Opera

Die Frau ohne Schatten

Date: July 3, 2014
Location: Nationaltheater, Munich.

The Emperor: Johan Botha
The Empress: Adrianne Pieczonka
The Nurse: Deborah Polaski
Der Geisterbote: Sebastian Holecek
Barak: John Lundgren
Dyer’s Wife: Elena Pankratova

Bavarian State Opera
Sebastian Weigle, conductor
Krzysztof Warlikowski, director

One of the highlights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival is the return of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, which debuted in Munich in November 2013 under the baton of Kirill Petrenko.

Warlikowski’s celestial action is set in a psychiatric ward, where characters are either employees or patients. Barak’s mundane world is set in a laundry room, perhaps part of the ward complex. Because both worlds occupy the same stage space, Warlikowski deftly uses an elevator shaft to whisk characters between the two worlds, thereby facilitating the transfiguration scene changes. This device reminds us of the dream elevator that takes passengers onto different dream levels in Inception, the Hollywood film. In Act III, Keikobad’s Temple is depicted as a crisis stabilization unit with a warden manning patient records and determining whether those who get wheeled-in need to be “secured”. While the Empress waits outside, the Nurse acts as if she is a real nurse in the procession, imploring the Empress to play ball and not getting herself declared insane. But by the Empress’ final awakening, the Nurse gets escorted away in a straight-jacket and “secured”. As it seems to suggest, proper humanity in Warlikowski’s vision is not so kind on the mentally disturbed.

Some visuals worked wonders, including the earthquake scene when projections helped to effectuate a collapsing world at the end of Act II. Others, such as the projection of Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, Batman and Buddha, suggested Warlikowski’s vision of humanity but looked corny and incomplete at best (a flipping slideshow with a broader representation could have been better, if silly). Projecting five minutes of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad at the beginning of the opera, before one note was played, brought some context to the psychiatric ward experiment: that even though all the evaluation criteria on the surface of Die Frau is objective (a shadow), the evaluation process itself is purely psychological. Nevertheless, by not having any music in the first five minutes, when everyone in the audience expects some, the audience is reminded of another non-traditional production in Munich not too long ago: the beginning of Act III of Die Walküre, which invited plenty of boos and little to cheer for.

Strauss’ music is meant to be enjoyed not on CD but in an opera house, because Strauss’ sound needs space to expand and flourish. Here, the Bavarian State Opera blossomed. At hand to conduct was Sebastian Weigle, who took over the podium from Petrenko because Munich’s music director had rehearsal duties in Bayreuth. The orchestra sounded with military precision, almost exploding in a sort of disciplined violence during the earthquake music. The sound was golden throughout, but especially noticeable during the renunciation, when Weigle seemed ready to hasten the tempo ever so slightly to catalyze a rapturous finish. Throughout the night the brass was in top form, shimmering in a glow of power and luxury. The trombones, when depicting Barak, uttered with high fidelity and persuasion in particular. String tremolos, in the water of life music, brimmed with sensuality and sensitivity, while reminding everyone that the opera is ultimately a cornerstone exposition of Romanticism. The ending, not dissimilar to the Faustian ending to Mahler’s Eighth, erupted with majesty and purpose. Of note was the eerily mesmerizing sound of a glass harmonica, in the beautiful passage just before the Emperor came back to life in Act III. The glass harmonica, placed in the box closest to downstage right, was lit with a golden glow, and seemed ready to pronounce the settlement of the opera’s end.

Most of the principal singers were exceptional. Johan Botha’s Kaiser sounded bright and radiant, while Deborah Polaski’s Nurse effused with immense emotion and rage. As an actress, Polaski was so nauseating as, perfectly so, to be anti-human and bound for purgatory. Yet, none compared with the immeasurable Elena Pankratova, whose voice, as Dyer’s Wife, displayed skillful finesse and plenty of power to carry over the orchestra. As the drama progressed, the contrast between a thunderous maniac and a tender wife was plainly evident, in terms of Pankratova’s vocal beauty and dramatic intonation.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Elena Pankratova in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

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Opera

Götterdämmerung — first reaction

Date: July 31, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

As I walked down the Green Hill, I heard from numerous people from the audience that this particular performance will likely go down in history as the one that received the longest boos in Bayreuth ever, bar none. The displeasure, mostly aimed at director Frank Castorf, lasted nearly 15 minutes. A lady sitting one row behind me, a septuagenarian who said this was her 20th Ring production, said she has never booed in her previous nineteen but felt compelled to do so this time around.

Here is a truncated list of things that would irritate most Wagnerians: there was no rope in the Norn scene at all, not even anything remotely analogical or symbolic in nature. When the rope broke per the libretto, there was no visual cue whatsoever. Even the Norns seemed unconcerned by its breakage, a most significant turning point in the Norn scene. Hagen spat water a la voodoo witchcraft, in remotely tangential reference to Alberich’s curse. Notung did not even make a stage entrance at all this evening, nor did Grane. The funeral pyre was wimpy for the gigantic set. And amidst all these, save for a few oil barrels, where was the connection to the quest for oil, which seemed such an alluring concept at the beginning of Das Rheingold but became dead in the water towards the end of Götterdämmerung?

Castorf seems to set each evening of the Ring in different situations, each barely related to the other, so much so that any linkage to a prior evening’s event became inevitably broken. For example, Brünnhilde’s rock was three entirely different conceptions in each of the evenings. So was the Rhine. So was Valhalla. In the Ring, because everything is very intricately related to each other via leitmotifs, Castorf’s concept of severing the relationship between the evenings becomes a dangerous proposition in front of a Wagner-manic audience. His signature theatrical devices, including spitting, videos, film references etc., could be visually stimulating, but also distracting in the context of concurrent singing and orchestration. In my view, the best dramatic design Castorf could muster in four days, soon after Hagen’s battle cry, was to have a supernumerary drop a cart of potatoes down a flight of stairs, in tribute to Eisenstein’s revolution scene in Battleship Potemkin. But everybody in Bayreuth already knew that Hagen was about to incite a revolt of sorts, and the Eisenstein reference, while making ridiculous noise on stage and distracting visuals (imagine dozens of potatoes tumbling down a flight of stairs in the middle of the stage), did very little to improve the drama on stage. Castorf was showing off his intellectual knowledge, but for all the wrong reasons.

Singing-wise, Catherine Foster had an outstanding night. She never yelled and had great breath control throughout the evening. More importantly, I think she really embodied the psyche of Götter Brünnhilde — one of dismay, pensiveness, and ultimately determination. Her voice, with a good mix of human frailty but godly security, reminded me of a late-career Gwyneth Jones, who would take calculated but never uncovered risks. Lance Ryan probably still sounded better than most living Siegfrieds, but compared with what I heard in Shanghai in 2010 and again in Münich in 2012, he sounded more aged and tired, especially towards the end, possibly because he barely had any rest between his Siegfried at the Proms and his Bayreuth Siegfried. The rest of the cast was solid, except Attila Jun’s Hagen, whose voice was slightly too lyrical and small for the role. In the end, I don’t think anyone will remember this bicentennial cycle by its singing, except perhaps Botha as Siegmund and Kampe as Sieglinde. The focus, to be forever etched into Bayreuth’s collective memory, would be why a DDR-born director, often lauded for his forward-thinking and uncompromising theatrical concepts, got fifteen minutes of backside whooping, and would likely stand to receive more had the festival staff not turned on the lights inside the Festspielhaus and hurried everyone off it.

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Opera

Die Walküre — first reaction

Date: July 27, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

The visuals for Die Walküre were tamer, probably due to the whole story now set in a bleak hinterland in Azerbaijan (according to programme notes). The characters, formerly dressed in colorful all-American gear, are now in drab Caucasus fashion. As fashion changes, the characters also don’t seem to transfer from Das Rheingold to Die Walküre, as if each opera tells an episode of different histories whose characters just happen to play out story lines that are parallel to those of the Ring.

In terms of singing, Johan Botha proved to be the star of the evening. Botha’s voice was golden, searing with brightness and clarity. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde seemed to have some difficulty at the beginning, including a botched entrance near “Der Manner Sippe…” and a slight tendency to scream when trying to hit top notes from above (when she ascended from her mid tessitura she sounded just fine). Otherwise, Kampe was fiesty and fiery, both vocally and dramatically. When Siegmund was killed by Hunding, Kampe’s Sieglinde exerted a heart-achingly chilly cry, at roof-shattering decibels, that I believe shocked even the most seasoned Wagnerians. Catherine Foster, as Brünnhilde, was a little bit of a letdown. Foster shrieked her way out of some top notes, but more fatally, didn’t sound like she has inhabited the role. Claudia Mahnke, as Fricka, found much better vocal support and projection tonight than last night — her voice portrayed someone with sensitivity and self-esteem, exactly how I would imagine someone in Fricka’s position to be. Maestro Petrenko started rather slowly, sped up towards the end of Act I, and maintained a steady pace till the end.
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