Posts Tagged ‘Rebecca Schmid’

Krzysztof Urbanski makes Berlin Philharmonic Debut

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid

If Krzysztof Urbanski’s debut with the Berlin Philharmonic late last month should serve as any indication, this is a conductor whom we can expect to hear again soon at the Philharmonie. The young Polish native, quickly on the rise on the both sides of the Atlantic, presided over an all-Czech program on May 25 in which his fluent virtuosity and wise modesty were equally on display.

In the opening movement of Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, a less-often performed worked commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society in 1884, he managed to give fierce attacks before allowing the music to release into the players’ hands. When the light pours into this predominantly melancholy work with the entrance of a solo horn in the following Poco Allegro, Urbanski created a buoyancy that distracted from the work’s Brahmsian influence.

The Scherzo was furious but elegant through pounding dance-like rhythms, and he created a powerful tension in the apocalyptic moments of the final movement that recede again into melancholy. Curving his fingers into gallant gestures with his left hand while using the baton in his right hand to phrase with clear, sweeping movements, he kept the orchestra on its toes as the piece drew to a majestic close.

The Philharmonic’s dark strings, clean brass and chiselled woodwinds were at natural service of the drama, even more so than in two symphonic poems from Smetana’s Ma vlast cycle, which opened the evening. While the ripples of the Moldau emerged elegantly in the second poem, recalling Wagner’s music for the Rhine in the Ring cycle with the entrance of the brass, the soaring main melody evoking the composer’s Czech homeland sounded tense despite the violins’ rich tone (concert master Andreas Buschatz).

The following portrayal of the mythic figure of Sarka in the third poem bounded forth with authentic folk rhythms, elegant clarinet solos from Andreas Ottensamer, and frenzied strings but also gentle lyricism in the inner Moderato section. Urbanski at times danced on the podium but knew when to dig in with his baton, such as in the following fugal passage which he held together with fierce precision.

The evening’s most exciting bit of programming was Martinu’s First Cello Concerto featuring Sol Gabetta, whose visceral exchanges with the Philharmonic captured the chamber music underpinnings of the work, revised and expanded by the composer for full orchestra following its 1938 premiere. She was not afraid to draw harsh sounds from her instrument but also moved seamlessly into a gentle, lyric pianissimo during the cadenza-like passage that closes the first movement.

Picking up the melody of the winds that open the following Andante, she captured the music’s introspection while allowing her fiery personality to shine through. The orchestra’s strings created a gentle bed beneath her, Martinu’s harmonies shifting like shades of color in a watercolour painting.

Gabetta moved with playful ease through the freely conceived rhythms of the final movement while remaining on point with the orchestra’s pizzicati and fragmented responses. Her coordination with was so Urbanski natural as to be barely perceptible.

The DSOB breaks the Mold with Roussel and Honegger

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

untitledAHBy Rebecca Schmid

Given the range of works across the classical repertoire, one wonders how the same Brahms and Beethoven warhorses continue to dominate programming, especially in the midst of constant debate about how to keep the art form lively. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin manages to prove an exception. An evening of Honegger, Franck, Roussel and Ravel under guest conductor Stéphane Denève on March 29 at the Philharmonie made this particularly clear.

César Franck’s Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1886) uses a hybrid structure that hovers somewhere between concerto, symphony and variations’ cycle. The pianist and orchestra exchange short episodes of dialogue, with the soloist becoming more and more virtuosic. The influence of Chopin seems evident in recitative-like melodies that relegate the orchestra to the background.

The young pianist Bertrand Chamayou was an ideal champion of the music, delivering a gentle, passionate but clean interpretation in both soulful slow phrasing and racy passages in which he stayed perfectly in sync with the orchestra while Denève coaxed well-calibrated, swelling phrases. As an encore, Chamayou, who possesses a refreshingly assured but non-pretentious stage presence, offered a performance of Debussy’s Claire de Lune in which he inflected the melodies with the right touch of jazziness while also bathing them in a wash of pastels.

Opening the evening was Arthur Honegger’s Symphonie liturgique (1946), a work whose style might seem archaic against modernist developments which have claimed more social relevance. The score layers textures in strict, mostly tonal counterpoint to create a spiritual journey in protest of the “barbarity, stupidity, suffering, mechanization and bureaucracy” which emerged under Nazi occupation.

An angry Dies irae of frenetic strings and threatening brass gives way to a meditative Adagio, De profundis clamavi, whose aching, slow moving harmonies might recall Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The final Andante, Dona nobis pacem, builds into march-like, dissonant protest until the orchestra lets out a collective scream. After a lamenting cello emerges out of the dust, a flute descends out of the sky to deliver peace. The work’s overtly Christian message may verge on the kitschy, but it is composed with tremendous skill and emotional depth. The DSOB gave an earnest performance under guest conductor Stéphane Denève.

Albert’s Roussel’s Third Symphony (1930), another example of early twentieth-century music which struggles to find its place in the canon, proved an interesting companion in terms of orchestration, opening with an explosive, staccato brass and string motive that gives way to a plaintive flute melody. The work was commissioned by Serge Kossewitsky for the Boston Symphony and premiered to rave reviews.

With colourful instrumentation for the entire orchestra, the piece remains vibrant from beginning to end without becoming superficial. The second slow movement creates reflective pools of tragedy out of which, once again, a flute summons the orchestra out of its melancholy. The inner Vivace is a tour de force of festive gaiety, while the final movement—with its twittering winds and marching brass—is not without a hint of farce, evoking shades of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, but in a thoroughly idiomatic context. The DSOB played with high energy and clean attacks.

Closing the evening was the only familiar work on the program, Maurice Ravel’s Bolero (1928). Denève built tension gracefully as the work’s circular melody was tossed through the wind instruments—including saxophone—before consuming the entire orchestra in a throbbing dance. The piece was of course premiered not in straight concert but to choreography by Bronislava Nikinska at the Paris National Opera. In a better world, we would see all the great dance works of this era—by Debussy, Stravinsky, and even Strauss—performed as they were intended rather to a motionless, half-empty hall.

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

Ritual in the Philharmonie: Bach’s ‘St. John Passion’ and MusicAeterna

Friday, February 28th, 2014

By Rebecca Schmid

In the final scene of Bach’s St. John Passion, staged by Peter Sellars at the Philharmonie on Feb.27, the members of the Rundfunkchor gather in meditation around a spotlight, the rest of the hall submerged in darkness. The body of Jesus has been quietly removed during a lament of Mary Magdalene, his absence hovering in the afterglow. With only ten arias, St. John, J.S. Bach’s first completed Passion, finds its dramatic backbone in choral numbers illustrating both the adulation and persecution that accompanied Jesus’ final days before crucifixion. The chorus can transform from a blood-thirsty mob to a gathering of pleading individuals within one scene.

Sellars relies heavily on pantomime to illustrate their very human plight. The singers, at first lying like corpses, stretch their arms to the heavens during the opening “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, our Lord), only to throw dice at the dying Jesus during “Lasset uns nicht zerteilen” (Let us not be divided). Although it is sometimes a challenge to take the chorus’ histrionic expressions seriously, the director manages to capture the ambiguity, hypocrisy, cruelty and spiritual deliverance of the Gospel while always working within the space of Bach’s transcendent score. The Rundfunkchor, singing its parts from memory, immerses itself completely in the interaction of music and gesture.

Sellars considers his recreations of the Passions not stagings but ritualizations. His 2010 production of St. Matthew with the Berlin Philharmonic and Rundfunkchor was such a success that the ensembles re-joined in St. John with all the same soloists save for the now-retired Thomas Quasthoff, here replaced by baritone Roderick Williams in the role of Jesus. The director opts for an even more raw approach in St. John to externalize the music’s fierce dramatic conflict. As he explained in a recent interview via Skype (see A Hall That Invites the Audience Into the Music-Making), while “Matthew” is filled with “contemplative spaciousness, “John” is “super immediate, super visceral and shockingly realistic, over and over again.”

While chorus and orchestra interwove like polyphony in the more generously scored St. Matthew, with a white tombstone representing Jesus’ ultimate fate, St. John is all flesh and blood, violence and stasis. In one of the most powerful moments, during Pilatus’ aria urging the chorus to make a pilgrimage to the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, the chorus shouts back “where to?” from all corners of the geometric, vertiginous Philharmonie. Even the stage hands, dressed in black like the choral members and musicians, are treated as a homogenous part of the action, blurring the boundaries between theater and life, religion and secularity.

As in St. Matthew, the tenor Mark Padmore grounded the performance with a portrayal of the Evangelist at once dramatically earnest and naturalist. Often seated at the edge of the stage, he narrated with a sense of clairvoyant regret. Extensive recitatives never grew dry due to Padmore’s clear, expressive timbre, impeccable diction and direct engagement with the audience. In the role of Pilatus, Christian Gerhaher was cast as an impotent bureaucrat of sorts, sitting centerstage in empty contemplation that sometimes bordered on the deranged. Yet he brought unaffected, baritonal purity to the aria “Mein teuer Heiland” (My beloved Savior), an intimate dialogue with cello continuo and choral accompaniment that is one of the most memorable numbers in St. John.

Magdalena Kožená, returning as a Mary Magdalene figure—but this time pregnant and in a lipstick red dress—also made the most of her few numbers, conveying quiet devastation in the aria “Es ist vollbracht” (The act is completed) with a velvety, rich tone and clear diction against viola da gamba and continuo. The soprano Camilla Tilling, although blessed with a creamy timbre and commanding presence, was not as well suited to the demands of Bach’s sinuous lines, sounding thin in the extended high notes of “Zerfließe, mein Herze” (Dissolve, my heart) as she wandered among of blanket of collapsed bodies.

The tenor Topi Lehtipuu is also not the ideal choice for baroque music, with a fast vibrato that weakened his arias. Williams, when not bound to the stage floor as the blind-folded Jesus, invested his lines with pain and spiritual depth. Sir Simon Rattle and a 13-strong ensemble struck a balance between introspection and charged energy that was well in keeping with the directorial conception.


Sellars received an unexpected homage earlier this month with the arrival of Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeterna. The ensemble brought an ambitious enough program on Feb.16, performing Handel’s Dixit Dominus alongside the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas. But the young Greek conductor returned to the half-lit Philharmonie and announced that, with Sellars in the hall, the ensemble chorus would like to perform a ritual of sorts. The chorus moved through a sequence of expressive gestures in a number from Purcell’s Indian Queen, which the director staged for MusicAeterna last year in its home city of Perm.

While the classical music world has its pick of superb early music ensembles, from Concentus Musicus to Les Arts Florissants, the origins of MusicAeterna have a stake to originality. Currentzis assembled the ensemble himself in Novosibirsk, Siberia and managed to integrate both the chorus and ensemble into the Perm Opera—over 1,000 kilometers east of Moscow—upon becoming artistic director. The musicians’ non-bureaucratic genesis is still evident in their playing. The energy is high and fresh, if at times bordering on frenetic, and the communication so easy that the players breathe with Currentzis. Phrasing unfurls in shooting but clean lines, betraying hours of intense rehearsal.

This was particularly evident in the fugal seventh movement of Dixit Dominus. In the penultimate “De torrente in via bibet,” the strings’ gripping tension recalled the finest early music ensembles, although the choral soloists did not rise to the same standards. As a unit, however, the vocal ensemble produces an even, musical glow. Even if diction was an issue in the English-language libretto of Dido and Aeneas, the performance’s charm distracted from such details. Sopranos Anna Prohaska and Nurial Rial gave magnetic performances as Dido and Belinda, and Currentzis’ fluid, lanky gestures maintained a perpetual sense of momentum and dramatic intensity.

While dynamic architecture often pushed the boundaries of authentic performance practice, the sense of understatement in the final scene could not have been more effective. Against Prohaska’s florid ornamentation in reprises of “Thy hand, Belinda,” the orchestra’s sustained pianissimo hovered on the edge of an abyss.

For more by Rebecca Schmid, visit

Dual Frequencies at the Ultraschall Festival

Friday, January 24th, 2014

TOM1848[1]By Rebecca Schmid

Duos—both literal and metaphoric—are the official theme for this year’s Ultraschall Festival for New Music, taking place in Berlin until Jan.31. The event, hosted by the city’s two main classical radio stations, Kulturradio rbb and Deutschlandradio Kultur, is better known for its wide range of offerings than its tight programming. But the concept was not lost on a mostly orchestral concert at the Haus des Rundfunks on Wednesday.

Opening the evening was Jörg Widmann with his own work 5 Bruchstücke (1997) for clarinet and piano. The approximately eight-minute series of miniatures creates pointed dialogue with a range of extended techniques, from circular gestures which are echoed inside the clarinet—so skillful in the hands of Widmann as to simulate live electronic loops—to the strumming of prepared strings. Holger Groschopp, stepping in for Heinz Holliger—who was forced to withdraw for personal reasons—coordinated from the piano with impeccable timing.

In onstage moderation, freshly installed co-intendant and rbb radio host Andreas Göbel extended the duo theme to Widmann’s parallel activities as a clarinettist and composer as well as his use of both A and B clarinets in the Bruchstücke. Widmann admitted that he sometimes “curses” himself in writing such difficult music but considers it an interpreter’s responsibility to test established boundaries.

He then took the stage for Elliott Carter’s Clarinet Concerto (1996). The approximately 18-minute work requires the soloist move about and join different instrumental groups in short episodes until the entire ensemble comes together.

Widmann’s virtuosic execution of the filigree melodies and ability to emerge organically from a range of timbres revealed his uncanny ability to bend the clarinet to his own artistic ends. The conductor Wolfgang Lischke led the Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester in a precise reading whose slightly studied nature can easily be excused given that he was replacing Holliger last-minute.

The second half of the program was devoted to Swiss composers, Holliger the first among them with his double concerto Janus, which premiered in Salzburg two seasons ago. The original soloists, violinist Thomas Zehetmair and violist Ruth Killius, engaged in heated struggle with the orchestra, puncturing a molten surface of swarming textures.

The final stretch of the approximately 20-minute piece, named after the Roman god who looks both to the future and the past, creates tremendous tension with the soloists thrashing their bows in the air, the harpist swiping various plastic objects across her instrument, metallic whirring in the string section giving way to ethereal chimes.

Klaus Huber’s Tenebrae, the only work of the evening to exploit a large-scale orchestra and the oldest on the roster with a premiere date of 1967, is also a study in masterful instrumentation and dramatic purpose. The darkness implied in the title is more of a metaphysical force that drives the music, alternating glassy strings with frenetic winds, eerie emptiness with screaming blasts, a mystic realm that does not seek clear answers. A certain duality nevertheless underpins the 18-minute work.

The 90-year-old Huber was present for a short conversation in which he spoke of the work’s premiere in Warsaw, leading Göbel to tie the theme of darkness to Cold War politics of the time. Yet the composer emphasized that the music should speak for itself, perhaps even more easily now than it did in the 1960s.

‘Il Trovatore’ at the Staatsoper Berlin

Friday, December 6th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid


While Il Trovatore counts as one of Verdi’s most gripping scores, the libretto’s sprawling tale of love and vengeance is not without dramaturgical challenges. A staging by Philip Stötzl which opened at the Staatsoper Berlin on Nov.29 featured several first encounters with the opera. Anna Netrebko, who attended the premiere of the co-production with the Wiener Festwochen last spring, decided to make the performance her role debut as the lady-in-waiting Leonora. The sinister Conte di Luna marks a first for Plácido Domingo, better known for his portrayal of the troubadour Manrico during his heyday as a tenor. Staatsoper Music Director Daniel Barenboim had never tackled the score, and Stötzl—a film director by training who has mostly staged Wagner—also found himself on new terrain.

Stötzl deals with the rapid jumps in plot and formulaic approach of Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto to a tragic love triangle in 15th century Spain by creating a series of caricatures. The action is confined to an open cube tilted downstage (sets by the director and Conrad Moritz Reinhardt), with doors on all sides for the characters to spontaneously emerge. The aesthetic creates a tone at once classic and comic: The count’s army frolics with spears and top hats, while Leonora and her confidante, Inez, twirl around in cartoonish blonde wigs and oversized bustles (costumes by Ursula Kurdna). Azucena and her band of gypsies appear as clown-like hooligans—wearing not rags but ruffs.

The production is visually captivating from start to finish—with choreography by Mara Kurotschka to animate choral scenes such as the famous anvil number; expert lighting by Olaf Freese which casts colourful shadows in mirror-image; and video projections by fettFilm that transform the otherwise static set with optical illusions, dismantling the walls into a starry sky in the final scene. However, one could have done without the childish vignettes featuring the characters in miniature and fake blood dripping down the walls after Leonora has stabbed herself.

Despite Stötzl’s tight emphasis on the inter-personal relationships of the opera, his tongue-in-cheek tone ultimately detracts from its pathos. It was hard to take Azucena, in an unusually youthful but powerfully sung portrayal by Marina Prundenskaja, seriously when she tells Manrico (Gaston Rivera) how she accidentally burned her own son. And despite Netrebko’s heartfelt delivery in the final scenes, there lacked a sense of tragedy when she dies at Manrico’s feet, followed by the troubadour himself. Perhaps because Stötzl emphasized fairy-tale farce over the primal elements of the story—class struggle, blood-thirsty revenge, the continuity of death and life—the characters remained trapped in a bubble of theatrical whimsy.

The evening had its strengths and weaknesses vocally. After warming up in the opening scenes, Netrebko was best in the full-blooded lines of ensemble numbers, such as when the count abducts her from a convent in the second act. But her hushed tones the Adagio “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” which she sings to the imprisoned Manrico, were brittle. Domingo struggled with the role of the Count—producing a raspy tone which left listeners worrying about his health—although his beautiful diction and sensuous phrasing remain intact.

Rivera, stepping in for an ill-disposed Aleksandrs Antonenko, gave an admirable performance as Manrico, bringing a penetrating tone and agile lines to the cabaletta “Di quella pira.” The voice has a fast vibrato, however, that is not always attractive. As Ferrando, the count’s officer, Adrian Sâmpetrean brought a true basso profondo and excellent rubato to the opening scene in which he warns the troops about the troubadour. Staatsoper ensemble member Anna Lapovskaja gave a pleasant account of Leonora’s confidante, Inez.

Barenboim led the Staatskapelle with gripping forward drive and elasticity of phrasing. The brass section was at times too Wagnerian, and tempo transitions such as that from Leonora’s exchange with Inez into the slow aria “Tacea la Notte” were not smooth, but his first take on the opera counts as a triumph. The Staatsoper Chorus, challenged by some of the precisely-timed choreography, was not as polished as it could have been in rhythm and diction, but the anvil scene and a-capella female number in the convent were beautifully delivered.

East meets West: The National Symphony Orchestra at the Philharmonie

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Taiwan_NSO_1[1]By Rebecca Schmid

The Taiwan Philharmonic, which also calls itself the National Symphony Orchestra, came to Berlin on Nov.18 as part of the second European tour in its history. With two recent commissions on the program—one by a German composer, the other by an American-trained Taiwanese native—it became clear how global classical music trends have become.

Ming-Hsiu Yen’s Breaking Through, which opened the program, stays true to its title with a clear dramaturgical structure. In the first section of the approximately 14-minute piece, after an exciting drum fanfare, various sections of the orchestra—high strings against brass, low strings against winds—are set into friction with each other, creating an immediate sense that something has to give. The second section builds out of an insistent, mourning motive in the low strings until only glassy textures and xylophone are left, only to rise again into a heroic close.

A post-Romantic feel also extends to Christian Jost’s Taipei Horizon, although a more apt title might be Taipei Apocalypse. The music opens with spurts of atmospheric, extended dissonances. There is some relief when an oboe solo emerges above pizzicati and swirling motives, but the approximately 16-minute work proceeds to march on in a procession of directionless despair, with brushes of pentatonic motives that should lend eastern flair, warring percussion, and morose low strings that have their final word in rumbling double-basses.

The orchestra, under its Music Director Shao-Chia Lü, gave a careful reading of both scores, although the Jost had perfunctory moments. In Breaking Through, the trombones got off to a wobbly start but warmed up to a more even tone.

The Sibelius Violin Concerto, featuring Viviane Hagner as soloist, was less convincing. Despite the Philharmonic’s clean, well-calibrated playing, there was no sense of the spacious mystery or profound melancholy that brings this music to life in the opening Allegro.

The middle movement, which relies on the expressive power of the soloist in passages of naked, soulful lyricism, was even more disappointing. Hagner’s soft dynamics were not trenchant enough, nor did she capture the complex emotions behind the notes. The zesty delivery of the final movement was more satisfying, although the soloist’s tone could have benefitted from more strength.

All sections of the orchestra were in fine form for Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, which unfolded with fresh energy and elegant phrasing, particularly in the lilting dance-like melody of the closing Allegro ma non troppo. Lü, clearly in high spirits, showed off his flair for the composer with an encore of the Fifth Slavonic Dance. He then brought the soprano Meng-Chun Lin onstage to perform a traditional Taiwanese song.

As the orchestration flowered around her earnest melody, one caught a glimpse of what may be the future of classical music.

Expunged ‘Tannhäuser’ opens Debate on Artistic Freedom

Friday, May 17th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

The tolerance of German audiences for extreme stage productions is a source of national pride and the envy of many abroad. But a production of Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein which had to be stripped down to concert performance last week has set off a national debate about the sanctity of a director’s artistic freedom. Two seasons ago, the Bayreuth Festival mounted the same opera in a new production by Sebastian Baumgartner which places the heroine, Elisabeth, in a “biogas” chamber. It caused a moral outcry in the press, but the notion of her being “recycled” rather than outright gassed appears to have kept the staging in repertoire. In Düsseldorf, at the Oper am Rhein, the director Burkhard C. Kosminski went a step too far. Naked extras were already being gassed during the overture. An entire family was shot after its members had their heads shaven by soldiers. Venus was dressed in an SS uniform; Elisabeth was raped and burned. The boos in the small city of Düsseldorf started 30 minutes into the production, according to Der Spiegel, and some audience members were so traumatized that they needed medical attention. Criticism from the Jewish community was just the icing on the cake. But Kosminski refused to modify his vision, for fear of betraying his artistic principles. Less than a week after its premiere on May 4, the opera was reduced to a concert version.

The obvious issue, which audience members were quick to point out, is that Nazis and persecuted Jews have nothing to do with Tannhäuser. The opera is about a pilgrim who leaves Venus’ world of love-making, enters a song competition on the Wartburg, and finds redemption in the saintly Elisabeth. An editorial in the German magazine Cicero , dedicated to the intersection of arts and politics, observes that a director turns to Nazis when he has no good ideas of own. The author continues to criticize Germany’s lavish public funding for theater, calling Hitler its “patron saint.” It may be worth noting that the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, a shared entity of the nearby cities of Düssseldorf and Duisburg, nearly entered financial meltdown last season. Was the production a desperate attempt to lend the company a cutting-edge status capable of competing with the many other opera houses in West Germany (let’s not forget that the reunited country possesses altogether one-seventh of the world’s companies)?

In an interview with Der Spiegel this week, Kosminski states the “real scandal” at hand is “censorship in the arts.” He insists that the production intended to mourn, not ridicule, the victims of World War Two, describing himself as “terrified” by criticism from the Jewish community. Just yesterday, he won the support of the president of the Akademie der Künste, Klaus Staeck, who has written a letter demanding that the production be reinstated. “Art—regardless of its quality!—is not a superfluous luxury,” he argues. Is it then justified to use art as a vehicle for emotional torture? And is quality not an important criterium when good tax money is being invested? From a purely literary point of view, there is little to no basis for casting Tannhäuser as a war criminal who is forced into the SS guard. Surely Greek myth is more important to understanding the opera than Wagner’s indirect connection to the Holocaust as a role model of Hitler.

Although the opera derives its plot in part from Thuringian legend, there is little in the way of nationalist undertones compared to later works such as Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal and, to some extent, the Ring cycle. Patrice Chéreau caused a scandal upon the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 by setting the cycle at the time of early German industrialization. This is a loaded topic, given the industrial killings that followed during World War Two, but the production opened the door to historical allegory on the Festspielhaus stage. Stefan Herheim’s 2008 production of Parsifal, which opens in the Villa Wahnfried in the 1880s and ends in the Federal Republic of Bonn, plumbs the possibilities even further. The appearance of swastika flags and black-and-white footage from the Second World War remains controversial, but Herheim caused the audience to think critically about the inextricability of Wagner’s works from his time and the institution of Bayreuth itself.

Kosminski, through his graphic depictions of the violence and genocide, crossed a threshold that was already at breaking point. Although I didn’t see the production first-hand, the audience’s reaction would indicate that he lacked the sophistication of a director such as Chéreau or Herheim. The exploitation of World War Two—not just to artistic ends but in the media and in academia—has reached a point of saturation in Germany that, thanks to the reaction at the Oper am Rhein, should finally be considered cause for concern. Artistic freedom does not license a director to indulge his darkest fantasies or work out psychological issues at the expense of an opera. Do we go to the theater to be provoked, reviled and confused, or enlightened and transported by an interpretation that allows us to penetrate a given work with more understanding and appreciation? Wagner may remain a thorn in the cultural consciousness, but it is not paying respect to anyone—neither the composer, the German people, nor the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust—to use his stage works as vehicles for cheap, shock tactics under the pretence of creating socially relevant art. As austerity plagues Europe, it is even more shameful to invest in stage productions that ruin rather than illuminate an opera.

Catching up on the opera scene…

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

The Deutsche Oper’s Tischlerei, a new wing for alternative music theater, hosted the results of Neue Szenen—a competition for composition launched by the Hans Eisler Conservatory—on April 8. Three young composers, Evan Gardner, Stefan Johannes Hanke and Leah Muir, emerged from a pool of 52 applicants with their musical settings of a monologue about the Russian journalist Anna Politkowskaja, who was held hostage in 2002 while reporting about the war in Chechnya and murdered outside her Moscow apartment four years later. The topic seems slightly less hackneyed following the bombings in Boston (maybe Sarah Palin should have to sit through all three versions so that she doesn’t confuse the republic with former Czechoslovakia). Each composer was allotted five voices, a maximum of 18 instruments, and their own stage director—yielding scene changes that lasted as long as 20 minutes. It might have made sense to limit directors to a single, mutable set design; surely it wasn’t necessary to dismantle a proscenium that in fact masked acoustics in the first scene (Gardner’s Die Unterhändlerin ‘The Negotiator’) to set up a mess of chairs for Hanke’s It will be rain tonight.

Gardner took the most literal approach with a text that included three other contributors (not including the monologue’s author Christoph Nußbaumeder). A black-masked terrorist (countertenor Georg Bochow) patronized Politkowskaja (mezzo Zoe Kissa), who declared at gunpoint that she “belongs on the side of the oppressed.” The eerie textures of Gardner, an American composer who has lived in Berlin since 2006, underscored the ominous drama but threatened to grow static. It didn’t help that the Echo Ensemble, resident at the Hans Eisler Conservatory, struggled to cleanly execute advanced string techniques under the baton of Manuel Nawri. One of the most effective moments emerged when a frightened character named Masha (Katharina Thomas) panted through a megaphone against ricocheting motives. Gardner’s ensemble writing also revealed great potential.

Hanke took a more poetic approach, with atmospheric winds and more conventional but sophisticated orchestration that illustrated the emotional world of Politkowskaja. The music might have been even more moving without the pseudo-Brechtian staging (Tamara Heimbrock). Muir, another American native, working with highly subtle textures such as wilting slides and sustained, post-Feldman dissonances, suffered most from the Regie (Michael Höppner), set in a dystopically bureaucratic office (presumably that of a newspaper) where an actor, at a climactic moment with fake blood dripping down his legs, reminisces about a lost cat. All considerations aside, Neue Szenen deserves credit for affording emerging composers the opportunity to stage their works at a major venue.

Le Grand Macabre

The Komische Oper has revived Intendant Barrie Kosky’s 2003 staging of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, referenced earlier this season by Robert Carsen with an apocalyptic toilet bowl in Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges at the Deutsche Oper. To be sure, the gesture is distasteful in both instances. Kosky uses the porcelain bowl as a throne for Nekrotzar (the Grand Macabre, or a personification of death), which overflows with excrement when he declares the end of the world; Carsen, with his tongue in cheek, has the cook of Creonte’s palace retrieve the magic oranges from his own latrine. But Kosky redeems moments of senseless vulgarity by recreating the opera’s surreal reflection upon life and death with the right blend of dark humor, eroticism and biting social criticism (as seen May 5). The sight of Nekrotzar (Claudio Otelli) chewing on organs in the opening cemetery tableau, his face smeared in fake blood, might have been too much for this viewer, but Ligeti’s musical landscape pulses with death and violence. Kosky brings the characters to life with great dramatic clarity—the gravedigger Piet (Chris Meritt) bumbles around and laughs with morbid naivety; Prince Go-Go (Andrew Watts) is a sex-obsessed, spoiled brat. The director even manages to pull off a threesome with the two ministers (Tansel Akzeybek and Carsten Sabrowski) without it seeming purely for the sake of provocation.

In an amusing touch, the police chief Gepopo (Eir Inderhaug) sticks her head out from the hot pink bed of the prince (sets and costumes by Peter Corrigan) to announce the impending arrival of Nekrotzar, armless beneath her blazer as she bounces up and down in a state of orgiastic mania. The final tableau, in which the characters are trapped somewhere between life and death, evoked so vividly with Ligeti’s shimmering, microtonal textures, emerged in mesmerizing strokes as mermen slithered onstage beneath a heavenly city that descended on a self-consciously artificial cloud. It was certainly over-the-top—and disruptive to the opera’s dramatic flow—when the prince suddenly belted out the 1980s hit The Loco-Motion from his porcelain throne after the departure of the ruffians (here a priest, a rabbi and an Imam), but with the return of the lovers Amando and Amanda (Annelie Sophie Müller, Julia Giebel), and their sensuous, interlocking intervals, Ligeti’s score came to an absorbing close. Despite intermittent gimmicks, the cast was strong throughout, both musically and dramatically, and the house orchestra delivered a fine performance under Baldur Brönimann.

Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

Experimental Regie, free from the scrutiny of finicky patrons on the German opera scene, can in the best case scenario serve to illuminate hidden meanings of a score. In the worst case, it can drown out or obscure musical considerations. The Staatsoper Berlin’s Werkstatt (‘workshop’), a wing of the company’s temporary residence in the Schiller Theater dedicated to new music theater (the literal translation of Musiktheater, which in effect places music and theater on equal turf), is currently showing Salvatore Sciarrino’s Vanitas (1981), designated by the composer as a ‘still life in one act.’ A trio for soprano, cello and piano, the work—seen at its second run on March 19—comes closest to a mini cantata with its intricate exchanges. A winding, descending melody provides a Leitmotif of angst and emptiness for the soprano, echoed by the ghostly cello, while the piano interjects with a bed of shifting harmonies. The text, woven together from fragments by German, Italian and other poets, lingers existentially over a wilting rose—an image hovering on the boundary between life and death.

In a new staging by Götz Friedrich protégé Beate Baron, the notion of a still life is taken literally when an elderly couple (Hans Hirschmüller and Friederike Frerichs) stands motionless before the audience, the sequins on their aristocratic clothes sparkling as they exude an admonishing stare. The soprano (Rowan Hellier) is trapped in her own surreal world—hair pinned up above doll-like make-up when she emerges from a corridor drowned in white light. As the drama escalates with frenetic passages in the piano (Jenny Kim), scrims descend to provide close-ups of the elderly couple—larger than life yet a bold distraction from the searching emptiness of the music. The actors, still onstage, resemble negligent, upper crust parents as they observe Hellier writhe on the floor in a moment of insanity. Her agility was impressive, but certain positions naturally compromised vocal production. I found myself drawn to the skilful playing of cellist Gregor Fuhrmann as his bow hovered with eerie tones above the bridge. Grating and creaking accompanied Hellier’s silent scream as the lights faded to darkness—a moment which allowed for full immersion in the music.

Ultimately, one was left wanting more. Perhaps it would have made sense to juxtapose the work with another one-acter—maybe even a world premiere culled from the extensive pool of Berlin-based composers—and pare back the staging? Two seasons ago, the company mounted Sciarrino’s Infinito Nero (1998) alongside Peter Maxwell Davies’ Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot (1974). Davies received an installation with live video that culminated in attempted suicide and a still birth, but in this case the protagonist is an abandoned bride who, according to the 19th-century story, actually does go insane. For Sciarrino’s ‘ecstasy in one act’ evoking the mystical experiences of Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, the soprano Sarah Maria Sun was duct-taped to a cross that was hung from the ceiling. The concept was at first captivating—not to mention a technical feat—but quickly lost traction when extras crawled around with dildos stuck in their flies and splattered Sun with blue paint. The score’s hollow, breathing winds and haunted outbursts were reduced to spiritual relics—which is ironic given the Werkstatt’s focus on new music. The institution deserves credit for its sense of adventure, but the future of Musiktheater may depend on an awareness that theater must serve the interests of music—not the other way around.