Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sets of productions past

I was quite surprised at some of the set designs in the Volksoper's other inconsequential production of Leo Fall's operetta Madame Pompadour. Director/designer Hinrich Horstkotte shamelessly ripped off two sets from Stefan Herheim productions designed by Heike Scheele (who should maybe think about calling her lawyer). Unfortunately the Volksoper has not released photos of either of these sets, the Herheim versions appear above.

The first is when a giant head of Pompadour begins to emerge from the stage at the end of Act 1. This is a direct echo of the giant head of Jochanaan in Herheim's Osterfestspiele Salome. Thematic connection? I don't see one, but trust me, the image is absolutely the same, except for the absence of a silver platter and the presence of a giant bottle of champagne on the top of her head.

The second is even more blatant. See, Act 2 had also involved the rest of the giant head and, er, chest of Pompadour. In Act 3, we see the lower part, in curtains whose framework and color are taken from Herheim and Scheele's Rosenkavalier in Stuttgart. The only addition is the lady Pompadour's legs.

Gotta say I liked the Herheim/Scheele ones better.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

What a day for an auto-da-fé (Don Carlo in Vienna)

Don Carlo is a notoriously difficult opera to cast, but this new Wiener Staatsoper production looked promising on paper, including René Pape, Krassimira Stoyanova, and Simon Keenlyside. I’m rather baffled at how the result turned out to be so aggressively, mind-numblingly boring on nearly every level. Intendant Dominique Meyer's Regieprobleme aren't getting any better.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lulu, the destroyer destroyed

“Ich habe nie in der Welt etwas andres scheinen wollen, als wofür man mich genommen hat, und man hat mich nie in der Welt für etwas anderes genommen, als was ich bin.” 
(“I’ve never wanted to appear to the world as anything other than what I am perceived to be, and no one in the world has ever taken me for something other than what I am.”)

In this dark and dazzling performance, Lulu wears many guises. She is the star attraction of a circus, drawing a succession of honest citizens into her deadly orbit. But she succeeds only as much as she is a projection for what they want, even if they can’t publicly admit it.

Lulu is an opera that demands superhuman efforts, and the Dresden Semperoper has, unusually, found that in cast, orchestra, and production with an embarrassment of riches, from Gisela Stille’s Lulu to Cornelius Meister’s conducting to and Stefan Herheim’s fascinatingly strange production.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fidelio in Dresden, or, Why do women like Fidelio so much?

I went to see Fidelio in Dresden and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.
The Dresden Semperoper premiered a new production of Fidelio scarcely a month before the fall of East Germany. Much has changed in the intervening decade. But it doesn't take much knowledge of German history to understand why it was a sensation at the time. The prison guards and the politics are those of the dying East Germany itself, and the crowd that hails Leonore and Florestan, triumphant fighters for freedom and justice, at the end of the opera looks no different from the one protesting in Dresden's streets in October 1989.
You can read the whole thing here. Excepting the always-excellent orchestra it wasn't a very good performance but the history is interesting.

I jumped at the chance to see Fidelio, as I always do. (That this one turned out not to be very good, well, alas, they can’t all be. It had historical and local interest, as you can read in the full review.) I belong to a not very exclusive club: women who have a reflexive, excessive love for this opera. I don’t want to speak for all the other ladies out there but I know enough of them to think that I’m not alone in this. (We’ve heard all the stuff about the awful libretto and mismatched acts, and I at least can say, I don’t care.)

The reasons why we love it seem at first painfully obvious: unlike the majority of women in opera who spend their time onstage pining or dying, Leonore does stuff. When the men of her world prove helpless, she takes their place, does their job better than they can themselves, and rescues the man she loves for the ideals they both believe in. She doesn’t dither or worry, she takes decisive action. And significantly, she saves him without sacrificing her life for his. Instead of dying for a two-timing jerk like Gilda, she saves someone who seems to be worth saving, and acted for a higher, abstract political purpose as well as for her own love. She gets to triumph through Beethoven’s brutal vocal writing (we hope), while he’s absent through the whole first act. When he finally appears he is more often than she brought to extreme grief by Beethoven’s brutal vocal writing. At the end the chorus hails not him but her.

Leonore is the most decisively, straightforwardly heroic woman in opera. Her lack of a backstory is an asset, because it isn’t there to weigh her down. We have no answers to the questions that normally determine a woman’s existence—her virtue and her beauty. We have to take her as she is, that is to say judge her as if she were a man, the man she is pretending to be. And we have no choice but to approve of her. Disapproving of her actions would be to hate all that is good in the world. No one wants to be on the side of Don Pizarro.

But I think it goes deeper than that. Sometimes it can be hard to be a woman who loves opera, the genre treats so many of our gender terribly and you have to satisfy yourself with a very limited range of representation. It can be hard to be a woman studying classical music in general, where the two most powerful figures, the Composer and the Conductor were inevitably, until extremely recently, almost exclusively male. The epitome of this is, cast in a role he never asked to play, Beethoven, Classical Music’s Greatest Composer, or, as a recent biography called him, The Universal Composer.

Whose universe are we talking about here? Beethoven’s “heroic style,” though it represents only a small portion of his music, has outsized importance in his image (see the Secession statue on the right), and also has come to serve as a keystone of an entire network of representations of the Romantic. But the figure in the center is inevitably a masculine one. The feminine Romantic doesn’t get her E-flat major, her Liszt, her Napoleon, her horns. The Romantic artist, which is to say the Romantic hero, is a man. The woman is, most commonly, relegated to the status of object.

Except in Fidelio she gets to be the hero, and she gets her horns (literally, I mean). (That the plot is a relic of the eighteenth century, well, we can ignore that part right now.) In Fidelio the Romantic heroic is given a woman’s voice, a woman in men’s dress because she has to be but nonetheless a woman’s voice. Here is one of the central works of Beethoven’s heroic style and that heroism is vested in a woman, a woman who is just as capable of heroism, and in fact more capable, than anyone else around her. What everything else has insisted is not our property is, here, finally ours.

How to end this except with this:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Berliner Philharmoniker

On Saturday night I caught up with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Philharmonie in a concert led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin of music of Berio, Chaikovsky, and Ravel. This was my first visit to the Philharmonie and one of the first times I’d heard the Philharmoniker live conducted by someone other than their current music director Simon Rattle. My impression of their last performance with Sir Simon (in Carnegie Hall) was decidedly mixed, of technical brilliance lacking in any perceptible heartbeat. This was also the first time I’d heard Nézet-Séguin conduct outside the Met, and he, the orchestra, and the concert hall all left me very impressed indeed.

The program opened with Berio’s Sequenza IXa for solo clarinet, and odd choice but apparently they are gradually performing the whole cycle of Sequenze. The Philharmonie’s wonderful acoustics allowed lone clarinetist Walter Seyfarth to resonate clearly even at the softest dynamics. I know this piece from, um, playing it (only casually), and Seyfarth’s account was technically impeccable and extremely clearly thought through. Clarinet multiphonics (the closest we can get to a double stop) are unreliabe and wheezy at best but Seyfarth’s were rock solid.  Motives and structures were clearly defined, but nonetheless it was a bit more an austere plateau than a collection of giant hairpins.  

Perhaps they chose the clarinet sequenza because the next piece, Chaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, opens with a clarinet solo. I don’t know. Anyway, this Chaikovsky was magical, taken with big ultra-Romantic pathos and rubato and schmaltz and all that kind of thing that I like in Chaikovsky and occasionally find suspect in Korngold. Nézet-Séguin took a glutinous approach to the transitions that made the piece more smooth than exciting, but the orchestra’s considerable virtuosity and precision in the fight portions was exciting enough. After my recent spate of neat freak conductors it was nice to hear someone really go for the emotional payoffs, and the horns’ countermelody was a thing of wonder.

Maybe it was the remnants of jet lag but I have to admit my attention drifted at a few points during Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloe—not that it isn’t very beautiful music but I might be in favor of performing the suite versions in this case. The orchestra here sounded more like the one I knew from Rattle, light and precise (even in the trickiest passages in the winds, including wonderful wind solos and one slightly wonky violin one), and yet, when required, very very loud. Nézet-Séguin showed the same flexibility as in the Chaikovsky but also the needed delicacy. The ahs emanating from the Rundfunk Chor Berlin were also excellently balanced with each other and the orchestra.

I find many modern concert halls alienating, but the Philharmonie’s nooks and cranies were fun. It’s like hearing a concert in a retro spaceship!

This concert is included in the Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall and will soon be available ondemand if you’d like to see it yourself.
Berliner Philharmoniker, Philharmonie, 6/16/12. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Walter Seyforth, clarinet, Rundfunk Chor Berlin. Berio, Sequenza XIa; Tchaikovsky/Chaikovsky, Fantasy Overture on Romeo and Juliet; Ravel, Daphnis et Chloe (complete ballet)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Serse: Stefan Herheim goes for baroque

Like every utterance of “Frau Blücher!” in Young Frankenstein makes a distant horse neigh, the pastoral piping of recorders in Stefan Herheim’s Serse has the power to summon animals, in this case a small and jolly herd of dancing sheep. Elsewhere we get slightly creaky stage machinery, big shiny costumes, and some jokes that can only be described as corny (or, um, German). It’s good fun, and for what you expect out of this director and this opera house, mild-mannered madness indeed.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The season that was

There was good, there was bad, and there was the end of Götterdämmerung. Let’s look back at classical music in New York this season. Honestly, I found many of the more hyped events of the season disappointing, most of all the big and stupid Ring. The good stuff was further away from the spotlight.

Sorry for the recent lack of blogging; I am leaving for Europe on Wednesday and have an enormous amount of work to do before that. My first stops are Berlin, Dresden, and Vienna!

  • Anna Bolena was on the dreary side, but Anna Netrebko was fabulous, and considering what the rest of the season ended up being like we should have been pretty happy with what we got production-wise, actually
  • I liked the direction in which Dark Sisters was headed, but it didn’t really get there?
  • The Opera Orchestra of New York’s concert Rienzi found an excellent mezzo and a surprisingly enjoyable opera
  • Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil, I don’t know, you guys. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
  • The Met’s Manon was mostly distinguished among the house’s new productions for being competent and not a disaster. Yay? Anna Netrebko was great, again.
  • Jennifer Rowley was quite a find in Telemann’s Orpheus at the New York City Opera, though the opera itself is maybe not quite that much of a find. (Rowley has just had a big career break, by the way; she will be replacing preggers Diana Damrau in the ROH's Robert le diable this fall. Congrats! [I am hopefully seeing Damrau as the four women in Hoffmann this summer. A pregnant Olympia will be interesting.])
  • Natalie Dessay wasn’t up to the challenges of Traviata, but Willy Decker’s production is wonderful
  • The Met’s milquetoast Don Giovanni sent us all running towards hell, because it’s probably more entertaining down there
  • The Met’s Siegfried was insipid
  • Neon lights! Convulsing nuclear bomb victims! No idea what is going on, ever! It takes a really awful production like say Faust to have Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s ace conducting, Marina Poplavskaya’s insanity, Jonas Kaufmann’s high notes, and René Pape’s eyebrows and STILL end up on the Distressing list.
  • For lovers of Baroque opera, watching so-called pasticcio The Enchanted Island was like having your favorite Romanian art film remade by Michael Bay
  • Götterdämmerung ended ignominiously, but at least there was Waltraud Meier
  • Make that the whole Ring. It was all distressing, though Bryn Terfel’s Wotan and Katarina Dalayman’s Brünnhilde were stellar.
The next production I will be writing about will be a certain Serse. Did I mention that somehow I have acquired tickets to almost every single production at one of the major European festivals this summer? Not sure how this happened. Hint: not Salzburg, because then I would be bankrupt. And in Salzburg. See you soon.