Opera Critic » Miscellaneous

Earlier this month Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky personnel performed Tristan und Isolde (March 3) and the Ring (March 4-8) at the new Mariinsky Theatre II in St. Petersburg. Barely a week later this busy company has come to Barcelona for a single concert performance of Tristan und Isolde. The personnel overlaps (Petrenko sang Marke and Gogolevskaya Isolde) but there were substitutions as well (among them Nikitin who had just sung Wotan in the Ring). Gogolevksa’s voice sits a little low for what Isolde must sing in the First Act, but it was perfectly suited to the lower and quieter Second. Her Liebestod was marred by some lurching to the high notes. The most welcome surprise was Yulia Matochkina as Brangaena, who sang the best on this evening, her voice clear and sharp and burnished. Locals will have the privilege of hearing her sing Dido at the Mariinsky next month.
The other surprise in the cast was Robert Gambill as Tristan, not a member of the St. Petersburg troupe, whom I liked very much in the first two Acts, though he drew a few loud boo’s at the end of the Second. It is true that his tonality was not sure but his Heldentenor voice and style projected a vivid personality, which added a lot to the semi-staged version. In the Third Act he had lost some of his power and really at the end became inaudible.  Part of the problem, then and throughout the night, however, was that Gergiev’s band was louder up on the stage and he did not compensate adequately. Most of the night he overpowered the singers, and within the orchestra there were problems of balance in the amplitude of the woodwinds and the strings, as for instance at the opening of the overture. What the orchestra lost for playing too loud it gained back for playing that way at climactic sections, as for instance at the thrilling end of the First and Second Acts. The opening of the Second Act was unaccountably fast – the french horns could hardly execute the huntsman calls.
Experiencing a performance in the concert style always puts one in mind of the absence of staging, and on this occasion it occurred to me that Tristan is particularly well suited to such a presentation since the most important action takes place within the souls of the characters and is expressed entirely by what they sing and by Wagner’s all-knowing score which is constantly reading their minds.  Since there was nothing extraneous to distract me, as for instance the gratuitous chromaticity of the Hockney production of recent years or even the large quiet sculpted mass Kupfer placed in the middle of the stage in Berlin, I could look at “nothing” and listen only.  But the nothing I looked at was of course the individual members of the orchestra and the singers that were making the music, and these though not costumed characters were persons just as much me. The elimination of fictional apparatus, what Aristotle in the Poetics called choregia, for once brought the music and its meaning only closer to me. There was no deficit of portayal since what was happening, the plot, was invisible anyway (one could say similar things about the Pelléas et Mélisande of Debussy). This “illumination” if you will came upon me in the dreamy Second Act of course, when Tristan delivers nothing less than a set of declamations on the operation of his and Isolde’s love in their souls – events if you will that occur outside of time, or to use the metaphor Tristan uses in death and night rather than in life and day – and teaches her the Liebestod she will sing back to him at the close of the opera.
Upon reflection one recalls the Peter Sellars production that premiered in the regime of Gerard Mortier at the Bastille in
2005, which had originally been called the “Tristan Experiment” when it was presented over the course of three days at the LA Philharmonic the year before. The “Experiment” was essentially a concertante performance, with the characters on stage in front of the orchestra (though Sellars occasionally placed them in the aisles of the vertiginous Disney Hall as well).
What dominated the scene was of course the thirty foot high visual screen on which was projected the “movie” created by Bill Viola, depicting as little action as takes place in the opera itself:  a man and a woman very slowly preparing themselves with ablutions in the First Act and gradually moving toward each other in the Second. Even in the final version at the Bastille the video dominated the scene though by then Sellars added a subdued and minimal staging, with all the characters dressed in black on a black stage and moving as in a trance. The very conceivability of this presentation already revealed to me how slight was the literal action in Wagner’s story. Sellars, overactive and overcreative as usual, filled this rarified void with a second love-story that had to be somatic (including washing, walking toward, and intertwining) in order to be visible. But the visuals he introduced were unable to depict Tristan’s suffering in Act Three (the video devolved into sentimentalism: storm, trees in winter, sunset), and most important they were unable to depict the three surprise entries of Marke, which apart from the hoped-for arrivals of Tristan in Act Two and of Isolde in Act Three, do constitute the most dramatic moments of the evening, in the usual sense.
In a concertante version, conversely, Marke can be depicted as arriving, for the singer in the tuxedo does enter the stage and comes to his music stand! Thus in the case of Tristan’s grand entry to assuage Isolde’s yearning near the beginning of Act Two, Gambill’s very appearance from the flies as Tristan was a dramatic event, made all the more powerful by the long walk he had to take to get from the proscenium to the front of the orchesta elevated to the level of the stage above the floor of the pit – and in the way he strode Gambill showed he knew it  Up until this point in Act Two the concertante arrangement had been rather stiff, as we would expect it to be. Even when the two begin to suffer the effect of Brangaene’s elixir in Act One they are not sure what is happening to them and so it served just as well that they should simply stay near their music stands. But from the moment Tristan arrives in Act Two a new dimension came into view, and the most attenuated gesture by the singers invited interpretation. It was the way Gambrill managed this very limited but expressively powerful range of gestures, turning away from his music to face Isolde, raising his arm toward her and the like, that attracted my attention to his performance and helped me to “look away” from his uncertain intonation. Gogolevskaya on the other hand fixed her attention on the score – certainly not because her grasp of the score is insecure or her vision is weak, but just not taking it upon herself to exploit this subtle dramatic vehicle. Petrenko’s Marke, though magnificently sung in all three Acts, likewise exploited not at all the dramatic potential of his entrance from the flies. There is nobody to blame for this since there was no stage director managing things – only Gambrill to praise for adding to his manner of coming on the stage as the star of the evening, a show of some sensitivity to his appearance as Tristan.
The special dramatic power of a concertante version in rather than a full-on stage production might with profit be compared with the special dramatic power of a the Platonic Dialogues, which are likewise unstaged. Plato chose to forgo the medium of drama for a colder medium, a medium in which the reader is not distracted by the choregia of full-on drama and is allowed to focus instead on the words of Socrates and his interlocutor, and upon the music of the words, and in particular to invest more attention on small but eloquent conversational gestures like the hand motions of the singers I mention above. To stage the Platonic Dialogues has often tempted those who love and admire his works, and has always resulted in failure. This is a fascinating obverse of the way opera concertante can succeed, particularly in connection with the Wagner operas, and proof that Wagner’s operas in particular are works in which the true subject matter is the movements of the soul. Of course his operas are based on myths instead of history!
It is exactly their transcendence of history and their articulation of the essential that has left the Wagner operas particularly open to the historical overlays of the Regiesseur in the last thirty or forty years (just as it has left Plato’s Dialogues open to an interpretation that invents a Plato who wanted to be a dictator). During this “Regie Regime” under which all of us are suffering (the 2014-2015 yearbook of the Staatsoper Berlin asks on the cover whether Regie has destroyed opera altogether) it might be a safer and more prudent measure to go to a performance of an opera you love only if performed in the concertante mode. When I complain about interventionist stupidities these days my Wagnerian friends keep reminding me, “You can just close your eyes,” but it was something of an eye-opener last night that even a concertante version, especially when the opera is Tristan und Isolde, could provide a visual feast, albeit of small dishes, or what they call tapas here in Barcelona.

Musical New York was abuzz with these twin highlights of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual residency. Much extended this year in honor of New York’s general focus on Vienna and its culture, the VPO visit includes the city’s other great institution, the Vienna State Opera, to put on concert performances of Alban Berg and Richard Strauss’s avant-garde favorites.

In both cases the orchestra was the clear star, reminding us of how valuable it is in the orchestra pit of the Salzburg Festival’s opera performances. First up was Berg’s Wozzeck, his atonal adaptation of the extraordinarily depressing play that the lost dramatist Georg Büchner left incomplete when he died at age 23. Moved to amorality by his poverty and to murderous rage by the abusive circumstances of his downtrodden life, Wozzeck stabs his unfaithful mistress Marie to death and then himself dies as he attempts with neurotic desperation to conceal the knife ever deeper in a pond. Their orphaned child, too young to understand what has happened but nevertheless condemned to grow up in their shadow, is then taunted by his playmates.

Mattias Goerne captured the title role with a hollowness of tone that well captured the character’s aching existential angst. Superb legato alternated with harrowing broken lines as the character’s personality collapsed under the weight of his life’s horror. In the role of Marie, soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, well known in European productions of the late German Romantic repertoire, made a rare New York appearance. The voice is cavernous and buoyant. But it has grown edgier over the years. Some sharps are creeping in at the very top while ascents up the scale can sound rough. Still, the role of Marie requires more than a little imbalance and whatever flaws there were filled out the role well. Herbert Lippert is better known as a Lieder singer but his clarion tenor endowed the role of the Drum Major with great beauty. Franz Welser-Möst led the VPO with a precision that can occasionally make his orchestral performances sound too programmatic. But for Berg’s sophisticated score, the style worked elegantly and well. Every nuance emerged in attractive relief.

The next night was devoted to Strauss’s Salome. Based on Oscar Wilde’s play, this is the decadent tale of the Judean princess who performs the seductive Dance of the Seven Veils for her lecherous stepfather Herod in exchange for the head of the imprisoned John the Baptist, who has spurned her. The title role went to the young dramatic soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, who appeared in modish dress that suggested a 1920s-era fantasy of the Orient as perhaps Gustav Klimt would have painted it. Volume was no problem, but too often the voice sounded tired in the upper register as the role’s strident demands taxed the consistency of her pitch. Part of the problem may have been the artist’s rambunctious and unnecessary gesticulating. which may have detracted power from the chest voice she badly needed to sing the role successfully. The performance made for a fairly obvious comparison to Nina Stemme’s, whose more effective singing in the role in concert with the Cleveland Orchestra two seasons ago is still remembered by the New York audience. Falk Struckmann, originally cast as Jochanaan, was replaced at a late hour by the Polish baritone Tomas Konieczny, another talented singer better known in Europe whose superb instrument revealed both the excellent legato the Biblical music needs and the demanding high notes that challenge any bass-baritone undertaking the role. Gerhard Siegel and Jane Henschel were amusingly dysfunctional in their character roles leading the Judean royal family. Among the fairly large supporting cast, Kurt Link’s Fifth Jew stood out in its power and depth.

Once again it was the Vienna players who carried the evening, this time under the extraordinarily talented young conductor Andris Nelsons. He does not always leave enough space for the singers to soar above the orchestra, but his dynamism impregnated every note and phrase with an appealing intensity. The self-consciously kitschy Dance of the Seven Veils, unaccompanied by voices, revealed the instrumentation at its most powerful, though the loud repetition of the C-G melody that introduces the opera was also deafening in its appeal.

Paul du Quenoy


Disappointment with New York recent opera offerings leads one’s attention naturally to the city’s active recital life. This week at Carnegie Hall featured two noteworthy is sometimes overlooked performers. January 23 featured the recital in the Hall’s smaller Zankel auditorium of the German soprano Dorothea Röschmann, an accomplished Mozartean of note around the world. Ms. Röschmann possesses superb enunciation and a well trained voice, but the pastiche of songs in her recital revealed its limitations as well as its strengths. By far the most enjoyable part of the evening was the final selection of songs by Hugo Wolf. Their tight harmonics fit better with the soprano’s prominent middle voice than the more lyrical Schubert songs that began the evening. Since both song sets contained music set to four of the same poems by Goethe, the comparison was instructive, both in vocal terms specific to Ms. Röschmann and in relation to the evolution of nineteenth-century music. It was a bit unfortunate that a more direct comparison was impossible due to the Richard Strauss and Liszt songs inserted in between. At a few moments, especially in Strauss’s “September,” Ms. Röschmann really shined, but at others, notably in Liszt’s “Die Loreley,” the dramatic highs sounded too constrained by her upper range limits. While the Wolf songs were truly affecting, much of the evening unfolded with acceptable technical skill that lacked a truly dramatic reading. Malcolm Martineau’s deftly sensitive playing affirmed his reputation as one of the greatest recital accompanists performing today. The poetry of the songs would have gained much from a subtler and more lyrical vocal effort.

The next evening, January 24, saw the solo performance of another artist with definite strengths and weaknesses. The Romanian pianist Radu Lupu has been a fixture of the international music scene since he won the Van Cliburn Prize in 1966. Critical comment typically emphasizes the understatement in his playing, and this concert was no exception. To begin again with the final segment of the recital, which dominated its second half, Lupu’s technique was most effective in music written to be understated: Claude Debussy’s Preludes. Working through Book II of Debussy’s oeuvre in its entirety, Lupu perfectly captured the composer’s intention that his music should evoke an absolute reality – not the impressionism of the painting school so popular in his time, but the real moods and emotions that guide our psyches. The technique is extraordinarily well suited to Debussy, but the earlier part of the evening lacked in the absence of more voluble interpretations. Schubert’s Impromptus (Lupu played Nos. 1-4) depend on a stronger interpretive hand to draw out their romantic color. César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue betrays the overpowering influence of Wagner and needed a more decisive hand. Nevertheless, the excellent Debussy playing made the evening worthwhile.

— Paul du Quenoy

The Cleveland Orchestra’s annual residency at Carnegie Hall always raises much anticipation, particularly since its dynamic conductor Franz Welser-Möst took over the orchestra in 2002. Ten years later he has made his annual tour to New York to lead the orchestra in two concerts: an orchestral evening dominated by Brahms and Shostakovich and a concert performance of Richard Strauss’s searing opera Salome. Welser-Möst is not above criticism. His orchestral performances are sometimes found too precise and too technical to capture the grand sway of romantic works, for example. This was somewhat in evidence in the ensemble’s first concert, marred at the last minute by the cancelation of pianist Yevgeny Bronfman, who was ill. Instead of the announced Brahms Piano Concert No. 2, the orchestra found violinist Gil Shaham to perform the solo part in Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The Clevelanders acquitted themselves admirably, and Shaham did well enough under the circumstances. But an element of passion was missing. The second part of the evening featured Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna magica, a haunting 2008 work which received its New York premiere in this performance. The work is harmonically strange, but not at all without power. It is even a bit spooky, with the odd requirement that the woodwind musicians whisper words relating to light and color into their instruments at times. Impossible to hold to any standard of performance because of its recent composition, all that can be said is that Welser-Möst did well to bring it to our attention. The final piece, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6, was a bit pedestrian in playing and lacked the flair that a Gergiev or Temirkanov might for obvious reasons bring to the performance.

The second Cleveland evening showcased the orchestra at its most dynamic. It is not an exaggeration to say that Welser-Möst, now the director of the Vienna State Opera, may be more of an opera conductor, so fine is his ability to make an orchestra perform to support singers. The need is nowhere more acute than in Strauss’s Salome, with its dissonant scoring for both instruments and singers. Welser-Möst led a driving performance, scarcely skipping a single nuance in the vast tableaux that must be produced. Careful attention even went into the placement of the singers on stage. Eschewing concert opera’s usual straight line at the front of the stage format, here the cast was divided into two groups and placed on raised platforms that fanned out diagonally from stage right and stage left. Fortunately, the effort was crowned with the excellently cast Nina Stemme in the title role. Famous in both Wagner and Strauss and heiress to the proud Swedish high dramatic soprano tradition of Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Varnay, Stemme has conquered audiences everywhere with her full, rich middle register, soaring top notes, and impeccable diction. Since Salome is a rather more strident role than any Wagner heroine, there was some speculation that the voice might not be just right for the Strauss role. But it was. There is no better way to put it. Stemme’s natural range offered up the climatic highs and the chilling lows, including a delightfully monstrous G-flat at the end of the role’s meditation on the mystery of love’s capacity to outweigh the mystery of death. One left the hall wondering only how rewarding it would be to hear her in a staged performance.

Stemme’s sublime singing elided well with a truly outstanding supporting cast. Bass-baritone Eric Owens, one of the few genuinely successful soloists to emerge from the Metropolitan Opera’s troubled new Ring Cycle, mastered Jochanaan’s music with a strength and authority that only occasionally showed a hint of roughness. As Salome’s louche stepfather Herod, tenor Rudolf Schasching, known to Welser-Möst from his time as chief of Zürich’s opera but hardly known to American audiences, contributed an excellent repertoire singer’s voice into a part he obviously knows very well. Mezzo Jane Henschel was perfectly biting as his wife, Salome’s mother Herodias, who urges her daughter along on the path to evil. Garrett Sorenson’s Narraboth also stood out, and there was no reason to be disappointed with the fine ensemble cast of younger singers in supporting roles. Following on the excellent Chicago Symphony concert performance of Verdi’s Otello last season, New York should hope to hear much more fine opera in venerable Carnegie Hall. – Paul du Quenoy

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