Opera Critic

“An opera,” says one of the characters in Richard Strauss’s last effort in the genre – his so-called “conversation piece in one act – “is an absurd thing.”  At the heart of Capriccio is an impassioned but exquisitely polite debate over what matters most in opera – the music or the words.  At stake is the favor of Countess Madeleine, a dilettante dwelling in a country villa outside Paris who balances the musician Flamand against the poet Olivier as they create an opera for her amusement.  The artist who makes the better case for his medium will triumph in love as well as in art.  After more than two hours of rumination, intrusion, and glorious singing and versification, Madeleine decides that there is no answer to the dilemma that could not be trivial.  That Strauss and his librettist – the famed conductor Clemens Krauss — could ask such a question as German armies ground their way to defeat at Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942 alone speaks to the power of art.

The Met’s Capriccio first appeared in the 1998-1999 season as a vehicle for the leading soprano Kiri TeKanawa, who was well known for her interpretation of Countess Madeleine’s dominant role.  This rival, the only one since the premiere, is also a vehicle – for the star soprano Renee Fleming.  Some critics charge that the voice has lost its luster, particularly in lighter and bel canto parts if the mixed reviews of her performances in this and last season’s Armida are any guide.  But the Strauss repertoire remains her ravishing own.  Indeed, as the years pass, I only find her more and more at home in Strauss heroine roles and similar parts, such as her triumphant Thais in Massenet’s opera of the same name.  The vocal line is articulated with great care and nuance, while the dramatic personae she delivers are truly aristocratic creations.  Countess Madeleine demands no less.  The finale, a monologue in which she ruminates on the question of which art form matters more, flowed with iconic charm.  Fleming maintained her hauteur throughout, only playfully letting her guard down during the famous Moonlight Music, when Madeleine basks in the romantic situation she masters, clad in a gorgeous silvery gown while twirling a long-stemmed rose.  The cloying artists can only pale before such a woman, but Joseph Kaiser’s Flamand and Russell Braun’s Olivier captured their spirit with excellent performances.  Peter Rose sang the impresario La Roche, whose monologue about theater reminds us, if in a parodic way, of how important management is to the magic.  In his debut season and role, Morten Frank Larsen played Madeleine’s brother, identified only as the Count, as what used to be called a sportsman, a philistine whose interest in art extends only as far as the talented mezzo-soprano Sarah Conolly’s Clairon, his actress love interest.  Olga Makarina and Barry Banks were well considered additions in the short roles of the Italian singers who serenade the Countess and her party of guests.  Sir Andrew Davis may well be the best conductor of the work performing today.  He led a drawn out performance that balanced the score’s harmonies with the dissonant elements that recall the twentienth century musical milieu Strauss did so much to shape.

With such a talented orchestral reading of this complex yet sublime score, it makes sense that the John Cox’s production is updated to the 1920s – nearly the time of the opera’s composition — from the original eighteenth-century setting.  The dialogue that revolves around Lully, Rameau, and other composers whose memories were more present in the earlier era seemed a bit anachronistic in an era when Wagner was the most popular composer in France, but Mauro Pagano’s inviting sets place us well at ease in a milieu where the arts are considered both so seriously and so lightly.  Having Madeleine served a martini added the perfect touch. – Paul du Quenoy

The Chicago Symphony’s residence at Carnegie Hall this season has brought with it a riveting musical treat – a full performance of Verdi’s late tragedy taken from Shakespeare’s famous play.  The event attracted enormous attention in any case, but focus was sharpened on the direction of CSO’s music director Riccardo Muti, a stalwart Verdi conductor who has been in the news this year both for poor turns of health and a recent and very public political display about arts funding in Italy.  Muti left behind ailments and politics to deliver a stunning – even authoritative — interpretation of the opera’s sophisticated score.  It would be a worthy successor to the recorded CSO performances under Sir Georg Solti, but the quality on display at Carnegie suggests that the Solti recording was merely a predecessor.

Muti’s disciplined approach neither underserved the tender moments nor spared anything in the more riveting passages.  He knew exactly what he was doing at every moment, and the intense physicality he radiated left no one with any doubt about it.  He also assembled a stunning cast, a factor that partially derailed Solti’s earlier bet on Luciano Pavarotti’s unsuited lyric tenor.  The title role went to the noteworthy Latvian-Russian tenor Anders Antonenko.  It was announced that he was ill and begged the audience’s induglence, but the high vocal quality on display made one wonder how radiant a sound he could produce when well.  He lacked nothing all evening and colored the role’s tenore di forza demands with uncommon insight and strength.  Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova proved to New York that she remains one of the world’s most accomplished lyrico-spinto sopranos.  A pyramid of creamily phrased tonality rose above the audience with no noticeable flaw.  Her Willow Song and Ave Maria certainly ranked among the best that could be heard anywhere in the world today.  Carlo Guelfi’s Iago did not reach the same artistic heights as the other principals, but nevertheless showed improvement over the baritone’s earlier New York appearances in the role.  A rich stentorian sound complemented a truly outstanding spectacle.  Generous supporting cast decisions enriched the overall effort.  Eric Owens, fresh from his triumph as Alberich in this season’s new Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, sang an imposing Lodovico.  The talented young tenor Juan Francisco Gatell contributed a fine Cassio.  Muti last conducted Verdi operas in concert formats at Carnegie about two decades ago.  With Richard Strauss’s Salome billed for the Cleveland Orchestra’s visit in May 2012, one hopes that the other great Midwestern ensemble may keep up the tradition. – Paul du Quenoy

Alban Berg’s only finished opera (Lulu was left incomplete at his death in 1935) has returned to the Met for a short run of four performances.  Despite this discreet revival, the reappearance of the one hour and forty minute work has already created a stunning buzz.  Met music director James Levine has long championed Berg’s oeuvre and has now presided over nearly forty performances at the house, about two-thirds of the total since the opera entered the Met’s repertoire in 1959.  His enthusiasm was very much in evidence last night, although concerns about his troubled health have continued to make news, cause the cancellation of engagements, and led him to end his tenure as director of the Boston Symphony.  Levine clearly laid all those troubles aside as he assailed Berg’s intricate score – which balances atonality with moments of romantic sweep and parodic gestures toward such familiar forms as the military march.  The Met Orchestra played with some of its greatest delicacy of the season.  Indeed, after such a satisfying performance, it is easy to understand why the opera’s premiere in Berlin in December 1925 is regarded as a milestone in the history of Western music.

Levine cast some of the best suited singers working today.  Baritone Alan Held, who has grown considerably over the years and now counts a credible Wotan among his parts, took the title role.  Capturing all of Wozzeck’s insecurities and vulnerabilities, he easily moved from humiliated buffoon to murderous killer.  Waltraud Meier’s Marie showcases some of this talented artist’s best singing.  At 55 and on the verge of receiving the Lotte Lehmann Memorial Ring from the Vienna State Opera, she looks young and agile enough for the part – an unfaithful mistress who is tortured by feelings of guilt and fear.  Her piercing soprano will not please everyone, but it overcame the difficult orchestration to deliver her music without once descending into shrillness.  Tenor Stuart Skelton, in his debut role for the Met, captured the Drum Major’s arrogant pride with consummate skill.  The seduction scene – an upskirting against a wall – defies Marie’s standard luring of him into the house and only adds to Skelton’s allure.  In the roles of Wozzeck’s tormentors, Gerhard Siegel and Walter Fink, cut excellent figures as the captain and the doctor.  F Siegel’s pinched tenor perfectly conveyed the cruel captain, a martinet who abuses Wozzeck while chiding him for his immoral life.  Fink’s baritone rolled out almost too beautifully to allow one to believe that he is a social oppressor great enough to pay the impoverished Wozzeck to take part in his medical experiments.

Mark Lamos’s stark, stylized production – based on walls placed askew – captures both the degenerated psychology that dominates the piece and the intimacy that we need to understand it well.  The stage direction by Gregory Keller spares nothing by way of cruelty.  Wozzeck’s humiliation is egregious yet captures our sympathy.  His murder of Marie is not a conventional operatic stabbing, but a full-on throat slashing.  The children’s mockery that ends the opera packs a full emotionally disturbing effect.  – Paul du Quenoy

The latest installment in the Paris Opera’s first complete Ring since 1957 follows Günter Krämer’s fancifully modern staging of the the tetralogy’s first two operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, which premiered last season.  Siegfried, in its first Opera production since that last Ring (Rheingold and Walküre were staged in a failed attempt to produce the whole Cycle in the late 1970s), takes another stab at an edgy, dysfunctional modernity.
The effort is mostly successful.  The first act, this staging’s most interesting, imagines Mime’s cave as a campy 1950s apartment over a workshop where he carries out his blacksmith’s work.  Stage elevators allow him and Siegfried to descend into it for the famous reforging of the sword.  The apartment is dominated by an impressive hydroponics lab where Mime, clad in a yellow sweater, grows the marajuana he smokes through the act.  This is an unusual yet evocative exploration of the character, who, perhaps rightly, seems to deserve Siegfried and Alberich’s put downs for laziness.  Having him played as a self-loathing homosexual – suggested in the omnipresent flowers, gnome (Nibelung?) statuettes, dainty housewares, and stereotypical mannerisms — convincingly answers Siegfried’s curiosity about why he, unlike all the creatures of the forest, has no wife.  An old fashioned television enclosed in a wooden cabinet presents the action as a 1950s show called “Die Niebelungen” and permits Mime to probe the depths of Siegfried’s sense of fear by showing him scenes from Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent film adaptation of the Nibelung saga.  Less necessary is the dropping of a dark curtain that functions as an old fashioned blackboard on which Mime and the disguised Wotan conduct their trivia contest as a kind of schoolroom lesson.  Writing “Fürchten” on it to introduce the concept of fear comes across as excessively pedantic.  It is also rather predicatable, since the word was not fully erased from earlier performances.
Fafner’s lair in Act II is an autumnal field crossed by railroad tracks.  The giant is no monster, but rather Rheingold’s gruff construction worker attended by a troupe of barely clothed, automatic weapons-toting dancers who resemble Kurtz’s devoted legions of native warriors in both Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s updated film adaptation of the novel, Apocalypse Now.  Wotan and Alberich, in their first confrontation since Alberich cursed the ring, looked like beatniks in ill fitting suits and overcoats.  Usually dripping with sarcastic enmity, their interaction here strikingly reveals a certain amount of mutual sympathy.  Since the renunciatory Wotan has acknowledged his nature as part and parcel of Alberich’s shadow, the moment works philosophically.  Fafner’s killing, which includes the death of his minions, occurs almost casually, after a cordially hostile chat with Siegfried amid boxes packing the useless Nibelung treasure.  The forest bird is acted by an urchin boy who leads Siegfried to his murder of the treacherous Mime, whose head he severs in retribution for Mime’s accidentally revealed intention, and then off to Brünnhilde.
Act III opens in what is presumably Valhalla, with Wotan suiting up in black tie for his revelatory taunting of Erda and self-consciously doomed confrontation with Siegfried.  Inert heroes sit at green felt-covered accounting desks awaiting the end.  Erda, who confesses to her lost powers of wisdom and perception in the scene, is convincingly blind.  Wotan proceeds to encounter Siegfried before the same blackboard from Act I, which shifts during the subsequent magic fire music to Valhalla’s gigantic steps, where the outcast Brünnhilde lies in slumber.  The awakening scene unfolds there, rather awkwardly given the incline, and in a puzzling way since a prostrate Wotan (now played by an actor whose knees must have killed him by the end) is present, along with a troop of motionless Valkyries who look on.  Götterdämmerung opens in June, and I was left wondering whether the prologue love scene will open in the same place.  If it does, it will certainly belie the hope that Siegfried is a free hero acting independently of the gods, though such may be Krämer’s point.
Whatever one thinks of the production, and there were boos, the musical performance was stellar.  The young conductor Philippe Jordan led a crisp, energetic reading of the score.  There were a few moments when he failed to draw out the subtlety of the music, and he occasionally rushed through meaningful passages that he could have treated with greater deliberation. No one could argue, however, that his command of the work is unimpressive.  The singers performed ably, though the first act passed with a measure of restraint that not everyone appreciated.  The ovation that greeted the second act was followed by a disappointed spectator who cried out, unjustly in my opinion, “Il faut pour l’orchestre, pas pour les chanteurs!”  He was angrily shouted down and the show went on.  Torsten Kerl’s Siegfried blossomed in the final two acts into a gorgeously held Heldentenor sound.  He resisted the temptation to take the role as a callow youth and yet did not ignore the naivety it requires.  Juha Uusitalo’s Wanderer (as Wotan is known in this incarnation of the role) missed some of the role’s implicit humanity, but still drew on a well practiced legato to impart the challenging music with true meaning.  As Mime, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s part may have been the best thought out characterization.  His fine tenor produced the necessary pinched sound without becoming annoying.  Peter Sidhom’s Alberich suffered from a patchy bout of singing, but the opera is not really about him.  Stephen Milling’s Fafner reached impressive depths.  Qiu Lin Zhang’s Erda showcased a burnished contralto sound from which the role does not often benefit.  Elena Tsallagova sang pleasantly from off stage as the forest bird.  A real treat was Katarina Dalayman’s soaring Brünnhilde.  The third act staging did not allow her to ascend to her radiant best, but the voice’s appealing tonality and seemingly effortless highs were very much in evidence.  With some tweaking in the staging, this Siegfried may yet prove a worthy addition to Paris’s new Ring. — Paul du Quenoy