Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen
The fact that Offenbach died before completing – or even properly organizing – The Tales of Hoffmann has left opera companies great flexibility in determining how to stage the opera – which music or dialogues to include and in what order. Anything coherent could work in theory. A little over a year ago I sat through a mess of a production at the Volksoper, but have rectified this tonight by attending the Salzburg Landestheater‘s new production.
The staging itself was neither here nor there – not elaborate, not in any particular style, but with many props so it was a staging. It did not help, but it also did not interfere with what was otherwise a finely structured performance overall. The concept relied on Hoffmann and his muse stepping out of the stories they had drafted themselves into as participants in order to also be external observers (the author and his muse, after all). Hoffmann’s loves always went horribly wrong, as he became depressed while he wrote and in this setting his muse had to put an end to each story and get him to move on. In the epilogue, Hoffmann with the help of his muse, came to the conclusion that he did not himself need love because he had his art. The muse conjured up all of Hoffmann’s characters for a triumphant final chorus.
What is most interesting about this ending is that it was the same ending the Volksoper used in its production last year. But in the Volksoper’s version it made no sense, essentially because the Volksoper’s version had no logical concept for the performing version they used which seemingly contained every sketch Offenbach ever jotted down with no editing whatsoever. The Landestheater’s well-thought-through performing version could handle this ending. This meant also deleting the role of Stella – she cannot appear because that would be just another love lost for Hoffmann, whereas here instead of getting defeated drunk under the table, Hoffmann emerges with his muse in triumph.
That the cast and orchestra rose to the challenge musically certainly increased the triumph. Franz Supper as Hoffmann drove the opera forward with nuance, his voice remaining firm throughout, the glue to hold these stories together. George Humphreys, performing all four villains, kept a menacing tone and a sense of drama. Tamara Gura, as Hoffmann’s muse, acted well but did not always have a big enough voice. Of the three female loves, Tamara Ivaniš as the doll Olympia gave the strongest performance, with an appropriately delicate voice that nevertheless projected through the hall. Anne-Fleur Werner as the singer Antonia in the third act (they used the traditional order, albeit probably not the order Offenbach wanted, putting Antonia as the third of the three) also performed her role with tragedy and love. In the middle, Angela Davis as Giulietta was merely adequate.
The Mozarteum Orchestra exceeded itself in the pit tonight. Adrian Kelly had them in full sound, but always properly proportioned to never overwhelm the singers, but with enough volume and shape to almost become a character of its own (it never overstepped its role as a pit orchestra, but its gorgeous playing was certainly appreciated and noted by the even more rousing applause it received at the end). Kelly’s pacing was perfect, allowing this performance to keep moving forward, even if we sometimes may have wished to get lost in the lush playing and thrilling Offenbachian tunes.
The director was a young German, Alexandra Liedke. What is unclear to me is whether she made the decision about which performing version to construct, or whether someone on the musical side took that decision and she just staged it (given that she is a German opera director, my inclination is that the good decision was more likely taken by someone else – German directors are so awful that they don’t get the benefit of any doubt). As I said, the staging itself was neither good nor bad. If she took the decision of how to put together this version, then good on her (and how atypical of a German director). If she just staged a version someone else had assembled, then I suppose it could have been worse – but certainly the staging allowed an intelligently-constructed performing version of this opera to bloom. Score one for the muse.
Kutavičius, The Gates of Jerusalem
The Salzburg Landestheater‘s music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla decided to conclude her tenure here with two works by her Lithuanian countryman Bronius Kutavičius. Knowing nothing about him, I bought a ticket for one – his oratorio “The Gates of Jerusalem” – and figured I would then decide whether to get a ticket for the other. Having now wasted 80 minutes and 26 Euros, there won’t be a second ticket.
Although Jerusalem has more than four gates, Kutavičius only made four (perhaps we should be thankful – 12 gates would have presumably lasted four hours): East, North, South, West. Stylistically, he drew inspiration for each movement from music coming from each of those directions: Japan, Ancient Lithuania, Africa, and the Western Church. Each movement was indeed quite different (the Japanese-inspired one involved playing string instruments incorrectly, including scraping something against the strings inside a piano). What they all had in common, however, was mind-numbing repetition. Kutavičius came up with an idea for each movement and then repeated it for twenty minutes. Although none of the movements reflected the musical language of Ravel’s Bolero, in some respects this oratorio used the same logic as that endlessly awful work, never understanding when enough is enough.
The only movement that partially worked was the African one (the South Gate), with spirited solo singing by Elliot Carlton Hines. But even this was interminable. At the end of the curtain call, Hines reprised part of this, which was welcome because the abbreviated reprisal was indeed the right length. What a shame Kutavičius did not think to edit his own work.
The setting for tonight’s performance, in Salzburg’s University Church, allowed the chorus and orchestra to move around and explore the resilient acoustics. I think highly of Gražinytė-Tyla’s conducting, and her infectious smile permeated the evening. But while patriotic she made a poor choice of music to champion.
Weil, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny
It has been aeons since I last saw Kurt Weill‘s opera Mahagonny, although I do listen to recordings not infrequently. But a production at the Salzburg Landestheater gave me the chance to revisit it as a stage production. I do remember many years ago finding a staging at the Met compelling, but whether that was a functional staging or just my youthful enthusiasm I am not now sure.
Certainly this evening’s staging was not compelling theater. The staging was contemporary, which was actually fine for this opera, transferring the scene from Marxist commentary on the world in 1930 to 2017’s obsession with new technology and social media. I am not sure that was wrong. It may just be that, on further review, the libretto by Berthold Brecht – although often quite clever within individual numbers – failed as drama. Perhaps it’s all just Marxist gobbledygook after all.
But the Landestheater’s ensemble cast clearly had fun on stage, which always helps. And Weill’s whimsical music is always a pleasure (why I do so enjoy listening to this opera, after all). The Mozarteum Orchestra in the pit, under Adrian Kelly, completely captured the twists of the score, contorting their sounds to match the mood, which they managed to keep spirited, almost mocking Brecht’s moralistic satire. Where this production failed as theater, it succeeded as music thanks to the team of singers, instrumentalists, and conductor who understood exactly what they needed to do.
Aucoin, Orphic Moment
Gluck, Orpheus and Eurydice
I was pleasantly offered a ticket to the opera at the Landestheater this evening for an experimental production, and decided to give it a try.
The 26-year-old American composer Matthew Aucoin has reimagined Gluck‘s Orfeo ed Euridice, with a performance of Aucoin’s Orphic Moment wrapped around Gluck’s music (styled as Orfeo Squared) at the Salzburg Landestheater. I definitely did not understand his concept.
I’m really not sure where to begin, so I guess I should hit plot, music, production, and performance.
From a plot perspective, we started with Orpheus’ existential decision to look back at Eurydice just before reaching safety, which sends her back to the Underworld. In this version, his look is almost intentional – the tragic loss of Eurydice the first time had made him a more inspired artist. We then left Aucoin’s music and went back to Gluck’s. Where Gluck changed the ending of the myth to have Love bring Eurydice back to life a second time despite Orpheus’ look, Aucoin gave an additional plot twist to have Orpheus reject this ending and walk away from her. Why? Psychobabble? This reworking just ended – the audience was not even aware that it ended – we only realized when the cast started bowing.
On to the music, Aucoin’s new music did not speak to me either. I’m not sure how to classify it. Modern, of course, but that’s not really a classification. Maybe I’ll just stick with “not ugly” (not pretty, either). But what was its relationship to Gluck’s music? It did not add anything, and it did not provide an enlightening juxtaposition. Did it have a point?
As for the production… we had a minimalist set with a lot of moving parts and projections (of Eurydice’s face), with a dancer in a box representing Eurydice appearing as an alternative to the singer portraying Eurydice. I suppose the idea of the whole staging was to capture Orpheus’ mental state. This was not German Regietheater, and clearly they were trying to portray the actual plot (some of which is indeed psychodramatic inside Orpheus’ head). Did it work? If in the end I was not clear on what was going on, then I’ll have to say no.
The Mozarteum Orchestra in the pit sounded fantastic. Aucoin himself conducted, although it was entirely unclear if he had a role in the orchestra’s sound. Gluck’s opera is rather static (as were the bits written by Aucoin), so the performers would need to drive this work forward, and Aucoin did not. The singers – Rowan Hellier (Orpheus), Laura Nicorescu (Eurydice), and Tamara Ivaniš (Love) – also did not. Their voices were fine (Hellier’s voice a little weaker than the others – although she has much more to sing, she was weak from the start, perhaps holding back to make it through a performance her role must carry), but I did not sense sufficient emotion or nuance.
As a final verdict, I think Aucoin may just have tried to be too clever. A performance of Gluck’s opera, complete and without all of the other distractions, may have succeeded with these same forces. In fact, the cast was entirely acceptable and the staging (of the Gluck portions) did try to elucidate the plot, so without Aucoin’s distractions the Gluck on its own probably would have made me leave the evening very satisfied. Unfortunately, Aucoin’s confused frame did not allow proper focus on the Gluck opera as such, making the experience unfulfilling.
Rossini, Il Turco in Italia
A new production of Rossini‘s Il Turco in Italia came to the Salzburg Landestheater last week, with the second performance tonight. The cast and orchestra looked quite pleased with themselves, as they should have been, so the musical side of the performance would have worked out any kinks from opening night.
This was a musically-idiomatic Rossini, led by Adrian Kelly from the harpsichord, with the right amount of humor. The mostly-young cast matched this element from the stage, headed by Pietro Di Bianco as Selim, the title role, and Hannah Bradbury as Fiorilla and well-supported in particular by Sergio Foresti as Geronio and Simon Schnorr as Prosdocimo. I’d like to comment on their sense of nuance, as they build their careers, but I kept getting too distracted by the goings-on on stage to fully appreciate their apparent talent; I hope to hear them again in a more sensible setting.
Indeed, if I had kept my eyes closed, I would have enjoyed the performance more. The opera is a Rossinian farce with a convoluted plot, which leaves the opera director much room to have fun. But there is a plot, and to stage something else in no way helps the audience understand the bizarre twists in the story. Tonight’s setting, moving the scene to the Costa Concordia cruise ship that sank off the Italian coast in 2012, with Geronio as the ship’s captain, was nonsense. To even try to make this work proved distracting from the opera the cast was gallantly trying to perform. The German (of course) director, Marco Dott, at least did not seem to try to offend the audience, so I suppose he could have done far worse.
I do not know what opera I just saw performed by the Salzburg Landestheater at the Felsenreitschule (something nonsensical about Mexican drug cartels), but I do know what I heard: a musically-outstanding performance of Bizet‘s Carmen.
The highest kudos must go to the Landestheater’s music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, for ignoring the idiocy on stage and getting the musicians to produce real drama. She captured the emotion, drove the (real) plot, and balanced the tragedy with the light-heartedness and dance in much of this music. The orchestral colors mixed in just the right combinations, full but never overwhelming the singers.
The cast, too, responded to her direction more than to the stage director’s. The Byelorussian mezzo Oksana Volkova portrayed a seductive – both flirty and hard-to-get – Carmen with a full voice, although it tired during rhe second act (performed without a break from the first, so requiring her to show quite a lot of stamina). Tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi, like his character Don José a Basque, took most of the first act to warm up, but his originally somewhat-dry voice came into its own as the opera progressed. Philadelphian Zachary Nelson disappointed as a weaker-voiced Escamillo, more telling in contrast to the others. The best voice of the evening belonged to Russian soprano Elena Stikhina, as Micaela, whose beautiful instrument radiated confidently.
About the staging (a terrible concept by Andreas Gergen), the less said the better. This was not an update into another time and location, but rather a retelling of the story. Determining exactly how to get the new plot to match the libretto took too much energy. When it became apparent that the musical performance deserved full attention, I started ignoring the revised plot on stage and just enjoyed the music. Looking at the singers, it seems they tried to do the same, focussing entirely on Gražinytė-Tyla and getting on with it.
The world premiere of Tahrir, an opera by Hossam Mahmoud, an Egyptian composer based in Salzburg (and a Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar), took place at the Salzburg Landestheater while I was on my way back from Odessa last month, but I fortunately managed to catch the production tonight. Mahmoud, who wrote the libretto (in German) as well as the music, produced a powerful drama in all respects, inspired by the Egyptian spring uprising and its aftermath.
As a music student, Mahmoud studied both the oud and the viola, and his musical idiom mixes classical Arabic music with classical western form. For this opera, the mix proved especially atmospheric and otherworldly. He described the plot as a “hallucination,” so the action and the character development were both minimal – the music drove the meaning. Staging was also minimal, with few props and a movie screen in the back of the stage which presented a series of images, including film footage of the Egyptian uprising. This approach worked much better than a realistic one, because the drama happens less on stage than between the sung lines.
The central character, the ghost of a protester whom the regime had tortured to death, lurks until his grieving mother realizes that the regime’s official story (that her son had been run over by a car) is false, and she takes up his cause to inspire the people and to allow her son’s soul to be released to heaven. The moment it became clear that the official story was a lie, the music turned the knife just as the powerful moment at the end of the prologue to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, when the news comes back that – despite earlier lies – Tove, too, has been murdered.
The singing lines proved difficult for the cast, both in their oscilating volumes and in the music itself which did not quite stick to western tones. As the murdered son, Ilker Arcayürek sometimes slipped from singing to screaming. Giulio Alvise Caselli, as the duplicitous politician, mastered his lines (the character was not sympathetic but the music also did not characterize him as evil) with bold and clear voice. The two lead female roles, Frances Pappas as the dead man’s mother and Laura Nicorescu as the politician’s young wife, acted out their roles with full emotion, understated but dramatic in the music.
The Landestheater’s young (20-something) and dynamic Lithuanian music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, did an unbelievable job keeping the complex strands linked and in time. This was especially so because the orchestra members were scattered all over the stage, in loges, and on the upper balcony; the stage was also built out over the orchestra pit and the front rows of the auditorium. Gražinytė-Tyla stood on the stage itself, on the far left, surveying it all and leading the performance with her sleeves rolled up and big dramatic arms shaping the difficult score like clay. Second only to composer Mahmoud, she was the star tonight.
Benatzky, Im Weißen Rößl
The original version, performed here tonight, did indeed have its premiere in decadent Berlin in 1930, where revue dominated the style of the day. Extra music (mostly reworked from the music elsewhere, but tonight with some pop songs added) allowed for extra dancing inserted between numbers of the plot, with dancers in various stages of undress doing rhythmic dancing (not all from the 1920s/1930s).
The conception made me feel uneasy for other reasons as well. The program made a point that the Nazis considered this “degenerate music,” as so many Austrian Jews had been involved in putting it together. For those who did not read the program, the dancers marched onstage at the start with a Nazi-era poster for the famous degenerate art exhibition. While some of the characters in this work may have been Jewish, this production made a point of making them identifiably so in caricature, down to breaking a glass at a engagement reception (in a bit of confusion with the wedding practice, but what do these idiots know). And Prof. Dr. Hinzelmann was portrayed as a caricature of Albert Einstein. With the European left having become increasingly rabid in its anti-Semitism, where anti-Semitism is once again salonfähig, trying to hide behind nominally anti-Nazi statements is often itself code for anti-Semitism. And, of course, it was the Austrian left which happily rehabilitated the Austrian Nazis in the 1940s and 50s.
The performance itself was further blighted by having the cast heavily miked. There is never any reason to do this in an indoor performance, and the small Landestheater is certainly not big enough to justify it. If the cast cannot project to fill the small hall, they picked the wrong profession. The volume of the amplification also meant that the voices overwhelmed the music. This was most unfortunate for Sascha Oskar Weis singing Leopold Brandmeyer, the lead male role, since his singing voice was truly awful. Simon Schorr as Dr. Otto Siedler had by far the best voice, but they did not regulate the microphone for him, so he projected that much more than everyone else at blasting volume. A random non-character, Renate Vaithianathan, a yodeler(!) who looked like she had crawled out of the grunge bin and had not showered for years with long matted hair, just proved annoying – who enunciates a yodel (and, yes, she did manage to enunciate her yodels) into a microphone? The rest of the cast was completely undistinguished and not worth mentioning.
Peter Ewaldt conducted a fantastic-sounding Mozarteum Orchestra (the music is fun, and they played it with bounce).
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.
Mozart, Die Zauberflöte
My first opera since moving to Salzburg… had to be Mozart, I suppose. The Salzburger Landestheater has brought out a new production of Zauberflöte this year.
There may not be a right way to stage this opera. I’m sure a German could think of a wrong way, but the German director in this case decided to actually stage it properly (maybe because he did not train in Germany). The curtain opened with someone representing the impressario Emanuel Schikaneder (and in this case the librettist) on stage with an oversized suitcase, out of which emerged the evening’s characters. This production would clearly bridge fantasy and reality. Then the Schikaneder shed his cloak to reveal himself as Papageno… just as the real-life Schikaneder sang Papageno at the opera’s premiere in 1791.
For Tamino and Papageno, and Pamina and Papagena, in addition to the singers, they were also portrayed by marionettes. Rather than just mimicking the singers, the marionettes became alter-egos, adding an extra layer of emotion, but also allowing these characters to talk to themselves and explore the their innermost psychologies. The ploy added charm, helping to make these characterizations fuller, but also underscoring the fantasy/reality dichotomy.
The staging was otherwise simple and straightforward. Costumes, though mixing periods, were generally neutral and blended well – except for Tamino’s. Why Tamino (and therefore also his marionette) wore a Yale University sweatshirt was entirely unclear.
At the end of the opera, Papageno put his cloak back on and became Schikaneder again, ushering all the characters and props back into his suitcase. Except Tamino and Pamina decided to go their own way without their puppets. He gave them a hug and a blessing, and then climbed with his own puppet into his own suitcase as the curtain fell.
The star of the evening was the Landestheater’s terrific new 28-year-old Lithuanian music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Her unusual conducting style looked a little like she was mimicking the marionettes: she held her arms outstretched in front of her and upwards, while making oversized but clear motions. Everyone could follow her perfectly. She doubles as Gustavo Dudamel’s assistant in Los Angeles – but on first sight seems like she has more of knack for musical clarity than her overrated boss.
The cast was fine – voices were as big as they needed to be in this relatively small theater and with a chamber orchestra in the pit.