Friday, March 28, 2014

Weil alles so schlecht ist: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny

Dancing in the storm: denial as utopia in Mahagonny
Photo © Lena Obst/Staatstheater Wiesbaden
On Thursday, I took myself to the Staatstheater Wiesbaden's current run of the Weill/Brecht Mahagonny. The house was far from full, which is a shame; the orchestra and singers gave  engaged performances in a smart, effective production by intendant Manfred Beilharz. The production supported the sly score and the quick succession of dramatic episodes. Use of space was generally good, although the apron on far side of the pit, whence newcomers to Mahagonny come and where some significant apostrophizing of the audience takes place, was invisible from most of the top balcony. Bernd Holzapfel's sets were minimalistic in the first half, allowing the broken-down car of the fugitives and, later, the green moon of Alabama to dominate the empty space where it is impossible to go forward, and the way of retreat is cut off. I liked the homage to the aesthetic of the early 30s in the art deco skyscrapers and the liner on which Jimmy seeks to leave. The glittering city of Mahagonny as it appears in the second half is dominated by a building which could be a stock exchange, a courthouse, a seat of government, or all three; its architecture is the neo-classicism favored by all expanding powers of the 20th century, and its motto is simply ¥€$. A central platform served as dining table, brothel, and boxing ring, and even as courtroom. Zsolt Hamar led the orchestra in possibly the best performance I've heard from them: lively, lascivious, insinuating, and attaining real gravitas and poignancy at crucial moments. There was dark humor in abundance, to be sure, but we were never allowed to pretend that this was not a devastatingly relevant parable, as powerful in the early 21st century as a cry of outrage and protest as it was as Cassandra-like prophecy in 1930.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Special: Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary

I'm not dead, Gentle Readers! I haven't even had a nasty cold. My dissertation research has, however, seriously compromised my opera-going schedule of late. I'm hoping to get a double helping of Mozart/Da Ponte before the month is out, catching the end of Frankfurt's Così fan tutte run, and the beginning of Mainz's Don Giovanni. For the last few weeks, though, I've been getting my musical fixes from choir rehearsals (with this neat choir,) where Heinrich Schütz's Matthäuspassion and Purcell's Funeral Music are reaching the pre-concert phase of introducing and playing around with exciting nuances. This is my first time singing Purcell, and I love it a lot; when it comes to choral music, few things make me happier than English polyphony and interesting alto lines. Here is a performance by the Ensemble La Fenice:

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Nimm noch nicht Abschied: Daphne in Frankfurt

Apollo and Daphne. Photo © Oper Frankfurt/Barbara Aumüller
Last night, I got to see the first performance in this season's revival of Daphne in Frankfurt. The 2010 production by Claus Guth, who also supervised the revival, was of stunning beauty and poignancy, and a strong cast, led by the luminous Maria Bengtsson in the title role, gave moving performances. This was my first live Daphne, and one that helped me understand the opera as a coherent whole. Strauss's exquisite music is bound with an enigmatically layered libretto by Joseph Gregor, and haunted by the circumstances of its creation in 1937-38. Guth's production created an intimate narrative about Daphne's search for truth, and attempts to escape from violence, which managed (I thought) to suggest even the possibility of hope for society as well as the individual in the sublime conclusion. We see Daphne as an old woman (Corinna Schnabel) who visits the home of her youth, now in a state of abandonment and decay, and thus revisits the events of that youth (taking place around the time of the opera's creation.) The rooms of Peneios' and Gaea's household are the backdrop for the unfolding of a powerful drama which is as much allegory as myth, where Daphne attempts in solitude to avoid the violence of male society that Strauss and Gregor so frighteningly evoke. But she can get no closer to utopia than a world of paper birds and cut branches. One of the things which the production accomplishes with remarkable, redemptive success is showing that, while Apollo's and Leukippos' sexual aggression towards Daphne is reprehensible, deserving of the punishment which the god meets out to the youth and to himself, neither Apollo or Leukippos is always-already a rapist: the violence which Daphne so fears is a choice, not a disposition. This was a huge relief for me as audience member, and allows the scenes of emotional intimacy to be seen and heard as genuine, not coercive; Daphne's sense of betrayal by the god is genuine, not a belated realization of falsehood. The drama unfolds gradually, making its way despite all violence, despite all betrayal, to that transcendent finale.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reading List: Warum Oper?

The last few weeks of my reading-on-public-transit time have been spent with "Warum Oper?" (Why Opera?) a collection of interviews with opera directors which was published in 2005. Barbara Beyer, herself an opera director, leads 14 conversations circling around this question. "Why opera?" quickly splits into "Why do you dedicate yourself to engaging with opera?" or "Why does (or should) society engage with opera?" The answers provided by those interviewed are remarkable for being both rigorously thought out and intensely personal. Working one's way through these conversations provides insights and opinions from a "who's who" of directors working primarily in German-speaking Europe: Calixto Bieito, Claus Guth, Peter Konwitschny, and Martin Kusej among them. Somewhat to my surprise, Karoline Gruber was the only woman whom Beyer interviewed. I loved reading the book, but its virtues make it difficult to summarize. Rather than working through a set list of questions, the conversations as reproduced here seem to flow from topic to topic, responding to issues raised, sometimes structured to provide contrast with (or responses to) other interviews in the book. As someone not very familiar with the history of movements and key figures in 20th-century opera direction, I enjoyed the background provided on previous generations of directors, and was surprised by the diversity of approaches and philosophies represented by those interviewed. I was also impressed by what all the directors (with the possible exception of Sebastian Baumgartner) shared: a deep passion for and trust in opera scores, and tireless willingness to challenge themselves.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Edgar: O gloria, o voluttà

Oper Frankfurt assembled a luxurious cast for two concert performances of Puccini's second opera this week. Not knowing when I'd get the chance to hear Edgar live again, I jumped at the chance to do so, especially since it also offered the opportunity to hear Angela Meade again, and Bryan Hymel for the first time. Mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner joined them in making the most of the music, and making the principal characters both more plausible and more sympathetic than they are as written. What struck me first on listening to recordings of Edgar was the theatrical pacing and use of the orchestra colors. In Michele Girardi's chapter (in here)  covering the work, though, the focus was on the patent weaknesses of the libretto. According to Girardi, Fontana committed "gross linguistic and metrical sins," forcing the composer to "attempt the impossible in making up for for plot deficiencies with music." Although it's not Puccini's most bold or sophisticated music, I did find the libretto harder to ignore in performance than in recordings, and often hard to excuse. The opening scene offers a representative example: the woodwinds, growing in number, evoke waking birds, while a breeze rustles through the strings; chimes are succeeded by a clear bell… and then the chorus comes in and tells us that it is dawn, that the last star has disappeared, and that a faraway bell is ringing. (I couldn't help contrasting it mentally with the gorgeous naturalism of Bohème's Act III opening.) The plot of Edgar centers on the eponymous hero, nominally torn between the soprano who sings aubades about almond blossoms and the mezzo who was raised by traveling Moors (!) and sings about survival of the fittest and about torrid kisses. He seems more interested in Byronic introspection than in either of them, though, symbolically burning down his house when he takes up with the mezzo at the end of Act I, going off to join nationalist endeavors as an act of repentance and self-purification for taking up with the mezzo at the end of Act II, and staging his own funeral as an aesthetic and social experiment in Act III. There's a baritone who hovers around the edges of the drama, being in love with the mezzo and leading the soldiers, in both cases for reasons which are unclear. At the work's climax, the mezzo is tricked by the tenor and then excoriated by the hypocritical chorus, so she stabs the soprano in the back. In short, it's the kind of drama that begs for a concert performance (or for a really good critical production.) And Frankfurt's concert performance was of a very fine caliber indeed.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Verbrechen und Geheimnisse und Schuld: Reimann's Gespenstersonate

On the outside looking in: the student Arkenholz
Photo © Oper Frankfurt
Yesterday, I attended the last performance in Oper Frankfurt's premiere run of Die Gespenstersonate, Aribert Reimann's 1984 opera based on Strindberg's play of the same name. Walter Sutcliffe's production, making use of a stage placed diagonally between two tribunes in the Bockenheimer Depot, was sleek, with appropriate twists of the surreal and the claustrophobic. The space was used very well, I thought; although Strindberg's rivalry with Ibsen made the use of a dollhouse ironic, the image worked well in setting up a drama where voyeurism and manipulation are central. I also quite liked Kaspar Glarner's costuming, precise in its evocation of differing periods, alluding to the zombielike endurance of the bourgeoisie which Strindberg and Reimann dissect. Lear being the only one of Reimann's operas I had any previous familiarity with, I was worried that I might miss a lot in the music. But while I may have missed much that would repay further study, I found Die Gespenstersonate direct, emotionally gripping, instantly drawing the listeners into its world. Each of the figures has a distinct musical characterization, brought out vocally and in the orchestra. The small ensemble, led by Karsten Januschke, deserves high praise for a clean, richly textured performance. The strings were truly spectral, with creeping tritones not the only thing suggesting something devilish about the sinister Direktor Hummel. Low woodwinds droned menacingly; the piano and harmonium (both played by Vytis Sakuras) provided the parlor music of nightmares. Always closely bound to the text, the orchestral writing built the suspense of a drama that shows a world of jealousies and pretense, of exploitation and self-protection, a society "sick at the spring of life."

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Winterreise: Johannes Martin Kränzle & Hilko Dumno in Frankfurt

When I got off the Frankfurt subway on Tuesday night, the lady in front of me was carrying a well-used score of Der Winterreise under her arm. When I gained my seat for the evening's performance of Schubert's great song cycle, the music student next to me was frowning anxiously at the marginalia in his score, while the two elderly women behind us were happily quoting and humming snatches of the cycle to each other. For this educated and expectant audience, Johannes Martin Kränzle, ably partnered by Hilko Dumno at the piano, gave an interpretation of unusual dramatic vividness, creating emphasis in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. I was fascinated to be shown new things as Kränzle led the audience along the wanderer's snow-covered paths.

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