Volksoper

Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen

The Volksoper unveiled a brand new production of Offenbach‘s Tales of Hoffmann this evening, achieving mixed results.  

Offenbach died before completing this opera, so no definitive version exists.  Certainly, tonight’s version would not have been the one he would have chosen had he lived.  He left a lot of sketches behind, but likely would have edited the opera if he had the chance – I will give the Volksoper the benefit of the doubt that tonight’s extra music was original Offenbach, but they did not have to include all of it, as it made the performance drag.  Offenbach also did not live to draft the recitatives, so there is great flexibility in how much to use, and again the Volksoper used too much.  

The Volksoper also introduced plot changes, which failed dramatically.  Again, this may have been through using Offenbach’s sketches (I will assume), but that does not make them necessary.  So two extra scenes were added to the beginning of the prologue, in which first Hoffmann’s Muse (a.k.a. Niklaus) and then the devil (all four villains) introduce and explain themselves, which is not strictly necessary and which made the prologue drag considerably before finally moving to Luther’s tavern. In the Venetian act, the plot became needlessly convoluted (instead of Hoffmann killing Schlemihl to get the key to Giulietta’s room and then arriving to find she has already gone off in the gondola with someone else, tonight’s plot became somewhat hopeless, with Hoffmann appearing to kill Pitichinaccio with not a lot of other clarity in the outcome).

 

The final major plot change happened at the end – almost every version of this opera I know ends with Stella finding Hoffmann drunk under the table and going off with Lindorf, but not tonight.  Actually, the end of tonight’s opera, with all characters on stage, and Hoffmann and his Muse (Niklaus reverted to female form) singing about art being more important than love, made no sense.

In addition to this, the director appeared not to understand that Offenbach wanted his whole life to write a serious opera – not just the farces that made him famous – and this was it.  Although there is a certain amount of humor in this opera, it is not a farce and Offenbach never intended it to be one.  The opera director, Renaud Doucet (I suppose a Frenchman, although this seems to be a co-production with the Bonn Opera, a German company which thus should have raising a red flag indicating the opera director is no doubt incompetent) staged this production as a farce, with many sight-gags and crazy costumes that really are not worth mentioning that made the staging a nonsense.  (It really is not worth mentioning the idiocy that went on stage – albeit I’ve seen far worse from German opera directors – so I won’t even try to describe this nonsense.)  

But the lousy stage direction underscored a complete lack of understanding of what Offenbach would have wanted to accomplish had he lived, and this undermined the entire performance.  The extended acts (particularly the extra prologue scenes and the act with the singer Antonia which lasted a full hour) dragged.  They made one reversal in the opera, flipping the Antonia act to second before moving the Venetian act with Giulietta to third, although there is sufficient evidence in both the text itself and in Offenbach’s own comments to colleagues that this order is the one he wanted (although the other order became the standard), and to be honest I have no preference there, nor criticism for the reversal in this production.  But there was no logical sense of continuity tonight, so the reversal from the established convention, even if likely Offenbach’s preference, just made for additional bewilderment if Doucet had any overall concept at all.

 

The male leads outperformed the female leads.  Particularly strong were Josef Wagner as all four villains and Stefan Cernydoubling as the tavern-keeper Luther and as Antonia’s father Krespel.  Mirko Roschkowski in the title role sang well enough but looked lost on stage (was it him, or was it the staging that made him lost?).  The various female leads were perfectly adequate. 

Conductor Gerrit Prießnitz held the orchestra more or less together, although periodically not quite in time with the chorus, and also sometimes allowing the music to overwhelm the singers (who otherwise generally projected well).

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Bühne Baden in the Baden Sommerarena

Offenbach, Die Schöne Helena

Went out to Baden this evening to see a performance by the Bühne Baden of Offenbach’Schöne Helena in the Baden Sommerarena in the Kurpark.  Simple performance, relatively true to the original.

Offenbach is notoriously hard to stage, because many of the jokes in the text were dated already soon after the premieres, dealing as they did with political intrigue and current events, and required constant updating.  Since tonight’s performance was in German, the text needed a reworking anyway.  Rather than try to adapt to current events, where the jokes might fall flat, the production stuck to a more-or-less basic translation of the farcical setting of the “real” cause of the Trojan War.  Naturally, a few jokes at the expense of Greece’s current financial woes crept in, but these came in elliptically and not directly.

This opera has great music right the way through – Offenbach’s greatest triumph, in my opinion.  They modified bits of it and added the Can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus, but most of the cuts came to the otherwise dated dialogue.  Elisabeth Fleichl and Sebastian Reinthaller, from the Volksoper Ensemble, starred as Helen and Paris; Michael Zehetnerkept things light in the pit.

Novaya Opera

Puccini, Gianni Schicchi
Offenbach, Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home

Double-bill at the Novaya Opera tonight: Gianni Schicchi by Puccini and Mr. Cauliflower Remains at Home by Offenbach.

Both operas were staged as farces.  This worked better for the Offenbach piece than for the Puccini, which relies more on its clever text to provide the comedy.  Perhaps the director assumed that Russians who do not speak Italian would not understand the humor (although supertitles were provided) so decided to ham it up for a laugh.  But people were not laughing that much.  By contrast, the Offenbach opera was performed in Russian, and the audience was in hysterics.

This production of Gianni Schicchi began before the music: at a birthday party for Buoso Donati, at which his family accidentally kills him as part of the slapstick act.  This type of humor continues throughout, and at the very end, after the opera should be over, Donati suddenly comes back to life, aware of what has gone on, and chases Gianni Schicchi out of the house.  All of this extraneous action was wasted, since the humor of the opera is more subtle.  The cast at least understood that, and when singing their roles (in clear Italian) did convey the text properly.  Oleg Didenko (as Simone) and Galina Korolëva (as Lauretta) especially excelled, and Dimitry Volosnikov kept the music lively in the pit.

For the Offenbach, the farce worked.  My Russian was insufficient to keep up with the text, and it is not an opera I previously knew (I’ve only read the plot summary on the day of the opera), but the audience kept laughing steadily, so I suppose it worked.  I could follow the plot easily enough, and enjoy the slapstick, but not catch the nuances of the text.  But the setting clearly worked better for the second half of the double-bill than for the first.  Musically, the company gave a better performance for the Puccini, however.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Musikverein

Weber, Mendelssohn, Offenbach, Prokofiev

I moved into the Musikverein for the day, for three concerts back-to-back-back in the Golden Hall.  The first featured the Wiener Symphoniker and Dmitri Kitayenko.

I had never seen Kitayenko conduct in person, but know him from some fine recordings.  But this was the second concert in a row with the Symphoniker that I was disappointed with.  They sound perfectly fine, but the Symphoniker is too good to sound “perfectly fine.”  Fedoseyev (who conducted them last week) and Kitayenko (today) are both excellent conductors, and there was an obvious rapport with the orchestra (I know they love Fedoseyev, and I’ve heard him conduct them before with great results).  So I wonder what is up with that orchestra at the moment.

The performance today opened with the Oberon Overture by Weber, followed by the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (a 29-year–old Russian violinist, Mikhail Ovrutsky, was the soloist).  As a pre-intermission encore, they performed Hoffmann’s Kleinsack song from Offenbach‘s Tales of Hoffmann (I have no idea who the unannounced tenor was or where they found him – tenors don’t usually just pop up and sing encores when they are not in the program; voice sounded a little strained, maybe from lack of warm-up, who knows?).

After the intermission, German actor Gert Voss read a very funny short story by Thomas Bernhard in memoriam for the 20th anniversary of his death.  Then came Prokofiev‘s Peter and the Wolf, narrated by another apparently famous German stage actor, Sunnyi Melles.  She was dramatic, but missed a few cues, and read strictly from the script rather than providing the embellishments that are usual with live performances.  I suspect she never rehearsed and may have been reading it for the first time.

Highlights from 2007

Highlights

Prior to 2010 I did not write regularly.  I found most records from 2009 (now posted on this blog), but right now the only reliable musical notes from 2004-2008 are in my annual year-end highlight summaries, so I am posting these until I locate more in my archives.

Best performance: Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 3, Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam (performing in the Musikverein, Vienna) under Mariss Jansons (February). An emotional, transcendental, and ultimately triumphant performance that made me lose my breath several times. From my front-row seat, however, I discovered that Jansons makes snoring noises when he conducts, which is a little disconcerting. Otherwise he is a tremendous conductor and enormously popular in Vienna for good reason.

Worst performance: The Gypsy singer Carmen Linares, with the Spanish National Orchestra (performing in the Konzerthaus, Vienna, March). Orchestra under Josep Pons and young group of Spanish vocalists performed concert versions of de Falla’s ballet Amor Brujo and opera Vida Breve. However, the supposedly well-regarded Linares croaked the portions of Amor Brujo requiring a Gypsy singer and she also rasped the (supposed-to-be-male) Gypsy singer role in Vida Breve. Spanish Gypsy singing is a special art, but she may be the first Gypsy singer I have heard with no musical qualities whatsoever, and she even required amplification.

Worst performance at a concert (non-musician): Giorgio Mamberto, Head of the European Commission office in Kosovo, Pristina (March). Before a concert of the Kosovo Philharmonic (which deserves credit for actually managing to schedule a concert) sponsored by the EC to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Mamberto announced to all assembled that for fifty years there has been only peace in Europe, and that today Europeans can travel throughout Europe without passports and can work without visas. The Kosovars were not amused. The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman got up and replied that Kosovo would have loved to sign the Treaty of Rome fifty years ago, but unfortunately was otherwise occupied at the time.

Best opera: Gounod, Faust, Slovene National Opera Marburg (March). I somehow managed to go a whole year without making it to the Wiener Staatsoper, so took in my operas in other houses. This performance was anything but provincial, with a repertory cast under the Neapolitan conductor Lorenzo Castriota Skanderbeg (whose family claims it is descended from Albania’s mediaeval national hero).

Most fun at the opera: Offenbach, Orpheus in der Unterwelt, Volksoper, Vienna (September). The parody plot is very much dated, but easily adaptable by a good director thanks to Offenbach’s timelessly comic music. This version worked.

Worst opera: Ravel, Spanische Stunde, Volksoper, Vienna (October). The plot is a farce and should have been very funny, but Ravel’s boring music did not match up despite being well-performed. The evening was not a total write-off thanks to a terrific performance after the intermission of Orff’s Die Kluge, which was fun indeed.