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.

Siegfried — first reaction

Date: July 29, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

The location is East Berlin, but it bears few linkages, if any, to Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. One of the more important linkages is Brünnhilde’s rock, which physically links the last three operas together. In Die Walküre two days ago, the rock was represented by a video of Brünnhilde resting in a bedroom and a ring of fire not remotely connected to that video — the separation already a questionable choice all by itself. Tonight, Brünnhilde’s rock was a physical log pile underneath the socialist Mount Rushmore. The lack of linkage all but proves with no uncertainty my earlier assumption that each of these operas tells an episode of different histories whose characters just happen to play out story lines in parallel to those of Wagner’s Ring.

Unless director Frank Castorf did not bother to do his homework by watching recordings of past productions, he seems intent to let go of a few important dramatic devices typical in previous productions, one of which is Notung’s slashing of something big and significant at the end of the forging scene — “so schneidet Siegfrieds Schwert!”. Nothing broke at all tonight — in fact, Siegfried did not even attempt to swing or flaunt his newly forged sword at all. In another off-script curiosity, Fafner was killed not by Notung, but by gun fire, whose obscenely loud noise, enabled by what smelled like real gunpowder, not only drowned out the orchestra but also disturbed a few in the audience so much so that one near Door IV Recht had to be assisted out. Some dramatic devices in Act 3 were so absurd that I wasn’t sure if the director was trying to mock the somewhat incestuous relationship between Brünnhilde and Siegfried; or to mock Wagnerians’ typical expectation that the end of the act was supposed to be innocent and beautiful; or, worse, to mock the composer himself.

Vocally, Burkhard Ulrich sang all the notes and acted his part, but fundamentally I don’t think he has the right tonal quality, i.e. an exaggerated, mischievous voice, for the menacing role of Mime. Catherine Foster sounded quite fresh and exhilarating, but I found her at times struggling, at least facially if not also tonally, while attempting Brünnhilde’s top notes. Lance Ryan, who is notoriously known to cakewalk the role of Siegfried without reservation, was uncharacteristically weak in Act 1, sounding quite constricted in vocal output, especially next to Ulrich’s booming voice. But from Act 2 onward Ryan blossomed, and even out-sang Foster on several occasions, both in volume and in their duet’s various self-imposed fermatas.

After the final curtain was down, sustained loud boos ensued: the crowd seemed eager to pass on their unanimous verdict, unified, in part, by the execution of some outrageously dubious dramatic devices at the end of Act 3. After the performance and on my way down the Green Hill, I learned a new word in German from people around me while looking at their fuming faces and listening to their raised speech tone, without asking anyone what it means or consulting a dictionary. The word? Furchtbar.

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.

Das Rheingold — first reaction

Date: July 26, 2013
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

Frank Castorf’s concept is about the quest for oil, and Valhalla seems to be the profit-at-all-cost American oil corporation. The Gods are essentially Texas oil-riggers and/or those who benefit from the mining of black gold. Nibelheim is not so much a physical place as a metaphorical representation of oil profiteering. I shall withhold judgment regarding the production until the end of the cycle, but suffice to say, the production value (in terms of carpentry and overall craftsmanship) is exquisite. Everything from a road-side grocery store to a small road sign is meticulously made and spot on. In that sense, this production, set along America’s Route 66, is extremely visual, and perhaps a bit too visually stimulating. Some of these visual placements seem erroneous, including a sign that says “Wi-Fi here” when the rest of the set seems to point to an era before the dawn of computing. The use of live camera feeds, projected onto a large billboard-like screen on top of the set, reveals Castorf’s desire to give a different point of view to the Ring experience. As stage actors are filmed and projected onto the screen even though they are not singing or belong to that particular moment in libretto, some of these live camera feeds emanate the feel of reality TV a la Big Brother. The orchestra sounded small but compact, as I would expect from Bayreuth’s sunken pit. Maestro Kirill Petrenko seemed more willing to play with dynamics and speed, especially in the orchestral transitions — in a sense, more Furtwängler than Solti.