Opera Critic

The latest installment in the Paris Opera’s first complete Ring since 1957 follows Günter Krämer’s fancifully modern staging of the the tetralogy’s first two operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, which premiered last season.  Siegfried, in its first Opera production since that last Ring (Rheingold and Walküre were staged in a failed attempt to produce the whole Cycle in the late 1970s), takes another stab at an edgy, dysfunctional modernity.
The effort is mostly successful.  The first act, this staging’s most interesting, imagines Mime’s cave as a campy 1950s apartment over a workshop where he carries out his blacksmith’s work.  Stage elevators allow him and Siegfried to descend into it for the famous reforging of the sword.  The apartment is dominated by an impressive hydroponics lab where Mime, clad in a yellow sweater, grows the marajuana he smokes through the act.  This is an unusual yet evocative exploration of the character, who, perhaps rightly, seems to deserve Siegfried and Alberich’s put downs for laziness.  Having him played as a self-loathing homosexual – suggested in the omnipresent flowers, gnome (Nibelung?) statuettes, dainty housewares, and stereotypical mannerisms — convincingly answers Siegfried’s curiosity about why he, unlike all the creatures of the forest, has no wife.  An old fashioned television enclosed in a wooden cabinet presents the action as a 1950s show called “Die Niebelungen” and permits Mime to probe the depths of Siegfried’s sense of fear by showing him scenes from Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent film adaptation of the Nibelung saga.  Less necessary is the dropping of a dark curtain that functions as an old fashioned blackboard on which Mime and the disguised Wotan conduct their trivia contest as a kind of schoolroom lesson.  Writing “Fürchten” on it to introduce the concept of fear comes across as excessively pedantic.  It is also rather predicatable, since the word was not fully erased from earlier performances.
Fafner’s lair in Act II is an autumnal field crossed by railroad tracks.  The giant is no monster, but rather Rheingold’s gruff construction worker attended by a troupe of barely clothed, automatic weapons-toting dancers who resemble Kurtz’s devoted legions of native warriors in both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s updated film adaptation of the novel, Apocalypse Now.  Wotan and Alberich, in their first confrontation since Alberich cursed the ring, looked like beatniks in ill fitting suits and overcoats.  Usually dripping with sarcastic enmity, their interaction here strikingly reveals a certain amount of mutual sympathy.  Since the renunciatory Wotan has acknowledged his nature as part and parcel of Alberich’s shadow, the moment works philosophically.  Fafner’s killing, which includes the death of his minions, occurs almost casually, after a cordially hostile chat with Siegfried amid boxes packing the useless Nibelung treasure.  The forest bird is acted by an urchin boy who leads Siegfried to his murder of the treacherous Mime, whose head he severs in retribution for Mime’s accidentally revealed intention, and then off to Brünnhilde.
Act III opens in what is presumably Valhalla, with Wotan suiting up in black tie for his revelatory taunting of Erda and self-consciously doomed confrontation with Siegfried.  Inert heroes sit at green felt-covered accounting desks awaiting the end.  Erda, who confesses to her lost powers of wisdom and perception in the scene, is convincingly blind.  Wotan proceeds to encounter Siegfried before the same blackboard from Act I, which shifts during the subsequent magic fire music to Valhalla’s gigantic steps, where the outcast Brünnhilde lies in slumber.  The awakening scene unfolds there, rather awkwardly given the incline, and in a puzzling way since a prostrate Wotan (now played by an actor whose knees must have killed him by the end) is present, along with a troop of motionless Valkyries who look on.  Götterdämmerung opens in June, and I was left wondering whether the prologue love scene will open in the same place.  If it does, it will certainly belie the hope that Siegfried is a free hero acting independently of the gods, though such may be Krämer’s point.
Whatever one thinks of the production, and there were boos, the musical performance was stellar.  The young conductor Philippe Jordan led a crisp, energetic reading of the score.  There were a few moments when he failed to draw out the subtlety of the music, and he occasionally rushed through meaningful passages that he could have treated with greater deliberation. No one could argue, however, that his command of the work is unimpressive.  The singers performed ably, though the first act passed with a measure of restraint that not everyone appreciated.  The ovation that greeted the second act was followed by a disappointed spectator who cried out, unjustly in my opinion, “Il faut pour l’orchestre, pas pour les chanteurs!”  He was angrily shouted down and the show went on.  Torsten Kerl’s Siegfried blossomed in the final two acts into a gorgeously held Heldentenor sound.  He resisted the temptation to take the role as a callow youth and yet did not ignore the naivety it requires.  Juha Uusitalo’s Wanderer (as Wotan is known in this incarnation of the role) missed some of the role’s implicit humanity, but still drew on a well practiced legato to impart the challenging music with true meaning.  As Mime, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s part may have been the best thought out characterization.  His fine tenor produced the necessary pinched sound without becoming annoying.  Peter Sidhom’s Alberich suffered from a patchy bout of singing, but the opera is not really about him.  Stephen Milling’s Fafner reached impressive depths.  Qiu Lin Zhang’s Erda showcased a burnished contralto sound from which the role does not often benefit.  Elena Tsallagova sang pleasantly from off stage as the forest bird.  A real treat was Katarina Dalayman’s soaring Brünnhilde.  The third act staging did not allow her to ascend to her radiant best, but the voice’s appealing tonality and seemingly effortless highs were very much in evidence.  With some tweaking in the staging, this Siegfried may yet prove a worthy addition to Paris’s new Ring. — Paul du Quenoy

Luisa Miller contains many of Giuseppe Verdi’s signature themes – a troubled parent-child relationship, a missing mother, unrequited passion, deception and violence in romance, and, of course, national oppression.  But it has never figured as one of his greatest works.  Premiering in 1849, it delicately treads the line between the composer’s early, bel cantoesque works and his more doggedly Romantic middle period.  Political sensibilites – the opera’s premiere occurred during the revolutionary events around 1848 — forced Verdi to tone down the dramatic content of the eponymous Schiller play on which he based the opera.  The bucolic setting in the Tyrol does the work few favors.  Except for the stock villian Wurm, the scheming lackey of the cruel Austrian count, the entire cast of characters is contained by an astonishing amount of Northern European restraint.
Gilbert Deflo’s production for the Paris Opera, which premiered in 2008, holds closely to these less than exciting idioms.  The action unfolds in predictable meadows below ominous mountains.  Count Walter’s castle is suggested by dark Gothic arches and Miller’s cottage is a plain Tyrolean house of little interest.  The action’s enclosure within a globular semisphere reminds us that this may be the whole world for the characters involved (the program notes describe it as a kind of utopia), but what a simple and uninspired world it is.
Fortunately most of the vocal talent was worth hearing.  Krassimira Stoyanova glittered as much as possible in the music, which betrays the discernible pattern of a composer groping at the magnificent voice he would eventually find.  Stoyanova’s radiant tones and creamy middle register hint at the spinto sound good Verdian singing demands.  Later Verdi roles allow her to develop it to the fullest.  Marcel Alvarez likewise used his instrument with superb resonance, though the role is rather contained emotionally.  Both Orlin Anastassov’s Walter and Franck Ferrari’s Miller projected fine bass lines, but through no fault of their own real passion remained elusive.  Arutjun Kotchinian’s Wurm was the only disappointment – his stereotypical villainy did not leave a memorable impression.  Daniel Oren led a measured performance, once again weakened by the score.

Georges Bizet famously called Berlioz “Wagner without style,” but since Les Troyens was never performed in full as one composite performance during the lifetime of any of those composers, this judgment may have been premature.  Deutsche Oper Berlin’s new staging by David Poutney, introduced last December, expounds on the opera’s grandiose subject – the founding of Rome adapted directly from Virgil – in a fanciful new production.  The first part of the opera, set in the doomed city of Troy before and then at the end of its destruction following the episode with the Trojan Horse, brings us into a desolate post-industrial Apocalypse.  Johan Engels’s sets are a bit cumbersome, but do the job.  The unhappy Trojans lounge on a steel contraption covered in bed frames.  It swings upright to provide a stage for Cassandre to deliver her declamations and, ultimately, to perform her suicide (an act accompanied by the female chorus).  The second part of the opera takes us to the realm of Dido – a fantasy-land Carthage of warm colors and vaguely Middle Eastern motifs.  The Carthaginians emerge in colorful yellows and greens.  Dido’s duet with Énée is set against a vast starfield, a fine complement to the sweeping music that reminds us of another, rival composer’s idealization of transcendent love (Deutsche Oper opened a new Tristan und Isolde just two after the performance).  Hints of the post-industrial Apocalype – perhaps the real world – return to set the stage for Dido’s immolation and fateful invocation of the future Carthaginian general Hannibal.  This theatrical magic is edgy, at times a bit too edgy for the music, but it nevertheless illuminates the mythic world with the style Bizet thought the opera’s composer lacked.
A fine cast helps along Berlioz’s measured score.  The harmonics of the orchestration suggest the stylistic changes that Wagner heralded, though the German composer later wrote that he hated Les Troyens so much that he did not think he could ever speak to Berlioz again.  The transition is not quite accomplished, however.  Still, Ian Storey’s stentorian tenor brought a heroic ring to Énée’s music.  He did not begin the evening in top form, but by the second part the voice blossomed into Wagnerian proportions.  Anna Caterina Antonacci deserves world renown for her accomplished mezzo.  Precise and yet soulful, she displayed a mastery of range in delivering Cassandre’s challenging music.  The cry of “Italie” at the end of the first part was chilling, and the audience was left wanting more than her brief appearance as a ghost in the second act.  Daniela Barcellona’s Dido did not excite to the same degree, but still captured the character’s far ranging emotions with passion.  Markus Bruck’s Chorèbe, Krysztof Szumanski’s Panthée, and Heidi Stober’s Ascagne all made fine impressions.  Reinhard Hagen imposed formidably as the ghost of Hector.  Deutsche Oper Berlin’s chorus, under the direction of William Spaulding, is a world class ensemble benefitting from an uncommon precision in diction and voluble energy.  Its taltents were on stunning display.  Donald Runnicles, the company’s new music director this season, led a solid performance that enlivened what can be a dull score.

This week, onto Lille descended the same group that mounted a performance of Levinas’s operatic version of Camus’ Les Nègres at Lyon in 2004, which was dedicated to the composer’s son Elie-Emmanuel, the namesake of the composer’s father Emmanuel, the late philosopher and author of Totality and Infinity. This time they have turned their very vigorous and interdisciplinary focus onto the Metamorphosis of Franz Kafka, perhaps the greatest fifty pages from the 20th century on man in adversity. Here, as in Lyons, the production is being augmented with a flourish of literary disquisitions, three or four public lectures and a whole garland of events on the Saturday in between called “Happy Day.”

This premiere run consists of fve performances from March 7-15: I made it to the second on March 9th.  I came all the way to Lille because Stanislas Nordey was doing the mise en scene, as I have travelled far to see others of his doings – his St-Francois at the Bastille, his Pelleas et Melisande at Covent Garden, his Lohengrin In Stuttgart. He has brought along his usual team (Emmanuel Clolus for the scenography and Raoul Fernandez for the costumes). What I like about Nordey is the way he can take up a literary piece whole, and envelop it in a progressing visualization that is deeply structured by ideas but the ideas stay within what we see and the way we see it and never devolve into icons or a symbolism that points to a meaning beyond itself. His work evinces a pure meaning for the expression mettre en scene.

Kafka’s Metamorphosis is and has to be a first-person narration. Gregor tells us he has wakened from a night of bothered dreams to discover he has turned into a large cockroach. How will he get out of bed and go to work with these short little arms and large body with its shell? The door of his room is locked – how will he reach up to unlock it? His parents knock on the door and scold him he will be late for work. But with “scold” I have broken the rule of the piece: Gregor tells us what he heard his parents say through the door: it is we who would call it scolding, and it is only in a third person narrative that such a moral judgment becomes unquestionable. For Gregor is not just the narrator, he is also Gregor; and Gregor, we learn, will forgive them, and indeed has already forgiven them, a lot longer than we would. The heart of the piece is Gregor’s voice telling what is happening to him and telling how he is coping with it with an astounding absence of resentment. The efforts he expends to cope slacken not at all but the goals he sets become more and more debased and rudimentary because of his condition. Meanwhile the reaction of his family also develops, since they need his income, and when they realize they won’t be having that they still have the problem of being appalled by his appearance, and being ashamed in the face of visitors, especially the visitors they need to rent their other rooms to who only want to abuse Gregor’s sister so that fnally the family would rather he were dead so they could use his room for something else. We come to realize, not too long before Gregor does, that his goals will become simpler and simpler until he has only to try to stay alive, and that he will fail.

The shape of the story is to start with a inconceivable but factual enormity and to follow its course to the death of the I that is both subject to the enormity and telling it; and Nordey has found a way to move us along as smaller things become larger and larger and larger. For the frst half we are outside the room watching the parents call to Gregor through the wall. Gregor is on stage, high on a pedestal (the vertical dimension, and indeed the two dimensional backdrop of the stage as a field in which action can take place regardless of gravity, as in a painting, is one of the territories Nordey expands the action into). A cockroach figure depicted in brown on black with muted and fuzzy anatomical detail is projected behind him, and during the slow forward movement of the calling back and forth from inside and outside the room and the arrival of his boss to fnd out why he hasn’t gotten to the offce, the slow forward movement through his disablement and toward his doom, this cockroach fgure becomes larger and larger. By the time we have to go into his room and see him in his own new world this projection has expanded so much the backdrop is filled with only the head of the cockroach; but the unveiling of his room makes a new horror visible for us. When we get inside we are shown the outside. He has turned into an exoskeletal cockroach and now even his white walls are covered by a maze of hard black lines. Maybe they are crazed paths he has walked on the walls (Levinas has composed a “musique de mille pattes” that sounds like mice running through the rafters), or maybe the segmented anatomy of a cockroach has become the truth of his whole world. He himself wears a fesh colored body stocking with the same harsh black lines to ft in with the harsh, scored, crazed, segmented background.

At the end of the piece the pedestal he has been standing on for an hour lowers (Nordey used elevators in his Lohengrin, too); and for the frst time the others have moved behind him instead of being between him and us. Now it is we who feel exposed to him. He cannot walk well since his leg was broken by an apple thrown at him by his father. He takes two steps toward the audience and we wonder whether he will be joining us. But luckily he cannot walk so well and after two steps he slowly collapses onto the foor and rolls up into a ball like a dead beetle, while his family, at the rear of the stage, walk off in slow procession one by one, and the stage goes dark.

The music of Levinas like that of Saariaho means to be a direct expression of emotion. In place of the usual media such as genre or tonality or even the longer ad hoc developmental structures of Schoenberg, the music comes in waves, and so does the singing. They both seem to be structured by the length of human breath. Of course, therefore, the singing is a kind of expressionistic speaking borne along by the musical waves. There is great expressive power in this, but the plot must already be known: it is the opposite of the Aristotelian notion that plot is the soul of the drama. Plot is here the skeleton and the persons and music add the blood and the fesh and make it recognizable that what is going on is human, all to human. Except in the case of Gregor. Throughout his decline he is never all too human; and in the most hideous and moving moment of the piece, near the end, his voice becomes the buzz of a grasshopper and we fnd ourselves way out of our depth, trying to understand what this buzzing subhuman hero is trying to tell us so we can love and admire him still more.

The singers of such music have a unique task and all of them pulled it off. There is the special difficulty of singing Gregor with the breadth of his expressions and the fact that as a cockroach his voice changes: for this Febrice di Falco was the rara avis that could do it. The musical ensemble kept showing us more and more new things, bright and dour. I hope this piece has legs: a recording is likely.

-Ken Quandt