WagnerBlog

The World of Composer Richard Wagner and his operas. www.wagneroperas.com with frequent forays into the world of art, culture, and film.

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Vincent Vargas is a foreign language teacher at a private school in New York City. He runs websites dedicated to Casablanca (www.vincasa.com) and Richard Wagner (www.wagneroperas.com).

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Pillowman Nears the End of its Run

The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh's macabre play, is closing in a few weeks after a successful, but short run on Broadway's Booth theater. I saw it twice this summer, and read the work after my first visit. My reaction to the play was one of wonder and awe both times I saw it. Pretty much the same reaction I had when years ago I saw the original Broadway run of Amadeus with Ian McKellen, a play I was also fortunate to see twice. Although The Pillowman does not possess a performance of the grandeur of the young McKellen's, it is an amazingly written work, and it ranks with Peter Schaffer's play as one of the most memorable nights one could have in the theater. The cast of The Pillowman is spectacular, with Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crudup giving memorable performances, Zeljko Ivanek giving a puzzling reading of his character, and the amazing young actor Michael Stuhlbarg giving one of the most satisfyingly poignant performances now on Broadway as a mentally retarded innocent, who proves to be not as innocent as he first appears.

Part of the fun of going to see this play was waiting after the performance for autographs. This is a very generous cast with the fans, and Jeff Goldblum stays night after night until the bitter end signing autographs and taking pictures with everyone -- especially with the ladies. The talk of the town is that everyone wants to work with him because he is such a class act. It was fun, for instance, to have Mr. Goldblum sign my script of the play, ask me where I bought it and have him comment on the fact that he had not seen this version of it. (The current orange-covered version of the play, published by Faber & Faber, lists both the British National Theater cast as well as the American Booth Theater cast).

Although, structurally, the American version of the play (in two acts) works better, in my opinion than the three-act format as published, the British cast must have been something to behold. I would have loved to have seen Jim Broadbent in the role of Tupolski. Ever since I saw this fine actor playing Sir W.S. Gilbert in Mike Leigh's film Topsy Turvy, I have come to respect him as one of the finest character actors of his generation. He was even very good in the movie Moulin Rouge, which must have taken a lot of effort to pull-off. The British cast also included David Tennant in the role of Katurian K. Katurian. I didn't know who this actor was until I got into the British Sci-Fi series Dr. Who this summer and realized that he will be playing the Doctor next season.

Personally, I will miss The Pillowman once it finishes its run in a few weeks. It is rare that a play can provide an audience with chills and thrills, while at the same time offering them beautifully crafted performances, and a script of Kafkaesque beauty and complexity. I don't think that I will have a chance to see The Pillowman again before it closes, and I don't think that I really want to. I would like the memory of those two performances to linger on. Along with Doubt, and the revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Pillowman was responsible for a great season for drama on Broadway. Let's hope that next season proves to be of the same high caliber.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Bayreuth, Salzburg and the BBC Proms

It has been a fun summer of listening, recording and designing CD covers for the Internet webcasts of the European summer festivals that started in late July with the premiere of the new production of Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth, and which continued with the Salzburg festival and the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
I recorded all five operas from Bayreuth this season, and also designed front and back CD covers for these recordings. Pictured here are the front covers to the five operas that Bayreuth presented this summer.
The Salzburg festival has presented thus far many exciting productions of well-known as well as rare works. This year's productions of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte and Mitridate, Re di Ponto are previews of next year's celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. This landmark event will be celebrated at Salzburg (the city of Mozart's birth) with productions of all the composer's operas. This year the festival also featured productions of Verdi's La Traviata with Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón and Thomas Hampson, as well as Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production of the rarely performed Die Gezeichneten, an opera by Austrian composer Franz Schreker. I also recorded these works and designed the CD covers that you see on this page.
One of the highlights of the BBC Proms this year was the reprise of the season's Royal Opera production of Wagner's Die Walküre. Not only did this prom feature Plácido Domingo, Waltraud Meier and Lisa Gasteen as Siegmund, Sieglinde, and Brünnhilde respectively, but it marked the debut of Bryn Terfel in the role of Wotan. The fact that these performances are now broadcast over the Internet is truly wonderful. The thunderous ovation that can be heard in my recording from the oversized crowd at the Royal Albert Hall at the end of each act tells the whole story. For the CD cover to this recording I decided to start with the official logo from this year's BBC Proms. Unlike the covers for Bayreuth and Salzburg, I avoided all photographs of the artists and the production, and simply listed the date of the performance and the cast.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

"Die Gezeichneten" at Salzburg

It has been quite an exciting Salzburg Festival this summer. As I reported earlier, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte with Riccardo Muti at the helm is an enticing prelude to the upcoming celebration of Mozart's birthday next year. Now, a nearly forgotten work by an almost forgotten composer is being performed at the Felsenreitschule to great acclaim. The work is Die Gezeichneten (The Marked Ones) by Austrian composer Franz Schreker. The production is by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and the musical direction by Kent Nagano. Readers of this blog and visitors to my Wagner site will recognize this to be the creative team of the marvelous production of Wagner's Parsifal from Baden-Baden that was captured on DVD and released this year.

I heard the live broadcast of Die Gezeichneten last week, recorded it, and designed the cover that you see above. What is immediately striking when you hear Schreker's work is his great lyricism and his adept abilities as orchestrator. Listeners will immediately call it "Strauss-like" when they first hear it. Indeed, for many music critics of his day, it was Schreker and not Richard Strauss who was the heir to Wagner. Unfortunately, the tide of political events that led to World War II virtually erased Schreker's name and his works from memory. As a half-Jew, Shreker saw his works banned in his native Austria and he was unable to secure any commissions or adquire any teaching posts. He died in 1934 from complications brought on by a stroke.

Here is Jeremy Eichler's review from the New York Times:

SALZBURG FESTIVAL REVIEW; With a Disturbing Vision of Utopia Lost, a Forgotten Modernist Is Remembered

By JEREMY EICHLER

The Austrian composer Franz Schreker was one of the great dreamers of early-20th-century music, a cartographer of distant sonic utopias and a prophet of their demise. His fame reached its height in German-speaking Europe around 1920, when his operas rivaled Strauss's in popularity, and he was hailed by some as the true heir to Wagner. But he was crushed by the double blow of shifting Weimar fashion and then the Third Reich.

As a progressive composer of half-Jewish descent, he was dismissed from prominent teaching posts, his music later banned. He died of a stroke in 1934 and his reputation lay in tatters for decades after the war. He was surely the most successful composer of his generation to simply vanish from music history.

But Schreker's return may finally be drawing near. His works are once again being performed in Austria and Germany, and Tuesday night a new staging of his apocalyptic opera, ''Die Gezeichneten,'' was unveiled here as the opening production of the prestigious Salzburg Festival. Directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, with Kent Nagano leading his Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, it was an engrossing evening that conveyed not only the vertiginous beauty of Schreker's music, but also the composer's theatrical gifts, his penchant for probing the unconscious drives and boundless yearnings of his characters in a world that is crumbling around them.

''Die Gezeichneten'' (''The Branded'') was completed in 1915, and though the action is set in a mythical 16th-century Genoa, it is a product of tumultuous fin-de-siècle Vienna and the heady last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It tells the story of a wealthy hunchback, Alviano Salvago, who detests his appearance and is filled with such hunger for beauty that he creates an island paradise, an Elysium of art and natural wonders. But Alviano soon learns that corrupt noblemen have discovered a secret grotto on the island and, spurred on by their leader, Tamare, they have been abducting the daughters of the city to indulge in violent orgies there.

Alviano tries to avert disaster and donates Elysium to the citizens of Genoa, but before the transfer occurs, he is seduced by Carlotta, a painter of hands and souls who has been secretly observing him and persuades him to sit for a portrait. He falls desperately in love and they are engaged to marry, but she loses interest after her painting is complete and soon becomes prey to the rapacious Tamare. The final scene takes place in the grotto, where Alviano discovers Carlotta's betrayal, shoots Tamare dead and staggers off, a broken shell of a man.

Schreker wrote the steamy libretto himself, and it is a prescient meditation on the limits of aesthetic refuge; on 19th-century notions of beauty that were premised on repression, be it social, psychological or sexual; and on the quick free-fall of any utopia to its opposite extreme.

These were bread-and-butter themes for the Vienna moderns, and writers like Hofmannsthal and Schnitzler charted this terrain with far more subtlety and complexity. But Schreker had at his command a tool he could wield like no one else: the orchestra.

He was an unsurpassed master of timbre who possessed an almost mystical relationship with the very idea of sound. But unlike his fellow Viennese composers, Schreker never expelled himself from the garden of tonality. His lush and sensuous musical language was built on extensions of a late-Romantic grammar. He was, in other words, the rarest of musical creatures: a modernist who never got the memo on grim austerity, a progressive composer who forgot that ornament was crime. Instead, he found ways to push boundaries from within a tonal universe, stacking chords on top of one another, stretching chromaticism to its outer limits and swaddling his expressionist musical dramas in intoxicating swirls of color.

''Die Gezeichneten'' was one of his most popular operas, and Mr. Lehnhoff has created a staging that is sometimes fuzzy on the details but true to its dark heart. Seeking to universalize Alviano's plight, he has made the character's deformity purely psychological. (His self-loathing drives him to secret cross-dressing, a cliché of German ''director's theater'' but it somehow works here.) More harmful to Schreker's concept is Mr. Lehnhoff's decision to stage all three acts on the ruins of the destroyed Elysium, rendered as the rubble of a giant godlike statue, thereby visually anticipating the opera's end and eliminating the suspense that might have been built from guarding the secret of the distant paradise.

But the director's most striking revision is to the murderous orgies of the third act. He challenged himself to convey the shock of Schreker's original, but how do you do that when modern viewers have been so anesthetized by television and film, not to mention Stanley Kubrick's ''Eyes Wide Shut,'' which was based on a roughly contemporary novella by Schnitzler? Mr. Lehnhoff's answer is pedophilia. At the work's final climax, it is revealed that the ''daughters of Genoa'' who had been abducted to the grotto are in fact quivering little girls who look scarcely 10 years old. The stomach turns; the shock is achieved.

Without previous exposure to Mr. Lehnhoff's work, one might chalk this up to more German directorial scandal-mongering. But his riveting ''Makropulos Case'' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of 2001 suggests a deeper mind at work. I left feeling duly disturbed but also skeptical about how well this solution integrated with Schreker's original vision.

The cast struggled valiantly with Schreker's demanding vocal writing. Robert Brubaker was affecting and sympathetic if also underpowered as Alviano, Michael Volle was a suitably muscular Tamare, and Robert Hale sang with ample depth in the supporting role of the Duke Adorno. As Carlotta, the soprano Anne Schwanewilms was the standout, with an icy radiance to her voice and a mesmerizing stage presence.

Mr. Nagano led his ensemble in a masterfully paced reading of the score, showing an intuitive feel for Schreker's palette with all its blends and subtle shading. At the opera's most riveting moments, the sound had a way of billowing out from the orchestra, like a soft wind blowing from a place unseen.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Magic Mozart at Salzburg

While the magic continues at Bayreuth through the month of August, over in Austria, the Salzburg Festival has begun. As the classical music world gets ready for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Salzburg festival presented two of Mozart's works, one written when the composer was barely fourteen years old, and the other being his last theater work. The following is the New York Times review of these two events.

Mozart Resounds in a City He Hated

SALZBURG, Austria, July 31 - If only Mozart could see his hometown now. His letters are full of disdain for Salzburg, which he saw as hopelessly narrow-minded and parochial. As he wrote to his father, he felt constantly undervalued by his employer here, the Archbishop Colloredo, whom he despised "to the point of madness." He finally ended his service to the court on "that happy day" in 1781 and described to his father being booted out the door by Colloredo's deputy, with what is surely the most famous such kick in music history.

As Salzburg gears up for the 2006 celebrations of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, people don't talk very much about that kick. These days, when it comes to Mozart, the streets of this fastidiously groomed Baroque city are spilling over with pride - or at least, business acumen. You can hardly walk one block without bumping into Mozart's image plastered on, well, just about anything you could conceivably buy: T-shirts, candlesticks, perfume, umbrellas, napkin rings, beer mugs, shot glasses, and on and on, not to mention the ubiquitous chocolate-pistachio-marzipan treats called Mozartkugeln. What would Wolfgang think? Imagine one of those irreverent peals of laughter that Tom Hulce kept uncorking when he played the composer in the film version of "Amadeus."

The Salzburg Festival itself goes easy on the marzipan, but it is still deeply committed to making 2006 a banner Mozart year. A brand-new 29 million-euro (about $35 million) concert hall, the House for Mozart, is being built to open just in time for next year's summer festival, which will feature a rare cycle of all 22 of Mozart's stage works. Among these, 10 will be brand new productions, with a starry assortment of conductors, orchestras and directors. Others will be revivals, including two new productions that had their premieres last week at the festival: "Mitridate, Re di Ponto" and "Die Zauberflöte."

The festival's artistic director, Peter Ruzicka, sensibly suggests that to demythologize Mozart's genius, one needs exposure not just to the late great works but also to the entire course of his growth, juvenilia and all. On Thursday night, the festival gave this year's guests an early introduction to that lesser-known Mozart with Günther Krämer's new production of "Mitridate," staged in the courtyard of the city's grand 17th-century Residenz.

Written for a Milanese audience when the composer was only 14, "Mitridate" is first-rate early Mozart, an opera seria that is astounding for someone that age, and yet provides only a glimpse of what was to come. Its plot, adapted from Racine, centers on the great warrior Mitridate, who is to marry Aspasia when his sons, Sifare and Farnace, learn that he has died in battle with the Romans. They compete for Aspasia's hand, but their hopes are shattered and their lives endangered when their father returns alive. Much groveling and chaos ensue, interspersed with beautiful arias in which the characters pour their inner torment into fantastically ornate vocal lines. The writing was in fact demanding enough to keep the work off the stage for most of the last century.

The opera is also dramatically underdeveloped, and therefore ripe for some insightful direction. Mr. Krämer has instead given it a flashy modern look full of visual interest, but not enough beyond that. The crux of the interpretation is a brilliant two-tiered set designed by Jürgen Bäckmann, who makes ingenious use of mirrors; during the opera's opening few minutes, for example, a phalanx of Mozart-doppelgängers appear to be running up the walls. The same extras later slide down a slope coated with thick black sand and return to perform a strangely stylized yogalike dance.

It all proved too distracting, though fortunately the second half was more focused and character-driven. Over all, one wished Mr. Krämer had probed deeper inside the work rather than making mischief at its edges. Still, this was rather tame director's theater, and the conservative - and very glittery - Salzburg audience cheered the production team on opening night.

The first-rate cast also won well-deserved applause, including Richard Croft in the title role, Bejun Mehta as Farnace, Miah Persson as Sifare, Netta Or as Aspasia and Ingela Bohlin as Ismene, a princess in love with Farnace. Marc Minkowski led his Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble in a superbly lithe and buoyant reading of the score. Opera on period instruments is still rare at the Salzburg Festival, but this performance should set the standard.

A more familiar and altogether not-too-shabby band was in the pit of the Large Festival Hall two nights later: the Vienna Philharmonic under Riccardo Muti. The occasion was Graham Vick's "Zauberflöte," another near miss. It offered a provocative take on Mozart's most famous opera but got lost somewhere in the onstage field of giant sunflowers.

That is where Zarastro's secret lair is located, and this interpretation seeks to reverse the usual symbols and upend the ennobling message typically found in the work's Masonic-inspired libretto. Rather than a source of light and moral wisdom, Zarastro's order is shown to be a dark place of shadows and stagnation. The Queen of the Night, sung with solid top notes by Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, is dressed all in white, and Zarastro, sung with great resonance and depth by René Pape, carries a double-barreled shotgun. The priests are old and emaciated; a giant staircase, presumably leading to higher spiritual ground, sits broken in two. Clearly, Mr. Vick is getting at a vision of Enlightenment run afoul, the language of universal freedom abused as a mere cover for power politics.

This is a sharp-edged and arguably timely reading, but unfortunately, Mr. Vick seems to lack the courage of his convictions. Zarastro is not sinister enough. His lair, rather than merely shadowy, should have been a place of real darkness. Tamino, sung respectably by Michael Schade, also loses his redemptive potential by being portrayed here as a suburban teenager who runs around in a rugby shirt, sneakers and an aw-shucks attitude.

Papageno, dressed in colorful 1970's grunge, was sung to fine comic effect by Markus Werba; Genia Kühmeier was an affecting Pamina. There were also some wry comic touches in the opening scenes, as when the Queen of the Night makes her grand entrance by showing up in Tamino's bed. Mr. Vick also nods amusingly to C. S. Lewis with a Narnia-esque use of wardrobe closets as gateways to various magical worlds.

Mr. Muti kept the Enlightenment satire a safe distance from the score, leading the overture with broad-gestured dignity. And what a pleasure to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in an opera pit, catching the unsuspecting ear by surprise with its nimble sweet-toned woodwinds and lush velvety strings.

Even if neither production ultimately took flight, both gave an enticing taste of what should be in store for next year: little-known Mozart given real attention, and the most famous Mozart reconceived. After 2006, Jürgen Flimm will take over as the artistic director of the festival. Here's a suggestion for his first season of programming in 2007: give Mozart the summer off. The poor man will have earned it, and it would do a tremendous service by refreshing his music here, maybe even engendering some critical debate about the use and abuse of his myth. O.K., admittedly, in this town, it's a long shot.

"Mitridate, Re di Ponto" continues for seven more performances at the festival, Friday through Aug. 25; "The Magic Flute," for eight performances, tonight through Aug. 28.