Although Austria is coming back to life, the return to live music looks to remain months away. Even then, it is not clear what musical events may look like. Will we be able to cram into our seats in the audience, or will only a small number of seats go on sale? Given scarcity, will they be affordable (and if not, is this sustainable?)? Will the musicians themselves be able to survive this period? Will the venues? Even a committed concert-goer like me has not renewed any of my subscriptions for 2020-21. Even if I were sure the shows will go on, I don’t know my schedule, which has been heavily disrupted, so do not know if I can plan around the subscription dates. I also have taken a cut in income giving me even less disposable income to spend on concerts (I was using most of my disposable income on live music since I moved to Salzburg), so I may start to be more selective – subscriptions give me more music for the price, but if I won’t make certain concerts then it becomes less cost-effective. I don’t really know, so I wait. But I also recognize that people like me (I am sure I am not the only one waiting) makes it harder for the music to return.
So I am thankful for the online offerings people are making available. It does not replace the live music, but it keeps me current. Once again, I will stick to the format of operas first and concerts second in these highlight summaries. I do not repeat recording tips if I have made them in connection with the same opera in a previous weekly blog during this lockdown.
Strauss: Capriccio (Staatsoper)
This week included three operas by Richard Strauss, opening with a simple and elegant staging at the Staatsoper by Marco Arturo Marelli, which I saw live in 2008. The streamed version had a similar cast as the performance I saw back then (Michael Schade as Flamand, Adrian Eröd as Olivier, Wolfgang Bankl as La Roche, and Angelika Kirchschlager as Clairon) with only the Countess and Count different (here Camilla Nylund and Markus Eiche, instead of Renée Fleming and Bo Skovhus), and Michael Boder conducting (instead of Philippe Jordan in 2008). This is a peculiar opera – wonderful in so many ways, but does not get performed often for reasons of its length and eccentricity. When I saw this production at the Staatsoper in 2008, which may also have been the first time I ever heard it, it impressed me – a combination of Strauss’ lush score and undivided attention on the words (I would say “action” but there is no action, only words), and I rated it the best opera performance I had attended that year (in which I had spent quite a lot of time in Vienna). On the small screen it did not enrapture me as much. Was this Nyland and Eiche and Boder not having the same twinkle as Fleming and Skovhus and Jordan? Hard to say, since it has been so long.
- [Recording tip: After seeing this opera for the first time in 2008, I went out and got a recording (Karl Böhm’s 1972 recording with the Bavarian Radio and a stellar cast). I am not going to claim it is the definitive one, since I have not made comparisons. I have other excerpts, too. But I will say that I return over and over again to Renée Fleming’s luscious final scene with the Vienna Philharmonic and Christoph Eschenbach released on a CD with other “Strauss heroines” in 1999).]
Strauss, Rosenkavalier (Metropolitan Opera)
I did not understand the interpretation from the Metropolitan Opera by Canadian director Robert Carsen. I tried to understand. I think he tried to think this one through. But it’s not just that I was not convinced, rather more that I didn’t see any logic at all. The concept (costumes, décor, and mood) was more 1920s Berlin than 1740s Vienna (even the fictionalized and romanticized 1740s Vienna created by Strauss and Hofmannsthal).
The first act, set in the Marschallin’s bedroom, looked more like a state room in the Hofburg. For an opera set in Maria Theresia’s Vienna, somehow there were numerous portraits of Franz Joseph prominently displayed on the wall, as well as of other descendants of the Empress (at least in the Hofburg Maria Theresia is on the wall in what is now the President’s formal reception room). As a nice touch, Carsen had Octavian return with (actual) roses for the Marschallin in the later part of the act, after he his snuck off and changed back into himself. Act two had neo-Greek décor, armaments, and oddly waltzing servants (what? Yes, the music is full of waltzes, but the servants don’t just start spontaneously waltzing with each other). In the plot, Faninal was ennobled for supplying Austria’s armies in the Netherlands, but that would not mean he keeps the guns and cannons in his home – or maybe this was simply an attempt by Carsen at comedy. Act three took place a brothel, but I suppose if it is being updated to the 1920s, then why not. The “Innkeeper” was a transvestite madame, and the musicians also looked like transvestites. Yes, the opera features a female lead playing a male role in which the character dresses as a woman, so it is part of the farce, but I am not sure what having actual transvestites in a brothel added. Octavian as Mariandl dressed like one of the whores (skimpy lingerie is not necessarily a good way to hide certain body parts, though!). It also meant she was not playing the simple country girl.
There are different ways to place the stress in this plot. In Carsen’s interpretation, Octavian (an exciting and excited Elīna Garanča) became the driving force. Günther Groissböck, a despicable Ochs, intended to be a bit of a dashing playboy in his military uniform. This made him more physically active than the usual portrayal – not bad, just different, since he cannot be a complete bumpkin in the plot, but must demonstrate he is presentable in polite aristocratic society even if he is at heart an oaf. The opera ended with Octavian and Sophie (Erin Morley) in the brothel bed together, and during the final measures (when the Marschallin’s young blackmoor Mohammed is supposed to be fetching her handkerchief), I have no explanation for what happened: the servant Mohammed (not a blackmoor here) showed up drunk, an army appeared in the background (presumably led by the Feldmarschall), the servant shook his bottle of alcohol, and the army collapsed dead – or something like that. But we did get Renée Fleming as the Marschallin. Sebastian Weigle led a perfectly fine performance from the pit.
Strauss: Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)
As I noted earlier during this lockdown, Strauss’ Elektra is an opera I have never really paid much attention to, for reasons I cannot explain. The Staatsoper’s woeful staging by a Prussian nincompoop in its recent streaming did not help me to understand it, so I just listened then. I was pleased to have another chance this week from the Met. But it turns out the director of the Met’s version is Patrice Chéreau, who made a lasting traumatic impression on my childhood with a miserable production of Wagner’s Ring he did at Bayreuth along with his airheaded countryman Pierre Boulez conducting, that seemed designed to take the most deconstructionist French approach possible to the Ring (as a child I certainly did not know about French deconstructionism – and as an adult I am sorry I do). That Chéreau-Boulez Ring from Bayreuth was televised, a big deal for back then, and my father and I sat down to watch with great anticipation, only to be terribly let down. So I just listened again this time to Elektra. (Is that entirely fair? Should I have given Chéreau another chance, especially considering the number of lousy opera stagings I have seen over the years since then? Probably, but his collaboration on that Bayreuth Ring really left my younger self disgusted and disgruntled.) Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the moody music. Nina Stemme was a wonderful Elektra, with Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis and Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra. It really is luxurious. One of these days I will get to see a production of this opera by a competent director.
Puccini: Tosca (Metropolitan Opera)
The Met gave us a nice staging of Puccini’s Tosca (this was apparently the premiere performance of this staging from 2018) by David McVicar, where he provided a stage on which the singers could act. Great little touches included Cavaradossi washing his face with holy water before Tosca comes in, and the mannerisms of Scarpia’s henchmen towards Cavaradossi (and knowing winks and nods to Scarpia). Željko Lučić was a forceful Scarpia and dominated his scenes. Sonya Yoncheva was a tad too melodramatic as Tosca (ever the diva, I suppose). Vittorio Grigòlo may not have been the strongest Cavaradossi in voice or pitch (indeed, his voice was easily the poorest aspect of this entire performance), but could act the role. Emmanuel Villaume conducted.
Offenbach: Tales of Hoffmann (Metropolitan Opera)
There is no definitive performing version of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (not worth explaining here why not). So this is an opera which enables the director to decide how to assemble it. All I ask is that the version makes sense. A 2009 production at the Met by Bartlett Sher was set as a series of fantasies, which does make sense, but the settings themselves did not. Not that they were crazy, just that they seemed to add nothing to understanding the work. An excellent Niklaus (Kate Linsley) was equal parts dashing and mysterious, often as much co-conspirator against Hoffmann as muse to Hoffmann, so in this concept it made sense to insert the pre-prologue scene (with muse and the devil) and the post-epilogue scene (with the characters from the entire opera returning to the stage for a grand final morality chorus), both usually omitted. Sher flipped the acts with Giulietta (here coming third) and Antonia (here coming second), putting them into the order that Offenbach himself wanted and which does make the most sense, although not the order they usually appear in. The rest of the cast was fine, although the entire evening seemed uninspired other than Linsley (Joseph Calleja as Hoffmann, Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Anna Netrebko as Stella and Antonia, Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta, Alan Held as all of the villains). James Levine conducted.
- [Recording tips: …or lack thereof. I like this opera and have seen it many times since my childhood, but maybe because there is no definitive version, I have never come across a recording I would especially recommend although I own two complete ones, depending on how one defines “complete.”]
Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)
The Staatsoper’s Otto Schenk-directed production of Beethoven’s Fidelio resolved for me the problem of having watched the Theater an der Wien’s production earlier in the lockdown. First of all, they used the third version, which works dramatically much better than the two earlier versions (the Theater an der Wien did the second). Second, Schenk’s intelligent staging augmented the drama even in the first act, which still in Beethoven’s third try was never quite up to the level. I had a choice of recent casts, and picked one from 2017 (the cast available next week from a 2016 performance included the same Leonore – Anja Kampe – and Marzelline – Valentina Naforniƫă – that I saw in this production in 2013; they were excellent, but I opted for something else this time, although maybe I am tempted to listen back in next week). Camilla Nylund as Leonore and Günther Groissböck as Rocco led the cast. Chen Reiss fully developed the character of Marzelline, both in acting and in singing, and was a delight in her brief scenes. The orchestra was warm and full, and carried the Vienna tradition started by Mahler of performing the Leonore Overture #3 in the scene change of the second act. Drama indeed. Cornelius Meister led a spirited performance.
Benatzky: Axel an der Himmelstür (Volksoper)
The Volksoper (of which I am a fan – and where I indeed attended my first live opera when I was five) kindly offered a trial of the “Fidelio” streaming service. It does not offer a huge selection (or maybe it just does not have a very good search function), but I think I will be finding some things to recommend on there. I thought I might start the trial with something from the Volksoper itself, and went back to the 2016 new production of Ralph Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür, a parody of 1930s Hollywood done up as a Viennese operetta. This production was one of my musical highlights in 2016. And on this streaming, it was a great show once again, with a partly different cast than the one I saw in 2016 – I assume they filmed their “A” cast and I saw some “B” cast, but that itself may not mean anything in particular. I am not sure that the two female leads here (Bettina Mönch as Gloria Mills and Johanna Arrouas as Jessie) convinced me as much as the ones I saw (Julia Koci and Juliette Khalil, respectively), although hard to make a direct comparison over the years. But Andreas Bieber repeated as Axel and Kurt Schreibmayer as Cecil McScott, and Boris Eder replaced Peter Lesiak as Theodore, and they were all in fine form. Lorenz Aichner conducted this clever staging by Peter Lund (my original review is on this blog for 14 October 2016). I must say, however, that I was still bothered by the microphones. There is no need to ever mike an opera opera performed indoors – although possibly if the staging requires the singers to move around a lot and not always face front, but here it was clear from the film that they still faced front, so I cannot excuse this decision. It makes an even bigger difference in the theater for a live performance: what is the point of hearing music “live” if it comes over a speaker and sounds the same as on a recording?
- [Recording tip: the 2016 Volksoper production inspired me to go out and get a recording. There are not too many choices. I now have a 1958 Vienna Radio recording with Heinz Sandauer conducting. Zarah Leander, who created the roll of Gloria Mills, reprises it on this recording. The CD set includes some original tracks from the 1936 team that created the opera.]
Vienna Philharmonic: Schumann, Berlioz
The trial with “Fidelio” allowed me to find Mariss Jansons’ last concert in the Musikverein leading the Vienna Philharmonic last June, broadcast on Austrian television after Jansons passed away late last year. Jansons looked exhausted and frail, yet the sound he coaxed was revelatory despite the works being standard and theoretically with nothing new (for lesser conductors) to say: the “Spring” Symphony by Schumann and the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. Indeed, this was perhaps the most powerful and expansive performance I have ever heard of Schumann’s first symphony.
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Berlioz, Poulenc, Saint-Saëns
Jansons was of course the greatest conductor of his generation, and will be sorely missed. He was the sort of conductor I would see was conducting, and not even look to see what he was performing: I was guaranteed to hear something good. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he remained Music Director at the time of his death, has posted several concerts for streaming on their website. I zeroed in on one all-French concert. The French, as I often remark, seem not to understand music (Berlioz excepted, and the French never understood him). Some French composers had talent, but did not do much with it beyond some works that deserve to remain in the repertory but make me scratch my head as to why they couldn’t produce more like that. But with Jansons and the Bavarians, suddenly real drama appears. This was not French drama, but the way it could sound. Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna joined forces here – I’ve heard her perform in the Mozarteum, but this she took to the next level. The concert opened with Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival. Then came Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto G minor (this is the work I heard Apkalna perform before – this time it convinced me, since last time she had a real disconnect with the orchestra, which I blamed back then squarely on an inadequate conductor). Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3 C minor (with the organ) completed the concert, its own first movement setting an amazingly delicate mood.
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra: Bruckner
Jansons drew more lush sounds from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a January 2019 performance of Bruckner’s Mass #3. Bruckner wrote this mass right before he moved to Vienna and so it marks the transition point in his life. This performance itself was other-worldly. At “et resurexit,” they could have raised the dead.
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev
For Prokofiev’s birthday on 23 April, the Mariinsky streamed a concert the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra performed on his birthday in 2016 in Moscow’s Stalinist Tschaikowsky Hall (I hated that hall, but it has extra prestige in Russia because Stalin had it built). Maestro Valery Gergiev was joined by Denis Kozhukin for the piano concerto #1 to lead off the concert, and by Leonidas Kavakos for the violin concerto #1 to end it. In between came Prokofiev’s first and second symphonies. Gergiev kept the first symphony, called “classical” because of its size and style, within those classical bounds, but added a spirited and even exciting approach. The violin concerto marked another highlight, with an interpretation highlighting the work’s great contrasts (and making it look easy). For those subscribing to the Mariinsky’s streaming who can get them, go look for those two works in particular.
Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven
I opened the music this week with a compilation posted on the Philadephia Orchestra’s website: three Beethoven concerti from three different concerts combined into one program. The Beethoven 250 celebration having been interrupted by the lockdown, they’ve moved it online. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the two piano concerti, with Yefim Bronfman (concerto #4) and Daniil Trifonov (concerto #5) on the keyboard, and their performances were suitably pensive for a Sunday afternoon, the orchestra in full sound enveloping but never overwhelming the ears. The violin concerto, with soloist Gil Shaham and conductor Susanna Mälkki, should have been the same, but was less so – I find Mälkki far too blockish a conductor, putting everything in place and leaving no room for expression.