Staatskapelle Dresden/Thielemann

Date: February 27 and 28, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

February 27
Strauss – Metamorphosen, Study for 23 Solo Strings
Bruckner – Symphony No. 9 in D minor

February 28
Liszt – Orpheus, Symphonic Poem No. 4
Wagner – Siegfried-Idyll
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40

Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

Christian Thielemann must be having a ball of his life. As Chief Conductor of the Staatskapelle, he also presides over its annual residence at the glittery Salzburg Easter Festival, as well as the annual season of Staatsoper Dresden, the house of Strauss. Perhaps no other job in this universe offers such panoply of orchestral, festival and operatic opportunities, not to mention Thielemann’s relative, and well documented, free reign at the position. With the control of his empire in Dresden secure, it is perhaps not surprising to see him not eagerly (at least not overtly) seeking Berlin’s vacancy, perhaps the most venerable (even if inevitably overrated) conducting job in all of classical music. What Thielemann has offered in two evenings of concerts in Hong Kong shows his deep commitment to continental music and Dresden’s famously golden-hued sound, but leaves the audience wondering if Der Kaiser has the temperament and passion for a wider, more versatile repertoire.

With Bruckner, Staatskapelle Dresden came out sounding exactly as expected: warm strings, rounded brass, crisp woodwinds. The brass crescendo in the opening bars consumed the space with saintly dignity. At the first drawn out D en tutti, one could feel the walls of the concert hall shaking and the lights fickly dangling onto the ceiling above. But alas, at the slower passages, especially at the first Langsamer passage, the balance of the strings ran amok, with the supportive but delicate phrases of the second violins engulfed completely by the melodic lines of the first violins and the eager resonance of the basses. The legato horn passages, supposedly intended to introduce a nobler composure on top of the strings, did just the opposite: sounding nervous in tone and languid in tune, they instead drew attention and unwanted annoyance away from Bruckner’s melodic commitment. The Scherzo was more interesting, with the playful strings creating a suspenseful opening, echoed resolutely by the brass and percussion in the reply section. Excellent woodwind solos lightened up the spirit, but by the mid-point of the Adagio, there was this feeling that the orchestra was tired and no longer fully committed to the proceedings. Orchestral balance on the whole was adequate but lacked conversational power, solos were precise but offered very little individual expressiveness. Ensemble seemed well coordinated but sounded rather mechanical. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the concert, but herein lies the problem: with so much going on in Bruckner’s score, Thielemann seemed content to unfold the entirety of it without having anything interesting to say.

Ein Heldenleben, Richard Strauss’ 1898 tone poem, came off a lot better, with sharp commitment and ascending energy levels just as the hero’s life is unveiled. In the big forte sections, it was easy to forget about tonal quality and rhythmic precision, but the Dresden musicians here were attentive and alert. The solo violin, depicting the hero’s lady, turned its short passages into sweet depictions of tenderly and flirtatious love. The gigantic brass passages reminded us of Beethoven’s most glorious, which was exactly what Strauss intended to mimic here. As the hero’s life comes to an end and the music slows down, a metaphorical ring of the glorious yesteryear could still be heard in the audience’s collective psyche. Barely a few minutes into the Strauss, details and textures abound, and one could sense a brilliant ensemble at work and a genius at the helm. Dynamics over the entire piece found eruptive pleasures, while the dying passages found solemn dignity. The subject matter was heroic, but it was unmistakable that the evening was the work of an ensemble of skilled human beings. In two evenings of concerts, two orchestras wrestled for the audience’s love, and it was clear which orchestra won.

Despite the lethargic lapses in the Bruckner, Staatskapelle Dresden gave a fairly representative showcase of its trademarked continental sound. The fiery and festive Ein Heldenleben was only bested momentarily by an encore of Lohengrin’s Act III prelude, which was definitive. Thielemann, with modest but effective movements, was an understated, subtle conductor. But such subtlety, together with Thielemann’s somewhat wooden visage, can be misconstrued as a lack of passion for and connection to the score. Also, with a world-class outfit such as Staatskapelle Dresden, it would be convenient for one to believe that, even if untrue, the ensemble conducts itself. Germans may fall left and right to have another German to lead the Berliners, but if Thielemann ever wanted the position, he needs to offer more.

Thielemann and Staatskapelle Dresden at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Thielemann and Staatskapelle Dresden at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

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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.

Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra

Date: February 18, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

The 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival swung to a fantastic start with help by the Cologne musicians and maestro Markus Stenz. The evening was headlined by Sabine Meyer, who mechanized a rather bland Mozart clarinet concerto K.622. Meyer’s performance was not particularly objectionable, but neither was it particularly memorable. After the interval, the 100-strong Cologne wolf-pack filled the stage (by my count, five dozen strings, three dozen winds, six percussions, two harps and two keyboards) to deliver a jaw-dropping rendition of Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Another dozen or so wind players were offstage to perform the short but juicy hunter motif.

While the piece has subtle references to Strauss’ own Der Rosenkavalier and Wagner’s Parsifal, the symphony’s chief driving force is its programme: in twenty-two sections, the piece describes ascent to and descent from the Alpine peak. Along the way are thickets of rich forests, glaciers, brooks, mists and a gigantic storm. Doing homework prior to the concert has its rewards: while some music would seem like cinematic music (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the rest points to intricate details about nature: when woodwinds glide through their arpeggios, one could sense the motion of a virginal spring brook meandering away from the Alpine glacier. When brass starts to pounce, a raving storm is unmistakably at hand. Even without prior knowledge of Strauss’ programmatic focus, much enjoyment could be had by watching the musicians work through passages of glorious music. Watching the percussionist accelerating his arms to ratchet the wind machine, during the symphony’s storm section, was singularly the most dramatic (and wild!) experience one could enjoy inside an enclosed concert hall. Warm brass basked cuddly warmth and a yolky hue onto the meadows of lush strings. Cologne’s overall playing painted a sprawling Alpine dreamscape where movements evolved naturally, not hurried. Equally, Stenz was the consummate leader who unified the sound from over a hundred musicians into coherent scenes with precision and detail.

With the Strauss, nothing was short of superlative. But two encores that followed were a revelation altogether: the Vorspiel to Act III of Lohengrin, followed by a voice-less Walkürenritt in Die Walküre. Both beamed with regal luxury and breathed with furious detail – so much so that no evidence of exhaustion due to one hour of Strauss playing was left to trace. (Then again, a serious opera orchestra like Cologne would have gone through more than one hour (or two!) of intense Wagnerian grind by the time these two Act III gems are played: see my Cologne Ring review here.) Their playing was so fresh and detailed that it would not be entirely inappropriate to call it a master-class of Wagnerian musicianship. The Hong Kong Philharmonic shall take note. It was nevertheless a pity that the Cultural Centre’s main organ, a Rieger Orgelbau, was unused in the Strauss; a smaller and less impressive one on stage was used instead, allegedly because the Rieger could not be tuned appropriately to Cologne’s slightly higher concert pitch.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong, with Markus Stenz. (Copyright: Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra)

Capriccio

Date: April 19, 2011
Conductor: Andrew Davis
Production: John Cox, with no intermission
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Two changes were made to this season’s revival of Strauss’s final opera: a simpler set, and the jettisoning of the intermission. Mauro Pagano’s 18th century rococo set, first created for the Met in the late 90s, was face-lifted to reflect a more practical society in the early 20th century. The opulent and florid ornamentations gave way to a simpler design that put focus squarely on the actors on stage. Props were kept to a minimum, with three main areas providing vital functions to the flow of the libretto: the harpsichord/harp area, a lounge area featuring a set of Portugese canapes, and a large tuffet which the Countess used extensively in the final scene. By maximizing the usage of these areas, John Cox managed to deliver a fluid performance with no intermission, just as Strauss intended.

Renee Fleming was ebullient and dramatically very convincing as the Countess. Her voice and vocalism were sublime, while her dynamic range was controlled and flattering. She spent much of her final scene wrapped around the tuffet, as if seeking anchoring resolution to a storm of grave indecision. Her evening’s performance was nearly perfect, although that final scene was sung with smudges of choppiness that seemed to break apart rather than connect the beautiful phrasings of Strauss’s lines. Russell Braun delivered a confident Olivier with an aura of matter-of-fact inevitability. His dramatic counterpart, Joseph Kaiser, conveyed a sweet but serious Flamand. Kaiser exhibited a nurtured voice, and was dynamically a perfect match to Fleming’s Countess. Sarah Connolly’s Clairon demanded attention without looking overt or offensive, sort of a dramatic antithesis to Peter Rose’s La Roche – an obnoxious, towering figure who tried to suck up all the attention while behaving in the most overt and self-serving manner. In that respect, both singers played their role faithfully and convincingly. Barry Banks, as the Italian tenor, had a sweet, lyrical voice with a very secure upper line. His duet with Olga Makarina, as the Italian soprano, provided the comedic high point of the evening, as the two juggled for vocal and dramatic supremacy while effusing this unmistakably Tom-and-Jerry playfulness. The dancing by Laura Feig and Eric Otto was crisp and functional. Conductor Andrew Davis led a sumptuous orchestra and delivered the all-important Straussian chords towards the end with luscious warmth, though I found his pace at times slower than I would desire.

Costume designer Robert Perdziola made new costumes for Fleming: for her first entrance, she wore a blue gown instead of the dubiously shaded green gown worn in the season premiere. Heavy-handed camera equipment was also present – most probably rehearsing for the upcoming HD broadcast.

Renee Fleming, in Capriccio, in that gown in a dubiously shade of green.

Renee Fleming, in Capriccio, in that gown with a dubiously shade of green. Photo courtesy of Ken Howard/Met.