Opera Critic

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.

Despite its theme of supercilious youth and squandered love, Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin occupies as conventional a place in Russia’s literary canon as Tchaikovsky’s eponymous opera does in its musical landscape.  Livening up the operatic adaptation is a difficult task, one that too often overwhelms those who attempt it.  The Vienna State Opera’s current production, by Katrin Hoffmann, falls into this category.  Here the action is improbably updated to the lighter side of the 1950s, a cultural milieu that can only with much imagination accommodate an army of happy serfs, chaste confessions of love, and duels to the death to defend one’s honor.  But here we have it, complete with housewifey period costumes and early rock-n-roll dances not uncredibly choreographed to the composer’s waltz, cotillion, and (abbreviated) écossaise.  Only the famous polonaise, which has no satisfactory staging in any currently running production of which I am aware (at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater – hearth of Russian opera – it is disappointingly played before a closed curtain), escapes the cliché, only to appear as a kind of somber march followed by the black-tied aristocratic guests of Act III’s ball.  Some touches are overdone.  Acts I and II are set against a constant snowstorm that distracts from the action.  Russia is cold, and so is the young Onegin’s heart, but did my lovely guest for the evening need to risk a motion-induced headache to grasp that?  The Larin home (or at least Tatiana’s bedroom) is encased in bluish blocks of ice.  Her birthday party – a surprisingly bawdy one for a teenaged daughter of the nobility, however provincial – is focused on what would today (not in the 1950s, for they did not exist then) be called an ice bar.  Placing the production’s only intermission after Act II imposed an interminable sit and left the drama unbalanced.

The production’s incongruities wore off on the cast.  Dmitrii Hvorostovsky and Olga Guryakova went through the motions as Onegin and Tatiana in the first two acts.  Guryakova performs this most Russian of soprano roles widely, but I have never appreciated her voice’s throaty quality, which deprives the character of her wistful youth and leaves us with an unenchanting nerd.  Hvorostovsky sang respectably, though with a curious lack of power in the first part of the evening.  It was only in the final scene, when Onegin recognizes his love for Tatiana just to have her spurn him, that they radiated real passion.  Indeed, this might have been the most dramatically moving performance of the scene I have ever witnessed.  It is too bad the principals did not electrify us with that chemistry before then, for the performance would have benefited immensely.  Pavol Breslik’s weak Lensky failed to inspire much sympathy, though he gave a reasonable account of his pre-death aria “Kuda, kuda, vy udalilis’?”  But I still repaired to my nearby hotel suite during the only intermission thinking the character’s death was pretty much his own fault for whining so much around the more stolid Hvorostovsky’s title character.

A performance of Eugene Onegin can hardly be called a success when the greatest applause goes to the bass who performs for about seven minutes as Tatiana’s husband, the aged Prince Gremin.  Yet it was the talented Ferruccio Furlanetto whose expansive charcoal voice received the evening’s greatest recognition.  His Russian was imperfect, but his stentorian delivery of the Act III set piece aria “Liubvi vse vozrosti pokorni” stood as the most impressive vocal highlight.  Kirill Petrenko’s uneven conducting tended to be sluggish in moments of high drama and too fast in the dances and dialogues.  Over post-performance Wienerschnitzel and Fassbier, I found myself wanting to hear German music at the stately Staatsoper.

It is unusual to hear an Italian opera with recitatives in Hungarian (no subtitles in any language for the recitatives), but an even odder intrepidity in theatergoing presents itself when a principal is injured too soon before the performance to be replaced by something other than a stand in who acts and mouths the lines while the injured singer performs from the orchestra pit.  Nevertheless, the Hungarian State Opera’s staging of Handel’s Xerxes, which dates from 2008, joined the international roster of efforts to restore the eighteenth-century composer to the repertoire.

Xerxes is a typically Handelian work in that it reduces a towering historical figure – in this case the famous Persian king who tried to conquer Ancient Greece – to a melodramatic figure whose love problems are magnified or at least made more identifiable by his greatness in the broader historical context.  The opera is unusual in its relative brevity and inclusion of a comic element, personified by the factotum and go-between Elviro.  Although these qualities doomed it to relative failure in Handel’s own milieu, it is exactly the type of story that succeeds in our contemporary culture, besieged as it is by romantic comedies.  To make a complicated plot simple, or attempting to do so, Xerxes pursues his vassal’s daughter, Romilda, who is loved by his brother, Arsamene.  Arsamene is in turn loved by Romilda’s sister, Atalanta.  The king’s ex-fiancée Amastre, who still loves Xerxes, disguises herself as a man to manipulate the characters to get what she wants.  Through a comedy of errors, she is able to win back a repentant Xerxes, while Romilda and Arsamene are happily united and Atalanta, who had attempted some manipulation of her own, goes off to find someone else.

The State Opera’s artistic director Balazs Kovalik delivered a production set in a caricature of modern Iran.  Most of the action centers around a functional but ugly apartment building of the type familiar to anyone who has visited the Middle East.  In homage to the Islamic Republic’s recent history, the building is covered by the image of a multi-story Shah-like figure, complete with sunglasses that recall Qadafi.  The characters sport casual but high-style outfits, sometimes with a military dimension.  Vehicles are important, and we have progressively more sophisticated ones transporting the cast around, from a sports car in the opening scene (it knocks down the plane tree Xerxes is meant to contemplate) to a World War I-era airplane from which Xerxes drops bombs on conspirators, to a modern warship whose bow enters the stage only to invite its casually comedic sinking.  The production breaks the fourth wall from the first moments of the overture, during which conductor Peter Oberfrank enters from the audience and hops over the divider to take the podium.  Later in the work characters enter the stalls to confide the feelings of their arias to amused spectators.

Hungary has a reserve of well-trained singers who are highly skilled in both the opera seria repertoire and ensemble singing.  Andrea Melath, a talented mezzo-soprano who sings predominantly in Budapest, approached the title role with verve and talent.  “Ombra mai fu,” the opera’s first and most famous aria, resonated with plaintive charm.  Gabriella Fodor’s fine soprano endearingly engaged the part of Romilda.  Countertenor Peter Barany’s Arsamene proved that the singer has a great future if he is judicious enough to keep his tones balanced.  Bernadett Wiedemann’s Amastre stole the show, by turns outraged and enamored.  Beatrix Fodor’s injury kept the voice of Atalanta in the orchestra pit, but her voice pleasantly filled the part to Zsuzsanna Bazsinka’s acting.  Andras Habetler’s Elviro talented bass was a bit too buffoonish, but this was probably more the fault of the production, which at one point had him swallowed by shark, from which he later escaped with the help of a diving mask and snorkel.  I could only think of the famous “land shark” skit from Saturday Night Live when it was fresh and young.  Oberfrank’s conducting was serviceable with a much reduced orchestra.