Opera Critic

In a stunning yet not totally unexpected late season announcement, the Metropolitan Opera declared that its long-time artistic leader James Levine, with the company since 1971, would finally stand down as music director at the end of the 2015-16 opera season. Health problems have visibly ravaged Levine over the past few years, leading to complaints of uneven performances, unreliable direction, and occasional withdrawals from big-ticket assignments. But for anyone who heard Levine’s last productions in the house earlier this spring, his departure leaves much to be lamented. In any case he is not really going. With no replacement waiting in the wings, Levine has been promoted to “Music Director Emeritus” and will continue to conduct productions and work with young artists. The announcement left ambiguity over the future of the concert series by the Met orchestra, an ensemble Levine has raised to a truly world class standing over the past few decades. Of the three concerts booked for Carnegie Hall’s venerable stage, Levine conducted two (with his “emeritus” status already noted in the program), including last night’s all-Wagner concert featuring excerpts from the Ring of the Nibelung. Esa-Pekka Salonen has been announced as the conductor of next year’s Met concerts, so the Wagner extravaganza may well be Levine’s last.

It is true that at times Levine’s gestures lacked their past precision and subtlety. One could say that the orchestra’s radiant performance occasionally plodded along, with the musicians perhaps responding more to their long and deservedly celebrated experience playing Wagner’s music than to what they were seeing on the podium. The opening orchestral excerpts did reveal the orchestra in the fine form that it owes so much to its maestro. Levine’s program introduced “The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” with a thunderous playing of the leitmotif associated with Alberich’s curse. The piece then opened up into glorious harmonies the captured the pomposity of the dramatic moment. Then came the famous “Ride of Valkyries,” played with a steady tempo that never reached into the realm of the histrionic. The second part featured Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Death March, both delivered in vivid character with each and every note pollinated by careful deliberation.

Vocal artistry commanded the final selection of the concert’s first part and the opening and final selections of the second part. Both halves of the concert featured the latest Wagnerian discovery: the already much celebrated dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde. In the first part she sang that character’s awakening in Act III of Siegfried, followed by the duet with the title character, sung by the sturdy tenor Stefan Vinke. Part II featured the duet in the prologue of Gotterdammerung and ended with the Immolation Scene. Goerke has been appearing sequentially in all three Brunnhilde parts, most recently in Washington as a stand-in for Catherine Foster in the Walkure installment of that city’s Ring. The voice rests on a solid, composed middle register that supports both strong chest singing and allows a platform for the role’s treacherous high notes. At times the technique was visible in a way that detracted from the higher range dramatic effects, but the overall impression was that we are witnessing the birth of a stunning Brunnhilde, one of maybe four or five singers working today who can deliver the part more than credibly. Vinke’s Siegfried seemed a bit tested by the orchestra and at times the voice had an unattractive leathery quality. But very often it provided a strong romantic partner in rapturous duet. He may yet rise from his Wagner singing in smaller German houses to an international career of some standing. The evening’s most lasting impression, however, was the departure of Maestro Levine from his principal role. This may well have been his last Wagner conducting. The legacy will live on.

Paul du Quenoy

The action of the opera is slight: the characters are declaiming their feelings throughout. Hence Nietzsche called it Wagner’s Opus Metaphysicum. The only choice that is made throughout the piece is King Marke’s choice to forgive Tristan at the end, but the choice is less effectual than Marke had hoped since by the time he reaches him Tristan is already dead. Ineffectual also is Brangaene’s very willful choice to substitute the love elixir for the death elixir: their love Tristan and Isolde already have, and since their love cannot take place in this world the only place it can take place is another world, but the only other world a human can go to is the world of death, if that is a world. Of such a world we have a conception at least, because every day gives way to a night and to darkness, a fact that will provide the master metaphor of Tristan’s declamations in second act.

When we enter the hall the work of the scenographer, Christophe Hetzer, has already begun. The curtain is up and a large black square about half as big as the whole stage is suspended there in front of a back-wall in muted silver-grey. It is the goings-on in the area occupied by that square that we have come to see, but now that area is only black. The square is too big to be taken in stride. Is its blackness blocking something or is the something there but unilluminated? With the Prelude the square disappears into the flies, but once Act One begins the looming blackness returns in the form of a set of large black walls twenty five feet high that slowly move and rotate on the stage, sometimes to divide a foreground from a background from which personages can surprisingly emerge, sometimes to separate and frame an area between the characters, but most often to give a black background before which the characters declaim. The movement of these large objects is very gradual; so gradual as to recall the sorts of things Bob Wilson did with Wagner a few years ago in his Ring at Chatelet, his Parsifal in Los Angeles, and his Lohengrin in New York: if you watch them the objects seem not to move; if you don’t watch them you suddenly notice they have disappeared or reconfigured themselves.

Wilson-like also was the lighting of the stage, under the command of Jean Kalman. There are no side walls, just a glowing rear wall that shifts from silver to blue and sometimes to a light green, with the large black moving walls in the middle: the backlighting frames the black walls and the black walls frame the players. The impression is that they are outdoors always (which in fact they are, in all three acts of this opera). Moreover they are always forward on the stage and the backlighting always threatens to cast them in silhouette. What lighting they are given so that we can see their faces and gestures is given very sparingly, largely by means of spotlights from the sides so that they cast shadows on other stage objects and even on each other. Their own costumes are nondescript and what differences there are between them is hardly visible because of the shadowy lighting. Overall the costumes are light blue grey, as is the rear wall most of the time.

The similarity to Wilson’s sets into relief a great dissimilarity from him: in his case these optical effects are his own signature gimmicks but here the concentration of blackness and darkness is the express thesis of the interpretation. Dull blue-grey framing black is the world the blue-grey characters live in – or more accurately are dying in. By the third act Tristan, supine before a black wall, is virtually invisible until he picks himself up and lurches about the stage, but when he returns to that position it is to a darkness invisible and eternal that he returns. Another similarity to Wilson, which we can attribute in this case to the dramaturge, Willem Bruls, is that the characters almost never touch each other. In Wilson’s Parsifal for instance Kundry kissed Parsifal from about fifteen feet away. Here too the characters look at each other only rarely and only once do Tristan and Isolde almost-kiss or maybe-kiss, and it is only after they have been discovered by Mark at the end of Act Two. But again the similarity with Wilson evokes the dissimilarity, for it is a thesis of this interpretation that the characters’ love is a metaphysical kind of thing, if we may use Nietzsche’s term: for this, their spatio-temporal proximity is an expression all-too-gross. And so we may go further and imagine that the gradual movement of the walls is also thematic for the gradual and ineluctable merging of their lives into death.

If there is no action, and the lighting and scenery and costumes conspire to make the characters barely distinguishable from each other, one might have been bored out of his mind unless there were something powerful in the libretto and the way it was sung. Wagner himself was aware that this was where the terrifying power of the opera lay, writing in a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck that the only thing that could likely keep it from being banned would be mediocre performance! The performance on May 18 of Torsten Kerl and Rachel Nicholls (replacing Emily McGee who withdrew) should certainly have led to banishment of the work in former times: easily the most inspiring execution of this opera I have heard. Kerl held up through the final act with almost incredible strength, his voice never losing its sharp, sometimes too sharp, edge; what was most impressive about Nicholls was her control of emotional modulations and the delicacy with which her notes arrived, especially in the Liebestod. Polegato’s Kourvenal threatened to steal the show early in Act Three with his voice and acting – a happy and hopeful voice that believes in the world we live in and thinks Tristan might come out OK, a light that soon enough will be extinguished. Humes’s Mark was strong and dignified but lacked the strain of doleful plangency that this father-figure and king must be made to display despite himself. Gatti’s conducting was limpid but sure with unusual ritardando for emphasis, and his modulation of piano and forte was effective: he is one of those conductors that seems to be teaching us the music.

Complaints: 1) Too much racket from the air-conditioner at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées, especially after the second intermission and the very quiet prelude to Act Three when it could have been turned off for a while – even worse the next night during the astoundingly quiet passages in Jonas Kaufmann’s performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. 2) It is an accident of the score that Brangaene’s and Isolde’s voices are very close and I always have trouble with this, but the trouble is exacerbated almost to the point of absurdity when their costumes are indistinguishable and the light is low. 3) Merold in this production is unaccountably portrayed as a crotchety and crippled old man with an elbow cane, playing spoiler – impossible in the hypothesis, since Merold is a contemporary of Tristan and younger than Mark. Merold is not jealous of Tristan’s love for Isolde (as the libretto is translated by the program of this performance) nor jealous of Isolde’s love for Tristan (as Peter Sellars had it in his Tristan Project, making him homosexual) but envious of Mark’s favoritism of him, for Tristan is an interloper in Cornwall by Mark’s adoption of him. Merold’s only way to Mark is through Tristan, as Brangaene tells Isolde in Act Two. Thus Tristan’s difficulty with Merold is not the product of his love for Isolde but another of the circumstances that makes pursuing that love impossible, and now in the third act, on his home turf, he tells us how his orphaned past led to his search for a father in Mark, which traces the origins of his love with Isolde and the trouble with that love all the way back to the moment he was conceived.

What I learned from this production was the importance of the libretto. The synopsis in the program sets out to give the action, but as I have said there is none. Indeed, to liken the opera to an oratorio has become a commonplace. It is the declamations that are the action, both in the sense of Tristan’s attempt in Act Two to teach Isolde the meaning of their love, and also in the separate but equal autobiographical declamations first by Isolde in Act One (Er sah mir in die Augen) and second by Tristan in Act Three (when the piper’s song reminds him of his parentage). These expose the separate psychological roots of their love for each other, and justify the dramaturgy of non-embrace. They are not, and will not be, spelled out in the synopsis of the opera, so that unless you already know them and to some extent have contemplated the way the characters articulate them – which in the case of Tristan is extremely poetical and as metaphorical as something from Ossian – the characters’ words will seem in performance nothing but more and more lovesick raving. What is tragic about their love is the credible and verisimilar story by which their personal circumstances – what occurred in the world of light – make their love impossible at the same time that it is the only hope in their lives. That death for them is the only viable alternative is not paradoxical or star-crossed but humanly tragic.

At the very end, for the Liebestod, the black wall behind became translucent and behind it, framed by its outline, Isolde sang in silhouette. The body of Tristan had disappeared; she was deep in the stage with the illuminated silver wall to her back, dead to our world and already being transported to the next. This one moment redeemed all the darkness before. More exactly, it embodied what the darkness had meant.

The production is a joint effort with Nederlandse Opera and with the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, whose 2016-2017 it will open. France Musique has announced it will broadcast it on 25 June 2016. Excerpts of what I have tried to describe are available to be seen on YouTube.

— Ken Quandt

This Inszenierung debuted here four years ago but this was the first time it was presented over four consecutive days – a novelty for those who have seen the Ring too many times which in fact drew me to it but which also enabled the audience, jaded or not, to see too many singers. Too many not because some did poorly – indeed with all the cast changes a high level of quality was maintained, which was something of a tour de force in itself – but because something was lost in the continuity of the story by the need continually to reboot with new faces and voices and shapes, a thing all the more noticeable when there were no intervening days for yesterday’s impressions to fade, and all the more regrettable since the closeness of the performances would ideally enhance one’s appreciation if the cast had not changed, which is something one can experience at home with a set of DVD’s of a single production, as for instance the Schenk, the Kupfer, or the Chereau, which technology enables us to view just as continually as we are able, by somehow allowing the singers to keep going without fatigue.

But we have gotten ahead of ourselves. The switching-out was only the tip of the iceberg. The salient feature of this production is a deeper unevenness of conception and execution that the switching-out only exacerbated. There was no curtain, even between the scenes of Rheingold and between the Prelude and Act One of Gotterdammerung – something that is also becoming more common – but here it was done with uneven artistry. Dancers were used – another thing more common in recent years – but were used unevenly. Most important in the end, there was a jarring shift from beauty to ugliness that made the ugly more ugly than it would have been if there had been nothing particularly beautiful. Each of these unevennesses bears some description if nothing else to illustrate the vicissitudes to which a performance of the tetralogy is liable.

First, then, the SINGER-CHANGES with a few comments:
Wotan: Tuomas Pursio in Rheingold (show-stealing performance); Markus Marquart in Walküre (finest meditative monologue I have witnessed); Evgeny Nikitin as Wanderer in Siegfried (a burnished and resonant voice hugely sympathetic in the late scene with Erda). Here the changes were all improvements over having one singer even if the face was different since the quality of the voices corresponded with the development of Wotan and the plot.
Brunnhilde: Eva Johansson in Walküre; Elisabet Strid in Siegfried; Christiane Liber (who had sung Sieglinde) in Götterdämmerung. Too many Brunnhildes since Brunnhilde is the one character whose development carries the meaning of the tetralogy more than any other, and we want to watch her AS she changes, in contrast to Wotan where it suffices to see that he HAS changed.
Siegfried: Stefan Vincke in Siegfried, a playful and strong Siegfried if under-rehearsed; Thomas Mohr in Gotterdammerung.
Fricka: Karin Lovelius in Rheingold, particularly dignified; Kathrin Goering in Walküre, beautiful but less dignified (though her dignity is more important here than in Rheingold).
As for Alberich, Jürgin Linn hung around for the whole thing – and his continuity set into relief the changes of the others – another of the contradictions in execution and conception. Conversely, Tuomas Pursio reappears as Gunther in Götterdämmerung raising the forlorn hope of having heard him as Wotan throughout. Thankfully Nicole Piccolomini appeared as Erda both times.

The CURTAINLESS SCENE CHANGES had at first an unwanted utilitarian sense but at the end a highly powerful visual embodiment of Wagner’s auditory method of through-composition. For the first scene of Rheingold there is a round elevated platform in the center of the stage from beneath which Alberich emerges. When he climbs onto the platform we discover it is full of water: he splashes around and actually gets wet; at the end of the scene during Wagner’s transitional music the troupe of dancers with their graceful but affected movements are gathered upon the platform wiping it dry before other dancers bring on a little furniture for the next scene: clearly the water has been drained out but the floor of the platform needs to be wiped dry lest the next set of characters slip. At the other end of the spectrum, between the Prologue and the first two scenes of Götterdämmerung, Act One, the scene changes are done without dancers but with gradual shifts in the lighting – things come into view that were invisible before, we feel we are moving from outdoors to indoors, the tall posts on the stage are transformed from trees in the vicinity of Brunnhilde’s Rock to pillars within the Gibichung palace. The shifts are gradual and most wonderfully, they made Wagner’s transitional music become visible, from the dark and desperate mood of the Norns to the hopeful exultation of Brunnhilde and Siegfried and then to the morbid grandeur of the palace – and so it went throughout the Gotterdammerung: this is the best artistic potential for the curtainless technique, namely to make the scene change before our eyes in tandem with the music, so we have been brought from a treatment dead or bald to Gesamtkunst.

The DANCERS did mop the stage in their first appearance; elsewhere they had other functions. Since such dancers as these, more and more common these days, are silent and superadded to any stage directions it seems unlikely there will ever be a settled poetics for their use. They will likely go on providing the Regisseur with a wild card for displaying extra ideas or enhancing the mood without any incumbency for their verisimiltude. Characteristically, our Regisseuse, uses them except when they are using her: sometimes the dancers are brought on to very good purpose but at other times it is as if they are there and she must find something to do with them. They were certainly serviceable as moppers; in the fourth scene of Rheingold they provided a sort of visual fragrance, sitting like putti in the sidewalls to observe the fateful doings of the gods and make them seem more perennial in importance. Two of them were wonderful as Fricka’s graceful and doting oxen in Walküre, Act Two (though for their sake her cart would better have been drawn by deer); there was a mass of them popping up among the plants in the sylvan Siegfried, where each of them is unaccountably forging a sword more credibly than Siegfried is allowed to. Of course one of the most graceful of them (Sandra Lommerzheim) was put to very good use as the woodbird; and another (Ziv Frenkel), dressed in a homey set of rags, continued through all the three last operas as the loyal Grane, Brunnhilde’s intuition – earning in the end a huge curtain call from the audience who felt they had come to know him though he had no lines. It was always with eurhythmy that they moved, but the eurhythmy occasionally became intelligent also, in a way analogous to the use of lighting for scene changes in tandem with Wagner’s through-composition, when they were made to give a choreographic expression of the leitmotifs or of the dramatic moments in the action. From mops to Gesamtkunst.

Inconsistency was the rule of the production – sometimes an aspect having been less well managed made a more successful use of it more salient, but overall I accumulated an impression of unreliability, lack of perspicuity, absence of an overall conception. The most taxing of these inconsistencies however, was the management of beauty overall. A measure of beauty there was, at any time, but in the depiction for instance of Fafner in Siegfried, Act Two, there was gratuitous ugliness. Here he was, an oversized man in a blond wig sitting debauched on a crimson couch with a gaggle of dancers bobbing and weaving like a monster’s tentacles. The problem was not so much that according to Wagner’s conception Fafner should be asleep and self-absorbed rather than partying, but that the scene was brightly lit, garish and ugly, and that it lasted a long time. More and more these days it deserves to be said that ugliness has a corrosive effect on the soul of the onlooker, so that it must be managed with economy. Too often it is served up to the audience merely for some strong effect, but the real effect on the audience is more often just disappointment and disorientation – so much was especially true of Brunnhilde’s stupidly ugly plain-clothes costume in the Götterdämmerung.

The orchestra at the Leipzig Opera is the Gewandhaus Orchestra that plays across the plaza. Ulf Schirmer, the conductor, gave a lively rendition but very often the singers missed his cues – his left hand swings around in a way that undercuts the beat given by his right, and I heard that he hardly looked up at the singers. Occasionally he preferred the phrase to the beat – as most disappointingly in his rendition of the opening of Rheingold, where the great wheel of the arpeggios was made to turn too blithely, too soon. Overall he produced what was needed with vigor, especially in the Siegfried.

For me the most moving moment of the whole was the appearance of Erda in Rheingold, Scene Four. All the other gods except Wotan were up on the platform and Erda (in a phenomenal rendition by Nicole Piccolomini) appears on the surface of the stage, house left, and gradually sings her way all the way across the stage where she can disappear. Of all the renditions I have seen, this one made Wotan’s hugely important and fateful change of mind the most credible.

A radical idea like presenting the Ring in four days will perforce bring all sorts of things to the surface, including the question whether Wagner ever hoped it could be done so fast (unreasonable expectations were no stranger to him), or whether conversely he might have designed things to make the best of the need for days intervening to allow the singers to rest (given his Gesamtkontrolle). In contrast with the sort of integrated conception that is his special genius and desire, the various conditions of this production, from its compression into four days to its use of dancers and manner of scene changing, evinced no controlling artistic conception but came across instead as a struggle to make due with conditions imposed upon it from the outside, with an uneven success mostly forgivable.

— Ken Quandt

Amid wild gossip — much of it unwarrantedly negative — over the recent appointment of Jaap van Zweden to take over the podium of the New York Philharmonic after maestro Alan Gilbert departs next year, the ensemble showed no signs of despair in this brilliant rendition of Brahms’s Requiem. Formally titled A German Requiem, it adapts essential psalms and critical evangelical verses in an unusually light toned version of the Roman Catholic mass for the dead. Brahms wrote the work at an oddly early time in his career – completing it eight years before his First Symphony. It premiered when he just thirty-five, hardly an age to contemplate mortality (Mozart, of course, died at exactly that age while writing his — though this was a pure coincidence). But circumstances forced the urgency of the piece, as Brahms was devastated by the recent death of his mother and seems to have continued his mourning for his mentor Robert Schumann, who had died a number of years earlier. Brahms was notoriously secretive about his exact motives and artistic choices, but it reasonable to guess that he could take a more heavenly view of death in celebrating the lives of loved ones. The German Requiem rarely descends into the somber minors of other composers’ works in the genre and luxuriates in the simplicity of the selected Biblical verses highlighted in beaming major keys.

A steady performance of the German Requiem rises and falls on the choral contribution, and the Philharmonic’s brilliant playing found fine accompaniment in the New York Choral Artists under their director Joseph Flummerfelt. Rarely a note seemed missed by this superb ensemble. The brief but moving solo parts, for soprano and baritone, were entrusted to two of the finest Lieder singers performing today. Camilla Tilling’s shimmering tones enlivened her parts with a silvery distinction. It was Matthias Goerne’s stupendous approach to the baritone’s lines, however, that delivered on Wagner’s maxim that the height of German art rests in strength, simplicity, and soulfulness. Recalling the very best singing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he rendered his verses in a calm, velvety tone that gave the piece as much meaning as I have ever found in it.

The whole performance came together majestically under the accomplished baton of the stately German conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, who will turn eighty-seven this year. We can hope for many, many returns.

-Paul du Quenoy

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