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.