Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

I returned to work from my office in Salzburg for the first time since I fled home to Vienna in March ahead of the lockdown.  So that would seem to be a good time to reduce my intake of online streaming, right when most places are also reducing their content.  The last part of June anyway had little online that interested me.  A few new streamings caught my eye.  With one exception, I came away disappointed.

Meanwhile, the Salzburg Festival did its new ticket allocation by algorithm.  I got offered, and have now accepted, tickets for nine concerts at this summer’s slimmed-down Salzburg Festival in August. While it may not have been the broader selection I originally booked pre-covid, I emerge happy that the Festival’s algorithm thought I still deserved this assortment.  They have limited availability: one meter minimum seating distance between audience members in all directions, no intermissions to avoid people moving around, strict entry/exit protocols in place.  I cannot wait to finally hear live music again soon.

Verdi: Don Carlos (Staatsoper)

This was a surprisingly unfulfilling performance of an abridged version of Verdi’s Don Carlos from the Staatsoper, despite a promising cast from 2017.  I think I might put the blame on Daniele Abbado, son of the great conductor Claudio Abbado, who created a dark staging, with shapes and lights evocative of nothing in particular, drab costumes that looked like they might have been left over from some provincial theater’s storage, and an impressionistic mood that made no real impression.  Did Abbado have a concept?  It was not realistic, nor Regietheater, nor minimalist-staging-to-emphasize-psychodrama.  What drama there was clearly came from the singers, particularly Plácido Domingo as Rodrigo de Posa and Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Felipe II.  Domingo’s voice is of course not what it once was, but he has ably shifted into the baritone role, and his immense talent continues to shine through.  Ramón Vargas, singing Domingo’s old role of Don Carlos, paled in comparison – not only was his voice straining in trying to match the level of his colleague, but his melodramatic approach to acting also got shown up next to Domingo doing it right.  Krassimira Stoyanova and Elena Zhidkova triumphed as the two main female leads, Elisabeth of Valois and Ana Mendoza of Eboli.  Ryan Speedo Green and Alexandru Moisiuc made impressions in the supporting bass roles of Carlos V and the Grand Inquisitor, respectively.  But the wholly-unimpressive Myung-Whun Chung added nothing from the pit.  Indeed, I suppose the fact that they chose to do an abridged version (there is no standard version of this opera, but here Abbado seems to have wanted to take all possible cuts) may have helped to get this thing done more quickly.  Would his father have willingly conducted this muddle?

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Staatsoper)

When I saw that Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina was on the Staatsoper’s streaming lineup for this month, I got excited – it’s a great opera.  But when I actually streamed it, I suddenly remembered why I have avoided going to hear this particular production live.

I’ll start with the positive, since it’s really worth saying.  Musically, this performance from 2014 was spectacular.  Semyon Bychkov conducted with tremendous pacing and excitement, drawing out every dynamic nuance (by the sound of it, generally using Schostakowitsch’s performing version instead of the standard Rimsky-Korsakov one, which also helped the drama – although I’m pretty sure he did not stick to Schostakowitsch entirely and do not know if that represented his modifications or if he got them from elsewhere).  The orchestra and chorus responded with lines of sheer beauty.  Among the soloists, Ferruccio Furlanetto stood out as Ivan Khovansky, with extreme vocal presence and full voice – until Khovansky’s power was spent, when he became intentionally hoarse and pained.  Andrzej Dobbert (Shakovity) was suitably animated and Elina Maximova (Marfa) had a warm and expressive tone.  Ain Aiger (Dosifei) and Herbert Lippert (Golitsin) took a little time to warm up but grew into full-sounding characters.  Even small roles, such as Norbert Ernst as the scribe, added to the whole.

Now the negative.  Lev Dodin, the director, is not German (would seem to be a Russian Jew whose family had been deported to Siberia) and I found no German training in his biography, so he may have independently come to the conclusion that an opera director need not pay any attention to the plot of the opera he is directing.  He set the entire opera on what seemed to be a building construction site at night, the cast riding up and down on freight elevators, mostly in the dark, and rarely interacting with each other, and spending an inordinate amount of time stripping to their underwear and then dressing again.  I could not discern any logic for anything.  At best the staging was distracting (indeed, the lighting was generally so dark, they would have been better off keeping the stage lights of entirely so the audience would not have to see anything and could just listen to a wonderful-sounding performance).  And now I remember being able to get a ticket to see this production a few years ago, but checking it out online first and deciding not to go.  Good choice.  I wouldn’t pay to sit there.  And as an Austrian taxpayer, I certainly hope the Staatsoper has a clause in its standard contract that allows them not to pay Regisseurs who don’t fulfill the most basic requirement to be an opera director: staging the opera they are hired to stage.

Saint-Saëns: Samson and Dalilah (Metropolitan Opera)

Director Darko Tresnjak’s somewhat stylized metallic 2018 staging of Samson and Dalilah by Saint-Saëns for the Metropolitan Opera, with strong colors and shifting lighting and overly-elaborate mock-biblical costumes, though not exactly fit for the period, worked to provide a backdrop and set a mood.  But the blocking and acting came across a tad too static (in general – some bits were randomly too bizarrely active, such as when the Philistine soldiers enter to capture Samson at the end of the second act, in which Tresnjak had them literally crawling over the walls like vermin).  Part of this would indeed be the blocking, but in general I felt the cast underperformed.  It had been the line-up which had made me want to watch: Roberto Alagna and Elīna Garanča in the title roles, and an excellent-looking (on paper) supporting cast, just sort-of fizzled.  Mark Elder and the Met Orchestra in the pit added no excitement to what ultimately resulted in a dull performance, particularly when considering this should have had extra impulse from being the opening night of a new production.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Tsar’s Bride (Mariinsky Theater)

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar’s Bride has a hard enough plot to follow even when staged (although a good staging helps).  Here, the Mariinsky streamed an unstaged version from the Mariinsky Concert Hall in 2016, which like the rest of the Mariinsky’s streamings lacked an option for subtitles (which I usually keep off, but find them helpful for some operas). What this did allow, however, was for me to mostly forget about the plot except for the key outline, and to listen more intently to the sumptuous music.  Despite the convoluted plot (not the first nor the last opera to have one), this rarely-performed opera really does deserve a better place in the mainstream repertory.  Valery Gergiev ably led the orchestra, chorus, and an expressive cast (featuring Olga Trifonova as Marfa and Aleksei Markov as Grigory Gryaznoy, supported by Stanislav TrofimovVladimir Felyauer, Yevgyeny Akimov, Olga Borodina, and Oleg Valashov).  Always a pleasure to hear this opera performed well.

Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

Although live music has indeed resumed in Austria, I probably won’t get any until the Salzburg Festival.  So I continue to try to identify highlights online.

Janáček: The Makropoulos Affair (Staatsoper)

I was in the audience at the Staatsoper on the day this performance of Janáček’s Makropoulos Affair was recorded, and remember it as one of my musical highlights from 2015.  This is a very strange opera, which even some non-German directors have used as an excuse to turn it into a too-fantastical staging.  Here, a German director, Peter Stein, broke with the dross his countrymen usually produce and went the other direction, with a straightforward staging that made the plot understandable, and brought the underlying humor to the fore of the dark plot (the opera was based on a comic play, without itself becoming a comic opera).  An excellent cast (including Laura Aikin, Ludovít Ludha, Thomas Ebenstein, Margarita Gritskova, Markus Marquardt, and Wolfgang Bankl) ran with it from there.  Jakub Hrůša conducted idiomatically.  Indeed, this was worth seeing again – remaining fresh while every bit the success that I had remembered (see my original review on this blog from 20 December 2015).

Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera (Staatsoper)

I do not believe I have seen Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera since I was a kid.  I have distinct memories of watching Luciano Pavarotti’s terrible acting skills try to navigate the prolonged death scene in more than one “Live from the Met” telecast, and I also have an old Met libretto on my bookshelf, so I must have also seen it there live, too.  It’s wonderful music, but had completely fallen off my radar (I do own one complete recording, which I have probably not listened to in twenty years).  So when I saw the cast assembled for this streaming of a 2016 performance from the Staatsoper, and also that they were using a opulent staging which also restored the action to Sweden (as opposed to colonial Boston, where the censors made Verdi move the plot and where it is therefore most commonly set), I decided this was as good an opportunity as any to remind myself of this opera.

Jesús López Cobos conducted with verve, nicely supporting Gianfranco de Bosio’s staging – neither was more than it needed to be, a sumptuous container in which the cast members could showcase their own talents.  Piotr Beczala and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (already dying of cancer when they filmed this) elegantly portrayed the lead characters Gustav III and René Ankarström, with able support from Krassimira Stoyanova (a gorgeous dark lower register) as Amelia, Nadia Krasteva as Ulrica, and Hila Fahima (with a tremendous stage presence whenever she appeared, standing out even in a supporting role) as Oscar.

During the opera, there was quite a bit of overt flirtation going on between the page Oscar and King Gustav III (who died here in Oscar’s embrace), which seemed very odd to me.  But as I started doing some background reading, I discovered that the real-life King Gustav was apparently a rather flamboyant homosexual.  So by moving the plot back to Sweden from Boston, de Bosio presumably decided to also restore the King’s homosexuality.  However, in a fictious plot centered on a love affair between the King and the wife of his closest advisor (in reality, Ankarström was not the King’s advisor, was not named René but Jacob Johan, did not assassinate the king over a love affair but rather because Gustav was a despotic autocrat who also broke up privileges for the unenlightened nobility, and did not receive a pardon from the king as in this opera plot but was instead executed), I’m not sure making the King gay made any sense in elucidating the plot and indeed contradicted it (OK, if he was gay, then he was gay, but then making the plot about his heterosexual affair made no sense… but it’s historical fiction and his love affair with Amelia is indeed the opera’s plot for better or worse).  But that oddity aside, restoring the plot to Sweden from its usual reassignment to colonial Boston did enable a more lavish setting, not to mention that it was simply more sensible this way.

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra (Staatsoper)

I have a certain fondness for Verdi’s dark-colored opera Simon Boccanegra, perhaps because it is one of the least tuneful of his works.  The original version flopped massively, and several decades later the brilliant Arrigo Boito revised the libretto and a more mature Verdi reworked the music, in the process creating a real drama.  I saw this production live at the Staatsoper in 2008, but here they streamed a 2018 performance, starring Thomas Hampson in the title role – a somewhat more dashing Boccanegra than in a normal portrayal.  As Jacopo Fiesco, Dmitry Belosselskiy also may have taken a non-standard approach to his role, making this grandfather (already a grandfather when the opera opens, and thirty years older by its conclusion) into a somewhat more robust character.  The interplay created a more exciting dynamic in their confrontations in the prologue, as well as in the final act (as the poison ate away at Boccanegra, and Hampson became accordingly haggard).  Marina Rebeka as Amelia had a tender voice that she could ramp up with real power.  The minimal staging itself, by Peter Stein, was simple and unpretentious – as if to prove that a German director can actually stage an opera (it was not a great staging, but gave a sufficient platform for the cast to do the work – by German standards that counts as a triumph these days).  Evelino Pidò conducted.

Prokofiev: The Gambler (Mariinsky Theater)

The Mariinsky has provided a stream of yet another rarely-performed opera, this time Prokofiev’s Gambler, in a 2010 performance.  The dialogue-heavy plot is dense, and without a libretto or subtitles I certainly missed a lot.  However, I could find the plot summary on line, and with the clear staging by Temur Chkheidze I did essentially follow along.  Unlike War and Peace, which I have tried to get into in each of the last two weeks, Prokofiev succeeded in producing drama here, something I could tell even without fully comprehending the text.  The music, not tuneful (but not having to be) also fully supported Prokofiev’s concept in a substantial way that the composer’s music for War and Peace did not.  Vladimir Galuzin (Alexei), Sergei Aleksashkin (the General), Nikolai Gassiev (the Marquis) led the way with Larisa Diadkova (Babulenka) adding her wry humor to the mix.  Valery Gergiev put it all together from the podium.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Bruckner

The Philadelphia Orchestra marked the tenth anniversary of signing its contract with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, one of the most exciting conductors of his generation, with a luscious performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony filmed in May 2014.  The annual concert in memory of my father got eaten by covid in April, so this online streaming substituted.  My father loved this symphony (and I think it may have been his father’s favorite).  I have heard it a million times, but heard new nuances in this performance.  Nézet-Séguin made sure to highlight the woodwinds especially in the first movement – without diminishing the strings and brass, but reminding us that Bruckner took great care in these inner lines, which give his music so much extra color.  A brutal reading of the scherzo followed, with Bruckner breaking down conventions and moving music towards the twentieth century.  As an antidote, the Orchestra’s lush strings drew out a delicate adagio, even as it swelled into what must have seemed impossible chromatics, as Bruckner approached the abyss, setting up a final movement that Bruckner never completed (and which was not performed here, as per normal practice).  While there are some versions that have been conjured up mostly out of fantasy with no basis on Bruckner’s sketches, Bruckner was actually very close to completing the final movement, and likely did complete the sketch and most of the orchestration, but some of his eager students ran off with the paper from his desk as souvenirs, and the movement has only been slowly reconstructed in recent years by the Bruckner Society in Vienna, showing that Bruckner had indeed stared over the abyss to see the end of the world.  But the three completed movements suffice to tell a story.

An interview with Rafael Viñoly, the architect of the Kimmel Center, preceded the concert.  While Viñoly correctly mentioned the centrality of hearing the music, he never really explained why he could not be bothered to design a hall with decent acoustics.  The hall itself looks nice enough (it is shaped like the inside of a cello, and uses a pleasant dark wood with warm coloring), but aside from a few seats where the orchestra is fully audible, in most seats (and I indeed have intentionally sat in many locations) the orchestra sounds distant, as though playing behind a scrim.  As its onlyintended use was as a concert hall, this makes it a complete failure of architecture, no matter what it might look like.  And the hall itself is not the only failure.  Outside the concert hall itself, but inside the overall shell of the building, the Kimmel Center is quite simply a horrible space: busy but cramped, open but difficult to move around in, and generally jarringly noisy ruining the mood coming and going from concerts.  In the pre-concert interview, Viñoly said the right things about his motivation and music, but then never actually explained why his architectural concept took none of his motivations into account.  The Kimmel Center truly is an awful venue.  As I wrote here last week, I find it an absolute travesty that this wonderful orchestra does not have a home with decent acoustics.  Those who live in Philadelphia will have to make do.  For everyone else: go hear the Orchestra on tour in a proper venue.  (My choices for best concert halls where I have myself attended concerts: 1. the Tonhalle in Zurich; 2. the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory; and 3. the Musikverein in Vienna, although I recognize that certain seats in the Musikverein are problematic acoustically even if most are tremendous, I don’t think there are any bad seats in my first or second choices.  I have so far never been to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, hence have not included that famed hall on my list but intend to get there for a concert some day; I have lived in Zurich, Moscow, and Vienna, so have tried seats in many locations in those three halls to get a good sense of their acoustics.)

Online Highlights (from residual streamings)

Highlights

I was convalescing from dental surgery this week, so although the lockdown is long over and life outside looks reasonably normal, I continue to scan residual streamings for more unusual performances I want to hear.  This seems to include a disproportionate amount of Russian music.

Tschaikowsky: Iolanta and Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (Metropolitan Opera)

Good to know that sometimes a rarely-performed – indeed unjustly-neglected – opera gets a champion and another chance to re-enter the repertory.  Tschaikowsky himself did not think much of Iolanta, which may have influenced the poor uptake of the work even though its champions included such notables as Gustav Mahler.  Now it seems Valery Gergiev is leading a new charge, working with Anna Netrebko in the title role.  I saw this combination in a streaming from the Mariinsky one month ago (a 2009 production), and was rather pleased to see them reunited at the Metropolitan Opera now (in a 2015 production).  Mariusz Treliński directed both versions.  His staging for the Met essentially followed a similar concept to the one he previously did for the Mariinsky – both rather silly, with no discernable logic to the combination of costumes and sets, but indeed emphasizing the psychological aspects of the drama.  The confusion was inoffensive, if needless, but so long as I did focus on the psychodrama and the singing, I could enjoy the performance.  In addition to Netrebko sounding in top form for the title role, Ilya Bannik sang an elegant King René, Aleksei Markov a strong Duke Robert (a role he also sang in the Mariinsky version), and Elchin Azizov an impressive Ibn Hakia.  Piotr Beczala was uneven as Count Gottfried Vaudemont – his good moments shone, but he also had rougher ones.

If Iolanta provided a psychodrama of a woman moving from darkness to light, then the Met paired this performance with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók, in which a woman goes the other direction into darkness.  It’s not at all an easy opera to stage, and so Treliński juxtaposed projections with odd portions of inside and outside spaces with off-balance lighting, seeking to get inside the head of Judith.  I am not sure he succeeded, and in the process he made Duke Bluebeard a more one-dimensional evil character, when in reality Bluebeard is more nuanced and in some ways himself cursed to his fate, hoping Judith will succeed in rescuing him.  That did not come across here.  Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko sang the two roles adequately, but both might have had fuller voices: Petrenko could have been darker and rounder especially in Treliński’s interpretation.  Gergiev appears also to be promoting this rare opera – I heard him conduct it in Moscow in 2011.

Shchedrin: The Lefthander (Mariinsky Theater)

I don’t think I have ever heard the music of Rodion Shchedrin live.  I own a recording of his opera Dead Souls, but other than having listened to that at some point (I don’t remember buying it, so think it was given to me) I don’t remember hearing anything else by him on the radio.  But something pulled me to watch the Mariinsky’s steaming of the world premiere of Shchedrin’s opera The Lefthander from July 2013 (commissioned to open the Mariinsky’s brand new Second Stage).

Supposedly a witty satire on British and Russian society, I missed a lot of the amusement from not understanding Russian (the Mariinsky does not provide optional captions for its streamings, and my residual passive Russian, built up when I worked in Russia from 2009-2011, is no longer up to the task).  But the production by Alexei Styepanyuk was like a lot of other fantasy stagings the Mariinsky has shown in the last few months (including his own staging of the Queen of Spades) – although set in the 19th century, it is obviously not a realistic story, and so the caricatures and sometimes cartoonish settings serve their purpose.  Valery Gergiev conducted a cast headed by Andrei Popov, whose stylized Russian tenor worked well for the title role.  The music itself jumped around modern tonalities on a base of Russian folk melodies – a 21st century outgrowth of the Russian classical tradition.  Was it good music?  Maybe, but it did seem to properly support the operatic story, so at least it was good opera.  I just wish I had understood more of the text.

Prokofiev: War and Peace (Mariinsky Theater)

I may not have appreciated Prokofiev’s War and Peace when I watched it for the first time last week in a streaming from the Stanislavsky.  So I decided to give it another go, to see if I might not take to it more on a second hearing, this week from a 2003 performance streamed by the Mariinsky (I actually own two complete recordings – one from 1961 at the Bolshoi, the other from 1991 at the Kirov, as the Mariinsky was then called – as well as excerpts released from the private archives of Galina Vishnyevskaya from a 1971 Bolshoi production, but until last week had never seen a production on video).  My verdict: unchanged.  Good music, poor music drama.

Valery Gergiev conducted this performance, starring a young-voiced Anna Netrebko overshadowing Vladimir Moroz, as Andrey.  Gegham Grigoryan provided a more forceful presence as Pierre, less timid but portrayed as a bit of an older character than the Stanislavsky had him and that he might seem from the plot (Grigoryan, who passed away in 2016, was the father of Asmik Grigoryan, who made such an impression in the otherwise forgettable Salzburg Festival production of Salome in 2018).  Stage director Andrei Konchalovsky used historical costumes but otherwise an abstract staging, that may have worked – but it was hard to tell, as whatever moron was in charge of filming this performance was having a severe drug trip, using vertigo-inducing camera angles, never from the perspective of the audience and always from bizarre angles that put the stage on steep diagonals which made the cast look like they should have slipped off the set completely (since they clearly were not, this was entirely due to the extreme camera angles).

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Staatsoper)

I never tire of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.  But I marked this one – from the Staatsoper – down in my calendar as to hear and not to watch.  I saw this production in 2014 and had no desire to see it again.  Director Yannis Kokkos, who despite being Greek seemingly does not have the word “drama” in his vocabulary, delivered a terrible concept: first, he used Mussorgsky’s original version – which Mussorgsky himself had rejected and which will always lack drama, and then did not even try to develop anything beyond that (see my blog review from 2014).  But the music is wonderful, and although it makes every character except Boris himself somewhat one-dimension, this original version does enable whoever sings the role of Boris to have a showcase.  And in this performance, the stage belonged to René Pape, ably supported by the orchestra under Marko Letonja.  I may also call out Ryan Speedo Green, who sang a rousing Varlaam in his brief appearance.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Schostakowitsch

The Mariinsky streamed a concert from the Mariinsky Concert Hall on 25 September 2016, the 110thanniversary of the birth of Dmitri Schostakowitsch.  The first half consisted of chamber music, and the second of orchestral, with two student works framing two Jewish-inspired pieces.  Schostakowitsch wrote his Trio #1 when he was just sixteen years old, and his Symphony #1 as a graduation piece from the conservatory when he was twenty.  Both demonstrate his budding talent at the different Fächer.  The middle pieces were his song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry (performed here in its original version with only piano accompaniment) and his Violin Concerto #1 – both of which he had to hide in his desk drawer due to official Soviet antisemitism.  Sergei Redkin (piano), Pavel Milyukov (violin), and Aleksandr Ramm (cello) performed the trio, with Redkin returning to accompany vocalists Anastasiya Kalagina, Yekatyerina Sergeyeva, and Dmitry Voropayev for the songs, and Milyukov returning for the concerto.  Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra.  The performance of the concerto stood out in particular for its robustness and vigor – celebrations in the midst of tragedy (kudos to Milyukov).  And the interpretation of the symphony was very powerful, even in its softer moments demonstrating a sense of foreboding.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Bach, Dukas, Rachmaninov, Sarasate, Copland, Stravinsky

The Philadelphia Orchestra has posted on its website its 100th birthday concert from 16 November 2000.  The program opened in dramatic fashion with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d (BWV 565), one of many transcriptions Stokowski did for this orchestra during his tenure as its music director (1912-38).  In keeping with Stokowski’s trends, his version represents a complete reinterpretation of the work more than just an orchestration, here for a full orchestra and emphasizing the Philadelphians’ famous lush strings.  This orchestra also provided the soundtrack for the classic 1940 Disney film Fantasia, in which works such as Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas entered American pop culture.  So it was natural to hear these two works lead off the anniversary concert in thrilling, high-octane performances.

Three works for soloists and orchestra followed.  André Watts joined the Orchestra for Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto – the Orchestra which Rachmaninov himself had prized so greatly gave the world premiere of several of the composer’s works (although not this one, as it happens).   Sarah Chang then came on for Sarasate’s Fantasy on Bizet’s Carmen (which had its US premiere in Philadelphia, albeit before this Orchestra was founded), and Thomas Hampson for four selections from Copland’s Old American Songs (there would of course need to be some American composition on this program, in this case the greatest American composer of the 20th century, born the same year the Orchestra was founded – apparently two days before, on 14 November 1900).  Watts and Chang grew up in Philadelphia so were likely chosen for sentimental reasons – Hampson did not grow up in Philadelphia (and as far as I know has no particular Philadelphia connection), but was by far the most impressive of the choices for soloists.  It was a great shame they did only four selections and not Copland’s entire song cycle (ten short songs in total, the additional six would have only added another 15 minutes to the concert, so certainly within reason especially for a gala celebration that came in easily at under two hours including applause and announcements from the stage).

The concert concluded with the suite from the Firebird by Igor Stravinsky, for which the Orchestra had given the U.S. premiere – the return to purely orchestral music most welcome and again full-on showcasing the Orchestra’s craft.  Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Orchestra’s much-loved music director at the time, conducted this concert in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.  The Orchestra today still owns the Academy, although it has subsequently moved to a new hall – sadly, neither the Academy nor the Orchestra’s current venue in the Kimmel Center has decent acoustics, which is a real travesty.  This wonderful Orchestra desperately needs a proper home venue and is until then best enjoyed on tour.  Back when I lived in Zurich, I heard it with Sawallisch in the Tonhalle – where it nearly blew the roof off considering the perfect acoustics in that hall, the best in the world, and the Orchestra simply had been used to having to over-play in order to overcome the Academy’s tendency to swallow sound – as well as in recent years with its current music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the Musikverein (another world-great hall), Dresden’s Semper Oper (where sound takes peculiar bounces but remains alive), and the Berlin Konzerthaus (a strangely overrated hall, albeit better than the Philharmonie across town, but still reasonable thanks to the installation of sound-deflecting enhancements around the stage).

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 11)

Highlights

It looks like live music will resume in Austria in June – the Vienna Symphony Orchestra is testing out performing the same concert multiple times back-to-back (a different program each week – mostly Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year) for an audience at each of 100 people in Vienna’s Konzerthaus.  The Salzburg and Grafenegg Festivals will go ahead in modified forms later this summer.  But in the meantime, there is still online streaming (not as good, but I do get to watch a ridiculous amount of opera – this week, two by Mozart, one by Strauss, one by Wagner, two by Berlioz, one by Schreker, and two by Schostakowitsch).

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (Staatsoper)

Mozart’s Zauberflöte can take a lot of stagings, being fantasy and allegory and all.  But a staging still has to make sense.  I have no idea what I just watched from the Staatsoper.  This was not Regietheater, since it did seem to at least allude to the opera (key elements appeared at every point when they were supposed to) and it followed the plot (thank goodness).  But otherwise I could find no rhyme or reason in anything from random setting (a stripped-down disused theater backstage, maybe?), the costumes (no consistency – although there looked like there may have been a reason each character got the costume they did, the costume style did not match up among the characters), or props (actually, these were the key elements that were supposed to be there, but they seemed out of place with everything else).  I have seen minimalist productions, which work since they allow focus on the key elements (or at least on the acting) to augment comprehension – but when the framing is not minimalist but irrelevant, it detracts from the focus on and understanding of the plot. Two directors were listed as being responsible for this: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who are apparently a Paris-based couple.

The cast in this 2017 performance was mostly from the Vienna Ensemble, keeping up the baseline standards of this house and ensuring good chemistry among them.  The only big visiting name was René Pape as Sarastro, who works in this house often enough to be part of the extended family at least.  Thomas Tatzl was a playful Papageno (joined later by Ileana Tonca as Papagena), Jörg Schneider was fine but not quite dashing enough as Tamino, Olga Bezsmertna made a fine Pamina, and Hila Fahima was uneven as the Queen of the Night, but this is judging her by the high standards of this house, which she attained – generally, the Vienna Ensemble puts stars in other houses to shame, so it is important to consider the success of the cast as a whole unit.  Ádám Fischer conducted a wonderfully lilting performance, capturing all of the musical charm.

  • [Recording tips:  Otto Klemperer’s 1964 set with the Philharmonia had possibly one of the best Zauberflöte casts ever assembled top-to-bottom: Nicolai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry, Lucia Popp, Gottlob Frick in the major roles, but luxuries like Franz Crass, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Marga Höfgen, Ruth-Margret Putz, Gerhard Unger, Agnes Giebel, Anna Reynalds, and Josephine Veasey in the assorted smaller roles.  The main fault of the set, however, is that it excludes the dialogue, which makes listening to it as a “complete” recording rather disconcerting.  Better to hear it as extended excerpts.  For a complete recording with dialogue from around that period, there is a wonderful recording from the 1959 Salzburg Festival, with George Szell leading the Vienna Philharmonic with Leopold Simoneau, Lisa Della Casa, Walter Berry, Erika Köth, and Kurt Böhme that may lack the brightness of some later live recordings of better technical quality, but still captures its period very well.]

Mozart: Don Giovanni (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper gave us three streaming options for a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni by director Jean-Louis Martinoty, so I picked the one that looked most promising, from 2017, mostly to see the ever-lively Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni, and with the cerebral Ádám Fischer conducting.  Neither disappointed.  As Giovanni’s sidekick Leporello, Erwin Schrott made a good tandem with Keenlyside.  Ileana Tonca (Zerlina) and Dorothea Röschmann (Elvira) both excelled, while the rest of the cast gave an appropriately strong Staatsoper baseline performance.  However, Martinoty’s staging itself was at times busy and confused, with different sets unrelated to the plot (or maybe they were, but Martinoty just put them in the wrong places) and sometimes extra people hanging around on stage, which made the production more distracting than helpful.

  • [Recording tips: Don Giovanni is perhaps another one of those operas where everyone has a favorite recording, and I simply will not weigh in to that debate.  Without declaring it the best one available, I will say that the recording I return to most often is a historic 1955 performance from the Staatsoper, right after the house reopened after it was restored from having been hit by a bomb in 1945 during the final weeks of the war.  The Staatsoper put on what amounted to a mini-festival of standard repertory with leading casts, and this all-star collection, under the baton of Karl Böhm, included George London in the title role and Erich Kunz, Sena Jurinac, Lisa Della Casa, Anton Dermota, Ludwig Weber, Irmgard Seefried, and Walter Berry.  Some people might resist this recording because they used the alternate libretto by Hermann Levy, and while it is true that Lorenzo Da Ponte’s original version is a work of art, Levy’s version, in the tradition of great 19th century literary translations, fully captures that original art but in Mozart’s German vernacular – and indeed it may why other German versions are so jarring.  The Nazis had a problem with this opera, which they otherwise liked very much, because both the Italian and the German libretti were written by Jews, and so they dropped the Levy version and either performed it in Italian with no librettist credited or commission less-good German versions, some of which have remained in circulation since that period.  The Staatsoper gets credit here for restoring the Levy script. 
  • In addition to mentioning this complete version, I would be remiss to not point out one excerpt that should be in everyone’s collection: Richard Tauber may have been the greatest lyric tenor of all time, and while he may be most remembered for operetta, of which he recorded a lot and took on tours, he was first and foremost a Mozart tenor and had sung many lyric roles in the Vienna Staatsoper Ensemble.  No one has ever matched his mezza voce.  No one has ever matched his Austrian charm either – Richard Strauss once remarked something like that if someone wanted to understand nostalgia for the way Vienna once was, they just needed to listen to Richard Tauber sing.  There are two recordings of “Dalla sua pace” that I am aware of, one in the Da Ponte version and one in the Levy version (“Nur ihrem Frieden”).  The Italian one came later with better recording sound.  If I were to spotlight a small number of Tauber recordings that best demonstrated his lyricism, this would be one.  And for real collectors, there are some excerpts available – albeit in poor sound – from Tauber’s final performance of this role.  The Austrian Tauber turned down an offer from the Nazis to be declared an “honorary Aryan” and ultimately fled to England.  In 1947, with their house bombed out, the Staatsoper went on tour and stopped in London, where their run included Don Giovanni.  They invited Tauber, by that time dying of cancer, with one lung removed and the other one barely working, to perform Don Ottavio one last time with the Vienna Ensemble.  Most of the audience was not aware that he was singing on half a lung, nor is it obvious from the recordings that survive.  He died just over three months later.]

Strauss: Salome (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper streamed Salome by Richard Strauss in a staging Boleslaw Barlog first produced in 1972.  Barlog, a German from the days when Germans knew how to stage opera by sticking to the plot, did not have much to say, but his timeless, moody setting (which indeed sticks to the plot) allowed Strauss’ music to do the work.  I saw this Klimt-inspired production in 2015 with some of the same cast, particularly Lise Lindstrom in the title role and Herwig Pecoraro as Herod.  Pecoraro was as sardonic as I remember.  Lindstrom fell a bit short in this performance, coming in off pitch more often than not, and sometimes warbling when she did find the pitch.  As John the Baptist this time around, Michael Volle did not quite completely fill the role, which could have been bigger, darker, or warmer.  For this performance from earlier this year, Michael Boder conducted but failed to add from the pit, the opera even ending on a whimper.  In all, if the Staatsoper wanted to stream Salome, one wonders why they chose this performance of all of the ones presumably in their archive.

  • [Recording tip: Perhaps the most-charged version of Salome available is a recording with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1994, reassembling most of a cast that had triumphed at the 1992 Salzburg Festival: Catherine Malfitano (Salome) and Byrn Terfel (John the Baptist).]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Staatsoper)

David McVicar’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Staatsoper is a decent panacaea for the version from the Met during the lockdown that I listened to but could not watch.  It actually is not necessary to do over-the-top natural stagings – minimal works too, when the director understands the plot and tries to make it understandable for the audience.  I myself have never gotten the hullabaloo about this opera – the only one of Wagner’s mature operas that does not speak to me.  But I did give it another time through this evening, and found that McVicar captured this over-philosophical work well, and at least I could understand the opera better even if I still don’t really get it.  The cast (from a 2015 performance) sounded terrific and acted out the changing and confused emotions well.  Peter Seiffert and Iréne Theorin sang the title roles, amply supported by Tomasz Konieczny (Kurwenal), Petra Lang (Brangäne), Albert Dohmen (King Marke), and Gabriel Bermúdez (Melot).  Peter Schneider led the drama superbly from the pit.

Berlioz: Damnation of Faust (Metropolitan Opera)

The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz is a notoriously difficult opera to stage, and it is anyway based on Goethe’s mystical play, which makes it fine to do it as fantasy.  This Metropolitan Opera production by Robert LaPage, started off with me confused as to whether the fantasy worked, but it grew on me as the opera progressed.  The stage was a set of square boxes, with characters generally inside them (today, in the age of zoom, this format does not look out of place – although in this case there were usually multiple people in each frame).  Sometimes scrims fell in front, with projections screened onto them.  This allowed multiple thoughts to occur at once, often suggesting alternative realities which in their way reinforced the main thread.  Unfortunately, Marcello Giordani was a weak-voiced Faust.  John Relyea was not dark enough as Mephistopheles.  Susan Graham was bolder as Margarethe.  James Levine conducted this 2008 performance.

  • [Recording tip: I have oddly never found a recorded version of this opera I have especially been enamored of.  Although its poor sound makes it a problematic choice, there is a fascinating live recording from the 1950 Luzern Festival conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, with Frans Vrooms as Faust, Hans Hotter as Mephistopheles, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Margarethe.  The sound quality is so poor, it is necessary to use imagination as to how it must have sounded live, but it is nevertheless distinctive.

Berlioz: The Trojans (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met also has kept Berlioz’s Trojans in its repertory.  The current version, directed by Francesca Zambello, creates a grand spectacle, with some illusions to make it seem even larger than it already was.  But at the same time it remains human and intimate.  The sets were not realistic, but more mood-setting; not quite abstract, but more representative.

Given the decision to keep all of the dancing in this version, and to do it on a big scale, realism was not the objective.  Berlioz incorporated extensive ballet into the opera not according to the silly French tradition, but more for his own purposes of interpreting Vergil with all possible tools at his disposal.  Yet the dancing, uncut, did become tedious, particularly in the fourth act, and in the end this contributed to the scenes in Carthage ultimately dragging in ways the scenes in Troy had not.

The two acts set in Troy also benefitted from wonderful little moments, included the tragically tender scene between Coroebus (Dwayne Croft) and Cassandra (Deborah Voigt) in Troy, who sing past each other in the plot.  But Croft and especially Voigt really did provide the impulse for those acts.  In the final three acts, Susan Graham made a very personable and approachable Queen Dido.  Bryan Hymel was Aeneas, and his strong voice held.  Fabio Luisi conducted this 2013 performance.

Schreker: The Smith of Ghent (Flanders Opera-Ballet)

Looking around the online offerings, it is nice to find something different.  Having seen Franz Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang during the lockdown, I moved along to his last opera, Der Schmied von GentDer Ferne Klang apparently had entered the standard repertory in the German-speaking world, but was of course banned by the Nazis as “degenerate” music (Schreker’s father was Jewish) and has rarely been performed since.  Der Schmied von Gent had its premiere in 1932, and never had time to enter the repertory before the Nazis came to power in Germany.  The Austrian Schreker died in 1934, and his music has mostly been forgotten.  But as I thought with Der Ferne Klang, the music represents a cross between the language of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and even if he did not necessarily rise to that level, there is no reason his music should not get performed more often (plenty of far less original or far less musical stuff has entered the standard repertory – and Schreker’s work is both original and musical).

Schreker called this particular work a “grand magical opera” – it is a folly, a fantasy, even if set in a historical period (the end of the 80-years war in the 16th century) there is too much magic to make it realistic.   So I suppose it was OK that the setting made by Ersan Mondtag for the Flanders Opera-Ballet earlier this year (before the lockdown) was cartoonish.  The main problem was that while Mondtag made it more phantasmagoric, he somehow left out the actual fantasy elements that appear in the libretto.  Some remained as allusions and could be assumed listening to the words, but why not show those instead of introducing other elements?  The staging generally followed the plot, but for an opera almost no one is familiar with, Mondtag did not exactly enhance understanding of what it was about.  And that was already before his non sequitur deviation in the final act: when Smee (the smith in the opera’s title) died, Mondtag had him dress up as the genocidal Belgian King Leopold II before heading out to try to get into either Heaven or Hell (the real Leopold II would absolutely be consigned to Hell, but there is no logical reason to link Smee with Leopold).  Hell turned out to be a Congolese art gallery, where various characters stood and listened to Patrice Lumumba declare Congo’s independence (we got a far-too-long excerpt of his speech over the loudspeaker – what this had to do with the opera is a mystery).  After Smee was denied entry into Hell, he tried to get into Heaven, where he was made to watch a film that had scenes from Congo’s history, including the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match staged by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  To cut to the end, after Smee was allowed into Heaven and gave a royal wave to the assembled crowd (in his persona as Leopold II), Heaven changed suddenly into Hell (that Congolese art gallery again – now with red lighting and devils), and the main she-devil ripped Smee’s beard off and said to the audience: “really?”

To that, I have to say: “really?”  It should not surprise anyone that Mondtag is a German Regisseur.  So he’s probably trying to make a point that we should think how clever he is because he can completely miss the plot.  It is a shame, because for the first two acts, I could almost accept his cartoonish staging as consistent with Schreker’s intention to make a “grand magical opera” – if only Mondtag had kept in the actual fantasy elements.  But then he “jumped the shark” (to use the American pop expression).  Boo.

Baritone Leigh Melrose sang Smee, the title character, who pretty much stays on stage the entire opera and therefore is critical to hold it all together, which Melrose certainly did.  Alejo Pérez (whom I saw conduct Gounod’s Faust at the Salzburg Festival four years ago) again showed he could advance the music and the drama no matter what dreadful German directors put on the stage.

Schostakowitsch: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Dutch National Opera)

The Dutch National Opera provided a 2006 performance of Schostakowitsch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam in the pit under its then-music director Mariss Jansons.  This performance was probably not as brash as the last time I saw this opera performed (also with Jansons conducting, with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival), with an emphasis now on the dancing melodies – if disturbed ones at that.  It ended almost with restraint, representing not the harshness of Siberia but the hopelessness of it all.  Then again, some of that differentiation may have come from hearing it here recorded and not live, and some of it may have been to match the staging.

Although an Austrian, the director Martin Kušej has spent most of his career in Germany, which is immediately obvious from the terrible staging.  This is such a brutal opera that it’s actually hard even for a German director to shock – which must frustrate them.  So while this staging did not really make any sense, it did at least keep more or less to the plot.  Eva-Maria Westbroek starred as Katerina Izmailova and Christopher Ventris was Sergey, both giving as convincing a performance as might be possible in this staging.  The most convincing of the cast was actually Vladimir Vaneyev as Boris Izmailov.

Schostakowitsch: Cheryomushki (Mariinsky Theater)

At the other end of the spectrum from the brutal Lady Macbeth for Schostakowitsch’s opera works was his comic operetta Cheryomushki, here presented by the Mariinsky in a semi-staged version (without scenery and minimal costuming – main characters acting in front of a fixed chorus, with the orchestra in the sunken pit) in the Mariinsky Concert Hall.  The singers came from the Mariinsky’s in-house training academy.  Pavel Petrenko conducted this 2015 performance.

I streamed this to hear a work I have heard about but never actually heard.  It was fun to hear how someone like Schostakowitsch might write more “popular” music.  Within an identifiably-Viennese operetta style of which he was familiar and which apparently remains popular in Russia to this day as I discovered much to my surprise when I first moved to Moscow, Schostakowitch used parodies of historical Russian musical styles from the mediaeval to the great 19th century Russian composers to set an operetta mocking Soviet corruption and bureaucracy (how he got away with it I am not sure).  Unfortunately, the Mariinsky does not provide subtitles for their streamings, so this was a bit harder to follow without a full staging to provide clues about the action (I do not normally watch with subtitles, but for a non-standard work in a comic operetta style, they would have been appreciated under these circumstances).  I could find a plot summary online, but I mostly just listened and enjoyed without worrying too much.

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 10)

Highlights

Still no live music.   Here is a selection of what I’ve been streaming online.

Strauß: Die Fledermaus (Vienna Philharmonic)

The “Fidelio” streaming service gave me a choice of performances of Johann Strauß II’s Fledermaus, so it seemed worth having some fun with a 1972 film version I had not seen before.  Directed by Otto Schenk with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm, it included a cast of Viennese regulars.  This opera is always best left in the hands of the Viennese, and here it was no different, with maximum fun.  The staging and acting were completely over-the-top, but no one can really try to make this farce believable, so why not push everything too far?  They also clearly lip-synched over the singing, which was a little disconcerting at times, but on the other hand meant that the cast did not have to worry too much about singing while they acted out (or over-acted out) their parts.  Gundula Janowitz (Rosalinde), Eberhard Wächter (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Renate Holm (Adele), Waldemar Kmentt (Alfred), Erich Kunz (Frank), Heinz  Holacek (Dr. Falke), and Sylvia Lukan (Ida), not to mention Schenk himself (as to be expected) in the non-singing role of Frosch, all contributed to the romp.  The main failing was actually Prince Orlofsky, which in this version instead of a mezzo dressed as a man was transposed for the Wagnerian Heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen, who was totally unsuited for this role (recasting this for a male voice seems to fail every time it is attempted) – and since part of the comedy is giving the prince an outrageous Russian accent, Windgassen also failed on that as well (he tried, but he just could not master the accent).  That was a shame as it did interfere with the otherwise non-stop humorous flow of this production.

  • [Recording tips: Although the leading members of the cast are not Viennese, my favorite recording of Die Fledermaus is the 1972 one conducted by Willi Boskovsky, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1936-1979 – no one captured Strauß better than he did, which is why he led the Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert from 1955 until his retirement.  In this recording, he conducted Vienna’s second orchestra, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (if not the Philharmonic, then excellent in its own right – one wonders though why they did not engage the Philharmonic).  The cast includes Nicolai Gedda, Anneliese Rothenberger, Renate Holm – as in the film – Brigitte Fassbänder, Adolf Dallapozza, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Walter Berry, Senta Wengraf, and of course Otto Schenk in his obligatory appearance as Frosch.]

Weber: Der Freischütz (Staatsoper)

I have not seen Carl Maria von Weber’s Freischütz in years, and indeed do not remember when I last listened to it complete either (although I have two perfectly good complete recordings).  So I was long overdue, and checked the Staatsoper’s options to see which available cast I preferred (both of the options the Staatsoper steamed this month were from 2018).  In my excitement, I neglected to check who directed.  The curtain opened and I instantly knew the director had to be yet another awful German poseur (for the record, some dolt named Christian Räth).  Given the nonsense these German opera directors produce, one advantage of streaming at home is that I actually don’t have to watch – maybe I could try to figure it out, but I’ve seen enough German schlock to realize it’s all about the Regisseur and never about the opera.  So I guess I still have not seen Der Freischütz in years.  Yet from the Staatsoper orchestra and chorus – under Tomáš Netopil – all sounded well.  There was a lot of excess stage noise, which I assume had to do with the staging itself (I’d say it was distracting, but in a good staging some appropriate noise can augment the experience; what was happening on the stage here would have been distracting enough, so I suppose more noise might not make any impact for people trapped in the theater forced to watch whatever this Räth dumped on stage).  I also noted that they added to the dialogue – what seemed to be a German attempt at humor (yet another thing the Piefkes are apparently incapable of).  It’s hard to be critical of the cast, since they were forced to “act” out this thing and probably wished they were anywhere else except on this stage.  In fact, they all sounded agitated.  But somehow out of the wreckage I managed to appreciate Alan Held as Kaspar and Camilla Nylund as Agathe.

  • [Recording tips: I have two complete recordings.  Is either of them the best available?  I don’t know, but they are both good.  One is a 1960 Bavarian Radio production with Eberhard Wächter, Albrecht Peter, Irmgard Seefried, Rita Streich, Kurt Böhme, and Richard Hold, conducted by Eugen Jochum.  The other is from the German Opera Berlin in 1967, with Claudio Nicolai, Fritz Ollendorf, Claire Watson, Lotte Schädle, Gottlob Frick, and Rudolf Schock.]

Wagner: Lohengrin (Metropolitan Opera)

I remember the Metropolitan Opera sounding its best on a consistent basis during the early/mid-1980s, when I rarely missed a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast.  This made me especially pleased to see that the Met has streamed some older recordings from its archives, and not just the recent productions from the last decade.  I wavered on whether to watch Wagner’s Lohengrin, mostly because the singer in the title role – Peter Hofmann – was not very good (I never understood why he had such a following back then; he was – quite literally – a rock star who crossed into opera, but although he could be loud and dynamic, he couldn’t really sing very well).  But then I have not listened to any recordings of Hofmann in decades for that reason (he retired from the opera stage in the late 1980s, although he continued to sing rock an pop music for another decade), and hearing him again now, although my opinion remains, I realize I have heard many far worse nominal Heldentenors since Hofmann.  So he may not have been very good, but it seems he may have been better than average.  Eva Marton, then at the height of her powers, sang Elsa.  Leonie Rysanek approached the end of her career singing a darker role but no less strident and with a tremendous stage presence as Ortrud.

Leif Roar (Telramund), was a little rough but full of character, while John Macurdy (who died earlier this month) was an expressive King Heinrich.  James Levine, in his heyday, marshalled the Met Orchestra, from the mystical overture through to the larger martial passages.  The staging was sensible – not lavish, but enough to frame the action – by August Everding, a German left over from the days when German directors still understood opera.  That said, he did not really add understanding to the opera and there were some odd decisions.  For example, he could have used a swan – in the first act, the cast looked stage-front singing about a swan, but then Lohengrin emerged without one from behind them, which was weird; the swan also did not appear in the third act (nor is it clear how Lohengrin departed – maybe he walked back to Spain).  The blocking was also a bit static in general, maybe most notably so during the duel between Lohengrin and Telramund, where they mostly just looked at each other.  But I will still take this no-frills direction any day over the stuff German Regisseurs spew out these days.

  • [Recording tips: I naturally have more excerpts from Lohengrin than I can count, and I probably don’t know how many of “In fernem Land” specifically (nor do I have a favorite). For complete recordings, I go to one of two, depending on my mood.  Probably the best in terms of overall cast composition, orchestral coloring, and sound, would be the version recorded in 1985-86 by George Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Plácido Domingo in the title role, and with Jessye Norman, Eva Randová, Siegmund Nimsgern, and Hans Sotin.  A 1941 live performance from the Met in New York has its reasons to savor as well, though: Lauritz Melchior sang the title role, with Astrid Varnay, Kerstin Thorborg, Alexander Sved, and Norman Cordon; Erich Leinsdorf conducted.]

Puccini: Turandot (Metropolitan Opera)

The spectacular staging by Franco Zeffirelli (who died last year at 96) of Puccini’s Turandot portrays timeless Peking as a living, thriving city (albeit suffering under a cruel regime), with its teaming masses represented by an oversized chorus, dancers, and extras.  The Met streamed a version from last Fall (a 2019 revival of a 1987 production) with an adequate if not especially noteworthy cast (they could all act, which was welcome at least): Christine Goerke (Turandot), Eleonora Buratto (Liù), Yusif Eyvazov (Calàf), and James Morris (Timur).  On the podium, Yannick Nézet-Séguin crafted a rich score.

  • [Recording tip: I go back repeatedly to the 1959 recording by Erich Leinsdorf and the Rome Opera, with Birgit Nilsson in the title role, Jussi Björling as Calàf, Renate Tebaldi as Liù, and Giorgio Tozzi as Timur.]

Gounod: Faust (Metropolitan Opera)

Des McAnuff created a modern staging of Gounod’s Faust for the Met, with Faust as a lab scientist.  McAnuff, a Canadian, is apparently also a trendy director from Broadway, as is Michael Mayer, who created that horrible staging of Rigoletto for the Met that I watched last week, and while McAnuff did not warp the plot here the way Mayer appeared to in Rigoletto (which made me stop watching and just listen last week), he did throw in some silliness (far too much prancing about), as well as a confused ending: Mephistopheles and Faust sank into Hell, Margarethe climbed a stairway to Heaven (presumably), and then Faust reappeared out of Hell having reverted to his old-man self, only to pass away on the floor of his lab.  All very unnecessary.  But McAnuff generally stuck to simplicity and letting the characters act, and that they did.  Marina Poplavskaya gave a resounding portrayal of Margarethe, evolving from a coquettish girl into a tormented woman over the course of the opera.  Jonas Kaufmann as Faust seemed in his element, making this opera (where Faust may have the title role but is not the central character) into his own.  René Pape’s voice lacked some of the fierceness he has shown portraying other villains, but his self-assured stage presence remained.  Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted this 2011 performance.

  • [Recording tip: Long before I had ever been to Russia and got to know Russian performers, I was tipped off about a recording of Gounod’s Faust that supposedly put all others to shame: a 1948 performance from the Bolshoi Opera.  I found a recording back then at a reasonable price and ordered it.  To this day, it remains my go-to recording of this opera.  At the center of this performance stands the unmatchable Mark Reizen as Mephistopheles, with Ivan Kozlovsky as Faust and Yelizaveta Shumskaya as Margarethe.  Kozlovsky takes some getting used to – a master (perhaps the master) in a very typical Russian style of tenor singing, which comes across to Western ears as weak (it’s not – it is only a special stylistic convention), but it works here, as Faust really is not the central character in this opera despite the title (there is a reason it has often been performed under the name Margerethe rather than Faust, as it does represent her struggle with evil and Faust is merely the catalyst).  Vasily Nyebolsin conducted a driven performance – albeit abridged, including to remove the church scene in Act IV as well as the ballet: the ballet is not missed (it added nothing to the opera but was only inserted due to a silly French custom in which opera patrons insisted on seeing ballet whether it made any sense or not, so it can just as easily be staged separately); the church scene is (but was probably removed by the Soviet censors) and some of the shorter cuts would be nice to have back as well.  But the performance as a whole stands.]

Prokofiev: Betrothal in a Monastery (Mariinsky Theater)

I had never heard Prokofiev’s rarely-performed opera Betrothal in a Monastery before, so took this opportunity to explore a version streamed by the Mariinsky Theater under Valery Gergiev.  Despite intending it to be a farce, Porkofiev’s setting failed by being too static – though lively here and there, the music mostly went on at a pace too slow to generate the comedy.  The staging itself (by Vladislav Pazi) was not static – suggestive of Spain in a mystery timeframe – and the characters moved around as would have been appropriate.  The cast was uniformly excellent: Larisa Diadkova (the Duenna), Yevgeny Akimov (Don Jerome), Roman Burdenko (Don Ferdinand), Sergei Aleksashkin (Mendoza), Yulia Matochkina (Clara), Yevgeny Akhmedov (Antonio), Violetta Lukyanenko (Louisa), and Yuri Laptev (Don Carlos).  I suppose the opera never caught on because the music, though fine on its own, simply does not convey the farce it is intended to depict.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Prokofiev

The Mariinsky also streamed a varied concert of less-often performed music by Prokofiev, by the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Valery Gergiev in the Mariinsky Concert Hall in 2016.  The concert opened with the Piano Concerto #4, for the left hand, one of many written on commission from the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who needed works to play after losing his right hand in the First World War.  Wittgenstein apparently never understood this piece, so did not end up performing it.  It is indeed strange, although no stranger than some of the composer’s other works from the 1930s.  This was confirmed by the next works, the often delicate but still jarring Spanish-inspired Violin Concerto #2, and the Piano Concerto #5.  Sergei Redkin did the solo honors for the Piano Concerto #4, Kristóf Baráti for the Violin Concerto #2, and Vadim Kholodenko for the Piano Concerto #5 – looking at their relative youth, they may have been selected based on a performance competition, and indeed they were all sufficiently good (particularly Baráti, although Redkin seemed to have a larger personal following in the sparsely-populated hall.  Skipping ahead to the 1950s, the Seventh Symphony, which concluded this concert, was in many ways more traditional in its sweep as well as restraint.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Sibelius, Copland, “Hannibal”

The Philadelphia Orchestra and its Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin presented two warhorses and one world premiere in a concert they streamed.  An unusual rendition of SibeliusFinlandia opened the concert, with drawn out lines gave a sense of longing.  Copland’s Appalachian Spring followed, in which the Orchestra’s virtuosity pulled out lines (many quite modern in their tonalities) that may not generally feature, and magnified their feeling, for a full and complex performance.  “Hannibal” is the professional artistic name of jazz/soul trumpeter and composer Marvin Peterson.  One Land, One River, One People was a bit of a cross-over work for orchestra, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and given its world premiere at this 2015 concert.  I am not sure I am in a position to judge it – it was certainly pleasant enough as music, but as “classical” music I am not sure it needed this particular orchestra, or indeed any serious orchestra.  I will say that it did have substance and will likely withstand the test of time (even if it will not enter the classical repertory), with performances by regional orchestras, musical theaters, or bands, something I would not say about Tod Makover’s Philadelphia Voices, another Philadelphia Orchestra commission (in 2018) for which the Orchestra also posted the world premiere on its website this week (having heard that back in 2018 – as reviewed in this blog – I had zero desire to listen to it again now).  The Orchestra was joined by a bunch of soloists and choirs – all fine, but again hard to judge against more normal repertory, so I do not wish to give them undeserved short shrift.  I guess I’ll just recommend readers go have a listen for themselves.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Wagner, Mascagni, Puccini, Respighi

Last week, the Philadelphia Orchestra streamed the first concert program conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin as its Music Director, a triumphant emergence of that orchestra from a prolonged slumber.  This week came the turn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which streamed Andris Nelsons’ first concert as Music Director in 2014, reawakening this orchestra from its own slumber.  The concert opened with what can only be called a “triumphant” overture to Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser.  Yes, it ends in major key, but that is not normally so triumphant and usually comes with a darker subtext.  Except here.  Jonas Kaufmann has a nice voice and good inflection, but does not quite make a Heldentenor – just too much strain to fill the Wagnerian role, even for the slightly lighter role of Lohengrin and a single aria, “In fernem Land,” at that (so not needing to last an entire opera).  Kristīne Opolais gave a somewhat subdued rendition of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.  I don’t believe the role is in her repertory, so it is just a one-aria introduction.  Whether her voice grows into it will be seen, but the expression was there.  Kaufmann was better suited for the Italian repertory: from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.  Opolais, too.  Bizarrely, though, where the program (and website) indicated she was supposed to sing an aria from La Wally by Catalani, she instead sang an aria from Madama Butterfly by Puccini.  Not that it makes much of a difference, but especially given this concert is six years old one would think they could get the program right.  A passionate duet from Manon Lescaut saw a rather romantic kiss between the two, with Opolais’ then-husband (Nelsons) looking on. And another duet from La Boheme (without the passionate kiss, but with plenty of flirtation – so much so that Opolais winked at Nelsons partway through).  The concert concluded by leaving the operatic repertory, with an evocative Pines of Rome by Respighi.  Like the Tannhäuser overture at the opening of the concert, this one ended with even more triumph than usual, with extra brass scattered around the Symphony Hall balcony.

Online Highlights While Waiting for Live Music to Resume (week 9)

Highlights

The government this week released some guidelines for the resumption of public performances.  It was not all that clear how they will work in practice (basically they won’t).  The Bregenz Festival announced it would skip this year.  The Grafenegg Festival will go ahead reconfigured with outdoor performances featuring musicians based in Austria (we certainly have plenty).  And the Salzburg Festival announced what we already knew: it will take place in some form, but nothing resembling what was planned… details by the end of May.  As for the return of concerts and operas in the Fall, who knows.  What a mess.  So I remain, sampling offerings online.

Wagner: Parsifal (Bayreuth Festival)

Having seen some absolutely atrocious stagings of Wagner’s Parsifal last month, I felt I needed something better.  The “Fidelio” streaming service (courtesy of the Volksoper) provided me with a production from the 1981 Bayreuth Festival, directed by the composer’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner.  The production was actually rather simple, in some ways basic with inexpensive-looking costumes (not that a lot of monks in the early middle ages would have had expensive clothes), painted backdrops substituting for scenery, and melodramatic acting.  Actually, maybe the acting was a bit too melodramatic.  But even without providing new insights it did not get in the way of a basic understanding, something that could not be said about the stagings I streamed last month.

Hans Sotin carried the role as Gurnemanz.  As Parsifal, Siegfried Jerusalem matured noticeably (and not just from gaining a beard in the final act) through the opera from fool made wise through pity to king of the realm of the Grail.  Eva Randová provided a multi-faceted Kundry.  Bernd Weikl sang better than he acted, although this may have been Wolfgang Wagner’s stage direction rather than a fault from Weikl.  Horst Stein may have gone a little fast in his tempi.  But then the slow-motion stage direction might have been unbearable if Stein had kept more traditionally-paced tempi.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Bayreuth Festival)

I stuck with Bayreuth and a staging by Wolfgang Wagner for Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  On the whole, this 1984 production was effective.  While it may not have pushed the realm of giving any new understanding to the opera, it remained relatable.  The characters in this opera are not gods nor figures from legend, but humans, and the staging made them human.  They may not have always interacted naturally, or pulled off their acting assignments generally, and glossed over some of the humor (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy, after all), but they still generally presented a couple of (albeit fictitious) days in the life of their town.  And the strong cast generally sang their roles idiomatically.

The nice sets, although grand, also came across as almost intimate: Act 1 took place in the corner of the church; Act 2 in a leafy square; Act 3, scene 1, in a simple room in Sachs’ home that was almost cell-like (although perhaps too grand a space for a cobbler, even a worldly one as the real-life Sachs had been); and Act 3, scene 2, indeed took place in a field (as it is supposed to be, but without Nürnberg in the background).  The blocking was playful, if not always obviously comic.  There was some strange camera work during the second act fight scene, using lots of close-ups, but since the people fighting were the chorus and not professional stuntmen, this came across as rather silly.  Normally the fight can be disguised a bit in the theater (and we all know they are opera singers and not street brawlers), but the close-ups exposed that the fighting just was not very realistic, compounded by the funky expressions on everyone’s faces.  That said, I do suppose Meistersinger is a comedy.  And the flying leap that David made onto Beckmesser, which set off the brawl, was indeed quite humorous in its way.  In the final act, instead of running away, Beckmesser goes into the crowd to watch Walther’s prize song, and even he in the end is won over.  At the very end, Sachs even shakes his hand – an act of reconciliation.

Bernd Weikl starred as somewhat haughty Sachs (pretending to be modest, but he knew who he was).  Hermann Prey’s Beckmesser took some getting used to – while a bit of a caricature, it was also clear why he is also a mastersinger and should have a lyrical voice.  Siegfried Jerusalem was a dashing Walther von Stolzing, and Graham Clark a lively David.  Mari Anne Häggander (Eva) and Marga Schiml (Magdalena) portrayed their roles as somewhat much older than they should have been, although vocally they were fine.  Horst Stein conducted again.

Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci (Metropolitan Opera)

David McVicar’s staging of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Metropolitan Opera took place not in a village, but on a large rotating wooden stage surrounded by villagers who moved their chairs around, pranced flailingly, or who knows what they were doing besides distracting everyone.  McVicar is generally quite good but has a tendency to create busy stagings – which work when they focus on the plot, but don’t work when they are just busy for the sake of it.  When the villagers were not around, the intimate scenes and interactions between the main characters more successfully elucidated the story, particularly for Marcelo Álvarez (Turridu), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Santuzza), and Giorgi Gagnidze (Alfio).  Álvarez and Westbroek strangely had trouble at times staying on key, as did the chorus, making me wonder if something was off with the streaming even though nothing obvious was.  Fabio Luisi conducted.

In the second half of the double-bill, McVicar also gave Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci a peculiar staging, opening in what looked like some tacky vaudeville theater to reveal behind the curtain: the mid-1900s.  This actually worked quite a bit better than his odd setting of Cavalleria – the change in time was not really material, and the busy details here contributed to a lively interpretation (especially the twentieth-century slapstick update of the Commedia dell’Arte that had inspired it).  It is precisely in these sorts of detailed thoughtful interpretations that McVicar succeeds best.  Álvarez (as Canio) and Gagnidze (as Tonio) returned, now with Patricia Racette (as Nedda).

Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera)

I started to watch this version of Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the 2013 Met Opera staging (by Michael Mayer, apparently some trendy hack from Broadway) was too absurd, set in a sleazy casino with the Duke seemingly the casino singer, Monterone an Arab sheikh, and I did not stick around long enough to figure out who everyone else was supposed to be.  So I just listened, particularly to Piotr Beczała’s charming Duke and Željko Lučić’s on-edge Rigoletto (who could still show such tenderness for his daughter Gilda, here portrayed by Diana Damrau), who made it worthwhile.  The Met’s orchestra sounded a tad thin under Michele Mariotti.

Donizetti: Don Pasquale (Staatsoper)

A bit of a silly staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale from the Staatsoper – by the Frenchwoman Irina Brook.  It was thankfully not Regietheater but somewhat of an updating of the plot into a modern nightclub with Don Pasquale apparently as the proprietor.  I’m not sure what her point was, though.  The 2016 cast featured Michele Pertusi in the title role and Dmitry Korchak as Ernesto, backed by the Vienna Ensemble, notably (and happily for my ears) Alessio Arduini as Malatesta and Valentina Naforniţă as Norina, all keeping their humor up on stage.  Frédéric Chaslin conducted.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Howell, Elgar, Weinberg, Knussen

Poking around the “Fidelio” streaming service to see if it had more music by Moishe Weinberg, I came up with a concert from the Royal Albert Hall and the 2019 Proms, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla performing Weinberg’s Third Symphony.  This made quite a contrast to the only other work by Weinberg which I could find on the “Fidelio” service, his opera The Passenger, which I watched a couple of weeks ago.  Whereas the opera was brutal, brash, but ultimately defiant, the symphony was lyrical but wistful, charming but sad.  I had not heard this symphony before, but as with most of Weinberg’s compositions, it was well worth discovering.  I listened twice to make sure I heard every brilliant nuance (Weinberg’s music is so brilliantly complex on so many levels that I am sure I still missed a few).  Gražinytė-Tyla is a skilled interpreter and promoter of his music, now at the helm of her own orchestra (which ranks alongside the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich in a class by themselves of top European provincial orchestras).

The first half of that concert opened with the tone poem Lamia by Dorothy Howell, which had its premiere at the Proms one hundred years before (making this an intentional commemoration), when the composer was 21 years old.  It, in turn, was based on a poem by John Keats, which he had written exactly one hundred years before that.  The music, by an otherwise forgotten British composer, worked fine as a tone poem, but was in the end not more than a curiosity that will likely return to oblivion (it’s not bad, and who knows why some works of less quality become more standard parts of the general repertory, but there is also no reason this should get more attention).  The same could not be said of Edward Elgar, whose Cello Concerto followed: this is a work which started off mostly ignored (despite being championed by such greats as Pau Casals) but gradually became a standard.  A then-twenty-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason as the soloist was nothing short of impressive – this is a difficult work to pull off even for a fully-mature artist, full of passion and deep feeling, but the young cellist more than mastered it.  He added a Saraband for solo cello by Weinberg as an encore.  The concert’s first half concluded with “The Way to Castle Yonder,” an orchestral excerpt from Higglety Pigglety Pop! – a children’s opera based on a Maurice Sendak book – by Oliver Knussen.  I had heard of Knussen before, but do not believe I had heard anything written by Knussen before.  So now I have.

Vienna Philharmonic: Beethoven, Bruckner

The “Fidelio” service also has in its archive Bernard Haitink’s last concert at the Salzburg Festival, the third-to-last stop of his farewell tour of Europe with the Vienna Philharmonic before he took his “sabbatical” (from which it is widely believed he knows he will never return).  I attended this concert, but found it worth listening again to hear Haitink lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4 (with Emanuel Ax) and Bruckner’s Symphony #7.  My impressions from last summer have held up on a second listen. (My review from 31 August 2019 is on this blog – incidentally, the stream edited Ax’s encore out completely, so I still have no idea what he played.)

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikowsky

The Boston Symphony has decided to continue to post on its site (for a limited but not-specified amount of time) a curated selection of performances from its archives, which it considers transformative, now going up weekly rather than daily.  These are generally individual works rather than entire concerts.  To highlight Erich Leinsdorf’s farewell spring as the Orchestra’s music director in 1969, they posted a warhorse: Tschaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony.  This is one of these far-too-often-performed works that I have said should generally be removed from concert programs unless people have something new to say (such as a spectacular performance of it I heard in Dresden a few years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin).  Here, indeed, Leinsdorf and the BSO rose to the occasion.  The first movement had a relentless pacing (not fast, just strident).  The second captured lyric nuances in the winds which often get blurred, over an underlying tension.  The third movement danced, as it should, but the dance increasing went on its edge: could be in despair, except that it led into the triumphant final movement.  This performance produced more sound than the BSO normally manages, and indeed the stage looked crowded, but Leinsdorf had indeed expanded the BSO’s repertory, and nothing prevents more intimate-sounding orchestras such as the BSO or Leipzig Gewandhausorchester from doing justice to the larger works.  And it is performances such as this one which keep this particular symphony in the forefront of the repertory.  It is also such special performances like this that mean most other orchestras and conductors should remove it from their repertories completely.

Philadelphia Orchestra: Verdi

The Philadelphia Orchestra offered a performance of Verdi’s Requiem from 2012, one of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first concerts as Music Director, starting the Orchestra’s reemergence from its doldrum years under Eschenbach and Dutoit.  The musicians were there, so it’s not like the orchestra itself required an overhaul, but having good leadership makes a huge difference.  In this concert, that became palpable.  It started off quietly, almost delicately, remarkably so for what grows into a bombastic piece, but this just highlighted Verdi’s powerful writing (even the soft passages have their own fateful power).  Excellent soloists (Marina Poplavskaya,Christine Rice, Rolando Villazón, and Mikhail Petrenko) – who themselves did not try to be bombastic but rather provided sympathetic and almost lilting lines.  The Westminster Symphony Choir added wonderful color.

There was a certain catharsis with this concert – the Orchestra knew that happy days were ahead, and this requiem mass may well have been a mass for the Orchestra’s lost decade.  In the end, Nézet-Séguin held the silence out – especially noteworthy considering that American audiences tend to be quick to applaud and do not necessarily respect that hold.  But here the audience remained mute for the duration until Nézet-Séguin lowered his arms long after the music ended.  From the knowing looks on the musicians’ faces, they felt it too.  Welcome back to the pantheon, Philadelphia Orchestra – it’s been a stellar rise since then too.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 7)

Highlights

With the lockdown in Austria now having officially ended on 30 April, I may try to have other distractions in May, but I certainly digested a fair amount of opera during the last seven weeks.  Austria is not completely opening for a long time, and of course there is no live music any time soon, but we can at least get out of the house more.  Several institutions streaming performances online are now scaling back.  Others are moving ahead but beginning to repeat performances (see my reviews here, I suppose, to know what to look out for – or subscribe to the different sites).  So maybe I don’t keep updating this blog every week with online highlights.  We will see what I do.

Many thanks especially to the Vienna Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, the Vienna Volksoper, the Royal Swedish Opera, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but also to all of the opera houses and orchestras that have streamed so much wonderful music these last weeks – there were many, but even during a lockdown there remain only so many hours in a night, so I merely sampled a selection.  Hope to hear you all in person again soon!

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel (Staatsoper)

Engelbert Humperdinck, a favorite assistant of Wagner at Bayreuth (and who later wrote incidental music for Max Reinhardt productions), turned a lot of fairy tales into operas with a suitably Wagnerian coloring.  Hänsel und Gretel has hung around in the standard repertory, and although popular for children at Christmas time, it often attracts quite serious artists.  It’s fun to revisit this opera now and then.  Here the Staatsoper did a fantasy setting with Margaret Plummer and Chen Reiss in the title roles and Axel Kober conducting.

Weinberg: The Passenger (Bregenz Festival)

This was rough: over on the “Fidelio” streaming site (access courtesy of the Volksoper), I got to finally see Moishe Weinberg’s Auschwitz opera, The Passenger, in its world premiere staging at the 2010 Bregenz Festival.  Set in approximately 1960, a German diplomat and his wife are heading off to Brazil for his new posting when she spots a mysterious passenger on the ship, who reminds her of a Polish inmate at Auschwitz.  This leads her to reveal to her husband that she had been an officer in the SS and indeed an overseer in the women’s camp at Auschwitz.  The rest of the opera mixes flashbacks from the camp with scenes from the boat.

Weinberg’s music is rather grim and never tuneful (but not atonal – typical of Weinberg, the music is dense and complex and plays on multiple levels simultaneously) until close to the end, where the tunes shout defiance.  Keeping with communist propaganda, Jews were almost entirely missing from this version of Auschwitz, except for one inmate from Salonika.  Of course the Warsaw-born Weinberg knew the truth about the Holocaust, the Germans having murdered his entire family.  But even that attempt to follow the Communist Party line did not let his work through the censors.  The Soviet regime suppressed this opera, like they did to so much of Weinberg’s other music.  Although composed in 1967-68 it was not performed until a concert version in 2006, ten years after the composer’s death.  The world premiere staging had to wait until this one in 2010 in Bregenz.

Michelle Breedt sang Lisa, the SS officer and Elena Kelessidi sang Marta, the Polish inmate and the mysterious Passenger (the opera never actually reveals if these are the same person).  A very young-looking Teodor Currentzis (an excellent conductor when he sticks to music – as here – and does not attempt distracting performance art) led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in the pit.  The staging by the British director David Pourtney fully captured the plot, and was effective at moving back and forth between the two periods portrayed without trying to do too much except let the opera speak for itself.

Boito: Mefistofele (Bavarian State Opera)

Opera in Germany became a bad joke several decades ago, to the point it is no longer safe to go to the opera there.  So I can promise that I did not turn to this Bavarian State Opera production of Boito’s Mefistofele because I wanted to see what yet another trashy German regisseur, in this case Roland Schwab, was up to (trashy is apparently the right word here, since the description said he opened this setting in a garbage dump).  But when searching through the collection available in the “Fidelio” streaming service, this was the only version of Boito’s Mefistofele in the catalogue and I wanted to hear who was singing.  My favorite Italian-language opera is not performed often enough (I’ve only managed to see it live once in person, in Prague exactly two years ago), so hearing it with a top-flight cast today was an objective.

As Mephistopheles René Pape himself was worth the listen, balancing a soothing bass-baritone voice – the temptation of the devil – with menace.  Joseph Calleja as Faust was suitably dramatic and had a wonderful mezza voce at times, but his voice also tended to crack.  Kristīne Opolais was a sensitive Gretchen.  Omer Meir Wellber was the conductor, and was neither here nor there – at times I do think he captured the music, but at others it wandered off, although maybe it would have to do with the staging and there’s not much a conductor can do if the director is an idiot who insists on staging something bearing no relation to the opera on the program.  It also did not help that part of the prologue (set in heaven, to what is supposed to be mystical, uplifting, open music) sounded like it was pre-recorded on a badly scratched vinyl LP (seriously – not a sound issue with the streaming as far as I could tell, so may indeed have been intentional).  Nor that the bumpkins in the audience kept interrupting the performance with gratuitous applause (although they did stop doing this midway through the opera, so someone must have given them a good thwack in the intermission – or maybe they went home and did not come back after the intermission).

  • [Recording tip: Nothing has matched the 1974 set featuring the inimitable Norman Treigle in the title role, backed by Plácido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé, with Julius Rudel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.  Seriously, nothing comes close, and probably nothing ever will.  I’ve listened to numerous versions, and extensive excerpts with top-notch performers, and this is the definitive recording in every respect.]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Staatsoper)

I could not resist sitting once more through Beethoven’s Fidelio from the Staatsoper in the Otto Schenk staging, which I saw with a different cast last week.  I had remembered Anja Kampe’s Leonore and Valentina Naforniţă’s Marzelline fondly from when I saw this production live in 2013, so tuned in to see them again in this streamed 2016 performance.  They were every bit what I remembered, and although Camilla Nylund sang a good Leonore in last week’s streaming (from 2017), Kampe easily outdid her in the acting department, with passion and verve.  Stephen Milling, whom I admired as Gurnemanz in a Staatsoper streaming of Parsifal earlier in the lockdown (the first time I remembered hearing him) was indeed also impressive as Rocco.  Again, the acting added to his fine voice – not that Günther Groissböck (Rocco in the streaming I saw last week) cannot act (he certainly can), but there was more of the humanity in Milling’s Rocco.   Klaus Florian Vogt was also a much more believable Florestan than Peter Seiffert (whom I saw last week and who had not even merited a mention in my write-up).  And Evgeny Nikitin was that much more of a villain as Don Pizarro than Albert Dohmen’s more basic version last week (Nikitin’s unsavory past makes him personally more of a villain, but famously having had a large swastika tattoo, though making him of dubious character, does not make him a better artist – that comes from him genuinely being a better artist).  It’s not that last week’s cast was bad, but with the exception of Chen Reiss being a notch better than Naforniţă (which is not in any way meant as a knock on the younger singer), and Boaz Daniel (Don Fernando) and Jörg Schneider (Jaquino) reprising their roles, this group just made a more convincing whole portrayal.  And while Cornelius Meister led a fine performance in the version streamed last week, Peter Schneider in the pit this time just added even more warmth and spirit.  The applause from the audience was proportionately grander as well – they knew what they had seen.

Mozart: Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne Festival)

David McVicar has directed a delightful little production of Mozart’s Abduction for the 2015 Glyndebourne Festival.  Extended dialogue allowed for much fuller character development than the usual set stereotypes. McVicar could succeed here as well by keeping the singers active on the stage: they were not just singing in an opera and doing the necessary actions, but rather living their lives for us.  McVicar also recognized that this opera may be serious, but is filled with comic relief – which he magnified without turning it into a comedy.  This is actually Mozart at his best, playful and full of humor but grounded, with a lesson for us all.  The cast could act, too.

This production was the opposite of some of those terrible German Regietheater stagings, where I want to hear them but cannot watch.  In those cases, I do listen, but can do other things at the same time.  But in this case I wanted to watch, yet had to suffer through listening to the performance.  It made me realize that I do not know much about Glyndebourne, other than that it has a certain reputation from a cult following, set on some English country estate.  I assumed it was a bit like other music festivals, attracting top performers.  Maybe it is, but this production had more than a whiff of amateur night to it, which was a shame, though, with McVicar’s truly intelligent and completely thought-through concept.

The Glyndebourne Festival’s orchestra, conducted by Robin Ticciati, sounded thin and not quite able to stay in tune, which was painful.  Of the singers, Tobias Kehrer (Osmin) was perhaps the only one with a solid voice.  Brendan Gunnell (Pedrillo) and Mari Eriksmoen (Blonde) were equipped with adequate vocal instruments.  Sally Matthews (Konstanze) could sing sometimes but her voice cracked too often to get comfortable with.  Edgardas Montvidas (Belmonte) was the most problematic, with a consistently weak and strained tone that often became downright cringeworthy.  Franck Saurel (Pasha Selim) thankfully did not have a singing role, just spoken dialogue, which he generally could do although he had a tendency to overact.  I’d love to see the McVicar staging live with a proper cast and orchestra, though (I’d stream the film another time through to catch more of the nuances, except I don’t think I could take listening to this version again).

  • [Recording tip: My favorite recording of this opera, combining musicality and Austrian charm, is the 1966 one made by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Nicolai Gedda as Belmonte, Anneliese Rothenberger as Konstanze, Gerhard Unger as Pedrillo, Lucia Popp as Blonde, and Gottlob Frick as Osmin.]

Berlioz: The Trojans (Staatsoper)

Berlioz’s opera based on Vergil’s Aeneid rarely gets performed.  The French, of course, never understood it, so Berlioz only managed to get a truncated version produced during his own lifetime, that he was not remotely satisfied with.  It finally got a full performance in Germany and entered the repertory long after the composer’s death.  The Staatsoper’s current staging is by David McVicar – and since he is generally pretty good, I figured this would be a nice version to see.

I’m not sure of the logic, but McVicar set the Trojan War in (perhaps) the 19th century.  For the acts set in Troy, McVicar has the Trojan warriors dressed up in ceremonial naval uniforms.  The sets were not realistic of anything – they looked a bit like deconstructed naval vessels.  The horse itself consisted of lashed-together detritus from old warships (cannons, ship’s wheels) lit up to look like a circuit board.  (The jumble reappeared at the end of the opera, reconfigured into a human form as the Carthiginians curse Rome.)  The acts in Carthage at least tried to look North African, even if likely not from 3,000 years ago.  But it worked, sort of, until the Trojans arrived from the 19th century.  Maybe I just write this off as not one of McVicar’s better efforts.

From the musical perspective, this 2018 performance featured strong characterizations by Brandon Jovanovich as Aeneas, Joyce DiDonato as Dido, Szilvia Vörös as Anna, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra.  Alain Altinoglu conducted.

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera streamed a 1985 performance of Verdi’s Aida, featuring Leontyne Price in the title role (her final on-stage opera performance – she only did concerts after that point in her career), Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris, James McCracken as Radamès, and Simon Estes as Amonasro.  James Levine conducted.  It was great to hear, but strange to watch, with a minimalist set, stylized mock-Egyptian costumes (a bit over the top, actually), and very static blocking with singers walking slowly and intentionally to specific spots where they just stood.

New York Philharmonic: Mahler

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum posted on their Facebook page a video of a television broadcast by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from 1963, performing Mahler’s Second Symphony in memory of President Kennedy, who had been assassinated two days before the broadcast.  This piece is always evocative, and here the orchestra produced a solemn performance, with Bernstein providing the strong punctuation.  Tempi were noticeably quite a bit faster than usual, particularly in the first movement, but while rather odd at times this did not undermine the tension.  The sound on the recording was oddly crackly (and even warped in places) – other live performances from that period were of far better quality, so one wonders whether CBS (the network responsible for the broadcast) was particularly incompetent – but the tone of the orchestra shines through.  Indeed, it is pleasant to remember that the New York Philharmonic once counted among the best in the world.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 6)

Highlights

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 Kozhukhin 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.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 5)

Highlights

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.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 4)

Highlights

With the world still on indefinite lockdown, I spent a fourth week perusing archival performances streamed online.  I am nocturnal, so am normally awake through the night and usually spend the hours reading.  The lockdown has changed my patterns, so that I now do a lot less reading and a lot more opera-gazing.

Wagner: Parsifal (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera, and Berlin Philharmonic)

This being the Holy Week in the Western Church, my week’s selections were dominated by three versions of Wagner’s Parsifal (and I will add a fourth new version next week).  Two were staged (the previous production at the Staatsoper and the current one at the Metropolitan Opera) and one was a concert version (Berlin Philharmonic).  I will move on to the Staatsoper’s current staging next week.  This is such a wonderful transformative opera, and when I get fully immersed into it I really do get into it.

I saw that previous Staatsoper staging live in 2006 – yet another abomination by a German director, in this case Christine Mielitz.  So I had absolutely no desire to see her nonsense again.  But I did want to listen to this cast, from a 2015 performance, and the sumptuous sounds of the Staatsoper orchestra crafted by Ádám Fischer.  Danish baritone Stephen Milling, as Gurnemanz, was the real revelation here with his warm and all-encompassing voice.

That said, I did look into the streaming a few times on this production, including the final scene.  Mielitz’s travesty was every bit as imbecilic as I remembered, but she does seem to have made some adjustments between 2006 (when I saw it live) and 2015 (this video).  So now Parsifal, with help of the spear, embraces Amfortas and Kundry in a big bear hug towards the end, which both healed Amfortas’ wound (the key event of the entire opera, which had been completely missing in her original) and in the same process clearly blessed Kundry (another key plot point Mielitz completely left out before) who instead of walking off the back of the stage into what looked like a backstage construction site (when I was there in 2006) now got onto a lift and was transported up to (presumably) heaven.  It wasn’t satisfying, but it least showed that Mielitz may actually have decided to read the plot sometime after she had done the staging, and attempted to make the staging more closely approximate the plot by reintroducing some key actions.  (Reminder to trashy German Regisseurs: please read the plot before staging an opera; is that really too much to ask?).  I still saw no Grail.  But maybe if I rewatched the whole thing I might have found other corrections – but I am not watching the whole thing (and the snippets I did see did not make me hopeful; even if she did make corrections in the final scene, that scene still failed miserably).

From there it was over to the Met for their 2013 new production by Canadian director François Girard.  The Met Orchestra is not the Vienna Philharmonic, and the dull Daniele Gatti on the podium lacked the intellectual stature of Ádám Fischer, so the Met forces were not as lush nor able to provide the same driving coloration.  Girard’s concept probably required more from the pit, since his staging was oddly modern but timeless, minimal but semi-realist, focusing on the psychological elements of the opera rather than the action (such as it is – this is indeed a very long opera with very little action).  I do not think it really worked.  It was all blood and darkness and ominous cloud formations (and in one case something that looked like a huge Mars gone into eclipse).  Klingsor’s magic garden was transformed into a blood-soaked hewn cave, for example (Klingsor himself was a bloody mess).  The chorus generally stood around, sometimes contorting itself (often with arms outstretched to mimic the crucifixion – but in Parsifal Wagner actually used the story of the grail knights as a myth, and while the final act takes place on Good Friday the symbolism is generally not Christian and Jesus never gets a mention at all).  Girard’s blocking was questionable, but partly balanced by camerawork which allowed those of us watching from home to focus in ways it would have been harder to do in person.

The third act took place in a post-apocalyptic setting, opening with the knights, visibly unhealthy and in tattered clothing, burying their dead from a plague – obviously not a reference to the corona virus (this was filmed in 2013), but a bit disturbing in the current context.  The dark foreboding lighting (even at noon – enter Mars under eclipse at that point) did not so much make this production transformative and mystical, but rather gloomy and depressing.

Jonas Kaufmann, the Met’s Parsifal, was more convincing than the Staatsoper’s Johan Botha.  Botha may have had the bigger voice, but Kaufmann was more lyrical and sympathetic (it also did not help that Botha forgot the words at times).  If Kaufmann was undermatched for the Heldentenor role of Siegmund in Walküre, Parsifal falls more within his vocal strengths.  René Pape, the Met’s Gurnemanz, was in his usual fine form (especially warm in the third act), but on hearing these two performances back-to-back when juxtaposed next to Milling was simply outperformed (I am not sure I had heard Milling before, but I definitely intend to again).

Since it’s hard to get too much Parsifal once I start immersing myself, I migrated over to the Berlin Philharmonic archive they’ve opened up this month, and found a 2018 concert performance under Simon Rattle.  Since it was not staged, the entire focus could go onto the music.  A good staging (particularly of a mystical opera such as this) augments that message, but bad stagings detract.  So in this case, particularly since this was being performed in Germany, where incompetent opera direction reigns, a concert version made for a really good idea.  Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic captured that mystical level.  Stuart Skelton sang an excellent Parsifal (he who recently sounded so good as the Met’s Tristan, there felicitously placed opposite Nina Stemme as Isolde, who sang Kundry here for Berlin).  Franz-Josef Selig was in absolute top form as Gurnemanz, who is really the key character in this opera.

  • [Recording tips:  When it comes to selecting a “best” recording of Parsifal, I think the biggest discussion is not which conductor but rather conceding that some of the best are by Hans Knappertsbusch, then which version conducted by Knappertsbusch deserves that distinction.  I favor the live 1951 Bayreuth Festival performance by virtue of the best overall cast balance.  Wolfgang Windgassen sings the title role, with Ludwig Weber as the critical Gurnemanz.  George London (Amfortas), Arnold van Mill (Titurel), Hermann Uhde (Klingsor), and Martha Modl (Kundry) round out the lead ensemble.  For excerpts, there are several exciting recordings of the second act duet with Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, of which the best may be the one recorded in Philadelphia in 1940 with the Victor Symphony Orchestra under Edwin McArthur.  A recording of the “Good Friday Spell” from Act Three, with Alexander Kipnis as Gurnemanz and Fritz Wolff as Siegfried, recorded at the 1927 Bayreuth Festival with Siegfried Wagner, the composer’s son, on the podium, has never been equaled.]

Strauß II, Zigeunerbaron (Volksoper)

I actually started the week on a much lighter note, with Johann Strauß II’s Zigeunerbaron.  This was unfortunately a confused and humorless new production – the last premiere at the Volksoper before the coronavirus lockdown – by German director Peter Lund.  Despite the nationality of the director, I had better expectations, since Lund had managed to successfully capture Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür in this house a few years ago, which I assume got him invited back for this.  But now he demonstrated no understanding for the Straußian Austro-Hungarian idiom, and his clumsy sets left no room for charm (so, indeed, the cast, orchestra, and conductor – all of whom will remain nameless here so as not to drag them down for something not their fault – could provide none).

  • [Recording tip: A lot of Viennese operetta is best experienced live.  I have happy memories of a performance of Zigeunerbaron at the Volksoper in December 1987.  I did not grow up speaking German, but had begun to study it as my fifth language only in September 1986.  Of course, I had heard Viennese German regularly growing up, since my father spoke to his parents in Viennese (but they all, for some reason, spoke to me in English), so that influenced my dialect, but clearly this was not my native language and my father liked to laugh at my pronunciation as a beginning German-speaker (at that time only a year into when I started speaking the language), which sounded to him like I came from one of the Monarchy’s Kronländer – maybe Slavic or even Hungarian.  After listening to the thick Hungarian accents in the Volksoper’s Zigeunerbaron, my father smiled at me….  Recordings do not quite capture the spontaneity of live performances, so critical for this genre.  But I lean towards one in particular, on the basis that it is sufficiently Viennese to capture the humor, even if it is a tad too “grand.”  But its mostly Viennese performers all would have performed this in a less serious manner, and understood the Fach: a 1961 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic under Heinrich Hollreiser, with a cast including Staatsoper (and Volksoper) ensemble stalwarts Hilde Güden, Karl Terkal, Walter Berry, Erich Kunz, Anneliese Rothenberger, Hilde Rössel-Majdan, and Kurt Equiluz.]

Strauss, Elektra (Staatsoper)

From a purely musical perspective, this performance of Elektra by Richard Strauss was electric.  Waltraud Meier and Christine Goerke were in full voice, and Semyon Bychkov provided the perfect amount of sound and powerful framing from the Staatsoper pit.  Yet Uwe Eric Laufenberg, another worthless German director, staged something other than Elektra, and the only advantage of not being in the opera house live (where the music sounds so much better) is that I really don’t have to watch this Prussian nonsense.  I thought initially maybe I would watch, and see what Laufenberg offered, but life really is too short.  I listened happily while doing other things.

What is strange about this opera is that, for no apparent reason, I have never really gotten into it.  I own one recording – a classic 1953 West German Radio recording conducted by Richard Kraus with Astrid Varnay in the title role – which is fine but I will make no claim that it is necessarily the best available – which I may have listened to only 2-3 times since I bought it 20 years ago.  And I am not sure I have listened to the opera otherwise in that period (maybe a Met radio broadcast at some point – assuming it has even been in the Met’s repertory – but if so then certainly never paying much attention).  So it was great to hear it properly like this and scratch my head as to why I haven’t listened to it more often.  I do have a ticket for Elektra should the Salzburg Festival go ahead this Summer (which looks unlikely – although Austria is opening up gradually starting next week, the government has clearly indicated it wants to keep the borders closed until there is a vaccine, which won’t be until mid-2021 at the earliest, so travel in and out would remain blocked; under those circumstances, I could envision a shrunken Austrian-only Festival, but not the normal one).

Verdi: Aida (Metropolitan Opera)

The Met’s staging of Verdi’s Aida is monumental, but this cast was not.  The blocking was poor and the cast in general could not act (I wonder if these facts were related: did they give up on blocking to accommodate a cast that couldn’t act, or was the cast unable to act because the director thought monumental sets alone would substitute for stage direction?).  Within those constraints, the two female leads, Anna Netrebko (as Aida) and Anita Rachvelishvili (as Amneris), could at least sing really well.  Netrebko has been doing this for a while.  But as a rising talent, Rachvelishvili has a unbelievably powerful round and dark lower register (which I heard live in Salzburg last summer) but still handled the high notes with dexterity – hers is quite a remarkable voice in every respect.  As Radamès, Aleksandrs Antonenko was awful – his voice screeched even on those rare occasions when he was not trying to locate his pitch.  Nicola Luisotti did what he needed to in the pit.

  • [Recording tips: My preferred recording of Aida does not seem to rank on most people’s lists, but I’ll stick with it anyway.  Erich Leinsdorf’s 1971 set with the London Symphony Orchestra, featuring Leontyne Price (Aida), Grace Bumbry (Amneris), Plácido Domingo (Radamès), Sherrill Milnes (Amonasro), Ruggero Raimondi (Ramfis), and Hans Sotin (Pharaoh) simply captured this drama better than most.  For something different, if I may, there is a 1955 live Staatsoper recording led by Rafael Kubelik floating around on the market and worth searching out, sung in German with Leonie Rysanek (Aida), Jean Madera (Amneris), Hans Hopf (Radamès), George London (Amonasro), and Gottlob Frick (Ramfis).]

Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Staatsoper)

I had never seen Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen before.  I am not sure I had even heard it – if I had, it was on in the background at some point and I was not paying attention.  While it may not be performed too often, it does appear regularly, and I meant to see it at the Staatoper before but never got around to it.  It is a strange little opera: a fantasy, it has a dose of hard realism; almost a children’s tale (most of the characters are animals), it has adult themes; and although a comedy, it is sad.  I like Janáček’s music, although unlike the bolder music in his other dramas or his orchestral works, here he stayed restrained, moody music shimmering in the forest.  Tomáš Netopil conducted with feeling.  Chen Reiss sang a playful Vixen.  Roman Trekal pulled together the arc of the story as the Forester.

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Golden Cockerel (Mariinsky Theater)

Another seldom-performed work, which I also had never seen before (although I do own a recording), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel was on offer from the Mariinsky Theater.  Rimsky-Korsakov did not originally mean this as a children’s story but it is easily accessible as one, in its world of fantasy, here in a fairy tale staging by the young Russian opera director Anna MatisonAida Garifullina was in great voice as the Queen of Shemakha.  Valery Gergiev conducted in the Mariinsky Second Stage, a modern state-of-the-art theater behind the original Mariinsky.  The house opened in 2013 and for which the visionary Gergiev himself was the mastermind (I actually visited the construction site with him late one night in 2010, when it was still a hole in the ground).

Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina (Mariinsky Theater)

The best opera performance I attended in 2010 (the night Maestro Gergiev showed me that hole in the ground) was Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina (in the performing version by Schostakowitsch) at the Mariinsky main stage (a performance I already reviewed on this blog back then for 2 June 2010).  They have now streamed a 2012 performance on their website with a similar cast (so this performance let me see Sergey Alekshashkin as Khovansky, Nikolay Putilin as Shaklovity, Vladimir Vaneyev as Dosifei, Olga Borodina as Marfa, and Vladimir Galuzin as Andrei again; Yevgeny Akimov as Golitsin was the only major character with a different singer this time) with Gergiev in the pit.  It was as thrilling this time through as well (although it is always better to see opera live).  One thing that was obvious during my time living in Russia was that Russian opera singers are taught to act, which produces much more dynamic portrayals across the board.  This stood out here in contrast to some of the poor acting I have seen in other non-Russian productions these last few weeks.

  • [Recording tip: Surprisngly for such a tremendous opera there are not exactly a ton of recordings.  And even then, most use the standard performing version by Rimsky-Korsakov.  Mussorgsky died with the opera unorchestrated and not tidied up, so there are options.  Rimsky-Korsakov did the first clean-up, but his result is actually not very satisfying even though it became the standard.  Stravinsky and Ravel later did another version together (each taking different parts rather than jointly working on the same parts).  By all accounts, the parts orchestrated by the incompetent Ravel were terrible (he had an undeserved reputation as a good orchestrator based on his quite excellent version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but otherwise never produced much of value, whether orchestrating his own work or the work of others), although Stravinsky’s contributions are still sometimes heard.  Schostakowitsch did a new orchestration, which had its premiere at the Mariinsky in 1960 with the same staging they use today, and it is probably the most fulfilling and respectful of Mussorgsky’s wishes.  So if I narrow down to recordings of the Schostakowitsch version, there aren’t a lot to choose from.  But there is an especially good one by Claudio Abbado (who substituted Stravinsky’s version of Act Five instead of Schostakowitsch, for intelligent reasons he explains in the liner notes), with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast including Aage Haugland, Paata Burchuladze, Vladimir Popov, Anatoly Kotchega, Marjana Lipovšek, and Vladimir Atlantov.]

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra: Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky

Since the Mariinsky is putting up concerts, not just operas, during its corona streamings, it is nice to hear the rarely-performed full score of Stravinsky’s Firebird and not just the oft-performed suite.  Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Theater Orchestra carried it off with drama and suspense, with even the normally-omitted bits bringing their intrigue.  This is raw music, which usually gets sanitized when cut into the suite (not that the suite isn’t good, just that this is even more exciting).  They prefaced the Firebird with a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, in this case presenting the opposite problem: made me wish for the full length opera (itself almost never performed).  A late Rimsky work, it crosses the composers rich tone-painting with more experimental chromatics.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s student Stravinsky followed on this musical language with the Funeral Song #5, written upon the older composer’s death.  That piece was performed once at the memorial service in 1909 and then the score was lost until being rediscovered in 2015 and given its first public performance at this 2016 concert.  In that it formed the missing link in the musical progression from Kitezh to the Firebird.

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 2)

Highlights

Another week of lockdown, another week of online streaming.

Puccini: Tosca (Staatsoper)

The Staatsoper’s offers this week included a classic staging (by the Austrian Margarethe Wallmann) of Puccini’s Tosca with a selection of recent casts.  I chose a 2019 performance with Piotr Beczala as Cavardossi and Thomas Hampson as an elegant Scarpia.  Hampson’s voice has clearly tired with age, but he remains a tremendous stage presence.  Baron Scarpia is the bad guy in this opera, but to pull off the part requires a certain grace rather than just performing the role as a one dimensional villain.  And it was precisely that level of intelligence that Hampson provided.  Sondra Radvanovska, as Floria Tosca, was the least impressive of the three lead characters – adequate but not in Beczala’s or Hampson’s league.  The always-reliable Marco Armiliato conducted.

  • [Recording tips:  I think purists generally agree – and I don’t argue – that the standard recording against which every other should be compared is the 1953 La Scala version with Maria Callas in the title role, Giuseppe di Stefano as Cavaradossi, Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, and Victor de Sabata conducting.  However, I might also propose another recording which I often default to instead: a 1967 Russian-language studio recording with Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra.  My attention will always be drawn to recordings of great Georgian dramatic tenor Zurab Anjaparidze, indeed the greatest dramatic tenor I have ever heard (sadly only on recordings as he was before my time), who sang Mario Cavaradossi in this version.  Anjaparidze became the leading dramatic tenor at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater (often paired with the unmatched soprano Galina Vishnyevskaya) in its heyday in the late 1950s and through the 1960s until the authorities allowed him to return to Tbilisi in the 1970s.  In this recording, Oleg Klenov’s Scarpia is a force to reckon with, and Tamara Milashkina’s Floria Tosca, if not always entirely up to Callas’ level, displays an intensity consistent with this production under Svetlanov’s full-on interpretation.]

Donizetti: L’Elisir d’Amore (Staatsoper)

Armiliato also conducted another classic Vienna production, L’Elisir d’Amore by Donizetti, in a staging by Otto Schenk.  Schenk, also Austrian, is one of the greatest operatic stage directors – an actor by training, his stagings fundamentally focus on maximizing understanding of the plot, including refined interpretations, and I have seen this production myself live in the Staatsoper (albeit a different cast).  The Staatsoper’s streaming lineup gave me a choice of casts, so I picked the one with Dmitry Korchak as Nemorino and Adam Plachetka as Dr. Dulcamara, both excellent singing actors who personified their roles.  Olga Peretyatko may have been a notch down as Adina, but she still performed with a twinkle and the Schenk production made it easy.

  • [Recording tips: oddly, although I am long familiar with this opera since childhood and enjoy it very much, I realized that I somehow don’t own a complete recording of it, nor am I aware of a version I would recommend.  Indeed, I now want to do some research and get myself a complete recording to rectify the situation, but until then I suppose I will just have to keep going to see it in person.]

Tschaikowsky: Yevgeny Onyegin (Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera launched the week with its 2007 production of Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, and with the dashing Dmitri Hvorostovksy in the title role ably matched by Renée Fleming as Tatyana and Ramón Vargas as Lensky.  The staging is minimal, allowing the characters to fully act out the emotional psychodrama.  I actually own a DVD of this performance, but it was still worth re-watching.

  • [Recording tips: I don’t have a go-to recording of Onyegin.  Unlike Elisir d’Amore, I do own several recordings, each with its plusses and minuses.  I tend to mix and match scenes, whether from complete recordings or excerpts recorded separately.  There is a Swedish-language version of Lensky’s aria sung by Jussi Björing which is – and deserves to be – widely available.  Galina Vishnyevskaya’s letter scene recorded at the Bolshoi with her husband Mstislav Rostropovich conducting is an excellent extended highlight.  Mark Reizen’s take on Prince Gremin’s aria – which he recorded multiple times over his remarkably long career – is definitive in many of those recordings.  A final scene from a 1961 Vienna Staatsoper performance (sung in German) with Sena Jurinac as Tatyana and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Yevgeny under the baton of Lovro von Matačić is worth looking for to give a different lyrical perspective.  But, in the end, perhaps Hvorostovsky was indeed the most dashing Yevgeny there exists on record.]

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Metropolitan Opera)

After that Onyegin, the Met shifted into Wagnerian gear for a few days.  They led off with a vocally-impressive version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a modern setting that was impossible to watch, so I stopped watching.  Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme excelled as the title characters, with Simon Rattle keeping the pace from the pit.  To be honest, this is the only one of Wagner’s mature operas that has never spoken to me – I admit I just don’t understand Tristan.  So I guess I also was not bothered by finding the staging shambolic, allowing me to multi-task while listening.

  • [Recording tips: Since Tristan is not an opera I especially care for, I have not really done a complete comparison of commercially-available recordings.  I own one complete recording, that has some poor sound quality but otherwise excellent pacing: a 1943 live broadcast recording from the Met with Erich Leinsdorf conducting and Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel in the title roles.]

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (Staatsoper, Metropolitan Opera)

Of course the highlights of the week came in the form of a complete Ring Cycle from New York and the second half of the one from Vienna.

Vienna’s Ring, as noted last week, featured Thomas Konieczny as Wotan.  And while I could appreciate his edgy voice last week in Rheingold and Walküre, I was less convinced by it this week in Siegfried.  He contrasted with the Met’s Wotan, Bryn Terfel, who was altogether a more elegant chief god, still able to show the complexity of circumstances but with a much more rounded instrument.  Konieczny doubled up in Vienna as Gunther in Götterdämmerung, a role for which his voice was simply not at all suited – far too angry and unsubtle.  The Met countered with Iain Paterson as Gunther, who provided a much better characterization.  Gunther is often portrayed as a one-dimensional character, but he is rather more complex, which Paterson readily understood and transmitted.

Vienna’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung switched out the Brünnhilde in last week’s streamed version (Evelyn Herlitzius) to provide instead the Swede Iréne Theorin, an altogether stronger solution.  The Met streamings had Deborah Voigt, who was in excellent voice for Die Walküre and Siegfried but tended to strain during Götterdämmerung (the streamings came from shows spread out over a year and a half, so provided no indication if in the real world she had to sing on three successive nights, which might have explained the voice losing its shine and becoming more forced by Götterdämmerung).

On the Heldentenor front, the Met tried out Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund – he has a wonderful voice and stage presence, but this role seemed a bit much for him.  He may be a dramatic tenor, but it’s not so clear he is a Wagnerian Heldentenor.  Of course, Heldentenors are very hard to find, as demonstrated by the Met’s unfortunate choice to sing Siegfried, Jay Hunter Morris, who was reduced to screaming his role rather than singing it.  He had his quieter moments, and indeed might possibly have a nice voice in an appropriate role, but this role was far more than he could handle.  Vienna’s Siegfried, Stephen Gould, sounded dry-voiced and not quite fresh enough to sing this particular role, although he might have managed Siegmund (of the Wagnerian roles, I might peg his voice as best-suited for Tannhäuser).

The most impressive singer in either cycle was Hans-Peter König at the Met, who performed not only Fafner in Rheingold and Siegfried, but also Hunding in Walküre and Hagen in Götterdämmerung.  This was not a one-size-fits-all feat, but rather different portrayals to fit different roles.  (Contrast with Konieczny, for example, whose Gunther sounded exactly like his Wotan, and whose voice would have been temperamentally better for Alberich.)

It is actually worth underscoring König’s performance as Hagen especially.  If Götterdämmerung is my favorite opera, then Hagen is easily my favorite character in all of opera.  It is a strange role – Hagen actually has very few lines compared to his stage presence, but every one of those lines pushes the plot forward and the entire opera (possibly even the entire cycle) is dependent on this character.  Hagen is, of course, the son of Alberich, who wants a son to help him get the Ring back.  But it is often overlooked that in Act 2 of Die Walküre, Wotan anoints Alberich’s then not-yet-born son as his successor (pointedly NOT anointing his own offspring) for the purposes of bringing about the end of the world.  In the myths Wagner read and upon which he based his plot, Hagen was also sometimes portrayed as one-eyed, with the clear allusion to the one-eyed Wotan.  And as Wotan rules the world with his spear, defender of treaties, which is shattered by Siegfried in Act 3 of Siegfried, Hagen’s spear becomes the critical weapon of honor in Götterdämmerung.  While ultimately Hagen fails to win the Ring back for Alberich, he does succeed in setting in motion the final conspiracy that destroys the world (carried out, of course, by Wotan’s estranged daughter, Brünnhilde).

In this absolutely critical role, König dominated.  Vienna’s Hagen, Falk Struckmann, though a fine singer, simply did not rise to the role.  His Hagen was a tired old man – but Hagen is only a few months older than Siegfried (Kriemhild is pregnant with Hagen before the plot of Walküre begins – when Siegfried is conceived during the intermission between Acts 1 and 2), and probably (although not entirely clear) the younger brother of Gunther and Gutrune.  Assuming Siegfried is still a teenager during the opera Siegfried, and perhaps ten years or so pass during the first Act of Götterdämmerung before Siegfried arrives in Worms (the plot does not say explicitly how much time passes, but there are a number of clues in the text), this would make Siegfried and Hagen around 30 years old.  Hagen admits he is grey before his years thanks to being the son of the dwarf Alberich, but this does not need to mean he is an old man (Alberich himself is ageless and remains active, and wanted a half-human son to be his own vibrant hero to counter Wotan’s half-human race of descendants).

And if Struckmann did not have the voice or stage presence for Hagen, his task was made more difficult by the staging itself.  Last week I already mentioned the utterly useless production by the clueless German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, and watching the last two operas in the cycle did not let me see any concept grow even taking the entire four-opera set into account.  If it was not offensive (which is already an improvement on the garbage self-important German poseur opera directors normally churn out), it added nothing.  Indeed, a minimalist staging would have been better to allow the singers to act, but this was not minimalist just a mix of I-am-not-sure-what (some mock-realism, some abstraction, some stuff seemingly unrelated to anything else).  Some of it was just plain silly (for example, Wotan left the stage in Act 1 of Siegfried having forgotten his spear, so he returns to fetch it, hitting himself on the head to demonstrate his forgetfulness… and then Siegfried does exactly the same thing with his sword later in the opera).  It really is not worth going into the weeds to analyze Bechtolf’s staging, as that would be giving him too much credit for intelligent thought.  So I dealt with it.  But really: why?  Why give this idiot a contract?  Why give any German stage directors contracts?  What the hell have German stage directors been smoking these last several decades that has made them incapable of providing any sensible opera productions?  (OK, I admit there are a small handful of exceptions to prove the rule, but Germany has become a operatic wasteland, ruined by its Regisseurs.)

My verdict on the Met’s staging is still out.  I actually do not know who the director was (I could not find a credit on their website).  But the concept was that the stage for the duration of all four operas was actually a huge mechanical contraption consisting of a series of long planks.  These planks adjusted their angles individually or together, to form everything from the Rhein River to various buildings to landscapes, assisted by projections – sometimes realistic film and sometimes abstract lighting.  The characters moved in and out of the contraption.  The use of projections meant that some things often omitted could easily be included (Wotan’s ravens, for example) but this was not done consistently.  Without having to do an elaborate set (although I imagine the contraption on stage was actually elaborate) it could still be traditional if it wanted to be, and minimalist if it preferred that approach (or somehow both at once).  Many of the singers could act (although the contraption was often at steep angles and they looked distinctly uncomfortable moving about on it).  Was I convinced?  No, but watching it on a laptop may not be ideal for this concept – maybe I would need to be in the audience at the Met to appreciate the entirety.

From an overall musical perspective, the Staatsoper exceeded the Met – no surprise there (although, in Götterdämmerung, Siegfried’s entries were accompanied by consistently disastrous horn playing – and not because they got Gould to play his own horn, so someone in the orchestra must have gotten fired).  James Levine conducted the first two operas in the Met’s cycle – a once dynamic opera conductor, he was already in poor health by the time these performances were recorded in 2010-11 and so he simply could not keep the orchestra charged.  Fabio Luisi took over for Levine during Levine’s illness, and so had Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – Luisi can always be counted on for perfectly adequate performances (and I also find that any orchestra he is music director of improves its quality during his tenure, so he must be a good rehearsal conductor – the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, our city’s second great orchestra, sounded at its best at the end of his tenure and may have moved to among the top ten in the world at that time), but Luisi rarely comes up with anything special.  In contrast, Adam Fischer led the Staatsoper for Rheingold, Simon Rattle for Walküre, and Axel Kober for the final two operas, and all of them coaxed exciting color from the pit.  It is only a shame that the musicians in Vienna’s pit driving the Ring forward could not overcome Bechtolf’s complete lack of talent or purpose in his staging.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has ever exceeded John Culshaw’s brilliant ahead-of-his-time audio engineering for the classic London Decca Ring cycle.  But whereas the Rheingold lacks something particularly due to a sub-standard performance by George London as Wotan, and the Walküre in that set is poorly-cast, with an over-the-hill Hans Hotter falling short as Wotan at the end of his illustrious career – Culshaw recorded Walküre last, several years after the other operas – being one of several vocal inadequacies, especially Siegmund and Sieglinda in James King and Régine Crespin, neither of whom had anything near the voice for those roles).  But Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in that set have never been surpassed.  And if I said above that the key to any Ring is Hagen, well Culshaw cast Gottlob Frick, whom Wilhelm Furwängler once described as “the blackest bass” in all of Germany.  Possibly no one has ever been better suited for that role, and his Hagen dominates the entire recording (and may indeed be the reason I became such a fan of Götterdämmerung and the character Hagen in the first place).  But Hotter was in full voice for Wotan in Siegfried, Birgit Nilsson was at the top of her career as Brünnhilde, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was an inspired choice to portray the complexities of Gunther, Wolfgang Windgassen may not have been Culshaw’s first choice Siegfried but what we would not give to have a Heldentenor of his caliber today, Gustav Neidlinger and Gerhard Stolze provided idiomatic character portrayals of Alberich and Mime… and then there was the Vienna Philharmonic with Georg Solti, of course.]

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Metropolitan Opera)

Before writing this blog post up, I concluded the week’s offerings with Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg in a classic staging by Otto Schenk (that name again).  Schenk really is one of the best stage directors to work in the opera world.  It’s not just that the staging is sensible, but there is an attention to details, blocking, nuance, meaning… in short, a delight to watch.  And although I have seen the production before (with several casts, including in person – it was my father’s favorite, after all!) it has held up and remains a treat. Michael Volle portrayed a humorful Hans Sachs, someone who could enjoy life and all of its eccentricities, while still providing substance (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy after all – a Wagnerian comedy, but a comedy nonetheless).  Sachs is of course the hero of this opera – it is a love story, but Sachs is the odd man out, the old bachelor who has an interest in Eva but has moved beyond that, and the internal conflicts of Sachs are apparent in Schenk’s intelligent concept.  At the end of this staging, Schenk has Eva crown Sachs with the victor’s laurel wreath.

But if I had not already mentioned Hans-Peter König in connection with the Met’s Ring above, I would focus on him now: the role of Veit Pogner is obviously quite different from Fafner, Hunding, or Hagen.  But as he successfully differentiated among those roles in the Ring, so did König’s performance here as Pogner display yet another personality.

  • [Recording tips: Although many people did not realize it (many assumed it was Rheingold), Meistersinger was my father’s favorite opera (he also admired the real life Hans Sachs as a freethinker ahead of his time).  He had several recordings, but there was one he kept returning to, which I might agree may still be the best, although it is a surprising choice.  Herbert von Karajan’s operatic interpretations were cerebral but usually underwhelming.  Yet he recorded a version of this opera in 1971 with the Dresden Semperoper (and therefore the Dresden Staatskapelle Orchestra), with Theo Adam as Sachs.  Adam has a higher-register baritone voice, so may not be the deeper Sachs most people are accustomed to, but he was a very lyrical baritone who could carry Wagnerian roles, so providing an excellent understanding.  The rest of the cast is also up to the same level – one of Karajan’s strengths, if not commanding performances, was his ability to identify vocal talent and match it to the right roles, even unexpectedly.]

Berlin Philharmonic: Bruckner

On the concert front, I have started to take advantage of the Berlin Philharmonic’s archive that they have opened up for 30 days (to anyone who registers – for free – by 31 March, so unless that is extended I suggest people sign up now!).  Of the several concerts from Berlin I selected this week (and I will certainly listen to more in the coming weeks), I will make two recommendations in particular, both under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt.

The different available versions of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies each have a story rooted in Bruckner’s personal insecurity and well-meaning friends who sometimes never fully comprehended his music and gave him bad advice, which he usually took. So sometimes his revisions are good things, representing him refining his music; but other times they reflect his insecurities and he deconstructed what he had built and not in a good way.  So it is inconsistent which version to use of any of his symphonies, but there is a general reason that convention has settled on one particular edition of any symphony as preferred and most reflective of Bruckner’s thoughts and talents.  For Bruckner’s Third Symphony, this is usually his third version.  Blomstedt here prefers Bruckner’s original version, a much more rambling work with extra passages quoting from various Wagner operas that he edited out later.  And in this performance, Blomstedt manages to make a convincing case for this version – if not as a substitute for the third version commonly performed, then at least as an additional part of the performing repertory (and not just as a curiosity either, but having rightful place in the repertory).  Fundamentally, Blomstedt remains an architect of music, and takes great care to construct Bruckner’s soaring edifice.

  • [Recording tips: I own one recording of this original version, also convincing under the baton of Bruckner-specialist Georg Tintner.  But the Berlin Philharmonic far surpasses the orchestra Tintner had available (the Royal Scottish National Orchestra acquits itself well enough in the recording, but Berlin is among the top ten orchestras in the world and is just that much better).  As I do not believe the Blomstedt / Berlin performance is commercially available, then I recommend interested listeners to seek out the Tintner / RSNO recording.  (My go-to recording of the symphony in its normal performing version is with the Concertgebouworkest and Mariss Jansons, recorded live in Amsterdam a few days before I heard these forces repeat the concert in Vienna.)]

Berlin Philharmonic: Berwald, Dvořák

The other concert from Berlin that especially appealed to me this week of the ones I listened to, featured Blomstedt conducting Franz Berwald’s Symphony #3 and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony #7.  Berwald is an unjustly-neglected Swedish composer, and this symphony written 1845 was not performed for 60 years after he wrote it.  It is full of complex mood swings, which it accomplishes without losing its train of thought or musical lines.  Dvořák’s symphony, written on commission for the London Philharmonic in 1865, is in many ways similar, and represented the Czech composer’s first huge international popular success.

  • [Recording tips: For those who would like an introduction to Berwald, there is an excellent complete cycle of Berwald’s symphonies and other orchestral works released as a set by Sixten Ehrling and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.  For commercial versions of the Dvořák seventh, I’m partial to one with Wolgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra (maybe more driven that Blomstedt’s interpretion with Berlin, whereas Blomstedt focuses on the intricate building blocks themselves, as is his wont).]

Online Highlights from the Corona Lockdown (week 1)

Highlights

With the world on pause due to the latest pandemic, cultural institutions have gone online.

I myself fled Salzburg and decamped home to Vienna before the authorities ended freedom of movement, so that for what looks like will last at least one month on lockdown, I can be more comfortable than I would be if crammed into my small Salzburg pad (my office is in Salzburg, and it’s just too far from Vienna to commute daily – all I really need in Salzburg is a place to sleep, with a reasonable kitchen, bathroom, and balcony for when I do spend Summer weekends there).  In Vienna, I have a good kitchen stocked with sufficient food, a cellar full of Georgian wines, and my private library (including my CD collection – and good external speakers for my laptop), so can survive more than a month if necessary.  My own day job goes on remotely, so it’s also good to have a home office with a desk and printer.

My ticket for a new Vienna production of Rigoletto was refunded – that show won’t go on.  A chamber concert of music by Moishe Weinberg in Salzburg will, I hope, be rescheduled (no refund yet – but I’d rather hear the concert so happy to wait to see about the new date).  My April trip to the US is off, so I lose a chance to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra in its annual concert in memory of my father (would have been Beethoven’s Ninth this year – but not only my trip but also the concert itself is anyway canceled).  We will see when and whether concerts resume this Spring, or indeed for the Festival this Summer (I got my applications accepted for 19 tickets, and since I usually manage to add new ones during the Summer this would have meant my most performances ever at the Festival, surpassing last Summer’s final total of 19).  We will see.

At night, after work, I have been able to take advantage of the new offerings available online.  I am not going to pretend this is the same as hearing music live, but it’s nice to get some variety I might not have otherwise had.

Every evening the Staatsoper releases a new video available for that night.  New York’s Metropolitan Opera does the same (but with the difference in time zones, this comes after midnight here – thankfully I am nocturnal).

Wagner, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre (Staatsoper, Royal Swedish Opera)

I am now halfway through the Staatsoper’s current production of Wagner‘s Ring cycle, which they have spread out over two weeks (so far just Rheingold and Walküre).  The staging is blah – I am not sure that the vapid German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf had a concept.  If he did, it’s not remotely clear.  Thankfully, it’s not Regietheater, so nothing offends.  But I hope the Staatsoper did not pay him for this lack of imagination.  The cast consists mostly of Staatsoper ensemble members or frequent guests, and does not need to have any star names to succeed dramatically.  I have especially liked the edgy-voiced Thomasz Konieczny as Wotan.  He apparently has sung more Alberich than Wotan, and his voice indeed would be well-suited for Alberich, but the two characters are almost alteregos (“Schwarz-Alberich” and “Licht-Alberich”), so it can work with intelligent singing as Konieczny provides.  In the big roles so far, Evelyn Herlitzius has disappointed as Brünnhilde, her voice is expressive enough but not big enough.  Siegfried (my favorite opera as a child) is tomorrow, and Götterdämmerung (my favorite opera since I was a teen) next weekend.

I actually realized I have not sat through an entire Ring cycle in a while, so even with the faulty staging this is quite a positive outcome of the global pandemic.  Next week, I will also sit through the entire Ring Cycle on four successive nights, courtesy of the Met.  And the Royal Swedish Opera has provided Walküre (just the audio in this case) – in another dramatic reading with only one big-name star, Nina Stemme, as Brünnhilde (a shame she wasn’t contracted by for the current Vienna set!), and a supporting cast that generally held up.

  • [Recording tips: since I am cooped up at home, I do get to tap into my archive to listen to comparative performances.  For Rheingold, the 1958 Solti set with the Vienna Philharmonic made for Decca works for sake of drama thanks to John Culshaw’s brilliant audio engineering; but since George London’s portrayal of Wotan lacks dynamism, I tend to favor the 1953 live recording from Bayreuth conducted by Clemens Kraus, with Hans Hotter as Wotan and a cast otherwise up to the same standards as the Vienna one (in some cases the same singers).  For Walküre, I’ve never found a recording that really does it for me.  There are two conducted by Erich Leinsdorf a couple of decades apart, the first with the Metropolitan Opera has the better cast – there are actually a few of these from the same period, of which I favor a 1940 recording the Metropolitan Opera made while on tour in Boston, with Lauritz Melchior and Lotte Lehmann as a heroic Siegmund and Sieglinde, Marjorie Lawrence as Brünnhilde, and Friedrich Schorr as Wotan; the second Leinsdorf record came with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1962, with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde and a much better George London as Wotan, and has the more thrilling reading from the pit (indeed, from the orchestral standpoint, this 1962 Leinsdorf version may be the best Walküre available).  For sake of being unusual, I might also suggest seeking out the hard-to-find audio from the 1983 Bayreuth Festival with Georg Solti conducting a Ring cycle that was rightfully panned, but out of which came a surprisingly good Walküre.  Siegmund Nimsgern’s Wotan is similar in style to Konieczny’s in the recent Vienna cycle, Hildegard Behrens is at the hight of her career as Brünnhilde, and Siegfried Jerusalem and Jeannine Altmeier made an excellent pair as Siegmund and Sieglinde.]

Eötvös: Three Sisters (Staatsoper)

Of course, there is plenty of non-Wagner in the Staatsoper’s offering.  In an effort not just to be popular, the Staatsoper also included one 21st-Century opera in its mix: Three Sisters by Peter Eötvös.  That was worth a listen – Eötvös’ music is intelligent and edifying.

Bizet: Carmen / Verdi: Il Trovatore (Metropolitan Opera)

From the Met, the highlight so far has been a 2010 performance of Bizet‘s Carmen, with a sultry Elīna Garanča in the title role, overwhelming poor Roberto Alagna as Don José (he was great, but could not compare to her).  A very young-looking Yannick Nézet-Séguin (this production came even before he was appointed Music Director in Philadelphia) provided a perfect spark in the pit.  (Among the other performances the Met streamed was Dmitri Hvorostovsky‘s final public performance, when he returned to the stage for one set of Verdi‘s Il Trovatore, after he began his cancer treatment and before he died.)  The sad side-story from the Met, however, is that this week they fired all members of their orchestra, chorus, ensemble singers, and stage staff and it remains to be seen if the best opera house in the US will be able to survive the pandemic.

  • [Recording tips: I will be a bit zany here, and instead of suggested a “best” recording I will instead suggest one that will make the listener hear Carmen differently.  Carmen‘s international success derives from a production done in Vienna a few years after its Paris premiere.  So how about a German-language version?  The best one of those is a 1961 version from the Deutsche Oper Berlin under Horst Stein, with Christa Ludwig (Carmen), Rudolf Schock (Don José), and Herman Prey (Escamillo).  From a standpoint of drama, it is worth getting over the clumsy German that does not always pass with the music, and just enjoying some fantastic singing actors.]

Beethoven: Fidelio (Theater an der Wien)

The most disappointing production I have seen this week, though, was a new one.  The Theater an der Wien (Vienna’s third major opera house) was supposed to open a new production of Beethoven‘s Fidelio this week.  When it was clear a couple of weeks ago that this would not be able to go ahead – and indeed the entire run would be canceled – Austrian television rushed in to film it in front of an empty seats, so that all the work that had gone into producing it would not go to waste.  That was classy.

The problem, though, was the terrible production.  Beethoven’s first attempt at writing an opera did not go well and he gave up.  But he was still under contract, and the impressario was paying his living expenses while he wrote, so he was actually in debt to the impressario – Emanuel Schickaneder – and had to write something to fulfill his obligation, so he grabbed a French play he thought he could set as an opera: Leonore.  It went very badly.  A year later, he revised it.  The second version (now called Fidelio) survived two performances before being canceled.  Beethoven gave up.  About eight years later, with the help of another dramatist friend, he did yet another revision.  This third attempt worked and is the version of Fidelio that became a fixture in the operatic repertory.  Beethoven swore off writing any more operas.

Why anyone would think to stage the first or second versions of Fidelio is beyond my comprehension.  Actually, the music is Beethoven, so it’s great music, and certainly worth the curiosity factor to program selections for concerts.  But it’s lousy opera: there’s no drama (this got fixed in the third version, especially Act Two, which Mahler later augmented by adding the brilliant convention of inserting the Leonore Overture #3, which Beethoven himself realized was not a proper opera overture but a stand-alone piece in its own right, into the scene change).

The staging was blah here too – apparently they hired an architectural firm, which is not who should be doing stagings.  The construction of the stage indeed succeeded aesthetically, and I suppose it worked with this performing version – it, too, lacked drama.  The cast of no-names was mediocre – although it probably did not help that they had to perform this deficient version of the opera.  The Vienna Symphony Orchestra was in the pit (they are world-class, but when I have heard them live in the last couple of years I have noticed they have slipped a bit from where they were a few years ago) under the baton of Manfred Honeck (I like him – he’s certainly the best Austrian conductor working in the US, currently music director in Pittsburgh, and I never understand why his adequate but undistinguished countryman in Cleveland has a higher profile) – but again, the score of this version has no drama, so it’s really hard to make it do anything.

  • [Recording tips: Nothing has yet surpassed the 1969 Otto Klemperer recording of Fidelio with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christa Ludwig as Leonore, which continues to be my go-to recording.  However, for something different, there is an excellent 1991 version from the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur, with some of the same folks who made the 1983 Bayreuth Walküre so compelling: Jeannine Altmeyer as Leonore, Siegfried Jerusalem as Fidelio, and Siegmund Nimsgern as D. Pizarro.  Fun fact: this was the very first CD I owned.  When I bought my first CD player, the electronics shop had a very small collection of classical CDs in the store and I bought this one so I could play something as soon as I got home.]

Philadelphia Orchestra: Beethoven, Habibi, Mahler

For non-operatic selections, I have to defer to the Philadelphia Orchestra.  When the City of Philadelphia banned large gatherings due to the virus, this orchestra was supposed to open a series of concerts to celebrate the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth.  That entire series is now canceled.  But they did perform the first concert in the series in front of an empty hall, and posted it on Facebook.  This concert included Beethoven’s Symphonies #5 and #6 plus a world premiere of a work the orchestra commissioned from Iman Habibi, Jeder Baum Spricht, inspired by Beethoven.  Nézet-Séguin’s tempi were far too fast for my taste, but the playing was sublime (they left the concert up online without a clear expiration date, so I recommend searching for it from the Orchestra’s webpage).  This orchestra is by far the best in the US right now (Nézet-Séguin is also one of the best conductors of his 40-ish generation, but he seems to be in a horrible rush here.)

As I write this, I have just finished enjoying a Philadelphia Orchestra concert from one year ago, added free for streaming on their website, with Nézet-Séguin conducting Mahler‘s Ninth, which highlights many of the complex interior lines, played virtuosically by this Orchestra.  Overall a pensive performance, and perfect for an uneasy period in which the world is locked down by a Chinese virus.  The European orchestra Philadelphia is most similar to is the Concertgebouworkest Amsterdam, in terms of having a lot of virtuosi players with fantastic individual lines but who also understand how to blend those thrilling lines into an ensemble whole. Most of the first chairs in Philadelphia are every bit as good as the first chairs in Amsterdam (the Concertgebouworkest is better, as it has more virtuosic depth after the first chairs).

Concertgebouworkest: Strauss, Mahler

Speaking of the Concertgebouworkest, when Mariss Jansons died last year, they posted for free a nice selection of live concerts he had conducted with them over the years.  Although I have not re-listened to them this week, they remain up on the orchestra’s website.  From the available selection, I’d recommend in particular Tod und Verklärung by Richard Strauss and Mahler’s Symphony #4, but you really cannot go wrong with any of them.

Staatsoper

Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri

Today is Austria’s state holiday, so as a good patriot I donned my Tracht and went to the opera for a rare mid-afternoon performance at the Staatsoper (with one nice ticket front row on the balcony amazingly available).  Rossini‘s Italian in Algiers provided sufficient amusement, in a 30-year-old dusted-off staging by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

While I appreciated the simplicity of the staging, I was never quite sure Ponelle understood the opera.  The main part of the set remained the same throughout – representing an imaginary Ottoman palace in North Africa – with additional scenery (or curtains) added and subtracted throughout.  This concept worked to put the focus on the singers, which was fine.  The problem was that the blocking was too static.  The music, and the absurdities of the plot, call for farce, and Ponnelle included sight-gags which demonstrated his awareness of the musical surroundings.  But mostly the characters stood there and rolled their eyes at each other (wasn’t that Mozart’s criticism of Italian opera drama – fat people standing at opposite ends of the stage rolling their eyes at each other and calling it love?  But while often true of Italian opera, Rossini above all others in Italy understood crazy farce and his works lend themselves to hammed-up and active on-the-move comedy).

One nice touch Ponnelle added (although I don’t know if it was intentional) was the use of screened boxes overhanging courtyards typical in Islamic architecture.  These allowed women to stay modestly out of sight but able to observe the world of the men below through the ornate wooden slits.  In this staging, the men often hid in the boxes to observe the women, flipping the Islamic practice.  And this opera indeed was about a clever Italian woman who imposes her rule on and dominates men – the whole plot of the opera, then, is a cultural inversion.  If this is what Ponnelle meant by this aspect of the staging, then good on him.  It’s just that there was very little else in the staging to suggest this was intentional.

The mostly-young cast negotiated Rossini’s colorful music aptly – with Luca Pisaroni standing out as Mustafà.  Antonino Siragusa as Lindoro took some time to warm up, but ultimately showed a strong voice.  Bryony Dwyer (Elvira), Manuel Walser (Haly), Elena Maximova (Isabella), and Orhan Yildiz (Taddeo) all had their moments.  The real music nuance came from the pit, where the orchestra gave a completely idiomatic interpretation of Rossini’s music – making me almost want to sing and dance along – in proportions that never overwhelmed and perfectly supported the singers, a credit to conductor Evelino Pidò as well.

Staatsoper

Janáček, The Makropoulos Affair

The Vienna State Opera kindly offered me a heavily-discounted ticket to tonight’s performance of The Makropoulos Affair by Leoš Janáček, which I naturally accepted. This is a very peculiar opera – well-known but not often performed. I have seen it once before, in a perfectly acceptable but in the end not memorable performance at the Gelikon Opera in Moscow in 2010, and I’ve heard it (without paying too much attention) broadcast from the Met. So tonight also presented an opportunity to try to figure this one out.

This is the first time the Staatsoper has put on this opera (premiere was last week). The staging by Peter Stein certainly helped make it accessible, paying loving attention to the libretto to make this odd piece understandable even without a mastery of Czech. The scenes were realistic but essentially simple, putting the emphasis on the performers, who then acted out their lines, which called for little action but much psychodrama. And this was not the sort of psychodrama that appears in Tschaikowsky’s great operas, but a whole other order, crossing into a world of magic and legend. That the libretto was based on a comic play (Janáček’s opera was no comedy) meant that a sense of humor pervaded the bizarre predicament of a woman whose body has lived for 337 years but whose soul has long since died, and now she wants to give up.

Laura Aikin headed the cast in the role of Emilia Marty (a.k.a. Elina Makropoulos, a.k.a. many other names with initials E.M.). She has wanted to sing this dynamic role for many years, and learned to sing Czech for the occasion. As the central character, all others had to react to her, so her success in portraying this multi-faceted role enabled the rest of the cast to blossom: Ludovit Ludha (Albert Gregor), Thomas Ebenstein (Vítek), Margarita Gritskova (Krista), Markus Marquardt (Jaroslav Prus), Carlos Osuna (Janek Prus), Wolfgang Bankl (Dr. Kolenatý), and longtime audience favorite Heinz Zednik (Hauk-Šendorf). Thanks to this group, I now indeed comprehend this opera and its fine nuances.

In the pit, the young Czech conductor and Janáček specialist Jakub Hrůša drew out all of the composer’s fantastic coloring to support the action, never to supplant it. This is not an opera that has the audience leaving the house humming its tunes, and the music can be quite complex, but it nevertheless cannot detract focus from the stage. Hrůša understood the right balance, while enhancing the singing. The orchestral playing was also magnificent.

Staatsoper

Strauss, Salome

I realized that I had not been to the Staatsoper yet in 2015 (and indeed not since January 2014), so I set out to rectify that anomaly this evening. On the program, Salome by Richard Strauss.

The iconic House on the Ring shines as a symbol of Vienna. Several round-year anniversaries coincided here that meant I might not fulfill my duty if I missed the year. My city has celebrated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Ringstraße itself in 1865. Opera Director Gustav Mahler wanted Salome’s premiere for Vienna in 1905 (but could not convince the censors, so the premiere went to Dresden). The House’s Gustav Mahler Hall currently has an exhibit commemorating the reopening of the Staatsoper in November 1955 (after being destroyed by American bombing shortly before the end of the war in 1945).

Tonight’s staging, from 1972, stepped out of the right time, the period-piece that Strauss intended. A Klimt-inspired setting, it mixed the classic with the fantasy, both in staging and costumes. Although also somewhat minimal, the blocking put the focus on the music, which in turn reflected onto the set, to make an effective whole.

As John the Baptist, Polish baritone Tomasz Konieczny demonstrated why he is much in demand, with a strong bass (including when singing from the cistern without amplification) and restrained but suggestive acting, befitting of a prophet. American soprano Lise Lindstrom as Salome took more time to get her voice to fill the hall, but did so with boldness and self-confidence (and danced her own Dance of the Seven Veils, including – unusually these days – seven veils; after five, as the music turned to the motives associated with the Baptist and his prophecies, her dancing went from flirtatious towards Herod to vindictive to the Baptist). Austrian tenor Herwig Pecoraro portrayed a sardonic and sometimes unintentionally-sarcastic Tetrarch Herod (a pathetic figure in the book, for whom the performer – such as Pecoraro – needs to find the right balance in order to make him not come across as a caricature), while English mezzo Carole Wilson, a member of the Vienna Ensemble, presented the strong-willed and nasty Herodias. In the pit, the orchestra sounded in its element under the direction of American Dennis Russel-Davies.

Although probably not a performance for the ages, tonight confirmed that the Staatsoper still sets the bar pretty high.

Staatsoper

Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore

To get to the Staatsoper tonight required crossing a line of riot police manning barricades.  Apparently this was not a good night to venture into the center of Vienna – the neo-Nazi “Akademiker Ball” was going on down the street, attracting thugs from all over Europe (and not just Hitler Youth, but equally-thuggish counter-demonstrators also looking for trouble).  The police locked down the entire section of Vienna from Schwarzenbergplatz to Heldenplatz, and we had to talk our way in (funneled through a passageway inside a building rather than being allowed to enter the closed-off area from the street – underground passages from the subway were also sealed off).

Probably better, then, that the Hitler Youth did not know that tonight’s lead tenor was black and the lead soprano was Israeli, or maybe they would not have left the opera house alone.

The Staatsoper presented a charmingly no-frills Otto Schenk-directed production of Donizetti’L’Elisir d’Amore that will never get old.  The staging, first produced in 1980, contained no gimmicks: it had just a single honest set and enough details to allow the characters to play up the comedy.  And this they did.

As Nemorino, Lawrence Brownlee provided an intelligent characterization of the dim-witted peasant, who is not so quick at understanding what is going on around him but ends up doing just fine for himself.  Brownlee’s beautiful voice also perfectly matched the role, more reminiscent of Tito Schipa than some of the bigger voices who often sing the part these days.  Still, his instrument was big enough to fill the hall – a little sotto voce in the first act to save up for the big arie in the second, but always audible and with perfect Italian diction.

The portrayal of Adina by Chen Reiss was frigid towards poor Nemorino, warming in the end.  There may have been a lack of chemistry between the two lead singers, although both were excellent in their own parts.  I do not know how often they may have performed together before, and this may have impacted their acting relationship.  Either that, or Reiss wanted to portray Adina as particularly cold (although it did not seem this way, since she did make the character somewhat flirtatious).

Alfred Šramek as Dulcamara and Mario Cassi as Belcore provided a humorous supporting cast.  Guillermo García Calvo kept the orchestra light and on cue.  From my seat, I could see that he had taken his mother’s name (Calvo, meaning “bald”) rather literally for someone in his mid-30s.

Staatsoper

Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov

Mussorgksy’s opera Boris Godunov exists in many versions, most with an inherent logic and which one production or another might legitimately favor for different reasons.  One version of the opera, however, should never be performed, except possibly as a curiosity: the original version, which was rejected by everyone including the composer himself for its complete lack of drama.  While the figure of Boris Godunov himself goes through a character development, everyone else is a stick figure, and this even makes it difficult for Boris to interact.

I know the many versions of this opera well.  I have also seen this original version staged twice myself – once in Geneva in 2003 (that failed) and once in Moscow in 2011 (at the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center, which used it as a venue to display a particularly exceptional student in the title role rather than as a fully-staged developed version, and the Center’s emphasis on acting meant the supporting characters got the little details right).

Yet, in an era of financial crisis, it beggars belief why the Staatsoper would hire a director who chose to stage Mussorgsky’s original version, as they did in 2012 with director Yannis Kokkos.  The music remains wonderful, but Kokkos gave us nothing and the evening ended unfulfilled.  Born in Greece, Kokkos has worked his entire career in France, which may explain the utter lack of drama (a good Greek word, but clearly the French influence has rubbed off).

Costumes were contemporary (or maybe 1990s) Russian, which combined with the intentially dark lighting meant I had unpleasant flashbacks of walking the streets of Moscow, city of 18 million miserable wretches, during my time working for the Russians.  The sets had no discernable logic, mixing semi-abstract iconography (to represent the churches) with geometric colored shapes (representing nothing in particular), and an assortment of odd furniture (and a ladder) that looked like the Staatsoper ran out of money before they completed the staging (or Kokkos entrusted the money to the mafiosi who run the Bolshoi and they absconded with it).  Some of the scenes contained an enormous statue with its back to the audience, which looked like it could have been Lenin.  And Kokkos also installed subterranean cisterns (or something), so that characters could sometimes make their entrances from steps emerging in the middle of the stage.  At one point, so did a bloodied child, representing the murdered Dmitri Ivanovich walking the earth again (I suppose if Kokkos selected the only version of this opera that lacks drama, he had to invent some of his own).

Ferruccio Furlanetto strove mightily to portray the title role under these circumstances.  His voice began, like his reign, hopeful and almost sweet, and became more nuanced as his character slowly decayed.  Norbert Ernst as Shuisky contrived and plotted his way through the evening – the real evil character in this opera, who sets up Boris for mental ruin (did Kokkos give him a Lenin goatee for a reason, or does Ernst normally wear his facial hair that way?).  Pavel Kolgatin as the holy fool also shone in his small but critical role.  The rest of the cast just struggled to make something dramatic of this version and senseless staging.  Kurt Rydl especially disappointed as Pimen – a mainstay of the Staatsoper, he displayed his customary full lower bass, but missed every note in the upper half of his register, rasping instead of singing.

In the pit, the German conductor Michael Güttler also failed to inject drama.  He did nothing to augment the thin scoring of this early version, and he never managed to get the chorus (apparently imported from Slovakia, according to the program) to sing in time with the orchestra.  He did flail his arms a lot, so I suppose that was dramatic.

Meanwhile, the Staatsoper appeared in a hurry to get the whole production over with: an early start time (6:30 p.m. on a weeknight!?!?) combined with zero intermissions ensured we finished long before 9:00.  They must have sensed that they wasted their money on this production.  A better idea: since the Staatsoper has been digging out old successful stagings from their warehouse, maybe it is time to cancel the rest of this run and find some old Boris sets in storage from an intelligent director, and then stage any one of the possible versions of this opera except the correctly-rejected original version.

On the other hand, the music was beautiful if I ignored everything else.  For that, it was worth buying a ticket.

Staatsoper

Bizet, Carmen

I opened my 2013-14 (or maybe 5774) music season tonight with Bizet’s Carmen at the Staatsoper.

The Staatsoper dusted off a 1978 production by Franco Zeffirelli, which ensured the staging matched the plot at least.  The large sets, painted to look even larger, produced a traditional reading, but also had some little touches.  One came when José and Carmen saw each other for the first time: everyone else on stage froze in whatever position they happened to be in, and only the two main protagonists moved, as the music amplified their clear passion.  As an example of Carmen’s rough and hot personality, when she danced for José in the tavern in Act Two, lacking castanets she smashed a plate left on a table, and used the shards to click the beats.  These little touches added to the drama.  Unfortunately, in the end, the production at the big-picture level remained somewhat cluttered, with superfluous action by extras leading to distraction.

The Philadelphia-trained Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham headed the cast, with a sultry Carmen.  Roberto Alagna, as Don José, overwhelmed her however, with a more secure stage presence and and fuller expressive voice.  Something about the chemistry between these two lacked, and Alagna had much better chemistry with the Romanian Anita Hartig, who sang the smaller role of Micaela with such controlled drama that she became the most sympathetic character (and characterization) on the stage.  The audience showered her with approval during the final curtain call, and the swell of the applause clearly took her by surprise judging by her facial expression.  She deserved it.  Just one more reason José should have married her and not gotten mixed up with Carmen.

The rest of the cast, in various supporting roles, kept up the basic required standard.  The orchestra sounded terrific in the pit, led with a beaming smile by Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger.

After seeing the level of dress in the audiences deteriorate over the years, tonight marked a pleasant exception.  Even though this was not a gala evening nor a special event, I saw a number of men in black tie (something I have not seen for years), including a little boy in my loge.  Women wore proper gowns.  While there was not as much Austrian Tracht as I like, I was far from the only one taking that option.  Even the tieless tourists looked neat and clean.  Sad that when an audience dresses for the opera it is so noticeable for being so unusual these days.