Opera Critic

This year marks the centennial of Richard Strauss’s once controversial operatic adaptation of the eponymous play by Oscar Wilde. Dresden’s Semperoper, which introduced the opera to the world, has marked the occasion with an innovative new production by Peter Mussbach. Moving beyond the historicism of opera has become more than a trend, and this production is no exception. Mussbach’s sets (he designed his own) are free not only of Biblical kitsch, but of any indication of time or place. The psychodrama unfolds in a floating maze of geometric shapes presented at sharp angles to the audience. A contorted hexagon outlines the stage, which is dominated by a large cube representing Herodes’s palace and a steeply inclined rectangle that confines the movement of the characters. Jochanaan’s cistern is suggested by the handles of a swimming pool ladder dropping off into a pitch black abyss. Shades of light, ranging from sultry purple through azure blue and bright peach, bathe the stage according to the work’s changes in mood. Costumes are basic post-modern black for Herodes’s court, loose-fitting white for Jochanaan, and frilly pink for the decidedly teenage Salome.

Mussbach’s approach engagingly draws attention to the characters and their complex sexual relationships, yet his staging falters in presenting several of the opera’s critical moments. Jochanaan is already on stage when the opera begins, leading one to wonder why Salome should call for him to be brought out of his place of imprisonment. The famous Dance of the Seven Veils is depicted more as a family squabble than the exotic set piece one usually sees. Nothing on stage responds to the driving percussion of the dance’s first bars or to its distinctive chords. Herodes smokes, and Herodias tries unsuccessfully to entice him; Salome achieves her “seduction” by making a few awkward ballet steps. In the final scene there is no severed head, no necrophilic kiss, and no step-familial murder. Salome crawls into Jochanaan’s body bag to perform her entire monologue. An ax-wielding Herodes appears ready to execute his own command to kill her, but runs off in delirium when he discovers that she has already expired (“Salome dies of desire,” the program notes rather implausibly explain). Mussbach’s imagination and technical achievements are strong and prove the opera’s ability to lend itself to new interpretations, but one wishes for fewer loose strings.

The Semperoper recruited for its celebratory production some of the best vocal talent at work in Germany, and the results were mostly successful. The American baritone Alan Titus, Bayreuth’s reigning Wotan, delivered a commanding Jochanaan, convincing in prophecy and unswerving in defiance. Evelyn Herlitzius, his recent Brünnhilde, overcame some early upper range difficulties to give a more than competent performance in the title role, despite the unfortunate acoustics created by the body bag in the final scene. With a couple of momentary exceptions, her voice was refreshingly free from the screeching common among today’s Salomes. Wolfgang Schmidt appears to be following the well-worn path from Heldentenor roles to Herodes, a part better suited to his occasionally nasal tenor. If his Wagner performances were never truly outstanding, he is at least making the transition gracefully in this production. Dagmar Peckova captured the psychotic urgency of Herodias’s singing, but her voice lacks the true dramatic power to bring out its vindictive best. Salome calls for a relatively numerous supporting cast of soloists, 13 in all, and the Semperoper’s roster supplied amply talented voices for these roles. Marc Albrecht led the theater’s equally adept orchestra in a fine playing of Strauss’s score.

Following a disastrous new production of Tristan and Isolde which premiered here last month after the opera’s 92-year absence, one might doubt the Mariinsky’s talents in Wagner. But as last night’s Parsifal proved, such doubts are misplaced.

One of the most striking contrasts between the two productions lay in Gergiev’s conducting. Perhaps it is his much greater experience with Parsifal – he has been conducting the work since Tony Palmer’s thoughtful Mariinsky production premiered in 1997, — but the laziness of his approach to Tristan gave way to firm, incisive direction not only accomplished in its own right, but representing an improvement even over the Mariinsky artistic director’s well-received Met performances in 2003 (Christoph Eschenbach conducted the work at the Mariinsky that summer; Gergiev led it again in January 2004, but this reviewer was in Sharm El-Sheik at the time).

Maestro Gergiev was aided in his efforts by one of the Mariinsky’s rare guest appearances, that of the accomplished young German bass René Pape, whose strong Gurnemanz made the evening. It is appearances such as Pape’s, along with Ferruccio Furlanetto’s in Boris Godunov and Don Carlo last summer, that leave one to wonder why Gergiev does not bring in more guest artists. Finance is probably the reason – indeed, several slated guest performers (including Barbara Frittoli last year) have cancelled at almost the last minute for what are rumored to have been financial reasons, — but the Bol’shoi does not seem to suffer nearly as much. Be that as it may, the Mariinsky’s roster was far from out of place in Pape’s company. Evgenii Nikitin’s rich tones and superlative line have made his Amfortas as good as any singing today. Mikhail Petrenko was in good form vocally and suitably menacing as Klingsor. The tenor Oleg Balashov, whose fine voice is more of a lyric tenor (he also sings Rodolfò in La Bohème and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly) than a true Heldentenor, was nevertheless effective in the title role. Indeed, as the evening went on, he only got stronger and increased his volume. Only Larissa Gogolevskaia disappointed, despite some recent improvements in her singing. Kundry needs a certain amount of shrieking (witness the long enduring triumph of Gwyneth Jones in the role), but in many passages – and to little dramatic effect — that was all Gogolevskaia could produce. Fortunately, the rest of the cast and the orchestra under Gergiev delivered enough fine music to make up for what she lacked.

PDQ

Saint Petersburg celebrated its 302nd birthday and the opening of its 13th Stars of the White Nights Festival this year with what could have been an historic occasion: Russia’s first performance of Tristan und Isolde since 1913. Perhaps it was the 92-year gap in the opera’s performance history on the Russian stage, but this new production by Dmitrii Cherniakov sadly failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

Cherniakov, who has recently staged well-regarded productions of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (2004) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and Maiden Fevroniia (2001) for the Mariinsky, has given Petersburg audiences a stultifying post-modern interpretation of Wagner’s most ethereal opera. Tristan appears to be an officer in the Royal Navy and brings his captive back to Cornwall in a small cabin on what the photographs on the wall indicate to be an aircraft carrier. Cherniakov and Zinovii Margolin’s set in the first act is cluttered with sundry items of modernity: a working personal computer, exercise machine, luggage, and office water cooler, the last of which Brangäne uses to mix her potions. The height of the magically enhanced love affair in Act II takes place in a room in what must be Cornwall’s most functional minimalist high-rise hotel, complete with a do-not-disturb sign that Tristan awkwardly places on the door when he rushes in. What Cherniakov and Margolin hoped to add by presenting us with a cheap digital alarm clock that informs the audience of every passing minute of the act and its rapturous love scene is anyone’s guess. And why must the poor cuckolded King Marke mar his affecting scene by taking refuge in the room’s lavatory or flipping through television channels? In Act III Tristan’s ancestral castle in Kareol is reduced to a plain 1950s-style drawing room with boring furniture. The home of a great warrior looks more like somebody’s grandmother’s house – an allusion not all that far-fetched since Cherniakov engaged an actor and actress from Petersburg dramatic theaters to make unscripted silent appearances as Tristan’s dead parents. To make it all worse, the design seeks to remind us of the obvious constraints in which the lovers find themselves by utilizing only about two-thirds of the Mariinsky’s already rather ordinary stage space. One Russian critic aptly described the whole production as “claustrophobic.”

The costumes, designed by Cherniakov himself in collaboration with Irina Tsvetkova, add even less. Sergei Liadov, our bespectacled Tristan, does not remove his glasses throughout the entire opera, though the tenor has performed other Wagner roles without showing any sign of needing them. This oddity, together with his second act gray sweater and trench coat, both of which stay on the whole time, including the lusty scenes, do more than anything other than a walker or a wheelchair to eliminate the dynamism with which Wagner endowed his hero. It is hard to imagine this professorial Tristan killing Morold or doing much of anything else with passion or verve. The scuffle with Melot (over a pistol rather than a sword) is a stellar example of theatrical silliness – our Tristan resembles a hapless middle-aged man vainly resisting a mugger. Isolde spends the entire opera in non-descript gowns that seem deliberately designed for fat ladies. Marke, clad in a cashmere topcoat, and his suited retinue look vaguely like Russian gangsters, perhaps intentionally, but perhaps not.

The Mariinsky is not known for the high quality of its stage direction, but it would seem that Cherniakov and his collaborators have seen or heard of too many other po-mo Tristans. Perhaps there is a new sexual harassment law in the theatrical world that forbids singers to touch during love scenes, but Petersburg’s audience has now joined Vienna’s in witnessing two static figures standing beside each other and staring into space while they indulge in the closest musical approximation of orgasm. But in case we miss the dramatic point or cannot hear the singing, at least we have digitally created explosions going off on a film screen that depicts a sprawling metropolis at night – explosions bright enough to divert all our attention from the singers and their raptures.

Overall, Cherniakov has reduced a work that is the quintessence of spiritual and emotional transcendence to a mere reminder of the banal contemporary reality that we are condemned to inhabit. Wagner’s philosophical goal of escaping mundane, phenomenal existence through art, music, and theater has been avoided yet again to no purpose by a producer who can add neither an affirmation of humanity nor any more than a superficial comprehension of the composer’s intentions. Of course the human experience has limitations, but is it not Wagner’s point that they can be overcome, even if it must be in death? What value can possibly come from trivializing the power of love, ecstasy, and redemption in the way that this Tristan does? All it really tells us is that Eurotrash designers are dull, passionless individuals who are too bogged down in their own pretensions to cynicism and irony to find beauty in the world. And if that is what they have to say, then who cares? Why must expansive, feeling people be forced to waste so much time paying attention to so many bores – the people who, to paraphrase the late William S. Burroughs speaking of the late and not so great Kurt Cobain, frown for no reason? Let us feel sorry for the prolonged adolescence of the avant-garde and move on. The gushing streams of people fleeing the Mariinsky after Act II both nights and one Russian audience member’s overheard comment, “Just shut your eyes and listen to Wagner’s music” illustrate perfectly that these theatrical crybabies are not responding to the needs and aspirations of their audience, whose humanity is already under relentless assault and ever more in need of affirmation.

Talented vocalism can often save abstruse productions such as this one (witness the Met’s recent Tristan, Lohengrin, and Fidelio productions), but here, too, the Mariinsky’s effort has little to offer. Liadov’s Tristan had occasional flashes of power, but was on the whole weak and unbalanced. Most of his third act singing evoked the rhythmic barking of an aged Siegfried Jerusalem, who held on to his Heldentenor roles a few years too long. In the May 29 performance even Liadov’s second act singing was weak, verging at times toward inaudible. The role of Isolde went in the opening night performance to the ill-suited Larissa Gogolevskaia, handily the worst of the three Brunnhildes cast in the Mariinsky’s Ring Cycles of 2003 and 2004 and a soprano who justifiably appears to receive very few other parts in Petersburg or elsewhere. Although she seems to have lost some weight and handled her role’s middle register with more agility than she has mustered in the past, her upper register remains as shrill and unpleasant as her dramatic abilities are limited and disappointing. Her Liebestod sounded like a last desperate gasp for air rather than a surrendering to eternity. Milana Butaeva, who took over for the second performance, was more appealing visually, but also struggled to deliver Isolde’s best music. A glimmer of hope is offered by the fine young soprano Olga Sergeeva’s reported inclusion in this production, but she has yet to be heard (a third performance is scheduled for June 30). More enjoyable was the supporting cast, particularly the Markes of Mikhail Kit — fresh from his well-received performances of Wotan in New York last month — and Gennady Bezzubenkov. Masters of the Russian repertoire’ great bass roles, their Wagner performances are solid and should be esteemed. Olga Sa
vova and Svetlana Volkova both brought fine musicianship to their Branganes, as did the stentorian Andrei Spekhov to his Kurwenal. Artistic director Valery Gergiev led the Mariinsky’s orchestra with his usual intensity and volume, especially in the brass and percussion, but, uncharacteristically, he seemed inattentive to many subtleties in the score and failed to convey much of its pathos. The prelude did not move, and the orchestra’s general sound remained inchoate throughout both evenings. Despite his achievements elsewhere in the Wagner repertoire, his Tristan cannot yet stand with those of Levine, Barenboim, or, especially, Christian Thielemann in its power and purpose.

PDQ

The opera season of the nation’s capital is coming to end with its final production, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila. Originally intended to be an unstaged dramatic oratorio, it is difficult to bring much energy to this work, the pivotal moments of which (the crushing defeat of the Philistines, Dalila’s physical seduction of Samson, Samson’s capture and blinding, and the consequent defeat of the Hebrews) almost all happen off stage. But in this production, an original if rather traditional Washington National Opera effort by Giancarlo del Monaco, much is done to reverse this troublesome fact. The mournful Hebrews open the opera on an inclined plane, which flattens to deliver Samson’s confrontation with Abimelech and his Philistine minions. Dalila’s home in the Valley of Soreck is a veritable seduction pit à la arabe, handily accommodating Samson’s inner conflict, fateful surrender to desire, and capture by the enemy. And there have been noticeable improvements over the production’s last appearance, in the 1998-1999 season. The direction merciful toned down much of the sexuality of the famous third act bacchanale, which had been unnecessarily graphic and overt the first time around. Fidel Garcia’s solo dance was well executed, but perhaps the solo format is not the best focus for the scene’s capacious and driving music. Unfortunately, the scene did retain the staged human sacrifice (nothing Saint-Saëns called for), though this, too, was more subdued, favoring a less sanguinary stabbing over the earlier slashed throat and gushing blood.

At some moments in the evening, however, one wished that the production had retained the vocal talents of seven years ago. Carl Tanner’s rough tenor did little justice to the title role, banalizing its most exciting lines and disappointing the audience with its scratchy upper range. Washington was fortunate to hear José Cura’s Samson in 1998, and he has more or less retained his leading place in the part. Likewise, Denyce Graves’s seductive and faultless Dalila has given way here and on many other stages (including the Met, Covent Garden, and Chicago) to the more sultry and literal Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina. Borodina certainly remains a valuable and accomplished singer – among other achievements, her Dalila has improved substantially over her rather passionless first performance of the role at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in December 2003, — but the part still responds more faithfully to Graves. Alan Held’s High Priest was a welcome addition and a fine replacement for that of the aged Justino Diaz last time, and the supporting cast was competent, if not outstanding. The young conductor Giovanni Reggioli, who leads all but one performance (May 23, which he will yield to the Washington National Opera’s artistic director, the production’s conductor seven years ago, and a great Samson in his own right, Plácido Domingo), acquitted himself well on the podium.