Opera Critic

The nation’s official opera company has opened its new season under a cloud.  Budget problems have reduced 2010-2011’s offerings to just five productions, down from the usual seven or eight, leaving Washingtonians with the smallest repertoire in nearly two decades.  After announcing staff cuts in the recent past, the company has confirmed rumors that artistic director Placido Domingo, who has led Washington National since 1996, will step down at the end of the current season.  Negotiations are reportedly underway to merge the beleaguered opera with the management of its only venue, the Kennedy  Center for the Performing Arts.

Starting the ill starred season with James Robinson’s production of Verdi’s tale of illicit love and anti-monarchical conspiracy does little to alleviate the sense of woe.  Robinson’s effort last season with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was a happy enough jaunt into the world of stagecraft, but his Ballo leaves much to be desired.  Adopting the opera’s proper Swedish setting, Allen Moyer’s sets are dominated by a Nordic bleakness.  Gustavo’s first act throne room resembles a Quaker meeting house with undecorated walls and two rows of plain chairs.  The second act, set by the gallows outside Stockholm in the original stage directions, is here an inexplicably disused hall with no walls and scattered broken chandeliers.  Only the Ulrica scene seemed to match something one would recognize, but why spoil the effort by having her throat slashed at the end of her all too accurate predictions and Gustavo’s enlightened (the historic Gustav III had pretensions to the “enlightened” part of “enlightened despotism”) pardon of her?  James Shuette’s costumes, at least, seemed right.

Tenor Salvatore Licitra may be the closest thing we have to an Italian superstar, and his casting as Gustavo was entirely right.  His small stature was not helped by the scale of the production, but his vocal tones were clarion and he delivered the doomed king’s music with a beauty rarely heard even in middle Verdi pieces today.  Sadly his performance was diminished by his fellow principles.  The young soprano Tamara Wilson shows some promise, but lacked the pyrotechnics for a successful Amelia.  The revelation scene in Act II was downright boring.  I wondered why anyone would take any sort of risk for her charms, let alone the fatal one Gustavo takes in seducing (at least with words) his best friend’s wife.  Luca Salsi’s Renato fell flat.  His singing lacked the passion one would expect from a cuckolded husband bent on murderous revenge.  His dramatic interpretation was stiff.  Elena Manistina’s Ulrica added a fine mezzo to the cast, but alas the character’s appearance in Act I was too short to save a lackluster performance.  Basses Kenneth Kellogg and Julien Robbins were menacing conspirators.  Daniele Callegari is new to Washington’s podium but led an undistinguished orchestral effort.

It was the Danube rather than the Rhine that overflowed its banks, but nature did not wreak quite as much havoc on the peoples of Central Europe as it does at the end of Wagner’s epic Ring of the Nibelung.  Budapest’s flooded riverfront trams suffered from service disruptions for most of the city’s Fifth Annual Wagner Festival, but near sell-out audiences found other ways to trek to the Hungarian capital’s remote Palace of the Arts to hear three performances of Tristan and Isolde, offered between May 29 and June 16, and a full Ring gruelingly given over four consecutive nights — June 10-13 — rather than the traditional six (usually with days off after Die Walküre and Siegfried).  The Festival is a cooperative effort of the Palace of the Arts, the Hungarian State Opera, and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, all under the direction of the conductor Adam Fischer.

The Palace of Arts is a concrete and glass monstrosity left over from the Brezhnev era.  Its bleak post-communist surroundings do little to enhance its aesthetic shortcomings other than suggest some of the drearier post-modern stagings of Wagner’s operas.  It does, however, have the virtue of housing the new (2005) Bela Bartok National Concert Hall, a beautifully streamlined, acoustically perfect, and comfortable venue that can be converted from orchestral use to fuller theatrical capacities.  In this case the Ring received what might be called a mostly — as opposed to a semi — staged production, while Tristan was fully staged.  Belying the presumed universality of the English language, projected supertitles in German and Magyar accompanied both works.

Hartmut Schörghofer’s Ring relied heavily on video projections that gave a sense of the expansive tetralogy’s diverse physical environments.  Some effects proved more effective than others.  The Rhine appeared to be suffering from gray pollution, but sexy mermaids inhabited it in Rheingold, as did less appealing middle-aged bathing beauties in Götterdämmerung.  Valhalla is suggested by a blue sky and construction crane.  Act I of Walküre shows frosty window panes that eventually melt into a blossoming springtime, just as Siegmund’s “Winterstürme” monologue demands.  Wotan’s realm of action is, expectedly, in high peaks.  A dramatic fall from those heights to the lowest possible ground-level of a grassy meadow illustrates Brünnhilde’s disgrace.  Tales of Siegfried’s emotionally empty childhood and adolescent slaying of Fafner emerged in disappointing cartoons that resembled kid drawings.  Blood splatters across the projections during most murders (but oddly not during Siegfried’s, even though, or perhaps because, “all the blood in the world,” as Brünnhilde tells us, could not atone for the wrong done her).  The kingdom of the Gibichungs (Gunther and Gutrune) appears as a video installation of sleek modern business people carrying out their neo-bourgeois tasks on a limitless white field.  And of course the exciting transitional music in Act III of Siegfried and apocalyptic finale of Götterdämmerung resounded to raging computer-generated flames.  The performers appeared in standard concert attire – mostly white tie and gowns – but did a reasonable, and in some cases, excellent job of acting through their characters’ emotions and dramatic encounters.

Sometimes the mostly staged format was problematic.  Imposing dolls heads representing the giants made no sense when the basses singing the roles appeared as fully interactive characters on stage.  Loge was likewise depicted simultaneously by a singing performer in concert dress and a mime in a red velvet suit.  The silent version of the character kept reappearing throughout the Cycle, but not always when he should have.  More successful were the small cast of dancers and acrobats whose art presented us with the oppressed denizens of Nibelheim, Hunding’s dogs, the Valkyries’s horses, and even Wotan’s ravens, who watched the action perched in the theater’s upper balconies, though not too many people seemed to notice them.  Most of the obligatory props were there, too.

Tristan and Isolde received a more conventional staging, though it tended toward the drab.  Dominating a production with brown sets and costumes is rarely a good idea, but that dull color scheme somehow captured the imaginations of designers Magdolna Parditka and Alexandra Szemeredy.  King Marke’s realm appeared to be some kind of fencing club.  Kurwenal and the cast of retainers wore the customary masks and practiced with their foils until they actually entered combat in Act III.  The last two acts opened with athletic displays that preceded the music.  Act II’s opening showed Tristan humiliating Melot in a public fencing match, perhaps (though not very realistically) giving rise to the jealousy that motivates Melot’s epic betrayal of his friend shortly thereafter. Surrounding the stage with empty glasses referred too obviously to the fatal drink Tristan and Isolde share.  The symbolism of an oversized chess board that breaks into pieces when they take their drink escaped me.  I was unsure why the nondescript modern athletic costumes most characters wore accompanied King Marke’s three-piece white suit, which made him look like a southern aristocrat whose romantic traumas might have unfolded within the pages of a Tennessee Williams play.  Perhaps the production’s most striking dramatic element occurred in Tristan’s suicidal fall on Melot’s sword at the end of Act II.  Here Tristan blinds himself, drawing the action into the opera’s larger philosophical universe, in which daylight – and thus vision – is anathema.  It did more than most attempts I have seen to add meaning to Tristan’s perception problems during his third act raving.

Budapest’s Wagner Festival benefited from an impressive assemblage of international vocal talent, perhaps enough to place it on the map for avid Wagnerians with the resources and wherewithal to peregrinate the globe in search of new musical thrills.  Prolifically casting the clarion Heldentenor Christian Franz as Loge, Siegmund, the Götterdämmerung Siegfried, and Tristan proved a great stroke of artistic insight.  Fresh from his triumphant Siegfrieds in the Metropolitan Opera’s last revival of its classic Ring last season, he simply triumphed in every challenge placed before him.  A somewhat stocky man, Franz nevertheless added gripping dimensions to all four characters.  His Loge captured the role’s slyness and trickery most enjoyably.  His Siegmund radiated both defiance and charm.  The “Winterstürme” singing resounded with a melting tenderness I have never heard invested in the role.  Both Götterdämmerung and Tristan present enormous challenges of endurance for even the most accomplished Wagnerian tenors, but Franz drew upon boundless energy in delivering both parts.  The occasional vocal leap or undisciplined high note can easily be forgiven.

Likewise, British soprano Catherine Foster wavered in neither enthusiasm nor power in her delivery of all three Brünnhildes.  This was not altogether planned — Irene Theorin was announced for the Siegfried incarnation of the role but disappeared from the cast list; her initial replacement was indisposed the evening of the performance.  Despite a few mistaken cues in her surprise Siegfried, Foster, who has recorded the Ring on DVD with Weimar’s National Theater, delivered gleaming, full-bodied sonority and carefully studied character interpretation.  Foster’s German carries a noticeable British accent, but in pure musicianship there can be no faulting her.  Her scene opposite Stephen Gould’s Siegfried in the opera of the same name figured among the Festival’s highlights.  Having only ever heard Gould in such lighter Wagnerian tenor roles as Tannhäuser and Erik, I doubted whether he could credibly deliver the heavier Heldentenor parts.  I can only say I was wrong.  His performance of the more energetic Siegfried role was driven and voluble, betraying no signs of exhaustion throughout the mammoth work’s thrilling third evening.  At times his exuberance might have carried him away, but who wants a disciplined Siegfried?

Alas, the production lacked a consistent Wotan to match the Ring’s other divinities.  Oskar Hillebrandt’s talented baritone lies too high for the role.  He did much better in the less profound role of Gunther three evenings later.  Thomas Johannes Mayer arrived fresh from performances in Paris’s new Walküre (part of the Opéra’s first attempt to stage the full Ring since the 1970s), but despite some fine singing and excellent drama, he was also too light of voice.  It was only Tomasz Konieczny’s Wanderer (as Wotan is called in Siegfried) that captured the lower register and legato necessary to make the part a true success.  The strong middle register also helped the talented young singer deliver an excellent Kurwenal in Tristan.  Wotan’s nemesis Alberich fell throughout the Cycle to the talented baritone Hartmut Welker, whose marvelously hissable dramatic interpretation matched the singer’s solid vocal gifts.  Michael Roider’s appropriately nasally Mime was a fine foil to both Alberich and Siegfried.

In lesser but still very important roles, Walter Fink tackled Fafner and Hunding with a stentorian magnificence from which Wagner audiences should benefit in greater abundance.  It may have been too much to ask him to continue on as Hagen, for he would have been an admirable alternative to the aged if renowned bass Kurt Rydl.  Despite some beautifully menacing tones, Rydl’s voice has become too patchy and dry to give a riveting performance.  The watch monologue was especially disappointing.  Fink might also have been a better choice for King Marke in Tristan than Jan-Hendrik Rootering, still a credible Wagnerian bass perhaps two decades ago but now far past his prime both in that sad role and as Fasolt in Rheingold.  These were not the Festival’s only vocal disappointments.  Anna-Katharina Behnke’s Sieglinde relied heavily on wavy vibrato to reach the role’s challenging high notes, generally without success.  As Fricka and Brangäne, Judit Nemeth muddied the essential middle register to deprive both roles of much satisfaction.  The talent that went into Cornelia Kallisch’s impressive Waltraute or Annamaria Kovacs’s well centered Erda would have been a credible alternative in both parts.  Despite some promising bursts of authority toward the beginning of her performance, Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter’s faint Isolde, plagued by scooped high notes and underpowered sensuality, soon paled in comparison to Franz’s radiant Tristan.

It has been said that the orchestra is the true protagonist of Wagner’s operas.  Under the baton of its music director Adam Fischer (elder brother of conductor Ivan Fischer), the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra entertained the Festival audience with a crisp, fresh playing of the Ring’s luxuriant score.  Maestro Fischer, who is not well known in the Wagner repertoire (Haydn and Mozart are more his forte), favored slower tempi, pollinating every note with meaningfully emotive sound.  An almost mathematical clarity and judiciously drawn out Luftpausen contributed dramatic intensity.  The Bartok Hall’s excellent acoustics added the refined edge of a true concert venue to music that can lose its acuteness in an opera house.  A few brass flubs over the course of the first two evenings did nothing to deaden the sensation of being bathed in Wagnerian splendor.  The Hungarian State Opera Orchestra’s playing of Tristan was less exciting, though again the audience owes much to Maestro Fischer.
Another Wagner Festival is planned in Budapest for June 2011.  It will feature a revival of Tristan as well as productions of Lohengrin and Parsifal.

Verdi’s middle period favorite, though not very often performed today, can nevertheless be heard in the heart of Central Europe.  Matthias von Stegmann’s staging for the Hungarian State Opera updates the action from the historic events of 1282 to a late industrial miasma, but not without effect.  I wearied of the set-dominating rusted steel panels and massive bolts that hold them together.  Over the course of the evening, I grew numb to the idea that the characters and their national and romantic passions are enclosed in some kind of impenetrable container.  The somberness made it hard for me to believe that the director is responsible for the German-language adaptation of The Simpsons.  But I enjoyed the idea that the Sicilian Vespers could be so readily connected to the era of Italy’s final unification.  The appearance of a lady of liberty carrying an Italian tricolor flag – in homage to Delacroix’s famous painting from his country’s Revolution of 1830, which featured the other, more revolutionary tricolor – risked pure camp, but to my mind it avoided caricature at the  opera’s final moment , when Procida’s irreconcilable forces sweep down on the French for their bloody vengeance.

Budapest audiences enjoy some very good if not altogether excellent singing.  Leading the cast’s efforts in every sense was the Russian baritone Anatolij Fokanov, a true Verdi baritone long resident in the Hungarian capital.  Possessing a fine legato and impressive upper range flexibility, he captured all the moods of Monforte – stern governor, paternal father, man of peace – that the composer usually demands in the complexities of his dramas.  It seems strange that a singer able to master the notoriously difficult tessitura found in Verdi does not enjoy a more accomplished international career.  Attila Fekete performed with verve as Arrigo, Monforte’s long lost son and sometime champion of the national cause.  Some of the notes were too pinched for a heroic Verdi tenor.  Istvan Racz’s bellowing bass got off to a rough start as Procida, but grew progressively more focused over the evening.  Eszter Sumegi’s soprano is blessed with a fine lyrico spinto quality.  I found her top notes too undisciplined to be credible as a great diva, however.  The middle range, though competently delivered, suffered somewhat from an odd hoarseness.  Gergely Kesselyak’s orchestral effort palidly avoided an engaged dramatic reading of the score and sometimes fell out of synch with what was happening on stage.

A tragedy of contemporary Wagner productions lies in their frequent combination of impressive musical talent with stagings that can be stultifying.  Barrie Kosky’s 2005 production of Lohengrin for Austria’s principal operatic stage is not vulgar or obscene.  It is not provocative or creepy.  With one exception, portraying Elsa as a blind woman, it is simply a bore.

To be fair, it did make some dramatic sense to have the impressionable young Elsa led around sightlessly.  In any production the character’s overly trusting nature opens the door to betrayal, while her naivete ends in the indiscretion that wrecks the fairy tale romance.  The fact of her blindness here allows Lohengrin’s chivalry to swell to greater than usual heights when he fights as her champion, leads her to the altar, and tries in vain to stop her from destroying the happy ending.  When Elsa shows Ortrud and Telramund kindness in their disgrace, they can mock her without having to resort solely to Telramund’s shadowy line about misfortune entering the house or Ortrud’s furtive invocation of the pagan gods to help her gain vengeance.  It did deaden the impact of Ortrud’s resentment, with which her second act music is so enthrallingly pregnant, but Telramund’s description of his wife as a “wild seer” highlighted her juxtaposition to Elsa to an extent I had never considered.

Given the rest of the production, however, it is clear that Elsa is not missing much.  Like so many post-modern approaches to Wagner, almost everyone else appears in business attire.  King Heinrich’s Reich is apparently some kind of business office and its Brabant branch consists of a chorus of nobles and freemen lazing about on cheap schoolroom chairs.  Lohengrin’s entrance is suggested by a float of large plastic chain links.  He and Telramund both “fight,” or rather gesture, while seated across a wide open space from each other.  Yawn.  Elsa’s world is a childish one sparsely suggested by Fisher Price quality toys and a playhouse that converts into the Act II church, all rendered in a depressing mustard color.  Lohengrin and Elsa have their turbulent Act III scene before a plain red curtain seated side by side on the same boring chairs from the first act.  The Fisher Price motif recurs toward the end when Lohengrin presents the horn, sword, and ring that Elsa is supposed to give her missing brother Gottfried when he returns.  Gottfried’s release from Ortrud’s evil spell tentatively returns him to life via some kind of giant tear drop at which the sorceress sticks out her hand before the stage goes dark.

I have absolutely no idea what Kosky was trying to convey, or if he was trying to convey anything at all.  Is Lohengrin as childish as the Fisher Price toys suggest?  If so, then why is most of the cast so drearily businesslike?  Elsa is surely impressionable.  But is that really the same as innocence, or are the innocent, along with the good and the merciful, merely handicapped?  Having Elsa appear blind focuses a lot of attention on her susceptibility to Ortrud’s successful pursuit of a common feminine means of sabotaging relationships.  Are we meant to share Wagner’s well known misogyny?  Lohengrin, it seems, really cares for Elsa despite the dissolute surroundings.  Is caritas a cartoon?

Fortunately the musical effort was strong enough for me not to care.  Peter Seiffert’s singing has been uneven in my experience, but in this performance he showcased a resounding tenor capable of tackling the greatest challenges in the title role.  He is clearly a growing artist, and this might have been the best I have ever heard him sing.  Soile Isokoski’s cool Nordic tonality sailed merrily through Elsa’s gorgeous music.  It only missed some of the lilting musicality that suggests innocence in the lighter Wagner soprano roles.  Wolfgang Koch’s gruff Telramund captured the part with sharp characterization and somber baritonal chest voice.  Ortrud fully displayed the Renaissance of Waltraud Meier’s singing in recent years.  A performance of hers in the role that I heard recently in Berlin was hair-raising in the best of ways, and she matched it evil eye for thrilling evil eye in Vienna.  The unfortunate production took the edge off some of her flair, but the well studied gestures and expressive acting combined with her smoky mezzo to dominate every scene in which she appeared.  Ain Anger blustered through King Heinrich’s underappreciated heft.  Markus Eiche made a fine impression in the small role of the Royal Herald.  Leif Segerstam’s driven reading of the score inspired the best from the Staatsoper’s orchestra and chorus, which were in fine form.