Opera Critic

It seems that the science of semiotics needs to be invoked to begin talking about the new Ring designed by Guy Cassiers, playing this year at Staatsoper Berlin and at La Scala, on the 200th birthday of Richard Wagner, under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. In the aftermath of the first installment, the Rhinegold of April 4, it appeared that the ears will be quite satisfied by the orchestra and its conductor but the visual presentation on the stage was going to be a different matter.


Anticipatory Reflections

My Wagner friend often tells me that regardless of the mise en scène she can always “close her eyes.” One never hears such a thing said of Verdi — it would be impossible. This is because of the unique gorgeousness or truth of the Wagner music — something hard to explain — but the immediate implication for the prospective director of a Wagner opera is that although he might take measures to supplement or enhance the enjoyment of the piece, his work paradoxically but strictly speaking might be superfluous. The peculiar state of affairs can therefore arise that a more willful or egoistic director might in the manner of Klingsor return the favor by turning his back on the music and staging a visual event to rival it, quite independent of and external to the music and its mission and referring to itself only. In recent years the extreme example or illustration of this directorial decision that I know of is the Los Angeles Ring of Achim Freyer, with its pictorial smorgasbord of novel and invented visual objects, not so good-looking in themselves nor at all good at settling down into a gestalt alongside each other, but serving instead as superfluous signs of a system of anger or fear or love — the sorts of things Wagner’s musical leitmotifs already “refer” to — signs for which Freyer provides their own parallel history to and evolution through the course of the four operas. It was as if the opera were hooked up to a hospital monitor that showed its vital signs. The new Paris Ring is likewise rich in superfluous visual paraphernalia but these are of a different character insofar as they retell the history of the Twentieth Century (for what it is worth) and so they at least behave like signs since they refer to something outside the operas which the audience already knows, though the relevance to Wagner’s plot remains an open question.


The artistic overreaching that characterizes all of Wagner’s work will always leave us overwhelmed and uncertain, and will always therefore provide an umbrella to protect the ingenuities by which lesser minds and lesser talents seek to supplement his allusive libretto with a more concrete interpretation. The audience however is the ultimate arbiter, and for their sake I present a commonsense axiom. Any production that leaves its own meaning unclear rather than Wagner’s meaning must be counted a failure. The questions Wagner leaves open are the questions that will always remain open since they are the ultimate questions. In comparison with these, the referential puzzles we often find ourselves left to decipher by more recent Regie-productions take on the aspect of impertinent mimicry. We know they are impertinent because for all the brave insouciance such directors parade in ignoring and abusing Wagner’s own very explicit stage directions, they never have the cheek to alter the libretto or the music. (Are we meant to be thrilled by the announcement that Mademoiselle Wagner has included a clause in the new director’s contract at Bayreuth that he will not cut or alter the score?). By keeping their hands off these they are acknowledging once and for all that they do not wish to be taken seriously, that they are hoping the audience will conspire in their cynicism to work around the edges and rearrange the deck chairs, or in a truer metaphor to slum with superiors or to act the way persons do that choose to waste their inheritance rather than protect it and pass it on.


There is another reason these directors concentrate on the staging besides their fear of trying to improve the libretto — this thing Joyce called the “ineluctable modality of the visual.” Taking another cue from Klingsor, the Regiesseur can divert and then refocus his audience’s attention by exploiting the sensory stimulation of the eyes. The stage after all appears to the eye as a framed visual field, and we learned last year in the case of Lepage that no expense will ever again be forgone to fill the stage with a hundred tons of machinery — an ultimate semiotic paradox, since what we are left looking at during the entire production is a machine that does nothing but produce optical illusions. It is no accident that this mighty nightmare was conceived in connection with Wagner’s Ring.


It is fair to say that arbitrary visuals have become the central issue in the recent performance history of Wagner, above the poetry and the “tone” which are left in the hands of the individual artists. Indeed this is perhaps the main implication of the current language of “Regie” — that the director is more important than the performers, even though all the while he keeps his mitts off the libretto and the music. It is inevitable today that any mise en scène of Wagner’s works, and especially of the Ring, will be conceive itself as taking its place within this context, as Cassiers does in his interview about his production reprinted in the program here for the Die Walküre, where he begins by comparing his interpretation with the 1976 presentation of Chereau at Bayreuth, which itself commemorated the centennial of the Ring. I had high hopes that the current version, which was commissioned to commemorate the second centennial of Wagner’s birth, might make an “historical” contribution to this history, maybe even to raise the problem of the visuals and their limitations to the level of consciousness.


Rhinegold, April 4

With this orientation and hope in the background I went to the Rhinegold of the second cycle at the Staatsoper Berlin on Thursday 4 April. The initial impression was very bad. It seemed we had come all this way to be subjected to another Regie extravaganza. René Pape’s much anticipated Wotan was not a revelation. At the end the applause was the most muted I’ve ever heard after the Rheingold in any Ring Cycle. The faces in line at the garderobe had been served a dubious meal and seemed to be anticipating stomach problems. Clearly the director was trying to introduce us to his own dark semiotic world rather than render the piece with all its distinctively ethical focus on the contagious power of envy and borrowed desire, as Loge’s speech in the Second Scene demonstrates and all the subsequent action proves. Instead we were introduced to the predominant feature of this production, a huge backdrop produced somehow by lights and capable of any color or pattern. The backdrop is so dominant and preoccupied with itself that the director had to leave the stage bare; and perhaps this is why several dancers were brought on to portray the chains in which Alberich was bound or a chair for Loge to sit on while tricking him. These dancers were the first semiotic dead-end of the cycle.


Die Walküre, April 5

Happily, after the Walküre much if not all was forgiven. The faces were happier, grumbling about one detail and effusing about another in the usual way. Best of all I heard people trying to say something about Wagner they had never quite been able to say, brow furrowed, before the dream should slip away during dinner afterwards. Near the Schiller Theater, which is the current venue for the Staatsoper, we have what we have always had after performances at the Deutsche Oper, the Ristorante Don Giovanni on Bismarckstrasse that observantly stays open after all operas in the neighborhood so that we can sort all this out, or more likely let it gently slip down into the subconscious for future sorting out over nicely presented and delicious Italian Cuisine.


This was a simpler and more straightforward production, conceived with less fussy details though at the same time presented with an abstract spareness we have become accustomed to elsewhere, a fashion that puts greater onus onto the actor-singers. As actors they were underdirected but as singers they were a success. Waltraud Meier sang Sieglinde and Peter Seiffert sang Siegmund. The setting was more naturalistic than the night before. For Act One the corner of Hunding’s abode was the center rear so there was a triangular orientation that nicely convened with the triangle or triangles being carried out in the action between Hunding, Sieglinde and Siegmund. The blocking (or Personenregie) was however wooden. Ms. Meier made up for some of that by her own professional demeanor and noble arms.


The general and continuously employed stage feature dominating this production of the Ring is a video projection hard to believe for its flexibility and fine detail and its metamorphoses. It might be broken up at times, as for instance into vertical bands like a barcode, so as not to need to be realistic; sometimes the field is given over to a homogeneous field of water or trees; sometimes a geometrical pastiche of pictures or symbols; and sometimes it appears as side panels so as to form a sort of triptych with the stage action. In the Rhinegold the background could of course be shimmering water and at the beginning of Die Walküre it was of course the forest, around Hunding’s abode, capable of producing the fine detail of coruscating leaves. The shimmering was just right. Too little and the thing becomes static; too much and it draws attention to itself. We were led to formulate a poetics of the imagery as we went along. Soon I got the sense that the presence of a god or his influence in the action strengthened the shimmering or pushed the imagery beyond the representational, as if one of the things the backdrop was meant to communicate was the influence of the gods on human affairs, unknown to the humans involved. This helped us to guess, but only in retrospect, that the divine action of the Rhinegold was perhaps supposed to be unclear.


The last scene of the Third Act was very disappointing to me. Theorin screamed her Brunnhilde and her articulation was poor, and while Pape’s tone was gentle and pure (he kept sounding like José Van Dam) the emotions the director gave him were all wrong. He was hurt rather than torn. The Personenregie was again wooden: back and forth they walked, as Sieglinde and Siegmund had in the First Act, and they almost forwent embracing altogether, but gave in and hugged at the last minute. Wotan then became sentimentally preoccupied with covering her up while she went to sleep, even turning his back to the audience, but he forgot to hammer the ground with his spear when he called for Loge (the percussionist in the pit below didn’t). Pape’s depiction made him a disappointed human rather than a god hastening the onset of his own doom. It was as if he regretted the fact that Brunnhilde was a kühnes herrliches Kind rather than being so inspired by her as to relent and surround the mountain with fire to protect her.


Siegfried April 7

The Siegfried followed two nights later. At the beginning an announcement from the curtain told us that Siegfried (Lance Ryan) had not shown up and nobody know where he was, but that Andreas Schager, who was to sing Siegfried in the Götterdämmerung three nights later, happened to be in the building and agreed to sing the role with a score at a podium at the side of the stage. The Assistant Director Derek Gimpel pantomimed Siegfried on the stage. The costume fitting him just fine. Of course a great pressure was put onto Peter Bronder’s Mime to call in one direction and hear Siegfried from another. Despite his overall success, five days later in the elevator at our apartment building Bronder could still break into a nervous smile recounting the bullets he had dodged.


With this third opera we saw a new use of the magical stage effects that establish a fairy tale atmosphere. Things start out with the gorgeous naturalism of leafy trees surrounding Mime’s camp wonderously produced by the video backdrop. When the Wanderer arrives and the long and baffling question and answer session slowly plays itself out, in which human ignorance of the divine plane of things is thematized more explicitly than anywhere else in the opera, the stage gradually expands upward like a cobra and becomes tensely vertiginous. Then, when Siegfried takes forging the sword into his own hands the whole background becomes a fire and the trees become tangled heaps of discarded sword shafts. There is something of an apocalypse of Siegfried at this moment. The overall effect was thrilling and the curtain met with thunderous applause.


But now another problem came into focus, suggested by the ventriloquism of Siegfried’s role in tonight’s First Act. It is the problem that dogs this production all along. With all the sensational lighting, the stage magic, and the saturated peculiarities in costume and make-up, the expressivity of the characters and the plot for which they are the vehicle is blunted or lost. What really brought this home was the reappearance of dancers during the Forest Scene in Act Two, something we had not seen since the Rhinegold. This time they danced around Siegfried with knives and seemed to embody externally the growth of his inner resolve as he dealt with Mime. This was better than making them furniture only, as they became in the Rhinegold, but it brought to the fore that the visual supplementation of what was going on within Siegfried’s soul by these persons looming around him was merely a claim by the director, a “statement” that his direction should have already proved so as to make the dancers redundant.


Most of us know the plot of the Ring pretty well, but even so all of us learn something new about it each time. This production, I now came to realize, has been taking no care at all to retell the story so much as to elaborate it with external inferences and commentary. For Wagner, however, forming the story was the fundamental creative act that governed all the other aspects of the composition. The stories are not only allusive and deep with psychological meaning but also can be as complicated as clockwork. Mencken famously said of the Meistersinger that more thought went into its design than into the entire corpus of Shakespeare! In the Ring Cycle the maximal complexity is reached upon the entry of Brunnhilde in Act Two Scene Four of Götterdämmerung since all the characters know and believe different things. The overall impression I had by the end of the Siegfried was that something was missing in the presentation, and now I realized that this something is the story. I realized I was having to expend a lot of energy supplying it, while the director was complicating my job by adding dots for me to connect in order to keep the flow of the action alive.


Failing to tell the story can be another liability when a becomes distracted into exploiting the “ineluctable modality of the visual,” since the visuals by their very nature distract from the characters and their actions and can even obstruct the story from showing through their actions and their words. If the story is worth telling, the ineluctable modality needs to be managed with care, attenuated, coped with, controlled — not exploited for the sake of creating a description by which the new production might be distinguished from others. We had the problem with Bob Wilson and his faceless persona masks, stiff and iconic costumes, and stylized stage movements; we had it with Achim Freyer’s sets that looked like a pin-ball game and ridiculously oversaturated costumery that turned the characters into grab toys from a box of Crackerjacks. How much can the characters be seen to undergo a change when it is the colossal stage is changing in a way that appears to defy the laws of gravity? How will we know the full meaning of the characters’ words when their faces are frozen in makeup or invisible?


As to the final scene of the night between Siegfried and Brunnhilde, corresponding to that between Wotan and Brunnhilde the night before, the blocking is now much busier but not better directed. Brunnhilde and Siegfried keep exchanging places on the elevated bed-platform as if they were playing king of the mountain. It is something of a joke, a sort of musical chairs. that was only emphasized by Lance Ryan’s boyish depiction of Siegfried (he had arrived in time for the Second Act). In Wagner’s poem their talk and their feelings do go back and forth, and do go hot and cold, but there is a development in what is happening and the intensification of an ascending spiral. The huge transitions such as Siegfried’s “Sangst du mir nicht dein Wissen sei” and Brunnhilde’s “Ewige war Ich” mark escalations in the tension and depth of their encounter but the staging had them running around in circles.


Götterdämmerung April 10

The other three operas of the cycle had already been rolled out during previous years, both here and in Milan. The Götterdämmerung is new with this run, and so is the program published with it, which includes a presentation of the Official Interpretation of the production by its “Dramaturge,” Michael Steinberg (an academic from Brown Univeersity, not the late and wise program annotator).

To the extent that acting and character become more important as the story becomes more human, I hoped the visible business would be attenuated for the more humanly complicated Götterdämmerung, on Wednesday 10 April. My hopes were thwarted by unexpected imperfections in the musical execution, not to mention a huge escalation of visual distractions imposed on the piece by the director. The orchestra now and then lost track of the beat and even played half bars apart from itself. In the opening scene between Brunnhilde and Siegfried they played much too slow, visibly forcing the singers to find ways to slow themselves down. Such a thing might due to the fact that all four operas are rehearsed in advance of the performance of the cycle, as I later heard, so that it was well over a week ago that they had practiced what they were performing; and my wise seatmate from Covent Garden thought it might have been fatigue from Barenboim’s very heavy schedule. As to the singers, Andreas Schager’s formal debut as Siegfried was a surprising disappointment after his stand-in work in Act One of the Siegfried three nights before. There he had the score and did not need to act, but here he did not and did. He stared at the prompter throughout his intimate opening scene with Brunnhilde and afterward he continually positioned himself for a sightline-lifeline. His phrases characteristically blasted out the opening note and then gave way to a line that lacked tone and musical curve. Perhaps he was saving himself for the difficult exposed passages in the final act. He did improve over the course of the evening and did pull the last act off without a hitch. Mikhail Petrenko was singing Hagen from the back of his throat this night, but Hagen must sound evil to the core. Theorin was improved from before — better enunciation and rising to full command of the stage for the immolation. Most impressive to me was her use of piano at the beginning of that final scene. For all the shortcomings, however, Waltraud Meier’s burnished and professional presentation of the Second Norn and especially of Waltraute with her curving supplication of Brunnhilde were a welcome compensation.


As to the interference of the director, he has decided to tell us “who the Gibichungs are” — what sort of culture or Weltanschauung they live in. This is a question without a Wagnerian answer. To the extent we meet the Gibichung populace at all it is the chorus of Hagen’s vassals later filled in with townswomen, and as we learn from the vassals’ remarks after the murder of Siegfried — “Hagen, was tust du?,” followed immediately by “Hagen, was tatest du?” — we learn they are just a feckless mass. As for Wagner, the moment he places us in the Gibichung Hall he directs our attention away from all historical, political, and social questions by presenting us a trio of characters that cannot but remind us of those we met in the First Act of Die Walküre — a pair of twins and an odd man out. We already had the opportunity to sense the huge ring by which the middle operas end where they begin, the Siegfried ending with an heroic surrender to love, just as Die Walküre had begun with a scandalous one. By the time of the Siegfried much has been gained, however. This time the love is more than a quasi-illusion owing to the puppetry of Wotan, its narcissistic character emblematized by the incest of Sieglinde and Siegmund, as Fricka proudly and correctly objects. No, this time a goddess has chosen to relinquish her immortality and die for love (“ewig’ war ich,” she says), and a manly hero has disarmed and unthewed himself to learn fear and explore the dark and warm secrets of intimacy. (We can leave the almost completely accidental fact that Brunnhilde is his aunt to the Anna Russell’s of this world).


Despite this progress in love from the closed embryo of Siegmund and Sieglinde to the open encounter of Brunnhilde and Siegfried in the light of day that will never look back, so beautifully recalled in the orchestral interlude between the first and second scenes of the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, the story is not over. We have another opera, the most operatic of all, that follows this prelude, and the first characters we meet are again brother-sister twins who this time are looking for spouses in order to maintain their prideful claim as rulers. Hagen corresponds somehow with Hunding (not Siegfried, pace Mr. Steinberg’s essay), the odd man out who will ruin everything. In a slightly different world Gutrune and Gunther could have overcome their political problem by marrying each other (as Siegmund and Sieglinde did, though in their case it was for the sake of love in defiance of power politics). These allusive pairings of Wagner’s take all focus away from the Gibichung populace, of which Mr.Steinberg’s interpretation makes so much, and turn the focus inward, onto the fateful choices of the individual characters and how vulnerable they are willing to let love make them. Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love nearly cancels the rights and claims of Hunding (Siegmund converted Brunnhilde in the Todesverkundung scene, requiring Wotan to intervene at the last minute) but there is no way that love will enable Gunther and Gutrune to resist the evil of their half-brother, Hagen. Instead he will use them to get at Brunnhilde and Siegfried, and then use these only to get at the Ring — as we see in his sudden reappearance at the very end of the final scene of Act Three.


Exactly because the political and social ethos of the Gibichungs does not matter to his story, Wagner leaves it undefined. But exactly because he leaves it open he has provided a lacuna where an impertinent director can insert himself, at the expense of diverting our attention away from the feckless insubstantiality of Gunther and Gutrune which Wagner means for us to compare with the epochal moment in the History of Love that Brunnhilde and Siegfried have just now achieved. These are Wagner’s true themes in the Ring, even if it detracts from their impression on us to try to systematize them. What makes the pomp of the Gibichungs empty is the same as what makes the pride of Hunding empty: it is the absence of love, as Wagner indicates by the very similar leitmotives he gives them — this broad and empty leaping movement audible the very moment they come on stage, though the Gibichungs’ is scored in a polished way while Hunding’s is rude and rustic. It is this music, not Steinberg’s dunkel Kadenze at the end of Siegfried’s Journey nor the music depicting Hagen’s Dream at the beginning of Act Two, that characterizes the self-understanding of the Gibichungs price and princess.


Cassiers however has a full theory of the Gibichungs as a bankrupt regime to be compared with the current situation of the Eurozone with its all embracing rules that continually fail to organize the diverse and far-flung region — so much we learn from his interview in the program — though it is only through quite accidental means that he conveys even the impression of this far-flung allegorical interpretation. In particular, this smallish stage will need to accommodate a large chorus in the Götterdämmerung, and part of the solution is a strange piece of furniture that keeps threatening to enter from the side as a signal we are in the Gibichung Hall — a sort of brightly lit grandstand eight or ten rows high made of modular transparent boxes stuffed with what can only be gaggles of body parts. Bosch’s Hell-panel in the “Garden of Earthly Delights” comes to mind as an analogy, though if we take the trouble of reading the program where once again we learn that a word is worth one-thousandth of a picture, Cassiers tell us he has in mind the lesser known but “controversial” bas-relief of his fellow Belgian Jef Lambeaux, Die menschlichen Leidenschaften, depicted on the slipcover of the Götterdämmerung program. We can say that it takes great skill to convey such a preposterous image so ineluctably — “What were those body parts doing there?” you could hear almost everyone saying during the intermissions — but the ineluctable and recognizable is not thereby illuminating or meaningful. The semiotic problem returns. When the sign depicts something that makes no sense, or presents a Sinn without a Bedeutung if you will, it becomes an opaque and superfluous increment of visual saturation, the visual analogue to the old notion of the Klangteppich. The immediate effect or hazard of such an addition is to bore the audience with more than it can engage with and digest, analogous to the effect of the orchestra playing too loud.


Looking back I think what struck me most about this production was that despite the music I was always on the verge of boredom, and I think this carpet of visuals, this continuous, huge, and gorgeous visual backdrop that unaccountably morphs from one image to another, is what caused me to feel this way. At times it enhanced the story, as at the end of the Act One of Siegfried the whole stage was full of the flames of his smithy pit; or at the beginning of the Walküre Hunding’s abode was surrounded by coruscating leaves often it was just there; but from time to time, and especially in the Rhinegold and the last act of Götterdämmerung it was given over to images that required us momentarily to disengage from the very dense progress of the action and the music even to make out let alone incorporate them. It will be by some as yet unconvened term for this backdrop that this production will get its name, as the LePage has from its machine. I dreaded what he might pack into the several last moments of the opera, that purely orchestral passage dense with a pageant of the story’s leitmotives, which Wagner recalls all the great moments of the action. Brunnhilde has mounted the steps of the lightboxes full of body parts; all else is fire; and when she disappears beyond we see the Rhine’s waters, but then the director succeeds to end with all the chorus looking back at the mural of struggling humanity sedimented into the riverbed of the Rhine.


Wagner included the stage direction that all the persons left alive on the stage should be looking to the immolation of Valhalla behind and in the distance, with their backs to the audience, as the curtain falls; but in case this had not been enough to make us identify with them, our director adds the overly concrete and pedantic touch of placing another copy of the mural they watched at the rear onto the front of the curtain that falls, leaving the audience alone to wonder at the future fate of mankind. Cassiers has told us in his interview that he decided for a pessimistic ending instead of the optimistic ending of Chereau’s Bayreuth centennial, and even Wagner wavered about what final words of prophecy he should give to Brunnhilde, but as Dahlhaus long ago showed it is the final line of the music — an entirely exposed reiteration of Brunnhilde’s annunciation to Sieglinde in Act Three of Die Walküre that she is pregnant with Siegfried, that tells us that the only future we can have will be supplied by the fruits and offspring of Love. This musical gesture to an open and vital future in the score becomes truncated and closed off by Cassiers’s dark and intransigent visual image of endless human strife and chaos.


The applause at the curtain was weak, scattered, and somehow reluctant. Overall there was no sale and nothing commemorative about the concept or the execution of this production. Another cycle starts here on Sunday, April 14, and then it moves back to Milan.


Ken Quandt

Disappointment with New York recent opera offerings leads one’s attention naturally to the city’s active recital life. This week at Carnegie Hall featured two noteworthy is sometimes overlooked performers. January 23 featured the recital in the Hall’s smaller Zankel auditorium of the German soprano Dorothea Röschmann, an accomplished Mozartean of note around the world. Ms. Röschmann possesses superb enunciation and a well trained voice, but the pastiche of songs in her recital revealed its limitations as well as its strengths. By far the most enjoyable part of the evening was the final selection of songs by Hugo Wolf. Their tight harmonics fit better with the soprano’s prominent middle voice than the more lyrical Schubert songs that began the evening. Since both song sets contained music set to four of the same poems by Goethe, the comparison was instructive, both in vocal terms specific to Ms. Röschmann and in relation to the evolution of nineteenth-century music. It was a bit unfortunate that a more direct comparison was impossible due to the Richard Strauss and Liszt songs inserted in between. At a few moments, especially in Strauss’s “September,” Ms. Röschmann really shined, but at others, notably in Liszt’s “Die Loreley,” the dramatic highs sounded too constrained by her upper range limits. While the Wolf songs were truly affecting, much of the evening unfolded with acceptable technical skill that lacked a truly dramatic reading. Malcolm Martineau’s deftly sensitive playing affirmed his reputation as one of the greatest recital accompanists performing today. The poetry of the songs would have gained much from a subtler and more lyrical vocal effort.

The next evening, January 24, saw the solo performance of another artist with definite strengths and weaknesses. The Romanian pianist Radu Lupu has been a fixture of the international music scene since he won the Van Cliburn Prize in 1966. Critical comment typically emphasizes the understatement in his playing, and this concert was no exception. To begin again with the final segment of the recital, which dominated its second half, Lupu’s technique was most effective in music written to be understated: Claude Debussy’s Preludes. Working through Book II of Debussy’s oeuvre in its entirety, Lupu perfectly captured the composer’s intention that his music should evoke an absolute reality – not the impressionism of the painting school so popular in his time, but the real moods and emotions that guide our psyches. The technique is extraordinarily well suited to Debussy, but the earlier part of the evening lacked in the absence of more voluble interpretations. Schubert’s Impromptus (Lupu played Nos. 1-4) depend on a stronger interpretive hand to draw out their romantic color. César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue betrays the overpowering influence of Wagner and needed a more decisive hand. Nevertheless, the excellent Debussy playing made the evening worthwhile.

— Paul du Quenoy

For an opera that premiered in the fateful year of 1933, Richard Strauss’s Arabella tries very hard to capture the nostalgic spirit of the composer’s masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier, which first graced audiences more than twenty years earlier. If Arabella’s story of an impoverished noble family marrying off its daughter to a stranger with whom she falls in love at first sight is a naturally happy one, the circumstances of the opera’s premiere were not. Strauss’s librettist Hugo von Hofmansthall left the text unfinished at the time of his sudden death in 1929, just two days after his son committed suicide. The July 1933 premiere came only a few months after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany. Nazi political directives in the cultural sphere had already led to the dismissal of the premiere’s conductor Fritz Busch. Strauss only salvaged the situation by using this disruption to secure the appointment of his own preferred artists to carry on. Busch was replaced by Clemens Krauss, in whom Strauss justifiably put much faith, and Viorica Ursuleac, who would later become Krauss’s wife, created the opera’s title role. Nevertheless, Arabella never rose to the top tier of the Strauss repertoire. Apart from a burst of international performances (and the Decca/London recording) starring Lisa della Casa, the opera has languished until the near present. The Paris opera staged it for the first time in 1981, despite the direction’s slight bent for recent German works during the World War II occupation.

Only the superb Straussian talent of Renee Fleming, one of the few singers today who merits the diva mantle, seems to give Arabella much currency. Indeed, her performance in Paris’s new production by Marco Arturo Marelli proved why this is the case. Possessed of a voice that she herself describes as fitting Strauss’s music “like a glove,” Fleming has the ability to deliver both the dramatic complexities of the composer’s major characters and float the sumptuous notes needed to reconcile the competing harmonies of his demanding scores. The first act narration “Aber der Richtige,” a soulful meditation on meeting the love of her life, sounded reticent, perhaps even a bit devoiced, but the vigorous passion of her second and third act singing more than made up for this deficiency. I last heard Fleming in the role eleven years ago, in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production. She has lost some of the thrilled girlishness the role demands, but her dramatic effect has only strengthened, with the addition of intriguing nuances that few other singers can match.

Beyond the title role, the cast functions essentially as an ensemble in a comedy of manners. Arabella’s true love Mandryka came out in fine form in the capable singing and acting of Michael Volle. A certain roughness on the vocal edges only added to the character’s allure when contrasted to the suave facilities of Arabella’s callow suitors. The promising young German soprano Genia Kuhmeier brought brilliance to the strange role of Zdenka, Arabella’s sister who has been raised as a boy to economize the family finances. Zdenka’s beloved Matteo, himself a rejected suitor of Arabella, emerged convincingly thanks to the talented tenor Joseph Kaiser. His portrayal sounded nobler and less pathetic than is usually the case. Arabella’s faded aristocratic parents, Count Waldner and Adelaide, handsomely fell to veteran bass Kurt Rydl, whose aging voice fit the role to perfection, and to mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel, whose Herodias in Strauss’s Salome last September launched what has been an astoundingly entertaining season of opera in Paris. Philippe Jordan carried the orchestra with a flair and determination that has justifiably distinguished him as one of the most exciting young conductors at work today.

Marelli’s production saved the opera from late Romantic Viennese kitsch with an imaginative staging based on revolving wall segments and a rotating floor that allow swift changes of scene and mood while sustaining dramatic tension. The visual effect is dominated by white and sky blue, suggesting the heavenly aspirations of Arabella’s passions. A particularly intriguing innovation freezes the action at end of the first act, when Mandryka dreams of finally meeting Arabella, only to have it resume seamlessly at the beginning of Act II, when the newly introduced couple pledge their love to each other before Arabella goes off to dump her suitors. This fine effort stands as the last in a series of fine new productions presented this season. We can only hope 2012-2013 is as generous to Paris’s deserving audience.

– Paul du Quenoy

As Russia approached its revolutionary year in 1917, masks and magic entered its performing arts culture with such a fevered pitch that the desire for escapism has rarely been more gratingly obvious. Prokofiev’s youthful opera, which tough political circumstances forced to premiere in Chicago in 1919, grasped on to this trend. Loosely based on the work of the eighteenth-century Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi, The Love for Three Oranges parodies the traditional quest epic. It tells the tale of a melancholic crown prince who will die if he is not saved by laughter. Schemers who want to seize his rightful place as heir enlist the black magic of Fata Morgana to ensure this never happens, but are foiled when he laughs at Fata Morgana herself, both saving his life and defusing their plot. The wounded sorceress curses him with an incurable love for three magical oranges, which he must steal before crossing a barren desert. Punished by thirst, he opens each one to discover a princess inside. The first two die of thirst, but the friendly sorcerer Tchelio, Fata Morgana’s enemy, provides water to save the third. The spiteful Fata Morgana turns her into a rat, but the true power of love restores her to human form before the schemers can take advantage of the situation. In the end all is forgiven, and even the schemers are spared the hangman’s noose. All the while, masked mystics watch the action and debate the merits of comedy and tragedy.

What the opera could have meant in revolutionary Russia’s turbulent cultural universe is anyone’s guess. Simple escapism or a contemplation of a world in which nothing is really what it appears stand out as explanations. Gilbert Deflo’s production, which premiered in 2005, evokes the era of Russian modernism with a cool accuracy. The epic unfolds in period costumes, while the stage movement reflects the innovative, stylized approach of the modernist director Vsevolod Meyerhold, a radical supporter of the Russian Revolution who nevertheless became one of its victims.

The American tenor Charles Workman starred as the Prince. The voice is not of heroic proportions, but the limpid sounds demanded by composers working in the modernist genre suit it well. The major vocal plaudits go to the fine baritone Vincent Le Texier for his character portrayal of Tchelio. Marie-Ange Todorovitch was not quite his equal as Fata Morgana, but still catapulted into a fireball of energy thanks to the splendid scenes Deflo created for the character and her spiteful machinations. The lesser roles all went to excellent young singers who brought the plot into greater relief. The talented Franco-Algerian soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul brought a limpid beauty to the role of Princess Ninette, the surviving princess who captures the melancholic prince’s heart. And the bass Hans-Peter Scheidegger received a well deserved ovation for his brief appearance as the cook whose kitchen houses the enchanted oranges. A very rare case of a bass role written for a female character, he endowed his scene with superb comedy. The orchestra was fortunately placed in the hands of the excellent conductor Alain Altinoglu, who mastered Prokofiev’s complex score and delivered rousing renditions of the opera’s famous march.

– Paul du Quenoy

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