Friday, February 25, 2011

Petrenko and the lyric Symphoniker

Kirill Petrenko and the Wiener Symphoniker brought an unusual program to the Musikverein this week: Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie, Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake, and Scriabin’s Le poème de l’extase. I wish I could have written about this sooner, because there were a disappointing amount of empty seats at Wednesday’s first of three concerts and it was really worth hearing. The Lyrische Symphonie can be easily described as a Das Lied von der Erde rip-off, and as a series of lush orchestral songs for two alternating vocal soloists set to Asian poetry, there are obvious similarities. However, Zemlinsky’s musical language is quite different, and so are his poems’ themes. Petrenko and the Symphoniker’s account was monumental and dramatic.

The first movement was gloriously un-transparent, not dissected as much as a thick, ever-shifting carpet of sound. After hearing many technically overworked and clinical performances recently, it was a lovely change to hear the whole orchestra together instead of eliciting reactions such as “oh, hi, oboe section!” The soloists were excellent and carefully traced the work’s journey for youth to love to loss, but Petrenko’s focus was more on the orchestra than on them. Baritone Wolfgang Koch sounded somewhat flat and detached in the first movement, but warmed up to an imposing, passionate delivery in the other movements. Suddenly ubiquitous soprano Camilla Nylund was much better suited to this work than she had been to Rosalinde or Salome, her silvery sound projecting perfectly but never losing its freshness. Her “Sprich zu mir, Geliebter” was beautifully floated.

This was a very smartly put-together program. Anatoly Liadov’s brief, quiet tone poem The Enchanted Lake is another shimmering atmosphere piece, but one of greater delicacy, recalling a Russian Debussy. It served as a good introduction to Scriabin’s heady Poème de l’extase, whose chaotic structure and kaleidoscope of themes was, like the Zemlinsky, a dazzling exercise in orchestral color and balance. And, at the end, we heard how very, very loud an orchestra of this size can be. But it never felt gratuitous.

The concert was hindered by some spectacularly ill-timed coughing, and was met with a disappointingly lukewarm reception. I thought it was unusual and glorious.
Wiener Symphoniker, Kirill Petrenko, conductor. Musikverein, 2/23/2011. With Camilla Nylund, soprano and Wolfgang Koch, baritone. Program: Zemlinsky, Lyrische Symphonie, op. 18; Liadov (Lyadov/Ljadow), The Enchanted Lake, op. 62; Scriabin (Skrjabin), Le Poème de l’extase, op. 54.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Philharmoniker's Mahler 6: More cowbell

The Philharmoniker is on tour this month with Semyon Bychkov, but before they departed, the sexist bastards are allowing us in Vienna a preview of their three programs in four concerts. This represents the sum total of their performances in the city this month. This is rather typical (unles you count the Staatsoper, which you shouldn’t). Three different programs is actually generous, comparatively speaking.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, the “Tragic,” is just about as imposing as No. 9, which I heard Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic give a few weeks ago. Unfortunately I felt that this performance was also lacking something, though I can’t quite put my finger on what. Maybe these are more my usual problems navigating Mahler’s unwieldy forms than the orchestra’s. It was extraordinarily accomplished on a technical level, with faultlessly clear textures and ensemble, opulent tone, and, with the exception of some overloud brass, barely a note out of place or balance. For those of you who collect critical editions, the scherzo preceded the andante but there were only two hammer blows.

I liked the restrained opening, and Bychkov and the orchestra never resorted to excess. However, I wonder if they perhaps should have--this is Mahler, after all.  Some odd tempos and an oddly episodic feeling made the entire performance never really pay off.  There were lovely moments: beautiful chamber playing in the winds in the first movement, that otherworldly strings/percussion passage, and particularly the opening of the third movement, which had a gorgeous gentleness. But the second movement lacked a certain element of caricature, and the lengthy last movement, until the exciting coda, again felt disconnected. In 90 minutes, you’d think it would add up to something.

Also, I couldn’t see the hammer due to a column. This was very disappointing. Is the Philharmoniker still using the Ur-Mahler Hammer? I think there is a good chance they are.
Wiener Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov, conductor. Musikverein, 2/2011. Program: Mahler, Symphony No. 6, "Tragic."

Friday, February 18, 2011

Metropolitan Opera, 2011-12

I’m going to be back in the US next fall. This means fewer trips out of town for whacked-out opera (*whispers* did I mention that I’m going to Anna Nicole and Parsifal in London next weekend and I’m REALLY EXCITED ABOUT THIS?!?! sorry can’t whisper about that). But I am looking forward to reuniting with “my” Met, and they just announced their next season, so let’s prejudge for a second. It’s not fair, but I’m going to do it!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Figaro's prenup at the Wiener Staatsoper

At least they didn’t have it on Valentine’s Day. Unless you’re Cherubino, you would have been disappointed. There are few operas that offer a more comprehensive overview of the intersection of love, sex, and class than Le nozze di Figaro, but Jean-Louis Martinoty’s “new”* Wiener Staatsoper production irons out this complex into a rush of pure teenage hormones. Everyone gets some, but what it means, I don’t know. Most of the music isn’t anything to remember either. How can Mozart be so boring? Let us investigate.

*First seen at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées, 2003. [Insert offensive cliché about French people and sex here.]

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Der fliegende Holländer: Red scare

I would put last night’s Der fliegende Holländer into the third quintile of Wiener Staatsoper revivals. Christine Mielitz’s production has been sketchily and statically staged and was plagued with technical calamities, but it’s still interesting. Peter Schneider’s conducting was reasonably exciting and Adrianne Pieczonka’s Senta and Stephen Gould’s Erik are both good. And none of the rest is that bad.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Billy Budd, indomitable

Surprise! For once a Wiener Staatsoper production that is more rather than less than the sum of its parts. The “musikalische Neuinstudierung” of this Billy Budd has gone a long way, and the ensemble and chorus of the Staatsoper get to shine. That means, do your best to ignore most of the principals. The production isn’t going to do much to get your attention either. But it’s pretty good, all told.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Alcina (and more) on your telly

Make that your télé. The always-informed Opera Cake reminds us that subscribers to French channel Mezzo TV can watch the Wiener Staatsoper's Alcina tomorrow, February 8, at 20:30. It has already aired in Germany and Austria; I don't know about elsewhere. You can read my review of this production here, which starred mighty Anja Harteros along with Vesselina Kasarova and Veronica Cangemi, conducted by Marc Minkowski and directed by Adrian Noble. It will eventually be out on DVD. You can see a clip of it at the bottom of this post.

Here are some recent DVD releases whose live incarnations I have written about:
  •  Carmen, Metropolitan Opera. Here is my review of the second performance, here is the DVD on Amazon. Meh, it's OK, I would get the Covent Garden one instead.
  • Simon Boccanegra, Metropolitan Opera. My review, also of the second performance. I quite liked it, but not everyone agreed with me about that. Amazon.
  • Armida, Metropolitan Opera, out February 15. My review of the first night. Can't really recommend this one. I used the word "clunker." Amazon. 
  • Tosca, Metropolitan Opera. This DVD is of the first cast. I reviewed the second cast here, but I saw the first as well. Met: by filming the first, you chose poorly. Amazon.
  • Medea, Wiener Staatsoper. My review of the slightly different second cast.  Highly recommended. Amazon.
  • Partenope, Royal Danish Opera. My review of the New York City Opera visit of this production (with an entirely different cast). But you should get this, because Inger Dam-Jensen and Andreas Scholl are awesome. Amazon.
DVDs are also on the way for two other productions I recently reviewed: the Royal Opera House's Adriana Lecouvreur and Bayerische Staatsoper's Rusalka. No release dates yet for those.

"Si, son quella," from Staatsoper Alcina:

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Fantasy Opera

I'm in charge now.
What would you program if you ran an opera house? Lisa Hirsch came up with the idea of a “Fantasy Opera Season,” Mark Berry and Gavin Plumley are new intendants as well. I would happily subscribe to them all of their seasons with the exception that you could not pay me to see Pfitzner’s Palestrina. Here’s my program. My theater is around the size of the Opernhaus Zürich (so the Baroque operas would work), but with better sight lines.

The first season is a wish-fulfillment selection of operas I really would like to see together, most of which are in or around the edges of the popular repertory. It starts off modestly but goes out with a bang, making me suspect that my taste runs towards Really Big Operas. My opera house clearly has a Really Big Budget, too. The order is intentional; I tried to juxtapose the repertory in a thought-provoking way and suggested who I would hire to direct some of the productions. The second season avoids popular operas entirely in favor of relative obscurities that I have never seen staged live and think should be better-known, is not listed in any particular order (except for Lully and Strauss), and contains considerably more comedy.

Season 1
Mozart, La finta giardiniera (dir. Laurent Pelly)
Strauss, Arabella (dir. Claus Guth)
Janáček, The Makropulos Case (dir. Harry Kupfer)
Verdi, La forza del destino (dir. Stefan Herheim)
Ravel, L’Enfant et les sortilèges/Benjamin, Into the Little Hill (dir. Martin Kusej)
Wagner, Lohengrin
Rameau, Les Paladins (dir. Jonathan Kent)
Borodin, Prince Igor
Puccini, Turandot (dir. Calixto Bieito)
Handel, Rodelinda Rinaldo (changed my mind here)
Cavalli, La Didone
Berlioz, Les Troyens
Verdi, Don Carlos (French version)

Season 2
Reimann, Lear
Schreker, Der Schatzgräber
Rossini, Il viaggio a Reims
Flotow, Martha
Donizetti, Dom Sébastien
Rimsky-Korsakov, The Tsar’s Bride
Lully, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme
Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos (1912 version)
Mascagni, L’Amico Fritz
Gluck, Iphigénie en Aulide
Moniuszko, The Haunted Manor
Vivaldi, Griselda

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Dude does not abide by Mahler

I have been skeptical of the Gustavo Dudamel phenomenon, because it seems like more a product of media hype than it does of musical inspiration.  It was nice to see a younger-than-average crowd at the Musikverein for Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Vienna tour concert on Friday (and I met an older woman who was at her first Musikverein concert, good to see her too), but I’m afraid that my first experience of Dudamel live was musically disappointing.

Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 9 is a challenge for any conductor, and I don’t think it’s one Dudamel has met yet. But to start, the orchestra sounded quite good. This was actually my first time hearing the LA Phil live, but it nevertheless felt like a homecoming for me, because they do sound American. The strings have more depth than many American orchestras, but I could ID the big brass and mellow woodwinds immediately.

It’s difficult to trace a path through the symphony’s discursive first movement. Dudamel got off to a technically secure start, with clear textures and good coordination, but the character was strangely broad, warm, and serene, lacking dynamic differentiation and movement through the many twists and turns of tempo. Mahler’s essential world-weariness and bitterness was completely lacking, and the lack of emotional momentum made the movement less a journey than an amble between equally important sights. Occasionally the winds and strings would lose each other a bit, and the brass section would drown everyone else out, but the lack of detail and of dynamic contrast were larger problems for me.

Dudamel seemed to take the bounciness of the second movement’s Ländler at face value, and it came across as cuter and less sarcastic than usual. This worked better than I expected, and by whipping the waltz up into something a little exciting, the piece finally began to go somewhere, though it still seemed oddly small-scale. The third movement was definitely the highlight of the performance, with vehement, vicious playing at a murderous tempo. Here, a certain lack of depth worked. The last movement was odd, taken at a very slow tempo (I think the running time was around 28 minutes), and displaying less resignation than bold passion. While this one-dimensional, deeply earnest, Beethovenian approach seems just wrong to me, it did work in a way, and the string sound continued to be good. But the various movements never quite added up to anything. I’m not saying that Bernstein morbidity is the only valid approach to this piece, in fact my favorite recording is austere Boulez, but without more character differentiation and gravitas, you just don’t have Mahler.

Daniele Gatti will be conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker in this symphony at the Staatsoper on May 18, which is such a crazy idea it just might work.
Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Musikverein, 2/4/2011. Mahler, Symphony No. 9.

Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin cut the pathos

Compared to Friday night’s Dudamel extravaganza, there was a lot of elbow room in the Musikverein’s standing room section on Thursday night for Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. But I found this evening the more rewarding of the two by a significant margin. This was the final entry in a three-concert series of Bartók’s piano concertos (in reverse order, with Yefim Bronfman) and Chaikovsky’s final three symphonies (in order).

The orchestra (generally found in the pit at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden) perhaps cannot compete with the Philharmoniker of Vienna or Berlin in terms of sheer sound, but their ensemble and level of detail was very, very fine, and solo playing was also excellent. I am not too familiar with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which belongs to the percussion section of Bartók piano music. This performance did not serve as a good introduction, with muddy playing from Bronfman that often didn’t project over the orchestra. My more-knowledgeable concert-going companion attributed this in part to the Musikverein’s obligatory in-house Bösendorfer, not a piano that specializes in crispness. The orchestra sounded excellent, though, particularly some beautiful wind solos in the second movement.

The Chaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) that followed intermission was outstanding, and all the more remarkable for avoiding hysteria. In the first movement, Barenboim steadfastly declined to wallow in melody or overdrive the louder sections, resulting in a detached, autumnal, Brahmsian character that was strikingly fresh and persuasive (OK, OK, especially fresh if you’re a Mravinsky addict like me). Unusual details emerged, and the narrative pacing was masterful. The second movement was a hazy, otherwordly dance, the timpani in the trio emerging with rare and ghostly clarity.

For much of the third movement Barenboim again kept from overdoing it, with more light, cheery virtuosity than immediate chaos. This allowed for a remarkably dramatic ending to the movement, where the orchestra finally let loose into fragmented loudness. A large portion of the audience broke into applause at the end of the movement, which surprised me, Viennese audiences usually don’t do that kind of thing, but given the performance it was a natural reaction. The last movement was a return to the character of the first; not as much Romantic tragedy but Greek in its solemn grandeur.

There were encores on both halves, some Bizet piano pieces for four hands (Bronfman plus Barenboim, of course) before the pause and a beautiful bit of Sibelius’s music for Pélleas et Mélisande followed by an immensely impressive Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila at the end. Opera house orchestras have stamina.

I wish I had heard one or both of the other concerts in this series, but I heard an excellent Chaik 4 from the Royal Concertgebouw and Jansons last fall and will get a hopefully excellent Chaik 5 from the Budapest Festival Orchestra in May. But I still wouldn’t have minded more of them. Chaikovsky is overprogramed here, but he’s a composer I can happily hear over and over.

Report on (sigh) Dudamel soon.
Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Daniel Barenboim with Yefim Bronfman, piano. Musikverein, 2/3/2011. Program: Bartók, Piano Concerto No. 1; Chaikovsky/Tchaikovsky [hi Google!], Symphony No. 6, "Pathétique."

Friday, February 04, 2011

Salome: Twilight of the vibratos

Staatsoper rep night: Salome. Ancient production? Check. Underrehearsed staging? Check. Uneven singing? Check. Welcome back to the opera house where everything can go pretty much right but Salome can still come out bland. Camilla Nylund is an alright Salome, but I’m sure she’s better in other roles. Peter Schneider isn’t the best Strauss conductor out there, but you could do far worse. Unfortunately, this is an opera that requires a frisson from some source or another.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

La Cenerentola: Una volta c’è un pagliaccio

Last time I checked in with Achim Freyer, I was seeing his wild Ring in Los Angeles. My enthusiastic and prolific blogging on this topic earned me a high place in English-language Achim Freyer Google rankings (a competitive field, to be sure), so when I saw his Cenerentola was approaching at the Volksoper, I knew I had to defend my beat.

Luckily, the feel of this Cenerentola, first staged at the Volksoper in 1997, is quite different from his Ring.  But I liked this one a lot too! It’s colorful and fun, and the cast has a few real winners.