Tuesday, July 31, 2012

La traviata: Death on a summer night

My last night at the Munich Opera Festival ended happily. Elusive Anja Harteros canceled her first Traviata, but she showed up for this one, her second. The other two leads, Ramon Vargas and Simon Keenlyside, both sounded the best I’ve heard them sing in ages, and the three work together beautifully: not exactly Italian, but dramatically sensitive and musically stylish in a way that made for a moving performance. The production is tired and the conducting was unfortunate, but with Traviata the cast can get you a long way.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Wozzeck: Drowning



Wozzeck is a nasty, brutal, and short opera. Producing it requires balancing the human and the inhuman, where a murderer is maybe the most sympathetic figure (unless you’re counting the little kid). Andreas Kriegenburg’s acclaimed Bayerische Staatsoper production—it’s what got him the Ring job—does this expertly, and more, its characters splashing around in ankle-deep water with no sign of relief.

While putting on a single performance of Wozzeck for a festival is unusual (it not being known as an audience-pleasing star vehicle that is easy to put together without much rehearsal), when you can get Waltraud Meier and Simon Keenlyside to do it, you probably should, and the Munich audience seemed to like it as much as I did.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Turandot on ice. No, really.

Would you like your opera to include
a) A game of hockey onstage. On actual skates.
b) Breakdancing
c) People waving baguettes
d) All of the above… IN 3D! Get out those Bay Staats-branded red and blue glasses, kids.

If you answered d), this production of Turandot from Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus is for you. Yeah, Turandot, an opera that is already This Close to being irredeemably kitsch. Some would try to retreat from this line, this production runs over it with a Zamboni. It’s like Zeffirelli, with B-grade scifi and LSD instead of brocade and crockery. Musically… eh. The singing and characters are about as important to this thing as they are in Zeffirelli, unfortunately. They did try their best, though.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tosca jumps again

The Met and the Bayerische Staatsoper might not have much in common but one thing they do is a certain Luc Bondy production of Tosca, hated just as much by the Müncheners as the New Yorkers. I was going to skip it but upon further reflection decided that missing a Bryn Terfel Scarpia would be a crime. So I got a ticket but being tardy it was one that afforded almost no view of the stage. While I love seeing Terfel ham it up, considering the imbecility of this production I do not consider this as great a loss as usual. I cannot offer you any assessment as to how the set looks on the smaller stage of the Nationaltheater, whether Scarpia groped the Madonna or simply flipped her off, or what attitude Tosca assumed while fanning herself at the close of Act 2 (um, for a production we all think is awful, this one has developed quite a few iconic moments, hasn't it? just saying...). Here's what I wrote about this production when I last saw it at the Met. In relation to tonight, let's talk about the singing!

Marco Armiliato conducts Tosca with the verve of a lukewarm glass of beer. He keeps things together and this was a fairly clean reading, except for almost losing the chorus just before Scarpia's Act 1 entrance. It unfolds nicely in lyrical sections but in the exciting bits it never rises to the occasion, lacking intensity, drama, and weight. The brass played with laser-bright tone that wasn't my favorite color, but the strings had a nice depth to their tone in the introduction to "E lucevan le stelle." But how can one of the most perfectly paced of all operas feel so slack and matter of fact?

Luckily the cast had two excellent singers. Catherine Naglestad is a fine Tosca. Her sound is big and just on this side of being blowsy, with a wide vibrato that sometimes turns dry. While she doesn't have a lot of variations of color, her duskiness feels just right for this role and her top notes are easy and reliable. (Her chest voice, however, is a little funky, not the best thing for a Tosca.) Most importantly, she sings with refined and yet natural musicality, making a grand and impressive, yet still expressive Tosca. Her "Vissi d'arte" had a lovely swell on the final note and an expertly tapered quiet ending. As Scarpia, Bryn Terfel was his usual self, this portrayal is by this point well known. His voice can turn rough and barky at patches, hurting him most in the opening of Act 2, which sounded ragged. But in the declamatory passages his voice is imposing and firm, and he relishes the evil with audible (as I could not, for the most part, see him) glee.

Workmanlike lyric tenor Massimo Giordano sounded overextended as Cavaradossi, and despite generally singing on pitch with acceptable sound his too-small voice and relentlessly flat-footed, unnuanced phrasing kept his Mario from ever developing into an audible character. He has a habit of approaching high notes from a running start of a third or so below, sliding up to the actual pitch (even on Vittoria!), which I assume is supposed to be stylistic, probably also is a technical aid, and definitely is irritating. The smaller roles found the Staatsoper's usual solid Slavic-tending crew, notably Goran Juric a well-projected Angelotti.

I can offer a few random notes on the staging. The jump at the end was timed better that I have seen it at the Met, but that blackout has to be much blacker for it to be convincing. When the victory cantata's Starbesetzung is announced in Act 1, the Munich children yelp "BRAVO!" while the New York ones go "OOOOO!" Also, Mario's painting, in classic Bay Staats fashion, appears to be a blotchy impressionistic rendering of the same image that appeared in New York in far more realistic form. Can't keep a creative scenic artist down.

Absent some star casting, I'm hoping not to see this particular Tosca again anytime soon.
Puccini, Tosca. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/24/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Marco Armiliato

Inszenierung Luc Bondy
Bühne Richard Peduzzi
Kostüme Milena Canonero
Licht Michael Bauer
Chor Stellario Fagone


Floria Tosca Catherine Naglestad
Mario Cavaradossi Massimo Giordano
Baron Scarpia Bryn Terfel
Cesare Angelotti Goran Jurić 
Der Mesner Christoph Stephinger
Spoletta Francesco Petrozzi
Sciarrone Christian Rieger
Stimme eines Hirten Tölzer Knabenchor
Ein Gefängniswärter Tim Kuypers

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tales of Hoffmann, Tales of Villazón

This brief Festspiele return of Les Contes d’Hoffmann to the Bayerische Staatsoper was marked by major cancellations, notably Diana Damrau as the three heroines (preggers) and conductor Constantine Carydis (presumably not preggers). Ironically, canceler par excellence Rolando Villazón actually showed up and sang the title role; sadly I spent most of the performance wishing he hadn’t. It was a bumpy ride, and the production isn’t Jones’s best, but the three excellent new women, Brenda Rae, Olga Mykytenko, and Anna Virovlansky, oddly shifted the focus of the opera.

Mitridate at the Prinzregententheater

I went to see Mitridate, re di Ponto at the Prinzregententheater (as occupied by the Bayerische Staatsoper) and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:
Mozart wrote the opera seria Mitridate at the age of fifteen. The Bayerische Staatsoper’s clever and strangely beautiful production positions it as the work of a child, full of rebellious teenagers and projected scenery seemingly drawn from a primary school art class. But unfortunately even excellent singing and much directorial invention cannot disguise that this is a rather bland opera, and its four hours pass slowly.
Read the whole thing here. On second thought, closing out a busy week with four hours of Mozart seria juvenilia may not have been the best plan! But the production and singing were lovely, and I enjoyed them, which I think means I am not being unfair to find the opera itself dull. The score has charm but it doesn't do much for the characters or plot. This is, of course, a stock complaint for the opera seria genre, but not one with which I agree, on the whole. But for this piece it applies.

It was also great to see Lisette Oropesa in a bigger role! She has a lovely voice and presence and is horribly underused by the Met. I'm not sure if this coloratura-heavy role was quite right for her talents, though. She can sing it just fine but it's not her strongest point, and I would rather hear her as Ilia or Despina or Zerlina.

Director David Bösch was also responsible for the Bay Staats's touching Elisir d'amore, which is in a similar style.

A bit about the theater: it's a beautiful small space located in the eastern Munich neighborhood of Bogenhausen. The wide, raked arena auditorium was built to be a near-exact copy of Bayreuth. The only major differences are an open pit (currently, at least), more elaborate decoration, and more lobby space. I didn't hear an acoustic similar to Bayreuth's, either, but comparing Mozart and Wagner is really difficult. Today the Prinzregententheater hosts a variety of groups both theatrical and musical; unfortunately the theater is too small to make putting on Wagner practical, though it has been done in the past. (They still manage at Bayreuth, but that's special.)

Continue to see a lot more pictures of this pretty pretty production.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Jonas Kaufmann's summer Winterreise

Schubert's Winterreise is a journey further and further into the narrator's own psyche. As he wanders he flees the diegetic noises surrounding him--the barking dogs, the posthorn, the cracking ice--and yet the icy cold articulates his inner self, even in its self-deception...

Aw shit, if you care about that you probably know about it already. You just want to hear about how Jonas Kaufmann's big comeback recital went, don't you?

La Bohème: Your hand is cold


The Munich Opera Festival part of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s season rolled on with a shot at what is known in these parts as a Sternstunde--famous names being providing luxury singing to gratify your pleasure principle. But for this to work you need more than glamorous singing, there has to be a real connection among the cast and with the audience too. That wasn’t happening so much last night. Angela Gheorghiu and Joseph Calleja are a beautiful match in terms of pure sound, and both have the voices for these roles. But theatrically they are a disaster, encouraging each other's worst qualities. Gheorghiu only loves Gheorghiu, and I saw few convincing signs of Calleja loving anything at all.

I remain an enormous fan of Gheorghiu's sound, which has a uniquely beautiful silvery smokiness and sounds perfect in this music. Would that we could hear more of it. When she finally sung out in Act 3, it was glorious, but up to then she had maintained her characteristic 75%--never quite inaudible but not loud enough either. Her self-conscious diva persona would never work so well for Mimi, but she was at her most self-absorbed this evening, reacting only for her own and our benefit and never interacting with the cast around her. She apparently got some new dresses for this production, which seemed to be of the upper middle class rather than of a simple seamstress (which sticks out because the costumes of the rest of the cast are actually fairly faithful to class), but also followed her usual preference of displaying maximum cleavage during her death scene.

Joseph Calleja also has a beautiful sound, and sang the music with much more straightforward musicality than Gheorghiu, who tends to be capricious in regards to phrasing. On a CD, his "Che gelida manina" would be a real winner, with easy high notes, smooth legato, and that golden tone with its distinctive fast vibrato. But he never does anything to make it interesting. He did more to engage with his fellow Bohemians, but his acting remains a series of indications rather than a character, and in terms of chemistry he and Gheorghiu are not so happening.

The supporting cast was mostly drawn from house locals and sounded more Eastern European in style than Italian, but were great company and way more fun than our leads. I wondered if light soubrette Laura Tatulescu had been cast as Musetta as to present minimal competition to Gheorghiu (and their timbres do make a good vocal match--they're both Romanian, if that means anything), but while her voice is small she projected consistently and effortlessly, and managed to be full of character without overacting, a rare thing in Musettas. The pick of the Bohemians was Levente Molnár's big-voiced, lively Marcello, showing great life and warmth, but the others were fine as well. Alfred Kühn's bio has the telling debut date of 1963, and I suspect he has been singing repertoire like Benoit the whole while. I will just say that he is a local favorite and at least he wasn't cast as Mime.

Dan Ettinger conducted like someone who knows his way around this tricky score, managing the remarkable tasks of rarely covering up Gheorghiu and also staying with her wayward beat. The Act 2 chaos was reasonably clean and if the orchestra was, as I suspect, playing this on little to no rehearsal, I am very impressed. Ensembles were oddly balanced and scrappy but hey, this is the Festival, with Angela Gheorghiu.

Otto Schenk's production is a traditional job with none of the opulence of the Met's Zeffirelli extravaganza. I have to say I like it a lot more than that one. Like Ettinger, it doesn't try anything fancy but it puts things where they need to be to give Angela Gheorghiu something to bounce her voice off. (We'll leave the actual productions for another day.) Act 2 is busy without ever losing track of the protagonists, the garret could arguably use some sprucing up (how long has this production been going? a while, I'm guessing) but I guess looking like that is the point of a garret. The snow scene is the most artistic of the sets, but still doesn't dwarf the main characters. The opening of Act 4 was unusually clearly directed. I do wish that opera houses would realize that their rubber fishes are all embarrassments, though.

Admittedly, this has never been one of my favorite operas (I'm not exactly sure why), but this one left me exceptionally dry-eyed. Considering the musical merits, a disappointment. In a few weeks I'll be seeing the new Salzburg production with Netrebko and Beczala, which I hope will have more to offer.

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.
Puccini, La Bohème. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7.17.2012.
Musikalische Leitung Dan Ettinger

Inszenierung Otto Schenk
Bühne und Kostüme Rudolf Heinrich
Chor Stellario Fagone


Mimi Angela Gheorghiu
Musetta Laura Tatulescu
Rodolfo Joseph Calleja
Marcello Levente Molnár
Schaunard Christian Rieger
Colline Goran Jurić 
Parpignol Dean Power
Benoît Alfred Kuhn
Alcindoro Tareq Nazmi
Ein Zöllner Tim Kuypers
Sergeant der Zollwache Peter Mazalán

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Götterdämmerung: Euro crash

Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich Ring is about society and community. How do people treat each other, how do large groups organize themselves, and how do we tell our own stories? The Ring, he suggests, is about what happens when people stop seeing each other as, well, people, and lose our connection with the natural world. Götterdämmerung is of a piece with this narrative, but in other ways weirdly unrepresentative, specific in its setting and clunky in its narrative where the others had been elegantly abstract. But fortunately this performance had a great cast, most of all Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Kriegenburg’s sure hand with the characters didn’t leave him, at least. Is that enough for a whole Ring?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Siegfried: Into the woods

Some of this Siegfried is much more conventionally wacky Regietheater than the previous Ring installments. I mean, if you ever can call a very fake jogging bear, a lot of glitter, giant bellows, and some dancing inanimate objects conventional. (Hey, this is Germany.) But it’s of a piece with the earlier installments, with an element of fun energy that works with this exuberant score. The cast had this energy. Even the conducting was almost exuberant!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Die Walküre: Bring up the bodies

This Munich Ring cycle seems to be slowly moving through time, having started Rheingold in a timeless prehistory with a communal pagan celebration of nature and Walküre attaching itself firmly to the European fin de siècle. This is a period beloved of many a Wagner director (above all Chéreau), who map the powerful but declining gods onto the fading aristocracy. Kriegenburg isn’t as specific as Chéreau when it comes to filling in the details, and the whole thing works more by vague suggestion than allegory. The crowds of people, in Rheingold representatives of natural elements and then Alberich’s slaves, are now servants in a world that has developed social hierarchies.

That wasn't much of a lead-in, sorry, I wanted to get right to the point because this was an excellent Walküre!
First: if you'd like to see this cycle for yourself, you can watch Götterdämmerung live on the Internet (or on a giant screen in Max-Joseph-Platz, should you be in Munich), free, tomorrow 15 July at 17:00 Munich time. I highly recommend it! More information here.

Cenerentola and the incredible Americanness of Joyce DiDonato

Nice People Win
Last Monday I went to Cenerentola at the Bayerische Staatsoper. I’m sorry I didn’t write about it faster but lots of work and this fast-track six day Ring have limited my blogging time. (I expect the shorter operas of this week as well as the imminent departure of my drinking buddy will make keeping up easier soon.)  Also I had one of those crappy limited-view seats of which this opera house has so many, and I missed a lot of the action. So here are some brief thoughts on what I heard and managed to see.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Munich Ring assembles: Rheingold

This is the first Rheingold I’ve seen that starts not in inky ur-darkness but in full light. Initially, the first installment of Andreas Kriegenburg’s beguilingly simple Munich Ring seems most notable for what it leaves out: big ideological statements, giant snakes. One expects to get one or the other. One is rarely deprived of both. The most provocative thing about this production is how mild-mannered and small it is, but its intimacy and its as of yet faultless sense of dramatic effect are so quiet as to creep up on you, then there they are, and there is a Ring.

(Unfortunately one other thing, namely the conducting, was happy to remain calm and quiet as well.)

Monday, July 09, 2012

Nelsons, Calleja, Opolais, and the BRSO go Italian


I went to what sounded like it was going to be a fun summer concert and wrote about it for Bachtrack.
An old proverb names Munich as the northernmost city in Italy. As odd as this may seem, it makes some sense when considering the arches of the mock-Italian loggia in Odeonsplatz, modeled after the one in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. It was fitting that this was the setting for the Klassik am Odeonsplatz's final concert, a so-called "Notte Italiana" ("Italian night"), featuring the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (BRSO) conducted by Andris Nelsons, along with soprano Kristine Opolais and tenor Joseph Calleja.
You can read the whole thing here. (Note: no actual Italians were involved in the performance of this concert, except if there are any in the orchestra or chorus.) Had this been in a proper concert hall I would have been pickier about the orchestral portion but for an open-air quasi-pops gig I thought it was pretty good. Also, in contrast to the singers. Opolais can be good, but this was an unfortunate outing made worse by a bad choice of repertoire, and Calleja looked and sounded a bit out of it. He seems to admit it:
You could tell. I'm approaching what I am calling Tenorama week (Calleja/Villazon/Kaufmann) and on that occasion will write something about the perils of this high-pressured fach.

I'm going to be in Munich for the next few weeks and frequenting various Festspiele events, starting with Cenerentola tonight and the Ring tomorrow. Odd combination but I suspect there is a very logical explanation having to do with set storage space or rehearsal time or something.

Photo copyright Michael Heeg.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Les Troyens, the Royal Opera House for a horse

At least the horse is good. But the Royal Opera House's straightforward new production of Les Troyens isn't nearly as exciting as it should be. The cast and their singing are the best of it, and both Anna Caterina Antonacci and Eva-Maria Westbroek are well worth seeing, but somehow it underwhelms. David McVicar's production is, for the most part, not bad, but it's not much more than average, and the whole affair never coheres enough to rise to the occasion--the occasion, in this case, being a vague Olympics tie-in and the eternal "we're putting on a quasi-all-star uncut Les $#!&ing Troyens, the biggest opera around that isn't in four parts."

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Carmen: Stefan Herheim's night at the museum

"Oh no! The art has escaped again!" So yelps a diminutive curator by the name of Lillas Pastia when he goes downstairs to check on the storage room in his museum. He sees the remnants of "Les triangles des sistres tintaient," but we just saw all of it: a panopoly of characters from paintings, opera, and literature--many of them femme fatales--who have broken free from their authors to perform a rousing song and dance number. There's Salome with the head (she premiered in Graz, natch), Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth I, a Degas dancer, Marianne with her tricoleur, and, er, Jesus.

So what does this have to do with Carmen? Rather a lot, actually. This production (first seen in 2006 and now in its first revival) probably helped Stefan Herheim earn the reputation for being incomprehensible, but if you can keep up there's a fascinating dissection of the nature of artistic representation, gender roles and a lot more. Plus it's a ton of fun. Rarely has the explication of Nietzsche employed so much glitter.