Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

Daily life is now returning to normal in Austria, although certain restrictions remain on gatherings and travel.  Live music has resumed, but the halls are not yet allowed to be fully filled (indeed, they are barely filled), so I have not yet gotten in myself.  In the meantime, I still look around for worthwhile streamings being made available in the context of this crisis, but have reduced my frequency as life moves back along.  I look forward to getting live music myself later this Summer at the Festival.

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (Dutch National Opera)

Rimsky-Korsakov’s mystical masterpiece The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh somehow never managed to enter into the repertory – perhaps too Wagnerian for the Russians, and too Russian for the west.  It is an opera I am aware of, but have not listened for many years to my only complete recording (a live performance from the Mariinsky in 1994 – confusingly stating “Kirov Opera” on the box even though it was published in 1999 and the Mariinsky’s Imperial-era name was restored from the Soviet-era “Kirov” in 1992).  But the Dutch National Opera provided a stream of a 2012 performance, which gave me a chance to see it.  Marc Albrecht led the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.  Standing out from the cast, Svetlana Ignatovich sang Fevroniya and Maksim Aksyënov sang Vsevelod.

I think I need to go back and listen to my recording from the Mariinsky.  I won’t waste much time on the staging, by Dmitri Tcherniakov, the same person who so badly botched Prince Igor  at the Met that I had watched in May.  This opened well enough – in the wilderness, with the animals surrounding Fevroniya in human form but not altogether departing from the mystical atmosphere.  But then came the modern updating, and as it got deeper into the opera this modernization became harder and harder to sustain.  It’s not that he really deviated from the plot, but singing about a legendary time and set of events but setting the whole thing in a contemporary-ish context created its own discrepancies, and trying to act it out created more (not to mention little intentional nonsensical details like dressing a couple of the Tatars up as Santa Claus).  And while Tcherniakov’s concept recovered a little in the minimalist final act, it came too late.  His modern inclinations, without consistency, increasingly undermined the mysticism that was the entire point of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera.

Prokofiev: War and Peace (Stanislavsky Opera)

Another seldom-performed Russian opera, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, popped up from the Stanislavsky Opera.  When I lived in Moscow, I found the Stanislavsky a reliable venue for my opera addiction.  Most of the Stanislavsky’s productions tend towards the under-stated, which usually works just fine.  In this case, not unusually for the Stanislavsky, its director Aleksander Titel provided realistic costumes but abstract staging.  I suppose this worked, and it certainly gave the cast a chance to act (kudos to Natalia Petrozhitskaya as Natasha, Nikolay Yerokhin as Pierre, and Dmitry Zuyev as Andrey in this 2013 performance conducted by the Stanislavsky’s music director Felix Korobov).

In the end, though, the opera itself did not convince me.  Not having read the underlying Tolstoy novel, I cannot say to what degree Prokofiev had simplified the plot, but on its own I came away feeling like his adaptation did not work.  The gaps were too great to make a coherent opera – indeed, he might even have simplified more and just focused more narrowly so as not to try to spread so thin, or he might have extended the length in order to include more context and development.  Or he could have taken a Tschaikowsky-style approach and made it into a psychodrama, concentrating on the mental state of the characters and forgoing much plot at all.  Musically, too, Prokofiev’s idiom, so good in so many other symphonic works from symphonies to concerti to ballets to film scores, lacked drama, plodding along through the first act and disjointed through the second.  Given that he had borrowed some of this music from earlier works, where it did fit better, I wondered if this was just laziness and failure to commit to thinking this work through originally.  So I will not chalk this opera up as one of Prokofiev’s better efforts.

Strauss: Salome (Metropolitan Opera)

When I saw that the director, Jürgen Flimm, was German and looked him up to discover he was a pioneer of Regietheater, I assumed I was just going to listen to and not watch this performance.  But I quickly realized that, wonder of wonders, he actually decided to stage the plot.  The setting itself was odd and inconsistent but not inherently bad – it was a mix of styles from the turn of the 20th century, so Middle Eastern colonial uniforms for the guards, European high society for the royal family and their guests, Haredi for the Jews (that hasn’t changed), southern US black Sunday best for the Nazarenes, and John the Baptist in rags.  The stage was split between an indoor part (looked like it could have been on a luxury liner) and an outdoor part (stylized Middle Eastern desert).  The usual problem with updated the timeframe of an opera is that some of the references do not make sense, which requires either further changes to the plot to accommodate or else weird juxtapositions (like people carrying swords and spears in a contemporary context) – but with care a director can make Salome timeless yet consistent.  I am not sure any of this particular early-20th-century framing made any sense, but it could safely be ignored because Flimm indeed focused on the interactions among the characters, which were slightly more hands-on than usual, and generally consistent with the words being sung (or at least within the realm of reasonable interpretation to elucidate the plot).  The physical approach amplified and clarified the psychological.  And that level of attention made this a highly enjoyable production.

Unfortunately, the cast was less good.  They all pretty much acted their roles well, so again visually this all worked, but if I had only listened to this performance I would have come away disappointed.  Karita Mattila gave a very large-voiced reading of Salome, but she also often avoided coming in on pitch, and seems not to have understood that the role – although requiring enormous vocal stamina and range – is of a 16-year-old girl, and she did not capture that element of delicacy (it’s enormously hard to sing a huge role delicately, but that is what is required).  Juho Uusitalo (it must have been Finnish night) sang John the Baptist poorly.  His voice simply did not resonate (nor was he on pitch, so some of his exchanges with Mattila became painful).  Joseph Kaiser as Narraboth also could not sing to save his life (Narraboth commits suicide, so he did not save his life, but it’s a key role early in the opera and matching him up with Mattila and Uusitalo early just made me wonder what was going on there musically).  Actually, Mattila’s pitch improved after Narraboth committed suicide and the Baptist returned to his cistern – although her tone still remained wrong.  Yet all of them could act.  And when Herod (Kim Begley) and Herodias (Ilikó Komlósi) came out, they had their roles down well vocally.  The minor roles were all uneven.  Conductor Patrick Summers tried to put this all together from the pit for this 2008 performance, and he mostly succeeded even if hampered by a strange-sounding cast.

Concertgebouworkest: Beethoven

The Concertgebouw Orchestra has posted a row of Beethoven Symphonies – #4  through #8 – recorded in 2013-2014 under the baton of Iván Fischer.  These performances are fully charged, climaxing in the 7th.  But I might instead focus on the last in the series.  Fischer brought out an unusual degree of tension in the 8th, making this symphony appear much bigger than normal (if not in actual size then certainly in its stage presence).  This lighter foil to the 7th is in Fischer’s interpretation almost its equal in impact, and in fact it was terrific to hear this interpretation immediately after listening to the 7th.  If not quite as wild a dance as the 7th, it is still a dance.  Fischer and the Concertgebouw made a strong case for this underperformed symphony to appear more often on concert programs (indeed, there are those of us who do admire Beethoven’s eighth, but even for us this interpretation expanded its potential).

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 11)

Highlights

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

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (Staatsoper)

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

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

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

Mozart: Don Giovanni (Staatsoper)

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

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

Strauss: Salome (Staatsoper)

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

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

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Staatsoper)

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

Berlioz: Damnation of Faust (Metropolitan Opera)

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

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

Berlioz: The Trojans (Metropolitan Opera)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schostakowitsch: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Dutch National Opera)

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

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

Schostakowitsch: Cheryomushki (Mariinsky Theater)

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

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

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 5)

Highlights

The cultural news hit on Friday that while musicians may begin to rehearse together in the coming days, and museums will reopen in July, large cultural events such as concerts will not resume until September.  The Salzburg Festival indicated it is in discussion with the government to see what might go ahead in a reduced form, but right now nothing fits the roadmap.  This was not unexpected – not just from the standpoint of the gradual reopening of Austrian society, but also from the fact that the roadmap for reopening still does not include any plan to reopen our international borders at any time in the foreseeable future.  Austria shut down the corona virus, but we may have been too successful and have developed no herd immunity, meaning that as soon as the borders open, more people will die.  So here we sit watching music streamed online.

Strauss: Rosenkavalier (Staatsoper)

Otto Schenk is one of the best opera directors of all time, and his staging of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier for the Staatsoper (originally in 1968) may be his best production.  I saw this wonderful production live in 2010.  Schenk pays so much attention to detail without being busy, and this production is just a delight to see over and over to catch new things.  The Staatsoper streamed it this week with two different casts, and frankly it was worth seeing both even if only to take in Schenk’s brilliance.  For the first streaming, the Staatsoper went deeper into their archives than they generally have been doing for these free lockdown streamings: a 1994 performance under the elegant Carlos Kleiber, with a fine cast including Felicity Lott as the Marschallin, Kurt Moll as Ochs, Anne Sofie von Otter as Octavian, and Barbara Bonney as Sophie.

The second take of this, from a 2017 performance, was not nearly at the same level.  It was worth watching for the staging, but Krassimira Stoyanova was a far less glamorous Marschallin than Lott, Peter Rose could not remotely master Ochs’ Viennese dialect (actually not even close), and Stephanie Houtzeel, though playful as Octavian, did not quite have the chemistry (at least not with the other cast members) that von Otter showed.  When I saw Houtzeel in this role in the same production in 2010, she carried it out better, but it may have been that a more convincing cast surrounded her then too (mostly from the Staatsoper’s own ensemble or regular guests, rather than tourists like Stoyanova and Rose).  Especially with this Schenk production, which relies on the details, that chemistry among the cast becomes even more important.  Ádám Fischer, if not quite as enigmatic a figure as Kleiber, is possibly as cerebral and knew how to shape the music from the pit.

  • [Recording tip: I think everyone has a different favorite recording of Rosenkavalier.  I’ll put mine forward.  In March 1945, an American bomb destroyed the Staatsoper.  When the reconstructed building reopened in November 1955, it put on a whole row of legendary new productions.  Its new Rosenkavalier (in the staging that Schenk’s ultimately replaced in 1968) debuted with an all-star cast under the baton of Hans Knappertsbusch.  This was a production in which Ochs dominated (Strauss and Hofmannsthal had originally intended to call the opera “Ochs von Lerchenau”), even if there are other interpretations such as Schenk’s in which the Marschallin pulls all the strings.  In purposefully selecting Kurt Böhme, Knappertsbusch got the Ochs he needed.  Maria Reining (the Marschallin), Sena Jurinac (Octavian), and Hilde Güden (Sophie) produced some luxurious music together.  I do listen to other recordings, but I always return to this one.]

Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri (Staatsoper)

I saw this Staatsoper production of Rossini’s Italian in Algiers in person in 2017, but the performance streamed here from 2015 was a much better cast.  I remember the staging, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, to have been simple but tasteful, however when I saw it live I wondered then if Ponnelle had even understood the opera at all since he made it so static.  This 2015 cast more than made up for Ponnelle’s deficiency – they had so much fun on the stage it was hard not to have fun watching them.  Ildar Abrazakov (Mustafà), Aida Garifullina (Elvira), Rachel Frenkel (Zulma), and Alessio Arduini (Haly) stood out in particular with their strong voices and characterizations, but Edgardo Rocha (Lindoro), Anna Bonitatibus (Isabella), and Paolo Rumetz (Taddeo) also joined in the farce.  Jesús López-Cobos conducted and the orchestra, as when I heard this in 2017, absolutely nailed Rossini’s idiom.  If this music does not already emerge dancing out of the pit, then even a good cast cannot make it.  What fun!

  • [Recording tip: I first got to appreciate this opera through a recording that remains my most-listened-to recording of a Rossini opera: a charming and lively version by conductor Claudio Scimone and his orchestra, I Solisti Veneti, with a cast headed by Samuel Ramey s Mustafà and Kathleen Battle as Elvira, and with luxuries such as Nicola Zaccaria as Haly and Marilyn Horne as Isabella.]

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper)

If the Staatsoper provided me the two highlights of the week with Rosenkavalier and Italiana in Algeri, it also provided me the biggest lowlight of the week.  I am sorry I thought I wanted to see Wagner’s Parsifal again in a new production (after three Parsifals last week).  The Staatsoper seems to have replaced the miserable staging by Christine Mielitz (which I saw live in 2006 and a different performance streamed last week) with yet another miserable staging, this time by Alvis Hermanis.  Hermanis is Latvian, not German, and although his CV includes productions staged in Germany, I did not expect he would be just as bad as a German opera director (seriously, who is as bad as the Germans at staging operas – such a common theme on this blog, but I feel I do have to keep pilloring them until they literally find the plot).  But he was (I should have googled him before making this decision: when I looked him up I realized he was responsible for a staging of Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival a few years ago, right after I moved to Salzburg, reset nonsensically in an art museum and which I remember was panned as vapid).  The staging here was set in the Otto Wagner Hospital (or an interpretation thereof), a psychiatric clinic designed by, and later named after, the famous Viennese Sezession architect in 1907.  Most of the knights (and Kundry, kept in a special caged bed) were patients, with Gurnemanz being the chief doctor.  (Act 2 was in an operating room, with Klingsor as a brain surgeon.)  Why?  I tried to watch a bit to figure out why, but even in the midst of an indefinite lockdown I have better things to do with my time.

Doing other things was also less distracting that watching this stupidity.  So I did get to appreciate René Pape’s luxurious Gurnemanz.  The rest of the cast seemed a bit off – probably not a bad cast under normal circumstances (although the shrill and almost nasal Parsifal lacked much of a voice, it sounded like it had aged badly even though the singer is not yet 50), but truly uninspired singing across the board.  I won’t list the cast because it’s not fair: it must be extremely difficult to sing seriously while traipsing around this travesty of a stage.  Valery Gergiev did not have that problem in the pit, but really what could he do?

Lortzing: Undine (Staatsoper)

Kudos for the Staatsoper for the last opera I watched this week.  I had never seen Albert Lortzing’s Undine before (and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it performed either other than excerpts).  I still haven’t, but that’s not a bad thing.  The opera was listed as being streamed and I tuned in to discover it was actually an abridged version for children.  The opera was shortened to fit within one hour, and although the main roles were sung by members of the Staatsoper’s Ensemble, the supporting roles, chorus, and dancers all came from the Staatsoper’s children’s academy.  I am not quite clear where this was performed – a small theater space, presumably in the bowels of the Staatsoper.  But it made me discover that the Staatsoper does offer an entire array of abridged operas performed this way in front of an audience of children.

One thing I have to say in Austria is that opera is not just for old people, and audiences are full of people of all ages, but to ensure the future requires making the art form accessible to the youngest generation.  This does not have to come in the form in which my father exposed me, through his constant listening to operas, setting me in front of the television every time an opera was broadcast (whatever the opera), and frequent one-on-one lectures from him to me about Wagner’s Ring when I was still a toddler.  He took me to my first live opera, Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor at the Volksoper, when I was five years old, and that hooked me for good.  So I give the Staatsoper full points for this little presentation.  Not only do they do these “Operas for Children,” but they are including them in their corona lockdown streamings.

Dvořák: Rusalka (Metropolitan Opera)

Although a fairy tale, Dvořák’s Rusalka is a heavy one.  While it is dark, the music has its shimmers of light.  For this 2014 performance from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a lush orchestral color.  Renée Fleming headed an excellent cast with Piotr Beczala as the Prince, John Relyea as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick as the Witch Ježibaba.

  • [Recording tips: Fleming has owned the role of Rusalka for years.  She recorded it in 1998 with Charles Mackerras conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with Ben Heppner as the Prince, Franz Hawlata as the Water Goblin, and Dolora Zajick – again – as the Witch.  I also have a sentimental connection to a 1987 live recording from the Staatsoper, for which I myself saw the same cast later that year, with Eva Beňačková as Rusalka, Peter Dvorský as the Prince, Yevgyeny Nyestyernyenko as the Water Goblin, and Eva Randová doubling as the Witch and the Foreign Princess, with Václav Neumann conducting.  Apparently that was the first time that opera had ever been performed at the Staatsoper.  To be a little different, just because of Gottlob Frick, there is a 1948 German-language recording available out there from Dresden conducted by Joseph Keilberth.  I’ve not heard the whole thing, but own extended highlights on a CD set featuring some of Frick’s best recordings, and it is worth hearing him sing the Water Goblin.]

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Metropolitan Opera)

I have a ticket for Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Salzburg Festival on my birthday this year.  But first we tragically lost Mariss Jansons, who was supposed to conduct but passed away late last year.  Now it looks like we’ll lose the Festival this Summer thanks to the Chinese Communist Party deciding to destroy global health, welfare, and livelihoods.  They’ve murdered more of their own citizens than they’ve killed with their virus, but the virus has caused more worldwide devastation (yes, it’s a natural virus, but the pandemic is still entirely the Chinese Communist Party’s fault).

The plot of Boris is set during the “Time of Troubles” in Russia.  The title character was vilified by the repressive Romanov Dynasty, which ruled after that period until it, in turn, was deposed by the Russian Revolution leading to the again-repressive Soviet Communist regime.  The real-life Boris was probably more sympathetic, at least in the context of his time (is anyone in Russia truly sympathetic?  Boris created Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, so he was no saint, but apparently was relatively competent technocrat if overtaken by events out of his control and a bunch of schemers who resented him as the outsider he was – he came from a Tatar family that had converted to Christianity – and he had somewhat of a conscience, unlike most of the Russian ruling classes).  But I digress…

American director Stephen Wadsworth did not manage to capture the nuances, mostly because he was too busy with everything else.  In this production (filmed in a performance from 2010), he decided to augment the portrayals of the minor characters.  While this could be seen to be in the tradition of greats such as Otto Schenk to pay attention to intricate details, Schenk’s details are usually grounded in the opera and are merely fine incidental details that complete the plot.  Wadsworth’s strayed into distraction, especially given a non-traditional (but not modern) staging, with suggestive rather than accurate sets and extra elements added, such as a map and the book chronicling Russia’s history (both of which do appear in important places in the opera, but do not remain on stage – and the book in this case is enormously over-sized).  So, as an example, we got the Simpleton already taking a visible role in the prologue, which demonstrated clearly who he was, but did not give us any more of his story to make it useful or add to the scenes where he did play a role.  At the end of the scene in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral (the Cathedral itself missing here), he rolled himself into the pages of the chronicle.  All of this combined make Wadsworth’s staging additive, and it may have been too much while missing the realism, particularly as the additions did not necessarily accord with the plot – having Shuisky appear in the Polish court is one intrigue too many, even for that infamous historical villain.  But I guess I should be thankful that Wadsworth clearly put some thought into this staging (he’s not a German Regisseur), so there was some intelligence even if he failed to convince me.  So, for example, Varlaam and Missail much to their astonishment recognized Grigory when he returned in the final scene, adding a bit of comedy to the revolution: the brutality of guards towards the Russian people in the prologue was exceeded by the Russian people towards everyone viewed as an authority in the Kromy Forest epilogue, a clear reversal of fortune.  (Wadsworth set both the St. Basil’s scene and the Kromy Forest scene, as parentheses to the final act, as is one common and perfectly acceptable convention).

René Pape sang a strong Boris.  Valery Gergiev, in the pit, knew this opera upside down (and used Mussorgsky’s own scoring).  They combined to produce a particularly effective death scene musically.  But it did not work on stage, where the dying Boris did too much running around.  The rest of the cast was adequate (even Aleksandrs Antonenko, whom I heard sing an inadequate Radamès last week, but who seemed more comfortable singing in Russian as Grigory).  I may highlight two minor figures: they decided to use appropriately-aged singers for Boris’ children Ksenya (sung by Jennifer Zetlan) and Fyëdor (sung by Jonathan Makepeace), and they actually had a stage presence.  I googled them to see if their careers have taken them anywhere since 2010: the older Zetlan seems to not quite have launched herself yet in any major roles beyond inconsequential provincial US opera companies – her appearances with major US companies or orchestras have been in minor roles or as an understudy (I find no European credits at all on her website bio); and Makepeace is still an undergraduate at Princeton – but nice that they get a little bit of fame here.

  • [Recording tip: For an opera that actually has been recorded many times, I have never found an ideal version.  This is only partly the result of the problematic history of this opera, which exists in several versions.  The most-used performing version is an arrangement made by Rimsky-Korsakov that managed to miss Mussorgsky’s point entirely.  Most recordings are of this orchestration, and it fails – so this rules out the recordings with Mark Reizen perhaps the greatest Boris of all time (I do own one complete version with him as Boris, and numerous excerpts).  Overshooting in the other direction, in recent years a trend has been to perform the original version of the opera, which the composer himself rejected and which is lacking drama.  I am looking for a recording of Schostakowitsch’s arrangement – which I did get to hear at the Gelikon Opera in Moscow once – since Schostakowitsch did understand Mussorgsky and while cleaning up some of the loose odds and ends nevertheless kept Mussorgsky’s raw colorings.  But in the absence of a recording of the Schostakowitsch version, if I insist on Mussorgsky’s own scoring rather than the more-common Rimsky-Korsakov rewrite, but also insist on not using Mussorgsky’s rejected first version but some construction coming out of his more mature later version with the scenes in some semblance of order, and on top of all of that insist on a cast that can give character development and drama, then I end up with one very peculiar recording.  And that is a rather Wagnerian production broadcast live by the Bavarian Radio in 1957, under the baton of Eugen Jochum, with Hans Hotter as Boris.  Hotter, more known for his portrayals of Wagner baritone lead roles, regarded Boris as his favorite part.  The cast includes Martha Mödl, Hans Hopf, Kim Borg, Paul Kuen, Lorenz Fehenberger, Benno Kusche, Kurt Böhme, Hermann Uhde, and others, all singing in German.  Not ideal, but it’s what I go back to until I find something I am entirely satisfied with, which hasn’t happened yet.]

Tschaikowsky: Queen of Spades (Mariinsky Theater)

A simple staging by Aleksey Styepanyuk of Tschaikowsky’s Queen of Spades on the Second Stage of the Mariinsky Theater allowed the cast to act out their respective emotional and psychological psychoses.  The sets were not quite minimalist – there were props and furniture and important details – but the framing (colonnade to represent St. Petersburg, dark lighting highlighted by a giant moon…) was more suggestive of the mood.  Interestingly, Styepanyuk did not actually show either of the opera’s two suicides, those of Liza and Gyerman, but rather only suggested their deaths.  Whether they died physically or only mentally was left up to the audience.  A thrilling Maksim Aksyënov as Gyerman was obsessive, tormented, and mentally unbalanced right from the start, making it easier to see his descent into madness.  He gave a tremendous performance (I had thought of giving this streaming amiss, but his performance alone made me glad I did tune in).  Irina Churilova was a dreamy and distracted Liza who falls into his spell.  Of the smaller roles, a coquettish Yekaterina Sergeyeva as Polina thought she was being playful in the first act, but helped deliver the push.  The ubiquitous Gergiev conducted.

  • [Recording tip: I am going to go out on a ledge here and recommend a recording that has never been available but which I am certain must exist in an archive somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.  I have heard extended excerpts on two separate Russian disks: one on a recording released from the private archive of Galina Vishnyevskaya for patrons of her Moscow singing academy (I went when I lived in Moscow), the other on a Bolshoi Opera archival release for Melodiya in memory of Zurab Anjaparidze (which I found on Amazon, since I am always searching for recordings of Anjaparidze).  From the late 1950s until the early 1970s, the Bolshoi – then at its peak – had the world’s greatest dramatic soprano (Vishnyevskaya, a Russian dissident) and the world’s greatest dramatic tenor (Anjaparidze, a Georgian) both in the house’s ensemble, and they did sometimes perform together.  In May 1967, under Boris Khaikin, they did Tschaikowksy’s Queen of Spades.  The extended excerpts I have heard are so far beyond anything else available on recordings that there’s not really any point looking for another recording, although I do own other recordings.  I keep hoping someone finds the complete version of this, or at least some other complete performance including both of them in that period.  There is a complete film made around that time with Anjaparidze as Gyerman, but the sound quality is very poor.]

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tale of Tsar Saltan (Mariinsky Theater)

Last week the Mariinsky gave us Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely-performed fantasy opera The Golden Cockerel.  This week came another, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, suitable for children (and adults!), in a charming fairytale staging by Aleksandr Pyetrov which did not try to do too much.  It is after all a fairy tale.  A nice touch was that during the preludes to each of the acts, they projected a cartoon summary of the coming act’s plot.  This would make it even more accessible for children, but the cartoons were lovingly drawn and had so much personality on their own.   The 2015 performance streamed here marked the Mariinsky debut of Mikhail Vekua, singing Prince Guidon, whom I heard in the same role at the Stanislavsky in Moscow back in 2010.  Eduard Tsanga sang Tsar Saltan and Irina Churilova sang Empress Militrisa; Gergiev conducted.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

Either the Mariinsky orchestra performs a lot in the new Zaryadye Hall in Moscow, or they simply make more recordings there.  Gergiev is a Putin loyalist, and despite his jetsetting – or indeed because of it – he is always ready to perform his service to Mother Russia.  In this streamed concert, they opened with Schostakowitsch’s fifth symphony.  The orchestra displayed wonderful almost delicate phrasing (while also being robust), the sort of understanding of drama that comes from primarily being an opera orchestra rather than a concert orchestra.  The mood of the symphony did come across as uplifting and triumphant, rather than dark and mock-triumphant: Schostakowitsch intentionally wrote a piece with two meanings, one for Stalin’s consumption and one private (Yevgeny Mravinsky, who gave the premiere along Stalinist lines, was famously described by the composer as too stupid to understand the secret meaning, but of course the triumphant version is what saved Schostakowitsch from arrest and murder by the Soviet Russian regime).  Given Gergiev’s attention to detail (and his orchestra’s ability to follow through), I am sure Gergiev understood the symphony’s meaning, but at the same time the triumphant sound produced would have pleased that other famous Ossetian.  The concert continued with Prokofiev’s wonderfully crazy Piano Concerto #2 with Denis Matsuyev pounding out the solos idiomatically, wave after wave washing over the audience (or in this case spilling out of my speaker system and through my home office).

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Schostakowitsch, Hindemith, Martinů, Copland

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is still not posting full concerts online, but it is adding individual works each day to the selection available.  This week, several performances highlighted what this orchestra once used to be: an elegant ensemble, maybe smaller in size that its peers near the top of the US rankings, but able to provide just that little extra intimacy and character – an American counterpart to the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester (as it happens, both now share a music director, Andris Nelsons).  I will flag four pieces they posted this week, which exemplify its old sound: Dmitri Schostakowitsch’s Symphony #1 conducted by the BSO’s then-music director Erich Leinsdorf in 1964 took the composer’s conservatory graduation work and made it into a mature and groundbreaking next step beyond Mahler; Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony, conducted by guest conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in 1974 was expansive and stately; Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani guest conducted by Rafael Kubelik with Charles Wilson joining the orchestra on the piano in 1967, and Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with Copland himself conducting and Harold Wright playing the clarinet in 1980, also explored new combinations of sounds.  Together they made a nice set this week, which I listened to in one sitting.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 4)

Highlights

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 MatisonAida 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.

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).]

Wiener Symphoniker, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Johann Strauß II

Beethoven was a genius. Tonight’s concert with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Ádám Fischer made this obvious.

When first performed in 1808, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony must have shocked the audience (and the Sixth, having its premiere at the same concert, gave them even more nuance to think about). Tonight’s performance of the Fifth was rather classical in approach: restrained, somewhat on the faster side, and not necessarily forward-looking. For its time, that would have been enough, given the work’s radical construction. This masterful performance, particularly the gifted woodwinds, gave the thick canvas a rich coloration.

What made this Symphony stand out so much, however, was not taking it in isolation. Instead it followed as the second half a concert whose first half featured music by Mozart (Symphony #35) and Haydn (Cello Concerto #1). Mozart and Haydn were themselves no slouches as composers, two of the best of their day, and from whom Beethoven himself personally learned his craft (only briefly with Mozart, more from Haydn). The concert used them tonight to set up the Beethoven, to demonstrate just how much more he could push music forward. These two works were taken by half-sized orchestras, typically for their period, and well within their context. Nicolas Altstaedt joined the orchestra for the cello concerto – a somewhat underwhelming cellist, he took Haydn back a generation more with his somewhat off-tuned instrument (does his cello not hold a tune, or does he not?). Possibly this was Altstaedt’s idiom – I have heard him labor through Schostakowitsch before, but he managed Haydn better tonight.

For a first-half encore, Altstaedt played something for solo cello I could not identify but which sounded like it could have been Sibelius, which he handled dexterously. Fischer and the orchestra gave us two second-half encores: Brahms’ Hungarian Dance #5 and Johann Strauß II’s Pizzicato Polka. Not big works to be sure, but they had the room swaying after the Beethoven, making the final mood somewhat lighter.

Wiener Symphoniker, Musikverein

Mozart, Papandopulo, D. Scarlatti, Mahler

Ádám Fischer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra gave us a concert of two distinct halves in the Musikverein this evening – same orchestra, same conductor, and same hall, but the similarities ended there. The first half featured Mozart, who thought life was worth living; whereas in the second half came Mahler, who wished life were worth living.

Serbian pianist Jasminka Stančul joined in for Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23, bringing great warmth from her keyboard, while Fischer and the Symphoniker melted the room. The second movement practically sang – I eagerly waited for Don Ottavio to climb out from under the soundboard and start his serenade. The final movement displayed Mozart at his most exuberant and irrepressible.

Stančul used the momentum to provide two encores: the first, a distinctly modern firework by Boris Papandopulo (Studia 1), showed that her fingers could be everywhere at once; the second a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti on steroids (although her fingers did not always quite keep up for that one).

But if Mozart were so happy, despite impending doom, then Mahler’s Seventh Symphony put an end to that after the intermission. Fischer’s interpretation was ice cold. While the brass played the opening movement’s funeral marches with deep melancholy, the woodwinds bit, the strings ripped at the open flesh, and the percussion pounded. Fischer took the middle three movements almost as chamber works, despite having a full Mahler-sized orchestra on the stage, carefully crafting the delicate lines, moving from one instrument group to another, with thin blades and cautious steps across the ice. The Symphoniker’s musicians responded with gorgeously idiomatic playing. For the final movement, Fischer combined the two concepts, the brass chorales alternating with restrained but somber chamber constructs. This was a new interpretation of this work – take a big work and rein it in to find its inner meaning and desolation. Although it was an intelligent attempt, and wonderfully performed, to be entirely honest I am not sure Fischer’s interpretation convinced me.

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Großes Festspielhaus (Salzburg)

Bartók, Mahler

The Budapest Festival Orchestra came to the Salzburg Festival tonight, conducted by its founder Iván Fischer, to provide new ways of hearing Bartók and Mahler.

Bartók’s Hungarian Sketches for Orchestra opened the program.  An orchestration and elaboration done in the 1930s of music he wrote for piano a quarter of a century earlier, Bartók captured lyrical folk dances.  Fischer and his orchestra performed these as though written for a chamber wind ensemble, augmented by the rest of the orchestra.  The result showed off the versatility of this string section, which evoked the Hungarian traditions.  Where most orchestras have their strings synchronize their bowing, this orchestra had the woodwinds synchronize their own motions – heads flowing up-and-down and side-to-side with the music (with big sweeps – the instruments often shot upwards of the musicians’ heads).

Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra for Bartók’s Piano Concerto #3.  Bartók viewed the piano fundamentally as a percussion instrument (a view I share), and tonight’s performance verified the assertion.  Although generally lyrical, this concerto – the last composition the composer completed before he died (the Philadelphia Orchestra gave its premiere after his death) – allowed some dialogue between the piano and, alternately, the woodwinds, strings, and tympani, but I do wonder if this piece might have done better if he had simply orchestrated the non-percussive piano parts.  Bronfman treated us to an (unidentified) encore – a flashy and also very-percussive solo piano piece where his fingers and hands turned into a blur as they athletically jumped all over the keyboard.

Mahler’s Symphony #4 is perhaps the lightest and most cheerful of his symphonies.  Not tonight.  Fischer did keep the size of the sound manageable, almost a chamber-music reading (albeit with full orchestra), but this was not by any means a light performance, and it certainly was not cheerful.  I may never have heard this work sound so dark and angst-ridden, and would not be surprised if the suicide rate in Salzburg spikes this evening.

The opening of the symphony dances.  But tonight Fischer inserted extra lilts in the dancing, to keep everything off-balance.  He also exposed separate lines elsewhere in the orchestra which conflict with the flow of one dance while suggesting another.  Yet he did this, keeping the music small – until about ten minutes in when the crescendo introduces the fate motif Mahler would develop in his fifth symphony, here left unresolved.

For the second movement, the principal horn (unidentified in the program) came to the front of the orchestra and sat next to the concert mistress (also unidentified in the program).  This was no sweet duet, but an interogation.  She played the solo violin parts with a sinister glare, while he answered on the horn with a lyrical self-defense.  The orchestra surrounded him with deep foreboding, always off-kilter.

The third movement adagio marked the darkest turn.  Taken at an especially slow pace, and with the orchestra keeping the sound low and delicate, this movement set the scene in nature, the successor of the closing movement of Mahler’s third symphony, but smaller and more contained.  But this was no happy march through the fields, but rather the wanderings of a troubled man seeking his doom in a place of utmost beauty.  The audience, which had been unusually restless through the concert so far, snapped to attention – no one moved, no one breathed, and even the coughing – which had plagued a good number of audience members – ceased.  I think this heart-wrenching interpretation made these ill people see the benefit of killing themselves.

Swedish soprano Miah Persson came out on stage slowly as this movement ended, allowing Fischer to move directly into the final movement.  She ended up standing where the hornist had been, and became subject to the same interogation.  Her sweat voice did not project fully in Salzburg’s Great Festival House, but Fischer kept a cap on the orchestra and never overwhelmed her with sound, although he did with anxiety, as she sang the lyrics about heaveny pleasures.

After several rounds of stunned applause (it was a good applause, but I think the audience was a bit emotionally overwhelmed), and perhaps well aware that they had to restore the audience’s mood after this, the performers offered us an encore.  I’m not sure what it was, but it sounded like a Latin prayer from the late baroque or early classical period.  Perrson sang beautifully, accompanied by a small chamber group within the orchestra.  About halfway through, the rest of the orchestra stood up in their places and joined in as a choir, singing the choral accompaniment.  An appropriate encore – something too cheerful would not work, but the mood had to become more hopeful – which provoked a standing ovation for one more round of applause.

St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Musikverein (Vienna)

Sibelius, Paganini, Schostakowitsch, Elgar

I returned to the Golden Hall of the Musikverein for another visiting orchestra, this time the best one from Russia: the St. Petersburg Philharmonic under the baton of its music director Yuri Temirkanov. It did not disappoint. In contrast to the Berliners on Sunday, the St. Petersburgers played with a passion, if not always the precision. But they still managed even better clarity than the Berliners in the wonderful Golden Hall (could this be perhaps that their own hall in St. Petersburg is better than the Phiharmonie in Berlin, which is supposedly cavernous? I guess I will find out when I hear the Berliners in their home later this month).

German violinist Julia Fischer joined the orchestra for the Sibelius violin concerto. The simmering strings at the work’s introduction cooled off the hall on an unseasonably humid night, and then Fischer waded into the icy waters. She entered with caution at first, but her sound grew with the development of the piece, and a full robust tone rose from the deepest notes in her register. The performance had just the right amount of melancholy, drawing its power from its lyrics. The orchestral accompaniment grumbled menacingly during the final movement.

To add some excitement, Fischer returned with an encore: Paganini’s Capriccio #24, which though seldom performed itself is well-known as the subject for Rachmaninov’s famous rhapsody. On the violin it requires more dexterity than on Rachmaninov’s keyboard, and jumps around in its styles including an impossible (but possible for Fischer) pizzicato.

After the intermission, Temirkanov led the orchestra in a soul-crushing interpretation of Schostakowitsch’s Fifth Symphony, probably close to how the composer heard the work inside his own head. Schostakowitsch is on record as saying that Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered this work with this same orchestra, was not smart enough to understand it, and Mravinsky’s interpretation came across as triumphant when Schostakowitsch meant it to be tragic. Of course, had he performed it in 1937 the way Temirkanov did tonight, then possibly the composer, conductor, and entire orchestra would have been carted off for execution – and this is exactly why it was so tragic. However, the work was designed to be mock-triumphant, which is what produces its inherent tensions. Tonight, Temirkanov took the whole work at slower-than-normal tempi, with no mock triumph in sight – but this also deprived the work of the little message of hope Schostakowitsch embedded in it – that the soul could somehow survive the oppressive regime. The accentuated timpani blows carried out the execution of that hope tonight, leaving little doubt that there is no room for resistance.

Roaring applause called for an encore. And they delivered a lush version of “Nimrod” from Elgar’Enigma Variations. However it now seems like I hear an orchestra use this excerpt as an encore almost every month. Wonderful piece, but why has it suddenly become the encore everyone plays?

This orchestra and conductor have, as far as I am aware, stayed out of Russian and geo-politics, in contrast the the opera orchestra and conductor (and one-time Temirkanov protege) on the other side of their city. Schostakowitsch may be inherently political, a voice for justice from within an evil empire, but Temirkanov and his orchestra should be commended for making music as it was meant to be.

Staatsoper

Beethoven, Fidelio

A fantastic Fidelio at the Staatsoper.  Otto Schenk originally designed this production for the Theater an der Wien in 1970, and in 1991 a modified version moved to the big stage on the Ring (with Erich Leinsdorf on the podium).  Simple and appropriate, the staging allowed the music to provide the drama.

Indeed, Beethoven’s music indeed marks the triumph of this opera.  This is an opera that everyone knows and which people have heard recordings of frequently, but somehow (based on an unscientific survey among my friends) no one ever actually sees (better to hear than to see, I suppose).  I think I have seen it twice myself, both times at the Met (first under Leinsdorf and later under Klaus Tennstedt) in the early 1980s, but not since.  The first act is a bunch of set pieces according to operatic tradition of the time – beautiful music but little drama.  The second act provides a monument to human freedom, couched in a typical nonsensical period rescue plot to pass the censors, with the music doing the heavy lifting. So in a successful production of Fidelio, the music must take precedence, and the staging should only provide a venue for the music.

And what better placeis there to enjoy this music?  Shortly after the Russian occupation forces withdrew from Vienna in 1955, the Staatsoper (which had taken a direct hit froman American bomb in the closing days of the Second World War) reopened from the ruins.  Fidelio was the first opera on the newly rebuilt stage. In this year featuring many commemorations of the Anschluß 75 years ago, the Staatsoper has dusted off the Schenk production and a Vienna Ensemble cast.  The Orchestra, under the baton of Adam Fischer (a Hungarian Jew who recently resigned as Music Director of the Budapest State Opera due to increasing anti-Semitism in Hungary), played in full dramatic form.  From the first strains of the Fidelio Overture through the final chorus, the music brought everyone to the edge of our seats, toyed with our emotions, and lifted us up.  The Leonore Overture #3, used as an interlude in the middle of Act 2 as per the Vienna tradition started when Gustav Mahler led this opera house, particularly brought down the house, and forced the orchestra to take several standing bows.

The Vienna Ensemble cast also mostly did not disappoint.  Anje Kampe headed the effort as Leonore.  The Moldovan Valentina Naforniƫă, the winner of the 2011 Cardiff competition which has justifiably launched the careers of so many worthy stars in the past (including Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Bryn Terfel splitting the honors in the famous 1989 competition), has recently joined the Vienna Ensemble and providedan exceptional Marzelline.  Norbert Ernstas Jaquino and Walter Fink as Rocco ensured that the quartets in Act 1 remained balanced at a fine level, with strong projection, clear tones, and expressive acting.

The Staatsoper may have engaged Lance Ryan, the Canadian tenor making a guest appearance as Florestan, in order to guarantee that the only non-Vienna cast member provided the disappointment, singing consistently sharp and wobbly.  At first, I assumed he must have intended to produce these sounds as special effects for his character, who appears in weak condition after two years in deplorable conditions as a political prisoner.  However, as Act 2 progressed, it became clear that this ugly instrument was indeed his voice.  By the final curtain calls, when everyone got roaring approval from the audience, the polite members of theaudience simply refused to clap for him (I, for one, stopped clapping during his curtain call), while others went further in a hail of boos.  But the overall drama of the night more than overshadowed Ryan, and if he was the only flaw in the package then I would gladly accept to sit through that performance again and again.

Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Stravinsky, Chausson, Ravel, Rachmaninov

I attended an unplanned concert at the Moscow Conservatory – the 75th Anniversary Concert of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.  When I was deciding what concerts interested me this month, this concert had a different program and conductor, and so I had marked it off the list.  But it seems that all that changed while I was away from Moscow.  I swung by the afternoon before the concert to see if any tickets would be available, and there were a few left up in the top level of the second balcony (but the hall has great acoustics, so this only meant it was hard to see the orchestra, but I could hear just fine).

This is the orchestra Yevgeny Svetlanov led for 35 years before he was fired in 2000 (after Putin came in), when the Ministry of Culture suddenly questioned his patriotism.  Mark Gorenstein, an impossibly dull Soviet wand-waver, was appointed to replace him.  The Orchestra musicians have been miserable ever since (but stay because the orchestra pays relatively very well for Russia).  Finally this Summer the musicians got up the courage to demand that Gorenstein be fired.  When this did not happen, they simply refused to show up for rehearsals this Fall, and all of their concerts this season have been canceled one-by-one as a result.  Two weeks ago, while I was away, Gorenstein got the axe and the young and dynamic Vladimir Jurowski was appointed in his place effective immediately.  Today was Jurowski’s first appearance with the orchestra in his new position.

The program opened with Stravinsky’Firebird Suite.  This is still the most Russian-sounding of orchestras, and the flagship of the state orchestra system, so it was fitting to open the anniversary concert with a showpiece.  Jurowski made the most of it, generating excitement with each scene in the suite.  If he had added the entire ballet as an encore, no one in this audience (nor in the orchestra) would have objected.  I have a soft-spot for this piece, since I think it was the first recording I ever owned as a child (with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony Orchestra – a birthday present from my sister).  Hearing it fresh tonight, with a fully-charged orchestra and conductor happy to be there, made me remember the joy and excitement of putting on that record for the first time way back in my childhood.

After this thrilling start, the concert unfortunately shifted to French composers.  The choice for the next two pieces was curious, since they certainly do not figure in the core repertory for this orchestra, nor should they figure in the core repertory for any orchestra.  While, starting in the mid-19th Century, Russia discovered classical music and has since produced enormous quantities of exciting material (possibly the only civilized thing the Russians do produce), France has inexplicably seemed incapable of having any composer other than Berlioz (whom the French ridiculed for his admiration of Beethoven) capable of consistently producing music of any reasonable quality.  The French never cease to amaze me just how dull the music is that they write – and I keep listening to new pieces just hoping something will come along to break the monotony, but it never does.

So tonight we had two pieces for violin and orchestra: the Poem for Violin and Orchestra by Ernest Chausson and the Gypsy Concert Rhapsody by Maurice Ravel.  Julia Fischer was the soloist.  Try as she, Jurowski, and the orchestra might, nothing they could do could bring these works to life.  And boy did they try.  Technically, they all played very well.  Fischer proved very adept.  The audience dozed, and awoke at the end of each piece to give a polite golf-tournament-style applause most notable for its contrast with the roaring applause which had greeted the Stravinsky.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to Russian music with Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  These are less dance music and more somewhat-eccentric post-Scriabin-esque studies in orchestral color that Rachmaninov wrote shortly before he died.  Jurowski and the orchestra kept the movements moving along, exploring their tones and rhythms until the end of the third dance, which sounded like it represented the composer taking a hop, skip, and a jump into the grave.  Never has the Dies Irae sounded so whimsical.  Jurowski applauded his new orchestra, the orchestra applauded Jurowski, and the audience applauded both.  This applause went on for a while.