Mozart, Copland, Schubert
I went to see and hear for myself, as 27-year-old rapidly rising star Lahav Shani conducted the Vienna Symphony Orchestra at the Konzerthaus this evening. About a year ago, he sprung in to conduct the Philharmonic when the scheduled conductor canceled on short notice due to illness, and the reviews were incredible. This led to more bookings with the Philharmonic and other orchestras (including the Symphoniker tonight), and he will soon take over as music director in Rotterdam, often a stepping-stone to a star career.
This evening’s performance did not disappoint. The opening work – the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro by Mozart – enabled Shani to reveal often-hidden lines. The strings drove the action forward, but the winds created tension, to set up the impending comedy. Shani highlighted these juxtapositions, and the excellent Symphoniker responded just so.
Similarly, for the second half of the concert, Schubert‘s Great C Major Symphony capped off the concert. Although I am not sure I heard any new nuances I did not alread know, this performance – clearly thought-through by Shani and expertly performed by the Symphoniker at the pinacle of the idiom – did provide a vivid reminder of just how majestic and exciting this symphony can be, and in many ways how visionary as well. Shani will certainly grow further as his career takes off.
In between these two standard pieces came Aaron Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Sabine Meyer. The first movement arrived full of melancholy, which led into a cadenza-only movement that began to awaken the instrument before jumping into a somewhat more flamboyant finale. Copland wrote the work on commission for jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. There is jazz-like syncopation, requiring versatility, but this is not jazz and falls cleanly within a classical paradigm, if tending to something new. Meyer, dextrous of tongue, danced to the music as she played. Her unidentified encore was in the same style as the cadenza, but considerably faster.
Leigh, Man of La Mancha
I do not believe I have seen Mitch Leigh‘s Man of La Mancha since I was a child, and I have certainly never seen it before performed in German. But I got a special offer for a ticket to see it at the Volksoper, so… my destiny called and I went.
Cervantes’ story is timeless. So this minimal, vaguely modern staging worked to allow the players to develop the plot, presented with good humor all around. The stage was built out over the pit, with the orchestra submerged behind the stage facing away from the audience, really just providing background (under conductor Lorenz Aichner). Under these circumstances, my main quibble was that they miked the cast, which was disconcerting (not to mention defeating the purpose of hearing a live performance) and totally unnecessary. Voices came from incorrect angles and sometimes gave several members of the cast an excuse to mumble their lines rather than acting them.
The simplification and twist of the plot works in this format, but can often come across as thin – there is actually very little there. So it is worth going for the fine music by Leigh. Great acting, however, can make the setting rise.
In this case, the mostly nondescript cast played along and was satisfactory. At its helm, and the only truly notable member, was the Volksoper’s own Director Robert Meyer, who has done a fantastic job leading this house since he took over in 2007 (his contract has been extended until 2022). He portrayed the tragi-comic Don Quijote with full emotion and intelligence, particularly when confronted by the Knight of the Mirrors when Quijote is forced to recognize his own farce and then again in the final death scene.
Puccini, Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi
The front and back ends of Puccini‘s Trittico came on stage at the Volksoper this evening.
The Volksoper performed both in German to make them more accessible. This worked better for the darker Il Tabarro (Der Mantel) than for the comic Gianni Schicchi, which I had suspected. I actually have recordings of both in German, so the concept is not unfamiliar, but the Volksoper’s Italianate performances tend not to reach the standards of other productions, whereas the brooding and less tuneful Tabarro could almost pass in German. I have never actually seen Il Tabarro before, but have seen Gianni Schicchi (most recently at the Novaya Opera in November).
Conductor Stefan Klingele and the Volksoper orchestra contributed greatly to the success of the first part, with gorgeous lush tones emerging from the pit. The cast, mostly nondescript, got on with the business of acting on a simple but apt set by Volksoper artistic director Robert Meyer, whose star continues to rise in my book. The opera ended dramatically, if not in a convincingly realistic way, mostly on the musical strength of the orchestra and the principals. Michael Ende as Luigi, had the biggest and most dramatic voice. Alik Abdukayumov and Maida Hundeling starred as Michele and Giorgietta.
For the second part, Meyer moved the scene of Gianni Schicchi from 12th Century Florence to somewhere in the second half of the 20th Century (1950s?). This presented no real problem, because almost nothing in the story is dated (except the criminal penalty for falsifying a will). The realistic set worked. And while the performance preserved the humor, the translation did not necessarily do justice to the original Italian. This is a comedy that relies mostly on its script, rather than action (in contrast, the slapstick performance I saw in Moscow in the Fall was not the right approach). Martin Winkler in the title role and Sebastian Reinthaller as Rinuccio stood out from the rest of the cast, all of whom acted in an appropriately comical manner.
The Volksoper premiered a new Candide tonight, in an unstaged adaptation of the 1999 version. Bernstein’s operetta has an unfortunate and problematic performance history, so this may represent one of the better attempts to make sense of it all. Bernstein had a flair for the dramatic, but Candide failed miserably as a stage production and I have never understood why he, of all people, thought it might succeed. Voltaire’s story is not conducive to staging, especially when edited down to fit into a night’s performance, jumping as it does all over the planet. As a parody, however, it works.
And, of course, Bernstein’s music works. So for more than half a century, different people have attempted to preserve Bernstein’s music with a semblance of the plot, with more or less staging. Tonight’s adaptation did not try to stage it at all, although the singers provided some acting. The arranger had an actor substitute all of the dialogue with German-language narrative, although all of Bernstein’s musical numbers were performed in the original English. In this way, the Volksoper’s artistic director Robert Meyer, appearing as the narrator, managed to capture the story’s humor without the distractions of an impossible plot, as well as throwing in additional jokes. Taking care of the plot in this way, he allowed the singers to concentrate on the music, pulling off the comic lyrics to the melodious tunes. Stephen Chaundy (Candide) and Jennifer O’Loughlin (Cunegonde) were in full voice as the leading couple. Morten Frank Larsen made a fine Pangloss, and Kim Cresswell (quite a performer, although in uneven voice) provided wit and charm in the role of the Old Lady. Joseph R. Olefirowicz conducted an elegant and idiomatic interpretation of Bernstein’s music, which, in the end, remains the reason people keep desperately trying to find good ways to perform this otherwise heavily-flawed operetta.
Sondheim, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Tragedy last Friday, comedy tonight… at the Volksoper.
A new production of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum… in German. I don’t have a problem with the language choice, since Sondheim reworked into English plots and characters from Plautus (which I read in the original Latin), who had in turn borrowed from Greek predecessors. What’s important is that the cast can act and is having fun. So it was indeed a fun production, headed by Robert Meyer as Pseudolus, with David Levi conducting.
That said, I’ve seen better. I still remember a fun production at Exeter with my talented classmate Rob Bikel playing Pseudolus. And, of course, there is the film starring Zero Mostel. The acting tonight may have been better than the singing – the fact that they miked the cast was already suspicious, since the Volksoper is not an overly large house and there is no excuse for singers not to be able to project. Miked music is always disconcerting. My other gripe was the German they used, which was very… well, German. Written German, as a spoken language, comes across as unattractive, arrogant, and humorless. Perhaps Miles Gloriosus could speak that way, but the rest of the cast should have been performing in spoken dialect, or at least something softer. Plautus himself used dialect in his original Latin farces, so this would have been more in character if they had kept to it.
But tonight was still a good evening’s entertainment, so I’m not complaining. And after the travesty at the Volksoper with Madama Butterfly last Friday, the house had to redeem itself.