Friday, 29 December 2017

Distant Sounds's Top Ten Operatic Productions of 2017

Activity has admittedly been rather sparse on this blog this year, as my reviewing has tended to appear elsewhere – at Bachtrack, and in Opera and in The Wagner Journal. But I thought it worthwhile to put together a short summary of my year’s musical adventures - my own personal top ten operatic experiences of 2017. (Photos all copyright photographers indicated.)

10 Lulu/Hamburg State Opera

Photo: Monika Rittershaus
A somewhat mystifying staging by Christoph Martaler that came up with its own solution to the opera’s incomplete state by replacing much of Act III’s dramaturgy with an enacted performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto, eloquently played by Veronika Eberle. Most impressive was Barbara Hannigan’s vocally and physically athletic assumption of the title role. Bachtrack review here

9 Die Gezeichneten/Bavarian State Opera

Photo: Wilfred Hosl
The first of Germany’s premier-league opera houses to bring Schreker’s magnum opus back into its repertoire after nearly a century, Munich threw its best at it: top-notch cast, a typically smart-looking production by Krzysztof Warlikowski and a sumptuous performance from the BSO orchestra under Ingo Metzmacher. Bachtrack review here 

8 Mathis der Maler/Staatstheater Mainz

Photo: Andreas Etter
A spare but effective presentation of Hindemith’s viscerally political opera in the city in which it is largely set. Review here

7 Elektra/Mannheim National Theatre

Photo: Hans Jorg Michel
A revival of Ruth Berghaus’s iconic 1980 staging, dominated by the towering portrayal of Elektra by Catherine Foster, and a searing interpretation of the score from Alexander Soddy and the orchestra. Bachtrack review here

6 Pelléas et Mélisande/Frankfurt Opera

Photo: Barbara Aumuller
Another revival, this time of Claus Guth’s five-year-old production of Debussy’s opera that mesmerised with its intensity and focus, and was swiftly but marvellously conducted by Joana Mallwitz. Bachtrack review here

5 Das Wunder der Heliane/Flanders Opera

Photo: Annemie Augustijns
A triumphant vindication of Korngold’s most ‘problematic’ opera, with a straightforwardly literal staging of the plot from David Bösch and an intense reading of the title role from Ausrine Stundyte. (Not reviewed.)

4 Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald/Theater Hagen

Photo: Klaus Lefebvre
A real discovery for me this year was H.K. Gruber’s operatic version of Horváth’s play about a dysfunctional family in interwar Vienna – a richly referential score grippingly performed by the Hagen ensemble. (Not reviewed.)

3 Hamlet/Glyndebourne on Tour

Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Everyone’s favourite new opera of 2017, but seeing it for the first time on the Glyndebourne Tour (Milton Keynes Theatre) made me see why: a fascinating, resourceful score and performances of truly Shakespearean breadth and depth from the cast. (Not reviewed.)

2 Penthesilea/Bonn Opera

Photo: Thilo Beu
Another new discovery for me: Othmar Schoeck’s adaptation of Kleist’s Greek drama proved to be a bit like Elektra on steroids – a highly physical but scintillating score and single span of drama thrillingly staged by Peter Konwitschny. (Review forthcoming in Opera magazine.)

1 Götterdämmerung/Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe

Photo: Matthias Baus
Difficult to decide between my top three, but Tobias Kratzer’s irreverent conclusion to Karlsruhe’s multi-director Ring Cycle really made my year: an ingenious, meta-theatrical staging that both drew together the threads of the previous directors’ ideas and made its own mark, with an impressive ensemble cast boding well for the full cycles in the spring. (Review forthcoming in March 2018 issue of The Wagner Journal.)

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Tristan und Isolde – Gelsenkirchen/Essen – 4/5 March 2017

Catherine Foster & Torsten Kerl in Gelsenkirchen's 'Tristan'
Photo: Forster
From the July 2017 issue of The Wagner Journal

Musiktheater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen, 4 March 2017
Tristan – Torsten Kerl
Isolde – Catherine Foster
Kurwenal – Urban Malmberg
Brangäne – Almuth Herbst
King Mark – Phillip Ens
Melot – Piotr Prochera
Young Sailor – Ibrahim Yesilay
Shepherd – William Saetre
Steersman – Jacoub Eisa

Chorus and Extra Chorus of the MiR
Neue Philharmonie Westfalen

Conductor – Rasmus Baumann
Director – Michael Schulz
Designer – Kathrin-Susann Brose
Costumes – Renée Listerdal
Lighting – Patrick Fuchs

Aalto Theater, Essen, 5 March 2017
Tristan – Jeffrey Dowd 

Isolde – Rebecca Teem
Kurwenal – Heiko Trinsinger
Brangäne – Martina Dike
King Mark – Tijl Faveyts
Melot – Karel Martin Ludvik
Young Sailor – Rainer Maria Röhr
Shepherd – Albrecht Kludszuweit
Steersman – Georgios Iatrou

Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Aalto Theater
Essener Philharmoniker

Conductor – Frank Beermann
Director – Barrie Kosky
Designer/lighting – Klaus Grünberg
Costumes – Alfred Mayerhofer

Only in Germany … Such is the density of operatic endeavour in the country that it is inevitable there’s an occasional overlap of repertoire between adjacent houses. It was not so unusual, therefore, to find Musiktheater im Revier Gelsenkirchen’s new Tristan und Isolde scheduled to launch the night before a revival of the Aalto Theater’s ten-year-old production just twelve kilometres away in Essen. The Ruhr may be the most heavily populated part of Germany, but its towns and cities seem quite parochial in their individual cultural ambit, and there appears to be remarkably little cross-fertilisation of audiences. (As a parallel example, our taxi driver back from Gelsenkirchen after the Premierfeiern barely knew where Essen was without his sat-nav.)

Gelsenkirchen doesn’t have the Wagner tradition of its neighbour (Essen has most of the works in its repertoire, including a multi-director Ring) and, despite its theatre’s name, presents fewer operatic performances in a season that is shared with spoken theatre, musicals and dance. But it has obvious ambition under the Intendancy of Michael Schulz – director of Weimar’s Ring – and it was playing up the ‘Bayreuth comes to the Ruhr’ line in its publicity for having attracted two of the Green Hill’s recent and current stars to sing the title roles, Torsten Kerl and Catherine Foster (Foster had also sung Brünnhilde in Schulz’s Weimar Ring). The production is Schulz’s own, and seems pretty tame after the Regie re-interpretations of his Ring. Act I is in split-level, with Isolde’s cabin shown below decks and with Tristan brooding with the crew above – there’s a sense of the male world louring over that of the female, one where Brangäne and Isolde sip tea among their luggage while Tristan hovers beside a shiny black monolith (which just brought unwanted allusion to Space Odyssey). The story is portrayed reasonably true to the text – there’s even a gold chalice for the potion – but things get a little more complicated in Act II, where the lovers negotiate a labyrinth of a revolving set, singing ‘O sink hernieder’ to the accompaniment of a young boy and girl playing with their toys in the background (‘not in front of the children’, surely), and with the climax of their duet illustrated – as if the music doesn’t say it all – by semi-naked body doubles writhing in coupled ecstasy in a glass box. A minimalist Act III has nothing but a white backdrop, that monolith again and sliding black foreground panels. It felt like three different productions, with each act having a different design ethos and progressing from naturalistic detail to monochrome stylisation. Nothing wrong with this approach in principle, but it did feel and look disjointed, and it was difficult to see what if any point was being made, both in this regard and in general in Schulz’s directorial choices. It is a production that illustrates the story well enough but does less to interpret or explore its multi-layered strands of meaning.

The musical highlight of the performance was Foster’s Isolde: firm, often lustrous of tone and vividly acted – her venting of fury at ‘Fluch dir, Verruchter’, using her full height to imposing advantage, was visceral. Kerl’s Tristan was almost her equal. He sounded a little under-powered in the love duet of Act II, but was obviously pacing himself for the challenges of Act III, which he delivered with both power and subtlety. Only Piotr Prochera’s particularly villainous Melot truly impressed among the home-grown support team, though. Almuth Herbst’s Brangäne was occasionally unfocused, though her Act II warnings were eloquently sung, Urban Malmberg’s Kurwenal was light-voiced but a little too demonstrative in his delivery, and Phillip Ens’s King Mark sounded rather frayed and rough at the edges. Ibrahim Yesilay’s Young Sailor was subtly phrased and Jacoub Eisa’s two lines as the Steersman were forcefully projected, but William Saetre’s weak Shepherd was merely adequate. Rasmus Baumann’s conducting was nuanced, and while the orchestra coped well with the demands, its woodwind lacked sophistication at times and the whole ensemble has some way to go to develop the true Wagnerian Klang required.

Barrie Kosky’s Tristan und Isolde for the Aalto Theater dates from 2006, and compared with his more recent productions is fairly sober and contained. Bravely he sets each act in a tiny cube of a room, barely three or four metres across. Act I is a cramped ship’s cabin that does service for both Isolde’s quarters and Tristan’s, the latter storming in with his drunken hangers-on and a Kurwenal who as good as rapes Brangäne during his paean to his master. There’s just room for a washbasin and tap for Brangäne to use to dilute the potion in a glass tumbler that Isolde smashes after consuming its contents. The idea of a brightly lit room in a black void is made even more minimalist in Act II. This time the acting space is still further restricted, just a grey-flocked trapezoid cube (with light fitting and bowl of fruit) that rotates during the love duet, very slowly at first and with more speed as the musical tension hots up. It’s a beautifully simple expression of a personal world in motion with the added element of jeopardy as the singers constantly need to find their feet and centre of balance. A third, still room is the setting for the final act, now seen in the context of a field of model sheep. As Tristan’s world collapses around him, the herd is shepherded out of the way and the action spills out on to the full stage for the first time.

Compared to the Gelsenkirchen experience, the musical performance was generally on much firmer ground. The orchestra under Frank Beermann, until last year music director in Chemnitz and conductor of the ongoing Ring cycle in Minden, played with élan from the start, with rich strings, sleek woodwind and sophisticated overall balance. The supporting cast, too, was much better, with Heiko Trinsinger a vivid Kurwenal, Martina Dike a Brangäne with real vocal and physical presence and Tijl Faveyts a young-looking but authoritative King Mark. Where the performance fell down, sadly, was with the two principals. Rebecca Teem, as Isolde, had the excuse that she was a presumably latish replacement for the unwell Dara Hobbs, and with Kosky’s physical demands, especially in the revolving set of Act II, it is understandable that she might not give of her best. But her singing, although she had all the notes, was often strident and coarse, and had little of Foster’s tonal bloom. Jeffrey Dowd, who has been in the production since the start, and who also appeared in its previous revival in 2013, had less of an excuse for such an unengaged performance as he gave, especially in Act II where he seemed to be too conscious of the precariousness of the moving stage and as a result gave the impression of singing on autopilot. Act III was demonstrably better, where his pinched tone and occasionally mannered delivery felt more in keeping with his character’s disintegration. Playing ‘fantasy Tristans’, if one took the best from both productions – the lead roles in Gelsenkirchen, the rest, and the staging, in Essen – one would have come away with an experience closer to that elusive ideal.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Distant Sounds’s operatic must-sees in the 2017/18 season

As a supplement to my listing of operatic repertoire for the 2017/18 season (see tab above), here’s my personal list of highlights - very much a 'long list’ of all the productions I’d be prepared to travel and see (though obviously more than I’ll manage!).

And don't forget the full list of season premieres here.

Firstly, the rarities:

Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane in Gent/Antwerp (September) & Berlin DO (March)
Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten in St Gallen (September) & Berlin DO (January), plus revival in Munich (May)
Schoeck's Penthesilea in Bonn (October) 
Hindemith Mathis der Maler in Gelsenkirchen (October)
Schreker’s Der ferne Klang in Lübeck (October)
Prokofiev’s The Gambler in Vienna (October), Basel (May) & Gent/Antwerp (June)
Hubay’s Anna Karenina in Bern (November)
Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie in Amsterdam (November)
Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg in Lille (November)
Weill’s Love Life in Freiburg (December)
Korngold’s Die tote Stadt in Dresden (December)
Zemlinsky’s Der Kreiderkreis in Lyon (January)
Von Einem’s Dantons Tod in Magdeburg (January)
Reznicek's Benzin in Bielefeld (January)
Martin’s Der Sturm in Saarbrücken (January)
Marschner’s Hans Heiling in Essen (February)
Meyerbeer’s Vasco da Gama in Frankfurt (February)
Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-Bleue in Graz (March)
Rachmaninov’s Aleko & Francesca da Rimini in Kiel (March)
Shostakovich’s Cheryomushki in Braunschweig (May) & Gelsenkirchen (March)
Von Einem’s Der Besuch der alten Dame and Dantons Tod, both in Vienna (March)
Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper in Giessen (March)
Puccini’s Edgar in Regensburg (April)
Enescu’s Oedipe in Gera (April)
Hindemith triple bill in Budapest (May)
Hindemith's Neues vom Tage in Schwerin (May)
Weill’s Der Silbersee in Pforzheim (May)
Langgaard’s Antikrist in Mainz (June)
Tate’s The Lodger in Bremerhaven (June)
Waltershausen’s Oberst Chabert (1912) in Bonn (June)
Busoni's Doktor Faust in Osnabrück (June) 
Mascagni’s Isabeau in London OHP (summer)

Contemporary and premieres:

Henze’s Der junge Lord in Hannover (September)
Ligeti’s Le grand macabre in Luzern/Meiningen (September) & Flensburg (May)
Reimann’s L’invisable in Berlin DO (WP, October)
Saariaho’s Only the Sound Remains in Paris (January)
Eötvös’s Angels in America in Münster (February) & in Freiburg (March)
Henze’s Das Fluss der Medusa in Amsterdam (March)
Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in Nürnberg (March), Köln (April) & Madrid (May)
Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence in London (WP, May) & Amsterdam (June)
Holliger’s Lunea in Zürich (WP, May)
Andriessen’s Waiting for Vermeer in Heidelberg (May)
Adams’s Nixon in China in Würzburg (May)
Ruzicka’s Benjamin in Hamburg (WP, June)

Notable new productions of more familiar repertoire:

Pelléas et Mélisande in Berlin (Komische Oper), dir. Barrie Kosky (September)
Die Frau ohne Schatten in Linz (September)
From the House of the Dead in Cardiff (October), Paris (November), London ROH (March), Frankfurt (April) & Munich (May)
Wozzeck in Düsseldorf, dir. Stefan Herheim (October)
Capriccio in Frankfurt, dir. Brigitte Fassbaender (January)
Jenufa in Kassel (February)
Boris Godunov in Paris, dir. Ivo van Hove (June)

The Wagnerian highlights:

Rienzi in Innsbruck (May)
Tannhäuser in Köln (September), Wiesbaden (November), Görlitz (March) & Leipzig (March)
Lohengrin in Brussels (April) & London ROH (June)
Ring cycles in Leipzig (January), Dresden (January), Munich (January), Karlsruhe (March) & Vienna (April)
New Rings beginning in Chemnitz (February/March) & Bielefeld (March) and continuing in Oldenburg (September) Kiel (March) & Düsseldorf (April)
Tristan und Isolde in Amsterdam (January) & Kassel (May)
Parsifal in Hamburg (September), Baden-Baden (March), Paris (April) & Munich (June), plus revivals in Mannheim, Stuttgart & Antwerp/Gent

And a few revivals of non-standard rep missed first time round:

Barber’s Vanessa in Frankfurt (September)
Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan in Dresden (November)
Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau in Munich (November)
Strauss’s Daphne in Vienna SO (December)
Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar in Frankfurt (January)

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Das Lied der Nacht – Theater Osnabrück – 5 May 2017

Lianora - Lina Liu
The Princess-Abbess - Gritt Gnauck
Hämone - Susann Vent-Wunderlich
Tancred - Rhys Jenkins
Ciullo/The Nameless Singer - Ferdinand von Bothmer
The Chancellor - José Gallisa

Opera Chorus & Extra Chorus of Theater Osnabrück
Osnabruck Symphony Orchestra

Conductor - Andreas Hotz
Director - Mascha Porzgen
Designer - Frank Fellmann

Immediately after the 33-year-old Hans Gál made his breakthrough with his opera Die heilige Ente in Düsseldorf in 1923, he began work on a successor, creating a ‘dramatic ballad in three scenes’ to a text by the poet Karl Michael von Levetzow. Das Lied der Nacht was premiered in Breslau (now Polish Wrocław) in 1926 and was soon taken up by several further theatres, before the Nazis’ rise to power sent Gál into exile and his music into obscurity. The opera had lain unperformed for the best part of 90 years until is was dredged up from the archives to be revived this spring by the enterprising Theater Osnabrück in time to mark the 30th anniversary of the composer’s death. It is also being revived in a semi-staging at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, so one might claim that its time has come. It is certainly an interesting work, both musically and dramatically, and while it might not have emerged as a long-lost masterpiece to set alongside the works of Schreker and Zemlinsky from the same decade, there’s enough of substance to make one hope it doesn’t get forgotten again after this initial burst of exposure.

Musically, Das Lied impresses with its fluidity more than for striking originality – Gál obviously knew his Strauss and Mahler and steered their languages to his own uses without coming up with ideas that linger long in the mind. At its best, in the dark, gloomy harmonies of the scene with the Abbess for instance, it is powerful and full of resonance, but one longed for something more striking for the ‘Lied’ itself, the mysterious song sung by the ‘Nameless Singer’ that so enraptures the Crown Princess, Lianora – its most potent feature is its harp accompaniment. But there’s a rather impressive Act II prelude to compensate – a piece of textural ingenuity and harmonic rapture that would make an attractive concert item in itself – and throughout Gál is particularly adroit at letting his vocal lines cut through the often busy orchestral writing.

On the face of it, the story is simple: the orphaned Princess Lianora is refusing to name her husband so that Sicily may gain a king – she is more attracted to the Nameless Singer than to her bullish suitor, Tancred, and would much rather enter her aunt’s convent in any case. But this being the work of a post-Freudian Viennese, the opera is very much an exploration of the psychology of growing up, something drawn out in Mascha Pörzgen’s perceptive staging. With the death of her father, Lianora is catapulted into adulthood before she is ready, with the need to choose a husband to maintain the island’s political stability. She is also a woman in a world where men call the shots – as princess she has obligations that fall under the power of the aged Chancellor and Tancred’s macho strutting. What follows drifts into the world of dreams – is the seductiveness of the Nameless Singer a figment of her unconscious desire for escape? A way of subconsciously avoiding reality by projecting her fantasies on to her favourite gondolier, Ciullo, who turns out to be singer? We are left to ponder what’s real and what imagined – entrances and exits are often ambiguously made from within the scenery and in Act I the ‘Stony’ Abbess emerges as a giant figure from what one presumed to be the Princess’s wardrobe. Watery images abound, too, in keeping with the theme of the Singer’s lament, and add to the sense of subconscious being explored.

Gál’s score had sweep and pace in the hands of Osnabrück’s charismatic GMD Andreas Hotz, and while the orchestral playing had sheen and power, it would be good to hear what a really top-notch ensemble could make of this music. Lana Liu was highly effective as Lianora, with focused projection and a communicative way with the words; Susann Vent-Wunderlich as her maid/confidante Hämone was also impressive. Gritt Gnauck, a mezzo familiar from the Detmold ensemble, made an imposing Abbess, bringing a touch of the Klytemnestras to her vocal portrayal, and Ferdinand von Bothmer sung valiantly as the Nameless Singer and Ciullo, with just a hint of insecurity in his tenor at moments of heightened tension. Rhys Jenkins was a solid Tancred, José Gallisa a robust Chancellor and the chorus sang with particular focus and dramatic edge.

Link to promotional video:

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Mathis der Maler – Staatstheater Mainz – 2 April 2017

Ursula (Vida Mikneviciute), Regina (Dorin Rahardja) and
Mathis (Derrick Ballard). Photos: Andreas Etter

Mathis – Derrick Ballard
Cardinal Albrecht – Alexander Spemann
Ursula – Vida Mikneviciute
Hans Schwalb – Lars-Oliver Rühl
Wolfgang Capito – Steven Ebel
Regina – Dorin Rahardja
Riedinger – Stephan Bootz
Lorenz von Pommersfelden – Hans-Otto Weiß
Sylvester von Schaumberg – Johannes Mayer
Countess of Helfenstein – Geneviève King

Chorus, Extra Chorus & Statisterie of Staatstheater Mainz
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Mainz

Conductor – Hermann Bäumer
Director – Elisabeth Stöppler
Sets – Annika Haller
Costumes – Su Sigmund
Lighting – Stefan Bauer

The vision of angels: Schwalb (Lars-Oliver Rühl) and
Mathis (Derrick Ballard), centre
Hindemith conceived his opera Mathis der Maler in response to the situation in which he found himself during the early years of the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany. The dilemma facing artist Matthias Grunewald at the time of the Peasants’ War in Germany in the 1520s whether to fight or paint is one that struck a chord with the composer and is a theme that seems to have lost little of its relevance in today’s fractious world. The war in the story was partly a religious one, as newly inspired Protestants fought with Catholics, and Staatstheater Mainz has mounted the opera to mark the Luther anniversary that falls this year. But Mainz also has the advantage that the work is actually set in the city and features historic figures of the time.

There’s no pandering to medieval Mainz in Elisabeth Stöppler’s spare staging, however. Annika Haller’s ‘set’ is merely a raked stage, upon which Mathis chalks texts (unreadable from my seat) as his artwork, surrounded by black curtains on sides and rear. It focuses attention on the characters, and Stöppler makes excellent use of the space in marshalling them. Costumes are contemporary, with even Cardinal Albrecht wearing a business suit beneath his red cape – emphasising, perhaps, the way he is torn between the attractions of the new religion and the financial trappings of his position. The angelic vision of Scene 6 at least allows some brightness to lighten up what is otherwise a very muted palette of colours. Stöppler doesn’t hold back in her portrayal of violence in a society rent asunder by class and religious conflict: the rich are strung up and the fate of the peasants’ leader Hans Schwalb is a bit of a gore-fest.

Capito (Steven Ebel) and Cardinal Albrecht (Alexander Spemann)
Mathis is an ambitious work for a company of the scale of Mainz’s to mount, but it would be hard to imagine it done more compellingly by a major international house. Admittedly, one or two of the individual singers fall a little short – Lars-Oliver Rühl’s Schwalb struggled with a couple of the high notes in his part and as Ursula, Vida Mikneviciute’s shrill soprano and rapid beat proved to be an acquired taste. But Derrick Ballard’s Mathis was commanding, an assumption to rank alongside his accomplished Sachs, seen both in Mainz and in Detmold. There were moments when a little roughness emerged, but it went with his burly, highly physical portrayal of the troubled artist. Tenor Alexander Spemann was convincing as the cardinal archbishop and Steven Ebel’s contortions made his adviser Capito a particularly oleaginous creep of a character – a sinisterly comic portrayal somewhat at odds with the seriousness everywhere else. If Mikneviciute’s Ursula was a little strident, more subtlety was to be found in the singing of Dorin Rahardja as Schwalb’s daughter Regina.

Much of the success of the dramatic performance fell on the expanded chorus, which truly thrilled with the power and focus of its singing. Its members can act convincingly, too – it wasn’t so many years ago that ‘provincial’ German opera choruses could almost be relied upon for their wooden theatrical appearance. The orchestra, too, makes a most impressive sound under Mainz’s GMD Hermann Bäumer, who has no problem maintaining both the momentum and tension in Hindemith’s highly dramatic writing.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Passenger – Musiktheater im Revier, Gelsenkirchen – 2 March 2017

Lisa – Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir
Walter – Kor-Jan Dusseljee
Marta – Ilia Papandreou
Tadeusz – Piotr Prochera

Opera Chorus & Extra Opera Chorus of MiR
Neue Philharmonie Westfalen

Conductor – Valterri Rauhalammi
Director – Gabriele Rech
Set designer – Dirk Becker
Costumes – Renée Listerdal

Having missed Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger at ENO in 2011 and only seeing David Pountney’s much-travelled premiere production on film (via YouTube) this week, this was my first proper encounter with the opera. Its story is now reasonably well known, but a quick resumé: Weinberg’s composed his opera based on Zofia Posmysz’s semi-autobriographical novel of experiences at Auschwitz in the mid-60s. But its subject matter was too strong even for the Soviets, and it didn’t see the light of day on stage until Pountney mounted it at Bregenz in 2010, since when it has been seen in the UK, the US and further afield. It had its German premiere at Karlsruhe in 2013 and, thanks to Gelsenkirchen’s new production it is swiftly on the way to becoming a repertoire work.

The opera’s plot – about Lisa, a former SS officer at Auschwitz’s supposed re-encounter with one of her charges in her new post-war life – is suffused with the ideas of memory and remembrance and these are brought to the fore in Gabriele Rech’s perceptive production at the Musiktheater im Revier. Rather than the split-level set called for in the libretto – 1960s ocean liner above 1940s prison camp – she and Dirk Becker have set the whole work on board the luxury ship on its way from Europe to Brazil. Thus the implication is that Lisa’s sighting on the voyage of the former inmate Marta – whom she presumed to be dead – ignites all her memories of her time at the death camp, and we see everything through her eyes. We never quite know if it is Marta, anyway, or just a lookalike who sets off Lisa’s reminiscences as she first admits her shady past to her diplomat husband, Walter, and then goes on to seek to come to terms with it by reliving her experiences. Arguably this approach sanitises the Auschwitz scenes, since it doesn’t give a sense of the environs, bit it puts the onus on the characterisation to convey something of the conditions.

This the Gelsenkirchen cast did impressively. From the looks on the faces of the singers at the subdued final curtain calls this was obviously a draining experience for them all. Ilia Papandreou was an intense, keening Marta, a character wanting to be equal with everyone but through no choice of her own picked out by Lisa for special treatment along the lines of divide and rule. And Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir’s Lisa got to grips with a woman trying to reconcile her past in her attempts to argue that she was only doing what everyone did at the time, and that she was one of the ‘good ones’ in her treatment of the prisoners. As her husband, Kor-Jan Dusseljee sang with clarity and finesse, and Piotr Prochera’s Tadeusz – Marta’s lover – impressed not only for his eloquent singing but also for playing on the violin – creditably – the opening of the Bach D minor Chaconne that sets his fate. The distinction of the smaller roles did credit to the theatre’s ensemble – more so, as it happened, than in the subsidiary roles of the following night’s Tristan premiere (review forthcoming in The Wagner Journal). The chorus sang with force and the brass-and-percussion-dominated orchestra played incisively under Valterri Rauhalammi.

But we are left with the issue of the music itself. However much one can believe the sincerity of Weinberg’s utterances, there’s no getting away from the fact that he lacked a truly personal voice – so much of the score, as elsewhere in his output, comes across as sub-Shostakovichian. The score of The Passenger certainly hangs together, and its ideas are often striking, but there are just too many echoes, unabsorbed, from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and its final gulag march scene in particular.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Die Herzogin von Chicago – Theater Koblenz – 12 December 2016

As reviewed for a forthcoming edition of Opera Magazine.

Mark Adler (Sandor) & Emily Newton (Mary Lloyd)

Mary Lloyd – Emily Newton
Sandor Boris, Crown Prince – Mark Adler
Princess Rosemarie – Haruna Yamazaki
James Bondy – Peter Koppelmann
Count Bojazowitsch – Marcel Hoffmann
Marquis Perolin – Christof Maria Kaiser
King Pankraz XXVII/Benjamin Lloyd, Mary’s father – Wolfram Boelzle
Count Negresco – Sebastian Haake
Baron Palssy – Tobias Rathgeber

Opera Chorus & Extra Chorus, Children’s Chorus, Ballet, Statisterie
Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie
Conductor – Rasmus Baumann
Director & Scenery – Michiel Dijkema
Costumes – Alexandra Pitz
Choreography – Steffen Fuchs

Emily Newton (Mary Lloyd, centre)
Emmerich Kálmán’s Die Herzogin von Chicago managed an initial run of 242 performances at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in 1928 and, although it subsequently fell out of fashion (it failed in off-Broadway try-outs), in recent years it has become one of his more revived later works, especially since its recording by Richard Bonynge as part of Decca’s Entartete Musik series in the late 1990s. This winter it has taken to the stage of Theater Koblenz in an imaginative and well-paced new production directed and designed by Michiel Dijkema (costumes by Alexandra Pitz).

The operetta is very much of its time, blending American jazz with the native Hungarian style around a plot that stages the ‘battle’ between the Old and New Worlds – not a hundred miles away from the theme of Krenek’s opera Jonny spielt auf, which had swept Europe the previous season and which can’t have gone unnoticed by Kálmán. Moreover, the operetta’s character of a black saxophonist, Bobby, went on to become the ‘poster boy’ of the Nazis’ cultural propaganda in the late 1930s, while its Hungarian-Jewish composer fled to the USA itself.

An American millionaire’s daughter, Mary Lloyd, rises to the challenge set by her peer group (the likes of Edith Rockefeller, Maud Carnegie, Daisy Vanderbilt, even a timely late addition for the Koblenz production, Emilia Trump) to outdo each other in buying up old Europe. She lands herself the estate of an impoverished royal family in the Balkans and inevitably falls for the hereditary prince, but there’s a problem: he won’t dance the Charleston with her, only the csárdás. It’s slender stuff, and the denouement, in which the impasse is saved by the arrival of a Hollywood director demanding an American-style happy ending, seems too glib. But the show is saved by its music, a succession of numbers that cleverly sets off the two competing styles of dance, and which the Koblenz performers had down to a T.

Texan soprano Emily Newton, guesting from the ensemble in Dortmund, is becoming an experienced hand in this kind of repertoire, and has the starry sense of presence to hold the stage, a convincing way of rounding out stock romantic leads and a subtle and lyrical vocal command. She also obviously had fun with the text’s cod-American-German, as did Peter Koppelmann as her private secretary James Bondy, an original character name that seems set up for latter-day allusions to 007. Mark Adler proved a fine lyric tenor as Prince Sandor and Haruna Yamazaki’s sonorous mezzo as the rival love interest, Princess Rosemarie, bodes well for her upcoming Octavian with the company. The chorus was its usual powerful self (an impression garnered from last season’s Peter Grimes), the children’s chorus excelled, the ballet corps added its own pizazz and the orchestra, though light on strings given the need to fit a sizeable wind section into this bijou theatre’s diminutive pit, had bite and suavity under the energetic direction of Rasmus Baumann.