Friday, 30 September 2011

No Exit from the Wiener Staatsoper’s Don Giovanni


Adam Plachetka | Don Giovanni
Myrtò Papatanasiu | Donna Anna
Pavol Breslik | Don Ottavio
Dinara Alieva | Donna Elvira
Alex Esposito | Leporello
Albert Dohmen | Commendatore
Tae Joong Yang | Masetto
Anita Hartig | Zerlina

Patrick Lange | Conductor
Jean-Louis Martinoty | Director

Marked improvement would be putting it too strongly, but over the last month Staatsoper rep nights have been more consistent in quality than is generally the case. Ian Storey’s Bacchus has been the only casting disaster and the orchestra is sounding a lot more focused than usual. Even some Viennese critics known for checking in their ears at the Garderobe have at times been reliable witnesses.

Plachetka publicity shot with
um, monogrammed shirt cuffs
While I was braced for all this to come crashing down to earth at some point or other, it was hard to endure the awfulness of Sunday’s Don Giovanni. Youthful Einspringer Adam Plachetka (replacing Bo Skovhus as the Don) was the only singer who didn’t contribute to the Schlamperei pile-up. His aggressive take on the role is watchable enough if lacking in insights, though should they come I imagine his will be a Don worth watching out for in the not so distant future. ‘Là ci darem’ was never going to sound tender and expressive with a bass-baritone this intense and dark, but control was impressive and he kept up admirably with Patrick Lange’s punishing tempo in the champagne aria.

It goes swiftly downhill from here. Pavol Breslik: what the hell happened in ‘Dalla sua pace’? The tempo was brisk enough that he shouldn’t have repeatedly run out of breath towards the ends of phrases, the tone sounding strangled and thin. Myrtò Papatanasiu’s robust soprano and wide vibrato harangued too forcefully; top notes were disturbingly sharp and phrases got flattened. Dinara Alieva’s Elvira sounded constrained and her reading of ‘Ah, chi mi dice mai’ one of the driest I’ve heard. Albert Dohmen’s Commendatore projected much better this time around (he was in the premiere cast last year), but shame about the mangled Italian on incipits as elementary, not to mention famous, as ‘a cenar teco m’invitasti’. Anita Hartig and Tae Joong Yang gave competent but undistinguished performances. Alex Esposito was trying too hard as Leporello: his catalogue aria had a lot of strange vocal inflections and acting was insufferably stagy.

None of this was helped by Jean-Louis Martinoty’s production, which has revived appallingly. Its dramaturgical pretensions long withered away, all that remains is a string of inanities that doesn’t even compare favourably with what the Austrians call Bauerntheater, or incompetent am dram staged in a barn. During the dinner scene Leporello prances around the stage wearing the Don’s pheasant as a codpiece, his hips bobbing like a pigeon. Masetto’s response to Zerlina’s ‘where does it hurt?’ is to point to his groin. It seems more of a saving grace that these two moments could be reconstructed from the Regiebuch when you see the crap acting elsewhere: Donna Anna throwing her umbrella to the ground, the Commendatore kicking the Don, Masetto’s hair-pulling in ‘Batti, batti’.

But I'm sure the orchestra was all right, I hear you ask. Not really. There was some decent playing, but they didn't adjust well to Patrick Lange’s tempi and ensemble never felt secure. Pit and singers were often not together, and balance was poorly-judged (the mandolin in ‘Deh, vieni’ was inaudible). For all the blame that can be placed at Lange’s door, the Staatsopernorchester ought to know this score well enough to compensate.

Image credit Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Falstaff: a play extempore

Wiener Staatsoper, 24/09/2011

Ambrogio Maestri | Falstaff
Marco Caria | Ford
Ho-yoon Chung | Fenton
Ildikó Raimondi | Alice Ford
Sylvia Schwartz | Nannetta
Marie-Nicole Lemieux | Mrs. Quickly
Michael Roider | Dr. Cajus
Herwig Pecoraro | Bardolfo
Janusz Monarcha | Pistola
Nadia Krasteva | Meg Page

Alain Altinoglu | Conductor
Marco Arturo Marelli | Director

This Falstaff isn’t much different from the other harmlessly superficial Marelli productions I’ve seen – four or five of those being enough to observe how effectively his fitfully amusing brand of charm can cover up ideas thrown together on a whim. A huge sewage pipe runs into the Garter Inn, to take just one example that shouldn’t be interrogated too closely for signs of critique  it’s only there for the wry smile that comes when Ambrogio Maestri, arms outstretched and grinning like an ass, stands in it to proclaim ‘Quest'è il mio regno’ (this is my kingdom). 

Bryn Terfel, this production's first Falstaff
When the Inn is lowered below stage its planked roof becomes a bare set for Ford’s house scenes (played as a lively comedy of errors) and Falstaff’s humbling at Windsor Park (relocated to a Scandinavian fir forest with visiting KKK delegation). The Klan look faintly ridiculous as they rattle kitchen knives and barbecue forks, which is perhaps for the best, if not Marelli’s intention. I can live without seeing Falstaff poked and prodded, but something more imaginative could have been done than having him amble lamely around the stage, tied up in fibre-optic tubing. The final scene is staged as a riotous party with the cast holding up coloured letters that spell out, predictably, ‘Tutto nel mondo è burla’ (all the world's a joke).

Those looking for a darker Falstaff would not be satisfied with Ambrogio Maestri’s lovable rogue, but his character acting is solid and the sense of an Epicurean good life settled into without regrets communicated with deft touches. His baritone lacks lustre but cuts through the orchestra clearly enough, and in the upper reaches the tone is surprisingly resonant. Of the women, Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Quickly stole the show, the ‘Reverenza’ gag in the music always a pleasure to hear in her burnished contralto. Ildikó Raimondi’s sharp-witted Alice didn’t find much of a match in Marco Caria, whose delivery of ‘È sogno o realtà’ was so stiff that his upstaging by the stage elevator reveal of Falstaff’s Malvolian seduction costume came as a blessed relief. Sylvia Schwartz doesn’t have a big voice, but paired with Ho-yoon Chung’s light tenor she sounded fine.

Ensemble posed some problems: Bardolfo and Pistola’s mock-contrapuntal Amen was a mess and it was hard to get a handle on the notes being sung in the garbled quartets, quintets and final fugue. Rising star Alain Altinoglu kept much better control of the orchestra, which sounded crisp and buoyant. But he could have done more. The pit was half-Philharmoniker (Altinoglu = Dominique Meyer’s BFF?) and unusually willing to co-operate. If Franz Welser-Möst can make the most of that opportunity, is there an excuse for anyone else not to?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Turn of the Screw

Theater an der Wien, 17/09/2011

Nikolai Schukoff The Prologue / Peter Quint
Sally Matthews | The Governess
Ann Murray | Mrs Grose
Jennifer Larmore | Miss Jessel
Eleanor Burke | Flora
Teddy Favre-Gilly | Miles

Cornelius Meister | Conductor
Robert Carsen | Director

Robert Carsen has had a couple of rocky rides at the Staatsoper but with recent successes at the Theater an der Wien is now apparently beloved by the Viennese. Some people I spoke to at the second performance of this Turn of the Screw had been to the opening night and didn’t have a bad word to say about this production; critics were equally fulsome in their praise. I wasn’t so convinced.

Carsen presses forward in fits and starts: action is busy and moves along slickly but scene changes are frequent and long, spilling over from the interludes and stripping the plot of narrative momentum. A solid black portal just behind the proscenium arch covers the stage, irising in and out to frame the set, though the effect wasn’t as claustrophobic as Carsen perhaps imagined and it was irritating that he opened and closed it while singers were in mid-phrase. The cinematic aesthetic is rounded off with grey sets and a great deal of video projection which forces much of the singing offstage, like the journey to Bly, which shows a filmed governess in a fast-moving train ripped off from Jonathan Kent’s Glyndebourne production. This was a terrible idea as Sally Matthews can’t act very well for camera and was barely audible from behind the wings.

If this sounds unusually inept for Carsen it’s possibly because this is his first production in charge of light and scenic design. Whatever the reason, he certainly seems to have been left with little time to devise a Konzept that coheres. The basic idea is Freudian and only evident in three scenes. Seeing Quint outside the window the Governess touches up her hair and er, cheekily rearranges her skirt, though after flirting with the ghost she rather abruptly decides to be terrified by it. This rather clumsily signposts Quint’s nocturnal call to Miles in Act I scene 8, which is staged as a wish fulfilment dream sequence with the Governess writhing in one of Carsen’s huge verticalized centrestage beds, overlaid by a video projection of her lost in NC-17 rapture with Quint. They are seen by Miles (this coincides with his ‘I'm here’ in the music) but somehow manage to explain their actions, and indeed continue – for some length – once he has left. While the editing suggests that Quint’s offstage call to Miles is a call to observe, in the film itself Quint shows no interest in the boy. ‘Miles! What are you doing here?’ is staged as Miles rousing the Governess out of her bed. He seems to know what she was dreaming about, but the subtext is unclear. He could be playing games, but traumatised peeping tom – surely a bit tame for this opera – is suggested more strongly.

Whatever the meaning of this scene, the ghosts are now firmly lodged inside the Governess’s head and start making physical apparitions, moving into the house for Act II scene 1 (‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned’). The Governess sits unseen in an armchair turned away from the audience, staggering out of it, and her bad daydream, as the ghosts leave. A second coup de théâtre comes with the segue directly into the Governess’s labyrinth number.

This, strangely, is where the Konzept is dropped. No further reference is made to the dream and no follow-through is suggested by the Personenregie. Radical re-imaginings aren’t Carsen’s style, but he did stage the prologue as a seminar and show us, in the dream sequence, some ideas heavily influenced by Otto Rank’s theories on narcissism and literary doubles*, so some kind of development or more elegant juncture at which to leave things open-ended might have been expected.

The singing was generally not as solid as in the recent Glyndebourne broadcast. I liked Sally Matthews’s Donna Anna in the Wiener Staatsoper’s Don Giovanni, but found her less memorable in A Child of Our Time at the Konzerthaus last November. Here much of the text got swallowed by a persistent wobble in her upper register, and top notes were shrill. Veteran Ann Murray’s wobble was only slightly steadier, and her revelations in Act I scene 5 lacked impact. My expectations weren’t high for the children, and a solid ‘Malo’ from Teddy Favre-Gilly aside, they only just met them. Eleanor Burke sang ‘the Dead Sea’ with a big wide smile on her face and must have had the most gleeful possession seen in a staging of this opera, but then stranger things have happened to this work in Vienna. Carsen doesn’t give Miss Jessell much stage time, but Jennifer Larmore made the most of it and was the more disturbing presence of the ghosts.

Quint is hard to read in this production. There’s the erotic dream with no outward sign of irregularity; in the following scene he sulks shirtless on top of Miles’s piano. Too much of the time he’s kept offstage, and the Quint-Governess dynamic is given a far more prominent dramatic arc than Quint-Miles. It was a shame that Nikolai Schukoff’s performance was so hampered by the staging, as this was a Quint I would happily hear again. He sung powerfully and clearly in unaccented English, and though there’s a little way to go with interpretation he’s more than mastered the part.

The performance was led by Cornelius Meister, a young German conductor whose phenomenal musicianship – not words I use lightly – has made RSO Wien concerts unmissable events over the past season (his first as their Chefdirigent). Immediacy of expression was never a problem with this orchestra, its musicians used to the indignity of playing as if their jobs depend on it. But Meister has focused the sound, adding greater precision, depth, and textural clarity. All of this was evident in the pit on Saturday; of course ‘Malo’ has to sound pared down to very little, but there was a fullness of tone elsewhere (particularly the strings in the journey and lesson scenes) which gave the impression of more substantial instrumental forces. Having observed Meister in April picking up a soloist’s left-field tempo change without so much as dropping a beat, I knew that coordination between the pit and singers wouldn’t be a problem. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was in fact flawless, but then I go to the Wiener Staatsoper a lot and don’t often get spoiled with such precision.

*‘So, then, we see primitive narcissism as that in which the libidinous interests and those serving self-preservation are concentrated upon the ego with equal intensity, and which in the same way protect against a series of threats by reactions directed against the complete annihilation of the ego, or else toward its damage and impairment. [...] That it is actually primitive narcissism which resists the threat is shown quite clearly by the reactions in which we see the threatened narcissism assert itself with heightened intensity: whether it be in the form of pathological self-love [...] or in the defensive form of the pathological fear of one's self, often leading to paranoid insanity and appearing personified in the pursuing shadow, mirror-image, or double. On the other hand, in the same phenomena of defence the threat also recurs, against which the individual want to protect and assert himself. So it happens that the double, who personified narcissistic self-love, becomes an unequivocal rival in sexual love; or else, originally created as a wish-defence against a dreaded eternal destruction, he reappears in superstition as the messenger of death.’ From The Double: a Psychoanalytic Study.

Image credit Theater an der Wien / Wilfried Hösl

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Dominique Meyer, Lösungsfinder

Wiener Staatsoper Publikumsgespräch, 17/09/2011
This morning Staatsoperdirektor Dominique Meyer spoke to the masses, which for the Wiener Staatsoper consists mostly of hard done by society ladies disgruntled at not getting Parterre seats for the Thielemann Ring.

There isn’t much to report: for the gullible, Meyer was peddling that old one about only ‘gekaufte Karten’ accounting for record-breaking ticket sales last season (98.33% of total capacity and 99.7% for opera). Regiekarten (comps) used to be free, but a few years ago the Staatsoper introduced a small charge – last time I spoke to an insider this was a mere €9 [edit: as of this September, it's €15] – and now disingenuously claims these as legitimate sales.

The Staatsoper’s new web app will go live in a couple of months and you will be able to order your programme online (what is so complicated about buying it before the performance I don’t understand). An online archive of all performances since 1900 will also be introduced, and I hope it will be as easily searchable and well-designed as this database on the Konzerthaus website. Meyer was looking over in my direction as he announced that it was up to us to notify the Staatsoper of errors; funny, as the archive will rely on information from a book which I know to be riddled with them.

In foreign news, the Wiener Philharmoniker’s annual visit to Carnegie Hall will be extended to a full week in 2014. Programmes will include Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, Strauss, Berg, and Schoenberg. The WPO will perform as the Staatsopernorchester for concert performances of Fidelio, Salome, and Wozzeck. No news on casting for that. The Staatsoper is also planning Gastspiele in Moscow and other cities.

Questions from the floor were insufferable, and in one case, offensive. ‘You aren’t doing enough to promote young Austrian singers’ was phrased in a tone of voice that barely concealed the ugly subtext of there being too many dirty foreigners in the ensemble. There was a gentleman who thought that a second-hand Traviata was bad enough, but one that had been broadcast on television, unthinkable. Meyer responded that keeping it in-house would have cost five times more than a co-production, and economising on Traviata freed up enough cash to splash some new paint on four repertory relics. I'm not convinced by the five times more or refurbishing rather than retiring superannuated productions, but whatever. Oh yes, and the ticket thing. ‘When we announced that Thielemann would conduct the Ring, over 8000 people applied for 2300 tickets.’ ‘Then why not have three or four Rings?’ (Seriously).

Answering these questions, Meyer cast himself as the guy forced to implement imperfect solutions. Taking up predecessor Ioan Holender’s habit of complaining about revenue, he argued that his hands are tied due to a government subsidy that hasn’t been raised in sixteen years. This might wash were the Staatsoper not so relaxed about the grey market in ticket sales. The Met has its premium seats, but the Staatsoper freely gives away tickets to agencies in the full knowledge that certain performances will sell at a ridiculously inflated mark up. Meyer also reaffirmed his commitment – again, not a cigarette paper between him and Holender here – to forty-five operas per season.

Meyer is an avuncular figure who knows how to flatter the Viennese. But rather than charming them into accepting fresh leadership, this morning he seemed at pains only to prove how well he had been house-trained.

Image credit APA / Roland Schlager

Robert Carsen beds down in Vienna

The Theater an der Wien's Turn of the Screw premiered on Wednesday to some very good reviews; I'm seeing it tonight. Looking through these photos, I was unsurprised to learn that Robert Carsen wasn't satisfied with just the one bedroom scene (Act II scene 4, image above is surely Act II scene 5) . 

My Carsen bedspotting so far includes his Aix Semele (seen at ENO), Aix Midsummer Night's Dream (alas seen only on the 2005 Liceu DVD), and Theater an der Wien Dialogues des Carmélites (premiered La Scala). And now this:

Big centrestage bed and a dream sequence. Am curious about this.

Usually Carsen's beds could stand more symbolic significance, but this seems to be heading quite boldly in the direction of sexual metanarrative. Apparently there is a similar scene in his Frau ohne Schatten at the Wiener Staatsoper (being revived next March).

Many more photos after the jump. For cast details see here.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Theater an der Wien Eröffnungskonzert

Theater an der Wien, 13/09/2011

Tobias Moretti, Karl Markovics, Michael Maertens, Christine Schäfer
Klangforum Wien, Michael Boder

Stravinsky: Histoire du Soldat (in German)
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21

‘Namedropping vom Feinsten’. Thus reported tabloid Österreich, somewhat breathlessly, about ‘die drei großen „Ms“ der Schauspielkunst’ on the bill at Tuesday night’s Theater an der Wien season opener. Karl Markovics, who starred in Die Fälscher and the altogether more questionable Mahler auf der Couch (playing Freud), is the only name likely to register outside of Austria. Tobias Moretti and Michael Maertens are both experienced Burgtheater regulars in a town where that means something. The three Ms acted the life out of the speaking parts in The Soldier’s Tale and, as much as I love the Burgtheater, left me longing for jobbing actors who wouldn’t have drawn so much attention from the music. I had to double-check that Michael Maertens wasn’t playing Lucky in the Burgtheater’s upcoming Waiting for Godot, so jumpy and bizarrely-voiced was his devil in disguise. Tobias Moretti should have been advised in rehearsal that speaking over the music does not require wildly erratic Sprechstimme. Markovics’ soldier was more bearable, but the sense remained of all three stealing the show and reducing the score to incidental music.

Conductor Michael Boder was the model of Stravinskian passivity, beating time precisely and at the indicated speed, and presumably hoping the music would take care of itself (to paraphrase Robert Craft). There was some strong cornet playing from an instrument which looked and sounded as if it had been sourced from the Concentus Musicus Wien, and the Grand Chorale had depth. But while the Klangforum Wien never turns in a bad performance, the playing elsewhere was workmanlike and the Danse du diable failed to make much of an impression.

Pierrot Lunaire was a quite different tale. I fear it will be some time before I hear this score performed again with such perception and apparent ease. Two solos that are difficult to play well deserve to be singled out: cello in the Serenade and flute in Der kranke Mond. Small details were equally absorbing, including the ex nihilo opening to Nacht, the balance achieved in Eine blasse Wäscherin, and the perfectly synchronised decay of the pizzicato arpeggio passed between cello and violin in Heimfahrt, as if plucked by the same steady finger. Painstaking attention was paid to Schoenberg’s markings and their extreme demands: I strained to hear the flute’s triplet figure in Der kranke Mond, which is as it should be (Schoenberg marks this pppp); it was brought out only slightly more prominently when recalled in Enthauptung. Michael Boder’s conducting was much less metrical than in the Stravinsky, and while I suspect that nearly all of the ideas came from the musicians he did nothing to get in the way. He could, however, have insisted that the pauses between the movements – stipulated with Mahlerian exactitude in the score – be observed.
The excellence of the playing distracted me from Christine Schäfer, who was very good despite a feeling of déjà vu that set in halfway through Colombine. This was an unmistakeable carbon copy of her acclaimed Pierrot committed to disc with Boulez and the Ensemble intercontemporain. There is no reason why Pierrot Lunaire should not work in the Theater an der Wien, particularly given the clarity of Schäfer’s Sprechstimme, but the recalibration required for a theatre acoustic was completely lacking and the intimacy of that recording didn’t transfer well. Schäfer’s is one of the few competent Pierrots around, but playing it safe made this performance a lot less compelling than it could have been. 
Image credit VBW / Paul Ott

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Unverwandelte Ariadne

Camilla Nylund and Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Wiener Staatsoper, 12/09/2011

Alexander Pereira | Der Haushofmeister
Sophie Koch | Der Komponist
Ian Storey | Der Tenor (Bacchus)
Daniela Fally | Zerbinetta
Camilla Nylund | Primadonna (Ariadne)
Jochen Schmeckenbecher | Ein Musiklehrer
Herwig Pecoraro | Ein Tanzmeister
Clemens Unterreiner | Harlekin
Peter Jelosits | Scaramuccio
Wolfgang Bankl | Truffaldin
Benjamin Bruns | Brighella
Ileana Tonca | Najade
Juliette Mars | Dryade
Elisabeta Marin | Echo

Jeffrey Tate | Conductor
Filippo Sanjust | Director

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

I actually went to see this twice for no particular reason, except that I won’t get to hear another note of Strauss until Daphne in December (not really counting the Volksoper’s Salome here). It wasn’t all bad, but with each viewing – and it’s only my fourth time in total – Filippo Sanjust’s unenlightening production gets progressively harder to endure, with the grandeur of the sets now quite at odds with a general state of sodium-lit shabbiness. Gibt es kein Hinüber für diese Inszenierung, Herr Meyer? For insights into the lack of thought see here and here. I can’t add much, preoccupied as my mind was with pressing questions such as but why, supposedly seconds before curtain up, does the Primadonna take her place on stage wearing a Ziegfeld Follies feather headdress, only to appear in the opera proper wearing the more Ariadne-appropriate attire of a billowing bathsheet?

Having shaken off those ridiculous feathers, Camilla Nylund proved a capable Ariadne. Top notes were a little vibrato-heavy and there’s only just enough vocal power there, but she had a way of sustaining a note and supporting a phrase – something I haven’t heard from her before – that was effective in ‘Ein Schönes war’. Daniela Fally’s coloratura is remarkably clean and powerful, and her Zerbinetta is well on its way to slipping convincingly between giddiness and introspection. Not quite there yet, but a performance to watch out for. Ian Storey’s Bacchus was an unmitigated disaster on the first night. Opening phrases were marked, indeed barely audible. So it’s a wretched part and Bacchus practically has to start singing by the front door of the Hotel Sacher in this production, but still; could Circe have heard him? I doubt it. He never really eased into the run, but was less reluctant to unpack his Heldentenor by the fourth performance. He has the required ringing tone throughout his upper register, but it was squeezed, poorly projected and in many places, horribly strained. The poor guy probably didn’t want to look bad by cancelling his Hausdebüt. But in the off week from hell, he really should have.

Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Musiklehrer and Herwig Pecoraro’s Tanzmeister were fine if unmemorable, and new Salzburg Intendant Alexander Pereira once again showed that being directly descended from the legendary Fanny von Arnstein makes one more or less born to the role of the Haushofmeister. Sophie Koch’s composer was the only standout performance in the Prologue but consistency was markedly off. She’s always taken the aria at a pace, but in both performances I heard it was simply too hurried – the wonderful ‘Die Welt ist lieblich’ moment glossed over perfunctorily – and she couldn’t always be heard over the orchestra (which by the fourth performance could not be accused of playing too loudly). Her ‘Nach meiner Oper’ sequence was much better: lovely, sweet tone for ‘Du, Venus’ Sohn’ and that small moment of hesitation after running out of words and singing on regardless. Oh for more detail like this.

The Staatsopernorchester was very scrappy in the first performance and had improved considerably by the fourth. You can learn a lot about this score just by watching Jeffrey Tate’s hands; a pity, then, that so much of this imagined detail went unrealised. With gestures made as courteously as Tate’s and yet still ignored, another self-inflicted hole was poked in the credibility of complaints about the way this orchestra is handled by conductors.

Image credit Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Monday, 12 September 2011

Wiener Staatsoper & Teatro alla Scala: firm friends

Wiener Staatsoper, 9/9/2011
Violeta Urmana (soprano), Daniela Barcellona (mezzo-soprano), Rolando Villazón (tenor), Alexander Vinogradov (bass)
Daniel Barenboim, Orchestra e Coro della Scala (chorus master Bruno Casoni)

Verdi: Messa da Requiem

The Gastspiel tradition shared by Vienna and Milan dates back to 1893. A 1956 Gastspiel held during Karajan’s tenure as artistic director of the Wiener Staatsoper introduced Vienna to Maria Callas and led to controversial reforms, including operas in their original language and more international principals, while the most recent guest performance took place in Milan in 2001, after which relations between the two houses regressed to the sandpit in the wake of Scala GM Stéphane Lissner undiplomatically observing that Viennese rep can be woefully under-rehearsed. Holender took this all very personally and for the remainder of his Intendanz missed no opportunity to dismiss La Scala, most recently on account of Lissner’s musical illiteracy, because as we all know, the general manager being able to read music automatically makes for fabulous performances. But with Lissner’s fellow countryman Dominique Meyer now in Holender’s old job, it’s vive la différence. According to Meyer, the two met by chance on the street and put all the pettiness behind them faster than you can say solfeggio, and to prove it they resuscitated the old Gastspiel tradition, with both houses on an equal footing.

The Staatsoper’s concert performance of Fidelio (with Franz Welser-Möst and Nina Stemme) went ahead despite a threatened strike. Vienna got the Verdi Requiem with the Scala orchestra and chorus under Daniel Barenboim, and Rolando Villazón for added box office draw (his third Viennese comeback performance in less than 18 months, not that anybody’s counting).

The Scala orchestra impressed right from the start. Technically, these guys have the Staatsopernorchester (when it’s not the Wiener Philharmoniker) beat in every instrumental department. There was no sense of Verdian practice passed down through the generations, like Vienna’s Mozart and Strauss traditions, just assured, responsive and remarkably fresh playing, great ensemble, and an elasticity to the phrasing that seemed in equal parts intuitive and shaped through interpretation.

On that front, Barenboim proved that performing this work successfully needn’t involve sacrificing good taste on the altar of tension and drama. The Tuba mirum opening was less about in-your-face momentum than the antiphonal interplay of laser-like precision way up in the Gallerie and a wonderfully blended and unforced full brass texture on the stage. Soloists, chorus and orchestra were just as impeccably balanced in all the other movements.

The Scala chorus is a force to be reckoned with and while Barenboim handled them well, changes of mood lacked something of the responsiveness and clarity heard in the orchestral playing. Still, tenors and basses never sounded portentous (my biggest Verdi Requiem turn-off). Diction was exemplary, though I don’t understand why Barenboim insisted on some hammy rolled Rs, thankfully confined to the opening ‘Requiem’ and later, ‘Rex trrremendae’.

Bass Alexander Vinogradov was the only weak link in the solo line-up, declamatory to the point of shouting and prone to producing more breath than tone. Villazón didn’t have a bad evening: his voice has lost some of its power, but the tone is still there and delivery was generally secure. He faltered a bit in his solo number, cracking an E flat, but high notes elsewhere were well-supported and phrases passably legato. Violeta Urmana and Daniela Barcellona are formidable soloists who chalked up many strong moments between them. Urmana’s B flat and C in the Libera Me were placed like a pro, floating effortlessly above the orchestral and choral textures. 

I don’t have a great deal of tolerance for the Verdi Requiem, but this was a very strong performance that always felt something more than just a monumental choral spectacle. The audience seemed to agree, green-lighting the next Gastspiel with a long standing ovation.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Arabella, surprisingly engaged

Wiener Staatsoper, 08/09/2011
Anne Schwanewilms | Arabella
Genia Kühmeier | Zdenka
Tomasz Konieczny | Mandryka
Michael Schade | Matteo
Lars Woldt | Waldner
Zoryana Kushpler | Adelaide
Gergely Németi | Elemér
Adam Plachetka | Dominik
Sorin Coliban | Lamoral
Julia Novikova | Fiakermilli
Donna Ellen | Kartenaufschlägerin

Franz Welser-Möst | Conductor
Sven-Eric Bechtolf | Director

I didn’t expect to post about this Thursday’s Arabella. GMD Franz Welser-Möst, more unflappable than most, had replaced the ailing Philippe Auguin despite rehearsing and conducting a Wiener Staatsoper Fidelio Gastspiel at La Scala on Wednesday and Friday respectively, though when is he ever more than a pair of safe hands? Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf is too preoccupied with staging Vicki Baum’s Menschen im Hotel to bother much with Hofmannsthal’s Arabella, and the casting didn’t promise much out of the ordinary. So not exactly the makings of one of those serendipitous Staatsoper occasions where singing and playing come together in inverse proportion to rehearsal time. And yet that was what we got, at least with all of the playing and some of the singing.

Stepping in at the last minute for Adrianne Pieczonka, Anne Schwanewilms was as exemplary an Einspringerin as one could hope for under the circumstances. She didn’t always project evenly throughout her register and glossed over much of the text, but there were many moments where she soared, in particular her ‘Richtige’ duet, which came something close to stunning. Praise here should also be heaped on Genia Kühmeier, her elegant phrasing, and simply exquisite Straussian tone.

A bass-baritone Mandryka is probably an experiment that should not be repeated, as least not with Tomasz Konieczny, who possesses a ringing lower register authoritative enough to bring down Valhalla and a range above E4 that sounds squeezed and thin. Lars Woldt bore the brunt of Bechtolf’s more sustained efforts at Personenregie, which extend to little more than farce. But that is no excuse for a North Rhine-Westphalian to sing in distended Wienerisch (‘Werd i drei Tog long koan Koarten hoalten’), as Ochsian a figure as Waldner may be. Julia Novikova seems to have acquired astonishing vocal power over the summer at the expense of what little precision she had; notes were scattered in all sorts of random directions, and with some force.

Despite these three and Michael Schade’s unmemorable Matteo – admittedly a fair chunk of the opera – this performance came to considerably more than the sum of its parts, possibly due to the presence of a genuine Wiener Philharmoniker in the pit. This wasn’t just a case of dependably rich string tone carrying the day: the score sounded thoroughly internalised with no detail left unaccounted for, and the singers were never overpowered, which must be something of a Straussian first for this house. It was even better than June’s Káťa Kabanová, when the orchestra last excelled itself.

Staatsoper Direktor Dominique Meyer has signalled that we may yet look forward to more playing of this calibre in the upcoming Thielemann Ring. For more details, and the real motivation behind the Staatsoper’s new Liederabende, see his interview here.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Muti and the Machine

Musikverein, 05/09/2011

Riccardo Muti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Bernard Rands: Danza Petrificada
Strauss: Tod und Verklärung, op. 24

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5, op. 47

So there were a couple of dodgy woodwind entries and the concertmaster’s intonation was a fraction off in the second movement solo of Shostakovich 5. These were the only lapses in the most technically flawless, risk-free and over-refined playing I’ve heard since, I don’t know, my last CSO concert. The closest we came to self-expression was two notes of crazy bassoon vibrato, straight out of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites, on an entry, again, in the Allegretto of the Fifth. The Chicagoans returned to the Musikverein last night with a programme of Hindemith and Prokofiev, but the thought of enduring more music polished into oblivion was too much.

The programme opened with a commission from the orchestra’s 2010-11 season, Danza Petrificada by Bernard Rands. The native Brit has taken his adopted country to heart: this was a well-crafted piece of postmodern musical Americana more suggestive of Copland than the Mexican folk music claimed to have inspired it. The coda was the most promising part of the piece and yet ended abruptly, aborting a new theme that had only just been introduced. As this had been flagrantly signposted from the start, I felt short-changed some thematic development and am moved to note that Haydn would pull a cutesy little stunt like this only after he actually said something. Muti took a holiday to learn this work and I got the sense that he over-studied it; in the hands of an MTT it would have been slick and glib. More Catch-22s yet to come with the Shostakovich.

You could have heard a pin drop in the spotlessly clean opening to Tod und Verklärung. There were some carefully blended brass entries towards the end. Tempi were well-considered. And there I run out of nice things to say about a performance unrecognisable as Strauss, his rich tonal palette reduced to a uniform beige. Textures were opaque and with no phrasing to speak of, inner voices got lost.

Shostakovich 5 came off a little more successfully: there was that ‘think different’ bassoon moment, and Muti’s tempi in the finale imparted a great deal of sense lacking from most performances. Apropos this problematic movement, I remember an undergraduate lecture on Shostakovich 5 given by a Russian music scholar who shall remain nameless. We began with a video of Lenny’s breakneck finale – as shamefully tacky as his coda to Mahler 2 – juxtaposed against some turgid Soviet account, and followed by the raising of hands to indicate our preference; an exercise as stupid then as it would be now, the scary thing being it actually does still go on now. One option was intended to show up naive subscribers to discredited theories of dissidence, the other to suss who had read their Taruskin. The irony of this being a horribly Stalinist false dichotomy is almost too painful but it can only described as such, so dogmatically held was the position, ten times worse than nothing between these two extremes being deemed worthy of discussion, that dizzily fast and soporifically plodding were not extremes at all. It was this idiocy that Muti sensibly demolished, stealthily executing a modest acceleration planned well in advance of the D major coda and yet not imposed as early as the harp, snare drum and timpani transition from the delicate woodwind solos of the central section, a common pitfall. This avoided all the usual awkward gear shifts that make the normative extremes sound so contrived. Just a pity that the overbearing micromanagement which went into it led to such musically inhibited playing.

I haven’t written much about the other movements of the Shostakovich, and the less said about the mechanical routine here the better really. I even found myself longing for some of the Wiener Philharmoniker’s Schlamperei, so what better affirmation of the truism about a sterile performance being worse than a bad one.

The full score of the Rands can be accessed for free here.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Das geht nicht vorwärts

Grafenegg Auditorium, 04/09/2011

Prélude, 16:30: Florian Boesch (Krenek), HK Gruber (Weill & Eisler), István Mátyás (piano)

Krenek: ‘Motiv’ from the Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, op. 62
Weill: Berlin im Licht
Krenek: ‘Wetter’, ‘Unser Wein’, ‘Alpenbewohner’ from the Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, op. 62
Eisler: Ballade von den Säckeschmeißern
Weill: Die Muschel von Margate

Ian Bostridge, HK Gruber (conductor), Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich

Britten: Our Hunting Fathers, op. 8

Hauptkonzert, 19:00: Angelika Kirchschlager, Ian Bostridge, Johannes Chum, Klemens Sander, Florian Boesch, HK Gruber (conductor), Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich

Gruber: Northwind Pictures
Gruber: Dancing in the Dark, Konzertstück für großes Orchester
Weill: Die sieben Todsünden

When Grafenegg pulls out the stops, or, more cynically, when the orchestra performing has tour repertoire to rehearse, the 16:30 ‘Prélude’ is as much an event as the main concert. Florian Boesch sang some selections from Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, which I heard earlier this year at the Konzerthaus and was happy to hear again, the Weltuntergang number (‘Alpenbewohner’) being as powerful as I remembered and leading to thoughts that he really should record this cycle. I have more time for Nali Gruber’s Ernst Busch tribute act than most, but his Weill and Eisler songs were interpolated with the Krenek and the contrasts, a good few of them forced by both singers, were too much for the styles of all three composers. A touch of jollity to Boesch’s ‘Wetter’ was at odds with the music and all too obviously contrived to follow Gruber’s boisterous ‘Berlin im Licht’, while, looking for a moment as taken aback as the audience following the climax of  ‘Alpenbewohner’, Gruber launched into a stern and overly laboured rendition of Eisler’s Säckeschmeißern-Lied.

The second half was devoted to the Austrian premiere of Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers, connected to the rest of the programme, or so Gruber argued, through Auden’s translation of Die sieben Todsünden. Ian Bostridge was impressively solid, much more focused and not half as fussily refined as I expected. He struggled against an orchestral din never less than mf with surprisingly little strain – though his facial expression, not without justification, was set to passive-aggressive throughout – and the technical demands of tricky passagework and high tessitura posed no problem. A strong performance of some Britten juvenilia that could stand to be programmed more often.

The same balance problems afflicted the evening performance, and Gruber might have recognized that the auditorium acoustic was designed to make the Wiener Philharmoniker’s Beethoven and Bruckner symphonies sound good to the exception of almost everything else. His modest gift for conducting didn’t help matters, with gestures limited to hand tremors for more, well, of anything really. The Tonkünstler took these to mean volume and consequently ruined Die sieben Todsünden and every other piece on the programme.

Some very fine singing got lost in this cacophony. Florian Boesch projected the best and did much with the little text he had, in a drag role usually played just for laughs. The three tenors were only audible in the a cappella number (‘Völlerei’), which was messy, strained and out of tune, though not through any fault of their own; they’d been thoroughly deafened by this point and besides, Gruber was pushing the tempo to ridiculous levels. ‘Wehe, wenn sie ein Gramm zunimmt’ had to be thrown away, quite unnecessarily, and a futile attempt was made to salvage the silly passage (‘Hörnchen! Schnitzel! Spargel! Hühnchen!’) mocking Anna’s gluttonous appetite.

Leftish fare like Todsünden and Die Dreigroschenoper is core rep for people’s soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, and though I couldn’t catch much more than snatches there seemed to be plenty of her beguiling lyric mezzo above and below the break, with Sprechstimme on just a few notes – and in places where Lenya didn’t do it, which made things interesting. Anna I was characterized as a bad girl infinitely more fun to hang out with than Anna II, which shows that Kirchschlager has read her Marcuse, but I wasn’t too convinced, despite not really caring about Brecht’s undercut intentions. When she looked up with an air of injured innocence at the accusation of ‘verfressen’ in Völlerei it all seemed a bit put on.

The Weill was preceded by two Gruber works, Dancing in the Dark and Northwind Pictures. Attempts have been made to reattach the label to the likes of Beat Furrer and Olga Neuwirth, but for years Gruber, Kurt Schwertsik and to a much lesser extent Friedrich Cerha were identified as the leading exponents of the so-called Third Viennese School, having fashioned an eclectic idiom given to subversive irreverence and a vulgarity peculiar to the off-beat toilet humour of certain Viennese literary circles (Cerha once set to music a poem about Johann Strauss shitting in his grave). Gruber is the most riotous of the three, as anyone who has experienced a live Frankenstein!! will attest, and there wasn’t much more to that to Northwind Pictures, an arrangement of orchestral interludes from his opera of sorts der herr nordwind. Dancing in the Dark, which incidentally has nothing to do with Bruce Springsteen, saves its silliness for the end – a Wagner tuba foxtrot, which didn’t fail to deliver on the double take promised by Nali in the pre-concert lecture.