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 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.