Vienna Philharmonic, Haus für Mozart (Salzburg)

Berg, Wozzeck

Alban Berg‘s opera Wozzeck is a musical psychodrama.  But there is a plot, too.  Tonight’s performance at the Salzburg Festival fully captured the musical part, but as for the plot… not so much.

The director, William Kentridge, a South African cartoonist, openly admitted he wanted to stage the music and not the text, as the music discloses what the characters are really thinking, as opposed to the words they might sing.  So he filled the stage with clutter, projected cartoons both on a movie screen and more generally on top of the scenery, and mostly did not bother with the plot.  This was not German Regietheater, designed to shock, but actually an attempt to elucidate what the opera was about.  Unfortunately, the approach added nothing, but did cause unwanted distraction.

On the other hand, by making the plot irrelevant, Kentridge did succeed in pushing the attention fully onto the music (assuming we could ignore the staging – and actually I found I could: again, as it was not Regietheater it did not tell a different plot but rather simply provided cluttered and sometimes silly asides that matched the extremes in the music if not the text).  On this count the performance shone.  The Vienna Philharmonic in the pit is unrivaled as an opera orchestra.  And conductor Vladimir Jurowski, one of the stars of his 40-ish generation, truly understood the opera’s meaning in ways that Kentridge could not, entirely making up for Kentridge’s failings and allowing the audience to bask in the lush music.  Although atonal, Berg’s opera is not without pure music, and its contortions do allow an exploration of the psychoses that inspired the plot.

Although most of the singing characters have their personal issues to explore, these are only really developed in one: the title role Wozzeck.  So while the cast this evening managed strong portrayals despite Kentridge’s direction (and aided by Jurowski’s sensible balancing of the music), only Matthias Goerne as Wozzeck stood out, giving a full and brooding performance of the feeble-minded and disturbed soldier.

Would a concert performance have been better?  Perhaps.  But maybe it ironically took Kentridge’s absurdities to focus attention more on the music.  And if that was his intention, then maybe he succeeded after all.

Thomas Hampson & Wolfgang Rieger, Haus für Mozart

Quilter, Finzi, Korngold, Mahler, Schubert

The long mid-August holiday weekend at the Festival concluded with a recital by the ever-elegant Thomas Hampson.  On Saturday, I attended an event (“Artist Encounter”) with him, at which he explained his approach to singing different roles and songs. The bottom line was to produce the appropriate emotion in the audience without actually going through the emotion on stage: crying and singing don’t mix, for example.  He told the famous story of John Gielgud critiquing Dustin Hoffman’s methodology to get into the roles he played: “have you tried acting?” Gielgud had inquired.

The selection of songs tonight required acting, and Hampson moved easily from one context to the next.  For the first half of the concert, he sang three lesser-known sets of songs based on Shakespeare by Roger Quilter, Gerald Finzi, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  Hampson’s approach became most apparent where he sang settings by each of the three composers of the same words.  So, for example, “Come Away, Death” from Twelfth Night came across as welcoming fate (Quilter), melancholic (Finzi), and narrative (Korngold).

The second half of the program consisted of a whole bunch of songs by Gustav Mahler.  Mahler had subsequently orchestrated most of these (indeed, it was always his intention), but tonight’s versions were with purely piano accompaniment.  This made the settings more intimate, and Hampson could reflect on the words more delicately and distinctly.

It helped, of course, to have Wolfram Rieger on the piano, a fine accompanist who drew out all of the color but supported and never overwhelmed the words.  Wave after wave of applause provoked some more Mahler encores, and finally Schubert’An Sylvia to hark back to the concert’s Shakesperean beginnings (we’d heard the same ode in a setting by Finzi earlier as well).

Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Haus für Mozart

Orff

The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra added a benefit concert this morning at the Haus für Mozart, to support providing education for unaccompanied refugee children who have sought asylum in Salzburg. On the program, a single work: Carmina Burana by Carl Orff.

Orff’s unclear relationship with the Nazi regime (some Nazis found him too modern, but others saw in him a connection to Germanic roots, and he happily provided the Nazis music on commission to replace music by Mendelssohn with more Aryan tones) made him an odd choice for this benefit concert. On the other hand, he dedicated himself to education (my own elementary school music training came through the Orff System he had pioneered). In the end, of course, it was all about the music.

Because recordings of “O Fortuna,” which opens and closes this work, have become overused and clichéd, it feels like the Carmina Burana are over-performed. That said, I do not remember ever hearing this cantata live, nor seeing it programmed in concert (the Vienna Volksoper has staged it as a ballet in recent years, to predictably dreadful reviews), and I believe I myself have never heard it performed live before.

Orff’s cantata is masterful, putting mediaeval songs into a modern idiom. The Mozarteum’s chief conductor, Ivor Bolton, drew out the colors from all corners of the orchestra to maximize Orff’s broad palette. Bolton did not make the big numbers bombastic, but instead used them merely to craft large sounds of the many individually-orchestrated instrumentations.

Baritone Günter Haumer showed off his warm-toned singing instrument, although he sometimes had trouble projecting over the orchestra in the bigger sections. Countertenor Markus Forster waddled on stage to act out his single song – the swan who finds himself roasted for dinner. Haumer took the cue after that and started to act out his songs more as well (notably the drunken abbot in the next song – although I found his Italianate pronunciation of the mediaeval Latin somewhat disconcerting, these songs not being fit for the Vatican but for some rather bawdy German monks). Laura Nicolescu handled her soprano solos beautifully. The Chorus of the Music High School of Salzburg and the Salzburg Festival Children’s Chorus augmented the performance.

Hac in hora sine mora corde pulsum tangite; quod per sortem sternit fortem, mecum omnes plangite!

Salzburger Landestheater, Haus für Mozart

Verdi, Rigoletto 

The Salzburg Landestheater put on a musically-excellent performance of Verdi‘s Rigolettoin the Haus für Mozart, for a rare Sunday afternoon show.  The production showcased two young stars, Ramë Lahaj (from Kosovo) as the Duke, and Eri Nakamura (from Japan) as Gilda.  Lahaj’s voice was big and lyrical, as he inhabited his role.  Nakamura’s voice, large enough to fill the hall, nevertheless came across innocent and almost delicate.  The Italian Ivan Inverardi’s experienced Rigoletto nuanced but bold baritone portrayed a tragic court jester, despite having to act around some atrocious staging (more on which below).

Young British conductor Adrian Kelly drove the orchestra along to depict the dark tragedy of this opera, setting the mood right from the overwhelming introduction.  In the draft, Verdi had originally titled this opera “The Curse” before settling on naming it after the court fool, but despite the opera’s lighter tuneful moments, it remains dark, permeated by evil.  Kelly’s musical direction never let this concept slip.

Unfortunately, the Landestheater contracted a German director to stage this production.  Nothing good ever comes from German (or German-trained) opera directors in the last half century, and today’s production was no exception.  Amélie Niermeyer explained in the program notes that since the censor forced Verdi to change the setting of the opera (based on a real-life jester and his king from early 16th Century France) to a fictionalized Italian town which could have been anywhere (in this case, Verdi chose Mantua), she saw no reason not to make this an opera about anti-Fascism, and move the setting to the 1940s and Salò, Italy (capital of the Italian Social Republic, a puppet state established in German-occupied northern Italy from 1943-1945).

Niermeyer set the action on the elevator landings of different floors in an apartment building.  It is unclear who the Duke was supposed to be – the program notes suggested he might be the building’s owner.  At any rate, the setting was impossible to pull off with the plot.  There was no “outside” and characters had to remain on the landing where they were on set with action they should not have been in the same room for.  This made some scenes especially difficult, which the director resolved in strange ways (such as having Gilda, and then Rigoletto after her, get into the middle of the Duke’s love scene with Maddalena; or even the abduction scene where Rigoletto somehow does not realize he is in his own apartment – or at least the elevator landing where he sleeps with Gilda – and yes, there was a suggestion that maybe he does sleep with his daughter).  The final scene took place on the roof, with the Duke sleeping in a deck chair while the rest of the action took place (and somehow he never got wet in the storm), exiting via the elevator after patting Rigoletto on the shoulder.

None of this made much sense, but it also destroyed the tragic character of Rigoletto, who is very much the product of his time in history.  Put him into the Salò Republic and he becomes a willing accomplice of the Duke and really rather despicable.  His tragedy is that he is stuck as a court jester who knows too much and tries to stay alive and protect his daughter from an evil world, an unenviable situation.  This Rigoletto was just ridiculous, and a caricature of a bad man.  Inverardi was brave to try to give him back some of his character development.

However, this was not the worst of the staging.  During the first scene, in order to demonstrate the depravity of the Duke, Niermeyer populated the stage with prepubescent boys and girls in various stages of undress.  This was not artistic license.  This was child pornography.  Normally I favor deporting German opera directors; this time I’d suggest arresting her.

Thomas Hampson and Wolfram Rieger, Haus für Mozart

Strauss, Mahler

Thomas Hampson presented an elegant concert of songs by Richard Strauss this evening, in the Salzburg Festival House’s small hall (oddly called the “House for Mozart”), in commemoration of the composer’s 150th birth year.

Hampson was not in full voice tonight.  This came out most apparently in the mezza voce sections, where his instrument cracked and sounded forced.  On the other hand, the performance came across as very human, which added to the elegance.  For the first half of the program, Hampson performed songs composed by Strauss over many years from the first half of his life, mostly for his wife or close acquaintances to sing in his parlor.  Hampson made these intimate.  We could almost hear a fireplace crackling.  His singing also gave the feel more of a poetry reading with piano accompaniment than of a concert.  His voice kept its musicality throughout, but the music was just there to accentuate the poems, which had their share of melancholy, backwards looking with allusions to Schubert.

Pianist Wolfram Rieger was easily Hampson’s equal.  He kept himself in the background, never overshadowing the singing or the poetic line.  When Strauss composed extended parts just for the piano, Rieger maintained the balance and flow and created more pure poetry without words.

The second half of the concert began with a strange 15-minute piece, “Notturno” – music by Strauss to words by Richard Dehmel, where violinist Yamei Yu joined Hampson and Rieger.  Her violin squeeked too much.  This broke the poetry.  Of course, the piece was strange enough to break the poetry as well.  There is probably a reason it is seldom performed.

The scheduled program concluded with three later songs based on poems by Friedrich Rückert.  I think Mahler picked the better selection of Rückert poetry, and probably also wrote more dramatic and emotional song music than Strauss.  Hampson gave us one of these Mahler settings of Rückert as his final encore, with astonishing contrast.  For the other encores, Hampson pointed out that Strauss had lived for 85 years and composed right to the end – so a lot of songs.  He picked some nice ones for the encores that brought us back to the concert’s elegant first half poetry reading.