Saturday, 11 February 2012

Wiener Staatsoper makes Faustian bargain with Schlamperei

Wiener Staatsoper, 10/02/2012
Gounod: Faust

Jonas Kaufmann | Faust

Inva Mula | Marguerite
Albert Dohmen | Méphistophélès
Adrian Eröd | Valentin
Juliette Mars | Siébel
Monika Bohinec | Marthe

Alain Altinoglu | Conductor
Nicolas Joel / Stéphane Roche | Director

The Wiener Staatsoper opened a new €8 million rehearsal stage last month, though most of the gossip I've picked up about this so far has only taught me three new German proverbs which, loosely translated, all involve leopards and spots. The space got christened with Botha’s Andrea Chénier, but my source was coy about this Faust and perhaps I should have enquired more closely, though as with laws and sausages it's often preferable to be ignorant about Staatsoper revivals. So aside from perverse instituational unpredictability I’m at a loss as how to account for this performance, which came to substantially more than the sum of its parts and left main attraction Jonas Kaufmann struggling to assert himself.

Zerbinetta of Likely Impossibilities has already described this dire production in some detail, and I don’t have anything to add (except to take credit for the nudging, though, unsurprisingly, without Erwin Schrott those subtitles don’t seem at all inappropriate). But while the staging had seemed beyond rescue, the revival team here has taken a more interventionist hand than usual: the blocking looked a lot less random, things like the ‘what do I want with this?’ tossing around of the ukulele actually seemed connected to (sub)text and music, and gone was the dreaded Velcro. So some effort had been made and credit is deserved, however daft a symbolic ukulele remains in principle. After the Schrott silliness it seems to have been acknowledged that less is more with the red fan, which still remote buckles Valentin to death rather clunkingly but otherwise didn’t draw so much attention, even if it was somewhat weird for Albert Dohmen to make it look such a credible male accessory. And mercifully, Dohmen’s Méphistophélès remained fully clothed. As details go these things may not sound so significant, but cumulatively they made for a much more watchable evening than I remember.

There were some subtle gradations of colour and moments of unexpected smoothness, but Jonas Kaufmann otherwise remained in heroic mode all evening. And not always effortlessly: he almost came to grief on his top C and struggled to cut through the orchestra half the time. With the covered middle and otherwise ringing top notes (including an terrific hairpin on the B) it was hard to focus on what at times sounded like vocal parapet-bobbing. It was the last thing I expected in this performance, but in his Marguerite scenes he was outsung time after time by Inva Mula and her immaculate top notes. In every respect this part seems to fit her like a glove: her middle was very pure-sounding and fresh, prompting some breathless Freni comparisons from the Stehplatz veterans, and she unpacked a fast and well-controlled vibrato for the Jewel Song, with runs that slid smoothly to her resonant top with plenty of pitch. There were lots of good chest notes too. She cut a modest figure with restrained acting, for which I was grateful as one prone to retch at the insufferably fake fabulousness of the Jewel Song. The prison scene was also toned down to the point of reticence, though Mula’s quiet wretchedness here was certainly poignant. But with Kaufmann also making few demonstrative gestures (no cartwheel from him) they made chaste and rather boring lovers.

Albert Dohmen’s Méphistophélès was rather on the dour side, though the stiff bearing paid off in all the moments which Schrott had overacted and the sternly commanding look he gave to the wandering hands of Monika Bohinec’s Marthe had that precious quality of being genuinely unstagey. Vocally he was on excellent form, sounding much less frayed than usual and indeed producing consistently rich and resonant tone – if only his Wotan had been more like this. Adrian Eröd’s considerable musicianship and good breath control normally compensate more than adequately for a lack of colour, and though that was the case here I thought he did better last year. Juliette Mars, sounding like Sophie Koch on steroids, let her phrases run away with her a little but wasn’t at all bad.

I’ve long wondered what the fuss was about Alain Altinoglu, who has a talent for making Verdi sound light and bouncy but has never struck me as having particularly strong ideas. And with actual orchestral rehearsals and a half-Phil pit I expect more (under the Meyer administration French conductors seem to get special treatment). Altinoglu certainly delivered this time, getting impressive playing from the orchestra and sonority of rare depth and complexity. That glowing, rich, dangerously spiritual Bruckner sound – pure Celi, of course – isn’t something they offer up often, even for the likes of Thielemann, though it seemed wasted on Gounod’s dully solemn writing. Much of this score sounds weakly improvised from the harmonium, but when he could work with the material Altinoglu made something more substantial (read: Berliozian) of it. The chorus also shone, with well-blended brilliance, startlingly good top notes and clean and sudden dramatic diminuendos.

Image credit: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

1 comment:

  1. i dont know which day you saw this performance, but on the 7 th february, all the audience was clapping for minutes at the end of the evening. and the biggest succes had Kaufmann and after him Erodd with the audience if i judge according to their applause. If you were there on that day, then you were one of the few who didnt like his singing. bad luck.