Opera Critic

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.

It is rare that a production of La Boheme, Puccini’s tale of love and loss, receives and really innovative approach. Unfortunately the Washington National Opera’s new production lives up to this stereotype. Jo Davies’s updating the action to the time of World War I could have been innovative had the late lamented New York City Opera not done it in 2007. It also seemed strongly influenced by the Metropolitan Opera’s updating of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment (a production much shared around the world) to the same era. In any case it looked like La Boheme, and that is not always a good thing. Peter Kazaras’s direction likewise repeated all the same overfamiliar cliches to the point that it was hard to imagine the cast and crew having much fun at all.

Even a cliched Boheme can be entertaining with the right cast, and there were hints of that on stage last night. Saimir Pirgu’s sweet voiced Rodolfo had some presence but got a bit shaky in the blooming high notes. Corinne Winters’s Mimi also had charm, but seemed to light for the part at times. The opera’s other couple, John Chest’s Marcello and Alyson Cambridge’s Musetta, turned in competent performances that could have used more verve. The real vocal standout was bass Joshua Bloom’s Colline, which showcased the steadiest technique among the Bohemians. Philippe Auguin’s conducting harnassed a reasonably orchestral effort that was sometimes moving. But it could not help the effort’s overall staleness.

Paul du Quenoy

The capital’s national opera company is ignoring Richard Strauss 150th anniversary year, so it has fallen to the National Symphony to mark the occasion. In addition to concerts presenting excerpts from the composer’s searing Elektra and Salome, the orchestra has departed from its traditional programs to give his sumptuous comedy of manners Der Rosenkavalier in its entirety.

The effort is a natural challenge. Its four hours of music demand dynamic action depicting some of the most sophisticated human emotions. To present it without proper decor and full acting seems almost futile. Nevertheless, with Renee Fleming again reprising the Marschallin, one of her signature roles, disappointment was unfathomable. The voice has aged and thickened. There is a tendency to swallow low and middle-register notes. But the gesture and expression, the nuanced trills, and arching legato, are all still there and made her the star of the evening after more than 15 years singing the part. Her Octavian was scheduled to be the star mezzo Sarah Connolly, who is rapidly taking over Susan Graham’s exposition in the part. Connolly, however, was indisposed and replaced by the talented American singer Stephanie Houtzeel, who brought fervor and passion to the performance. Franz Hawlata is a veteran Baron Ochs and very much in character here, still commanding low notes (including a thrilling low E flat at the end of Act II). Creative staging had him sing his tipsy waltz tune in the audience as he ambled out at the end of the second act. The only weak link was the Sophie of Marisol Montalvo. Some shimmering high notes in the presentation of the rose scene, impressive though they were, could not compensate for an overall weak performance. Likewise, the Faninal of Adrian Erod hardly boomed out the music of her proud father. Among the supporting cast, the talented Washington native bass-baritone Solomon Howard left a strong impression in two roles – the notary in Act I and police commissioner in Act III.

Christoph Eschenbach drove the orchestra without much resolve or much room for the singers to do their level best. The concert staging creative a natural disadvantage in this regard, but the performance might have been given better in the neighboring opera house. The Washington National Opera last gave Rosenkavalier in 1995. It might be time to think of a revival.

Paul du Quenoy

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


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