Sunday, August 20, 2006

By Any Other Name

The Metropolitan Opera's new text logo in both print and online media has changed with the new Peter Gelb administration. Now, the official line is to call the place "Met Opera" since it is those letters of the official name of the place that have been bolded in all documents issuing from Lincoln Center (see above).

I have heard what's left of the old-guard call the place "The Metropolitan Opera," and for many, many years, the rest of us have affectionately called the house "The Met." Even official radio and TV advertisements, if you remember, adopted this more "user-friendly" name for the house: the announcer would end the thirty second spot with the words "at the MET." One thing I have never heard anyone call this institution, though, is "Met Opera" as the current literature suggests. On the cover of the current issue of Opera News magazine, the house's main propaganda tool, the cover story headline reads "New Direction: Anthony Minghella stages Madama Butterfly at the Met." This opera company is indeed headed into new horizons, but Opera News knows enough about good advertisement to know that the words "the Met" have the necessary gravitas that the words "Met Opera" do not.

I would love it if this got corrected. It's easy. From now on just bold the initial six letters that spell out THE MET, and everything will be solved. At the risk of making this first batch of literature from the house collector's items, please do it right away before more and more people realize the mistake.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Little Wagner at the 2006-2007 MET Season

As one examines the Metropolitan Opera's schedule for the 2006-2007 season as the company gets ready to begin general sales for its inaugural year headed by the new management of Peter Gelb, one can't help but notice the dearth of operas by Richard Wagner. Last year there was no quantity either, but there was quality: an amazing Lohengrin (Ben Heppner, Karita Mattila, and René Pape) and an inspiring Parsifal (Ben Heppner, Waltraud Meier, and Thomas Hampson) each of these productions, as you can see, headed by casts that any opera house would kill for.

Although the revival of Die Mistersinger von Nürnberg, which is the only Wagner on the MET's roster for this upcoming season, looks promising (Johan Botha is back as Walter and James Morris is reprising his critically acclaimed Hans Sachs), I personally wish that we would get Tannhäuser back for another season. Last year's revival production with Hampsen as Wolfram was superb.

Also interesting for next season will be that James Levine will be sharing the podium for Meistersinger with John Keenan, a conductor that I don't know anything about. I don't know if this is a result of his health issues and the fact that Meistersinger is a long stretch, or perhaps, more likely, that the Maestro is overextending himself with his responsibilities in Bean Town. There will only be four performances of Meistersinger this season, and the work will be broadcast on Saturday afternoon, March 10 2007. James Levine will be conducting only the first two performances.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Parsifal

The Christoph Schlingensief production of Parsifal came back to the Bayreuth Festival for its third consecutive year. Which means that for the third consecutive year overwhelming boos have mingled with applause for this enigmatic, and some might say, disgusting production of Richard Wagner's last work. The first two years of this production were led by Pierre Boulez who added unquestionable charm and tradition to the event. He also decided to take the work at blinding speed. Was it that he could not stand looking at Schlingensief's mish-mash for too long? I had never heard such a fast Parsifal in my life: the first act last year was done in all of ninety minutes: Incredible! Of course, Pierre Boulez retired last year, and this production was handed over to Adam Fischer, who perhaps decided that he had a stronger stomach for this production, and he went ahead with a slower reading of this score.

There is not much to report about the production from just listening to it. This is a Parsifal for the eyes, more than for the ears. There is something absolutely wrong when one has to admit that, but it is so true. What I heard was a good reading of the score, although some voices do not really belong at the Bayreuth Festival, in my opinion, and would fare better at a provincial opera house elsewhere. The star of this show is Christoph Schlingensief, who was booed louder than on previous years.

This Parsifal will play again next year, and then it will be retired. That's an unusually short tenure for a Bayreuth staging. I guess the management (Wolfgang Wagner) has read the awful reviews, and the loud audience reactions. No information has yet been disclosed as to who will conceive the next production of this work.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Tristan und Isolde

There have been a lot of changes since the last time that I heard this production of Tristan und Isolde, which premiered last year at the Festspielhaus. First, the conductor of the original performances, Eiji Oue, was replaced after very negative critical reviews as well as heavy booing from the festival audiences. Honestly, I really did not think that he had done a bad job at all. The worse that could be said about him was that he led a boring reading of the score, and given the very boring production by director Christoph Marthaler, that had been handed to him, I thought that the two went hand in hand. Nonetheless, Mr. Oue was replaced by Peter Schneider who conducted last year's production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth, and who also subbed for James Levine this year at the MET for three performances of Parsifal.

Andreas Schmidt, who sang Kurwenal last year was replaced by Harmut Welker. This was a good change, but I can't say that Mr. Welker was that much of an improvement. There were more than a few rocky spots in his performance, and the voice seemed shaky and unsure of pitch throughout the performance.

Nina Stemme, Robert Dean Smith, Petra Lang, and Kwangchul Youn all came back to reprise their original roles from last year. Ms. Stemme is one of our most able Isoldes: the voice is strong, steady, voluminous and a pleasure to listen to. Mr. Smith has improved quite a lot since the premiere of this production. This time around, his Tristan sounded steadier and he was able to pace himself much better. As a result, he was able to carry the third act with no vocal mishaps, although you can hear that the voice was getting close to the breaking point. Both Ms. Lang and Mr. Youn (who is a really busy beaver these days at the Festival) ably sang their respective roles. Peter Schneider led an expressive reading of this lush score, but certainly not a memorable interpretation.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Anthony Tommasini at Bayreuth

The following is New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini's review of the Bayreuth 2006 Ring

BAYREUTH, Germany, Aug. 1 — During the curtain calls for any new production here at the Bayreuth Festival, it is practically a tradition for the audience to greet the creative team with a lusty chorus of competing boos and bravos. On Monday night the audience in the Festspielhaus honored that tradition at the end of “Götterdämmerung,” which concluded the festival’s new staging of Wagner’s four-part epic, “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

Before agreeing to take on the “Ring,” Tankred Dorst, the eminent 80-year-old German playwright, director, filmmaker, storyteller and actor, had done just about everything one could do in theater with one exception: direct an opera.

“My advantage is that I don’t have to continue a career as an opera director,” he said when his appointment was announced. Judging from the audience response and the initial buzz in the opera world, his debut will be heatedly debated for months. I found his work fresh, provocative and mostly effective. But more on that later.

The real hero of the Bayreuth “Ring” is not Siegfried or Brünnhilde, but the conductor Christian Thielemann. Whether the Bayreuth Festival can still claim to be the world’s premier Wagner house has long been an open question. But whatever one’s take on the production, Mr. Thielemann drew a probing, radiant and exhilarating musical performance from this orchestra of dedicated instrumentalists (drawn from top-tier German orchestras), as well as from the robust festival chorus and an involving, if vocally uneven, cast.

Mr. Thielemann, who is not the most articulate talker, has a way of getting into trouble when he speaks of national tradition in German culture. What he means, though, it seems from reading some of his most recent comments, is that German orchestras in the first half of the 20th century brought a natural pathos and a traditional connection to their playing of Wagner. In striving to recapture this quality today, musicians are in a bind. The struggle comes through, and the pathos seems strained. Moreover, Mr. Thielemann, 47, is a conductor with a contemporary sensibility who also wants playing to be incisive and up to date.

This is a difficult balancing act. But he pulled it off in the “Ring.” His tempo for the stormy opening music of Act 1 in “Die Walküre” was on the slow side. The tension came from the clarity he brought to the strangely overlapping lines and riffs. By revealing the complexity of this driving, frightful episode, he made the music seem interesting as well as hypnotic.

As always, he showed keen insight into what could be called musical rhetoric: that is, the ways the phrases begin, end and overlap. The music of the three Norns at the beginning of “Götterdämmerung” was murky and languid, yet never lugubrious, because Mr. Thielemann laid out the intertwining contrapuntal lines with such lucidity. And I will not soon forget the spacious, rich colorings and tragic nobility of the final scene in “Walküre,” when the god Wotan casts a sleeping spell over his rebellious daughter, Brünnhilde, perhaps the most sublimely sad music ever written. Here Mr. Thielemann achieved that elusive mix of pathos and clarity.

Returning to the production, Mr. Dorst was tapped for this assignment only after the festival’s first choice, the acclaimed film director Lars von Trier, withdrew. This could not have been an easy spot for Mr. Dorst. But he is an immensely interesting artist. His production concept was driven by a question that has long dogged “Ring” buffs: What happens at the end with the twilight of the gods? My interpretation has always been that through corruption and overreaching the gods bring about their own destruction. At the end, the Immolation Scene, the gods are gone. For better or worse, mankind will have to get along without them.

Mr. Dorst disagrees, and he is not alone. To him the gods are always with us, continually reliving their stories. But we mortals do not see them. In this production the gods appear in some woefully makeshift contemporary sites as they try to re-enact their sagas. The consistently striking sets were designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann. In many scenes everyday people are going about their business, oblivious to the invisible gods. The exception is a young man with long blond hair, an Adidas T-shirt and a skateboard, who senses the goings-on of the gods around him.

Of course, peopling a scene with modern-day observers can be a theatrical cliché, but not here. The outsiders see nothing, and the concept engages that intriguing question of what happens to the gods. It also helped that Mr. Dorst clearly worked well with the cast, drawing nuanced and poignant portrayals from even the silent characters.

In “Das Rheingold,” when we meet Wotan and his extended family of gods, they are living in what looks like a run-down building in a public park, with a nearby lookout post of dingy stone walls marred by graffiti. When Wotan and Loge, seeking the power of the magic ring, descend to the mine that the maniacal dwarf Alberich is operating, the place is a modern energy plant. A power plant, get it? A meter reader comes through at one point, looking at gauges, unaware that Wotan and Alberich are engaged in a battle of wits.

The home of Hunding, the brut ish clansman, and his oppressed wife, the captured demigodess Sieglinde, looks like some formerly grand estate, now damaged by a street pole with a downed power line that has smashed through a wall. Curiosity-seekers mill about. And when the clouds clear around Wotan striding atop his mountain, the site is revealed to be a hilltop park with a viewing area to which some bicyclists have made their way.

I loved the idea that the best place the calculating dwarf Mime was able to find to rear the young Siegfried was an abandoned classroom, with a chemistry lab table for Mime to mix his potions, a chalk board and an old crib in a cluttered corner where the infant Siegfried once slept. Also striking was the stone quarry that represented Valhalla, where the Valkyries were not doing a good job of serving fallen heroes, here pasty-skinned and delicate young men in lacy robes, sleeping as if dead to the world.

For me, the costumes designed by Bernd Skodzig are the biggest lapse of the production. Mr. Dorst wanted the gods to look alien, not human. Alien is one thing, silly another. In “Rheingold,” the gods’ outfits look like rejects from the “Star Trek” costume shop.

Of the major roles, the most vocally compelling performance was from the bass-baritone Falk Struckmann as Wotan. He sang with earthy tone and plenty of power, fully conveying a god torn by uncertainty and arrogance. The American soprano Linda Watson won fairly consistent ovations for her Brünnhilde. I tried to like her. She sang with vibrancy, with a voice that sliced through the orchestra and, in reflective passages, offered some lovely phrasing. But her sound was just too strident and wobbly for me.

The American Stephen Gould, the Siegfried, is far from a born heldentenor. His voice lacks heroic heft and clarion top notes. But he sang with unflagging verve, acted with agility and pulled it off. Until a real contender comes along, he will do. But in their many scenes together, his work was usually overshadowed by the nasal-toned tenor Gerhard Siegel as a wonderfully impish Mime, a character role.

Andrew Shore was an aptly conniving Alberich. Other standouts were the luminous soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde; Hans-Peter König, chilling as Hagen; and the dusky-toned Mihoko Fujimura as Erda and also as Waltraute (in “Götterdämmerung”).

Because of Bayreuth’s unique covered pit, the orchestra players cannot be seen. So it was a lovely touch during the final ovations on Monday when the curtain opened to reveal the musicians standing onstage, instruments in hand, in their dressed-for-comfort wear. They won a huge and much-deserved ovation. And their outfits of colorful T-shirts, jeans, shorts and summer dresses looked a lot better than the production’s costumes.

The Bayreuth Festival runs through Aug. 28, including two more cycles of the ‘‘Ring.’’

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Bayreuth 2006: Götterdämmerung

Every day at the Bayreuth Festival this year there has been some kind of surprising event that makes the entire experience memorable and unique. Without a doubt the most exciting part of the live broadcast of Götterdämmerung was discovering the voice of Hans-Peter König, who sang the role of Hagen. Lately at Bayreuth, this is the kind of role that is being cast with a "mature" artist who brings with him a lifetime of interpretive prowess, but who also leaves much to be desired when it comes to an ability to handle the notes. The role of Kurwenal in last year's new production of Tristan und Isolde was sung by one of these aging beauties, and it was a disaster. That artist was replaced this year, but to no avail. There seems to be a plethora of over-the-hill basses and baritones just waiting to grace the stage of the Festspielhaus.

Imagine what a great surprise it was to listen to Hans-Peter König sail his way through Hagen's treacherous music with absolutely no problem whatsoever. This is the kind of bass that reminds you of Gottlob Frick, the great German bass who sang Hagen in the Sir Georg Solti recording of this opera. Frick was called the "blackest bass in Germany," and although König's voice is not as cavernous, it does have the proper evil, dark quality that is perfect for this role. He was a wonderful discovery, and he made this broadcast of Götterdämmerung a real treat.