La Boheme

Date: July 17, 2012
Conductor: Dan Ettinger
Production: Otto Schenk
Location: Bavarian State Opera, National Theatre, Munich.

When the curtain rose to reveal Scene II’s Latin Quarter, the audience gasped with frothy astonishment. An air of Parisian flair and authenticity roamed free, and the collective gaiety of the chorus and stage extras proved infectious. Then, in this warm summer evening in Bavaria, a wintry chill loomed when the colorless set of Scene III exuded a morbid gloom, as if foretelling the opera’s end. Such was the emotive and communicative power of Otto Schenk’s production, which, despite its fifth decade of service, has looked as fresh as it has ever been.

Schenk’s star shone brightly, but not alone. Angela Gheorghiu portrayed a Mimi whose health but not her spirits slowly withered away, while Joseph Calleja played an emotionally-wrecked Rodolfo witnessing Mimi’s gradual but certain demise. Gheorghiu nurtured her sweet tonal quality with the care of a mother tucking her child into bed. If the Romanian soprano had any fault, she harbored a tendency to sing at her own pace, with nary a peek at conductor Dan Ettinger, particularly during her Scene I solo aria. Calleja began the evening with some hesitation, but warmed up on time to find boundless comfort and confidence in Che gelida manina. As he sang the line: “E come vivo? Vivo! / And how do I live? I live!” he acted as though he really meant it. His Rodolfo, like Gheorghiu’s Mimi, was entirely believable. When he cried Mimi’s name towards the opera’s finale, he oozed so much melancholic doom that, after the orchestra’s final note, the audience remained silent for a few seconds to regain composure before erupting in unreserved jubilation. Levente Molnar was reckless with his rhythm and pitch at Marcello’s Scene I entrance, but otherwise recovered well. Dramatically, Molnar expertly balanced his duo role of Rodolfo’s comedic muse and emotional support with an effortless ease. Christian Rieger, as Schaunard, held sway with vigorous baritonal security, while Laura Tatulescu, as Musetta, flourished as an outwardly whimsical but inherently good-natured Parisian darling. Impossible as it may sound, Alfred Kuhn, approaching his fiftieth year as a professional singer, stole dramatic glory by exacting a deliriously funny Benoit.

Dan Ettinger’s conducting was uneven, with moments of brilliance followed by bouts of mediocrity. At times he let Puccini’s legato lines fly with sweeping boldness, but at others he barely bothered with the composer’s exquisitely crafted dynamics and tempi.

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La straniera

Date: July 16, 2012
Conductor: Pietro Rizzo
Production: none; concert performance
Location: Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich.

At this point in her career, Edita Gruberova needed to prove nothing. Yet, at the age of 65, she made her role debut as Alaide in Bellini’s rarely performed La straniera. Gruberova still showed flashes of the brilliance that made her the queen of dramatic coloratura for a good part of last century. Her voice was still acrobatic, her tone was still crystal clear, and her timbre was imbued with the kind of melancholic sadness that made the listener sympathetic to such tenderly Bellini heroine as Alaide. Her diminished vocal resources were audibly evident but well managed. As the evening wore on, her voice warmed up enough to allow her to be more dynamically liberal and therefore, more dramatically liberated. Yet, Gruberova misfired miraculously at the beginning, especially in the Scene VII duet with Jose Bros when she was practically half a semi-tone flat for nearly the entire number. Her pitch problems continued to pop up throughout the evening, though slightly less so after intermission. Her Italian intonation was at times too artificially ornamented, as if, whether consciously or not, to attempt to sound more Italianate. She also tended to scoop at the horizon of a sustained, loud high note, though to her credit she nailed Bellini’s high notes of pianissime just fine. Some of these pitch inadequacies were simply inexcusable, yet there was this aura about her that made us want to believe that her presentation was deliberate, and therefore necessarily carried dramatic implication. In this regard, Gruberova was intense and fiery, even on a concert stage.

The rest of the cast was not comprised of your average run-of-the-mill singers. Jose Bros, as Arturo, sounded brilliant and round. Sonia Ganassi, as Isoletta, sang with passion and full projection. Paolo Gavanelli received a long, genuine applause at the end of Meco tu vieni, o misera, in which he set ablaze the Gasteig with hot-blooded emotion and a stentorian heft. Pietro Rizzo tried to muster all the sound and character from the Münchner Opernorchester and chorus, but the vastness of the Gasteig seemed eager to eat up much of Rizzo’s characterizations. They would have done better at Prince Regent’s Theatre.

Götterdämmerung

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

If an honest attempt was made to find stylistic unity in the first three evenings, Götterdämmerung most certainly rendered that endeavor impossible. If the sets and mimes of the first three evenings provided plenty of figurative conduits, the realism in Götterdämmerung almost served to repudiate them. Here, stage actors no longer mimed anything. They simply became costumed stage hands or Gibichung subjects who loitered aimlessly in the Gibichung Palace. These folks inhabited the same space as our Wagnerian characters, but served no specific story-telling purpose other than being merely ornamental.

In Götterdämmerung, everything was real, wherein the depiction of capitalism’s excesses and perhaps its crisis-inducing inevitability was realistically displayed – a primly-styled, multi-leveled glass-cladded building was the Gibichung’s abode and the source of all excesses. Multiple glass cases displaying agricultural products revealed that the enterprise was possibly a biotech powerhouse in the mold of Monsanto, suggesting that the Gibichung’s rise to power most certainly had to do with monopolizing and profiting from the sales of some of these agricultural products. The quest for Nibelung gold and power was proxied by the quest for capitalist glory. Hagen and Gunther were two relentless owners who took pleasure physically and sexually abusing their staff. Gutrune was the Lindsay Lohan-type who in her free time rode with orgasmic joy on a rocking wooden horse in the shape of the Euro sign, as if her entire existence rested upon deriving material pleasures from money. Kriegenburg offered no serious solutions to the real-world Euro problem (but then, in the real world, who does), only that whoever rode the Euro to its last breath would derive, as Gutrune would attest, the greatest pleasures from it.

The extrapolation of a Gibichung-as-modern-business idea had many stage contemporaries, though this one only had circumferential relation with the setup of the prologue, which seemed to foretell a nuclear disaster in waiting as the Norns spun the inevitable. It was unclear whether this nuclear disaster would eventually cause or exacerbate the Euro’s demise. The most controversial bit of stage direction was Gutrune’s omnipresence during Immolation. Anna Gabler’s Gutrune oozed with an afflicted desolation, though why she would be so distraught, over a malady that she neither owned nor should be responsible for, was unclear. On the scale of superfluous excesses, this Götterdämmerung reigned supreme. Three mechanical bridges spanning the entire width of the proscenium moved up and down, but were severely underutilized either as part of the storytelling or as a sensational dramatic apparatus. If it was not the mechanical equivalent of burning millions of bailout money on stage, it most certainly was a poorly thought-out effort to impress the Company’s patrons. Several “doormen” were deployed at the various doors at which the bridges would connect to the Gibichung building structure either side of the proscenium. If these fine actors did not add to the story-telling (other than being proxies for excess), and if the Bavarian state government workers safety department did not mandate the Company to hire these doormen for safety, why add to the cost of production?

One unexpected advantage of engaging shared Brünnhilde duties was that the Götter Brünnhilde could start singing Act 1 without the long mileage of the previous evenings (Iréne Theorin and Catherine Naglestad sang the other two). Nina Stemme did just that, simultaneously being zealous, savory and fresh in her duet with Stephen Gould’s Siegfried. Stephen Gould had moments of helden brilliance sandwiching the occasional squeals in the upper registers. The trio of Rhinemaidens continued to shine, while the Norn trios of Jill Grove, Jamie Barton and Irmgard Vilsmaier swung between inspiring excellence and mere adequacy. The Waltraute of Michaela Schuster was visually and vocally animated as well as a joy to listen to.

As I have said here and here, no Ring is a bad Ring unless the production severely impedes the music or the singers who attempt it. Kriegenburg’s vision does not strictly speaking violate this rule, but as the abundance of non-singing actors moved about on stage, thereby creating noise and oft unnecessary distraction, Kriegenburg came dangerously close to the breach line. A case in point: as the actors were fleeing the collapsing Gibichung Palace after Zuruck vom Ring, their footsteps created a symphony of bewailing cacophony, at precisely the singular moment in the Ring when the audience should be drawn entirely to the efforts in the orchestra pit. What makes this production not a particularly memorable one was not because the human body concept was not in itself memorable, but because the execution did not provide ample interesting imagery to make it worth recollecting. The actors’ gyrations as the Rhine waves and Fafner’s dragon were notable exceptions, but the bulk of the effort seemed petty. The many superfluous concoctions mentioned in the reviews were not by default a perversion of Wagner’s intent, though in this age of dwindling art funds, the return on their investment seemed abysmal. Götterdämmerung remains stylistically detached, while the stage constructs in Walküre – the moving view finder concept in particular – were not fully exploited in the other evenings. This production could have been an unmitigated disaster elsewhere, if not for the uniformly top-notch singers and musicians in Munich this summer who lifted it.

Siegfried

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

If Das Rheingold and Die Walküre presented two competing visions of theatrical uses of human bodies in an opera setting, Siegfried presented something somewhat in between. To represent Fafner’s dragon, about two dozen scantily clad actors were shackled onto a dragon-shaped scaffolding and illuminated by burning-orange floodlights. As the dragon moved and roared, the actors moved in seemingly meaningless gyration. The resultant effect gave alternately a sensation of pain and voyeuristic ecstasy, much like how the actors’ abundance of energy in Rheingold was analogous to the breaking waves of the Rhine.

Act 1 revealed something of an entirely different order: dozens of actors moved about on stage, often acting out what was sung in the libretto, including a comical reenactment of Siegfried’s birth just as Mime retold the story of the Wälsung twins. Half a dozen actors worked an oversized pump to inject air into Mime’s oven, just as Siegfried started to weld his sword. An actor would dump metallic confetti into an air outlet controlled by the manual actuation of pumps in synchronization with Siegfried’s anvil percussion. The cartoonish depiction, including the actor’s refilling of metallic confetti, spurred a few snickers from the audience. A few other actors rolled on stage a gigantic water barrel, in which Siegfried would dump Nothung to cool it down. It wasn’t entirely clear if these actors really inhabited the same dimension as Siegfried and Mime, or if they were merely transparent, faceless effectors of stage movements. On the surface, their abundance seemed to violate one common interpretation that Act 1 was meant to be an introverted look at the relationship between Siegfried and Mime. Yet Kriegenburg brought up an interesting point: if the relationship between Siegfried and Mime has always meant, even by Wagner, to be farcical, the presence of these comical effectors only served to accentuate that point.

Lance Ryan, as Siegfried, sang with gusto, though he seemed ready to reserve his firepower in Act 1. In Act 3, as his voice blossomed with power and energy, he vindicated his earlier pacing strategy. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, as Mime, did not impress with enough menace, though as a singer, he excelled with a golden top. Thomas J. Mayer was adequate but not special as Wotan, while Catherine Naglestad, as Brünnhilde, was properly lyrical and abundantly sonorous. The porcelain-faced Elena Tsallagova proved most unexpectedly outstanding as the forest bird. Her trills were controlled and delightful, and she did not forcibly exaggerate her presence any more than the dramaturgy required her to. Her vocal phrasings arched beautifully over the orchestral music, not merely adorning but caressing it. Her agile and playful movements on stage proved that she was either an accomplished dancer or an exceptionally gifted stage actress, or both.

La Cenerentola

Date: July 12, 2012
Conductor: Antonello Allemandi
Production: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

When Nikolaus Bachler, the Intendant of the opera house, appeared on stage before the curtain went up to announce that Joyce DiDonato was not feeling well, the hall permeated with a concerted gasp of disappointment, only to be replaced by relief when Bachler said that DiDonato would nevertheless continue.

At the outset, DiDonato’s voice was buttery and clean, and did not sound particularly stressed. Nevertheless, she took care to preserve her voice for the opera’s finale, so much so that she was nearly inaudible in most of the ensemble singing. That put additional pressure on the two other female voices, who had the unenviable task of counterbalancing an all-male tag team of lead vocals as well as chorus. If DiDonato consciously saved her voice throughout the evening, she let it all out in Non piu mesta. DiDonato proved that textural sensibility and vocal agility could coexist beautifully, as her acrobatic passages flowed with sensual, expressive coloration. An optionally interpolated high D-flat before one of those two-octave descending scales provided a playful counterpoint, akin to a plump cherry sitting atop a Rococo-style, multi-layered wedding cake.

When Dandini arrived at Don Magnifico’s house as Ramiro, he casually threw his hat and baton to his real boss in a terse but fine moment of dramma giocoso. But such was the theatrical masterstroke of Ponnelle, who with this short interaction was able to convey Ramiro’s slight displeasure at being subjugated, even temporarily; Dandini’s satisfaction in being his own boss; and the dramma giocoso’s playful sensibility. (This directorial brilliance was also evident in a video recording of the same production, with Claudio Abbado and La Scala, some thirty years ago.) The staging showed signs of its age, with the colors of many of the scrims fading away. One scrim malfunctioned briefly and caused Cinderella to sing part of her second Une volta…un re with a half-drawn scrim, but otherwise the drama flowed perfectly.

Lawrence Brownlee, as Ramiro, was confident and accurate in delivery, but lacked bite and charisma. In Si, ritrovarla io guiro, Brownlee added a third high C in the da capo. Alessandro Corbelli, as Don Magnifico, lost some of his vocal prowess due to age, but more than compensated with dramatic weight, as he should in this genre. Nikolay Borchev’s vibrato, sounding forced and unnatural, needed more refining. As an actor he drew genuine laughter whenever the drama required of his Dandini. Alex Esposito, as Alidoro, projected an exceptionally strong and ringing voice, albeit just a tad too bright for bel canto. As Clorinda, Eri Nakamura excelled vocally. More importantly, she acted the part with a whimsical but cheerful giddiness, and didn’t look at all like someone who sandwiched this Clorinda performance between her Woglindes during the Munich Ring.

Die Walküre

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

If Andreas Kriegenburg laid the foundation for his Ring concept in Das Rheingold, this Walküre did not so much dismantle it as it did perverse its original cohesion. If in Rheingold human bodies were props for innate objects or metaphorical depictions of abstractions, human bodies were depicted here simply as human bodies.

In Act 1, the Wälsung twins shuttled around nurses, who were busy embalming the cadavers of fallen heroes into mummies, as if trying to depict a war-ravaged, ungovernable world. The difference in the treatment of human bodies may seem trivial, but the poetic treatment of human bodies as physical or allegorical depictions of something else, in Rheingold, seemed lost. Further, the treatment of human bodies here also seemed forced and unnecessary, as if Kriegenburg mandated himself to use his actors even though the flow of the story did not necessarily require their presence.

In Act 2, a wooden back board would move forwards and backwards, thereby creating an illusion that the proscenium was a view finder that was being zoomed in and out. Whether it was Fricka giving her moral lesson, or Wotan given an impassioned defense, by moving the back board towards the stage apron, this nifty little stagecraft allowed the audience to focus even more on the main narrator. Unfortunately, this trick was simply unused in the rest of the Cycle.

If there was one singular moment in Die Walküre, if not in the entire Ring, when the audience truly anticipated something, it would be the start of Act 3, The Ride of the Valkyries. Here, Ritt was preceded by a four-minute, orchestra-less dance choreography by choreographer Zenta Haerter. Eight pairs of female dancers depicted the eight horses on which the Valkyrie sisters would ride. Dressed in petite metallic-silver uniform jumpers and dark army boots, nobody would accuse costume designer Andrea Schraad of not trying to make this scene interesting. Haerter’s choreography, if anything, boiled with energy. When the dancers slung their hair with a vigorous angular momentum, the imagery of eight wild horses flinging their tails in impatience came to the fore. The problem was with timing and length: with the audience eagerly anticipating Wagner’s Ritt music after the break, a music-less dance that lasted more than four minutes was simply too long. Boos erupted before the dance number finished. Even Nagano released a slight grin, as if he anticipated the booing all along. Sympathetic cheers sounded more like a disapproval of the boos than a genuine expression of excitement. The boos were obviously not for the dancers, but sadly the dancers seemed consumed by the audience’s disappointment. No amount of applauses at their curtain call would reverse that.

Iréne Theorin was a powerful Brünnhilde reeling with suppressed emotions, but her movements on stage often seemed weird or misplaced. (Katarina Dalayman was originally cast for the evening but she was replaced by Theorin close to the date.) Thomas J. Mayer, as Wotan, was a fine singer but struggled to project the lower registers. Sophie Koch’s Fricka convincingly switched between a fearless arbiter of morals and Wotan’s dutiful wife. Koch’s voice was at least a level too small for the role, but she more than compensated with meticulous phrasing and a sensual timbre. Ain Anger’s Hunding stirred calamity through his dramatically intense acting and raging voice. Anja Kampe delivered all her notes as Sieglinde but lacked an aura of warmth and melancholy that usually loomed over this half of the twin. The other half was sung by Klaus Florian Vogt, whose trumpet-like voice was atypical amidst the sea of recorded Siegmunds. Nevertheless, he brought a lot of freshness to the role with his light and ringing tessitura.

The eight Valkyrie sisters, as a whole, were vocally the weak link tonight. Danielle Halbwachs’s Gerhilde misfired her top notes badly, and struggled to find any support at the top. Golda Schultz’s Ortlinde was passable but lacked fire. Okka von der Damerau, as Grimgerde, did not project as much confidence as she did as Flosshilde in Rheingold. The Siegrune and Schwertleite of Roswitha C. Müller and Anaïk Morel, respectively, were the only two outstanding performers of the lot. I place their collective mishaps on the booing audience: while the director disrupted the audience’s typical expectation at the beginning of Act 3, the loud boos could very well have disrupted that of incoming stage performers.

Das Rheingold

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

This year’s Munich Opera Festival features two Ring Cycles. If Francesca Zambello’s American Ring offers to test the audience’s analytical competence by providing a parallel American historical narrative, Andreas Kriegenburg’s production is decidedly more subdued, without any particular inclination to provoke or proselytize (other than an insignificant attempt at it in Götterdämmerung). What remains is a nuanced though not particularly memorable depiction of Wagner’s story.

As audience filed into the National Theatre, even before a note of Wagner was heard, they became aware of roughly a hundred actors on stage, leisurely picnicking in white gowns – perhaps to present a world uncorrupted by the dark powers of the Ring. As the light dimmed and the sound of gurgling water effused from the speakers, the actors stripped to their underwear and started to paint themselves with broad swipes of blue paint. As they slowly moved towards the stage apron, Kent Nagano’s E-flat began to hum from the pit. The music crescendo was matched on stage by the actors miming the waves of the Rhine in rhythmic unison. As the music making became more intense, so was the energy on stage: male-female couples started to frolic in passionate embrace. An actor, whose body was painted in gold and cladded with little else, emerged from the waves of blue human bodies. Also emerged from the waves was Alberich, who broke through the bodies to reach and carry away the golden body. For the rest of the Cycle, Kriegenburg’s concept, if it could be called that, was to deploy human bodies as a descriptive art form, either as mimed physical props (the waves of the Rhine, and the gold), or as metaphorical solutions for abstract problems (the energy of the Rhine’s breaking waves).

In theory, the thesis of using body as an art form was genuinely exciting, not least because Kriegenburg was willing to stay away from the tried-and-true, though somewhat conservative, usage of high-tech and stage gimmickry. In practice, however, some of these depictions were either too frivolous or distracting. When the giants were depicted by the two brothers standing on two cubes, whose volumes were filled with doll workers, the metaphor of two labor managers crushing their sorry subjects in the name of progress was unmistakable. Troubles began when the giants moved about on stage. As the cubes had to be rolled from one facet to another like two rolling dice, the two brothers had to balance themselves like Dumbo on a ball. The friction and resultant noise caused by moving the two cubes, as well as the genuine concern about Dumbo falling onto the stage floor, was a bit too distracting even though the metaphor had its analogical merits. In the Nibelheim scene, workers toiled in the background a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Weak or dying workers were rolled across the stage and thrown into two pits, after which a blow torch would shoot vertically upwards to seemingly depict the reincarnation of Alberich’s worker army. Here, the metaphor had legs, but the movements created so much noise – the blow torch emanated an annoying hissing sound, while the rolling of the dead bodies against the stage floor resulted in more unnecessary noise – that any attempt to focus on the juicy and all-important monologues of Alberich and Wotan became difficult. Even Wolfgang Koch, playing Alberich, seemed visibly disturbed by the randomness of the hissing sound. The list could go on.

Johan Reuter depicted a Wotan who was more angry than furious. As a voice, Reuter came across as subdued and lyrical, but lacked the graininess of a hefty baritone. Koch’s Alberich gushed with a tormented fury, and his rugged voice of untamed anguish only made his portrayal more thoroughly believable. When the Ring was taken away from him in Nibelheim, Koch was properly distraught, thereby setting the inevitable course for the curse and the gods’ demise.

Sophie Koch was dressed as and acted the part of an angry Barbie Doll. Curiously, instead of feeling shame, she expressed a malicious satisfaction when the gold was taken away from the gods by the giants. Vocally, she was perhaps a sliver too light for the role, and her performance often verged towards spitting out rather than delivering her libretto. Stefan Margita was even more magnificent here in Munich than he was in San Francisco a year ago, perhaps because his ringing voice did not have to cut through Runnicles’ overworked orchestra that was so desperate to generate enough sound to fill the War Memorial. In Munich, Margita’s Loge was less calculating and more all-controlling, as if he planned everything all along.

The cerebral, lyric-inclined Kent Nagano did not, on paper, seem to be an ideal Ring conductor, yet he did an admirable job here, perhaps because the sweeping music at the distal ends of Das Rheingold was perhaps Wagner’s most Italianate in the entire Cycle. Fantastic singers made up the trio of Rhinemaidens: Eri Nakamura, Cardiff ’09 finalist, delivered Woglinde’s lines with care and fluidity. Angela Brower, who did a fabulous job as Dorabella earlier this year in Hong Kong, sang a playful and expressive Wellgunde. Okka von der Damerau, as Flosshilde, poured lyrical abundance.