Opera

Berlin Staatsoper/Barenboim: Parsifal

Date: April 2, 2018
Location: Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin.

Amfortas: Lauri Vasar
Gurnemanz: Rene Pape
Parsifal: Andreas Schager
Klingsor: Falk Struckmann
Kundry: Nina Stemme
Titurel: Reinhard Hagen

Staatskapelle Berlin
Staatsopernchor
Konzertchor der Staatsoper Berlin

Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Dmitri Tcherniakov, director

After nearly a decade of renovation, Staatsoper Unter den Linden re-opened its doors last year to the public. The renovation raised the height of the ceiling, resulting in a more imposing proscenium opening and an increase in the house’s cubic volume. The ceiling directly above the orchestra pit, which used to be arched like Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, is now flat. The design change seems deliberate, as if the orchestra is now boxed in its own chamber in contrast to its past, or in contrast to the somewhat reflective, angled opening of Staatsoper in Vienna. The box seems to yield a warm, comfortably reverberated sound that one would typically identify with Musikverein. On either side of the dome are white-colored lattice grills, parametrically designed with classical aesthetics. They are beautiful to look at, unobtrusive, and probably there to hide ventilation systems, acoustic manipulators, and the reverberation chamber that contributes significantly to the house’s warmer sound.

Staatskapelle Berlin on this occasion was nominally staffed, with small strings sections and no obvious doubling of instruments, except harps. Yet when Barenboim’s arms started to flap with resolute vigor, the orchestra responded, and surging sound followed. In the dynamically most intense passages, including the Transformation music and Klingsor’s entrance music, reverberation took hold and gave a golden-hued, blended sound. When Kundry wails in the beginning of Act II, the orchestra soared to the forefront, engulfing almost entirely Nina Stemme’s voice. Here, where wailing was identified as an integral part of the drama, Barenboim deferred to the orchestra, and the grounds of the house shuddered. In more delicate passages, one could easily hear the various delicious timbres of individual instruments. Muted horns sounded deliriously evil and intentionally vulgar, while timpani notes dropped like plump raindrops hitting cold oil drums. Such clarity was revelatory: when Parsifal’s heroic music escalated with urgency, one could hear the ghost of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier arising in the shadows.

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s direction places the drama in contemporary times, with video projections and modern costumes (compare, for example, to his Eugene Onegin for Bolshoi). The Grail knights look after a place of desolation; crumbling walls and frail clothing point perhaps to a post-apocalyptic world. This would be Tcherniakov’s version of our true nature. In plenty other productions, the director would dramatically move stage features and manipulate lighting during the Transformation music. Here, Grail knights stoically file in line and lay out a pile of wooden benches, randomly stacked and visible at one side of the stage, into a communal circle. No other stage movement is visible. No lighting is tampered upon. On the surface of it, the direction seems wanting as it lacks a magical moment to accompany the music that is about to soar to its dramatic (and dynamic) apex. But on deeper thoughts, this makes perfect sense: Wagner never intended the Grail temple to be a part of the natural world; it is man-made, by the brotherhood, to enshrine the Grail. The act whereby the brotherhood moves the benches into a circle not only plays to the notion that the temple is one of human creation, but also highlights some sort of ritualistic formalism innate in the brotherhood. Sure, there is no coup-de-théâtre moment, but Tcherniakov feels, rightly, that such manipulation is unnecessary as he commits to illustrating a deeper meaning – that, if not for any man-made difference, the natural world and our world is really one and the same. This concept is further illustrated in Act II: the physical construct of the production set remains the same, albeit in a shade of perfectly clinical white. Doors, windows, arches and passageways depicted in Act I are still present, albeit now in immaculate condition. Tcherniakov seems to be saying that, in effect, Klingsor’s castle is really the Grail temple, only in a parallel universe, where flower maidens, dressed in primly pressed dresses, are held in captivity. If the natural world is in Act II so bleached as to be discomforting and troubling, Tcherniakov is probably suggesting that the natural world is in Act I so breached by the action of the Grail knights as to be ruinous and destructive. The Grail temple is, in Tcherniakov’s vision, treacherous and damaging to the natural world.

What is there to be redeemed, and by whom? And what is worth redeeming? When Kundry finally dies, by a treachery in this treacherous world (more on that later), Parsifal redeems Kundry simply by bringing her away offstage. The rest onstage is unredeemed. The Grail is love more generally, or Mitleid more specifically. When Parsifal (redeemer) and Kundry (the redeemed) finally leave the treachery behind, the drama suddenly corroborates not only with their final predicament but, crucially, also with the Schopenhauerian instincts innate in Wagner’s work. Here, Tcherniakov’s presentation of Parsifal is unusual yet, at its core, faithful to the design and philosophy driving it.

Andreas Schager, in the title role, set ablaze with a trumpet-like voice with searing penetration. At “Erlöse, rette mich…Händen!”, Schager brought the drama to a swaggering high watermark. Nina Stemme provided lush nourishing lines as Kundry. While Wagner is known to leave Kundry awkwardly on stage for extended periods, Stemme made the best of her stage time by interacting timely with the flow of the drama. The best example is during Gurnemanz’s monologue: as the Grail leader re-tells Amfortas’ plight, she would slowly walk down stage and be revealed to Gurnemanz’s audience just as her name is called. Stemme’s portrayal of Kundry as less of a vamp and more of a natural being capable of Mitleid (e.g. careful folding of Amfortas’ clothes) made her character more human, and perhaps more identifiable as deserving of a final redemption. Lauri Vasar made impact dramatically as Amfortas but his voice carried little gravitas – whether due to vocal limitation or conscious stage direction, his performance is perhaps an alternative way for Tcherniakov to highlight the fallacy of a redeemable Amfortas. Vocally, Rene Pape nurtured his lines with natural beauty and clarity. His character is most revealing in Tcherniakov’s vision: one who longs for a natural world would end up stabbing Kundry; in a way, he has assisted her in finding redemption through death. Amfortas, Gurnemanz and the rest of the Grail knights are left in the status quo – a state of perpetual suffering – the sort of state defining all of us who are incapable to fathom, much less strive towards, the goal of the Schopenhauerian ideal.

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Opera

Met Opera/Rattle: Tristan und Isolde

Date: October 13, 2016
Location: Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Tristan: Stuart Skelton
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Tony Stevenson
Brangäne: Ekaterina Gubanova
Kurwenal: Carsten Wittmoser
Melot: Neal Cooper
King Marke: René Pape
Shepherd: Alex Richardson
Steerman: David Crawford

Metropolitan Opera
Simon Rattle, conductor
Mariusz Treliński, production

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s epic tale about love and death, returned to the Met after an eight-year hiatus. The previous production, by Dieter Dorn, was as less well-remembered for its lego-colored background as the dynamic duo who propelled the run: Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen. Mariusz Treliński’s new production, premiered earlier this year in Baden-Baden, could well be remembered as much for its dark staging as the stars who lit it: Stuart Skelton, and Nina Stemme.

Treliński’s set was dark – so poorly lit that from the balcony seats one could barely make out the characters if not for the clarity of their voices. Militaristic costumes drowned in a a set painted with objects of grey and rusting metals. The stone-cold setting was made alive, albeit only marginally, by a screen at the back of the stage. As visual narrator in chief, this screen dabbled between genius and (mostly) clichés. For example, a crosshair radar was projected early on to reveal and enforce the place of action, even though the set was clearly one of a ship’s deck. While Isolde lamented Morold’s death, the screen offered to flash back the murder in utmost physical brutality, as if the grief in her voice alone would not suffice. Act 2’s start was cued by an impressive feat of stagecraft, where the entire stage spun about 180 degrees to reveal a Starship Enterprise-like structure, from which Tristan and Isolde professed love to one another. But the movements were so labored and long that the voice seemed secondary to the theatrical development. These sorts of visual narrative walked the fine line between enhancement and unnecessary distraction, and here, even if the visual cues were not found to be overwhelmingly clichéd, they could at times be distracting to the musical presentation.

Nina Stemme is a convincing Wagnerian heroine not least because of her vocal power, reliability and unbound stamina, but because that power and reliability allow her to focus a great deal of her attention on her theatrical acting, which proves time and again to be immersive and efficacious. Treliński’s staging did not provide a great deal for her to work on, due mainly to its plainness and darkness, but that did not seem to deter her: she clearly relished the opportunity to focus singularly on Tristan. Each twitching of her eye brows and each hypnotic glance towards Tristan seemed to unveil a great deal about the sort of Isolde that she wanted us to believe: as Tristan started to peel away the initial bitterness of Isolde’s lifeless armor, passion would resonate to the core. Vocally, her output flowed naturally like a gentle Alpine stream that sounded fresh, even after four hours and onwards to Liebestod. Her voice beamed with cinematic detail and heartfelt passion. Unlike many of Stemme’s contemporaries who relied on an outrageous, hedonistic build up towards and during Liebestod, to the point where the voice could be too excessively loud but lacking a sense of place and purpose, Stemme submitted something that was sublime, with nourished phrasings, crisp diction and a voice that found peace amidst all the commotion and ultimately the inevitable death. At the musical cue where Isoldes of the past simply died or left the stage, she rested her head gently onto the shoulder of Tristan sitting by her side, as though the pair has found eternal love in a manner where death no longer matters. Here, Treliński’s direction was brilliant and savvy, where he clearly reacted to the metaphysical implication without being excessively directorial.

Stuart Skelton, heard this year as Siegmund in Hong Kong, portrayed a soldier with a deep sense of loyalty and a deeper sense for love. Stemme clearly found protective and warm comfort next to the towering and muscular body of Skelton. Skelton presented a springy, agile voice that nevertheless sounded nursed and delicate. From the beginning, he did not show an inkling of restraint, even inside the Met’s gigantic hollow. That perhaps explained why he sounded tired and slightly hoarse towards the end (the high notes in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben” was audibly overparted), but that was not entirely unexpected of a dutiful Tristan who gave everything from the beginning till the very end.

René Pape presented one of the finest King Markes I have ever witnessed: a dignified character whose charity at the end shaded with paternal kindness. Vocally, Pape was sensitive with his words and phrasings, but, as stentorian a bass as he reliably has been, seemed a bit off in production volume this evening. Ekaterina Gubanova offered a fiery portrayal of Brangäne, and arguably was more spectacular vocally and dramatically than she was in Berlin back in June. Simon Rattle’s reading of the score was not as hypnotic as Karajan’s. Nor was his as dramatically surging as Böhm’s. But what Rattle gifted  us was intimate and delicate. If one cuts any random 10-second snippet from the evening, one would find great balance and perfect legato. Over four hours, Rattle did not seem to offer any particularly personal or definitive ideas. If there was nothing here that could point to a Rattle-ian identity, there must be something genuine and genius, with his modesty in not imposing his own color, and in allowing the singers to shine and Wagner’s music to speak for itself.

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in Tristan und Isolde, New York. Photo credit: Met Opera.

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Opera

Met Opera/Smelkov: Boris Godunov

Date: October 30, 2010 (matinee)
Conductor: Pavel Smelkov
Production: Peter Stein / Stephen Wadsworth
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

For all its Tsarist grandeur and the gravity of its history, Boris Godunov is not the most accessible of operas, at least to me, and is only made less so by plenty of low-register, narrative bass singing, in the Russian language no less, and typically in a dimly lit production that would last nearly 5 hours.

This Boris production does not impart the kind of visual pomposity that one would generally expect from the opera, but it compensates with an effective communication of ideas. For example, the central metaphor of this Stein/Wadsworth production is a human-sized book of history that sits on stage-left, and is meant to reveal Pimen’s version of historical events as juxtaposed in the opera. In one scene, Tsar Boris wrapped himself in the pages of the book, as if foretelling that, for all the limitless power he had as the Tsar, he was merely an object embroiled in the workings of fate – a pawn of history held captive by history’s inevitable moving forces. As another example, the Fool, who practically serves as a narrator of conscience and an arbiter of morality, is a literary creation removed from the actual history of Boris Godunov. Stein/Wadsworth uses a spot lighting atop the character, as if to separate this literary creation from the pawns of history. As yet another example, the Tsar’s throne often faces stage left, instead of towards the audience, as if to say that the audience was observing the unfolding of history from the sidelines, framed in a way that focused not merely on the facts of history (the fight for the seat of power) but also the sentimental turmoil surrounding it (what goes on behind the scenes).

Pavel Smelkov conducted a masterly performance that held together a gigantic orchestra and a massive chorus for a better part of this matinee performance. His Russian strokes were broad and sweeping, as if to dramatize the gravity of this episode’s place in Russian history. The romantic tinge in some of the big orchestral numbers formed a nice musical counterpoint to the porcelain-like delicacy of the several Russian folk songs. Smelkov managed the great bells scene at the end of the prologue with authority and clarity, and paced his way with a slow crescendo as the chorus procession moved into the cathedral.

Boris Godunov was sung by Rene Pape, who projected a physically imposing but mentally wrecked ruler of Russia. His Boris was, in fact, so sentimental and vulnerable as to demand sympathy from the audience. His death scene at the end was a poignant display of paternal affection and a commendable piece of poised acting. Vocally, Pape delivered his low registers with secure aplomb, and discharged Boris’ extremely difficult high notes with such effortless ease that would make any bass-baritone or baritone envious. Vladimir Ognovenko’s Varlaam provided the day’s only comedic relief, as his drunken character slowly revealed the secrets of Dimitri. His singing, however, did not match his acting as his vocal buildup that would foreshadow the outing of Dimitri was more like a big truck running out of gas than a coupe dashing towards the chequered flag.

Male alto Jonathan Makepeace’s performance as Feodor was an anomaly. His voice was a work of unadulterated beauty – and his singing showed – but dramatically he seemed confused on stage and never sure where next to move. Mikhail Petrenko’s Pimen was a work of vocal wonder. As he charted the history of Russia, his sturdy bass lines provided precisely the sort of religious/regal vitality upon which the unfolding of the rest of the opera anchored. The raw earthiness and sincerity in his timbre gave context to his pious character. Ekaterina Semenchuk provided a scheming portrayal of Marina, and sang with a dark, syrupy voice and a confident top tessitura. Aleksandrs Antonenko as Dimitri/Grigory had a formidable voice with ringing top notes. Andrey Popov’s Fool started weakly but recovered to sing with much conviction and confidence.

To be sure, this production was dimly lit and was still sung in Russian, and of course, some stage work was just too simplistic (for example, I found the monastery, portrayed simply by an archway on one side of the stage, not properly described, even as the monastery bells started to ring). Yet, it was the fantastic singing and genuine acting that made the five hours of performance, despite its flaws, an enjoyable one.

Rene Pape, in Boris Godunov

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