As an American associate of Opernwelt, the leading German magazine, I periodically revert to criticism (or reviewing, not to be grandiose about it). Though published in German, the reports are written in English. Albrecht Thiemann, my editor, never fails to amaze me with the fluency of his translations, but inevitably there are minor shifts of emphasis and the occasional cut. Here are the original versions of several recent pieces that appeared in the May and June issues. The performances under discussion are Le Nozze di Figaro at the Cleveland Orchestra; Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Cleveland Opera; Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Die Vögel at the Los Angeles Opera; and a Stravinsky double bill consisting of Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It's a six-course menu—best to graze…
Figaro Fever in Cleveland
Severance Hall, an Art Deco shrine of rare splendor, opened in 1931. For a while, staged opera flourished there, with the orchestra seated in a pit. As music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst has established his own tradition of opera in concert, with singers and instrumentalists all onstage. This spring, he reverted to the long-abandoned practice of putting the orchestra out of sight to recreate Sven-Eric Bechtolf's Zurich Opera House staging of Le Nozze di Figaro. By happy coincidence, the performances overlapped with Opera Cleveland's Barber of Seville at the palatial State Theatre.
The Rossini originated not quite a decade ago with Opera Pacifica, a touring company. Architecturally compact yet spacious and airy, in soothing adobe tones enlivened with judicious splashes of color, the settings reconfigure elegantly from scene to scene. The Mozart production from Zurich makes do with cardboard packing boxes, a few rows of chairs, and carousel horses in a circle that never moves. The costumes for both shows hark back to the 1930s, those for Barber in a spirit of fresh fantasy anchored in classic imagery, those for Figaro mostly in generic black and white.
Billing notwithstanding, the Figaro (seen on March 25) did not add up to much of a production. Rattling around on the huge, empty stage and framed by the glamorous Severance proscenium, the cast looked small and lost. The acting, supervised by Timo Schlüssel, consisted of endless grabbing of body parts and fidgeting with other people's clothing, plus byplay with scissors and knives. Mugging was a constant problem. But why did the Count keep performing little magic tricks?
Musically, the women made a ravishing ensemble of limpid, expressive, and intriguingly contrasting timbres and sensibilities: the melancholy, mercurial Martina Janková (Susanna), the silver-toned Malin Hartelius (a drug-dependent Countess), the thoroughbred Isabel Leonard (Cherubino), the opulent sex kitten Rebeca Olvera (Barbarina); and Diana Montague, a spicy Marcellina, who brought the house down with her rarely heard 4th-act aria. From the male leads, there was much shouting. Michael Volle belabored his recitative at the top of Act 3 like Wotan's bidding farewell, then, in the aria, made a hash of his coloratura. Ruben Drole oversang the arias but let key moments in the ensembles ("È l'unsanza di porgli il sugello") and recitatives ("Perché no? Io non impugno mai quel che non so") slip by unnoticed.
The men's brutalist approach was hard to reconcile with the delicacy of Welser-Möst's transparent orchestral palette. And there were other puzzlements. The overture, much of the first act, and important passages later on (notably a slow episode in the second-act finale) refused to take flight. But where the tempi did flow—as for the Countess's arias, for "Voi che sapete," the fandango, and the entire last act—the music blossomed in all its glory.
The Rossini (seen on March 27) could be summed up in two words: sheer joy. Linda Brovsky's staging was effortlessly classic, yet full of deft touches. Woozy from the anvils they say they hear pounding in their heads in the first act finale, the whole cast went ransacking Bartolo's premises for relief in the form of pills or powders. (He's a doctor, after all.) Later, thunderstruck by Almaviva's confession of his identity, Rosina actually fell to the floor in a swoon: a perfect set-up for the trio "Ah, qual colpo."
As Figaro, Brian Leerhuber was firing without his high notes on opening night, yet forged ahead with a nimble and witty performance. The lovers were young bel cantists of a high order. Blessed with a caramel timbre, flickering vibrato, crisp articulation and fine theatrical instincts, Daniela Mack made a warm-hearted Rosina. Alek Shrader—a natural both as a prince and a comic—reveled alike in cantabile and coloratura, crowning his performance with an authoritative "Cessa di più resistere." Lavishly sung, the Bartolo of Thomas Hammons and Basilio of Andrew Gangestad might have been Daumier cartoons come to life. After sailing securely atop the first-act ensemble, Susan Wallin's Berta sparkled in her aria, brisk yet wistful. On the podium Dean Williamson worked his magic by letting the score sing and dance and breathe.
Los Angeles: Achim Freyer's Ring at Half-Time
Plácido Domingo, general director of the Los Angeles Opera, wanted the first "Ring" in the city's history to be something special. At first, he was thinking of a "Star Wars" treatment in association with the Hollywood mogul George Lucas. With cost projections climbing north of $80 million, it was time for another idea. At the suggestion of his artistic director Edgar Baitzel, an offer went out to Achim Freyer, whose "Damnation de Faust" in 2003 stands unchallenged among the company's most stellar achievements. True, Freyer had said at the time that the Berlioz would be his last hurrah in the opera house. But his work in Europe continues, and luckily for Los Angeles, the Wagner project caught his fancy. Baitzel died while in 2007 at the age of 51, when it was still in the planning stage. Freyer has dedicated the production to his memory.
No disrespect to the legions of talented designers and directors who have turned their hand to Wagner's epic in recent decades, but as a visionary and a visual artist, Freyer occupies a niche all his own, beyond schools, beyond tradition, beyond stirrings of the Zeitgeist. As thoroughly as he has studied the Ring, from its overarching structures to its most fleeting detail, his production not only serves Wagner but also stands as an artistic testament in its own right. That much is plain to see at half time. No doubt the remaining chapters (Siegfried in September 2009, Götterdämmerung in April 2010, three full cycles—already 50% sold—in June 2010) will bring surprises of their own.
As Freyer has stated on several occasions, he regards Siegfried as the first human being in the Ring—a human being as opposed to the various superhuman or otherworldly powers who appear in more or less anthropomorphic guises in Das Rheingold (seen March 11) and Die Walküre (seen April 19). From the first moment a spectator's eye begins to penetrate dark during the Rheingold prelude, the key players are present, arranged around a steep disc at center stage, as silent and monumental as the stone heads of Easter Island. And indeed: the bodies of many of the figures are solid shells of sculpture from which the living performers only occasionally emerge.
Within moments, mysterious doings begin. At the far left, Wotan—already wearing the greatcoat and wide-brimmed hat of the Wanderer—imbibes knowledge (from a beer can) and surrenders one giant eye (which remains at the corner of the stage, lighting up sympathetically at charged moments in the action), whereupon the coat and hat rise into the air and sweep across the sky. To the right stands a female deity à la Picasso, perhaps, her arms twice natural length and held in a permanent pose of supplication: this is Fricka. Alberich is there, wearing a giant head that brings to mind a three-dimensional Georg Grosz. The Rhine Maidens are seen high up as bare skulls; of their limbs, only arms are visible. Wotan's Ravens watch at the front of the stage, never moving. Froh, who plays an accordion colored like the rainbow, resembles a marble Mozart. Donner is a musician, too, in his way, with cymbals rather than a hammer.
In due course, Freyer introduces Freia, a sex doll with extra breasts and lips where her eyes should be, and the six-armed Erda. Doubles are everywhere, sometimes in multiples, frequently gigantic. In many of Wotan's avatars, the "thinking" head on his shoulders is enclosed in a cage, like a light bulb at a construction site, and a second face (sometimes that of the singer) gazes out from the center of his chest, where the heart resides. The Rhine Maidens have living reflections; so, in their final battle, do Hunding and his henchmen. Fasolt and Fafner enter simultaneously in the form of singers in construction-workers' hard hats and as giant faces equipped with giant hands that act of their own accord; Loge, in his red-checked suit, leads his own lookalike pack of tricksters, like devils or little foxes. With Die Walküre, Freyer adds equally striking images: Sieglinde and Siegmund as halves of a single whole, their faces split down the middle between Kabuki white and primordial black. Brünnhilde, marked like a figure in Picasso's "African" style, materializes from within a black bird of prey with a human face. Props throughout can be as simple as sticks of light (for weapons) or a flat cutout of a medieval turret (for Valhalla), or huge coins, like foil-wrapped chocolates (for the Nibelung treasure). The gold twinkles into view magically as dancing points of light.
Action in any conventional sense scarcely occurs, yet minutely calibrated lighting effects guide the eye constantly, and the effect is seldom static. As Freyer shows at the end of Das Rheingold, when the stage is enveloped in red billows, he can easily conjure up a coup de théâtre when he wants to; another occurs in the fight between Siegmund and Hunding, when the avenging Wotan plummets upside down from the flies over a stage filled with Hunding's hounds, mostly in silhouette. But most mesmerizing of all are Freyer's ghostly parades, one accompanying Alberich's curse in Das Rheingold, a second during Wotan's monologue in Act 2 of Die Walküre. A stooped Wotan figure drifts by, his head weighed down by a paper crown, clasping a red neon ring in his drooping hand; a Mime figure, separated from his head; a dog (can this be Hunding?); a hot babe who goes off with Alberich, presumably Kriemhild. Everyone whose fate has been touched by Alberich's ring, and everyone whose will be, comes circling by, like puppets in some dread shadow play. Even Siegfried puts in more an appearance or two, marching a straight line across the stage, unstoppable: a meteor in slow motion. Nothing short of a book could do justice to the intricacies and implications of Freyer's imagery, which also incorporates highly suggestive projections of abstract shapes and curves.
The musical aspects of the Los Angeles Ring are easier to summarize. Following the precedent of Herbert von Karajan, James Conlon locates the Wagnerian essence not in weight and bombast but in transparency and speed of thought. The vocal style in Rheingold is parlando-arioso, free of expressionistic overlays (no sneezing from Alberich, no whimpering from Mime, no snarling from anyone); much of Die Walküre, of course, demands a more romantic, "operatic" vein. Stretched to the max, the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra delivered moments of exquisite filigree in Das Rheingold but little authority in the brass; a few short weeks later, the Ride of the Valkyries flew by in a blaze. If progress continues at this rate, next year's cycles should be thrilling indeed.
Vitalij Kowaljow's Wotan is growing, too: anonymous in Das Rheingold, he rose to tragic stature in Act 2 of Die Walküre, declaiming with feeling and understanding that recalled the young James Morris. (To finish the opera as he began, he will have to build greater stamina.) Through crisp body language, immaculate diction, and expressive phrasing, Graham Clark's Mime conjured up a real character, though his face could never be seen; the rest of the Rheingold cast has yet to learn how to project individuality through Freyer's masks and mummery.
In Die Walküre, Plácido Domingo saved any heroics for the climaxes; for the rest, his Siegmund relied on solemn understatement. Vocally fearless, Anja Kampe's Sieglinde was at her most commanding in Act 2, where few sopranos really shine. Though not on pitch, Linda Watson's Brünnhilde set the house ringing with her opening cry. Later on, her huge, bright instrument wobbled on occasion without distracting from the arc and sense of purpose in her portrayal. Experience counts. Her Bayreuth summers in the part were paying off.
Los Angeles: The Birds Say Hello
A runaway hit in its time—the original production, conducted by Bruno Walter, chalked up more than 50 performances in two years in Munich alone—Die Vögel, by Walter Braunfeld, is understandably high on the agenda of musicians eager to explore and revive whatever the Third Reich suppressed as "entartete Musik." As music director of the Los Angeles Opera, James Conlon has pledged to do just that in a continuing program entitled "Recovered Voices." Staged productions began last season with a double bill of Viktor Ullmann's Der Zerbrochene Krug and Alexander von Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg. Next season's offering will be Die Gezeichneten, billed as the first staging of a Franz Schreker opera in the American hemisphere.
Degeneracy in art, as the Nazis used the term, was on the one hand a matter of race, on the other hand a matter of aesthetics. Jews who wrote progressive music on scandalous themes—as several did—had two strikes against them. With Braunfels, a "half" Jew, the problem was not artistic. Indeed, the Nazis found his music so acceptable that in the early 1920s they asked him to write an anthem for their still-fledgling party. He refused, and in 1933, they had their revenge, stripping him of his position as director of the conservatory in Cologne. Though he survived the war, he never regained his former eminence. Musically, he was a conservative, thus a nonperson on aesthetic grounds.
Die Vögel is an unbalanced work. Act 1, written before World War I, sticks close to its source, a comedy by Aristophanes in which the Athenians Hoffegut (Good Hope) and Ratefreund (Friendly Counsel) strike out for the realm of the Birds, advising them to topple the gods. Act 2, written after the war, in which Braunfels served at the front and converted to Catholicism, shoots off in directions Aristophanes never anticipated. Of particular note, the romantically inclined Hoffegut finds himself enamored of the Nightingale. Equally striking, Prometheus makes a highly fraught appearance, warning the Birds against the consequences of their folly. Though many extended episodes are lovely to listen to, neither act shows much grasp of dramatic incident or pacing.
In the characters of the two Athenians, some have seen parallels to Tamino and Papageno; in the lush romanticism of the love duet, some have heard echoes of Tristan und Isolde. In performance, such resemblances seem academic at best, far-fetched in the extreme. The Nightingale (originally Maria Ivogün) sings in a pale variant of the cut-glass, ornamental coloratura that has been a cliché for birdsong through many generations. And the love duet, soulful and expansive as it is, comes nowhere near Wagner's oceanic harmonies. In conversational passages, Braunfels does prove a masterly setter of dialogue (David's patter in Die Meistersinger comes to mind), but surely his most memorable pages belong to Good Hope as he recalls his mystic interlude with the Nightingale and wends his way home. The tenor Brandon Jovanovich, engaging throughout, soared to new heights here, combining lyricism and romantic timbre with unforced power.
Within a strong, well-balanced ensemble (seen April 18), other standouts included James Johnson, lively and sharp as Friendly Counsel; Martin Gantner, somnolent and grave as Hoopoe (Wiedhopf), king of the birds; and Brian Mulligan, flooding with tragic emotion as Prometheus. (In their wide-ranging parts, all three seemed to struggle somewhat with their low notes.) Desirée Rancatore, clear as a bell, dispatched her coloratura with admirable precision but occasionally allowed a wide vibrato to creep into long phrases. As the constant in the score's somewhat jumbled styles, James Conlon cultivated Mozartean transparency.
Though far from luxurious, the production had its moments. The setting consisted of little more than two rows of palm trees as straight as pencils, plus a few clouds at stage level, until, at the height of the birds' folly, birdhouses were erected in the shape of Greek temples. Casual, mid-century dress served perfectly for the Athenians, but the birds were a dreary lot in togs like old pajamas, with ugly headdresses and capes for wings.
Los Angeles: Salonen Bids Farewell
Most people have no trouble distinguishing between ritual theater as practiced in ancient Greece or remote villages in India (on the one hand) and (on the other hand) the culture industry of contemporary Europe and America. To Peter Sellars, the difference does not exist. For the Los Angeles Philharmonic's celebration of the 17-year tenure of the departing music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sellars revived a Stravinsky double bill originally mounted in collaboration with Kent Nagano at the Salzburg Festival in 1994. On the face of it, the choice made sense. Stravinsky has been a cornerstone of Salonen's Los Angeles repertoire, and Sellars has proved a visionary partner to Salonen for many years.
Thus, the grand finale of the Salonen era (seen April 17) consisted of Oedipus Rex shorn of its stilted, ironic Cocteau narration, followed by Symphony of Psalms, staged as a pantomime of Oedipus at Colonus. Holding the whole thing together, the character of Antigone spoke speeches from Sophocles. In Sellars' conception, Oedipus Rex is the enactment of collective spiritual destitution, Symphony of Psalms the enactment of collective salvation. A more severe, even penitential, evening would be hard to conceive of. No bouquets and fireworks here. Can a concert change the course of a world gone wrong? Probably not, but it is better to light a candle than to curse the dark.
Oedipus at Colonus, the mystery play of Sophocles' old age, takes up the story of the outcast king of Thebes at the end of his wanderings, as he reaches Athens. There, the slayer of his father and second husband of his mother enters the sacred grove of the Furies, where he miraculously vanishes, allaying the ancient curse upon him and bestowing blessings on the city that embraced him.
In a program essay that blazes with conviction, Sellars aligns his agenda with messages in the Stravinsky scores, constructing an inner biography the notoriously image-conscious composer would surely have disputed. But in the soaring, cathedral-like spaces of Disney Concert Hall, much of the time, the audience had little choice but to take the will for the deed. True, Salonen shaped the scores with a supple hand, lending smoothness and bloom to angular episodes, positively luxuriating in scattered moments of sensuality. Instrumental soli came off without a hitch. Still, theatrical exigencies eclipsed the maestro's best efforts.
The stage floor was configured on three levels, with the orchestra at the bottom and the chorus in the middle. The principals were arrayed at the top, where tribal thrones, assembled from found objects by the Ethiopian sculptor Elias Simé, added a stunning charge of ceremony. The arrangement was good to look at—but it wrought havoc on the fabled acoustics of the hall. As Antigone—daughter of the incestuous union of Oedipus and Jocasta—the powerful stage and film actress Viola Davis required amplification, which worked well enough for her. Alas, it was thought that for balance the singers therefore must be amplified as well. The attempt went disastrously awry. When the men's voices could be heard at all, they lacked volume, presence, and impact. Gesticulating frantically in the distance, the singers seemed diminutive and grotesque. Here and there, one could make out the honeyed timbre and beautifully flexible line of Rodrick Dixon's Oedipus, but the veil never lifted for Ryan McKinny, triple-cast as Creon, the Messenger, and Tiresias, who seemed to be articulating sharply. Only Anne Sofie von Otter's Jocasta registered with any visceral force; hers was a performance riveting in its concentration, hypnotically declaimed, lustrous in tone. The choral contribution was impressive, too. The members sang from memory while executing all sorts of extraneous physical activity—falling down, beating theirs chests, directing desperate semaphore to the gods.