Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Stefan Herheim's coasts of Bohemia

Stefan Herheim’s production of Rusalka, just finishing its run at the Semperoper Dresden, was one of the best performances I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. It begins not with the score but gently falling rain. We’re on a European street, with several houses, the entrance to a subway stop, a tree, a lamppost, a church, some closed-up shops, and a bar.

Ordinary people pass by, a homeless woman lingers by the subway, a girl carrying a violin case asks for directions, the wind massacres an umbrella, a woman looks out her balcony. But while we vaguely wonder what this has to do with Rusalka (well, there’s water, and the bar is called the “Lunatic”), we begin to notice something else: the events are repeating themselves. A woman slips in a puddle again, violin girl asks for directions again, the woman goes out onto her balcony again.

It’s simultaneously enchanting and estranging. The details are meticulously crafted, but you aren’t drifting off, you’re thinking. Where’s Dvořák, where’s the pond, and didn’t I just see this same thing happen a second ago? And that’s just the first five minutes. You’re about to get a fascinating psychological thriller.

The Festwochen's Rigoletto (later to be the Met's)

I think my favorite part was when Sparafucile handed Rigoletto his business card.

I wrote about Sunday’s premiere of Luc Bondy’s serviceable but mediocre Rigoletto for Bachtrack, and you can read the review here.

This production will be seen at La Scala and at the Met, reportedly in New York during the 2012/13 season. After Luc Bondy’s roaring success with Tosca, it’s something of a surprise he will be back at all (possibly the contract was signed long ago, and the La Scala connection is due to Stéphane Lissner, intendant in Milan and music director of the Festwochen). This production is rather better than the Tosca, and hovers around the weak average level of Met new productions. I would put it on a par with Bartlett Sher’s Hoffmann, a production it somewhat resembles in its dark, vague, slightly surreal ladies-in-underwear circus look. (The first thing that always happens when things get surreal is that women take their clothes off. Funny how that works.)

Basically, this is a traditional Rigoletto with an updated grimy look. George Gagnidze in the title role is the best part of the production, but he is generally working the usual Rigoletto clichés. I tried to find a little more in Bondy's work in the Bachtrack review above, but I may have been reaching. Its combination of static sections, completely conventional moments, and a few added details already resemble the third or fourth revival of a once-interesting production.

But it’s still got stuff to piss off traditionalists. Let’s take a look at what! Also, more pictures.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Following Tosca’s footsteps

While in Rome, I did what any self-respecting opera fan in Rome does: I took myself on a Tosca walking tour. Here’s what I found.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

La battaglia di Legnano in Rome

The Teatro dell’Opera di Roma’s new production of La battaglia di Legnano is part of the nationwide celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Republic’s founding. The choice is apt; this obscure opera is one of Verdi’s less covert Risorgimento works and features many rousing paens to Italia. (One post-unification production even retitled it The Defeat of Austria.) The production pushes this angle, so it’s almost irresistible to make this underwhelming, underattended, indifferently received premiere an allegory for the (poor) State of Opera in Italy Today. I don’t know if that’s appropriate because Italian opera politics isn’t something I know much about. After passive aggressively suggesting that, let’s talk about this opera.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wiener Philharmoniker buries Mahler again

Mahler died 100 years ago yesterday. This we know, thanks to a great deal of recent hullabaloo. While alive, Mahler was fond of thinking about death, which for his fans has endowed his passing with an outsized symbolic importance. This has led to a rash of morbidity and dubious biographical interpretation of his music (did you know the Symphony No. 6 was prophetic?*). I’m not a guest at this party. Death comes to us all, Mahler the Übermensch included. It’s something tragic and personal, not a piece of performance art. Memorialize the richness of the life, don’t fetishize its end. I do enjoy hearing Mahler’s music, though, and I went to the Wiener Philharmoniker’s memorial concert at the Staatsoper (Mahler’s old haunt) last night.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been boycotting the Philharmoniker for the past few months due to their sexism and general distastefulness, but the proceeds of this concert went to earthquake relief in Japan, so I made an exception.

Based on this performance, in which Daniele Gatti conducted the Symphony No. 9, the Philharmoniker didn’t care much about this event either. If they rehearsed for this concert, it didn’t do much good. This was disastrously sloppy playing with terrible ensemble, lots of intonation problems, and more wrong notes than you could shake a Wunderhorn at. (I’m looking at you, hornist in the second movement. BLAH bum bum bum Bum Bum. And you, flutist who got lost in the development in the first movement.) The brass and woodwinds (and out of tune chimes) were the primary culprits, but even the usually invincible strings sounded scrappy.

Gatti is an eccentric conductor, and the oddness of his stretched-out climaxes, dramatic pauses, lack of contrast, and strange balances only made things worse, losing any sense of shape in the first movement. The attempt at a thrilling accelerando at the end of the third movement fell apart in missed notes and poor ensemble. The strings came into better focus in the last movement, where Gatti alternated loud and full playing with intimate sections, but the ending was rather shaky. Total running time was around 90 minutes, on the slower side but not extreme. I assure you that this was not Gatti-is-weird interpretive peculiarity but objectively poor playing. I know this is an orchestra incapable of feeling shame, but I was actually shocked that they couldn’t do a little better for the Mahler memorial concert.** Silly me.

If this concert gets good notices in the press, I may scream. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer recently, I really want to write positive reviews, but that requires good performances.

If you want to watch Claudio Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s less geographically apt but probably infinitely less embarrassing memorial concert instead (with the Adagio from the Symphony No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde), you can do so here.

*We were told all about this at an inane pre-concert lecture by dilettante Gilbert Kaplan, along with every other of the Top 20 Mahler Clichés. “Every emotion possible appears in Mahler’s music,” you know that?

**Conspiracy theories: a) since they weren't being paid, were they stingy with rehearsals? b) Two women in woodwinds suggest presence of some ringers (yes this is pathetic but there are no women in the wind section on the roster). c) This symphony was originally scheduled for last fall but canceled due to a conductor change, and was not given a planned rehearsal workout then.
Gustav-Mahler-Gedenkkonzert (Symphony No. 9). Wiener Philharmoniker at the Wiener Staatsoper, 5/18/2011. Daniele Gatti, conductor.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Manon: Don’t put your hand there

I probably should have known better than to go to this typical Staatsoper revival with Roberto Alagna and Norah Amsellem, but I did anyway. Allow me to advise you of its content before you let this happen to you. Andrei Serban’s production seems rather interesting, but what is onstage is more an impression of a production than a production. Musically things were plausibly French, but they were not plausibly very good.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Die Walküre from the Met: Die Maschine ohne Ghost

I went to the Live from HD broadcast of Die Walküre on Saturday! For writing about this I recruited the help of NYC correspondent “Pélleas,” who saw it live. We chatted for a little while on Sunday. Or, a lot while. The Machine! James Levine, actually conducting! Valkyries falling on their asses! All right ahead!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s highs and lows

The Budapest Festival Orchestra and their music director Iván Fischer came to the Musikverein last night with an odd program of Bartók (Dance Suite for Orchestra Sz 77), Paganini (Violin Concerto No. 1), and Chaikovsky (Symphony No. 5). It's not bad programming per se, but it seemed a little bit on the random side. I suppose the Bartók and Chaikovsky both have dance things going on? (Which is something you could say for a lot of music.)

I really like this orchestra, with their dry sound and vaguely Russian brass, but I wasn’t as blown away this time as I was by their Konzerthaus concert last September. But they are still a very good orchestra indeed. If only this program had come together a little better. The Bartók Dance Suite was new in title to me, though I’ve heard some parts of it before in other Bartók pieces. It was an unusual choice to open the program, because the orchestra is treated quite sectionally and it was hard to get a good sense of their general sound. However, the playing was very fine, with wonderful transparency between sections.

Yes, really.
Judging by the hobbit hair and the PR accompanying his CD, violin soloist József Lendvay sees himself as the embodiment of the demonic Hungarian Gypsy fiddler. But while his first Paganini concerto would be suitable for a Heuriger somewhere, this astonishingly sloppy performance was not fit for the Musikverein. Granted, he has a rather good flying staccato and plays it all very quickly, but more notes were wrong than right, and most of them were not in the right places, either. The whole concerto was pervaded by rubato and twisted rhythms with no musical logic, and even simple passages showed little grace and wretched intonation (nearly every harmonic squeaked in the way they do when you don’t tune them quite right). Just awful. He got a large ovation, making me distrust the collective ears of the Viennese public (this was perhaps not the usual crowd; they applauded a lot after the first movement of a perfectly conventional concerto, I wanted to in the hope that he would stop). Paging Julia Fischer! Or Hilary Hahn! We need you!

(I prefer writing positive reviews, I really like liking things, but I understand why people bash performances so much. It is so much easier to write. I think it is richly deserved in this case.)

It could only get better after that. And it did. The Chaikovsky Symphony no. 5 was very good, a good completion for my Jansons No. 4 and Barenboim No. 6 earlier this season. Fischer had his eye on the trajectory of the entire piece, starting off restrained and somber in the first movement. The horn solo in the second movement was a bit disappointingly blank, but the movement built up to a very impressive and clearly planned climax, even though the movement itself feels like leftovers from the Symphony No. 4 (fate motive? check. pizzicati? check.) plus some of the better bits of the Swan Lake finale. The third movement was quiet, played as a soft interlude between the outpourings of the second and fourth, and the staccato passages in the strings could have used more lightness. The fourth movement turned very gaudy, with the bright brass pretty much blasting everyone else out of the water. The ending was taken at an impressive clip, perhaps to disguise that it is about 4 minutes of straight V -- I alternations.

A mixed bag but mostly redeemed by the Chaik.
Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer, conductor. Musikverein, 5/11/2011. Program: Bartók, Dance Suite for Orchestra Sz 77; Pagaini, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major; Chaikovsky/Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 in e minor.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Jenůfa: Kindertotenlieder

The Bartered Bride taught us that Czech peasants are adorable. Janáček’s Jenůfa teaches us that they (or at least the Moravian variety if we want to be real precise) actually are evil. Neither of Jenůfa’s men seem like good catches, and her mother kills Jenůfa’s baby. This is not a happy opera. Like in some similar works, it is the angelic light emitted by the female protagonist and the glow of the music’s lyricism that makes it more than just an exercise in misery.

Some rough edges were still showing at Monday’s first performance at the Staatsoper this season, but the cast of Angela Denoke, Agnes Baltsa, and co. is good, the production simple and effective, and the conducting promising, so: worth seeing. Well, it’s Janáček, so of course it’s worth seeing. But that’s just my opinion.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Volksoper and Hans Neuenfels’s big Zemlinsky fish


“A ring of invisibility found in a giant fish. A voyeuristic king. A fisherman’s burning house and unfaithful wife. Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der König Kandaules is an exceptionally strange opera. Based on André Gide’s 1899 play of the same title, it is a heady mix of sex, violence, and remarkably beautiful music. In the Volksoper’s remarkable revival, its allusiveness alternately fascinates and alienates, drawing the viewer in only to reward them with yet more mysteries.”

Read my review of Der König Kandaules at Bachtrack.

Note how most people writing about this opera conspicuously avoid trying to say what it’s about. I don’t like evasion and just admitted that I have no real idea. Maybe I like certainty too much, but the libretto of this opera had a higher ratio of the cryptic to the significant than I can find that satisfying. There are glimmerings of significance--and Neuenfels’s production does a good job in replicating and extending the text’s ambiguity--but the whole thing just slips from your grasp in a way that I ultimately found a little unfulfilling. It’s not that I need things to be spelled out, but it’s blatantly allegorical without a referant in sight. But the score is beautiful and the performance is quite good, and maybe you’ll be less desperate for a moral than I am. And who knows when you’ll get the chance to see it again. So go!

(I do admit I was longing for Kent Nagano and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester through the whole thing, after hearing their Zwerg in March.)

Regie fans may be interested to know that the design, in which an allegorical figure of Zemlinsky appears and Gyges and Kandaules appear as doubles, is by Christian Schmidt, who has previously used both of these devices in his design work with Claus Guth.

Remaining performances are May 8, 12, 17, 23, and 26.