the greatest dramatic tenor I have ever heard (sadly only on recordings as he was before my time), who sang Mario Cavaradossi in this version.  Anjaparidze became the leading dramatic tenor at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater (often paired with the unmatched soprano Galina Vishnyevskaya) in its heyday in the late 1950s and through the 1960s until the authorities allowed him to return to Tbilisi in the 1970s.  In this recording, Oleg Klenov’s Scarpia is a force to reckon with, and Tamara Milashkina’s Floria Tosca, if not always entirely up to Callas’ level, displays an intensity consistent with this production under Svetlanov’s full-on interpretation.]

Donizetti: L’Elisir d’Amore (Staatsoper)

Armiliato also conducted another classic Vienna production, L’Elisir d’Amore by Donizetti, in a staging by Otto Schenk.  Schenk, also Austrian, is one of the greatest operatic stage directors – an actor by training, his stagings fundamentally focus on maximizing understanding of the plot, including refined interpretations, and I have seen this production myself live in the Staatsoper (albeit a different cast).  The Staatsoper’s streaming lineup gave me a choice of casts, so I picked the one with Dmitry Korchak as Nemorino and Adam Plachetka as Dr. Dulcamara, both excellent singing actors who personified their roles.  Olga Peretyatko may have been a notch down as Adina, but she still performed with a twinkle and the Schenk production made it easy.

  • [Recording tips: oddly, although I am long familiar with this opera since childhood and enjoy it very much, I realized that I somehow don’t own a complete recording of it, nor am I aware of a version I would recommend.  Indeed, I now want to do some research and get myself a complete recording to rectify the situation, but until then I suppose I will just have to keep going to see it in person.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera launched the week with its 2007 production of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, and with the dashing Dmitri Hvorostovksy in the title role ably matched by Renée Fleming as Tatyana and Ramón Vargas as Lensky.  The staging is minimal, allowing the characters to fully act out the emotional psychodrama.  I actually own a DVD of this performance, but it was still worth re-watching.

  • [Recording tips: I don’t have a go-to recording of Onyegin.  Unlike Elisir d’Amore, I do own several recordings, each with its plusses and minuses.  I tend to mix and match scenes, whether from complete recordings or excerpts recorded separately.  There is a Swedish-language version of Lensky’s aria sung by Jussi Björing which is – and deserves to be – widely available.  Galina Vishnyevskaya’s letter scene recorded at the Bolshoi with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich conducting is an excellent extended highlight.  Mark Reizen’s take on Prince Gremin’s aria – which he recorded multiple times over his remarkably long career – is definitive in many of those recordings.  A final scene from a 1961 Vienna Staatsoper performance (sung in German) with Sena Jurinac as Tatyana and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Yevgeny under the baton of Lovro von Matačić is worth looking for to give a different lyrical perspective.  But, in the end, perhaps Hvorostovsky was indeed the most dashing Yevgeny there exists on record.]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Metropolitan Opera)

After that Onyegin, the Met shifted into Wagnerian gear for a few days.  They led off with a vocally-impressive version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a modern setting that was impossible to watch, so I stopped watching.  Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme excelled as the title characters, with Simon Rattle keeping the pace from the pit.  To be honest, this is the only one of Wagner’s mature operas that has never spoken to me – I admit I just don’t understand Tristan.  So I guess I also was not bothered by finding the staging shambolic, allowing me to multi-task while listening.

  • [Recording tips: Since Tristan is not an opera I especially care for, I have not really done a complete comparison of commercially-available recordings.  I own one complete recording, that has some poor sound quality but otherwise excellent pacing: a 1943 live broadcast recording from the Met with Erich Leinsdorf conducting and Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel in the title roles.]

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera)

Of course the highlights of the week came in the form of a complete Ring Cycle from New York and the second half of the one from Vienna.

Vienna’s Ring, as noted last week, featured Thomas Konieczny as Wotan.  And while I could appreciate his edgy voice last week in Rheingold and Walküre, I was less convinced by it this week in Siegfried.  He contrasted with the Met’s Wotan, Bryn Terfel, who was altogether a more elegant chief god, still able to show the complexity of circumstances but with a much more rounded instrument.  Konieczny doubled up in Vienna as Gunther in Götterdämmerung, a role for which his voice was simply not at all suited – far too angry and unsubtle.  The Met countered with Iain Paterson as Gunther, who provided a much better characterization.  Gunther is often portrayed as a one-dimensional character, but he is rather more complex, which Paterson readily understood and transmitted.

Vienna’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung switched out the Brünnhilde in last week’s streamed version (Evelyn Herlitzius) to provide instead the Swede Iréne Theorin, an altogether stronger solution.  The Met streamings had Deborah Voigt, who was in excellent voice for Die Walküre and Siegfried but tended to strain during Götterdämmerung (the streamings came from shows spread out over a year and a half, so provided no indication if in the real world she had to sing on three successive nights, which might have explained the voice losing its shine and becoming more forced by Götterdämmerung).

On the Heldentenor front, the Met tried out Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund – he has a wonderful voice and stage presence, but this role seemed a bit much for him.  He may be a dramatic tenor, but it’s not so clear he is a Wagnerian Heldentenor.  Of course, Heldentenors are very hard to find, as demonstrated by the Met’s unfortunate choice to sing Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris, who was reduced to screaming his role rather than singing it.  He had his quieter moments, and indeed might possibly have a nice voice in an appropriate role, but this role was far more than he could handle.  Vienna’s Siegfried, Stephen Gould, sounded dry-voiced and not quite fresh enough to sing this particular role, although he might have managed Siegmund (of the Wagnerian roles, I might peg his voice as best-suited for Tannhäuser).

The most impressive singer in either cycle was Hans-Peter König at the Met, who performed not only Fafner in Rheingold and Siegfried, but also Hunding in Walküre and Hagen in Götterdämmerung.  This was not a one-size-fits-all feat, but rather different portrayals to fit different roles.  (Contrast with Konieczny, for example, whose Gunther sounded exactly like his Wotan, and whose voice would have been temperamentally better for Alberich.)

It is actually worth underscoring König’s performance as Hagen especially.  If Götterdämmerung is my favorite opera, then Hagen is easily my favorite character in all of opera.  It is a strange role – Hagen actually has very few lines compared to his stage presence, but every one of those lines pushes the plot forward and the entire opera (possibly even the entire cycle) is dependent on this character.  Hagen is, of course, the son of Alberich, who wants a son to help him get the Ring back.  But it is often overlooked that in Act 2 of Die Walküre, Wotan anoints Alberich’s then not-yet-born son as his successor (pointedly NOT anointing his own offspring) for the purposes of bringing about the end of the world.  In the myths Wagner read and upon which he based his plot, Hagen was also sometimes portrayed as one-eyed, with the clear allusion to the one-eyed Wotan.  And as Wotan rules the world with his spear, defender of treaties, which is shattered by Siegfried in Act 3 of Siegfried, Hagen’s spear becomes the critical weapon of honor in Götterdämmerung.  While ultimately Hagen fails to win the Ring back for Alberich, he does succeed in setting in motion the final conspiracy that destroys the world (carried out, of course, by Wotan’s estranged daughter, Brünnhilde).

In this absolutely critical role, König dominated.  Vienna’s Hagen, Falk Struckmann, though a fine singer, simply did not rise to the role.  His Hagen was a tired old man – but Hagen is only a few months older than Siegfried (Kriemhild is pregnant with Hagen before the plot of Walküre begins – when Siegfried is conceived during the intermission between Acts 1 and 2), and probably (although not entirely clear) the younger brother of Gunther and Gutrune.  Assuming Siegfried is still a teenager during the opera Siegfried, and perhaps ten years or so pass during the first Act of Götterdämmerung before Siegfried arrives in Worms (the plot does not say explicitly how much time passes, but there are a number of clues in the text), this would make Siegfried and Hagen around 30 years old.  Hagen admits he is grey before his years thanks to being the son of the dwarf Alberich, but this does not need to mean he is an old man (Alberich himself is ageless and remains active, and wanted a half-human son to be his own vibrant hero to counter Wotan’s half-human race of descendants).

And if Struckmann did not have the voice or stage presence for Hagen, his task was made more difficult by the staging itself.  Last week I already mentioned the utterly useless production by the clueless German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, and watching the last two operas in the cycle did not let me see any concept grow even taking the entire four-opera set into account.  If it was not offensive (which is already an improvement on the garbage self-important German poseur opera directors normally churn out), it added nothing.  Indeed, a minimalist staging would have been better to allow the singers to act, but this was not minimalist just a mix of I-am-not-sure-what (some mock-realism, some abstraction, some stuff seemingly unrelated to anything else).  Some of it was just plain silly (for example, Wotan left the stage in Act 1 of Siegfried having forgotten his spear, so he returns to fetch it, hitting himself on the head to demonstrate his forgetfulness… and then Siegfried does exactly the same thing with his sword later in the opera).  It really is not worth going into the weeds to analyze Bechtolf’s staging, as that would be giving him too much credit for intelligent thought.  So I dealt with it.  But really: why?  Why give this idiot a contract?  Why give any German stage directors contracts?  What the hell have German stage directors been smoking these last several decades that has made them incapable of providing any sensible opera productions?  (OK, I admit there are a small handful of exceptions to prove the rule, but Germany has become a operatic wasteland, ruined by its Regisseurs.)

My verdict on the Met’s staging is still out.  I actually do not know who the director was (I could not find a credit on their website).  But the concept was that the stage for the duration of all four operas was actually a huge mechanical contraption consisting of a series of long planks.  These planks adjusted their angles individually or together, to form everything from the Rhein River to various buildings to landscapes, assisted by projections – sometimes realistic film and sometimes abstract lighting.  The characters moved in and out of the contraption.  The use of projections meant that some things often omitted could easily be included (Wotan’s ravens, for example) but this was not done consistently.  Without having to do an elaborate set (although I imagine the contraption on stage was actually elaborate) it could still be traditional if it wanted to be, and minimalist if it preferred that approach (or somehow both at once).  Many of the singers could act (although the contraption was often at steep angles and they looked distinctly uncomfortable moving about on it).  Was I convinced?  No, but watching it on a laptop may not be ideal for this concept – maybe I would need to be in the audience at the Met to appreciate the entirety.

From an overall musical perspective, the Staatsoper exceeded the Met – no surprise there (although, in Götterdämmerung, Siegfried’s entries were accompanied by consistently disastrous horn playing – and not because they got Gould to play his own horn, so someone in the orchestra must have gotten fired).  James Levine conducted the first two operas in the Met’s cycle – a once dynamic opera conductor, he was already in poor health by the time these performances were recorded in 2010-11 and so he simply could not keep the orchestra charged.  Fabio Luisi took over for Levine during Levine’s illness, and so had Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – Luisi can always be counted on for perfectly adequate performances (and I also find that any orchestra he is music director of improves its quality during his tenure, so he must be a good rehearsal conductor – the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, our city’s second great orchestra, sounded at its best at the end of his tenure and may have moved to among the top ten in the world at that time), but Luisi rarely comes up with anything special.  In contrast, Adam Fischer led the Staatsoper for Rheingold, Simon Rattle for Walküre, and Axel Kober for the final two operas, and all of them coaxed exciting color from the pit.  It is only a shame that the musicians in Vienna’s pit driving the Ring forward could not overcome Bechtolf’s complete lack of talent or purpose in his staging.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has ever exceeded John Culshaw’s brilliant ahead-of-his-time audio engineering for the classic London Decca Ring cycle.  But whereas the Rheingold lacks something particularly due to a sub-standard performance by George London as Wotan, and the Walküre in that set is poorly-cast, with an over-the-hill Hans Hotter falling short as Wotan at the end of his illustrious career – Culshaw recorded Walküre last, several years after the other operas – being one of several vocal inadequacies, especially Siegmund and Sieglinda in James King and Régine Crespin, neither of whom had anything near the voice for those roles).  But Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in that set have never been surpassed.  And if I said above that the key to any Ring is Hagen, well Culshaw cast Gottlob Frick, whom Wilhelm Furwängler once described as “the blackest bass” in all of Germany.  Possibly no one has ever been better suited for that role, and his Hagen dominates the entire recording (and may indeed be the reason I became such a fan of Götterdämmerung and the character Hagen in the first place).  But Hotter was in full voice for Wotan in Siegfried, Birgit Nilsson was at the top of her career as Brünnhilde, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was an inspired choice to portray the complexities of Gunther, Wolfgang Windgassen may not have been Culshaw’s first choice Siegfried but what we would not give to have a Heldentenor of his caliber today, Gustav Neidlinger and Gerhard Stolze provided idiomatic character portrayals of Alberich and Mime… and then there was the Vienna Philharmonic with Georg Solti, of course.]

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Metropolitan Opera)

Before writing this blog post up, I concluded the week’s offerings with Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg in a classic staging by Otto Schenk (that name again).  Schenk really is one of the best stage directors to work in the opera world.  It’s not just that the staging is sensible, but there is an attention to details, blocking, nuance, meaning… in short, a delight to watch.  And although I have seen the production before (with several casts, including in person – it was my father’s favorite, after all!) it has held up and remains a treat. Michael Volle portrayed a humorful Hans Sachs, someone who could enjoy life and all of its eccentricities, while still providing substance (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy after all – a Wagnerian comedy, but a comedy nonetheless).  Sachs is of course the hero of this opera – it is a love story, but Sachs is the odd man out, the old bachelor who has an interest in Eva but has moved beyond that, and the internal conflicts of Sachs are apparent in Schenk’s intelligent concept.  At the end of this staging, Schenk has Eva crown Sachs with the victor’s laurel wreath.

But if I had not already mentioned Hans-Peter König in connection with the Met’s Ring above, I would focus on him now: the role of Veit Pogner is obviously quite different from Fafner, Hunding, or Hagen.  But as he successfully differentiated among those roles in the Ring, so did König’s performance here as Pogner display yet another personality.

  • [Recording tips: Although many people did not realize it (many assumed it was Rheingold), Meistersinger was my father’s favorite opera (he also admired the real life Hans Sachs as a freethinker ahead of his time).  He had several recordings, but there was one he kept returning to, which I might agree may still be the best, although it is a surprising choice.  Herbert von Karajan’s operatic interpretations were cerebral but usually underwhelming.  Yet he recorded a version of this opera in 1971 with the Dresden Semperoper (and therefore the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra), with Theo Adam as Sachs.  Adam has a higher-register baritone voice, so may not be the deeper Sachs most people are accustomed to, but he was a very lyrical baritone who could carry Wagnerian roles, so providing an excellent understanding.  The rest of the cast is also up to the same level – one of Karajan’s strengths, if not commanding performances, was his ability to identify vocal talent and match it to the right roles, even unexpectedly.]

Berlin Philharmonic: Bruckner

On the concert front, I have started to take advantage of the Berlin Philharmonic’s archive that they have opened up for 30 days (to anyone who registers – for free – by 31 March, so unless that is extended I suggest people sign up now!).  Of the several concerts from Berlin I selected this week (and I will certainly listen to more in the coming weeks), I will make two recommendations in particular, both under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt.

The different available versions of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies each have a story rooted in Bruckner’s personal insecurity and well-meaning friends who sometimes never fully comprehended his music and gave him bad advice, which he usually took. So sometimes his revisions are good things, representing him refining his music; but other times they reflect his insecurities and he deconstructed what he had built and not in a good way.  So it is inconsistent which version to use of any of his symphonies, but there is a general reason that convention has settled on one particular edition of any symphony as preferred and most reflective of Bruckner’s thoughts and talents.  For Bruckner’s Third Symphony, this is usually his third version.  Blomstedt here prefers Bruckner’s original version, a much more rambling work with extra passages quoting from various Wagner operas that he edited out later.  And in this performance, Blomstedt manages to make a convincing case for this version – if not as a substitute for the third version commonly performed, then at least as an additional part of the performing repertory (and not just as a curiosity either, but having rightful place in the repertory).  Fundamentally, Blomstedt remains an architect of music, and takes great care to construct Bruckner’s soaring edifice.

  • [Recording tips: I own one recording of this original version, also convincing under the baton of Bruckner-specialist Georg Tintner.  But the Berlin Philharmonic far surpasses the orchestra Tintner had available (the Royal Scottish National Orchestra acquits itself well enough in the recording, but Berlin is among the top ten orchestras in the world and is just that much better).  As I do not believe the Blomstedt / Berlin performance is commercially available, then I recommend interested listeners to seek out the Tintner / RSNO recording.  (My go-to recording of the symphony in its normal performing version is with the Concertgebouworkest and Mariss Jansons, recorded live in Amsterdam a few days before I heard these forces repeat the concert in Vienna.)]

Berlin Philharmonic: Berwald, Dvořák

The other concert from Berlin that especially appealed to me this week of the ones I listened to, featured Blomstedt conducting Franz Berwald’s Symphony #3 and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony #7.  Berwald is an unjustly-neglected Swedish composer, and this symphony written 1845 was not performed for 60 years after he wrote it.  It is full of complex mood swings, which it accomplishes without losing its train of thought or musical lines.  Dvořák’s symphony, written on commission for the London Philharmonic in 1865, is in many ways similar, and represented the Czech composer’s first huge international popular success.

  • [Recording tips: For those who would like an introduction to Berwald, there is an excellent complete cycle of Berwald’s symphonies and other orchestral works released as a set by Sixten Ehrling and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.  For commercial versions of the Dvořák seventh, I’m partial to one with Wolgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra (maybe more driven that Blomstedt’s interpretion with Berlin, whereas Blomstedt focuses on the intricate building blocks themselves, as is his wont).]

Salzburger Landestheater

Donizetti, Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali

The Salzburger Landestheater was presenting something they called “Viva la Diva” by Donizetti.  Since Donizetti never wrote an opera by that name, and the name itself looked suspect, I assumed it was a pastiche or a mishmash of Donizetti works, a sort-of dumbing-down of the opera.  So I did not plan on going.  Then I found it is actually was a rebranding of Donizetti’s Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali, which is a real, if seldom-performed, opera.  So I went, and am now glad I did.

The Landestheater’s concept behind this production is essentially this: Donizetti himself changed his operas depending on various surrounding circumstances, leading to differences in performances.  This particular opera – based on two farces combined – itself had multiple versions by the composer, and the farcical nature of the plot meant that it was particularly suitable to story fluctuations to work in more topical jokes appropriate for the time and location of the performance.  So there is no “definitive” version to begin with, just an underlying plot with a changeable frame.

The underlying plot has to do with theater conventions in Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries, and stereotypes that grew out of them (for example, with divas behaving badly, unscrupulous managers, parents over-pushing their children, and differences in nationalities leading to other conventions and confusions).  These all lead to further problems (the “inconvenienze”).  Many of these stereotypes still remain, so the underlying plot works.  The Landestheater simply updated the frame (and the name – I am not sure why they needed to give it a new name – perhaps catchier than the original but still).

This approach worked because they also did not try to do too much with it.  They kept the frame simple and let the underlying original fend for itself, with Donizetti’s appropriately fun music (performed with verve by the Mozarteum Orchestra under Adrian Kelly).  In this sense it did not get too crazy, even as they clearly updated characters to give them new identities while keeping the personalities.

The cast worked well – not only individually (quite a strong cast for this little theater, actually) but also interacting as a whole.  This despite an apparent late substitution of the prima donna – Ulpiana Aliaj from Tirana was the understudy (this must be quite a role to be an understudy for, as the opera is so rarely performed it would not be in many people’s repertory, particularly in a German-language translation, not to mention German-language dialogues that were part of the frame and not the original; Aliaj did just fine!).  The rest of the cast members either come from the Landestheater’s ensemble (as was the original prima donna whom Aliaj replaced) or are regular guests, so this would suggest they should have made a nice ensemble, but they did not disappoint.  George Humphreys as Agatha (a baritone role in drag – as it indeed was in the original Donizetti opera) had a huge stage presence (indeed, he is generally a rather tall human being) and hammed up his role to be the audience favorite.  Hazel McBain, Raimundas Juzuitas, Zsófia Mózer, Gustavo Quaresma, and Franz Supper all contributed in other leading roles, each displaying full voices and rounded acting.

So while I suppose there is a reason this opera never gets performed (frankly, there are better period farces and Donizetti has also written more inspired music), it did provide an evening of great fun. I do find it nice that the Landestheater dusts off some of these forgotten operas.

Staatsoper

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

To get to the Staatsoper tonight required crossing a line of riot police manning barricades.  Apparently this was not a good night to venture into the center of Vienna – the neo-Nazi “Akademiker Ball” was going on down the street, attracting thugs from all over Europe (and not just Hitler Youth, but equally-thuggish counter-demonstrators also looking for trouble).  The police locked down the entire section of Vienna from Schwarzenbergplatz to Heldenplatz, and we had to talk our way in (funneled through a passageway inside a building rather than being allowed to enter the closed-off area from the street – underground passages from the subway were also sealed off).

Probably better, then, that the Hitler Youth did not know that tonight’s lead tenor was black and the lead soprano was Israeli, or maybe they would not have left the opera house alone.

The Staatsoper presented a charmingly no-frills Otto Schenk-directed production of Donizetti’L’Elisir d’Amore that will never get old.  The staging, first produced in 1980, contained no gimmicks: it had just a single honest set and enough details to allow the characters to play up the comedy.  And this they did.

As Nemorino, Lawrence Brownlee provided an intelligent characterization of the dim-witted peasant, who is not so quick at understanding what is going on around him but ends up doing just fine for himself.  Brownlee’s beautiful voice also perfectly matched the role, more reminiscent of Tito Schipa than some of the bigger voices who often sing the part these days.  Still, his instrument was big enough to fill the hall – a little sotto voce in the first act to save up for the big arie in the second, but always audible and with perfect Italian diction.

The portrayal of Adina by Chen Reiss was frigid towards poor Nemorino, warming in the end.  There may have been a lack of chemistry between the two lead singers, although both were excellent in their own parts.  I do not know how often they may have performed together before, and this may have impacted their acting relationship.  Either that, or Reiss wanted to portray Adina as particularly cold (although it did not seem this way, since she did make the character somewhat flirtatious).

Alfred Šramek as Dulcamara and Mario Cassi as Belcore provided a humorous supporting cast.  Guillermo García Calvo kept the orchestra light and on cue.  From my seat, I could see that he had taken his mother’s name (Calvo, meaning “bald”) rather literally for someone in his mid-30s.

Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra, Khachaturian Hall (Yerevan)

Rachmaninov, Chopin, Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, Puccini, Cilea, Sorozábal, Giménez, Khachaturian

The Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra under music director Vladimir Spivakov dropped into the Khachaturian Hall this evening, as part of its tenth anniversary season celebrations.  This orchestra was created essentially as the house orchestra of Moscow’s International House of Music, that bizarre Escher-esque building with the awful acoustics where I attended one concert (not this orchestra) and never went back again.  So, since I completely managed to miss hearing this orchestra (not to be confused with orchestras having similar names) during my time in Moscow, I finally got to hear them now in a different hall.

Incidentally, it seems that in Moscow they no longer perform exclusively in the International House of Music, but schedule a significant minority of their concerts in the Moscow Conservatory Great Hall, with its top-notch acoustics.  I suppose they too regret their link with their home venue.

According to the orchestra’s website, they were supposed to do two concerts in Yerevan, followed by one in Gyumri (Armenia’s second-largest city).  The posted programs for Yerevan were an exclusively-Rachmaninov concert and an opera gala.  In the end, they combined the concerts into a single one in each venue (abridging the Rachmaninov to a single work).  This produced a bi-polar evening.

Before the intermission, the young Ukrainian pianist Aleksandr Romanovsky joined the orchestra for the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto.  While dexterously maneauvering through Rachmaninov’s score, he also tried his best to get a sweet sound out of the Khachaturian Hall’s sour Steinway.  In this, the orchestra assisted him with some exceptionally warm playing, particularly from the woodwinds.  Afterwards, Romanovsky treated us to a moving encore rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne opus 20.

After a long intermission, the orchestra returned for a full 90-minutes-worth of opera excerpts (from operas by Bizet, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Saint-SaënsPuccini, and Cilea, and from zarzuelas by Pablo Sorozábal and Gerónimo Giménez), joined by mezzo Juliette Galstian and soprano Hasmik Papian (both Armenian stars), and by baritone Vasily Ladyuk (a dynamic Russian).  The second portion of the concert had a spontaneous feel, in part because they did not keep to the printed program but added or subtracted arias or orchestral pieces independently of what was on the page.  Clearly they were having fun.  All three of the soloists demonstrated a sense of drama – or at least as much drama as they could muster with the arias taken out of context (and considering that the solo parts were all individual arias, so the program never allowed the three singers to interact with each other, which was unfortunate).  The orchestra, too, gave spirited accompaniment for the soloists, while also demonstrated its own spirit for the Carmen overture and intermezzi from Manon Lescaut and La Tabernera del Puerto, culminating in – as an encore – the Lezghinka from Khachaturian’s ballet Gayaneh.

Although the playing was quite beautiful, the second half of the concert had the feel of a long set of encores, one after another, never really going anywhere.  By the time of the real encore, the orchestra’s playing had simply lost much of its spontaneity.  Yes, they played all the notes well, but no they were no longer showcasing themselves despite the boisterous music.  For a brief visit on tour, Spivakov and his orchestra should have selected their program more wisely.

National Opera of Albania

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

The National Opera of Albania hit the stage of the Palace of Culture of Tirana this evening with Donizetti’L’Elisir d’Amore.  Almost everything screamed “high school” theater about this production.  The auditorium is the same one used for orchestra concerts, and even with the stage retracted partly to open an orchestra pit, the space is just not that large and the acoustics are not so great.  But sitting directly in front, I could hear (friends sitting a few rows back said they could not hear).

More importantly, I could see (well, I did have to shield my eyes from some of the stage lights pointing at wrong angles): this cast had fun.  What they lacked in talent they more than made up for in enthusiasm, and that counts for a lot to make a performance enjoyable.  I did not expect much, so just having a fun night at the opera hit the spot.

The Adina, Eriola Gjyzeli Dragoicea, was actually rather good.  Vladimir Sazdovsky as Dulcamara had a lively, if not large, baritone voice and Elson Braha as Nemorino had a very pleasant tenor voice as long as he did not try to project it (every time he tried to project, his voice cracked, but when singing softly he sounded very nice indeed).  Everyone else on stage clearly had a good time, and the stage director allowed them to do so.  I think he went to the market to buy the props, and told the cast to just bring odd clothes from their own closets to use as costumes, so there was no logic to the staging other than giving the singers the chance to ham it up, which they did.

The orchestra, under Eddi de Nadai, provided a useful accompaniment when playing underneath the singers, although the exposed orchestral parts were less pleasant.

A colleague from work brought her not-quite-five-year-old daughter, who also had fun.  So it was clearly contagious.

Novaya Opera

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

Donizetti’l’Elisir d’Amore is in the repertory of two different Moscow houses at the moment.  I do not believe I have seen it live in person since I saw it at the Lowell House Opera thirty years ago, so I figured I would pick one.  According to the newspaper, the version at the Stanislavsky was being performed in a confused mix of Russian and Italian, so I opted instead for the Novaya Opera, which stuck with a single language (Italian).

If I thought this might allow me to avoid confusion, I was wrong.  The director, Yury Alexandrov, was not German, nor did his bio in the program indicate that he trained in Germany, but must have studied enough German Regietheater, since he decided not to stage the opera but rather to demonstrate that, since he was the boss, the cast had to do whatever he told them to do on stage.  The only Regietheater convention he left out was the homoerotic scene, but everything else was there up to and including the Chassidic Jew, who appeared in two scenes to inspect the stage, generally look disgusted, and to taste the (hopefully kosher) food at the banquet.

The opera opened and closed at what appeared to be a Renaissance costume party gone haywire.  Nemorino seems to have been a tourist guide dressed in a track suit, leading a group of Japanese tourists, including an old lady in a wheelchair, all of whom annoyingly kept taking flash photos (which can be blinding in a dark theater).  Once Dulcamara appeared, and until almost the very end of the opera, most of the cast turned into stereotypical Russians – the men were the sort of drunken slobs I see all over the sidewalks in Moscow, and the women were all dressed like the lowest class of prostitutes (not all Russian women are whores, they just seem to think it is appropriate to dress that way in public).  Dulcamara dressed like a Russian oligarch – indeed, until his first cue, he was seated (in costume) in the middle of the audience, and I do not think anyone noticed him looking out of place there.  Although he sang the role, he left the dispensing of quack potions up to some other mute character in a red bowtie and glasses.

Meanwhile, a lot of extraneous action was going on on stage, which had nothing to do with anything but was very distracting.  Aside from the aforementioned Chassid, the old Japanese woman who opened and closed the opera in the wheelchair pranced around all over the stage (not in her wheelchair), doing everything from reading pornography to trying to eat leftovers using her hairpieces as chopsticks.  One man stood in the window of a house overlooking the square and watched all of the action through a telescope.  A little kid practiced violin in an open window.  Everyone else scurried about, drawing attention away from the people trying to sing.  As if to claim the spotlight back, the main members of the cast started contorting their bodies to move around the stage unnaturally.

All of this was a great shame, because musically it was a fine performance.  Dmitry Volosnikov, in the pit, kept the music light, spritely, and fun – as Donizetti meant it – and the orchestra responded.  The cast sounded great, particularly Tatyana Pechnikova as Adina and Oleg Shagotsky as Dulcamara.  Only the Nemorino, Georgy Faradzhev, did not meet the standard set by everyone else – his tenor was thin, dry, and not overly pleasant.  However, the staging was such a distraction that I left this performance feeling unsatisfied.

The director Alexandrov should be deported to East Berlin, or else at least to somewhere that still has a big wall around it.