Opera Critic

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

In another outstanding Carnegie Hall residency, the Vienna Philharmonic featured the star conductor Valery Gergiev leading arguably the world’s greatest orchestra in a repertoire of Russian classics mixed with other familiar repertoire pieces. Most of the non-Russian music was Wagner’s, in whose repertoire the Russian conductor has steadily built a reputation over the past two decades. The third concert, on Sunday afternoon, featured easily the most graceful Wagner performance of the three offerings, the prelude and Good Friday music from the composer’s mesmerizing final opera, Parsifal. Parsifal is the Wagner opera that started off Gergiev’s exploration of the repertoire when he first conducted at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in 1997. In contrast to the more languidly performed orchestral excerpts from Götterdämmerung the previous evening and Friday’s bombastic rendering of the overture to The Flying Dutchman, Gergiev moved slowly, pollinating even note with gorgeous orchestral color and moving to profound climaxes that evoked the faith, salvation, and hope motifs in Parsifal’s prelude and the noble intonations of Gurnemanz’s intonations in the opera’s third act.

It was hard to top such a scintillating performance with what followed at Carnegie, as the stream of people who decamped at intermission to attend Anna Netrebko’s 4pm Metropolitan Opera recital made clear. The second part of the program offered those who remained a true rarity – Tchaikovsky’s unnumbered Manfred Symphony, inspired by Lord Byron’s heroic poem. The piece is unusual and has never enjoyed much popularity. Tchaikovsky wanted to burn the score, while Leonard Bernstein more recently denounced it as “trash.” Perhaps its greatest sin is that it does not really sound “Russian,” but rather more closely resembles the heavy Germanic symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. It also anticipates the tone poem experiments of Richard Strauss’s earlier career. Despite all the bad press, it works rather well in its telling of a young man’s fatal loss of innocence – to delightfully tonal music Manfred broods on the questions of existence brought about by the loss of his beloved Astarte. Finding no consolation in nature or faith, he gravitates toward the occult, only to end his troubles in redemptive death. Many quail at the organ accompaniment in the work’s final movement, but I could not leave the concert with anything less than admiration for the composer or the orchestra playing him. Gergiev did, however, lighten the mood in a most welcome manner by playing two spirited encores: a pastiche from Tchaikovsky ballet Sleeping Beauty and a peppy rendition of Johann Strauss’s “Thunder and Lightning Polka” that evoked old Vienna at New Years’.

-Paul du Quenoy

Few orchestral events in New York should generate greater excitement than the prospect of an all (or in this case mostly) Brahms program at the venerable New York Philharmonic. Avery Fisher’s honorary name on its concert hall may have yielded to Hollywood mogul David Geffen’s, but the spirit of the orchestra remains undiminished and its expertise in the late German Romantic repertoire remains hard to surpass among American ensembles.

Maestro Alan Gilbert will permanently yield the podium when his contact comes to an end in 2017, but for this set of performances he entrusted the program to a rumored possible replacement, the Russian-born American conductor Semyon Bychkov. Bychkov has developed a reliably steady career over the past three decades, even if his interpretations tend toward the mannered. This was immediately apparent in the program’s forgettable introductory piece, the Philharmonic’s premiere of the contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert’s brief Brahms-Fantasie, an homage which sounded more like an apology to the nineteenth-century master. A student of the late great modern German composer Hans Werner Henze, Glanert has yet to find a truly original voice to elevate his work beyond the movie music genre pieces that so thoroughly dominate recent classical music.

In the real meat of the program, however, the listener found more satisfaction. Of the two Brahms pieces, the Double Concerto and the First Symphony, it was the concerto that drew the more attention and stimulated a greater degree of audience interest. Bychkov here did an excellent job of harmonizing the orchestra with the piece’s unusual requirement of two soloists, for violin and cello. And what soloists they were! Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, Musical America’s instrumentalist of the year for 2014, played with a sublime sweetness for which she has justifiably drawn global adoration. The technical execution is flawless, the technique nothing less than seductive. At moments it was possible to allow Batiashvili’s playing to waft in coaxing relief through one’s psyche while subsuming the orchestra’s sound. Paired with the eager French cellist Gautier Capuçon, the difficulty of harmonizing the two soloists demanded by this unusually difficult piece melted away. Capuçon exceeded Batiashvili in expressive power, though without vulgarity, and certainly not in any way that marred what both looked and sounded like a joyous collaboration.

Bychkov had no such balancing act to coordinate in the second part of the program, devoted entirely to the First Symphony. Here he could allow his whim to break free of the collaborative constraints and reach some truly intense heights. The introductory sostenuto movement resounded so powerfully that the floorboards at Row W palpably vibrated underfoot. The ensemble is off to a great start for 2015-2016.

The premiere of this production was spread out over two days – the first two acts performed on Saturday, October 3, and the third on Sunday October 4 (I saw it October 7 in full). The story itself, after all, takes place on two days, with Johannisnacht followed by Johannistag. The premiere left fifty or so tickets unsold but the attendance on Sunday was not noticeably diminished, this despite the fact that things were busy this last week in Berlin, with the premieres of a Hoffman and a Vasco de Gamba and return of a stunning Freischütz that had seen only one performance in January 2015. Once again the Meistersinger is one of the greatest draws, especially in Berlin.

 

Overall, the production was busy but not euro-trash. The Schwarz-rot-gold of the German democratic movement was a continual presence throughout since an oversized cloth with these colors was attached to the right edge of the stage, serving momentarily in Act I as the curtain to separate off the nave for the Masters’ Meeting and then as a sort of tent in which Eva and Walther could hide themselves in Act II, and then a large cloth in Sachs’s library held by its four corners by the four lovers during the quintet in Act III. It was there all the time but never terribly “in your face.” In the final scene the Masters came on with black red and gold sashes. I would date the time of the setting at 2010 or so, from the crowd of punks introduced to sing “Johannistag” at the beginning of Act II and the strange idea of a whiteboard panel displaying corporate brand-name logo’s such as one sees as a backdrop for celebrities appearing on television – the names being the last names of the Mastersingers. While it is true that these Masters might have been rich men during the time of the guilds during and after the Reformation, and the beginning of the bourgeois class, it is hard to think of the baker or the coppersmith being the majority shareholder or even the chairman or president of a corporation. Perhaps it was an attempt to imply that the guild system of Germany foreshadowed the role played by the great corporations of today such as Siemens and Volkswagen, but corporations are infamously in the business of making money, not bread and pots and shoes and clothing. It was particularly difficult to imagine Sachs as a corporate head exactly because he continually complains of being consigned to making shoes throughout the opera and is put down for it repeatedly by the town scrivener, Beckmesser, who hopes to be his rival in art.

 

Moreover, the Inszenierung portrayed Sachs alone of the Masters poorly dressed, the others decked out in bright and stylish suits and ties. To make Sachs ugly in this way has become commonplace. One thinks of the discombobulated and randy Sachs in the new Herrheim production from Salzburg, about to appear in Paris and at the Met, and the querulous Sachs of Gotz Friedrich – these over against the simple but gentlemanly and always properly dressed Sachs of the Schenk production we will long associate with James Morris, or the decent Sachs of the new McVicar production that is making its way from Glyndebourne to Chicago and to San Francisco this Fall. Socrates also was ugly, but he was unemployed and barefoot, too. The version under review pushes this unattractive temperamental aspect of the character past the point of no return and into range of the widower slob. He cannot even fix his tie for the festival though he stands there in the middle of the scene, the focus of all Nuremberg.

 

Eva, meanwhile, comes on the scene as a slut, wearing a slinky black sequined shift with a bare back even at church, groping with Walther, in his leather jacket and cowboy boots, within the pews, rather than shyly looking off to him as he lurks along the side, according to the libretto – even though she has only met him one day before! Her overt sexuality might be meant to make a liberated woman of her in contrast with the usual characterization of Eva, but it must be said that her namesake was a liberated woman if ever there was, and a new line of interpretation in introduced from the get-go. The business with the forgotten scarf and pin is entirely manufactured in cahoots with Magdalena. Eva herself goes back to the pew to place them there so as to order Lena to retrieve them while she returns to Walther. We shall see at the beginning of Act II that her idea of marrying Sachs is not only a demure suggestion she comes up with out of desperation to avoid Beckmesser now that Walther has “sung himself out” in the Test Song. Instead we are to imagine they have had a “relationship” for some time. The usual interpretation of a ladder of love, from father (bass) to uncle (baritone) to strapping lad (tenor) is replaced by a love triangle, which one reviewer with telling accuracy has characterized as a contest between Sachs as alterszorn and Walther as jungsporn. The historical Sachs did marry with a much younger woman (Barbara) long after his children and first wife were gone, so that there is some historical basis for this representation, but the Sachs of Wagner gracefully dispels Eva’s suggestion in avuncular tones (Da hätt’ ich ein Kind und auch ein Weib; ‘s wär’ gar ein lieber Zeitvertreib!” – “Fine then: In you I’ll have both child and wife – a fine pastime that would be!”). The staging in the present case blunts the sense of this remark. He wordlessly offers her a smoke instead, which casually lays the suggestion that they have “smoked after” before, and delivers this remark to her only after she has assumed what appears to be the usual position on his lap. The scene in Sachs’s workshop in Act Three will therefore be the event that tears it for Eva. Walther’s entrance will find them succumbing to a passionate kiss and he spends the rest of the time, up to the quintet, scowling at her. But more on the eroticism, later.

 

We had been introduced to this lustier Eve in the very opening scene at the church, a scene pulled off in a wonderful way worth describing. Like the production of Poppea by Emmanuelle Haïm a few years ago in Lille, the characters are already gathering on the stage and quietly chatting with each other as the audience takes their seats in the theater. It will be the church with its very plain pews, we soon realize, and the parishioners are gathering for the service from the runways flanking the sides of the proscenium here at the Schiller Theater. Lo and behold! With a double-take we recognize one or two of these, in particular Siegfried Jerusalem, whom we later learn is portraying the Meistersinger   Balthasar Zorn. Other good-old faces show up as well, Graham Clark who will be Vogelgesang, Reiner Goldberg as Eisslinger, Franz Mazura as Schwarz, and Olaf Bär as Foltz. To see Jerusalem was a thrill, one of the greatest Walthers of recent decades, and to watch him in the First and Third Acts watching himself being replaced by Klaus Florian Vogt, who is every bit the hunk that he himself was in his day, raised the very relevant question of the tradition surviving the men who carry it on. Wagner himself had been scrupulous to include only historical figures among his Masters, and so has Moses placed her own production into the context of historical reality. But more on her historical sense later.

 

These and the rest of the chorus sit on rows of benches facing the audience and the orchestra and enjoy the overture. At its end a cross suddenly descends at the back wall of the stage and they stand from their pews and turn around and sing their chorale to Johannes der Taufer to begin the opera. Only later do our friends reappear as Mastersingers one by one, and in fact the man who led the congregation in their chorale turns out to be Sixtus Beckmesser, quite according to his character. In the Meeting Scene they are each given very full and distinct characterization, even at the risk of becoming a little undignified by their idiosyncrasies. The apprentices are equally divided between young women with pageboys and young men with bowl-cuts all dressed in black suits with white shirts, rather than the usual and historically more accurate unisex dress as boys. Indeed the girls are allowed to show a marked weakness for the new hunk in town.

 

As the Masters enter, one of the apprentices brings out a large white panel with the last names of the Masters represented as corporate logos. Exactly nothing is made of this – whether we are to view the corporation as the modern guild or the guild as the foreshadowing of the corporation – but it this and other economic “references” in the interpretation might be explained by the fact that Moses herself, not quite middle aged, was born in Dresden. It is no accident that the première took place on October 3rd , the twenty fifth anniversary of the Reunification. There is much in the Inszenierung that is meant to mirror present day Germany for an audience of present day Germans, and as we have known for two hundred years now, the mirror flatters and depicts only the surface where a lamp would have been more illuminating and could have added depth. This business of maximizing the Aktuelle reaches its climax in the riot at the end of Act Two where during the extended double fugue, persons of all the kinds you would meet in the morning paper come onto the stage, from uniformed members of rival soccer teams to an Orthodox Jew walking unmolested through the crowd that parts for him as the waters. The Nightwatchman himself is a casualty of the riot, delivering his final line before passing out and falling to the ground. While the double fugue can very well support this onrush of a chaotic smorgasbord of types, the twenty seconds of music with which the Act quietly ends, with its tender recognition of the frailty of all human rivalry and pride, has no place at all. But more on the music’s relation to the Inszenierung, later.

 

The first act succeeded admirably to depict the spectrum of reactions that men who love art might show when they encounter innovation. One of the Masters, who wears dark glasses all the time as if he were a jazzman or a beatnik, moves up next to Walther, grooving on the second stanza of his Trial Song, and passes out dark glasses to other Masters that have also been attracted to his side. Another keeps looking Walther up and down, from his cowboy boots to his leather jacket, his incredulity vying with indignation: he just cannot believe his eyes. Walther diffidently looks down at his boot-tops and tries to polish them against his pant legs. The Masters are young and old, dandy and stodgy, silly and serious, vain and humble – and as we look at them we reflect on the way that all kinds of people are brought together by music.

 

With the crowd scene of the Act II we begin to have more of such business than the music can support. In place of the Masters’ apprentices preparing for the festivities of in the streets of Nuremberg we have a scene of spike-haired night people and punks loitering on the roof of a downtown building illuminated by oversized illuminated signs – the corporate logo’s we saw in Act One. What Sachs is doing up there with his cobbler bench is unaccountable; how the upper balcony of Pogner’s home can be replaced by a catwalk behind an illuminated sign is not answered by the fact that it is the POGNER sign. Eva’s scene with her father Pogner is evacuated of all its tender emotion – she simply rolls her eyes at his remorse – and her approach to Sachs as reviewed above is an emotional dead-end. Beckmesser’s plan to serenade Eva is wonderfully embellished and satirized by his changing into a crimson minstrel outfit from the old days, but the inexplicable scenario on the roof never quite melts away and in fact distracts our attention from the music. By the end of the scene we are simply being ravaged by extraneous references to current politics, culture, and society. The sense that Meistersinger is the opera of the German people is here being turned on its head. They are acting this way because this is what is happening in Germany, rather than Germans because of the way they are acting. An entirely ephemeral content will need to be switched out and updated every time this production is performed, something that an American could not be flattered into enjoying.

 

Has the curtain has ever before been left down during the overture to the Act Three so that we do not see Sachs reading his huge Weltkronik to the strains of what will be the Wahn monologue with its piercing interruption by the cellos? Last night it was, and when it rose Sachs was reading at one of three standing desks with lots of books strewn open on the floor as if he were busily comparing opinions rather than meditating deeply on some recitation of all historical events needing to be interpreted by a wise man in reflection. On the back wall is a built-in bookcase fifteen feet tall full of books and served by a ladder. Immediately behind him is a copy of that painting of the twenty two great Meistersingers. It is not his workshop but a sleek and bourgeois home library – or corporate office – which the widower never gets around to cleaning up. The ditty with Eva’s shoe becomes a play of foot-fetishism, whereas in the libretto it is a continuation of the theme that her shoe needs adjustment before she can proceed into marriage, begun in Act Two (where he wonders if she has come to have her shoe adjusted and she says she has not even tried it on yet), which is now elaborated (it is too wide and too narrow at the same time, for in her own development she is not quite ready to take the next step, from daughter and niece to wife). In the Schenk production which I think is definitive for this scene she is facing right and Sachs is kneeling, facing left and working on her shoe when to a burst from the strings Walther appears on the stairs on the far right and she sees this vision of her love over Sachs’s head, with Sachs at first not realizing it and then not letting on that he has (so also Wagner’s stage instructions). In the present production Sachs and Eva have suddenly embraced in a shocking and passionate kiss when Walther walks in on them. Yes, she is torn – but only by degrees of one and the same kind of passion. She is confused, but only because she is a confused person – a much diminished interpretation of her character and of the situation. In truth the Eva of Wagner is moving from Father-love to Husband-love, as Brunnhilde must do in the last scene of Siegfried, from love for her “wakener” to love for her life’s partner and helpmate for better or worse. Walther, with the access of inspiration afforded by seeing her there across the room, now finds the third stanza of his Prize Song, in which he discovers the identity of Eva and the Muse of poetry, and of Parnassus and Paradise, and she knows she will have him as husband, so that she says to Sachs, “Was ohne deine Liebe, was wär’ ich ohne dich, ob je auch Kind ich bliebe, erwecktest du nicht mich?” (“Without thy love, without thee, what would I then be? A child I would have remained had you not wakened me!”). As Eva must acquiesce to move beyond the protection of her father and uncle, driven by love into the unknown chartings of the new, so must art be willing to move on beyond its own rules and find new rules that explain what its love of beauty encounters on its forward path! But in this production we are given a Walther scowling at her and confused and jealous over her passionate kissing with Sachs, but then nevertheless finding that final stanza!

 

With such an entire betrayal of the depths of the story and its deep and true and universal emotions, we are left only the music. When we were able to hear it without distraction, as apart from the business of Act Two, it was a performance nearly flawless. I would prefer a voice rounder and set lower than Koch’s sometimes too strident manner, but he was strong and in tune through to the end. Vogt’s Walther is solid and yet vulnerable, Kleiter’s Eva clear and bright, and Werba’s Beckmesser – available to be seen and heard on the Herheim DVD – achieved the clarity of enunciation along with an undertone of sweetness that betrays as it redeems the surface of the character: he does not want to be the way he is. Barenboim’s rendition kept presenting surprises – flow when others have marched, sudden changes in dynamics or tempo that deliberately but perhaps gratuitously arrested the attention without directing it toward some particular interpretation. Again the new provided an occasion to shed light on the old.

 

Of course we know by now that the famous defense of German Art expressed in Sachs’s final monologue will be given a telling interpretation by this “politically conscious” version of the piece. We are to imagine ourselves not on a grassy knoll beside the Pegnitz but looking across the Pegnitz to the facade of nothing other as a backdrop than the Berlin Palace, the restoration of which has only provoked controversy over the last two years as reactionary. Once the singers’ platform is erected by the Masters’ apprentices, the Sachs-slob unaccountably moves into the center of it as if he knew the Nurembergers were going to surprise him with a song in his praise. The net effect of all that has come before now becomes painfully visible. This Sachs deserves no such praise, and there is no dramatic motivation for him to show such surprise. Likewise, at the very end, Eva will not move the wreath of the Master from Walther to Sachs’s head, since Eva in this production does not view Sachs as her Erwacher, the perennial Master of Song and Wisdom and Sanity and Growing Up. When Walther does give in to his persuasion to accept the medal at the end, the two of them turn to the Berlin Palace in the background and see even this lift away, revealing the pristine vision of a field of green and a blue heaven above, a dream of the truest Germany innocent at last of any political incarnation. Surely Sachs’s remark about holy German Art surviving even the erasure of the Holy Roman Empire asserts that art will triumph over politics, but the proof of this assertion has not been brought across by this Inszenierung, with its surfeit of political and sectarian references, and this failure cannot be redeemed by a mere shift of scenery.

 

– Ken Quandt

 

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