Friday, 21 October 2016

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Landestheater Detmold – 16 October 2016

The Act II riot is imminent: the Kobold (Gaetan Chailly, foreground) watches as David (Stephen Chambers) accosts Beckmesser (Andreas Joren). Photos: Kerstin Schomburg

Hans Sachs – Derrick Ballard
Walther von Stolzing – Heiko Börner
Eva – Eva Bernard
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andreas Jören
David – Stephen Chambers
Magdalene – Gritt Gnauck
Veit Pogner – Christoph Stephinger
Kunz Vogelsang – Ewandro Stenzowski
Konrad Nachtigall – Markus Köhler
Fritz Kothner – Insu Hwang
Balthasar Zorn – Markus Gruber
Ulrich Eißlinger – Norbert Schmittberg
Augustin Moser – Uwe Gottswinter
Hermann Ortel – Haeyeol Han
Hans Schwarz – Michael Zehe
Hans Foltz – Bartolomeo Stasch
A Nightwatchman – Michael Zehe
A Goblin – Gaëtan Chailly

Chorus, Extra Chorus, Statisterie & Symphony Orchestra, of Landestheaters Detmold

Conductor – Lutz Rademacher
Director – Kay Metzger
Designer – Petra Mollérus
Lighting – Henning Streck

Hans Sachs (Derrick Ballard)
As Hans Sachs reflects on the riot of the previous night in his Act III ‘Wahn’ monologue, he suggests ‘Ein Kobold half wohl da!’ – ‘A goblin must have helped!’ It’s a cue for director Kay Metzger to enmesh Wagner’s comedy with the magic of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, framing the whole action of the opera as the work of a mischievous, silent puck-like character. This Kobold directs more than just the Act II mayhem: he is responsible for misplacing the items that give Eva the excuse to stay back to converse with Walther in Act I; he ensures that when Stolzing tries to wow the Masters with his song they are put under an intoxicated spell; he orchestrates the pratfalls and knocks that accompany Beckmesser’s clandestine exploration of Sachs’s workshop in Act III; and unseen by the humans he constantly cajoles, teases and reacts. Both Meistersinger and Dream centre on a midsummer night of confusion and unexplained happenings, a Polterabend indeed, and to further the link, Shakespeare’s drama is sometimes known in German-speaking countries as ‘A St John’s Night Dream’, while Wagner’s Johannistag itself dawns with Walther’s own Morgentraum, his ‘morning dream’. In short, imagery from Shakespeare’s play infuses Wagner’s libretto. The composer referred to the opera as a kind of ‘cheerful satyr-play’ to his thoroughly serious Tannhäuser, yet the result here is a different kind of comedy from the one we normally expect from Meistersinger, and despite the over-egged antics of the Kobold (energetically played by the diminutive dancer Gaëtan Chailly), which can distract and frustrate as much as amuse, there is a charm about the thing that suits the intimate, small-scale nature of the staging and the theatre in which it sits.

The Act III Quintet
As if to counter the supernatural imposition, Petra Mollérus’s designs put us in the very real world of reconstructed postwar Germany in the 1950s, from the bland rebuilding of bombed-out Nuremberg to period furniture and clothing. Within this setting, Metzger is able to poke fun at the nationalist sentiments that surface in the text: Sachs’s infamous ‘Deutsch und echt’ speech is accompanied by a tableau of a little wooden summerhouse – of the kind seen throughout the country in its ‘Kleingarten’ allotment gardens – with David raising the modern German flag, a neat, ironic deflation of the portentousness of music and text. The new postwar ‘nationalism’ is only for a cosy, patriarchal domesticity, a point made earlier during the Quintet when the two women, Eva and Magdalene, don house coats as they prepare to defer to their new husbands-to-be against a backdrop of mod-con imagery. There are other nice touches that colour the period setting, from the church service at the start refashioned as choir practice, to the Apprentices as believable schoolchildren, to the obviously newly planted tree in the street in Act II. The human drama is played without over exaggeration of character – Beckmesser is a believable older suitor rather than a caricatured figure of fun, and Sachs, visibly mourning over the mementos of his late wife one minute, then has a difficult time rejecting Eva when she throws herself at him with particularly amorous intent. But it is the Kobold who has the final ‘word’ as he joins Sachs, who is seated with his legs hanging over the front of the stage at the very end, and they crack open beers with a conspiratorial ‘job well done’ salute.

Detmold’s Landestheater is a beautifully intimate space in which to experience the full force of Wagner, and this is only the latest of his works to appear there in recent years, following on from Tristan, Parsifal and a complete Ring – not bad for a place that only seats about 640. Some years ago, the pit was enlarged to cope with these demands, and descends beneath the stage, almost in Bayreuth fashion if without the covering cowl. Even sitting right at the front the sound emerged well blended, at least until the ‘onstage’ trumpets and side drum occupied the stage box right next to me for their two blasts in Act III (Beckmesser’s lute/harp was also positioned there but was less distracting). Lutz Rademacher, who impressed in Strauss’s Elektra last season, took the Overture at quite a lick, but his pacing overall was apt for the context, and he even suggested a Mendelssohnian lightness in some of the dreamier episodes – it made one wonder if Wagner subconsciously aped the MND chords at the start of Walther’s ‘Dream Song’.

David (Stephen Chambers) is manipulated
by the Kobold (Gaetan Chailly)
Derrick Ballard’s Hans Sachs was on loan from Staatstheater Mainz, where he debuted in the role in 2015. His was a highly sympathetic portrayal, with his wavy locks looking not inappropriately like a latterday Dürer, and he sang with plenty of noble tone and variety of colour, ably recovering towards the end from an obvious tiredness, or dryness, during the Quintet. He had his match in the wonderfully detailed and vocally distinguished Beckmesser of Andreas Jören, the Detmold ensemble’s leading baritone. Heiko Börner was also a known quantity to me, having been heard as Peter Grimes and Zemlinsky’sDwarf elsewhere in Germany last season. His singing as a mature-looking Walther was a little strained by Act III and his stage presence needed more sense of involvement, but it was a capable assumption. I was not so enamoured of Eva Bernard’s less than elegantly sung Eva, and Christoph Stephinger was a wooden Pogner, with poor diction and a plodding delivery that added an accent to every note. Gritt Gnauck’s Magdalene was also more stilted than her impressive Klytemnestra in the spring, but Insu Hwang, also a member of the Detmold ensemble, and a Cardiff Singer competitor in 2015, made a strong impression as a burnish-voiced Kothner, and Stephen Chambers was a lively and winning David. The choruses – small by Meistersinger standards, but big for this diminutive theatre – sang their all and capped what was undeniably a superb company and ensemble achievement.

In repertoire until May 2017, and touring to Schweinfurt, Paderborn & Wolfsburg

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Die Frau ohne Schatten - Hessischer Staatstheater, Wiesbaden - 15 October 2016

Andrea Baker (Nurse)
Photos: Karl & Monika Forster

Emperor – Richard Furman
Empress – Erika Sunnegårdh
Dyer’s Wife – Nicola Beller Carbone
Barak, the Dyer – Oliver Zwarg
Nurse – Andrea Baker
Spirit Messenger – Thomas de Vries
Voice of the Falcom/Guardian of the Threshold to the Temple – Stella An
Hunchbacked brother – Benedikt Nawrath
One-eyed brother – Alexander Knight
One-armed brother – Benjamin Russell
Vision of a Youth Aaron Cawley
Voice from Above – Karolina Ferencz

Choir & Youth Choir of Hessischen Staatstheaters Wiesbaden
Hessisches Staatsorchester Wiesbaden

Conductor – Eckehard Stier
Director – Uwe Eric Laufenberg
Revival director – Gisbert Jäkel
Costumes – Antje Sternberg
Lighting – Andreas Frank
Video – Gérard Naziri

Guardian of the Threshold (Stella An), Erika Sunnegårdh (Empress)
The first revival of Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, originally mounted in the Strauss anniversary year of 2014, has maintained much of its initial casting. It’s a fairly straightforward staging – if anything about this opera can be straightforward – and, rather like Laufenberg’s Bayreuth Parsifal, tells the story well enough without really suggesting any great insight or rethinking of the ideas behind the symbol-heavy fairytale. A vertically shifting set moves effortlessly between the spirit and human worlds, one white and clinical (though some of the structure was looking grubby with use), the other dingy and dishevelled. Characters are well delineated – the first human scene is particularly affecting, with Barak’s sexual advances rebuffed by his wife to his own bewilderment. The quality of the acting is truly first rate. Laufenberg does little to temper the sickly sweet denouement, fielding crowds of children and adults to drum home the opera’s message of pro-creation – a little irony would not have gone amiss here, let alone some of the pessimism expressed in Staatstheater Kassel’s far more thought-provoking First World War retelling from the same anniversary year. My other main caveat was with the gratuitous torture scene in which at the Emperor’s behest the poor Youth is castrated rather than divulge his complicity, while the Empress has her nightmares of other things.

Nicola Beller Carbone (Dyer's Wife), Oliver Zwarg (Barak), Erika Sunnegårdh (Empress), Andrea Baker (Nurse), chorus
The casting was mixed in its effectiveness. Erika Sunnegårdh as the Empress and Nicola Beller Carbone as the Dyer’s Wife were the highlights – both characterisations full of musical and dramatic insight and vocally contrasted enough to complement each other. Andrea Baker’s steely Nurse was generally impressive though could have done with more depth of tonal colour, and Richard Furman’s Emperor was virile and capable. Oliver Zwarg’s Barak was the one big disappointment. His tone was blustery, he often sang a smidgen flat and there was none of the burnished bass-baritone that should make the role the most sympathetic of the whole opera. His gruff stage presence, however, made his early scenes of marital break-up touching to watch.

The large orchestra, spilling out into the stage boxes, played magnificently under the commanding baton of Eckehard Stier. He encouraged the players to let rip in the interludes, though there were times when the singers more distantly positioned on the stage struggled to ride the volume from the pit.