The government this week released some guidelines for the resumption of public performances. It was not all that clear how they will work in practice (basically they won’t). The Bregenz Festival announced it would skip this year. The Grafenegg Festival will go ahead reconfigured with outdoor performances featuring musicians based in Austria (we certainly have plenty). And the Salzburg Festival announced what we already knew: it will take place in some form, but nothing resembling what was planned… details by the end of May. As for the return of concerts and operas in the Fall, who knows. What a mess. So I remain, sampling offerings online.
Wagner: Parsifal (Bayreuth Festival)
Having seen some absolutely atrocious stagings of Wagner’s Parsifal last month, I felt I needed something better. The “Fidelio” streaming service (courtesy of the Volksoper) provided me with a production from the 1981 Bayreuth Festival, directed by the composer’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner. The production was actually rather simple, in some ways basic with inexpensive-looking costumes (not that a lot of monks in the early middle ages would have had expensive clothes), painted backdrops substituting for scenery, and melodramatic acting. Actually, maybe the acting was a bit too melodramatic. But even without providing new insights it did not get in the way of a basic understanding, something that could not be said about the stagings I streamed last month.
Hans Sotin carried the role as Gurnemanz. As Parsifal, Siegfried Jerusalem matured noticeably (and not just from gaining a beard in the final act) through the opera from fool made wise through pity to king of the realm of the Grail. Eva Randová provided a multi-faceted Kundry. Bernd Weikl sang better than he acted, although this may have been Wolfgang Wagner’s stage direction rather than a fault from Weikl. Horst Stein may have gone a little fast in his tempi. But then the slow-motion stage direction might have been unbearable if Stein had kept more traditionally-paced tempi.
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Bayreuth Festival)
I stuck with Bayreuth and a staging by Wolfgang Wagner for Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. On the whole, this 1984 production was effective. While it may not have pushed the realm of giving any new understanding to the opera, it remained relatable. The characters in this opera are not gods nor figures from legend, but humans, and the staging made them human. They may not have always interacted naturally, or pulled off their acting assignments generally, and glossed over some of the humor (Meistersinger is supposed to be a comedy, after all), but they still generally presented a couple of (albeit fictitious) days in the life of their town. And the strong cast generally sang their roles idiomatically.
The nice sets, although grand, also came across as almost intimate: Act 1 took place in the corner of the church; Act 2 in a leafy square; Act 3, scene 1, in a simple room in Sachs’ home that was almost cell-like (although perhaps too grand a space for a cobbler, even a worldly one as the real-life Sachs had been); and Act 3, scene 2, indeed took place in a field (as it is supposed to be, but without Nürnberg in the background). The blocking was playful, if not always obviously comic. There was some strange camera work during the second act fight scene, using lots of close-ups, but since the people fighting were the chorus and not professional stuntmen, this came across as rather silly. Normally the fight can be disguised a bit in the theater (and we all know they are opera singers and not street brawlers), but the close-ups exposed that the fighting just was not very realistic, compounded by the funky expressions on everyone’s faces. That said, I do suppose Meistersinger is a comedy. And the flying leap that David made onto Beckmesser, which set off the brawl, was indeed quite humorous in its way. In the final act, instead of running away, Beckmesser goes into the crowd to watch Walther’s prize song, and even he in the end is won over. At the very end, Sachs even shakes his hand – an act of reconciliation.
Bernd Weikl starred as somewhat haughty Sachs (pretending to be modest, but he knew who he was). Hermann Prey’s Beckmesser took some getting used to – while a bit of a caricature, it was also clear why he is also a mastersinger and should have a lyrical voice. Siegfried Jerusalem was a dashing Walther von Stolzing, and Graham Clark a lively David. Mari Anne Häggander (Eva) and Marga Schiml (Magdalena) portrayed their roles as somewhat much older than they should have been, although vocally they were fine. Horst Stein conducted again.
Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci (Metropolitan Opera)
David McVicar’s staging of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Metropolitan Opera took place not in a village, but on a large rotating wooden stage surrounded by villagers who moved their chairs around, pranced flailingly, or who knows what they were doing besides distracting everyone. McVicar is generally quite good but has a tendency to create busy stagings – which work when they focus on the plot, but don’t work when they are just busy for the sake of it. When the villagers were not around, the intimate scenes and interactions between the main characters more successfully elucidated the story, particularly for Marcelo Álvarez (Turridu), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Santuzza), and Giorgi Gagnidze (Alfio). Álvarez and Westbroek strangely had trouble at times staying on key, as did the chorus, making me wonder if something was off with the streaming even though nothing obvious was. Fabio Luisi conducted.
In the second half of the double-bill, McVicar also gave Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci a peculiar staging, opening in what looked like some tacky vaudeville theater to reveal behind the curtain: the mid-1900s. This actually worked quite a bit better than his odd setting of Cavalleria – the change in time was not really material, and the busy details here contributed to a lively interpretation (especially the twentieth-century slapstick update of the Commedia dell’Arte that had inspired it). It is precisely in these sorts of detailed thoughtful interpretations that McVicar succeeds best. Álvarez (as Canio) and Gagnidze (as Tonio) returned, now with Patricia Racette (as Nedda).
Verdi: Rigoletto (Metropolitan Opera)
I started to watch this version of Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the 2013 Met Opera staging (by Michael Mayer, apparently some trendy hack from Broadway) was too absurd, set in a sleazy casino with the Duke seemingly the casino singer, Monterone an Arab sheikh, and I did not stick around long enough to figure out who everyone else was supposed to be. So I just listened, particularly to Piotr Beczała’s charming Duke and Željko Lučić’s on-edge Rigoletto (who could still show such tenderness for his daughter Gilda, here portrayed by Diana Damrau), who made it worthwhile. The Met’s orchestra sounded a tad thin under Michele Mariotti.
Donizetti: Don Pasquale (Staatsoper)
A bit of a silly staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale from the Staatsoper – by the Frenchwoman Irina Brook. It was thankfully not Regietheater but somewhat of an updating of the plot into a modern nightclub with Don Pasquale apparently as the proprietor. I’m not sure what her point was, though. The 2016 cast featured Michele Pertusi in the title role and Dmitry Korchak as Ernesto, backed by the Vienna Ensemble, notably (and happily for my ears) Alessio Arduini as Malatesta and Valentina Naforniţă as Norina, all keeping their humor up on stage. Frédéric Chaslin conducted.
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Howell, Elgar, Weinberg, Knussen
Poking around the “Fidelio” streaming service to see if it had more music by Moishe Weinberg, I came up with a concert from the Royal Albert Hall and the 2019 Proms, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla performing Weinberg’s Third Symphony. This made quite a contrast to the only other work by Weinberg which I could find on the “Fidelio” service, his opera The Passenger, which I watched a couple of weeks ago. Whereas the opera was brutal, brash, but ultimately defiant, the symphony was lyrical but wistful, charming but sad. I had not heard this symphony before, but as with most of Weinberg’s compositions, it was well worth discovering. I listened twice to make sure I heard every brilliant nuance (Weinberg’s music is so brilliantly complex on so many levels that I am sure I still missed a few). Gražinytė-Tyla is a skilled interpreter and promoter of his music, now at the helm of her own orchestra (which ranks alongside the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich in a class by themselves of top European provincial orchestras).
The first half of that concert opened with the tone poem Lamia by Dorothy Howell, which had its premiere at the Proms one hundred years before (making this an intentional commemoration), when the composer was 21 years old. It, in turn, was based on a poem by John Keats, which he had written exactly one hundred years before that. The music, by an otherwise forgotten British composer, worked fine as a tone poem, but was in the end not more than a curiosity that will likely return to oblivion (it’s not bad, and who knows why some works of less quality become more standard parts of the general repertory, but there is also no reason this should get more attention). The same could not be said of Edward Elgar, whose Cello Concerto followed: this is a work which started off mostly ignored (despite being championed by such greats as Pau Casals) but gradually became a standard. A then-twenty-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason as the soloist was nothing short of impressive – this is a difficult work to pull off even for a fully-mature artist, full of passion and deep feeling, but the young cellist more than mastered it. He added a Saraband for solo cello by Weinberg as an encore. The concert’s first half concluded with “The Way to Castle Yonder,” an orchestral excerpt from Higglety Pigglety Pop! – a children’s opera based on a Maurice Sendak book – by Oliver Knussen. I had heard of Knussen before, but do not believe I had heard anything written by Knussen before. So now I have.
Vienna Philharmonic: Beethoven, Bruckner
The “Fidelio” service also has in its archive Bernard Haitink’s last concert at the Salzburg Festival, the third-to-last stop of his farewell tour of Europe with the Vienna Philharmonic before he took his “sabbatical” (from which it is widely believed he knows he will never return). I attended this concert, but found it worth listening again to hear Haitink lead the orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4 (with Emanuel Ax) and Bruckner’s Symphony #7. My impressions from last summer have held up on a second listen. (My review from 31 August 2019 is on this blog – incidentally, the stream edited Ax’s encore out completely, so I still have no idea what he played.)
Boston Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikowsky
The Boston Symphony has decided to continue to post on its site (for a limited but not-specified amount of time) a curated selection of performances from its archives, which it considers transformative, now going up weekly rather than daily. These are generally individual works rather than entire concerts. To highlight Erich Leinsdorf’s farewell spring as the Orchestra’s music director in 1969, they posted a warhorse: Tschaikowsky’s Fifth Symphony. This is one of these far-too-often-performed works that I have said should generally be removed from concert programs unless people have something new to say (such as a spectacular performance of it I heard in Dresden a few years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Here, indeed, Leinsdorf and the BSO rose to the occasion. The first movement had a relentless pacing (not fast, just strident). The second captured lyric nuances in the winds which often get blurred, over an underlying tension. The third movement danced, as it should, but the dance increasing went on its edge: could be in despair, except that it led into the triumphant final movement. This performance produced more sound than the BSO normally manages, and indeed the stage looked crowded, but Leinsdorf had indeed expanded the BSO’s repertory, and nothing prevents more intimate-sounding orchestras such as the BSO or Leipzig Gewandhausorchester from doing justice to the larger works. And it is performances such as this one which keep this particular symphony in the forefront of the repertory. It is also such special performances like this that mean most other orchestras and conductors should remove it from their repertories completely.
Philadelphia Orchestra: Verdi
The Philadelphia Orchestra offered a performance of Verdi’s Requiem from 2012, one of Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s first concerts as Music Director, starting the Orchestra’s reemergence from its doldrum years under Eschenbach and Dutoit. The musicians were there, so it’s not like the orchestra itself required an overhaul, but having good leadership makes a huge difference. In this concert, that became palpable. It started off quietly, almost delicately, remarkably so for what grows into a bombastic piece, but this just highlighted Verdi’s powerful writing (even the soft passages have their own fateful power). Excellent soloists (Marina Poplavskaya,Christine Rice, Rolando Villazón, and Mikhail Petrenko) – who themselves did not try to be bombastic but rather provided sympathetic and almost lilting lines. The Westminster Symphony Choir added wonderful color.
There was a certain catharsis with this concert – the Orchestra knew that happy days were ahead, and this requiem mass may well have been a mass for the Orchestra’s lost decade. In the end, Nézet-Séguin held the silence out – especially noteworthy considering that American audiences tend to be quick to applaud and do not necessarily respect that hold. But here the audience remained mute for the duration until Nézet-Séguin lowered his arms long after the music ended. From the knowing looks on the musicians’ faces, they felt it too. Welcome back to the pantheon, Philadelphia Orchestra – it’s been a stellar rise since then too.