Guillaume Tell

Date: July 6, 2014
Location: Nationaltheater, Munich.

Guillaume Tell: Michael Volle
Arnold Melcthal: Bryan Hymel
Walter Furst: Goran Jurić
Melcthal: Christoph Stephinger
Jemmy: Evgeniya Sotnikova
Gesler: Günther Groissböck
Rodolphe: Kevin Conners
Ruodi: Enea Scala
Leuthold: Christian Rieger
Mathilde: Erika Grimaldi
Hedwige: Jennifer Johnston

Bavarian State Opera
Dan Ettinger, conductor
Antú Romero Nunes, director

Guillaume Tell seems to be enjoying a mini renaissance after years of neglect (outside of Pesaro anyways). New productions have popped up recently in Amsterdam, Liège and Torino, and more new ones will be staged in Cardiff, Graz, Monte Carlo and Covent Garden. Part of it is due to the Florez-led revival of Rossini appreciation, but part of it is simply a matter of time: a tragic overdue.

Florez, as good as he has been in Rossini roles, would have no business in Rossini’s last opera. The major tenor role here, Arnold, belongs to a heavier lyrical voice, delivered in Munich majestically by Bryan Hymel, who is fashioning himself as the go-to person for French grand operas, having recently done Robert in Robert le diable and then Aeneas in Les Troyens. Between his Aeneas in 2012 and now, Hymel’s French diction has improved remarkably. With Asile héréditaire, he brought down the house with incredible breath control, fiery output, and pulsating pacing. More importantly, he delivered not with voix mixte but with a full and punchy voice.

The set, by Antú Romero Nunes, has nearly nothing other than enormous tubular pipes that descend, spin and angle to assemble into shapes, in a stage concept not unlike Robert Lepage’s Ring at the Met. For example, in the militarization scene, the pipes would descend and present themselves as though they are gun barrels. In Altdorf, the chapel is depicted with pipes angled at each other, as if presenting themselves as two slanting sides of a chapel roof. Trees in the forest are depicted with plenty of the pipes floating sturdily in midair. The difference here is that, unlike Lepage’s concoction, the pipes are not treacherous walking hazards. Nor are they making crackling noises that inhibit listening. In other words, the pipes are not so obtrusive as to affect the listening experience; it is simply a way, albeit an expensive one, to define a set and make an impression.

As Jemmy, Evgeniya Sotnikova was fine, sweet and persuasive. Michael Volle, in the eponymous role, was fine dramatically but couldn’t muster enough tonal color and lyrical beauty to be a truly great Rossini singer. More problematically, his voice often disappeared in the ensemble. Erika Grimaldi sang with sweet expressiveness in Matilde’s aria Sombre forêt, or rather Selva opaca – she was flown in as a last minute replacement for the indisposed Marina Rebeka and could only sing the opera in Italian (she is currently singing the Hapsburg princess in Graham Vick’s production in Torino). Dan Ettinger was a steady hand and delivered what Rossini promised: dramatic grandeur and joyous bliss. Some overt massaging of the score was done: the overture, instead of being played at the beginning, was moved to after the intermission, before which much of Act III has already been done and up to the shooting of the apple. However, in some perverted ways, this rearrangement worked, as the pulsating Swiss Soldiers March served to provide a cliff-hanger of a drama to the apple shooting scene. It also provided some context to the fascinating composition, which heretofore was relegated as an inconsequential show piece. Traditionalists be damned.

The production turns out to be a dark and cynical take on the idyllic themes of love, family, liberty and country. Act I comes with no dances, as would be expected from this Rossini opera. The showy grandeur and Schiller’s emphasis of nature seem coolly assailed by the listless roboticism of the tubes. Yet somehow the sheer presence of the gigantic tubes defines the scale of the opera without the need for an elaborate set and/or a show-stopping dance scene. Equally, the destructive nature of the tubes serves somehow to highlight an important theme in Schiller’s omen: that of the unpredictable and destructive power of the political man. In that respect, as perverse as it may seem, Nunes and Munich found an interestingly workable formula.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

Guillaume Tell. Photo credit: Bayerische Staatsoper.

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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.

Anja Harteros recital

Date: June 30, 2014
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

Soprano: Anja Harteros
Piano: Wolfram Rieger

This evening, Anja Harteros displayed technical brilliance and artistic grace in the Nationaltheater, in a technically demanding lieder program of Schubert and Brahms. Her lines were well prepared and thoughtfully presented, with clear diction and warm phrasing. One of the endearing qualities of Harteros’ singing is a reserved modesty where the diva, projecting no particular vocal mannerism, always plays healthy subservience to the composer and the music. Her emotions were not pretentious but real, while all notes dropped in perfection and simple harmony with blinding accuracy. In Schubert’s An den Mond (D.193) in particular, Harteros released a tremendous sense of sadness, puncturing an air of warmth built up after a couple of love songs. In Nacht und Träume (D.827), she created a timeless space, almost devoid of oxygen and breath, that virtually no audience dared to provoke. In An die Musik and Seligkeit, two of four encores, she committed her phrasings with a relaxed, yet wholesome expressiveness. Even though her phrasing could be accused of being at times too clean and clinical, she made up with finesse and earnestness. In all honesty and seriousness, her voice seems slightly too operatic for lieder, but one wonders whether that is actually the case or simply the reality of having to sing in a 2000-seat opera house. That this is neither Wigmore Hall nor Schwarzenberg should not be lost on the audience when judging her timbre and output. (That being said, Prinzregententheater could surely have been a slightly better venue?) Wolfram Rieger, the gold standard of accompaniment, voiced the instrument with clarity and singular pleasure. He would match Harteros’ singing point by point, ready to assert as an equal partner but never intent to outshine. Rieger’s control of the tempo and dynamic was instinctive, creating enough contrast to entice but not provoke. Meanwhile, his pedaling work was sublime, and tempered the month-long, fist-pumping opera festival with a delicate evening of Hochkunst.

Anja Harteros and Wolfram Rieger in Munich. June 30.

Anja Harteros and Wolfram Rieger in Munich. June 30.

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.

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.