Posts Tagged ‘Konzerthaus Berlin’

The Red Heifer at the Konzerthaus; Macbeth haunts the Staatsoper

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid

A saying goes that where words stop, music begins. Trite as this may sound, The Red Heifer, a one-act opera by Iván Fischer which made its German premiere at the Konzerthaus last week, serves as a powerful example. As a reaction to right-wing politics in modern-day Hungary, Fischer’s home country, the work speaks through a mixture of forewarning, humor and spirituality without ever banging its audience over the head.

A range of musical pastiche serves to illustrate a true story about accusations in the late 19th century that a Jewish community in North Hungary had murdered a young girl and used her blood for ritual in synagogue. As seen June 29, the narrator (Jozsef Gyabronka) recites his text to accompaniment directly evoking J.S. Bach’s Passions, while the loud-mouthed hostess of a hotel-restaurant called The Red Heifer (Orsolya Sáfár) breaks out into a bel canto idiom above the chanting of her male admirers.

Both the montage-like structure and the didactic nature of The Red Heifer place it straight in line with a tradition of Weill-Brechtian theater which Fischer, as he explained in a moderated discussion, was inspired. In what could easily lend the work to performance in schools, the conductor casts children in the roles of the victim, Eszter (Kyra Varg), and the young Jewish boy, Moric (Jonatán Kovács), who betrays his community to give a false testimony.

Fischer here has the protagonist spit his words above a rollicking orchestra while a group of children cheer him on with soccer-inspired patriotic regalia and blast plastic horns that, appropriately, evoke cows (a red heifer is a young cow that appears in the Book of Moses). Faced with a lack of other witnesses, the judge (Jozsef Csapo) ultimately pardons the synagogue, and Moric—sitting on the train with his father, presumably in order to flee—has a vision of a red heifer through which he is purified from sin.

Above a snare drum which recreates the rhythm of the locomotive, a reprise of the pseudo-devout melody sung by the men of the Jewish community after the courtroom verdict explodes into a desperate plea, only to find resolution in a winding violin melody with hints of Mozart’s Requiem.

The wide musical palette, even if it doesn’t blend into a consciously personal style, only serves to underscore the tensions in the story, from folk dance to string trio and cimbalom to a jazzy number for Moric’s father (Tamas Altorjay). And Fischer reveals himself a fertile mind of melodic invention as he spins off the various sounds of Hungarian tradition, both high and low.

The production emerged with a mix of unaffected directness and professional polish, thanks to strong characterizations and musical delivery of the both the child actors and opera singers on stage. Fischer drew sensitive but vigorous playing from an ensemble mixing players from the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin.


Around the corner, on the construction site of what will be the multi-million Euro renovated Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Intendant Jürgen Flimm brought the season to a stirring close with his own new production of Sciarrino’s Macbeth. As seen June 28, a war zone covered the concrete floor of what was and will be the intendant’s headquarters, period costumes merging with 18th-century architectural details such as a fireplace which is lit by a victorious Macduff at the end of the opera.

The staging–which consists of little more than a small pool of water for Macbeth to wash his hands; a pile of rugs; and period furniture–takes on a surreal quality that only heightened the ghostly whispering and wilting tremoli of the score. With the death of Banquo and the appearance of his ghost in the Second Act, the chorus of Voci (voices)—now furies, now monks scattering ashes after Macbeth’s decapitation—change into costume as towering demons, haunting the unfinished bowels of the opera house.

The atmosphere was more than rife for the orchestra’s quotation of the Commendatore’s return in Mozart’s Don Giovanni—here accompanied by red light and smoke—followed by an aria exalting “la patria” (the homeland) from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. The moment is so climatic, however, as to make Sciarrino’s palette in the final act grow static (unlike in his shorter works Infinito Nero, Vanitas or Lohengrin).

The libretto, meanwhile, bypasses the prophecy of the three witches to plunge into the violence and insanity around Macbeth, a nightmare from which he can’t escape. By placing the audience on either side of the action, Flimm brings the spectator uncomfortably close to the raw human brutality (one woman had to be escorted out as Lady Macbeth washed her husband’s hand with a rag soaked in fake blood after Duncan’s murder).

The disembodied tones of the score nevertheless created a powerful sense of suspended reality which was heightened by having part of the ensemble, Opera Lab Berlin, placed outside the room to create a phantom-like ricochet. David Robert Coleman led with precision but also elegant musicality. Alongside Otto Katzameier in a potent portrayal of the title role and Carola Höhn as the hysteric Lady Macbeth, baritone Timothy Sharp, tenor Stephen Chambers and the small chorus maintained sharp dramatic focus, even if Italian diction could have stood improvement.

Artists on the Rise at the Deutsche Oper and the Konzerthaus

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Deutsche Oper Billy BuddBy Rebecca Schmid

The story of Billy Budd, a Herman Melville story which became the basis for Britten’s now classic opera, revolves around a seaman whose allure is so strong that John Claggart, the Master-at-arms on an 18th century war ship, conspires to eradicate his presence. Fate takes a strange twist when Budd, reduced to a stammer at accusations of mutiny, accidentally kills Claggart and is sentenced to death.

The title character is so full of vitality and good will that the ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, knows he has sentenced an “angel of God” to hang. Amid the shadows of imminent death, the infinite seas where victory is nowhere in sight, the whipping of sea men conscripted again their will, Budd carries the potential to reverse the gears in a machine of war that has trumped the human ability to love.

The Deutsche Oper made a bold move by casting its young ensemble member, John Chest, as the title character in a David Alden staging which premiered in the German capital on May 22. The 28-year-old American baritone, in his role debut, does not have the vocal heft of more seasoned cast members (the menacing bass of Gidon Saks as Claggart, or the piercing, almost angelic tenor of Burkhard Ulrich as Vere).

But he projected the charisma and rugged innocence that convey how this character is able to throw an entire ship off course, now jockeying with the chorus of seamen in the first scene of Act Two, now singing a stoic farewell. The all-male cast held itself to high standards in matters of both sound quality and diction, with stand-outs including Tobias Kehrer as Lieutenant Radcliffe and Thomas Blondelle as the Novice, who tries to convince Budd to stage an uprising.

The chorus of the Deutsche Oper struck a powerful blend with the orchestra while executing Alden’s finely-tuned directions (and choreography by Maxine Braham) during numbers such as “O heave” and “Yes, lost forever on the endless sea,” as they tugged giant ropes across the stage. Sets by Paul Steinberg capture the doomed circumstances with towering wrought metal barracks, penetrated only by the all-white chamber of Vere which tunnels in seamlessly.

It is was a surprise that the wheels of a rusted, concave wall representing the ship’s cabin were so loud as to disturb the sea of brass during the interlude between the final two scenes. That being said, the brass struggled with clean articulation and synchrony in Britten’s percussive scoring. The orchestra’s dark-hued strings, under Music Director Donald Runnicles, compensated with a gripping atmosphere both in brooding undercurrents and eerie interlocking counterpoint.

At the Konzerthaus…

The Berlin Piano Festival, in its third annual iteration, offered a rare occasion to hear the up-and-coming pianist Francesco Piemontesi in his home city on May 19. He performed to a full chamber music hall of the Konzerthaus despite competition in the main hall, where Igor Levit performed a Beethoven Sonata as part of the series Zwei Mal hören (“Hear it Twice”).

To be sure, Piemontesi is also a young pianist with a lot to say. He combines meticulous technical assurance with a nearly philosophical introspection and attention to emotional nuance that is wonderfully suited to the so-called Wiener Klassik.

His interpretative skills were at their height in Schubert’s Sonata in C-minor, D.958 as he conveyed the mystery, joie de vivre, and eternal longing that smolder beneath the deceptively simple musical elements. He made the piece his own from the moment he tore into the chords of the opening Allegro, effortlessly moving into a world of dreamy reflection.

His use of rubato and pauses allowed the music to speak for itself without a hint of artifice—perhaps the greatest challenge for a performer. In the spritely but death-intoned Menuetto, he revealed a naïve joy and complete absorption in the music’s ambiguities.

In Mozart’s Sonata in F-Major, KV 533/494, Piemontesi created a nearly operatic drama, moving from exasperation to childlike delight in the minor mode reprise of the opening Allegro, then desperate beseeching to adamant supplication in the slow inner movement. Both the emotional depth and bold attacks revealed the influence of his mentor, Alfred Brendel.

While this listener prefers a rounder touch for forte passages, particularly in Mozart, Piemontesi captured the sense of desperation beneath the notes. His temperament was even better suited to Beethoven’s Sonata in E-major, Op.109, with its fiery outbursts and resigned calm expressing an infatuation with Maximiliane Brentano, the daughter of the composer’s friend Antonie Brentano.

Piemontesi rounded out the program with a selection of Débussy Préludes displaying his clean virtuosity and powers of imagination. He recreated the angry wind of “Ce qu’a vu le vent d`ouest” with vivid strokes while also bringing a gentle touch to the floating chords of “La cathédrale engloutie,” even if one might have wished for more impressionist pedalwork.

For more by Rebecca Schmid, visit

At the Konzerthaus, a German Premiere and a half-empty Hall

Friday, March 14th, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid


The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin presented what was announced as a “French evening” on March 12 featuring the German premiere of Dutilleux’s Le temps l’horloge. The RSB has its share of competition between the Berlin Philharmonic, Deutsche-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (another orchestra with broadcast roots), the Staatskapelle and others. But it was a surprise to see the main hall of the Konzerthaus half-full for guest artist Laura Aikin—one of today’s finest sopranos in contemporary repertoire—and the conductor Ludovic Morlot.

Dutilleux left behind only a small body of works, first writing for the voice later in his career, although he called it “the most beautiful instrument of all.” Poetry settings such as Correspondances, released by Deutsche Grammophon in a version updated for Barbara Hannigan shortly before the composer’s death last year, have already proved their staying power. In Le temps, a short song cycle written for René Fleming in 2007, the composer builds delicate worlds of sound around the singer, from the molten bed of strings in Le Masque, to the accordion and bass pizzicati of Le Dernier Poème.

In the final Enivrez-vous, the vocal lines become positively vertiginous against an orchestral backdrop at once frightening and playful, perhaps a self-conscious warning against Baudelaire’s hedonist sentiments. Aikin mastered the technical demands with flexible but full-bodied lines, moving through each atmosphere with a clear sense of musical architecture. It is a shame her French diction did not rise to the same standards, making it difficult to appreciate the poetry’s beauty. Morlot coaxed, at least from my seat directly above the stage, what sounded like a clean, well-calibrated performance from the orchestra. The instrumental Interlude beginning with a fugato in the cellos took on a dreamy quality that allowed the listener to wander aimlessly through the sea of emotions.

Martinù’s Sixth Symphony opened the evening with swirling textures that recalled the cycle’s first poem and namesake, Le temps l’horloge. Despite the symphony’s distinctive and mainly Czech-influenced orchestration, one can detect shades of Débussy and Stravinsky in the atmospheric timbres and biting harmonies. The music has moments of quick vacillation between peace and despair, such as the violin solo above timpani in the opening movement, or the angry brass and woodwind blasts that interrupt the humdrum strings in the following Poco allegro. But even ominous moments have a tremendous sense of momentum which Morlot captured with the orchestra, even if its vigorous playing at times compromised a sense of elegance.

The brass playing sounded less clean when I moved further away from the stage for the second half of the program, Débussy’s Images for orchestra, part of a series he undertook parallel to writing La mer. The RSB etched the textures in bold lines rather than shading in pastel, although Les parfums de la nuit of the second movement, Ibéria, proved an exception with gentle, swelling phrases. The following Le matin d’un jour de fête captured the playful atmosphere of a fair as the violinists strummed their instruments in dialogue with the winds. And although the diaphanous Rondes de Printemps still felt too opaque, Morlot maintained a high energy among the players that captured the fresh splendour of spring. Perhaps the atmosphere would have been even better with more listeners in the hall.

For more by Rebecca Schmid, visit

Opera on the Gendarmenmarkt: Iván Fischer’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

The season is already underway in flying colors at the Konzerthaus Berlin. Iván Fischer, following an enthusiastically received appearance at the Mostly Mozart Festival, unveiled his concert staging of Le Nozze di Figaro yesterday featuring much of the same cast alongside the Konzerthausorchester. It was a pleasure to see the concert house’s neo-classical interior—an opulent post-war refurbishment—brought into my relief by Fischer’s concept. Rococo-dressed mannequins and wire-framed costumes (designs by György Kertész) were suspended from the gilded ceiling on metal grids, descending as the disguises which drive the opera’s class- and gender-bending comedy of errors. Figaro seizes the head of a model representing the count in his aria “Se vuol ballar,” only to dress him down to boxers; and the page Cherubino slips full of desire into the arms of a costume representing Susanna—externalizing the double-illusion of a woman playing a boy.

Fischer—who has sought to widen the house’s reach through new formats such as Espresso Concerts, public rehearsals and online video since becoming music director last season–stood casually upstage before the performance began, chatting with passers-by before raising his baton toward the back of the hall and launching into the overture. He conducted most of the performance seated to the edge of the second violins, with the orchestra arranged in a semi-circle around two platforms that served as focal points for the action. The singers, however, wove freely in and out of the orchestra from doors placed on either side of the stage. Eighteenth-century wigs were tossed around playfully, integrating Fischer and the musicians into the drama. The aesthetic risked on camp, however, and the exposed transition into the fourth act was more irritating than charming as stagehands fastened karabiners onto mannequins that would allow the Countess and Susanna to switch places and trick the Count. “It will only last another two or three minutes,” Fischer told the audience.

One forgave the setback once the music resumed. The orchestra has made tremendous strides under Fischer, now playing with renewed warmth and energy in the strings. His intuitive connection to Mozart’s emotional world emerged in graceful but playful phrasing, although there was an unfortunate tendency to rush into attacks. The cast displayed delightful emerging singers in roles which, as it happens, are best depicted by youthful performers. As the cunning servant Susanna, Laura Tatulescu anchored the evening with lush, expressive tone. She also conveyed the character’s feminine wiles with admirable comic timing. Hanno Müller-Brachmann, with a precocious, unforced bass-baritone and boyish charm, proved a fine partner as Figaro, although he is even stronger in German repertoire. The detailed characterization and well-sculpted tone of Rachel Frenkel in the role of Cherubino made for another stand-out. The seasoned mezzo Ann Murray and bass Andrew Shore were a memorable pair as Marcellina and Bartolo, Figaro’s long-lost parents, although Murray’s thespian approach seemed more tailored to a full staging. Roman Trekel brought subtle comedy to his portrayal of the Count, and Miah Persson—returning to an opera she has sung many times—inhabited the role of the Countess with natural aristocratic restraint. Norma Nahoun was a charming as Barbarina, the daughter of the gardener Antonio, here in a strong performance by Matteo Peirone.

The acoustics of the stage formation required some getting used to—inner voices at times jumped out unexpectedly, and the singers had to cut through an orchestra that surrounded them on all sides—but Fischer guided the musicians with unimposed authority. His fluid integration of scenic elements and flair for comedy remain a triumph. He managed to flesh out the characters of Mozart and Da Ponte in great detail, unencumbered by the gags that often drown out the action on opera stages. With three full-time houses, Berlin is of course not in need of more opera—and just across town, the Berlin Philharmonic can boast a far more entrenched tradition, a house with far superior acoustics, not to mention a level of international fame with which only one or two other orchestras on the planet can compete. But Fischer has succeeded in revitalizing the Konzerthaus with a fresh, organic—albeit quirky—creative impulse that remains blissfully impervious to outside influence.

‘The Magic Flute’ regains its Classical Garb

Friday, November 16th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

As Regietheater becomes the norm on opera stages in Germany, it is a pleasant, if not shocking, surprise to see a production of Die Zauberflöte that looks like a throwback to the time of its world premiere. The Staatsoper Berlin has revived a 1994 staging modelled after designs by the nineteenth-century Prussian architect and landscape painter Karl Friedrich Schinkel, primarily remembered for his Royal Theater (now rebuilt as the Konzerthaus) on Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt. Schinkel’s sets were commissioned to commemorate the crowning of Friedrich Wilhelm I on January 18, 1816, 115 years after the inauguration of Friedrich Wilhelm I. In contrast to the production’s huge success with the audience, the prince was reportedly not pleased with the results of this investment of royal funds. “In the future I won’t mix my opinion into administration affairs,” he wrote to the General Intendant of the Royal Theater.

While stage director August Everding and his team emphasize in program notes that it would be impossible to recreate Schinkel’s vision, as we cannot travel back in time to witness certain conventions in mimic and gesture, they hope to have shed new light on Mozart’s opera in the very city that is home to Schinkel’s neo-Classical creations. The Staatsoper’s current home in the Schiller does not benefit from the 18th-century splendour of the company’s headquarters on the Boulevard unter den Linden, which are currently under renovation, but painted sets by Fred Berndt and costumes by Dorothée Uhrmacher (seen November 9) immerse the audience in an aesthetic that faithfully evoke the mythic realms of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro.

The Queen descends for her first aria on a crescent moon against a starry sky while sets representing the rocky terrain on which Prince Tamino arrives part seamlessly to the side. Sarastro’s priestdom emerges with trompe l’oeil paintings of the Egyptian-inspired architecture indicated by Mozart’s librettist, Emmanuel Schikaneder, with expert lighting by Franz Peter David to give the sets depth. In what could easily offend modern viewers, Monostatos and his gang are represented with blackface as a group of violent thugs, while the three boys first emerge with a unicorn. Surreal animals ushered in by the magic flute bring a further touch of childish charm. The feathered Papageno and the family he joins at the end of the opera also made for humorous moments, even when the libretto was doctored with contemporary gags, such as the bird catcher’s response to Tamino that they are in the Schiller Theater.

In a strange twist to the usual constellation, the evening was not as even musically as it was theatrically. The conductor Julien Salemkour, an assistant to Music Director Daniel Barenboim, gave a somewhat perfunctory performance with the Staatskapelle, often hammering out notes without enough dynamic nuance and rushing the ends of phrases. On a few occasions he also did not coordinate smoothly with the singers. The performance gained intensity and authenticity starting with the more subdued, neo-Bachian passages that usher in Tamino and Pamina’s trials through fire and water toward the end of the second act, but could have used more elasticity in the final chorus “Heil sie euch Geweihten.” Having heard the orchestra in Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro under Barenboim last season, I know the musicians are capable of better.

The visceral, legato singing of René Pape in the role of Sarastro only emphasized how much more attention to line this deceptively simple score deserves, particularly in his aria “In diesen heiligen Hallen.” Pape is surely one of the best Sarastros of his generation, if not the past century, grounding the role with solemn spirituality. The Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik also gave a beautifully sung performance in the role of Tamino. The streetwise mannerisms of Adriane Queiroz may not have always evoked the innocence of Princess Pamina, but her lush soprano colored ensemble numbers with reliable warmth. She was also affecting in the scene in which Sarastro forbids her from taking the vengeful orders of her mother. As the Queen, Anna Siminska reliably hit the stratospheric staccato notes of her arias but struggled with intonation as she prepared for the climax of “Der Hölle Rache” and did not capture the character’s menacing seduction.

Roman Trekel animated the show with well-sculpted tones as Papageno and a keen sense of comic timing. He found a fine match in his Papagena, Narine Yeghiyan. In the role of Monostatos, Michael Smallwood was equally convincing with a clear, high lying tenor and humorous presence. The Three Women (Carola Höhn, Rowan Hellier and Anna Lapkovskaja) formed a compelling ensemble, as did the Three Boys (of the Aurelius Sängerknaben) despite difficulty following the conductor in their last scene. The guards of the pyramid (Kyungho Kim and Alina Anca) stood out among the male comprimario roles of the priestdom, and the chorus provided well-balanced singing, particularly in the second act. As mythical animals waved at the audience during the final bars, one had the feeling that Mozart and Schikaneder might approve of a production so respectful of the artistic principles that have proved their popularity with audiences time and again.

Drama Queen of the Year visits Berlin

Monday, November 12th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

Fans of Joyce DiDonato may find it hard to fathom that one of today’s leading bel canto singers and Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year is just spreading her stardom to Germany. The Kansas native has sung only once at a Berlin opera house, performing Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Deutsche Oper, and made her recital debut in the German capital last spring. Fortunately for us northerners, she is reversing the trend with a tour around her new album, Drama Queens (released on Virgin records). Together with the ensemble Il Complesso Barocco, she made the Konzerthaus Berlin her third stop on November 7 after traveling through the German cities of Baden-Baden and Bremen. The concert travels on to Hannover and Vienna before coming stateside.

DiDonato revisits a passion for baroque with this project, which compiles the arias of abandoned, forlorn and vengeful queens. The result plunges the listener into the tortured emotional world of a female archetype that provided the backbone of operas from Handel’s Giulio Cesare to Octavia by the little-known composer Reinhard Keiser, not to mention the many Italian composers who grounded the tradition. As DiDonato explained at the end of the recital, credit goes to Il Complesso Barocco founder Alan Curtis for spending “a lot of time in dusty libraries.” The conductor, apparently conserving his energy, was not present for the Berlin concert and ceded direction to the concert master Dmitry Sinkovksy.

The somewhat bare stage of the Konzerthaus’ main hall contrasted with DiDonato’s regal appearance in a red corset dress by Vivienne Westwood, which expanded into a full-scale bustle for the second half of the concert. The program, at least from a dramaturgical perspective, seamlessly alternated arias selected from Drama Queens with instrumental interludes. While the singer appeared somewhat nervous sitting onstage during a Scarlatti Sinfonia which proceeded her opening, a sensual account of the Cesti aria “Intorno all’idol mio,” she immediately abandoned herself to the role of the spurned queen Ottavia upon rising for the Monteverdi aria “Disprezzata regina.” The original instruments of Il Complesso Barocco underscored her mix of self-pity and rage with groaning textures.

One of DiDonato’s most powerful moments emerged in “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. DiDonato’s powers of expression easily rise to the ranks of singers such as Beverly Sills and Cecilia Bartoli who have championed this role. The nearly choked timbre of her perfectly restrained pianissimo in the da capo section reached the tear jerking point with a break in accompaniment on the final line “finché vita…in petto avrò” (as long…as I have life in my breast). She brought the same dramatic depth and technical control, trilling precisely in time with Sinkovksy, to a more rare musical gem, the Giacomelli aria “Sposa, son disprezzata,” in which the Princess Irene of Trebisond laments her unfaithful husband (not an uncommon sentiment in this compilation).

The aria “Madre diletta, abbraciami” by the Venetian Giovanni Porta’s Ifgenia in Aulide emerged with lyricism perfectly sul filo from DiDonato and elegant phrasing from Sinkovksy, who savoured his melodies increasingly as the evening unfolded. His performance was at its best in Vivaldi’s “Pisendel” Concerto as his baroque violin seemed to weep in the slow inner movement. The Orlandini aria “Da torbida procella,” the opening track of Drama Queens, followed smoothly with its propulsive, storm-tossed textures evoking the Queen Berenice’s infatuation with the Emperor Titus.

DiDonato closed the concert with “Brilla nell’alma” from Handel’s Alessandro, an especially compelling number in the German composer’s artful assimilation of what the album’s program notes explain was the newly fashionably Neapolitan style with its static chordal accompaniment. As on recording, DiDonato soared through rapid coloratura runs that capture Rossane’s glee in having pinned down Alexander the Great and gave a purely instrumental cadenza, audibly shaped by the natural sounds of Il Complesso Barocco.

As a first encore, DiDonato offered the melancholic aria “Lasciami piangere” from Keiser’s Octavia, joking that Obama’s re-election allowed her to express the protagonist’s wish to cry and die in solitude without actually having to mean it. The following account of Berenice’s vengeful aria “Col versar, barbaro, il sangue,” in which the Queen threatens suicide upon the Emperor’s announcement that he won’t marry a woman of non-Roman heritage, brought the group together with even more electric energy than in the body of the concert. The audience was clearly smitten by her natural thespian presence. A reprisal of “Da torbida procella” ended the evening on a more uplifting note in matters of imperial love.