Friday, August 17, 2018

Castellucci brings Salome to Salzburg

Romeo Castellucci is a director of deep, abstract ideas.  His stage productions are abstractions that constantly ask the audience to think. This was his approach to Richard Strauss's Salome, that amazing one-act work that after so many years still amazes the listener, and given the right staging, it is still capable to shock an opera audience out of its complacency.  This is the aim of this production, which premiered at the Salzburg Festival on July 28, and which continues playing until August 27th. Conducted with utmost precision by Franz Welser-Möst, and played by the amazing Vienna Philharmonic, the scores bristles with dark, thunderous excitement that reminds us that in 1905, the year of this work's premiere, Strauss was a young enfant-terrible looking to shock. Enter Castellucci with a production that visually attempts to top Strauss, and at times almost succeeds.
The opera has been staged in the auditorium of the Felsenreitschule, and the first thing we notice is that its famous arches have been covered. This evening will be all about hard cold stone: gray walls, gray men in 1930's fedoras and long coats, faces inexplicably half-painted red, and a John the Baptist, his face painted black, wearing a black fur coat that makes him look like a Biblical King Kong. Salome, meanwhile, dressed all in white, is his worshiping Ann Darrow. And constantly, naked bodies are being dragged across the endless stage giving us an atmosphere of horror, perfect for this work.
Forget about watching Asmik Gregorian do the "Dance of the Seven Veils." The Lithuanian soprano, who scores a triumph with this production, is crushed under a block of stone during that amazing music. And forget about seeing a facsimile of bass-baritone Gábor Bretz's head brought on a silver platter. When the time comes, the prophet's headless body instead is brought out for the Jewish princess to drool over. The only severed head we get is that of a horse. I'm sure Castellucci will argue that it is not a homage to The Godfather, and it is not. A girl's first infatuation in her life oftentimes is for a horse. This Freudian fetish beautifully mirrors Salome's fixation on Jochanaan.

Overall, an interesting and provocative production that will keep you on the edge of your seat musically, while intellectually entertaining your senses with images you will not be able to shake out of your system for a while.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

My third PARSIFAL at Bayreuth

The current production of Parsifal, now in its third year, replaced the Stefan Herheim staging I was lucky to see in 2012. That production moved the action to Bayreuth itself, and enacted the history of Germany from the antebellum turn of the century, its entrance into World War I and on through the debacle of the Second World War and beyond. It was a spectacular achievement, my first Parsifal at Bayreuth, and so inspired that it was truly a hard act to follow.  The current production, which I first saw last year, moves the action to the present-day Middle East, transforming the knights into a sect of monks, who harbor a Christ-like Amfortas who is literally bled for his sins and ours.  It is an interesting vision which strives towards a universality to Wagner's work, but ultimately just ends up being a series of good ideas and pretty stage pictures lacking a cohesive factor to unify the staging.

There have been some changes in the cast since this production premiered three years ago, most notably, the departure of Klaus Florian Vogt last year, who dedicated his summer at the Green Hill to Walter, as he did this year, and Georg Zeppenfeld who this year moved on to sing King Henry the Fowler in the new Lohengrin. This was the second year that Parsifal was sung by Andreas Schager, a tenor with a true robust, heldentenor voice, which, however, he uses only in its forte and fortissimo capacities, giving the impression that he is shouting the role. The Festspielhaus is small enough to allow subtlety. Günther Groissböck took on the role of Gurnemanz this year, and I thought the results were mixed. The quality of his voice is certainly suited for the part, but I think the problem here is that we have grown accustomed to listening to more lyrical voices sing this part (i.e. René Pape, who seems to own the role around the world). But to be fair to Mr. Groissböck, the bass sang with determination, and depth of tone. It was just not a pretty sound. Baritone Thomas Meyer sounded like he was under the weather. His Amfortas in the third act felt like he was singing from under the sea, fathoms deep. His aria to his father was a mess, and he resorted to the "Bayreuth Bark" when he knew the notes were far beyond his reach. Elena Pankratova has remained with the production since its first year, and her Kundry is a master class in singing and acting.

Arguably, this production has suffered from a lack of musical leadership right from the start. The original conductor of this production was to have been Andris Nelsons, but he left the production at the last minute with an axe to grind against Christian Thielemann, so say Bayreuth insiders. Harmut Haenchen stepped in at the last minute, and conducted this staging for the first two years. This season Semyon Bichkov has taken over the orchestra, and although his tempi are on the fast side, his conducting of this intricate score was solid, at all times making sure that his singers were not drowned out. Interestingly enough, as a result of his cautious handling of the pit, I felt the chorus at times drowned out his orchestra: a first for me at Bayreuth.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

The New LOHENGRIN at Bayreuth

The new production of Lohengrin, with sets and costumes by husband-and-wife team of Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy promised the first swan knight from Roberto Alagna, an unprecedented career turn for the French-Italian singer. Of course, it was too good to be true, or perhaps too true to be good, in any case, Alagna bowed out a few weeks before the July 25 opening night claiming that he had not learned the part.  Polish tenor Piotr Beczala came to the rescue, and why not: he had not only performed the role earlier, but his conductor was Christian Thielemann who was also conducting this production.  Opening Night was telecast to theaters in Germany as well as over BR Klassik, and it was the first time in a long while that a new production was not savagely booed.  The audience loved the blue colors of the new staging, and Rauch, Loy and director Yuval Sharon, the first American to direct at Bayreuth, received a rousing ovation

Watching the production live at the Festspielhaus is like witnessing a Neo Rauch painting come to life. The devil is in the details, However, and that's where Ms. Loy's costumes make a difference. She takes her husbands flat canvas backdrops and 2-dimensional cut-outs of trees and populates them with principals and a chorus dressed brilliantly, recreating the social realism look of the New Leipzig  School that over the years we have come to expect.

 Piotr Beczala is a trouper: a life-saver for the Bayreuth Festival.  When they were stuck for a new tenor he cancelled his other engagements and agreed to do all the Lohengrins this summer at the Green Hill.  But, beware this role! The great tenor Nicolai Gedda only dared perform it once. It is a voice killer for a light tenor. Beczala had performed it before under the baton of Thielemann -- that's how he got to this year's festival, and although last night's performance was a triumph, I heard him pushing his voice to the brink, and I would exercise caution in attempting this role once more.  Anja Harteros started very weakly, but by the time the third act came about that silky voice that has been compared to a fine tuned Stradovarius shone through.  If you have not hears her, picture a young soprano with the golden voice of Renata Tebaldi, and then you'll know why this German/Greek artist is so sought after around the world.

Although she is a crowd favorite for being active on the stage for so long and for a multitude of brilliant performances around the world, Waltraud Meier sang flat throughout the evening. The role might be getting to her after performing it four times already at the Festpielhaus. It's a challenging role for an elder singer.  Nonetheless she brought years of experience to the part, which translated into fireworks for the audience, and they loved it. The Telramund of Tomasz Konieczny was quite remarkable, as was the conducting of the orchestra by Thielemann who by now knows every nook and cranny of this pit and house, and is able to bring out the sound like none other. 

Overall, the new Lohengrin is a non-controversial staging of this lovely work, which seems to be enjoying the audience's adulation this summer.  After so many years of controversial productions, and experimental designs, is this the way Bayreuth is heading?

Monday, August 06, 2018

Meistersinger 2.0 at Bayreuth


One of the highlights of last year’s trip to Bayreuth was attending Barrie Kosky’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  The Australian gay director, who also happens to be Jewish, chose to highlight the anti-Semitism found in Richard Wagner’s work as it is found in the character of Sixtus Beckmesser, superbly sung and acted by Johannes Martin Kränzle, who is back this summer reprising this role.  As a matter of fact, most of the principals from last year are back, which makes this Meistersinger 2.0 a pleasure to witness, since Mr. Kosky has not just sat on last year’s laurels, but he has gone back to the drawing board and improved upon last year’s wonderful staging.

What is different this year? Act II lost the grassy surface that at the end of the act was rolled up anyway. Objects and furniture from the first act, which takes place in Wahnfried, Wagner's home in Bayreuth, were suddenly thrown together on stage left. The end of the act still features the controversial Jewish head ballon that shocked many viewers last year.  The only difference being that I do not remember booing during the opening night telecast, or the performance I attended.  This year, the conclusion of Act II featured vociferous booing from segments of the audience, although applause and cheers far outweighed those that were booing this production. Why the boos? Something tells me that there were some in the audience that like their Wagner cut and dry, conservative and without  any directorial intervension.  Or perhaps it might have been that segments of the audience that are still troubled by  Anti-Semitic references, and the role Wagner's music played in the development of National Socialism: the last time that Germany officially tried to destroy its Jewish population.

You couldn't ask for a better cast: the aforementioned Kränzle has settled into his role, and gives a masterful performance that last year could have been described as "shtick" but this year has matured into a character of Shakespearean dimension.  Michael Volle is right now the finest singling and acting Hans Sachs, and the same can be said about Klaus Florian Vogt's Walter. Together with newcomer to the cast Emily Magee as Eva, the principals are surrounded by a great cast of meistersingers, each of whom has a distinctive personality.

Philippe Jordan conducted with a sure hand, and achieved the kind of unique sound that manages to escape from the sunken pit and envelop the audience. Not every conductor manages to do it, but Maestro Jordan was quite successful in making us closer to Wagner's great music.

As long as this cast stays together, this will be a production for the ages.  Now, it is time to film it, and share it with the rest of the world.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Flying Dutchman as Light Operetta

Certainly one of the wonders of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer is how close it was to the music of Weber and Meyerbeer.  Although Wagner is already a fully formed composer at this time, he still holds on to the trappings of Romantic Opera, where set pieces were the norm of the day.  Thus, this work is filled with arias and ensembles that later on Wagner would drop in favor of a more unified musical creation.  The current production at the Bayreuth Festival, directed by Jan Philipp Gloger is an uncontroversial, and, at times, a light, and apathetic look at the age-old story of the mariner who blasphemed and thus has been cursed to wonder the seven seas in search of a pure maiden who can redeem him.

In this production, the director accentuates Daland's greed upon seeing the Dutchman's wealth, and turns the spinning wheels into a factory where portable fans are being packed and shipped by factory girls in sky blue uniforms. Of course, Senta is the only one not packing fans: she is too busy with her fetishistic sex doll of the Dutchman (a real ugly, misshapen object. Why would anyone fancy this?). No wonder when Daland brings the Dutchman to the factory and Senta finally meets the man of her dreams she is struck by his beauty and sex appeal.  It is a riveting moment in this staging.  I wish there had been more.

In an evening where the singing was first rate, the work of the chorus must be singled out. Eberhard Friedrich's ensemble is a well-oiled machine which can sing brightly and powerful, as in the chorus of men who move from the back of the deep stage to the apron pulling forward the set for the spinning wheel AKA fan scene. The chorus of women at the factory also did exemplary work, and boy, can they act.

The principals all sang their roles with gusto and good cheer, and the audience applauded them with even more gusto. Despite a very high temperature inside the Festspielhouse, there were many curtain calls, unlimited, as is the custom at the Green Hill. Among the principal players Tomislav Muzek showed off his powerful tenor voice as the forlorn Erik, and the steersman of Rainer Trost delighted the audience with this acting. John Lundgren's Dutchman is a dark, malevolent figure and Ricarda Merbeth's Senta is a powerful, wild driven woman. The two were made for each other! Axel Kober's conducting was firm, and he led a vigorous reading of this early score.

After six years, it is time for this production to be retired, and in its place we need a darker version of this story. After all, it's what Wagner's music calls for.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

"Basket of Deplorables" at work


This was the scene in Tampa, Florida as Jim Acosta from CNN was doing his reporting at one of Donald Trump's rallies.  The crowd, incited by many months of hearing about fake news from POTUS, turned on the journalist yelling at him, raising their middle fingers and screaming "CNN sucks!"

As I prepare to leave the United States to go to Bayreuth, Germany for the Bayreuth Festival I hang my head in shame that this is the state of my country at this moment.