Opera

Opera HK/Schaefer: Der fliegende Holländer

Date: October 10, 2013
Conductor: Henrik Schaefer
Production: Adolf Dresen (Volker Böhm revival), with Opera Hong Kong
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

One of the most crucial, albeit brief, moments in Holländer is the back and forth between the Steersmen chorus and the ghost chorus, because it represents the tension between the living and the dead. In this Opera Hong Kong revival of Adolf Dresen’s Düsseldorf production, the ghost chorus was presented via taped recording, leaving the Steersmen chorus singing towards an empty upstage. Dramatically it may not be unreasonable – who can claim that ghosts are visible, if existent at all, anyway – but by using a taped recording rather than a live chorus, the Opera Hong Kong producers (meaning Warren Mok, OHK’s honcho) not only neutered one of Wagner’s dramatic arsenals of the dueling choruses but watered down the opera’s central theme: the archetypal struggle between life and death.

Adolf Dresen’s production was simple and traditional – Act I opened with Daland’s ship parked on stage right. As Steersmen left the scene and the lone watcher fell asleep, Dutchman’s ship slowly rolled in from stage left. Redly lit from within the hull through a metal grid deck, the boat was where The Dutchman entered the stage to the tune of his haunting motif. The rest of the opera revolved mostly around these two ships, save for Act II where ladies spun wheels in what seems like a cotton factory. When The Dutchman finally received his salvation, the ghost ship collapsed in a series of folding mechanical action, not unlike a pirate ship mutilating itself in Disneyland’s water fountain showcase. The set was simple, but mostly conducive to the telling of the opera.

Jukka Rasilainen sounded perfectly fine as The Dutchman but was a relative bore on stage. His visage’s lifelessness seemed to translate onto his voice, especially in “Die frist ist um”. As he reminisced about his longing for death (“doch ach! den Tod, ich fand ihn nicht!”), when he should have been delirious, he sounded like a disinterested math professor reciting passages from a combinatorics textbook. Rasilainen’s Dutchman did not sound like someone who has toughened himself through years of wandering at sea. If he was anxiously trying to communicate a yearning for redemption, neither his visage nor his voice revealed much of that. Manuela Uhl’s Senta was ungrateful to life but found its meaning and destiny when her eyes first met The Dutchman. Her portrayal of this longing was entirely believable. Vocally, she was careful, though slightly too risk averse, in her Act II ballad, but threw everything on the table in her suicidal cries in the finale. Tomislav Mužek’s Erik was smooth and metallic. The voice of Carsten Süss’s lone Steersman was squeaky in his Act I aria, but flourished in his brief outputs in Act III. Liang Ning struggled at times to produce adequate output at Mary’s low tessitura, but seemed to relish her time on stage. Kurt Rydl’s Daland was the vocal standout of the evening – he sounded stentorian but alive, and portrayed a father who was more opportunistic than genuinely evil. His Daland was the morbid Dutchman’s living, breathing antithesis. Compared with past performances, the chorus of the Opera Hong Kong gave everything they could and then some, and sounded better than ever. Yet the men could use more support at tenor, while the women could be more in unison, especially in phrases starting with hissing syllables.

Henrik Schaefer was seen trying very hard at times to squeeze more dramatic action out of the Hong Kong Philharmonic, but the orchestra remained timid and tame – more Lucerne than Baltic if you will. The weak link was not Wagner’s brass, as most would imagine, but upper strings and woodwinds, which sounded like they were playing mood music for a Hollywood movie than for Wagner’s musical drama. In the Overture, for example, motifs from the woodwinds (fate, longing for death etc.) were often buried in a lush sea of supporting harmonic structures rather than standing out on their own. Upper strings often felt thin and under-powered – perhaps the orchestra was simply not used to playing in the pits and unnecessarily tuned down their output upon seemingly hearing themselves too much. If this performance served as any guide, the orchestra surely has much to improve before their fateful date with the Savonlinna voices in Hong Kong Arts Festival’s Lohengrin next year.

The Flying Dutchman in Hong Kong.

The Flying Dutchman in Hong Kong.

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Opera

Bayreuth/Petrenko: Götterdämmerung

Date: July 31, 2013 (first of three Cycles)
Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Frank Castorf
Location: Festspielhaus, Bayreuth.

As I walked down the Green Hill, I heard from numerous people from the audience that this particular performance will likely go down in history as the one that received the longest boos in Bayreuth ever, bar none. The displeasure, mostly aimed at director Frank Castorf, lasted nearly 15 minutes. A lady sitting one row behind me, a septuagenarian who said this was her 20th Ring production, said she has never booed in her previous nineteen but felt compelled to do so this time around.

Here is a truncated list of things that would irritate most Wagnerians: there was no rope in the Norn scene at all, not even anything remotely analogical or symbolic in nature. When the rope broke per the libretto, there was no visual cue whatsoever. Even the Norns seemed unconcerned by its breakage, a most significant turning point in the Norn scene. Hagen spat water a la voodoo witchcraft, in remotely tangential reference to Alberich’s curse. Notung did not even make a stage entrance at all this evening, nor did Grane. The funeral pyre was wimpy for the gigantic set. And amidst all these, save for a few oil barrels, where was the connection to the quest for oil, which seemed such an alluring concept at the beginning of Das Rheingold but became dead in the water towards the end of Götterdämmerung?

Castorf seems to set each evening of the Ring in different situations, each barely related to the other, so much so that any linkage to a prior evening’s event became inevitably broken. For example, Brünnhilde’s rock was three entirely different conceptions in each of the evenings. So was the Rhine. So was Valhalla. In the Ring, because everything is very intricately related to each other via leitmotifs, Castorf’s concept of severing the relationship between the evenings becomes a dangerous proposition in front of a Wagner-manic audience. His signature theatrical devices, including spitting, videos, film references etc., could be visually stimulating, but also distracting in the context of concurrent singing and orchestration. In my view, the best dramatic design Castorf could muster in four days, soon after Hagen’s battle cry, was to have a supernumerary drop a cart of potatoes down a flight of stairs, in tribute to Eisenstein’s revolution scene in Battleship Potemkin. But everybody in Bayreuth already knew that Hagen was about to incite a revolt of sorts, and the Eisenstein reference, while making ridiculous noise on stage and distracting visuals (imagine dozens of potatoes tumbling down a flight of stairs in the middle of the stage), did very little to improve the drama on stage. Castorf was showing off his intellectual knowledge, but for all the wrong reasons.

Singing-wise, Catherine Foster had an outstanding night. She never yelled and had great breath control throughout the evening. More importantly, I think she really embodied the psyche of Götter Brünnhilde — one of dismay, pensiveness, and ultimately determination. Her voice, with a good mix of human frailty but godly security, reminded me of a late-career Gwyneth Jones, who would take calculated but never uncovered risks. Lance Ryan probably still sounded better than most living Siegfrieds, but compared with what I heard in Shanghai in 2010 and again in Münich in 2012, he sounded more aged and tired, especially towards the end, possibly because he barely had any rest between his Siegfried at the Proms and his Bayreuth Siegfried. The rest of the cast was solid, except Attila Jun’s Hagen, whose voice was slightly too lyrical and small for the role. In the end, I don’t think anyone will remember this bicentennial cycle by its singing, except perhaps Botha as Siegmund and Kampe as Sieglinde. The focus, to be forever etched into Bayreuth’s collective memory, would be why a DDR-born director, often lauded for his forward-thinking and uncompromising theatrical concepts, got fifteen minutes of backside whooping, and would likely stand to receive more had the festival staff not turned on the lights inside the Festspielhaus and hurried everyone off it.

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Opera

Bayreuth/Petrenko: Siegfried

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.

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Opera

Bayreuth/Petrenko: Die Walküre

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.
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Opera

Bayreuth/Petrenko: Das Rheingold

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.

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Opera

Bayerische Staatsoper/Nagano: Die Walküre

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

If Andreas Kriegenburg laid the foundation for his Ring concept in Das Rheingold, this Walküre did not so much dismantle it as it did perverse its original cohesion. If in Rheingold human bodies were props for innate objects or metaphorical depictions of abstractions, human bodies were depicted here simply as human bodies.

In Act 1, the Wälsung twins shuttled around nurses, who were busy embalming the cadavers of fallen heroes into mummies, as if trying to depict a war-ravaged, ungovernable world. The difference in the treatment of human bodies may seem trivial, but the poetic treatment of human bodies as physical or allegorical depictions of something else, in Rheingold, seemed lost. Further, the treatment of human bodies here also seemed forced and unnecessary, as if Kriegenburg mandated himself to use his actors even though the flow of the story did not necessarily require their presence.

In Act 2, a wooden back board would move forwards and backwards, thereby creating an illusion that the proscenium was a view finder that was being zoomed in and out. Whether it was Fricka giving her moral lesson, or Wotan given an impassioned defense, by moving the back board towards the stage apron, this nifty little stagecraft allowed the audience to focus even more on the main narrator. Unfortunately, this trick was simply unused in the rest of the Cycle.

If there was one singular moment in Die Walküre, if not in the entire Ring, when the audience truly anticipated something, it would be the start of Act 3, The Ride of the Valkyries. Here, Ritt was preceded by a four-minute, orchestra-less dance choreography by choreographer Zenta Haerter. Eight pairs of female dancers depicted the eight horses on which the Valkyrie sisters would ride. Dressed in petite metallic-silver uniform jumpers and dark army boots, nobody would accuse costume designer Andrea Schraad of not trying to make this scene interesting. Haerter’s choreography, if anything, boiled with energy. When the dancers slung their hair with a vigorous angular momentum, the imagery of eight wild horses flinging their tails in impatience came to the fore. The problem was with timing and length: with the audience eagerly anticipating Wagner’s Ritt music after the break, a music-less dance that lasted more than four minutes was simply too long. Boos erupted before the dance number finished. Even Nagano released a slight grin, as if he anticipated the booing all along. Sympathetic cheers sounded more like a disapproval of the boos than a genuine expression of excitement. The boos were obviously not for the dancers, but sadly the dancers seemed consumed by the audience’s disappointment. No amount of applauses at their curtain call would reverse that.

Iréne Theorin was a powerful Brünnhilde reeling with suppressed emotions, but her movements on stage often seemed weird or misplaced. (Katarina Dalayman was originally cast for the evening but she was replaced by Theorin close to the date.) Thomas J. Mayer, as Wotan, was a fine singer but struggled to project the lower registers. Sophie Koch’s Fricka convincingly switched between a fearless arbiter of morals and Wotan’s dutiful wife. Koch’s voice was at least a level too small for the role, but she more than compensated with meticulous phrasing and a sensual timbre. Ain Anger’s Hunding stirred calamity through his dramatically intense acting and raging voice. Anja Kampe delivered all her notes as Sieglinde but lacked an aura of warmth and melancholy that usually loomed over this half of the twin. The other half was sung by Klaus Florian Vogt, whose trumpet-like voice was atypical amidst the sea of recorded Siegmunds. Nevertheless, he brought a lot of freshness to the role with his light and ringing tessitura.

The eight Valkyrie sisters, as a whole, were vocally the weak link tonight. Danielle Halbwachs’s Gerhilde misfired her top notes badly, and struggled to find any support at the top. Golda Schultz’s Ortlinde was passable but lacked fire. Okka von der Damerau, as Grimgerde, did not project as much confidence as she did as Flosshilde in Rheingold. The Siegrune and Schwertleite of Roswitha C. Müller and Anaïk Morel, respectively, were the only two outstanding performers of the lot. I place their collective mishaps on the booing audience: while the director disrupted the audience’s typical expectation at the beginning of Act 3, the loud boos could very well have disrupted that of incoming stage performers.

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Opera

Bayerische Staatsoper/Nagano: Das Rheingold

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

This year’s Munich Opera Festival features two Ring Cycles. If Francesca Zambello’s American Ring offers to test the audience’s analytical competence by providing a parallel American historical narrative, Andreas Kriegenburg’s production is decidedly more subdued, without any particular inclination to provoke or proselytize (other than an insignificant attempt at it in Götterdämmerung). What remains is a nuanced though not particularly memorable depiction of Wagner’s story.

As audience filed into the National Theatre, even before a note of Wagner was heard, they became aware of roughly a hundred actors on stage, leisurely picnicking in white gowns – perhaps to present a world uncorrupted by the dark powers of the Ring. As the light dimmed and the sound of gurgling water effused from the speakers, the actors stripped to their underwear and started to paint themselves with broad swipes of blue paint. As they slowly moved towards the stage apron, Kent Nagano’s E-flat began to hum from the pit. The music crescendo was matched on stage by the actors miming the waves of the Rhine in rhythmic unison. As the music making became more intense, so was the energy on stage: male-female couples started to frolic in passionate embrace. An actor, whose body was painted in gold and cladded with little else, emerged from the waves of blue human bodies. Also emerged from the waves was Alberich, who broke through the bodies to reach and carry away the golden body. For the rest of the Cycle, Kriegenburg’s concept, if it could be called that, was to deploy human bodies as a descriptive art form, either as mimed physical props (the waves of the Rhine, and the gold), or as metaphorical solutions for abstract problems (the energy of the Rhine’s breaking waves).

In theory, the thesis of using body as an art form was genuinely exciting, not least because Kriegenburg was willing to stay away from the tried-and-true, though somewhat conservative, usage of high-tech and stage gimmickry. In practice, however, some of these depictions were either too frivolous or distracting. When the giants were depicted by the two brothers standing on two cubes, whose volumes were filled with doll workers, the metaphor of two labor managers crushing their sorry subjects in the name of progress was unmistakable. Troubles began when the giants moved about on stage. As the cubes had to be rolled from one facet to another like two rolling dice, the two brothers had to balance themselves like Dumbo on a ball. The friction and resultant noise caused by moving the two cubes, as well as the genuine concern about Dumbo falling onto the stage floor, was a bit too distracting even though the metaphor had its analogical merits. In the Nibelheim scene, workers toiled in the background a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Weak or dying workers were rolled across the stage and thrown into two pits, after which a blow torch would shoot vertically upwards to seemingly depict the reincarnation of Alberich’s worker army. Here, the metaphor had legs, but the movements created so much noise – the blow torch emanated an annoying hissing sound, while the rolling of the dead bodies against the stage floor resulted in more unnecessary noise – that any attempt to focus on the juicy and all-important monologues of Alberich and Wotan became difficult. Even Wolfgang Koch, playing Alberich, seemed visibly disturbed by the randomness of the hissing sound. The list could go on.

Johan Reuter depicted a Wotan who was more angry than furious. As a voice, Reuter came across as subdued and lyrical, but lacked the graininess of a hefty baritone. Koch’s Alberich gushed with a tormented fury, and his rugged voice of untamed anguish only made his portrayal more thoroughly believable. When the Ring was taken away from him in Nibelheim, Koch was properly distraught, thereby setting the inevitable course for the curse and the gods’ demise.

Sophie Koch was dressed as and acted the part of an angry Barbie Doll. Curiously, instead of feeling shame, she expressed a malicious satisfaction when the gold was taken away from the gods by the giants. Vocally, she was perhaps a sliver too light for the role, and her performance often verged towards spitting out rather than delivering her libretto. Stefan Margita was even more magnificent here in Munich than he was in San Francisco a year ago, perhaps because his ringing voice did not have to cut through Runnicles’ overworked orchestra that was so desperate to generate enough sound to fill the War Memorial. In Munich, Margita’s Loge was less calculating and more all-controlling, as if he planned everything all along.

The cerebral, lyric-inclined Kent Nagano did not, on paper, seem to be an ideal Ring conductor, yet he did an admirable job here, perhaps because the sweeping music at the distal ends of Das Rheingold was perhaps Wagner’s most Italianate in the entire Cycle. Fantastic singers made up the trio of Rhinemaidens: Eri Nakamura, Cardiff ’09 finalist, delivered Woglinde’s lines with care and fluidity. Angela Brower, who did a fabulous job as Dorabella earlier this year in Hong Kong, sang a playful and expressive Wellgunde. Okka von der Damerau, as Flosshilde, poured lyrical abundance.

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