Saturday, June 13, 2015

Wienerstaats Oper - Das Ring des Niebelungen

Wienerstaats Oper – Das Rheingold
     The Vienna State Opera produces the Ring Cycle on a fairly regular basis, I am told and this year they included the Ring as part of their internet live streaming fare and I had the opportunity to watch all of the operas.  As an extra treat a new streaming site has recently come online called Opera Platform and the 4th opera of the cycle – Die Götterdämmerung – was stream on that site.  What makes that especially wonderful is that it is now available for free for the next 6 months.  You can find it here: Opera Platform
     On social media there is quite a lot of discussion of opera productions.  Some claim that any production mounted since the turn of the century is terrible and we need to go back to the golden days when opera was produced the way it should be.  Others love the creativity.  Many others enjoy the new interpretations while decrying the excesses of European “Regie” or director-driven productions.  And it seems like Wagner productions suffer most from this.  So one never knows what to expect.  Nevertheless I tuned in and found that I really enjoyed the first installment of the Vienna Ring. I feel that it leans more towards being a traditional production - no alligators, no nazis, no setting in facist Italy or Spain. It does have some odd little quirks, of course - but on the whole I thought it was very well done and enjoyed it very much. The cast was overall great - Richard Paul Fink as Alberich was the strongest in my view, I also loved the Erda (Janina Baechle) her singing was gorgeous. She sang her monologue like she was singing a Schubert song. The Wotan of Tomasz Konieczny was good vocally, he has a tendency to over-act a bit, though I have to say I was not bothered by his youthful appearance. I liked Peter Rose as Fasolt but Mikhail Petrenko was not enough of a bass for Fafner IMHO. Someone wrote that they looked like the Pillsbury doe boys and I agree, their costumes were odd to say the least. Then there is all the weirdness in the production - what exactly was Froh carrying around, it looked like one of the glass balls you shake and it snows inside. And why were the Niebelungs forging the gold into body parts - heads, legs, arms - I just never got that. The disposal of the giants was sloppy, Fafner just hung around for a while doing nothing and then pushed the statue of Venus (yes Venus, they put the gold in the shape of Venus - mixing myths I think) off stage leaving his staff to be in the way of the final tableau and poor Peter Rose was left laying over the rock for the rest of the opera. By curtain call he was limping and I have a feeling that is the reason. There were a number of little inconsistencies and silly bits that might have seemed brilliant to the director, but I had no idea what the point was. And what is with the snake - Alberich turns into a dragon - so they sent a member of the stage crew down to the Vienna Zoo to take a few minutes of snake video on their cell phone and that is what we had to endure. Thumbs down - I hope they do better in Siegfried! (BTW – they don’t)!
     The orchestra was good, but not great. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra is a mixed bag. Sometimes they sound spectacular and sometimes they sound like a group of amateurs. And sometimes both occur in the same performance. That was the case here. There were too many “kacks” in the brass for an orchestra of that caliber, also there were too many occasions of missed entrances and rhythmic uncertainty. And Rattle just could never get the orchestra to play under the singers when they started to play loud. The soft stuff was magical, but they consistently drowned out the singers when they rose above a forte. And then there were the curtain calls - geesh - you'd think this was an elementary school Valentine's Day play - talk about disorganized. There was not enough room, the giants couldn't really move in their costumes, they were in each other's way - it was a mess. Why can't they rehearse this? One thing about the Met, the curtain calls are always organized and professional! Not so in Vienna and it wasn't just this opera - this is a trait! But overall I liked it and enjoyed the singers and the music is glorious. The production was very suggestive and almost impressionistic and I liked that. I'm glad I saw it and I commend it to you. They will be re-broadcasting the Ring again next winter.

Wienerstaats Oper – Die Walküre
     On to Die Walkure from the Vienna State Opera and I loved it.  I felt it was much stronger than Rheingold, in every way.  The settings were more definitive, not so impressionistic and they all worked well.  The weirdness was reduced substantially – I’ll explain that in a bit.  First the singing was really terrific.  The Wotan - Tomasz Konieczny was much stronger in Walkure.  He was really tremendous actually.  His Act 3 farewell was beautifully done. The other stand out for me was Martina Serafin as Sieglinde.  She sang beautifully and when she finally lets loose on the Redemption motif in act 3 – wow! The Siegmund, Christopher Ventris was good, but he suffered from what seems to be a perennial problem with Simon Rattle, which is he can’t seem to get the Vienna State Opera Orchestra to play under the singers – especially the brass.  Konieczny was able to hold his own, but near the end of act 1 it seemed like Ventris was pushing to try to be heard about the noise from the pit and it was obvious and taking a toll on him.  I was afraid he might crash a couple times.  But when he relaxed he sang beautifully.  I really think this is a problem in the pit.  Fricka, Michaela Schuster (why no bio?), was also tremendous.  Her scene with Wotan was one of the most effective performances of that scene I have experienced.  And Mikhail Petrenko was a much better Hunding than he was a Fafner.  As Fafner he just didn’t have the fullness and depth to his voice, but vocally he seemed more comfortable as Hunding.  It was a solid performance.  The (creepy) Valkures were all very effective.  Vocally it was a strong performance. I should say something about Brunnhilde, Evelyn Herlitzius, she got better as the opera progressed.  She was strongest in act 3.  Her first entrance in act 2 though was weak.  I realize it is really, really hard – but it was up from there.  I felt she was the weakest singer in the cast.

     Instrumentally, the brass were better, but in this performance it was the turn of the woodwinds to have trouble with entrances.  Chords that were supposed to be played together were ragged and messy.  The brass consistently overplayed the louds, especially the 1st trombone (come on, this is not a piece for solo trombone with a few singers and orchestra!).  I know there are a lot of them, but this is not a regional company, this is the Vienna State Opera for heaven’s sake.  This orchestra should be as good as the Met, and they just aren’t.  I never hear the kind of sloppy playing that comes out of the Vienna pit at the Met.  One wonders if some of them actually bother listening to the singers.  And they do not follow the rubatos.  The orchestra is never with the singers for those, while the Met is always absolutely perfectly in sync.  It is not all the fault of Simon Rattle (though some of it was).  I have noticed these problems in other productions and performances.  They need a Levine to come in a shake up that orchestra.  Finally – note to the 2nd oboe player: once the music starts you need to stop talking and making jokes.  The celli and bassi and busy setting the mood of the raging storm, the camera is showing them intently playing and in the corner of the screen there is the 2nd oboe having a good laugh.  Terribly unprofessional and distracting!

     The production, as I said above, works much better for this opera.  The settings all made sense.  The fire at the end was really pretty cool.  It is amazing how effective good projections can be.  So we get a raging fire and the cast is not endangered! There were two things (maybe 3) that I thought were odd.  In act 2 were had two left over golden heads from the Niebelheim scene in Rheingold.  Apparently when Fasolt sees Freia’s gaze it never occurred to anyone to give up these two remaining heads.  Too bad, Wotan might have been able to keep the Ring and that would have changed the plot substantially.  I didn’t get them in Rheingold and I certainly didn’t get them here in Walkure. (What, souvenirs from the past?)  And then they disappear, they do not appear in either Siegfried or Götterdämmerung.  Then, in act 3 there were the horses!  The stage was filled with horses.  Not real ones of course, but beautiful statues.  Ok, I didn’t think much of it in the first 3rd of the act.  But once Wotan chases away the girls it seems odd that their horses remain, and they were there to the end!  Just odd.  The Valkures were truly creepy.  And for those girls, creepy is good!  I did think it odd that Brunnhilde was not costumed like the rest of the Valkures and there was no armour, shields or swords for them.  Instead Wotan covers her with a wedding dress (that is the 3rd oddity).  I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with that - just different.  Back to the Valkures, they all brought with them their collected heros (dancers from the company) who really seemed frantic to get away from these crazy blood-stained girls.  Can’t say as I blame them.  It was effective.  I liked that.  The hero corps in Valhalla is not such a happy community after all!

     Last comment – I really focused on the text for act 2 especially and found it all really quite profound and moving.  Not just the scene between Fricka and Wotan, and Wotan’s monologue, but in particular the scene between Brunnhilde and Siegmund.  Don’t you want to escape all of this and enter into heavenly bliss with your dad, and Wotan and a band of brother heroes and innumerable lovely maidens?  No, comes the response, my responsibility is here and if I can’t fulfill my responsibility then I want nothing to do with the shallow bliss of heaven!  Not only responsibility, but here is love – human love – and this surpasses everything else. No escapism here!  This piece is a masterpiece.  I love it!  On to Siegfried!

Wienerstaats Oper – Siegfried
     Siegfried this morning – and from a musical perspective this was the strongest one of the lot so far.  The American heldentenor Stephen Gould (who studied at my alma mater New England Conservatory) was simply terrific!  What a great voice and his acting was good.  Tomasz Koneiczy was wonderful as Wotan, and Evelyn Herlitzius was great as Brunnhilde.  She was much stronger in Siegfried than in Walkure, of course it is a very different role.  The test is coming for her though in Götterdämmerung!  Helwig Pecoraro was a strong Mime and Janina Baechele was wonderful as Erda.  I did not like Mikhail Petrenko as Fafner any better than I did in Rheingold.  I still feel that his voice is not right for the role.  The Forest Bird was very good – don’t know her name the website chose not to list the entire cast!  The orchestra played the best of the 3 so far.  The ensemble was better (the “Heil dir” chords weren’t perfectly together, but close enough I guess).  There were still the perennial balance problems, the singers were consistently covered as they have been for the entire cycle.  But this is the strongest performance so far from a musical standpoint.  Hats off to the principal horn – his playing was stunning!

     I would not consider this production a “Regie” production, even so this production of Siegfried came the closest and had the most disconnects from the libretto.  I really like there to be some connection between the libretto and the staging – so when they are singing about a helmet it is nice if there is in fact a helmet somewhere.  And if you can’t have that then at least let’s have some consistency within the production itself.  Alas, this was woefully lacking.  Granted the Ring makes the task more difficult as you have 4 operas that have to be coordinated.  First, note that act I – Mime’s cave – looked more like a factory floor with a huge wall with fans in it.  So then to act 3, Walkure ends with Brunnhilde on the stage covered by a white bridal dress (she is dressed in blue) surrounded by horses.  So when we get to Brunnhilde there she is on the stage covered by lacey white material (and no longer dressed in blue).  There is no way even a dolt like Siegfried could mistake that whatever it is for a male warrior. There is nary a sword (except Nothung), spear, shield, breast-plate or helmet in sight.  The revealing of Brunnhilde consisted of pulling off all the white lacy material.  And there are no horses – where did they go?  Even Gräne was not there.  And not only that but the hall from the 1st act factory was behind her – AND it was night!  “Heil dir…” what sun, what light? 

     Act 3 began with Wotan digging what looked like a grave with a shovel out of which Erda (who was costumed in white lacy material… hmmmm) rolled. Then the confrontation with Siegfried took place in the grave and consisted of Siegfried roughing up Wotan (I really hated that – that bothered me a lot – there should be one strike and it is the sword which shatters the spear).  Oh and the spear didn’t shatter Wotan disappeared in to the grave and emerged with a broken spear – kind of lame.  Act 2 was boring.  This has got to be the most boring dragon fight ever.  Even St. Louis’ Regional company Union Ave Opera had a more exciting dragon.  This dragon consisted only of a projected eye that turned red when Siegfried struck the mortal blow.  How lame is that!  And then Fafner emerged covered in blood, but in Rheingold Fafner was blue – his skin was blue – in Siegfried his skin color has now miraculously changed to lily white.  Maybe that is what happens when you turn yourself into a dragon for several decades!  And besides the shovel, which I thought was silly, there was a HUGE egg in act 1 – what in the world was that and then while Mime is making the poison drink he pulls out a jar that has what looked like a human embryo in it.  There was just no sense to any of this in my view.  The general overall settings were ok, except the final scene of act 3 which was just ridiculous – oh and did I mention there was NO magic fire for Siegfried to penetrate at all! 

My take on the production of Siegfried is my most negative of these Ring productions of the Ring.  Luckily the music was the best of the Ring so far and I really love the music to this opera.  I should also mention Richard Paul Fink who is a tremendous Alberich.  He and Wotan were magnificent in act 2, scene 1.  It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in Gotterdammerung.

Götterdämmerung – Wienerstaats Oper
I want to repeat that the last installment of the Vienna Ring was and is available on the new opera streaming website – Opera Platform:
If you have not yet checked this out you should. They launched the website last month with an outstanding production of  “La Traviata” from Madrid which was shortly followed by an incredible production from ROH-London of Szymanowski’s “King Roger” starring Marius Kwiecien.  Both performances were outstanding. “King Roger” is one of the most powerful opera experiences I have ever had.  I only wish I could have seen the production live.  The other Ring operas were streamed through the Vienna State Opera Live streaming site:
I have watched over 20 performances this year and they have certainly been a mixed experience, but what a wonderful opportunity to experience one of the great opera houses here in rural Illinois.  The whole Ring experience I would say was mixed, both musically and in terms of the production.  Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf has some great ideas and certainly has a vision for this Ring, but unfortunately was not able to carry it off consistently across the board.

     That being said, in my humble opinion this Götterdämmerung was the best of the entire Ring both musically and in terms of production.  I’m not sure why, but this Götterdämmerung simply didn’t have the head-scratching oddness and disappointments of the earlier operas.  It was a traditional production that never strayed and the rather impressionistic supernatural elements that were used in Rheingold worked beautifully here.  I especially loved the ending. Those of us who love the Ring and go out of our way to experience multiple productions of the Ring Cycle get used to getting the end of the marathon and being disappointed with the final apocalypse.  I am sure it is not easy to portray engulfing of the earth and the heavens in fire and then have the Rhein overflow its banks. The Met Lepage production for example was a major disappointment at the end and they are not the only one.  This Vienna Ring however used projections and what I call lighting impressionism to create the effect along with some supers or dancers, and I thought it was excellent.  That said it is a pretty dark production on the whole. Except for the flowering trees on Brunnhilde’s rock during the prologue there was no color to speak of and I wished for at least a bit of wilderness green in the 1st and 2nd scenes of act 3. Still this G was terrific and I found it very moving and powerful and beautiful.

     The star of the performance easily was Evelyn Hertlizius as Brunnhilde.  I felt that she improved over the cycle.  She struggled mightily with her first entrance in Walkure and then improved progressively from there.  In Götterdämmerung she was outstanding.  Her voice was full and powerful throughout.  Someone on the FB Met Opera page said they didn’t think she had a beautiful voice but it is a powerful voice and she was an excellent Brunnhilde in Götterdämmerung.  Her partner, Stephen Gould, as Siegfried was also very good.  I liked him quite a lot.  He was solid and secure.  Falk Struckmann was effective as the dark and brooding Hagen.  I don’t think his voice is particularly beautiful either but he has the dark timbre needed to be effective in the bad guy roles he tends to play.  Now Boaz Daniel as Gunter has a beautiful voice. He and Caroline Wenborne as Gutrune brought a beautiful musicality to these roles.  Richard Paul Fink was again terrific in his cameo part as Alberich in act 2, scene 1.  In Götterdämmerung Alberich is hardly on stage at all, but he was one of the shining stars of the complete Ring.  His Alberich was consistently outstanding throughout.  And the two trios – the Norns and the Rheinmaidens were excellent.  Vocally I felt that this was a terrific performance and that in this 4th opera all of the singers were well cast and sang well.

     The orchestra I felt was also better overall.  The tendency to cover the singers was less of a problem than it was especially in Walkure and Siegfried, but there were still moments.  But in the two orchestral set pieces – the Rhein Journey and Siegfried’s Death March – the orchestra played very well.  Well, except for the poor guy who was the principal off-stage horn.  He was having a bad day.  I don’t think I have ever heard the off-stage horn calls played as badly as they are in this performance. On the whole I still feel that Simon Rattle is not yet in the same class as Daniel Baremboim or James Levine as a Wagner conductor.  And there were times when I felt he was not in control.  And the orchestra overall was inconsistent.

      It appears that I am not the only one who felt this way.  After the 2nd intermission when Maestro Rattle entered and had the orchestra stand a noisy conflict seemed to erupt in the audience between the booers and the applauders.  Just as the applause and cheers would subside then others would start booing which would prompt more cheering and applause.  I wondered at one point whether they ever would get the 3rd act off the ground.  This may be why the off-stage horn completely crashed on his entrance that is at the downbeat for the 3rd act.  Rattle almost started the act several times before he actually did.  It is interesting as an American.  We don’t often see this kind of behavior from audiences.  But, as was pointed out to me, it does show that the audience is more engaged and discerning.  Americans tend to applaud and cheer for anything.

     I have enjoyed this Ring cycle very much.  It was mixed, of course, but most Rings are.  Gotterdammerung was the strongest performance overall, Walkure was next.  Siegfried had the most production oddness and then Rheingold was the weakest musically. I have some musings on Gotterdammerung that I will post separately.  This performance is supposed to be available on the Opera Platform site for 6 months, though the site itself gives mixed information.  Hopefully it will remain for a while and I strongly urge you to watch it.  It is well worth the 5 and a half hours it takes to get through it.  It actually took me longer as we had some technical difficulties in the form of local storms that knocked out the internet for about 20 minutes and then there was an odd problem of the syncing of the image and sound in act 2.  But I restarted my computer and that problem was fixed.  I’m pretty sure that problem was on my end.  But it just goes to confirm that as nice as these internet performances are, and I am very grateful to have the opportunity to watch these productions, live performance would be better!  Wagner’s Ring is one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of Western music and art.  The work is beautiful, profound, disturbing, moving, exciting, distressing…..  But what a gift that we can experience this.

Monday, June 8, 2015

On-Demand - "Un Ballo in Maschera" from Brussells

     This Brussels “Ballo in Maschera” was posted a couple weeks ago and I think a couple folks may have posted that they started to watch it but did not finish.  So I was curious and I watched the entire production.  In light of a certain conversation about another “Ballo” maybe folks are a bit reticent but I have to say that on the whole I found it to be an interesting performance and this production is nothing like that other production – there was not a naked person in the whole opera! 

     Musically the performance is strong.  The singers are, for the most part, singers I am not familiar with – except for Kathleen Kim as Oscar, who I think we all know from her multiple HD performances (including as Oscar).  She was, as always, terrific, and, in my view, was the strongest member of the cast.  The other really outstanding performance was Nichole Lemieux as Ulrica.  She has a strong voice with a solid low register and a soaring top, and she is a great actress. She imbued the character with a bit of arrogance that I found interesting and, frankly, refreshing.  Maria José Siri was a good and sympathetic as the victimized Amelia and Stefano Secco as the dictator Gustavo was also strong, though he came off as too nice a guy to be guilty of being such a heinous oppressor.  The Renato of George Petean was very strong, and his acting was really top notch, I truly could feel his pain and anguish in “Eri tu.”  I also really liked the more threatening and harsh presentation of the Ribbing and Horn of Tijl Faveyt and Carlo Cigni – these guys were truly creepy in this production.  Carlo Rizzi conducted – from memory without a score – and musically the performance was very strong.  He is a great conductor.  The chorus and the orchestra also were outstanding.  A special shout-out to the English Horn and principal Cello for really gorgeous playing in Ameilia’s two arias.

     Now, I have to make an observation about this opera before talking about the production.  “Un Ballo in Maschera” is principally about relationships.  That is the primary focus of the plot – in my opinion.  There is this political conspiracy within which the interpersonal conflict is set like a picture frame.  But the primary focus is the interpersonal issues: the forbidden love of Gustavo and Amelia and the betrayal of Renato by his wife and best friend.  Even the two conspirators, we learn in Act 3, are driven to this conspiracy by personal slights – confiscation of property and the murder (death) of a brother.  None of it is really political in the same way as is, for example, Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”  In JC the conspiracy and the political issues are the primary issue driving the plot.  There are, of course personal issues – the friendship and ultimate betrayal of Brutus and even the petition to grant amnesty to Casca’s brother, but they are all set within the context of the overriding political issue.  Even Marc Antony is ultimately focused on politics.  He uses the personal to effect the political failure of the conspiracy.  Now, why do I bring up this play?  There are obvious similarities of the plot, but the main difference is the principal focus – politics and conspiracy in JC and interpersonal relationships in “Ballo.” Thus it follows that Renato is no Brutus for he is driven to join the conspiracy only by his own anger, hurt, jealousy and desire of revenge (as are Horn and Ribbing BTW); and Gustavo himself is no Julius Caesar.  JC was a great general and a brilliant politician.  We get no sense that Gustavo in this opera has any such abilities.  In fact, one wonders how Gustavo has time to rule a realm at all since he spends his time pursuing this illicit affair with Amelia and going to see fortune-tellers.  His one and only official act is to write up the letter of appointment to the ambassadorship to England for Renato, which itself is driven by personal reasons – that is, to get Amelia out of Sweden.

     Consequently, “Ballo” works if the director keeps the primary focus on the inter-personal relationships and the conflicts within them.  “Ballo” does not work so well when the conspiracy is elevated to the primary focus of the production.  This is the problem with this production.  We start off with a projection that suggests that Gustavo is ruler over a land in which there is much oppression, misery, hunger and deprivation.  When the curtain rises we discover that Gustavo is some kind of Orwellian dictator and he presides over the realm as an oppressive dictator.  Also, there is no individuality in this realm (probably not Sweden) as everyone is masked, and everyone has numbers on their costumes (so how is it that Renato didn’t recognize his wife’s number as it is clearly marked on her outfit?)  Now as worthy as the focus may be the problem is that this libretto simply won’t sustain it.  The director is constantly trying to pull us into the realm of “1984” politics, but the personal stuff keeps getting in the way.  I found those head mask things to be superfluous and irrelevant and downright irritating and I am sure the singers hated them.  Act 2, however, was truly creepy and the conspirator’s entrance near the end of the act is the best and most effective scene in the production. This was the moment when this production worked the best.  But then the interpersonal stuff gets in the way again. 

     I have to say something about the ending, and I will try to do so without giving very much of it away.  I have always found the ending to this opera to be rather unsatisfying.  The conspirators manage to assassinate the King and then he forgives them and then everyone is sorry.  Right!  There is a twist in this production that I found initially shocking and disturbing, but in reflection I thought was effective, and made the ending much more profound.  I will not give it away except to say that it is one of the great lessons of history that one dictator is overthrown and the liberator then becomes the next dictator!  And so, on the ground nothing ever changes.

     I encourage you to watch this.  It is thought-provoking and interesting.  It is not offensive.  It encouraged me to spend a fair amount of time today pondering the connection between “Ballo” and “Julius Caesar” which is a connection I would not have thought of were it not for watching this production.  Ultimately I think “Ballo” is not one of Verdi’s best libretti.  This production in fact kind of reveals the holes in the plot.  But the music is glorious.  I finished Act 2 and wanted to go back and watch it again because the music is so glorious.  So, enjoy and see what you think.