Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Der ferne Klang – Nationaltheater Mannheim – 12 July 2015

Photos: Hans Jörg Michel

Grete – Astrid Weber
Fritz – Michael Baba
The old Graumann/The Baron – Sung Ha
Graumann’s wife – Petra Welteroth
Innkeeper/Rudolf – Sebastian Pilgrim
A ham actor/The count/Actor – Raymond Ayers
Dr Vigelius, a lawyer – Bartosz Urbanowicz
An old woman – Marie-Belle Sandis
Mizzi – Tamara Banjesević
Milli – Ludovica Bello
Mary – Estelle Kruger
A Spanish girl/A waitress – Evelyn Krahe
The chevalier/A dubious individual – Andreas Hermann
A girl – Juliane Herrmann
First chorus member – Daewoo Park
Second chorus member – Slawomir Czarnecki
Chorus members – Eun Young Kim, Babett Dörste-Ewald
A young man – Jürgen Theil
A policeman – Wolfgang Heuser

Chorus, Extra Chorus and Statisterie of the National Theatre Mannheim
Orchestra of the National Theatre Mannheim

Conductor – Dan Ettinger
Director – Tatjana Gürbaca
Sets – Marc Weeger
Costumes – Silke Willrett
Lighting – Christian Wurmbach
Video – Thilo David Heins
Dramaturge – Merle Fahrholz

Was Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang the first truly modern opera? Given the composer’s sad neglect over much of the 20th century, it’s easy to forget how influential the work and its composer were after the opera’s triumphant premiere in Frankfurt in 1912. Would Berg, who made the vocal score of Der ferne Klang for Schreker’s publisher, have gone on to write either Wozzeck or Lulu without its example? Both the sense that it is an opera of ideas as much as of incident and that its form and dramaturgy take the medium in new directions make it every bit as revolutionary within operatic tradition as Tristan und Isolde and Pelléas et Mélisande. Fortunately, the musical world is beginning to wake up to its worth, and this is the third production I’ve been fortunate to see in four years, following stagings in Nuremberg (2011) and Bonn (2012), and meanwhile it has also appeared at the Berlin Staatsoper, in Zurich, Strasbourg and at Bard in New York in recent years, and will receive a new production in Graz in the autumn.

Tatjana Gürbaca’s production for Mannheim’s National Theatre, which also returns in the autumn, emphasises the opera’s modernity by stressing its post-Freudian obsessions of dreams, longing and complexity of relationships, or as the conductor Dan Ettinger suggests in a programme interview, exploiting both musically and dramatically the photographer’s idea of gradations between clarity and blurring, between reality and imagination (he reminds us that Schreker was the son of a court photographer). The fraught love between Grete and the composer Fritz that underlies the plot’s search for compositional inspiration – the ‘distant sound’ for which Fritz yearns – is given a back story with video showing the two as teenagers, and the difference between dreams, memories and the present become clouded in the protagonists’ minds – and, indeed, ours, as we struggle to work out if what we are seeing is the product of Grete’s or Fritz’s subconscious. It may not have been an obvious introduction for those seeing the work for the first time, but Schreker doesn’t exactly make things easy himself, with his shifting between realities and dreams (the warts-and-all verismo of the opening scenes followed by the mystical scene in the wood), a seemingly chaotic second act that encompasses proto-cinematic cross-fades between scenes and musics, and a work as a whole that features an almost ungraspable array of minor characters. But Gürbaca’s direction of these cameos was strongly drawn, from the mysterious Old Woman to the sinister lawyer Dr Vigelius, and Marc Weeger’s cavernous set gave plenty of space and atmosphere to the interpretation’s blurring of physicality and imagination.

Fritz (Michael Baba) and Grete (Astrid Weber)
Mannheim’s National Theatre double-casts many of its productions to cover extended runs and, in this case, the autumn revival, and this was what it termed the B-Premiere, though there was no sense that this was the ‘B’ cast. In the main role of Grete was a singer who had appeared in the role when I saw it in Nuremberg in 2011, Astrid Weber. Her identification with the character was complete, even if one sensed a greater than usual degree of cue-watching of the conductor as she worked herself into this production. It was nevertheless a commanding assumption of a role that journeys so far in so short a time and her singing was firm and focused throughout. The Fritz of Michael Baba, Mannheim’s new house Heldentenor, was similarly committed and was conveyed with plenty of passion if not always suavity, though it’s not an easy role to make one’s own when he is absent from the stage for whole swathes of the work. Raymond Ayers’s Count was a treat, his ballad a highpoint of Act II as it should be, and one must make special mention of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competitor Sebastian Pilgrim, whose resonant bass made its mark as the Innkeeper and Rudolf.

The real star of this performance, though, was the Mannheim National Theatre Orchestra under general music director Dan Ettinger. I’ve rarely heard Schreker’s score come to life with such sensitivity for both colour and dramatic energy, and Ettinger’s understanding of the composer’s unique style – evident in his programme conversations as much as in practice – made the whole, as it should be, an emotionally draining experience and brought Schreker’s own ‘distant sound’ that little bit nearer to repertoire status in our time.

Further performances: 28 July, 3, 28 October, 11, 20 November 2015

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Peter Grimes – Theater Koblenz, 3 July 2015; Theater Ulm, 9 July 2015

Koblenz: Grimes (Ray M. Wade Jr)
and Aurea Marston (Ellen)

Ulm: Grimes (Hans-Günther Dotzauer)

Peter Grimes
Ray M. Wade Jr
Hans-Günther Dotzauer
Ellen Orford 
Aurea Marston
Oxana Arkaeva
Anne Catherine Wagner
Rita-Lucia Schneider
Niece 1 
Hana Lee
Edith Lorans
Niece 2 
Irina Marinaş
Katarzyna Jagiełło
Mark Morouse
Tomasz Kałuzny
Mrs. Sedley 
Melanie Lang
I Chiao Shih/Judith Christ
Jongmin Lim
Don Lee
Ned Keene 
Randal Turner
J. Emanuel Pichler
Bob Boles 
Juraj Hollý
Thorsten Sigurdsson
Rev Horace Adams 
Junho Lee
Alexander Schröder
Kai Uwe Schöler
Joachim Pieczyk
Doctor Crabbe 
Eberhard Kurrels 
(not specified)
Carlos Gerhardt 
(not specified)

Opernchor & Extrachor
Statisterie, Opernchor & Extrachor

Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie 

Das Philharmonische Orchester
der Stadt Ulm
Enrico Delamboye
Daniel Montané
Markus Dietze
Matthias Kaiser
Bodo Demelius
Marianne Hollenstein
Su Sigmund
Angela C. Schuett
Georg Lendorff

Christiane Schiemann
Benjamin Kunzel

The mob musters in Koblenz...
Britten’s operas remain popular in Germany, and the composer’s centenary year in 2013 seems to have spurred a renewed interest. In the space of a week, I managed to catch two of the half-dozen different productions of Peter Grimes on offer in the country during the 2014–15 season. It offered an interested ‘compare and contrast’ exercise, but also gave that rare experience of hearing a work rooted in one’s own native language and culture – and over the years I must have seen more live performances of this opera than any other – transplanted into a ‘foreign’ milieu. Both companies, in Koblenz and in Ulm, to their credit performed the work in English (original-language performance is virtually the norm in Germany these days), but the success of that English proved surprisingly variable. With several Anglophone members in its cast, Koblenz fared markedly better than Ulm, which could have benefited from a language coach who could have at least ironed out inconsistencies of pronunciation of characters’ names and occasional drifts into American-English (these people inhabited a town called The Burrow; Grrrrrrimes sometimes gained an inauthentic rolled ‘r’; and according to Ellen Orford, ‘we shall be vizz him’). On the other hand, it’s probably something that native speakers of German, French or Italian have to put up with on a daily basis as their repertoire is subjected to multi-national casts.

The pronunciation divide was not the only element that set these productions apart: Koblenz offered the finer musical performance, but Ulm had arguably the more coherent staging. The one area where the Koblenzers left something to be desired was the placing of the orchestra right back behind the stage. Theater Koblenz is a tiny, rare 18th-century survivor, a compact, 460-seater horseshoe auditorium tacked on to a modern stage rebuild. As such, its pit is too small for a full symphony orchestra, so needs must. It was just a shame, therefore, that Bodo Demelius’s set – a modular platform-come-ceiling of girders and decking – had to take up the full depth of the stage, when so much more use could have been made of the covered-over pit as a performing area and allowed the players to sit closer to the audience. As such, the alert playing of the Rhenish Philharmonic State Orchestra was a little too distant and muted, and in Act III it gave the perverse experience of hearing an off-stage main orchestra coupled with onstage dance musicians whose music should really drift in and out of focus from behind the scenes. Enrico Delamboye’s conducting was generally apposite, though the way he and the director spun out the Prologue for laughs lost a lot of its essential swift tautness of character-introduction. The Koblenz chorus was simply magnificent, both in its superbly clear diction and its power – the gathering of the plank-wielding mob at the very front of the stage, just yards from my second-row seat, was perhaps the most terrifying this Act III scene has ever been in my experience.

As Grimes, the Texan tenor Ray M. Wade Jr – much admired as the Emperor in last season’s Die Frau ohne Schatten in Kassel – gave a profound interpretation that revealed the character’s vulnerability, with lyrical, warm-hearted singing and a real feeling for the words (no American drawl here!). Aurea Marston’s Ellen Orford marked this Swiss-born former mezzo’s debut as a soprano and offered firm tone and a sense of line, though her patchy English diction sent me scrabbling for the German surtitles to remind me of the text I thought I knew so well. Mark Morouse’s Balstrode was warmly sympathetic in voice and interpretation and US-born, Guildhall-trained mezzo Melanie Lang was a fruity, cut-glass-English Mrs Sedley. I also enjoyed Junho Lee’s youthfully lyrical Rector and Anne Catherine Wagner’s resonantly sung Auntie, once she had got over her initial squalliness.

I was less taken with Markus Dietze’s production, however. It was unclear what he was trying to tell us – that the impoverishment of this community was what led it to scapegoat one of its number? This was at least a clue given by Georg Lendorff’s often enigmatic video images that during the interludes were projected on to the gauze hiding the orchestra, the one during the Passacaglia showing miserable workers locked out of shipyard – otherwise they were largely a bizarre succession of ‘seaside’ images. The scene in The Boar was an impromptu gathering, with Auntie serving bottles of beer from an old shopping trolley; and I wasn’t sure what to make of the final scene of the whole cast lining up their wellington boots in tribute to the dead apprentice. Characterisation was often over-egged, from Mrs Sedley’s neurotic tic and Auntie’s persistent cigar-smoking to Swallow’s rapacious flirtations, though Wade’s Grimes saved the day with a touching portrayal of a man with naive hopes and dreams and who doesn’t realise his own strength in his treatment of the apprentice.

... and in Ulm

Thus was Grimes on the Rhine. Over at Theater Ulm on the Danube, meanwhile, director Matthias Kaiser conjured up a more focused, Expressionist presentation of the drama, with the chorus as a uniform mass in matching oilskins and with half-white-half-brown faces. Marianne Hollenstein’s set was of a rotting hulk of a ship in a breaker’s yard and much use was made of stage lifts to suggest a highly unstable ground for the people’s existence. But although the effect was often visually striking, there seemed to be too little understanding of the verismatic exactitude of many of the stage directions: how can Mrs Sedley ‘have the evidence’ if she’s not there to witness Ellen discovering the boy’s bruise? Why does Balstrode enter Grimes’s hut through the cliff door from which the boy has just fallen (a theoretically effective staging muffed by an unwilling rope)? And, by the by, what were those gently meandering fish projected on to the front cloth during each of the interludes supposed to represent? Perplexing compared to the large, dramatically colourful canvasses Hollenstein had painted to represent each of the six interludes that stood on display in the foyer.

Hans-Günther Dotzauer gave a very different Grimes compared with Wade in Koblenz. Possessor of a more authentically Pears-like timbre than the American, this German tenor’s gruff, bullish characterisation didn’t grow enough through the drama, though, as if he were hemmed in by his costume of woolly hat and leather jacket and his fate were sealed from the start. Ukrainian soprano Oxana Arkaeva, making her farewell performance in the Ulm ensemble, was somewhat miscast, her Slavic swoopiness and tendency to yell at phrases a long way from the usual demure English schoolmistress, though her lyrical moments had admirable tenderness. Nor was her engagement with her character convincing in her reaction to events around her, smiling in all the wrong places. Tomasz Kałuzny was a pallid Balstrode, who didn’t really command his scenes as a former captain should. I Chiao Shih’s Mrs Sedley was vocally indisposed and the singer mimed (ie overacted) her part while Judith Christ (who coincidentally had been singing the role earlier in Koblenz’s run) sang resonantly from the side of the stage.

The Ulm chorus, indistinct in diction and wayward in English, was no patch on Koblenz. Nor did the Ulm Philharmonic display enough ease with the idiom: Daniel Montané’s conducting was inflexible and the dry acoustic of the theatre gave a perfunctory air to the broad emotional sweep of the music.