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.

Volksoper

Kálmán, Gräfin Mariza

The Vienna Volksoper can usually be counted on to spin out Viennese operettas in their natural habitat.  This performance of Gräfin Mariza by Imre Kálmán was idiomatic, if not particularly special in any way.

The (Viennese) director took the decision to move the action to the 1920s, around the time the opera had its premiere.  This proved neither helpful nor unhelpful.  It did change some of the context, but as the dialogue is traditionally flexible they adjusted, and included nothing too extreme (thankfully not a German opera director).  What it meant, however, was a nostalgia for a period in which there had been nostalgia for an earlier period, which itself may not have existed.  So all rather wistful, I suppose – and maybe the bump in setting to the 1920s did not quite reflect that (although maybe there was now nostalgia for the 1920s as we enter the 2020s).

One new plot twist did not work:  Baron Koloman Zsupán was turned into an actor pretending to be Baron Koloman Zsupán.  But the whole point of using that name (and the plot line that explained it – which appeared in this production as well) was that Mariza invents a fictitious fiance, and names him after a character in Johann Strauß II’s Zigeunerbaron, assuming such a person does not exist, only to have a real Baron Koloman Zsupán see the announcement and present himself, this disrupting Mariza’s ruse.  To make this into a an actor on top of that actually removed the humor, not added.

One major bit of dialogue did not work: traditionally in the third act, a stage actor performs what is mostly a stand-up routine (sometimes improvised, but even if prepared in advance then a chance for the comic actor to ham up the plot even more.  In this case, as happens often enough in the Volksoper in recent years, the intendant of the house, Robert Meyer, himself an accomplished comic actor, took on this task.  I like Meyer, but here he flopped completely.  In this version, Penižek, the servant of Princess Božena, is identified as a theater critic she picked up at the theater and engaged as her “mimic” (since in this version she had so much plastic surgery she could not move her face, so Penižek had to provide expressions for her – something else that was just odd.  As a theater critic, he continuously turned his lines into references to the names of various plays.  This was not punning, just a bunch of names.  If it was cute at first, it quickly became tiresome, and seemed never to end.

On the whole, however, the cast was fine.  I think it has actually been a few years since I have seen one of the classic operettas (Strauß – Lehár – Kálmán) at the Volksoper, so the singers on their roster have all changed up since then.  The only one I recognized was Juliette Khalil as Lisa (I had seen her in Benatzky’s Axel an der Himmelstür in 2016), who also had the best voice and stage presence.  The rest of the cast (in addition to Khalil, the lead quartet included Caroline Melzer as Countess Mariza, Carsten Süss as Count Tassilo, and Jakob Semotan as Baron Koloman Zsupán) was perfectly adequate if not special – which essentially sums up the whole production.  Conductor Karsten Januschke kept things going in the pit.

Volksoper

Mozart, Don Giovanni

Question: What does cannibalism have to do with Mozart’s Don Giovanni?  Answer: nothing.  Indeed, what did anything on the Volksoper stage this evening have to do with Don Giovanni?  Also nothing.

The less said about the inept German opera director, Achim Freyer, the better.  If he’s into kinky cannibalism, then I am sure I read in the news reports every couple of years that there are some dark web sites in Germany that will oblige him.

Not only did the staging have no discernible relation to the plot, but it was extra busy to the point of distraction.  The stage hands were wandering around the whole time rearranging things (starting to do so even before the first note of the overture – they couldn’t set the stage up in advance before they opened the curtain?  Really?  Obviously Freyer was trying to make some point here, but what it was is beyond me.  And why the stage hands in street clothes had to be constantly in view moving props – big and small – around was also unclear).

The language of the opera was also confused to the point of distraction – it was performed partly in Italian and partly in German, with no clear reason for the choice of one or the other (often changing mid-line, sometimes dialogues and sometimes arias or set pieces, with all of the characters going back and forth throughout, so not even a logic of certain characters being “Italians” and others “Germans”).  Incidentally, the German version was not even the standard Hermann Levi performing version (that is arguably as good a literary performing version as da Ponte’s Italian original text), so again Freyer made a choice and chose strangely.

The female leads were good, particularly Manuela Leonhartsberger as D. Elvira, but also Kristiane Kaiser as D. Anna and Theresa Dax as Zerlina.  The men less so (they often had difficulty projecting).  Alfred Eschwé led a complete-sounding orchestra with just enough lightness, color, and Viennese charm – if sadly not enough to compensate for Freyer’s mess on the stage.

(And for the prurient who need to know: the cannibalism appeared in the final scene, the morality scene after the final banquet, where tonight the rest of the cast, and a few audience members who got dragged on stage as well, consumed Don Giovanni’s corpse.)

Volksoper

Wagner, Der Fliegende Holländer

I decided to take a risk and snag a ticket for opening night of a new production of Wagner‘s Flying Dutchman in the Volksoper.  The Volksoper, which excels in lighter Viennese fare and non-standard period pieces, does not always quite rise to the larger operatic repertory; furthermore, tonight’s opera director was German (which flashes warning signs) and conductor French (if not a warning, then at least a flag for Wagner).  But I looked at the Volksoper’s preview materials on line and decided it was worth the chance – and it certainly was.

The director, Aron Stiehl, did not provide a standard staging, but he did read the book and make an intelligent interpretation (something his countrymen should also really try doing sometime).  The Volksoper stage is not large, so any staging would require some amount of suggestion rather than realism.  The first thing he dispensed with, therefore, were the ships – making them more an allusion.  With those out of the way, the remainder of the props were not quite minimal but suggestive of something – and hence his interpretation: the Flying Dutchman as a psychological drama.  Costumes were nondescript and of no particular period, so we did not focus on those, and unlike his German colleagues he did not see the need to shock us.  Indeed, by minimizing the distractions, without being minimalist, we focused more on the words and the acting, so that was a win.

I actually had not thought too much before about comedic aspects of the words, but here, for example, Stiehl made fun of the Steersman (as did the rest of the cast) as a somewhat inept buffoon (not just someone who falls asleep at the watch), although one wonders how he got the job if he were really that incompetent.  The strangest deviation was to avoid having spinning wheels completely, instead making women in the second act part of a choral group practicing under the direction of Mary.  The portrait of the Dutchman on the wall was again alluded to but never shown (it would have been hanging on the non-existent wall where the orchestra pit was), and instead the room was filled with paintings of the sea.  I’m not sure that worked.

On the other hand, the Dutchman’s anguish as to his fate was palpable.  He has given up: this will be his final stop, and if it doesn’t work, he will accept death and eternal damnation.  In the final act, Stiehl had him walk in on the conversation between Senta and Erik earlier than where it normally happens.  In the plot, he normally walks in just as Erik is urging Senta to be faithful (meaning to Erik) and not having heard the context misinterprets that as Erik urging Senta to be faithful to her pledge to the Dutchman, after which the Dutchman announces himself, sets sail without Senta, and Senta seeing the misunderstanding throws herself off a cliff into the sea.  In Stiehl’s reading, by arriving early enough to hear the context, the Dutchman understands that Senta is just a child with an obsession, and the best course of action is not to take advantage of her but instead to leave her in Erik’s protection (as she had been) and to leave to his own fate.  Thus in this staging Senta never actually does throw herself into the sea: the opera ends with her walking towards the illuminated waves, but the ending is intentionally ambiguous.  Maybe she will throw herself in to redeem the Dutchman (as the music tells), but on the other hand it all may have been a dream.

To pull this all off required great performers.  The cast was tremendous, headed by Markus Marquardt as the Dutchman, who went through the whole range of emotions and psychological twists Stiehl had devised, with a powerful and expressive voice.  As Daland, Stefan Czerny had a twinkle in his eye, even as (when getting right down to the text) he is essentially selling his own beloved daughter to the highest bidder, which would make him a bit one-dimensional even if so much not in Czerny’s characterful reading.  Meagan Miller, as Senta, also managed to make her character more than just a one-dimensional lovesick teen, although her voice warbled a bit.  Tomislav Mužek, with a pleasant and large tenor, made a forceful Erik, not the landlubber wimp he often comes across as in this sea-based drama.

The orchestra played with both brilliance and nuance.  Conductor Marc Piollet got it.  The sound from the pit was large, but despite that never overwhelmed the singers.  Indeed, the orchestra was itself practically a character in the plot.  Since so much of the staging was allusion, and many of the alluded-to objects (from the Dutchman’s ship to the portrait on the wall) would have been located where the orchestra pit was (based on where the characters were pointing to refer to things), it meant that the descriptive music had to have an even bigger role.  That it did.  And the orchestra had to keep the drama moving, which meant with forward-driving but also tweaking the emphasis (some of which Wagner wrote intentionally off-beat to make the opera feel more uneasy), and so required a full understanding of its role in this production.  In that it fully succeeded under Piollet’s direction.

Glad I decided to take the risk!

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).

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.