Posts Tagged ‘Simon Rattle’

More Random Thoughts on Bayreuth

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

By: Frank Cadenhead

The Austrian newspaper, Der Kurier, let drop a great deal of information about what to expect in the future for the Bayreuth Festival. The new Ring in 2020, to the surprise of many, will not be conducted by the new Music Director of the festival, Christian Thielemann, but rather the Boston Symphony’s Andris Nelsons with American soprano Christine Goerke chalked in to sing Brunnhilde. She will be singing the complete Ring when the Robert Lepage production returns to the state at the Metropolitan Opera, it has been announced. Hints are that Dimitri Tcherniakov will be creating the new Bayreuth production.

The 2016 Parsifal will also feature Andris Nelsons and will be staged by Uwe Eric Laufenberg with Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. The 2017 performances will star Andreas Schager. That same year, Die Meistersinger will return with a new production by Barrie Kosky with Vogt as Stolzing and Michael Volle as Sachs. The 2018 Lohengrin will be conducted by Thielemann and staged by Alvis Hermanis with Roberto Alagna in the title role and Anna Netrebko as Else. There will be a new Tannhäuser staged by Tobias Kratzer in 2019. In addition to Goerke for the Ring in 2020, Andreas Schager will be the Siegfried. With time, however, things happen and with the last minute changes in this year’s casting it is way too early to carve these names in stone.

I find the lack of surtitles in Bayreuth to be a symbol of arrogant old thinking that should change. The lack of such an amenity, now literally everywhere in the opera world, is hard to explain in rational terms. If they think all of the audience has memorized the entire dialogue of the always prolix Richard Wagner they simply have never considered the question. With new technology, seat-back additions, like at the Met, would not be expensive and the one percent who have actually memorized every word can turn them off. Frank Castorf’s very detailed Ring dramatics must have left the majority of the audience in various stage of incomprehension a good part of the time.

My impression is that formal wear is now worn by the minority toward the end of the festival run. I can’t speak about opening night but you could see jeans and sport shirts at the last Ring cycle in August. The fact that there is no air conditioning at the Festspielhaus for the August festival is an added encouragement to forget the bow tie and layers.

At the end of the Castorf ring, the larger implications for Wagner’s shrine are being examined whether the regulars like it or not. My first time there, in 1963, Bayreuth and the festival reminded me of a temple of worship and the stiff, well-aged and very formal audiences were acolytes at a ceremony. Significantly, the Wieland Wagner staging of Tannhäuser (with Grace Bumbry as the Black Venus) stirred rage among the traditionalists by abstracting the stage direction. The overt sexuality of the ballet for the Venusberg music was, for me, assuringly apt but provoked the regulars. Aside from the rather more mixed audiences – more varied ages and social levels – a half-century later the Castorf staging still had the traditionalists in a lather. But, at the end of the run, I noted little of this heat. Clearly the staging was intended to puncture some balloons. This lèse-majesté began to be understood better, as with the Chereau Ring, after some time.

The festival Ring program was quite specific about what a dangerous revolutionary Wagner was. While many are aware of his anti-Semitism and assumed he grew socially conservative, Wagner advocated radical social movements all his life. Siegfried’s “Mount Rushmore” with Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao was no accident and his depiction of the lust for wealth and control, here “black gold,” provided a logical background for the drama.

Something that was little discussed among this year’s festival news was a fundamental change in the structure and soul of the festival that will certainly have major long term consequences. My guess is that the change, announced a few days before the start of the festival, will have a ultimate negative impact. The appointment of Christian Thielemann as “music director” of the festival first became public when the new sign for his parking place, with his new title, was widely tweeted. Some days later a press conference gave the official declaration.

Since the beginning, the festival never has had a music director. The structure formally was to hire the conductor and director for a particular opera and wait for the results. Casting was the prerogative of the conductor. Now this is not certain and Kirill Petrenko, the new designated successor to Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic, had his tenor changed just weeks before opening night and it was likely that Thielemann had something to do with that. It resulted in an uncharacteristic public statement critical of the meddling from the notoriously media-shy conductor. I would imagine this will not be the last scandal involving Thielemann who has a long history of arch-conservative remarks and trouble with management and musicians. Clearly there would be conductors and stage directors who would not consider Bayreuth while he is “music director.” My view is that this appointment, approved by the festival’s board of directors, will likely be regretted in the future.

Berlin’s Dark Horse

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Vladimir Jurowski

Republished: May 4, 2015

MUNICH — Word around town has it that Christian Thielemann holds the biggest committed block of votes heading into next Monday’s Berlin Philharmonic election. The rest, so the scuttlebutt goes, divide widely, in part reflecting the musicians’ open-nomination process.

That this Chefdirigent transition is much discussed up here in Bavaria comes as a surprise. The Berliners years ago lost their dominance among German orchestras, notably with the return to glory of the older Leipzig Gewandhaus and Dresden Staatskapelle, which since reunification in 1990 have been solidly funded by their Saxon Government and are now routinely televised under their conductors Riccardo Chailly and Thielemann.

But discussed it is, probably out of happy fascination that a body of 124 tenured musicians actually enjoys the freedom in this corporate-political world to determine its own artistic path. The process certainly beats officials deciding, or a clubby mixed committee. If voting on May 11 yields no “clear majority,” a shortlist will be drawn up and a second round held, at which time the less committed will shift. Naturally the winner has the option of declining the offer.

Another surprise, two weeks ago, was Mariss Jansons’ casual comment during the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s season news conference to the effect that “we will see what happens” in Berlin. It had been assumed here that the 72-year-old was not a candidate, considering the health problems that led him to resign from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra. Apparently he is.

Thielemann would be the first German to hold the lofty post since Wilhelm Furtwängler died 61 years ago, no minor consideration in this resurgent and recently enlarged nation. He might be perfect for it. Imaginative and commanding, magnetic and familiar, he would bring skills in Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner and Strauss that are unquestioned.

More pertinently he appears the best-attached of any potential candidate to prospects for robust earned incomes for the players, what with the global viewership he pulls in Dresden and the rapture he engenders in such disparate places as Beijing and Baden-Baden, Abu Dhabi and Vienna.

But for several reasons the Thielemann candidacy could collapse. He sits pretty at present in the refurbished Saxon capital, tied majestically to Salzburg through leadership of the Herbert von Karajan-founded Easter Festival, and so he may push for too much from an interested Berlin, for instance by seeking lifetime tenure in emulation of Karajan. Rumored to be right-wing politically, and not shy, he may open his mouth in ways that portend headaches for Berlin’s politicians, city or federal: he already has, in fact, in guarded support of the anti-Islam Pegida movement, crossing Angela Merkel’s position.

Most ruinously, and quite realistically, the entrenchment of his voting support among the musicians may produce an equally stubborn, larger, anyone-but-Thielemann faction that would only need to agree on someone else.

The divided nature of the non-Thielemann vote points to the dilemma facing the Berliners should electing him prove impossible. Far from a glittering array of options, the promise is of awkward rounds of eliminations driven by commercial requisites, institutional pride and vital timeframes. These are clear enough to seem to leave just one candidate, a dark horse as the grapevine discussions presently go.

To state the obvious, the orchestra needs a renowned, enthusiastic, hugely talented money-maker. Someone it can successfully promote and who can reciprocate. Someone who can put in a decade or more on the job, history suggests. The choices thin out abruptly.

Age, health, or crested fame surely bars Daniel Barenboim, Herbert Blomstedt, Chailly, Charles Dutoit, Bernard Haitink, Marek Janowski, Jansons, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Mikhail Pletnev, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Michael Tilson Thomas. What kind of signal about the future would such an appointment send? Sensibly, and maybe on advice, Barenboim has publicly withdrawn.

Conversely the Berlin organization takes itself too seriously to reach down to the unknown, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic once boldly did with Esa-Pekka Salonen, and in any case has no Ernest Fleischmann to guide and impose such an initiative. Even if it could, a number of superb young conductors have not yet proven themselves in the orchestra’s core repertory (and indeed Salonen never did): Lionel Bringuier, Constantinos Carydis, Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Tomáš Hanus, Michele Mariotti, Diego Matheuz, Vasily Petrenko, Krzysztof Urbański.

No, the Berlin Philharmonic is restricted to what should be a plentiful middle field: men and women mainly in their 40s and 50s. The talent is there, as always, but the “names” are few thanks to a generational blip in the star system.

Reputations used to be sealed by the record industry, where imagery, repertory assignments and regimentation by label created and conferred prestige — not least on the future Berlin Chefdirigents Karajan, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle (all using English orchestras).

But when the industry imploded after 1990, so did this system. And two exceptions to the implosion do nothing for Berlin’s musician-voters today: in the Russian repertory, where pent-up demand for Western-controlled recorded surveys (suddenly enabled under the coincident Yeltsin regime) catapulted the name Valery Gergiev; and in the ongoing period-instrument movement, elevating William Christie, John Eliot Gardiner, Marc Minkowski and lesser talents.

The result is a dearth of famous conductors in precisely the age group Berlin must select from now. Stéphane Denève? Thomas Hengelbrock? Manfred Honeck? Known and most worthy, but not today the stars they would have become had the labels continued with their earlier promotional practices.

The names that can be shortlisted soon dwindle upon mundane consideration. Gustavo Dudamel, Gergiev, Riccardo Muti and Yannick Nézet-Séguin are contracted elsewhere until at least 2020. A Briton to follow a Briton would not sit well politically, nixing Ivor Bolton, Gardiner, Daniel Harding and Antonio Pappano. Limited appeal in Germany precludes Myung-Whun Chung, while Simone Young has rather overstayed in Hamburg. Nor can the musician-voters take someone who has stormed out: Fabio Luisi or Franz Welser-Möst.

Electing a conductor who is just getting started in another job, or on a sure separate trajectory, would cast the Berliners as unimaginative poachers, ruling out Iván Fischer, Philippe Jordan, Andris Nelsons, Kirill Petrenko and Tugan Sokhiev. And despite the admirable broadening of the orchestra’s operational scope under Rattle, it would never work to bring in a specialist: Giovanni Antonini, Christie, Emmanuelle Haïm, Minkowski.

Tough and vague, but key, is the matter of charisma. Rattle has little of it, and this fact has gnawed away below the patina of the Berlin brand, a mistake not to repeat. Star quality — promotability — is not the first strength of several theoretical contenders for this grand post: Marin Alsop, Semyon Bychkov, James Conlon, Andrew Davis, Ádám Fischer, Alan Gilbert, Louis Langrée, Ludovic Morlot or David Robertson.

Deduction, then, leaves one feasible conductor of renown. He’s thought of as Russian but in fact is Russian-German, having come to this country as a teenager. His name does not immediately come up in the context of this transition because he is little associated with the Berlin Philharmonic: he has led just a few concerts with the orchestra — his last program, in 2011, featured the rare Das klagende Lied — perhaps a cleverly planned fact that will allow non-Thielemann consensus, there being no “damage.” The players know him further, however, through other engagements in Berlin, where he happens to live, and no doubt through personal interactions. This season he conducts the Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, the Konzerthaus-Orchester, and at the Komische Oper.

He may well be a friend of Rattle’s. The two have Glyndebourne Festival Opera in common and serve as principal artists of London’s period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. If he is Rattle’s own idea of the right successor, the incumbent is assuredly now gauging and conveying the interests on both sides.

Tactful and politically astute, he maintains ties to two Moscow orchestras yet manages to stay out of the fray over Vladimir Putin, and after years as music director of Glyndebourne he made a public point of praising the festival as a place to work. Diplomacy goes far in a capital city.

His repertory is cosmopolitan, even if weighted toward Russian and German music. He is not celebrated for Haydn or Mozart but does embrace period-instrument practices. At the same time, he remains intellectually curious, venturing Schnittke’s Third Symphony for example this season. Critics are generally positive, especially in London, where his Brahms made waves two seasons ago for its traditionalism, but also in New York (Hänsel und Gretel and Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Metropolitan Opera) and Philadelphia, where he regularly guests.

Interestingly his present contract as principal conductor and artistic advisor of the London Philharmonic ends at the same time as Rattle’s in Berlin. Where will he be May 11? At home, probably. He conducts the Komische Oper’s Moses und Aron the night before. So a prediction: if naysayers thwart Thielemann in the vote, or his own hubris does, the next Chefdirigent of the Berlin Philharmonic will be Vladimir Jurowski.

Photo (modified) © Sheila Rock

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Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 2012

Published: March 31, 2015

MUNICH — Arts projects in Europe with any visual aspect to them nowadays migrate to DVD whether or not there is a need, partly to justify public subsidy through distribution. Many are operas filmed too often, like Nationaltheater Mannheim’s just-released Der Ring des Nibelungen, which joins DVD tetralogies from Barcelona, Copenhagen, Erl, Frankfurt, Milan, Stuttgart, Valencia and Weimar issued since 2002. (The same staging nearly bankrupted Los Angeles Opera yet could not be filmed in the movie capital for lack of funds.) Others are more worthy or at least cover rarer material, and generally record labels can license their adventurous content with only modest investment. Here are seven such DVD releases along with some live or live-related European CDs, mostly from recent seasons.

Ivan Alexandre’s staging of Hippolyte et Aricie premiered in 2009 in the intimate Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse. Its fluid interweaving of Rameau’s vocal and dance elements and credible Personenregie adapted to the composer’s pace earned it a transfer to Paris in 2012, now viewable on a 2-DVD Erato set. Alexandre approaches scenography using methods consistent with period practice and potential. Helped by handsome flat designs and tight control of color, the effects were intriguing and refreshing to watch in both cities’ theaters, and happily they advance the story equally well through the camera lens. Indeed the project is of a quality to set beside Jean-Marie Villégier’s legendary Montpellier production of Lully’s Atys and faithful to Rameau’s tragédie lyrique in a way the modish competing Glyndebourne DVD of 2013 could be only in its audio. Dynamic musicianship underpins the effort, with an admirable cast, notably Stéphane Degout as a mellifluous Thésée (pictured, right, aux enfers). Emmanuelle Haïm’s conducting, all elbows and fists, apparently suits her orchestra, Le Concert d’Astrée.

Warner Classics, the new EMI, has issued a Berlin Philharmonic CD pairing live 2012 and 2010 performances of Rachmaninoff’s Kolokola (Bells) and Symphonic Dances. Simon Rattle’s urbane and at times sultry reading of the cantata — the composer called it a choral symphony — disappoints, with his veteran soprano thin-voiced and only Mikhail Petrenko, his bass in the concluding Mournful Iron Bells, injecting much Russian flavor. But in the dances the conductor’s refinement creates an enthralling balance of power and grace, and he presents a progression from the bucolic first movement, through a hardened Andante con moto, to the contrasts and drama of the suite’s lengthy third part. The string sound has bloom and the woodwinds find a huge range of expression and character.

The Pergolesi tricentennial of 2010 did the Jesi-born Neapolitan composer proud, prompting Claudio Abbado’s priceless 3-CD survey of his choral music as well as a 12-DVD “tutto” collection of the operas, filmed in Jesi. Perhaps the richest single work is the comedy Lo frate ’nnamorato, written at the same time as Hippolyte et Aricie but a world away from it (and pointing forwards to Mozart rather than back at Lully). It is ably led by Fabio Biondi in the big set, but Teatro alla Scala in 1989 had a cast for this opera of charming da capo arias that won’t soon be equaled in technique or liveliness, and their RAI-televised work is currently an Opus Arte DVD. Several Italian singers at the start of good careers — Nuccia Focile, Luciana d’Intino, Bernadette Manca di Nissa, Alessandro Corbelli — energize the story of Ascanio (Focile), “the brother enamored” unknowingly of his two sisters and, luckily, a third woman too. It is unavoidably a larger-scale staging than the piece wants, but Roberto de Simone directs the action neatly on a revolving unit set. The orchestral playing has poise and discipline even if Riccardo Muti propels the score at a tad slower pace than would be ideal.

Twelve years after Cecilia Bartoli’s exploratory Decca disc of rare Gluck arias, the label has issued a companion CD introducing German lyric tenor Daniel Behle. Recorded under sponsorship in Athens in 2013, it leaps out of the loudspeakers. The Bavarian composer’s pre-reform music, now more familiar, can still startle in its inventive turns and loose palettes, and Behle, who sang a riveting Tito in the Mozart opera last fall here at the Staatsoper, opts for several pieces that lie high. In two contrasted arias from La Semiramide riconosciuta he copes manfully with technical demands while keeping power in reserve, as he did on stage. Se povero il ruscello from Ezio brings relaxed lyricism and a mellow timbre that caresses the line. The stunning scena that opens La contesa de’ Numi is duly dramatic. But who oversaw this project? Everything is closely miked. Period orchestra Armonia Atenea accompanies vigorously as led by George Petrou, right in your ear. Misplaced vowel sounds from Behle, in the context of generally accurate delivery, were not fixed. And we jump to French arias at the end, familiar ones, including a bizarrely jovial J’ai perdu mon Eurydice. Producers matter.

Stage director Pierre Audi in 2009 combined Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride for the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and Christophe Rousset conducted imaginatively over an extended evening as Euripides’ heroine appeared first as teenager in a Greek port and then as adult exile somewhere in Crimea. Two years later Audi’s literally clunky conception — on metal steps and without backdrop — resurfaced in Amsterdam with a mostly changed cast and, alas, Marc Minkowski defining the music through irksome rhythmic stresses, missing much beauty. There it was filmed. Unenhanceable by camera blocking and with Aulide cut by thirty fine minutes, the production is now an Opus Arte 2-DVD set. Gluck’s first opera has the more lyrically inspired and stately score, with a terrific overture; in Tauride his musical frame is tauter and more overtly theatrical. Véronique Gens and Nicolas Testé excel as the young Iphigénie and her father, while Anne Sofie von Otter returns affectingly to Clytemnestre, a role she recorded 24 years earlier; Frédéric Antoun contributes a credible, unstraining Achille. Tauride revolves around the smart Mireille Delunsch, abetted by Yann Beuron (Pylade), Jean-François Lapointe (Oreste) and Laurent Alvaro (Thoas); all sing with imposing dedication.

The less rare Werther received an uncommonly strong cast at the Bastille home of the Opéra National de Paris in 2010, resulting in a 2-DVD Decca set that is reportedly selling well. Sophie Koch and Jonas Kaufmann impersonate Goethe’s awkward soulmates, both fresh of voice. Originally created for London, Benoît Jacquot’s innocuous yet intriguing, glum and sparse production presents the characters faithfully, the action plainly. Unusually Jacquot serves as video director too, lending style by shooting from behind the scenes and above the proscenium as well as from out front. These angles provide glimpses of the conductor, Michel Plasson, who unfortunately blunts the contrasts in Massenet’s score and weighs it down.

When the French, or at least the Franks, helped the Roman Church standardize chant cycles and structures for worship in order to make the liturgy operable and enforceable across regions, their effort left out Milan. Charlemagne’s 8th-century directives invoking St Gregory encouraged steps to document if not yet notate chants, but in the city where St Ambrose had promoted the Church’s adoption of Latin — his small corpse still lies there wondrously on display — a divergent liturgy prevailed. Canto ambrosiano has accordingly stood apart, its manuscripts complete in one place, unlike the scattered repositories of Gregorian chant. In 2010 the Arcidiocesi di Milano, manager of this legacy, commissioned a book and recordings to survey and better disseminate the chants.

The resulting Antifonale Ambrosiano is invaluable. It reproduces scores in early and modern notation. It details Milan’s chant practices in italiano and truly spans the subject: chants for the Ordinary of the Mass and for the Hours (Vigilie, Lodi, Prima, Terza, Sesta, Nona, Vespri, Compieta), chants proper to seasons and saints, chants with psalm and canticle texts — each in one musical line, most to be sung antiphonally. Although not free of audible splices, the recordings are vivid yet with a resonant aura. Italian women and men sing in glorious Latin (and the vernacular), a joy in itself. The three CDs hold about as much music as Parsifal and are issued, with the book, by Libreria Musicale Italiana, an academic body whose website offers a handy carrello and U.S. shipping.

Then there is Bejun Mehta’s Orlando. The countertenor first personified the mad soldier at Glimmerglass in 2003 and must relish the vocal fireworks and range Händel gives him. A performance in Brussels leaked onto video, but in 2013 the same team reconvened in Bruges for a studio recording that Forum Opéra justly hails as an “Orlando d’une époustouflante intensité.” Mehta rises to every ornamental challenge, adjusts his tone to paint words, sings with evenness from bottom to top, and sounds so believably on the fringes of sanity that a Zoroastrian mend is only logical. Senesino lives. But it is not a one-man show. The other principals likewise inhabit their roles even if they crush countless Italian consonants. Sophie Karthäuser: super trills, too closely miked. Sunhae Im: charm in the voice, sweet-sounding. Kristina Hammarström: a focused alto with smooth, masculine tones. Konstantin Wolff: assured and agile. The conducting lacks subtlety but René Jacobs does support his singers, and Ah! Stigie larve! … Vaghe pupille, the accompagnato climax to Act II, properly showcases Mehta. Engineers of the 2-CD Archiv set alas place the B’Rock Orchestra Ghent far forward, so that even the expertly played harpsichord can grate. Fine, fleet woodwinds announce themselves in the overture.

Equally brilliant on a 2012 disc of seldom-heard Mozart concert arias is Rolando Villazón, the tenor whose voice and career were supposedly kaputt. After streamed (and moving) portrayals of Offenbach’s Hoffmann here at the Staatsoper in late 2011, he went to Abbey Road to make this Deutsche Grammophon CD with the London Symphony Orchestra. There the sound engineers proved that the art of balancing musicians hasn’t been totally lost, and conductor Antonio Pappano proved a resilient foil in the bold, precocious, clever, sad, amusing scores, even gracing one aria with a dryly comic bass voice. The results are essential listening, largely because Villazón gets straight to the heart of every piece and finds all the color, truth and humanity anyone could wish for. Even the juvenile work sounds masterly.

Alexander Pereira’s long years as Intendant at Opernhaus Zürich (1991–2012) brought a wave of sponsors for the company and, significantly, its “cantonization,” making it the charge not just of the city but of a wealthy catchment area reaching to the German border. Pereira had a confident ear for talent, built an ensemble, and gave lead roles to unknown singers like the tenors Piotr Beczala (from 1997), Kaufmann (1999) and Javier Camarena (2007). Working with a quintet of conductors — Nikolaus Harnoncourt, William Christie, Nello Santi, Ádám Fischer and Franz Welser-Möst — he widened the audience for the small house through DVDs, ahead of a trend. Two such projects late in the tenure were Rossini operas led by veteran Muhai Tang, with Bartoli, Liliana Nikiteanu, and Camarena in stagings by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. These are now out on Decca after a delay, poles apart in nature but both vividly impressive.

Stendhal described Rossini’s Otello, ossia Il moro di Venezia, as “volcanic”; certainly it is an unsettling score and a contrast in sensibility to the other heroic operas. Zurich’s staging straddles the line between tragedy and melodrama, with credible interactions and an inner focus that does not let up. Sparse but graphically textured sets lend a tension of their own. Otello needs three tenors who can cope with a high tessitura and sing accurately through wild embellishments, and these it received when filmed in 2012. John Osborn is a duly martial moro, while the romantic role of Rodrigo is ardently taken by Camarena. The two are phenomenal in Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue, their bilious Act II clash. Edgardo Rocha is skilled as Iago (strictly “Jago”), a smaller role. Bass-baritone Peter Kálmán makes an imposing Elmiro (and Graham Chapman lookalike), but the capable women come across less ideally: Bartoli’s Desdemona machine-gun in delivery and Nikiteanu’s Emilia a deer in the headlights. Tang has the mood of the piece and conducts it with unfailing propulsion.

Great fun is Le comte Ory, a farce that brought down the Swiss house when premiered in Jan. 2011. Anyone who knows it through Bartlett Sher’s misfiring production for the Metropolitan Opera owes it to themselves to see Decca’s DVD: it is full of joie de vivre, keenly observed in its humor by the directing partners despite a seven-century advance in the action to 1950s France. Carlos Chausson sang hilariously at the premiere as the Gouverneur, who has a smug early scene, but he is alas replaced in the video (filmed later) by a discomfited Ugo Guagliardo. That said — and the Gouverneur does fade from the plot — there are outstanding musical turns from the other principals and all play the comedy straight. Bartoli moves from Isolier, the suitor role she sang in Milan long ago, to Adèle, Comtesse de Formoutiers, and is a stitch, literally, as directed, exuding dignity except where circumstance overtakes her. Rebeca Olvera essays a chain-smoking warrior of an Isolier. Nikiteanu is deadpan as Ragonde, making sparing use of emotive poses. Camarena smirks sweetly as the “ermite” but upholds due gravity as “Soeur Colette”; he and Oliver Widmer, the excellent Raimbaud, parade the virtues of ensemble acting as well as singing, not to mention comic timing. Tang and the orchestra breezily convey the score’s spirit.

Against the odds, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten (1964) has become a repertory opera in German-speaking lands. The visionary magnum opus with its depraved storyline sanctions a grab bag of what are now Regietheater clichés, magnified by pluralism, simultaneous scenes and surround sound. Its 110 minutes embrace various musical forms and want a massive orchestra, plus jazz combo, such that, all told, the composer’s concept remains barely feasible. Recent stagings in Salzburg (2012), Zurich (2013*) and Munich (2014*) inevitably went their separate ways; the first, by Alvis Hermanis, is now a EuroArts DVD. Filmed in the Felsenreitschule and presenting a row of arched vignettes mimicking the venue’s rock-carved backdrop, it is preset for simultaneous drama. But once adjusted to the tritone stills of vintage porn backed by live-action images of walking horses, masturbating soldiers and Peeping Toms, the viewer tires of the left-and-right back-and-forth. A striking cast is headed by Laura Aikin as Marie; Ingo Metzmacher works magically with a somewhat backwardly balanced Vienna Philharmonic, not heard with the impact experienced at the venue.

[*Presumably in the DVD pipeline, worth or not worth the wait. Zurich’s has Marc Albrecht conducting a Calixto Bieito concept (less refinement, more degradation, spatially restricted and with lesser musical forces); Munich’s offers Kirill Petrenko on the podium and Andreas Kriegenburg directing traffic (less sex, more clichés). John Rhodes on the Swiss show: “Most sexual perversions and some torture were presented quite graphically … . Marie was in a constant state of undress. At the end she poured blood on herself and stood … as though crucified at the front of the stage.” In Munich the opening scene was overplayed, weakening what followed. Kriegenburg’s box-based staging offered unedifying and in the end unenlightening views, but Petrenko presided over an inflamed Bavarian State Orchestra and a superb cast centered on Barbara Hannigan’s Marie.]

Still image from video © Warner Classics

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Après lui, le déluge…reflections on Wagner at the Akademie der Künste

Friday, February 1st, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

Richard Wagner has managed to slowly dominate the scene internationally in recent seasons, but with the official arrival of his bicentenary, the saturation in Germany has only begun. Nürnberg, Leipzig, Munich and Dresden have unveiled new exhibits; in the latter’s case, an entire new building. A stream of publications has hit the market, leading Nike Wagner—rebellious daughter of Wieland, one-time bidder for the Bayreuth Festival upon Wolfgang’s resignation—to point her finger at the ‘tsunami-like influx’ (NB: her book Über Wagner comes out February 20). And then there’s the 15-hour opera. Klaus Zehelein, president of the Deutscher Bühnenverein (German Stage Association), called for a moratorium on Ring cycles last June. ‘We should leave the work alone, ideally worldwide,’ he said, denouncing centenary programming as a series of ‘encyclopedic events without artistic relevance.’

In what may be an attempt to provide an antidote, the exhibit, lecture and stage production series Wagner 2013 Künstlerpositionen at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste has set out to grapple with the German master’s polarizing effect and his place in artists’ lives, from painters to contemporary composers. A spokesperson explained that the concept arose from the international enthusiasm for Wagner and was intended to take place prior to this year. Why that didn’t happen is anyone’s guess. On January 27 the academy invited four composers and academy initiates of different generations—Dieter Schnebel, Erhard Grosskopf, Manos Tsangaris, and Enno Poppe—to discuss their relationships to Wagner in the same hall that is exhibiting the legendary rat costumes from Hans Neuenfels’ 2010 production of Lohengrin in Bayreuth.

Musicologist and moderator Jürg Stenzl opened the dialogue with a quote from Pierre Boulez, who declared Wagner ‘forgotten music’ for his generation and invited the composers to express their views on the issue. Schnebel, born in 1930, admitted that he had been corrupted as a child of Nazi times and, upon re-listening to Tristan post-war, couldn’t resist. His Wagner-Idyll (1980), for soprano and chamber orchestra, reworks the lines of Gurnemanz, the veteran knight in Parsifal, into Sprechgesang for a mezzo-soprano—naturally a subversive use of the material. At the other end of the spectrum, Poppe considers Wagner a ‘historical phenomenon,’ much as he considers Nazi Germany part of the past.

None of the composers stated they could ‘believe’ in Wagner. He is too ambiguous, a man who works with symbols, said Schnebel, as opposed to Verdi, whose operas he considers ‘clear cut’ and ‘music of reality.’ This is a fair assessment, although morality is far from clear cut in an opera such as La Traviata (based on the life of the singer Giuseppina Strepponi, whom the composer married). Nor is it true that Verdi didn’t work with symbols—he used entire allegories. The Jewish people in Nabucco represent Italians fighting for liberation from the Hapsburg Empire; the title character of Rigoletto is a disguised king.

Stenzl ended the discussion with a quote from Mauricio Kagel who, upon Beethoven’s centenary, suggested that there be a hiatus from his music for an entire year so that ‘we could then look forward to January 1’ (for a hilarious commentary of the mania around Beethoven, see Kagel’s film Ludwig Van). Tsangaris suggested that, contrary to Cage—who was feted for an entire year at the Akademie der Künste last year—there is already enough interest in Wagner from the public at large (perhaps the academy should have taken up the centenaries of Britten and Lutoslawski instead?). Poppe joked that we will need a ten year break from the Ring because the singers will have to recover their voices.

By many accounts, the music world is already weary. In New York, Robert Lepage’s colossal, machine-generated cycle has provoked a scandal of seemingly irreparable proportions. In Berlin resentment has long been brewing over a tetralogy that the Staatsoper mounted in co-production with La Scala, yielding a light, futuristic aesthetic that one critic likened to a Star Wars film. Meanwhile, in Milan, the decision to open the season with a new Lohengrin by Claus Guth was more than enough to leave national pride wounded in a country where people sing along to the ‘Brindisi’ on New Year’s Day. Still, few can ward off an endless fascination for Wagner, even if it necessitates psychiatric support (as Simon Rattle recently joked in an interview with Die Zeit). For better or for worse, we will be wandering the dark forests of myth for the next year.

Cellphones and Their Ilk

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

by Sedgwick Clark  

Many years ago I was sitting next to the p.r. director of the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall when a cellphone went off as Simon Rattle conducted. When the piece ended I asked him if that happened in Berlin. “Everywhere,” he said sadly.   

I left for vacation two days after the cellphone brouhaha at the New York Philharmonic last week, when the ringer in front-row center went off during the last page of Mahler’s Ninth and Alan Gilbert courageously stopped the orchestra until the thing was turned off. The explanation and the miscreant’s subsequent phone apology to Maestro Gilbert got loads of coverage, even on television. But as I passed through the airline’s frisker at Newark Airport I had no doubt what should be done: All concertgoers should be required to pass through metal detectors, and those who fail the test must check their cellphones, blackberries, iphones, et al. in the coat room before they are allowed to enter the concert hall.   

Unmuffled coughing (nearly always in a quiet moment) is annoying enough, but I’ve yet to encounter anyone with a good word to say about cellphone beepers in concerts. I recall the woman at a Philharmonic matinee over ten years ago who answered her cellphone to say loudly, “I can’t talk now—I’m in a concert.” Valery Gergiev ignored her, but I’ll bet Kurt Masur would have turned around and let her have it. (Which reminds me of the story of Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the final six widely spaced chords of Sibelius’s Fifth and several audience members applauding prematurely; he turned around and bellowed, “Savages,” before turning back to the orchestra and finishing the symphony without skipping a beat.)  

I wonder what Herbert von Karajan would have done?   

Gilbert’s Mahler

I heard the first of the series of Gilbert’s Mahler Ninths and found myself among the “some” mentioned by the Times‘s Tony Tommasini who might prefer a more emotional—nay, intense, searching, devastating—interpretation. I cannot go without mentioning Principal Cellist Carter Brey’s solo just before the last page of the work, which in a few seconds conveyed all the Mahlerian eloquence and heart-rending depth I found missing from the other 80 minutes. There are many extraordinary musicians in the Philharmonic, and Brey is among the uppermost.