Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Staatsoper Hannover: Salome

18 November 2017

When Richard Strauss was hesitating about composing Elektra so soon after Salome, Hugo von Hofmannsthal tried to set his mind at rest. The two plays—the former by Hofmannsthal himself, of course, the latter by Oscar Wilde—were completely different, he assured the composer in one of the earliest letters of their correspondence. 

Annemarie Kramer as Salome in Hanover (Photo © Thomas M. Jauk)
‘The blend of colour in the two subjects strikes me as quite different in all essentials,’ Hofmannsthal wrotein Salome much is so to speak purple and violet, the atmosphere is torrid; in Elektra, on the other hand, it is a mixture of night and light, or black and bright.’

Admittedly, Hofmannsthal’s descriptions were not entirely disinterested: he was determined that Strauss should move forward with his Elektra. However, I was reminded of his characterization of the composer’s 1905 shocker when watching Ingo Kerkhof’s production—distilled, abstract, cool.  

Annemarie Kramer (Salome) and Brian Davis (Jochanaan) (l.), with Simon Bode (Narraboth) (Photo © Thomas M. Jauk)

Inge Medert’s costumes put the cast in regulation dishevelled smart-contemporary, our Salome in a simple linen dress. In the first scene, everyone apart from her sings from the front seats of the Erster Rang, and characters keep popping up through other doors in the auditorium. Salome, appearing through a broad, slinky, smartly-lit metallic string curtain upstage, is the main attraction, the subject of everyone’s gaze.

The other main feature of Anne Neuser’s set is a wall of dull gold that descends intermittently to focus the attention, and to provide the background for some effective shadow play (lighting by Elana Siberski). Kerkhof offers an unusual take on the dance (choreographed by Mathias Brühlmann), in which the dinner guests stay on to don frocks and dance around themselves, while a blindfolded Herod is tricked into touching them up. 

Robert Künzli (Herod), with dancers (Photo © Thomas M. Jauk)
There’s some gore when Narraboth slashes his forearms to bloody effect, and kudos to the prop department for an impressive severed head, delivered wrapped in a cloth. That’s about it, though. Jochanaan (the impressively resonant and imposing Brian Davis) has no cistern to sing from, his voice emanating from somewhere on high. There’s no sense of time or place. 

Annemarie Kramer (Salome)
(photo © Thomas M. Jauk)
There’s little to be actively offended about in the production, but nor does it add anything. 

Or, in fact, it's worse than that, for the lack of any context precludes any sense of that torrid atmosphere Hofmannsthal described, or much sense of who the characters are. 

Strauss’s score calls out to be amplified by something more, in terms of staging, than we had here. I found myself neither moved or shocked by Salome’s final scene—and ideally one should, I think, be both.  

Matters perhaps weren’t helped by the fact that Ivan Repušić’s conducting, though certainly not without its powerful eruptions, charted a sensible, level-headed course. Highly musical and distinguished by impressive clarity of texture (and on the whole very well played by the Niedersächsisches Staatsorchester Hannover), it didn't offer anything extra to make up for the lack of anything on stage.

That's hardly the conductor's fault, though, and one can’t really fault the cast, either. Annemarie Kremer’s Salome, though occasionally failing to project sufficiently in her lower range, stayed the course admirably and acted with intensity: her scenes with Davis’s unusually suggestible Jochanaan, alternating disgust with a kind of desperate, intertwining intimacy, were a highlight. 

There was much to enjoy in Robert Künzli’s jittery Herod and Kathuna Mikaberidze's imperious, youthful Herodias. Among the smaller roles the young bass Daniel Eggert stood out as the First Nazerene. Simon Bode might have made more of Narraboth.

Ultimately, though, this Salome's lack of potency was down to the director. No one in the cast or in the pit could do much to bring colour and atmosphere to his underwhelming staging.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Semperoper Dresden: Die Entführung aus dem Serail

2 November 2017

We got a little more than we bargained for with this Die Entführung aus dem Serail, as became clear with a pre-performance announcement. The billed Konstanze, Hulkar Sabirova, had been taken ill, and was being replaced Gloria Rehm, who’d just about had time to be run through the production.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Semperoper (Photo © Jochen Quast)

Rather more last–minute was the cancellation of the Osmin, Michael Eder. A replacement had been found in the shape of Mischa Schelomianski, but he’d barely had time to be fitted into his costume. He ended up having to go through the show with the help of a newly rustled-up sidekick, played by an assistant director, who steered him around, occasionally handing him a script, often, given some witty improvisation in character, to unexpectedly amusing effect. 

Inevitably this made for some difficulty in judging the general direction of the characters in Michiel Dijkema’s new-ish production (one of last seasons premieres). But it did nothing to hide the fact that this is an appealing, imaginative and witty show, designed (by Dijkema) with tongue firmly in cheek and on a grandly pantomimic scale.

Much of it felt as much like Die Zauberflöte as Entführung, highlighting some interesting parallels between the rulers that feature in each. Here we had a mysterious eastern landscape of moveable mini-islands covered in reeds and rather triste-looking trees; a wrought gate and a chunk of fortress (also moveable); threatening clouds glowering behind; dialogue distantly accompanied by an ominous background hum and rumble.

Costumes were bright and exaggerated, as were the props: a vast birdcage on wheels to house Pasha Selim’s harem; an array of large instruments of torture—‘Martern aller Arten’ indeed—rising from some fiery upstage depths to the sound of threatening chants. Fans of the Castorf Ring will be pleased to know that the production even includes a crocodile.

It’s bright, engaging and entertaining, then, and while it might not constitute a profound meditation on the issues raised by Mozart’s work—more pertinent today than ever, surely—it certainly doesn’t trivialise them either. And, above all, Dijkema shows himself to be musically sensitive, leaving the musical numbers to speak for themselves, as they did with real eloquence here.

Forming the foundation of the basis performance was beautifully urbane playing from the Staatskapelle: stylish, beautifully shaped and with an easy grace that was helped by Christopher Moulds’s easy–going, non–interventionist approach on the podium. The results were a joy.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Semperoper (Photo © Jochen Quast)

There was some fine singing from the cast too, with Norman Rheinhardt bringing plenty of grace and clean tone to Belmonte, even if the voice did occasionally cloud over a little. I wasn’t that keen on the artful pianissimo he employed on a couple of occasions, either, but this was nevertheless a satisfying, aristocratic and stylish performance.

Rehm’s soprano is a wonderfully bright, luminous one and she sang Konstanze with great allure, and even managed in the rushed circumstances to create a good rapport with Jaron Löwenberg’s charistmatic Pasha Selim. Aaron Pegram and Sibylla Duffe made a lively, engaging pair as Pedrillo and Blonde. And was it me or did Duffe—during her first scene, played out on some sort of giant turnip plantation— interpolate a ‘Brexit’ under her breath between ‘Ich bin eine Engländerin’ and ‘zur Freiheit geboren’?  

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Semperoper Dresden: Götterdämmerung

1 November 2017

Christian Thielemann conducts two complete Ring cycles in Dresden early next year, but I’ve been experiencing the tetralogy at a slow pace as he’s been building it up over the past 21 months or so: he began with Walküre early last year and followed it up with Rheingold a year ago and Siegfried in January.

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Andreas Schager (Siegfried) (Photo © Klaus Gigga)

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Such an arrangement doesn’t help for overall appreciation of Willy Decker’s production (first seen here in the early 2000s), but it struck me as being at its very best in this final instalment: uncluttered, understated and often deeply moving. 

Indeed, dramatically speaking, I think this was the most moving performance of this grandest of grand finales that I’ve seen, to a large extent because of the detailed characterisation as revived here—no revival director was credited as such, but Alexander Brendel and Bernd Gierke were on the bill for Abendspielleitung and Regieassistenz respectively—matched by terrific acting from about as good a cast as one could expect to see in the piece these days.

Nina Stemme’s now familiar Brünnhilde retained a powerful sense of nobility throughout, and she still sings with astonishing power and commitment, even if the voice seemed to take a little while to crank up to full power.

Iain Paterson’s Gunther was outstanding, impeccably sung and charting a detailed trajectory louche lack of concern to a painful realisation of what he was becoming part of. 
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Falk Struckmann remains a bass-baritone rather than a true bass, but his complex timbre—an oily maelstrom of blacks and greys—made for a properly threatening and commanding Hagen. Edith Haller’s vulnerable, desperate Gutrune added to a fully convincing picture, as did Christa Mayer’s moving, impassioned Waltraute.

Andreas Schager had some moments of strain as Siegfried—only the truly superhuman don't—but rang out heroically, creating a believable figure quick to be seduced, desperate to join in with Hagen and Gunther as if starved of some good old laddish high jinks. 

Helped by the clear-minded economy of the production—the stage emptied as a weary, heartbroken Wotan slowly walked on to observe—Schager delivered a death scene shocking power, underlined by conducting of almost suffocating dramatic weight from Thielemann.

Iain Paterson (Gunther), Andreas Schager (Siegfried), Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) (Photo © Klaus Gigga)

The conductor’s approach to this score, as before, is grandly expansive, always rooted deep in some primeval harmonic soil, often daringly drawn out and often also, it has to be said, rather pear-shaped: the lower brass are allowed to create a bulbousness in the overall sound that, as in the final minutes of the Immolation Scene, engulfs all else. Elsewhere, particularly in Act 2, the singers struggled to be heard against an orchestral backdrop that the conductor seemed unwilling to pare down.

Sabrina Kögel (Wellgunde) (Photo © Klaus Gigga)
But it’s a small price to pay for a musical vision that is so coherent and imposing, which attempts, it seems, at every turn to convey the sheer vastness of Wagner’s own conception. And the playing of Staatskapelle was, on the whole, magnificent, offering a sound of rounded refinement and silky virtuosity.

A final word for Decker’s production and Wolfgang Dussmann’s designs. In the previous instalments we’d had the idea of the tetralogy being staged by Wotan himself, variously performed and observed by the cycle’s characters. 

It had occasionally felt a little fussy. Here, though, it came together as vision of remarkably refreshing clarity and poetic beauty: an object lesson in economy and musical sensitivity that reached a highpoint at the very end. Wellgunde slowly rolled on a new virgin sphere—a sphericus rasus?—as the cast-audience of the previous drama sank down behind a white frame. 

She stood there still, turning towards us only as, after a daringly drawn-out pause, Thielemann let the final redemptive bars sing out. It was a stunning moment.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Staatsoper Hannover: Der junge Lord; Der fliegende Holländer

19 October; 20 October

The Staatsoper in Hannover has, over the past few seasons, presented several of Hans Werner Henze’s stage works. Last season it was Die Englische Katze; this season it’s another opera with an English element, his sharp comedy Der Junge Lord, premiered up the road at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper in 1965 and set to a clear-sighted and quick-witted libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann—based on a parable taken from an 1827 collection of stories by Wilhlem Hauff.

Henze's Der junge Lord at the Staatsoper Hannover (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
In brief: an English nobleman, Sir Edgar, wows then increasingly insults the inhabitants of the small German town of Hülsdorf-Gotha, before presenting them with  nephew’, Lord Barrat. This young lord impresses them with his refreshingly direct and unorthodox manners, even setting the local beautys heart a-flutter, before, as his behaviour gets increasingly wild, being exposed as an ape Sir Edgar has procured from a visiting circus. As a tale of hypocrisy, suggestibility and gullibility, it is surely as relevant as ever. 

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Half a century on, Henze’s score retains remarkable sense of freshness, at least as conducted here by Mark Rohde, whose incisive work was matched by precision and virtuosity by the orchestra. Ostensibly inspired primarily by bel canto—and benefitting from that genre’s clarity of texture as well as some relatively grateful vocal writing—it’s a work that throws in a variety of other influences, too, all bound together expertly. 

The director here, Bernd Mottl, offers up a staging that is every bit as sharp. Hülsdorf-Gotha and its inhabitants are in stylised, exaggerated black and white (costumes by Alfred Mayerhofer). In Friedrich Eggert’s designs, the stage floor is chequered squares, the action contained and variously focused within a series of black, frilly-edged panels.

Colour is reserved for the English interlopers, led by the threateningly mute Sir Edgar, here given real menace by Franz Mazura. The contrast is further underlined through the uptight, preening manner of the Hülsdorf-Gotha residents and the louche way of the visitors, epitomised of course by the young lord Barrat himself, played here as rubber-limbed, gold lamé-suited Michael Jackson, c. 1985.

Hannover’s large ensemble cast was impressive, with outstanding performances in particular from Stefan Adam, focused and authoritative as Sir Edgar’s Secretary, and Sung-Keun Park, fearless both physically and vocally as Lord Barrat. Rebecca Davis unveiled plenty of secure, beautiful tone as Luise and Simon Bode sang mellifluously as her (moderately interesting) initial love interest. Tichina Vaughn gave her all as the Jamaican cook Begonia—a broad caricature that perhaps dates the work more than any other element.

Franz Mazura (Lord Edgar), Sung-Keun Park (Lord Baratt), Rebecca Davis (Luise) in Der junge Lord (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
The Romantic subplot arguably adds little to the drama, too, though it does offer Henze the opportunity for some seductive harp and celesta writing (a subconscious nod to Der Rosenkavalier?). But Luisa’s aria, the only freestanding number of the work, is less memorable than it should be—hovering uncertainly between sincerity and irony.

The piece’s undeniable freshness and wit also has to be pitted against the sense one has that it’s just a little bit longer than it needs to be, the premise that little bit too slight for its two hour-long acts. Nevertheless, given a staging as witty and sharp as this, one is in no doubt as to Der junge Lord’s theatrical viability and, one hopes, continued longevity.

Der fliegende Holländer at Staatsoper Hannover (Photo © Thomas M. Jauk) 
One would never have guessed that Hannover’s current production of Der fliegende Holländer, new last season, had come from the same director. A ruined shopping mall is not a natural choice as setting for the work, to put it mildly, and Mottl’s production never really managed to persuade me that it was a good choice, either—or to offer any reason why the Dutchman should have ended up there.

The Spinning Chorus became a jolly routine for a female chorus kitted out in fur coats, blond wigs and sunglasses, with Senta, it seemed, a goth rebelling against commercialism and occasionally seeking solace in the piles of dirt that surrounded the set.

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Mareike Moor’s Mary is kitted out in something like simple 19th-century garb; the Dutchman wears black leather; Erik, dressed in some sort of camouflage with crop-sprayer’s backpack, seems to work in pest control. The Steuermann (a clean-toned Edward Mout), sings his early song to a mannequin. Senta joins the object of her obsession at the close in a fire that gets ignited during the big Act 3 party—turned into a big nautical-themed song-and-dancein the shopping centre’s lower level.

Happily, at least the musical performance was on a very high level. Ivan Repušić conducted an account of Wagner’s score that felt all the more powerful for being a little reined-in and controlled. Gale force was unleashed only at key moments, and the work’s sheer musical craftsmanship was underlined throughout. The playing of the orchestra was very fine, too, mixing impressive clarity with dramatic punch.

Krszysztof Szumanski stepped in as a late replacement as the Dutchmann, singing with a pleasingly relaxed, expansive timbre, and with none of the hectoring that one often hears in the role. Kelly God made a terrific Senta, utterly secure and excitingly fearless, and Shavelg Armasi, though vocally on the smaller end of the spectrum, brought plenty of character to her father, who might or might not have been the owner of the mall itself. A special mention should be made, too, of Robert Künzli who, though announced as indisposed, still sang Erik with a reliability that can’t always be taken for granted in this tricky role.