Volksoper

Offenbach, Hoffmanns Erzählungen

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Volksoper

Benatzky, Axel an der Himmelstür

The Volksoper last month revived Ralph Benatzky‘s 1936 hit Axel an der Himmelstür (Axel at Heaven’s Door) with a new production (and the first ever production at the Volksoper).  Although I did not know the work, it had great reviews, and of course I find I can count on Benatzky for a lot of Viennese fun.  So off I went, and tonight was not only no exception, but indeed exceeded my expectations.

This is a period piece, a parody of Hollywood set as a Viennese operetta.  The whimsical staging, by Peter Lund (a German!  A German opera director who actually understands staging!) cleverly set the entire evening in black and white (costumes and set were all grey-toned, and the cast wore whiteface and white gloves (and body gloves) to cover skin; wigs were also black and white.  A movie screen often formed the back wall of the stage and was used to project images, movie clips, and sometimes complete cartoon follies connected directly to the scene (sometimes with the singers themselves morphing into cartoon form on the screen).

Lest the screen become a crutch, a joke that got old, it actually was not there for about half the time, making the staging balanced.  The cast hammed up their roles on cue, as they should have, also always consistent with the drive of the plot.  Indeed, Lund’s sense of drama drove the plot rather than being driven.  The Viennese operetta references provoked loud laughs from the audience, but everyone seemed ready to laugh in general, not least the cast.

My only quibble with the entire evening was the decision to mike the cast.  In 1936 they would not have been miked, and the movies being parodied were mostly silent films, so this decision could not have been to try to recapture some authenticity.  I’m not sure why it was necessary, unless it simply allowed the cast to pay more attention to their antics on stage without having to worry about projecting.

The cast was uniformly good, with Andreas Bieber and Julia Koci in the lead male and female roles (gossip reporter Axel Swift and Hollywood leading star Gloria Mills, respectively), well supported by Juliette Khalil (as Jessie Leyland, Mills’ secretary and Swift’s girlfriend a the start of the opera), Peter Lesiak (as Theodor Herlinger, a Viennese barber working as a Hollywood makeup artist, Swift’s roommate, and Leyland’s fiance at the end of the opera), and Kurt Schreibmayer (as Cecil McScott, Hollywood’s biggest film producer).  A chorus of others performed an assortment of roles each, the duplication adding to the period feel, almost 1930s operetta as caberet (something Benatzky understood as well).  Conductor Lorenz C. Aichner kept the orchestra light and spritely in the pit.

Absolutely the most fun I’ve had at a performance so far this year.  I’d go again next week if I had the chance (I don’t).

Volksoper

Borodin, Prince Igor

Back at the Volksoper this evening for something a little heavier: Aleksandr Borodin‘s Prince Igor.  This wonderful epic opera, not performed often enough outside Russia, may unfortunately have been a little too heavy for the Volksoper to lift.

There is no definitive version of this opera, as Borodin left the whole thing – sketches of music and plot – in a mess when he died, that his friends Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov had to sort out (Glazunov likely ghost-wrote much of the music himself, but insisted he did it from memory after having heard Borodin play as-yet-unwritten music on the piano).  As a result, theaters have great flexibility at determining which music they wish to perform, and in what order (not only order of the scenes, but even where within scenes music will fall).  

The Volksoper took advantage of this to construct an intelligent performing version with a reasonably logical plot sequence.  The problem came with every other aspect of the production, resulting in a performance that dragged and somehow missed the drama.  The staging was confused, to say the least, and it is unclear to me if the director (Thomas Schulte-Michels, a German – need I have guessed?) even had any particular concept in mind (seriously, what is up with that country that it produces so many horrible opera directors).  It seems that he used oversized sunflowers to represent the Polovtsians – their camp was a big field of the flowers, and after they destroyed the city of Putivl, it had also succombed to the infestation of oversized sunflowers.  Constumes were from no particular period or style.  Putivl itself seemed to have been constructed of mirrors that reflected the audience.  Minimal props also had no particular logic.  In all, the staging added nothing to understanding the opera, and indeed detracted because it also did not allow the singers to interact sensibly.

The singers themselves also lacked a sense of drama that did not just derive from the unclear staging.  They sang their lines with various degrees of proficiency, but no more.  In order of strength, starting with the strongest, Andreas Mitschky as Khan Kontchak, Alik Abdukayumov as Prince Igor, Morten Frank Larsen as Prince Galitzky, Mehrzad Montazeri as Igor’s son Vladimir, and Jeffrey Treganza as the baptized Polvtsian Owlur all accomplished their lines to the right music.  The two main female characters, Melba Ramos as Igor’s wife Yaroslavna and Annely Peebo as Kontschak’s daughter Kontchakovna, did not – often off-pitch and sometimes shreiking.  Yasushi Hirano as the drunkard Skula may have stolen the show in his scenes, but got dragged down by his partner David Sitka as fellow-drunk Yeroshka, who simply could neither hit the notes nor sing in time with the music.

In the pit, conductor Lorenz Aichner did not make an impression.  The performance lacked drive.  The German singing-translation sounded clunky – however, I do not dismiss hearing this opera in German, as one of my recordings of this opera is in German (using a similar scene order and maybe even the same translation) from a 1969 Staatsoper production, with an outstanding cast that does not sound clunky in German.  So it works if it has the right design.  Tonight’s performance seemed ill-conceived and the cast over-matched.

Volksoper

Leigh, Man of La Mancha

I do not believe I have seen Mitch Leigh‘s Man of La Mancha since I was a child, and I have certainly never seen it before performed in German.  But I got a special offer for a ticket to see it at the Volksoper, so… my destiny called and I went.

Cervantes’ story is timeless.  So this minimal, vaguely modern staging worked to allow the players to develop the plot, presented with good humor all around.  The stage was built out over the pit, with the orchestra submerged behind the stage facing away from the audience, really just providing background (under conductor Lorenz Aichner).  Under these circumstances, my main quibble was that they miked the cast, which was disconcerting (not to mention defeating the purpose of hearing a live performance) and totally unnecessary.  Voices came from incorrect angles and sometimes gave several members of the cast an excuse to mumble their lines rather than acting them.

The simplification and twist of the plot works in this format, but can often come across as thin – there is actually very little there.  So it is worth going for the fine music by Leigh.  Great acting, however, can make the setting rise.

In this case, the mostly nondescript cast played along and was satisfactory.  At its helm, and the only truly notable member, was the Volksoper’s own Director Robert Meyer, who has done a fantastic job leading this house since he took over in 2007 (his contract has been extended until 2022).  He portrayed the tragi-comic Don Quijote with full emotion and intelligence, particularly when confronted by the Knight of the Mirrors when Quijote is forced to recognize his own farce and then again in the final death scene.

Volksoper

Smetana, Verkaufte Braut

The Volksoper has unveiled a new productionof Smetana’Bartered Bride this year.  It is a much simpler updated staging than what I saw in this house in 1987, but it worked.  The entire action took place on a single set, which looked like the inside of a large barn painted white, with long benches and tables serving as props.  Although this came across as odd at first, it ended up working in its simplicity.

Costumes were slightly updated to be what villagers might wear at the beginning of the twentieth century – the program notes explained that life really did not change much in rural Bohemia between the time Smetana wrote the opera in the 1860s and the First World War, so the exact time did not matter.  Why the director picked the end of that period specifically, however, remains unclear from the notes.  Mostly this worked, except at the end when the villagers all showed up in black and white outfits, and Marie got to wear a turquoise weddingdress.

The two leads, Ursula Pfitzner as Marie and Mehrzad Montazeri as Hans, matched up nicely, with expressive singing and clear diction.  Martin Winkler as Kecal, the marriage broker, also cut a fine and devious (or dubious) figure.  A very young conductor, Gerrit Prießnitz, kept the orchestra moving at a lively pace, making for delightful folk-inspired music and dance.

Volksoper

Joh. Strauß II, Wiener Blut

Disappointing performance of Wiener Blut, the posthumous work of Johann Strauß II, at the Volksoper.

The director chose to update the plot from its original 1815 setting, moving it to an unclear time period somewhere possibly in the mid-20th century.  To make this work required equivalent changes to the dialogue, although this proved to be equally confused in terms of time, including references to Obama and current events.  The staging was neither offensive nor modern, just non-descript.  In total, the entire production lacked any sort of charm whatsoever.  Although this particular work, put together by others after the composer’s death (Strauß had long before signed a contract to provide his next operetta for a theater, but since he never wrote another one, the theater had the right to complete one itself), could lend itself to anachronism, it cannot work without charm, and Viennese charm in particular.  The director, Thomas Enzinger, is Viennese by birth, but seems not to have received any Viennese charm in his blood.

Perhaps the only truly Viennese interludes came in the required monologues and dialogues in Viennese dialect of Kagler, and the resulting confusion from the Germans who can only speak in formal written German.  These got the audience rolling in laughter.  However, the dialect was mostly wrong.  The correct dialect would be the 19th-century Viennese dialect, which remained as the primary dialect until 1938.  Then again, we should probably not forget what sequence of events caused the old Viennese dialect to disappear.  In this case, the peculiar director injected a Hebrew word (carried into old Viennese German, but certainly not into Schriftdeutsch) into the dialogue spoken by Prince Ypsheim-Gindelbach (since when do German princes call people “meschugge?”).

Possibly because of the dull staging, the cast never got into the performance.  All of them sung their roles perfectly adequately, but without any special lilt.  They went through the motions on the stage, hit all the notes, and moved along presumably to their dinners and subsequent engagements.  The orchestra started the evening poorly and off-pitch.  Although it fixed itself, this music more than any should flow through the Volksoper orchestra’s veins.  It did not.  Conductor Michael Tomaschek also provided no particular inspiration.

Volksoper

Strauss, Salome

The Volksoper started today’s performance of Salome by Richard Strauss at an unusual time – 4:30 p.m. – meaning it ended early enough to make it to the Stadttempel for the beginning of Rosh Hashanah services.  For me, that was a clear sign of what to do in the final hours of the year 5772.

I saw this same production when it opened last season, and indeed with much of the same cast.  But I don’t get to hear it live every day, and I don’t get too much live music in Albania at all, so I gave it another go.  This time, as John the Baptist we had Egils Silins.  Silins is a hulking Latvian baritone I have heard before in Moscow, and he provided good heft to the role, as well as acting which made the prophet come across as deranged to balance Salome’s equal madness.  This portrayal underscored the characterization of the Baptist by the other characters that no one could understand what he was talking about.  As with the previous setting, I still object to the offstage miking for lines sung from within the cistern – Silins has a big enough voice that he could have been heard without the artificial-sounding amplification.

Annemarie Kremer and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, as Salome and Herod again (as last year) did creditable jobs.  Kremer was possibly not in as strong voice as last year, though.  Alfred Eschwé conducted today’s performance.  Known mostly as a operetta conductor, Eschwé’s direction, through clear and concise, was not as dark and driven as this opera needs to be.  This element is likely what made today’s performance less fulfilling than last year’s.

One area of improvement came with the staging.  The original staging last year was OK, but just not always fully-thought-through.  While the concept seems still not to be complete, the director clearly has done some additional thinking.  So the nice touches of using the Baptist’s blood-red robe in different contexts was now extended to other garments and even the scrim which partly hid the opening scene, which now all found themselves put to different uses as if to complete the previously-incomplete overall design, although I was still not always clear on the concepts employed.  Salome now does something that makes it look like she is trying to dance during the Dance of the Seven Veils, even if she still does not really dance.  And, importantly, the end of the opera is now more sensible: whereas before Herod’s order to have Salome killed resulted in Herod himself collapsing dead and Salome then walking off naked but fully alive into the cistern, now Salome has already left the stage (mostly clothed) when Herod gives the order, and it is believable that Herod’s men would carry it out; meanwhile, Herod himself, though emotionally exhausted, does not drop dead.  This makes the staged ending consistent with the text, always a good thing.

Volksoper

Fall, Madame Pompadour

The Volksoper gave me as a birthday present a ticket to tonight’s performance of Leo Fall’s operetta Madame Pompadour.  This operetta, about Louis XV’s chief mistress, had its premiere 90 years ago last week and was apparently all the rage back then.  Nothing wrong with the music or the convoluted plot, but the operetta has not aged well at all.  Some fanciful ditties, although nothing that sent me home singing, but mostly the music came across as very staid, with very little development, in the tradition of Lehár and Kálmán but without their originality.

The Volksoper cast and orchestra performed well and kept the pace, under the baton of Adreas Schüller.  Ursula Pfitzner made her debut, to great impression, in the title role.  Mark Adler balanced her well in the lead male role, René d’Estrades.

Volksoper

Puccini, Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi

The front and back ends of Puccini‘s Trittico came on stage at the Volksoper this evening.

The Volksoper performed both in German to make them more accessible.  This worked better for the darker Il Tabarro (Der Mantel) than for the comic Gianni Schicchi, which I had suspected.  I actually have recordings of both in German, so the concept is not unfamiliar, but the Volksoper’s Italianate performances tend not to reach the standards of other productions, whereas the brooding and less tuneful Tabarro could almost pass in German.  I have never actually seen Il Tabarro before, but have seen Gianni Schicchi (most recently at the Novaya Opera in November).

Conductor Stefan Klingele and the Volksoper orchestra contributed greatly to the success of the first part, with gorgeous lush tones emerging from the pit.  The cast, mostly nondescript, got on with the business of acting on a simple but apt set by Volksoper artistic director Robert Meyer, whose star continues to rise in my book.  The opera ended dramatically, if not in a convincingly realistic way, mostly on the musical strength of the orchestra and the principals.  Michael Ende as Luigi, had the biggest and most dramatic voice.  Alik Abdukayumov and Maida Hundeling starred as Michele and Giorgietta.

For the second part, Meyer moved the scene of Gianni Schicchi from 12th Century Florence to somewhere in the second half of the 20th Century (1950s?).  This presented no real problem, because almost nothing in the story is dated (except the criminal penalty for falsifying a will).  The realistic set worked.  And while the performance preserved the humor, the translation did not necessarily do justice to the original Italian.  This is a comedy that relies mostly on its script, rather than action (in contrast, the slapstick performance I saw in Moscow in the Fall was not the right approach).  Martin Winkler in the title role and Sebastian Reinthaller as Rinuccio stood out from the rest of the cast, all of whom acted in an appropriately comical manner.

Volksoper

Bernstein, Candide

The Volksoper premiered a new Candide tonight, in an unstaged adaptation of the 1999 version.  Bernstein’s operetta has an unfortunate and problematic performance history, so this may represent one of the better attempts to make sense of it all.  Bernstein had a flair for the dramatic, but Candide failed miserably as a stage production and I have never understood why he, of all people, thought it might succeed.  Voltaire’s story is not conducive to staging, especially when edited down to fit into a night’s performance, jumping as it does all over the planet.  As a parody, however, it works.

And, of course, Bernstein’s music works.  So for more than half a century, different people have attempted to preserve Bernstein’s music with a semblance of the plot, with more or less staging.  Tonight’s adaptation did not try to stage it at all, although the singers provided some acting.  The arranger had an actor substitute all of the dialogue with German-language narrative, although all of Bernstein’s musical numbers were performed in the original English.  In this way, the Volksoper’s artistic director Robert Meyer, appearing as the narrator, managed to capture the story’s humor without the distractions of an impossible plot, as well as throwing in additional jokes.  Taking care of the plot in this way, he allowed the singers to concentrate on the music, pulling off the comic lyrics to the melodious tunes.  Stephen Chaundy (Candide) and Jennifer O’Loughlin (Cunegonde) were in full voice as the leading couple.  Morten Frank Larsen made a fine Pangloss, and Kim Cresswell (quite a performer, although in uneven voice) provided wit and charm in the role of the Old Lady.  Joseph R. Olefirowicz conducted an elegant and idiomatic interpretation of Bernstein’s music, which, in the end, remains the reason people keep desperately trying to find good ways to perform this otherwise heavily-flawed operetta.

Volksoper

Sondheim, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Tragedy last Friday, comedy tonight… at the Volksoper.

A new production of Sondheim’A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum… in German.  I don’t have a problem with the language choice, since Sondheim reworked into English plots and characters from Plautus (which I read in the original Latin), who had in turn borrowed from Greek predecessors.  What’s important is that the cast can act and is having fun.  So it was indeed a fun production, headed by Robert Meyer as Pseudolus, with David Levi conducting.

That said, I’ve seen better.  I still remember a fun production at Exeter with my talented classmate Rob Bikel playing Pseudolus.  And, of course, there is the film starring Zero Mostel.  The acting tonight may have been better than the singing – the fact that they miked the cast was already suspicious, since the Volksoper is not an overly large house and there is no excuse for singers not to be able to project.  Miked music is always disconcerting.  My other gripe was the German they used, which was very… well, German.  Written German, as a spoken language, comes across as unattractive, arrogant, and humorless.  Perhaps Miles Gloriosus could speak that way, but the rest of the cast should have been performing in spoken dialect, or at least something softer.  Plautus himself used dialect in his original Latin farces, so this would have been more in character if they had kept to it.

But tonight was still a good evening’s entertainment, so I’m not complaining.  And after the travesty at the Volksoper with Madama Butterfly last Friday, the house had to redeem itself.

Volksoper

Puccini, Madama Butterfly

I’ve seen some awful stagings of operas over the years, but I do not remember the last time I was left as speechless as I was tonight at the Volksoper at the end of something pretending to be Puccini’Madama Butterfly.  Most bad stagings are just obviously bad right from the beginning.  This one came as more of a shock since this was not Regietheater.  It was not even particularly modern.  The photos of the production made it look reasonable.  For most of the opera, I just assumed the director did not understand the plot – it was a bad interpretation, with some very questionable elements on stage, but not atrocious.  However, then he completely changed the ending and it crossed every conceivable level of comprehension.

If anyone reading this ever has the chance to see a production staged by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim, shoot yourself first.

As I said, the production started out looking OK, as a period piece set in 1904 Nagasaki.  But the first sign that something was wrong was that the Japanese characters all wore westernized dress.  This remained so throughout the opera, with only Butterfly and Suzuki dressed in anything remotely Japanese.  Considering that this opera relates misunderstandings between cultures, placing Butterfly in the company of westernized Japanese removed that tension and the whole underlying context of the opera.

The next obvious interpretive problem was an extra character on stage.  Some Westerner (not Japanese) in a brown period suit was clearly meant to be obvious.  This man appeared in every scene, if not watching intently and scribbling notes to himself, then directly interacting with the other characters.  Pinkerton offered the whiskey to him (not to Sharpless).  Butterfly addressed her thoughts not to herself or even to Suzuki but instead to him.  Goro was shadowed in his work by this stranger.  And, amazingly, this character even took part in the love scene between Butterfly and Pinkerton.  In the Second Act, his identity finally became known: he was Yamadori, the wealthy Japanese suitor she rejects.  Clearly, this Yamadori had become so westernized as to become a white man.  And, by the way he was behaving, he was less mysterious and more a somewhat nasty stalker.  More on him later, unfortunately.

The third interpretive problem which appeared early on was the portrayal of Sharpless, the US Consul in Nagasaki, who came across as a befuddled clown.  Of course, in this opera as Puccini wrote it, Sharpless was the only one who saw the potential tragedy in this clash of cultures, and tried his best to convince everyone else that the whole affair would end badly.  But in this version, no one would listen to a fool, and his message was lost.

The opera continued along these lines until the second half of the second act (they staged the original version of the opera, which was not much different from the final version, but the material that would become Acts 2 and 3 was combined into a single act – indeed, I think the two act version works better dramatically).  During this final part of the opera, roughly corresponding to the third act of the revised version, Yamadori had thankfully stopped stalking Butterfly.  Pinkerton arrived not just with Kate and Sharpless, but also with a boatload of American tourists in modern dress, who started wandering around the set like it was a museum.  Indeed, banners showing old theater posters of Madama Butterfly and of Puccini adorned the stage, and many of the props from previous scenes now appeared inside display cases.  The tourists did not leave as the action tried to progress, but were obviously paying close attention (while examining Butterfly’s Japanese house).

All of this nonsense would have remained just nonsense.  However, nothing prepared me for the new ending.

Just as Butterfly was about to commit suicide (seemingly by slitting her throat), the American tourists rushed over to disarm and save her.  A happy ending perhaps?  What to do about Kate?  This dilemma was quickly resolved.

In the real plot, Pinkerton and Sharpless arrive too late – Butterfly has already committed suicide and the opera ends with Pinkerton calling out her name.  Not tonight.

Tonight, Pinkerton, Sharpless, and Kate re-joined the crowd of tourists as they disarmed and restrained Butterfly.  Yamadori then made an unexpected return right at this moment, and the shouts of “Butterfly!  Butterfly!” which Pinkerton was supposed to sing were instead transposed to this Yamadori character, who pointed at her menacingly.  And then, on a further hand-signal order from Yamadori, the American tourists took their turns stabbing Butterfly to death in a brutal murder and to Yamadori’s obvious delight.

Needless to say, this left the audience gasping in shock.  No one applauded.  Some boos rang out.  Then as the cast began to take its curtain calls in silence, I think most people realized that this travesty was not the cast’s fault, and the cast started to get polite applause (which swelled when Butterfly took her bow).  The applause ended immediately after the conductor motioned to the orchestra, and everyone just walked out as quickly as they could.

Melba Ramos, as Butterfly, had a pleasant voice which carried off her emotions.  Morten Frank Larsen, as Sharpless (and Jochanaan in Salome two weeks ago), had a dramatic voice, which somehow carried him through the absurd portrayal of Sharpless that director Herheim set out.  Adrineh Simonian as Suzuki was fine.  Jenk Bieck as Pinkerton was less so, but he clearly had a cold and was coughing throughout the performance.  Tetsuro Ban created nice orchestral tones in the pit – the orchestra deserved its applause.

Now, as for Herheim…

Volksoper

Strauss, Salome

The Volksoper decided to put on a production of Salome by Richard Strauss – an opera far out of its normal repertory, although it had its Vienna premiere in this house in 1910 after the censors had prevented Mahler from giving its world premiere at the House on the Ring three years before.

Musically, the performance came off very balanced.  Roland Böer, the conductor, did a good job keeping the lid on, so as not to overpower the singers.  I was sitting near the back of the Parkett (row 17), and could hear the singers clearly.  The orchestra was also clear and sounded good as well.

The staging tonight was confused but did not distract from the music.  The director did not seem to have a particular concept in mind, and did not stick to any particular period or style.  I did not mind the generally minimalist staging, per se, but on the other hand it did not seem fully thought through.  I was watching a lot through my binoculars, and much of the interpretation depended more upon whether the singers had something in mind as opposed to whether the director did.  Fortunately, they did, but they gave very individual performances – a director with an overall concept might have brought this all together.

There were nice touches.  A full moon dominated the back of the stage for the first half, and the director used its light to set the appropriate moods (as expected from the book).  John the Baptist had wrapped himself in an extremely-long outer blood-red robe which Salome ripped off him at one point and later used for good effect (at one point representing the trail of blood from Narraboth’s corpse downstage to where Salome was standing).  But these intelligent touches were mixed, and did not come across as part of a greater design.  In this version, for example, Narraboth did not actually stab himself, but instead got strangled when entangled in the Baptist’s robe as Salome was ripping it away.  Salome’s dance for Herod contained very little dancing by Salome herself and more by the various male characters in the small roles.  Salome was not sensual at this point, but strangely disrobed only at the very end of the opera when she left the Baptist’s head on stage but went by herself into the cistern.  When Herod then ordered her to be killed, no soldiers followed her, but instead Herod himself collapsed on stage.

The voices were pleasant, but particularly Annemarie Kremer (Salome) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Herod) took time to warm into their roles.  Kremer did her best acting after John the Baptist cursed her, when she went from simply depraved to fully deranged.  Morten Frank Larsen (John the Baptist) was excellent throughout – coming across as a somewhat other-worldly prophet – but I wish that the staging had allowed him to sing his lines from the cistern naturally instead of miked in from somewhere offstage.  That requires a huge voice, however, so not too many people can pull it off, and maybe he would not have done as well if it had been staged this way.

I have to say that it was a much more enjoyable production than the last time I saw it live in Zurich about ten years ago.  That was a horrible German-directed Regietheater staging that was frankly offensive, and the Zurich opera house orchestra is not as good as it thinks it is.  This was not a problem tonight.

Highlights from 2007

Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highlights from 2006

Highlights

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

Most fun concert: Ludwig August Lebrun, Oboe Concerto Nr. 1 (and works by Mozart and Haydn), Heinz Holliger (soloist and conductor), Tonhalle Orchester Zürich (January). I do not normally get excited about music for oboe, except when performed by Holliger, who in addition to playing masterfully also clearly enjoys himself on stage. I did not know the Lebrun piece, but bought Holliger’s recording of it after the concert.

Most mystical concert: Anton Bruckner, Symphony Nr. 9 (and Gustav Mahler’s Rückertlieder), Wiener Philharmoniker (May). Performed in the Staatsoper to commemorate the 95th anniversary of Mahler’s death. All that can be said about conductor Daniele Gatti is that he did not get in the way of the orchestra’s magic.

Best opera performance: Richard Wagner, Parsifal, Wiener Staatsoper (April). On Holy Saturday, no less, the performance (including Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz and Franz Grundheber as Amfortas) would have been mystical if I had kept my eyes closed. The staging was certainly not mystical (although not Regietheater either). There was no Grail, Parsifal was never baptized, Parsifal never healed Amfortas’ wound, and Kundry never died absolved but instead walked to the back of the stage and vanished. Costumes and sets were inexplicable.

Most fun opera performance: Imre Kálmán, Csárdásfürstin, Volksoper Wien (April). This was a Viennese period piece performance, and very very fun.  The Volksoper even cast Hungarians in the appropriate roles, so that instead of having people pretending to be Hungarians they had authentic ones, who hammed it up to the fullest (including speaking to each other on stage in Hungarian). Viennese operetta at its most traditional.

Worst opera experience: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Entführung aus dem Serail, Wiener Staatsoper (May). I was excited to see an opera staged in Vienna’s magnificent Burgtheater (almost never used for opera performances). However, the Regietheater staging was overt anti-Turkish racism at its worst. I don’t have to be Turkish to find it deeply offensive. Shame!

Best musical museum exhibit(s): I dropped into Vienna’s Jewish Museum in April to see an exhibit on Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s brilliantly eccentric librettist (a baptized Jew adopted by an abbot whose name he took, da Ponte became a Catholic priest; fleeing out-of-control gambling debts in Italy – and husbands whose wives the rather ugly da Ponte had somehow seduced, no doubt with the help of his good friend Casanova – he talked his way into becoming the imperial librettist in Vienna; da Ponte, still ordained as a priest, later had a Jewish wedding and followed his wife to my hometown of Philadelphia; after his businesses all failed, he ended up as the first professor of Italian literature at Columbia). Then I went upstairs to see what the other exhibit was, and found it to be about Erich Zeisl, a Viennese composer I had never heard of who fled to Hollywood in 1938. Zeisl crated up his entire home in Vienna and shipped it to himself, and therefore kept a very Viennese home in California, which looked remarkably like the home my grandparents kept in New Jersey (they, too, had crated up all their possessions and shipped them to the US in 1938).

Highlights from 2005

Highlights

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

Best opera: Dmitri Schostakowitsch, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, Hungarian National Opera (October). I have wanted to see this opera for many years, and found this straightforward production and repertory cast quite satisfactory and gripping.

Most unusual opera: George Enescu, Oedipus, Vienna State Opera (April). I did not know this opera at all, but was pleasantly surprised. It would have been the best performance I saw in 2005, if it were not for the Regietheater staging imported from Berlin. The director should please be deported back to Germany. Please.

Most fun at the opera: Ferenc Lehar, Der Graf von Luxemburg, Volksoper Wien (October). The director (not German) decided that the plot was silly, so he rewrote it keeping the music the same. This was neither Regietheater nor an “updated” plot, just different. I have no idea what opera I really saw, but I had fun.

Best concert: this was more of a year for operas than concerts, to be honest. If I have to pick one concert of non-standard repertory, I will single out a performance of one of my favorite oratorios, Franz Schmidt’s mystical Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (based on the Revelations of St. John, Schmidt’s vision of the Apocalypse fittingly had its premiere shortly after the Nazis marched into Vienna), with the Tonkünstler Orchester Niederösterreich under Kristijan Järvi and a dramatic Robert Holl singing the Voice of the Lord from the Musikverein balcony, in Vienna (October). Thankfully, no German directors thought to stage this performance.

Highlights from 2004

Highlights

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

Best opera production: Verdi, Rigoletto, Wiener Staatsoper (September). Ensemble cast with no particular stars, this was an example of why no opera house in the world comes close to comparing to the Staatsoper.

Worst opera production: Johann Strauß (Sohn), Eine Nacht in Venedig, Wiener Volksoper (September). I am really sick of these German opera directors who don’t bother to read the book before they stage an opera. This staging was set, for no apparent reason, in a shopping mall outside Vienna. The stupidity of the staging took away the charm of the music. The Volksoper is becoming far too artsy.

Best concert: Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, Wiener Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons in the Musikverein (May). Reduced me to tears. Particularly devastating was the Wood Dove’s narrative (with Waltraud Meier). I recovered in time to follow the orchestra across the Ring to the Staatsoper for Verdi’s Falstaff starring Bryn Terfel two hours later.

Worst concert: nothing I attended was truly bad, but if I had to select something as “least good,” I would say the Bayerisches Staatsorchester playing a concert of Richard Strauss in the Vienna Musikverein (September). Zubin Mehta is either charismatic or sloppy, and in this case the Bavarians sounded like the New York Philharmonic at the end of his tenure there. The orchestra could play this music in its sleep, and I don’t get these sorts of concerts in Pristina, so I did not suffer too much. The Viennese public applauded politely.