Posts Tagged ‘Bayerische Statsoper’

Peter Konwitschny’s yellow-sofa Tristan for the Bavarian State Opera is now almost 20 years old and has developed from the outrage of its premiere into some sort of museology of Regietheater, i.e., it has become “a classic”. I had only previously seen it on video and remember joining then a discussion about it on an Internet message board. It was my first “eurotrash” Tristan, but I have curiously enjoyed it from moment one. I remember having written about the yellow sofa and its meaning of homeliness in an inhospitable world and other seemingly clever ideas in order to make a case for its validity. Well, I have just seen it live for the first time and I stand by it. As always with Konwitschny, things could be more coherent, but it has been able to rekindle the thrill of an opera that has become shrouded in monumentality, profoundness and hermeticism, while it has always essentially been a Romantic (and also romantic) opera.

At first Simone Young seemed to have understood the spirit of this production, offering an act I marked by an extremely flexible beat, deep theatrical understanding and almost Verdian sense of emotionality and vigor. In this approach, the youth and its sense of life and death intensity rescued Tristan and Isolda from the world of abstraction into palpable drama. Alas, as Tristan and Isolda themselves have noticed, some things are not meant to last in this world. A cast not in their best health pressed the conductor to a compromise. The string section has been kept under tight leash during the entire act II (a fancy for showing everything you are probably missing in the woodwind department must have something to do with that too) in order make it easier for soprano and tenor. That – and a tempo that increasingly tended to slowness – only had the dubious effect of exposing these singers’  shortcomings and drained the proceedings of any expressive content. Things would show some improvement in the last act – the conductor would now and then come to the obvious conclusion that it was better to screen her soloists behind orchestral sound and let it sing for singers who were obviously facing vocal troubles and could not do more than making do. In the end, a performance starting intelligently and brilliantly ended into being something about the mechanics of being an opera conductor under unideal circumstances.

As announced, this run of performances would feature Christiane Libor’s Isolde, whose youthful tone and sense of line would have made a lyrical, sensitive Irish princess at least on paper. However, she cancelled “for health issues” and was replaced by Petra Lang, a singer I had only seen as Ortrud and never a particularly subtle one. As heard this evening, Ms. Lang’s reinvention as a dramatic soprano does not involve the volume one usually finds in a Wagnerian singer. She does have truly amazing stamina and gets to produce forceful acuti tirelessly, even when things go wrongly. This adaptation, which is vaguely reminiscent of Martha Mödl’s method (I mean “vaguely”, for Mödl was far more adept in it, as her admirable recording in this role with Herbert von Karajan live from Bayreuth shows), has consequences: her middle register is unfocused to the point of inaudibility, her low notes are guttural, hooting is inevitable and intonation is dysfunctional. She is an alert actress and can surprise you with isolated phrases in which she sounds like an important singer, but in the end one just feels like listening to consistently unproblematic singing. The sheer size, beauty of tone and youthfulness of Okka von der Damerau’s mezzo soprano just exposed her Isolde’s inadequacy. Unfortunately, even she could not survive the prevailing vocal poor form that plagues this evening’s performance. In act II, her voice sounded thick and difficulty with high notes would prevent her from floating her warning. She would recover for her short appearance in the end of the opera. To make things worse, Stephen Gould, a reliable and experienced Tristan, was frankly ill. His big, warm and powerful tenor started to grate in his act I scene with Isolde. This is never a good sign, and one could see that high notes on “ee” and “ay” started to sound more and more constricted until they finally made him cough. After a while, excursions above a high f were more a matter of will than of possibility. The fact that he agreed to sing act III is a sign of perseverance. If one has in mind the illness that afflicted his voice, he really deserve the applauses for recklessly forcing it into keeping “acting with the voice”  and adaptations to the written notes as minimal as possible. Iain Paterson (Kurwenal) could not escape this evening’s vocal indisposition either: his baritone lacked steadiness and sounded a bit opaque. Only René Pape proved to be in infallibly good voice, singing the part of King Marke richly, expressively and beautifully. If the conductor had cushioned it in the rich sonorities the Bavarian State Orchestra is more than able to provide, it would have been this evening’s emotional highlight.


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Is there any other opera that inspires so much tolerance in the audience as Die Frau ohne Schatten? Everything is so impossibly difficult that one feels even grateful that singers, conductor, director, members of the orchestra et al have agreed to do this possibly for the same fee they would receive for, say, Carmen…  In any case, the Bavarian State Opera can certainly boast to have a new production against which there could be little competition this day. Of course, there are shortcomings – even Karajan’s 1964 recording from the Vienna State Opera has shortcomings (nota bene – he had Fritz Wunderlich for the Erscheinung eines Jünglings and Lucia Popp for the Stimme des Falken) – but the level of success of individual contribution is so high that you feel inclined to overlook that the sum of the parts is noticeably less impressive.

I have seen Adrianne Pieczonka as Ariadne, Arabella and the Marschallin and found her Straussian performances so far only intermittently satisfying. Her Kaiserin this evening was in an entirely other level: golden tone, noble phrasing, unfailing musicianship and the necessary mysterious glamor, you would find all these qualities in her singing this evening. Elena Pankratova is one of the most interesting Färberinen that I have ever heard (I’m including recordings here). Her voice has a cold, slightly metallic quality one would rather expect to find in the role of the Kaiserin. At first, one feels that her voice is two sizes smaller than the required dramatic soprano, but she is the kind of singer who doesn’t show all her trump cards right away; when you’d least expect, there would come solid low notes, powerful acuti, mezza voce and even commendable legato for lyric passages. She has no problem with high notes, but the composer’s unrealistic demands in act III understandably brought about some screechy moments. In any case, the way she could musically show the character’s development during the opera is the reason why she goes to my shortlist, presided by Christa Ludwig and Gwyneth Jones. At this stage of her career, it is very bold of Deborah Polaski to sing a role as demanding as the Amme, especially in its complete version. Although her soprano has always had a dark color and she always had to push a bit for her high b’s and c’s, that does not mean that she was a pushed-up mezzo – and one could hear that this evening. The lack of weight in the bottom of her range was compensated by a noticeable ease around the area where mezzos have their passaggio, what allowed her to be particularly smooth and clean. I don’t believe she was in a very good day though: the voice lacked focus and she had to go full powers to pierce through, what eventually tired her. And her last scene is probably the most demanding of all.

Johan Botha showed no difficulties in the role of the Emperor, producing consistently beefy, clarion sounds, but little variety. As it usually happens, nobody seemed to know what to do with this role. And I can only imagine that a singer needs some coaxing to care for giving that little extra that makes all the difference of the world in a role as ingrate as this one. When I first saw Wolfgang Koch’s Barak in Salzburg, I thought that he could be subtler. But then Barak was not subtle in that production. Now I see that, in normal circumstances, his performance in this role can be as benign as the composer and librettist conceived it. Considering his recent Wotans in Bayreuth, I expected his voice to sound a little bit more voluminous than this evening.  Last but not least, Sebastin Holecek was a very powerful Spirit Messenger.

Richard Strauss would be proud of his hometown opera’s orchestra. The Bayerische Staatsorchester offered this evening the dictionary definition of Straussian orchestral playing, offering crystalline, almost fairytale like sonorities and expressive solos throughout. Conductor Kirill Petrenko has followed Strauss’s conduct-it-as-if-it-were-Cosi-fan-tutte advice as a religious credo. He rarely unleashed a true orchestral forte, worked rather from tonal coloring and and brightness, never drowned his singers and offered the kind of clarity that would make following it with the score in hands really unnecessary. It was a performance of unusual musical elegance and intelligence. If I had not seen Thielemann conduct this opera in Salzburg as transparently as today and far more excitingly with a force-of-nature Vienna Philarmonic, I would have considered this evening the best FroSch live in the theatre in my experience. It is very important to stress that the disfiguring cuts that reduce the role of the Amme and make the long scene with the Empress in act III a bit abrupt have been opened out here. This involved a sizeable monologue very commendably dispatched by the non-native-speaker soprano. It was a long evening in a busy trip and I may have missed something, but I have the impression that a couple of tiny cosmetic cuts have made to accommodate the staging.

Well, if this evening had an advantage over the Salzburg Festspiel , this has to do with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. This came as a surprise for me. I have bad memories of his adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire in the Théâtre de l’Odéon, but here he offered more than compensation. This was probably the best staging of this acknowledgedly unstageable opera I have ever seen. Warlikowski proved depth of understanding of the libretto and, if the Freudian approach has been already tried by Robert Carsen in the Vienna State Opera, the consistent way with which the director used all scenic resources to portray the complex situations in the plot – especially the awkward changes in act II – was all but masterly. I am sorry to disappoint those who were expecting a concept too distant from the original story, for this was truly understandable (I mean, until act III, where at least he keeps interest going when every other director more or less gives up). Inspired by Alain Resnais’s L’Année Passée à Marienbad, the story is set in a cure resort where a rich woman (the Empress) traumatized by some sort of dramatic incident with her husband and in strong oblivion and denial of her life is put under the responsibility of a psychiatrist (the Amme) who has developed an unhealthy attachment to her patient. As some sort of therapeutic experiment, she is put in contact with the janitor’s wife – possibly an Internet bride from the East who has found her “looser” husband and new low-life life far below her expectations – whose marriage is getting dangerously close to a violent episode as the one we assume to have happened with the Empress. Once you understand that, Warlikowski does not try to bend the symbology – when the characters talk about a shadow, it’s really a shadow they are talking about. This eventually makes act III difficult – there is an elderly gentleman who is supposed to be Keikobad whose connections with the cure resort is hard to understand. The water of life is indeed a glass of water, but it is hard to make something out of that – especially because the whole “having babies”-moral is more or less it. I have noticed that lots of people have a problem with the “having babies”-issue. If you are interested in my opinion, I don’t believe that this is what Hofmannsthal was trying to say here – although “having babies” is the most elementary way of exerting the selflessness HvH was talking about.

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