Posts Tagged ‘Berlin’

Das Rheingold, Staatsoper Berlin, Schiller Theater, April 2013

5 April, 2013

The lights went down and all was silence. In the partially covered pit the conductor was invisible but slowly a quiet E flat emerged. Daniel Barenboim’s restrained conducting allowed huge clarity for the singers and plenty of scope for the brass at big moments. It was a coolly intriguing prelude to The Ring.

Alberich and Rheinmaidens, all images ©Monika Rittershaus

Alberich and Rheinmaidens, all images ©Monika Rittershaus

The stage was filled with water, albeit shallow, and Alberich and the Rheinmaidens were like a boy with three teasing girls splashing around in the water. After their mockery he is defeated and soaking wet. Then comes the gold motif and we’re off and away.

After Alberich takes the gold, dancers enter. They form everything from an arch for the entrance of Wotan and Fricka, to a throne for Alberich and an animated tarnhelm. They also writhe and express themselves to the music, but not everyone will like this aspect. Some of us prefer less distraction. It seems that the director, Guy Cassiers is keen to see perpetual motion on stage, whereas many in the Wagner audience are doubtless more keen to listen to the orchestral sound and the singers.

Loge and dancers

Loge and dancers

In this respect there was some very fine singing indeed. Johannes Martin Kränzle was a terrific Alberich, somewhat hampered by the dancers in this opera, and I look forward to his return in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Superb diction and tone from Iain Paterson and Mikhail Petrenko as Fasolt and Fafner, plus a very strong vocal presence by Stephan Rügamer as Loge, and mellow attractiveness from Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka. Despite a subdued performance as Wotan, René Pape came through strongly when necessary, particularly after taking the Ring from Alberich when he gloats that his new possession will raise him to der Mächtigen mächtigsten Herrn (the mightiest of mighty lords).

Alberich and dancers

Alberich and dancers

The Ring itself in this production is a sparkling glove, and when Alberich loses it the end of his arm appears cut off. The glove idea has the merit of making the Ring obviously visible to the whole audience, and when Wotan heeded Erda’s warning he gave it up by simply tossing it over his head.

Costumes by Tim Van Steenbergen put the giants in dark suits, and the representation of the male gods reminded me of some rather odd dictators (the late Kim Jong Il came to mind in the person of Donner), and British readers will know what I mean if compare the appearance of Loge to violinist Nigel Kennedy.

Good lighting by Enrico Bagnoli, who collaborated with director Guy Cassiers on the sets, and I liked the video projections that at one point seemed to suggest a future world. Their reflection on the water was very effective, but I gather from friends that this was not visible from all parts of the auditorium.

This performance was on April 4. Die Walküre continues tonight on April 5, unencumbered by dancers if my memory of La Scala serves me right.

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Wagner at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, a retrospective, February 2010

17 February, 2010

Five Wagner operas in six days — LohengrinRienziDer fliegende HolländerTannhäuser, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg — was quite a marathon, but well worth it, particularly for three of the productions. Lohengrin and Meistersinger, both under the direction of Götz Friedrich were excellent, and Philipp Stölzl’s Rienzi gave us an intriguing representation of Hitler and the Nazis — very appropriate when one recalls that Hitler loved the opera and possessed the original score, which presumably went up in flames in the bunker when he died. Interestingly enough, Wagner had already disassociated himself from this early opera well before he died, which was before Hitler was born. Of the other two operas, the production of Tannhäuser by Kirsten Harms was effective in the first two acts, but disappointing in the third, while the one-act Holländer was given an absurd production by Tatjana Gürbaca. Opera houses that put on such nonsense shoot themselves in the foot, as word gets around and many seats remain unsold.

Some of the singing was outstanding. Anyone who did not attend Tannhäuser missed a superb performance by Stephen Gould, who seems perfectly suited to this role. In November 2011 he will sing it at the Wiener Staatsoper, where he will also perform Siegfried in the last two Ring operas. Mentioning singers who fill a role to perfection, I thought Torsten Kerl performed very well, and was convincingly narcissistic, as the title character in Rienzi. And a similar wonderful pairing between singer and role was Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther in Meistersinger. It’s one of his main parts, along with Lohengrin, and I would rather have seen him in that opera than Ben Heppner, whose power seems to have weakened in recent years, though he retains his lyricism. As it was I thought the best performers in Lohengrin were Waltraud Meier and Eike Wilm Schulte, who were wonderfully mendacious as Ortrud and Telramund. King Henry the Fowler was also very strongly sung by Markus Brück, who gave us a superb Beckmesser in Meistersinger, young, smug and appallingly lacking in self-esteem — it was a wonderful act. Holländer is hardly worth mentioning since the singers cannot do their best in such an absurd production, but I found the strongest member of the cast to be Hans-Peter König singing Daland, as he did a year ago at the Royal Opera.

As far as the conducting went, Jacques Lacombe’s rendition of Holländer came over well, and since the production was so awful I kept my eyes closed and concentrated on the music. Sebastian Lang-Lessing did well with Rienzi in the cut-down version that was performed here, and I very much liked Michael Schønwandt’s conducting of Lohengrin. Ulf Schirmer did well with Tannhäuser, but although I found Donald Runnicles’ conducting of Meistersinger to be very sensitive to the singers, I wasn’t sure he had taken enough time to rehearse. Being later in Wagner’s oeuvre than the other operas during the week it is musically more sophisticated and I felt there was some raggedness in parts.

Altogether, however this was a great week of Wagner. I particularly loved the Götz Friedrich productions of Lohengrin and Meistersinger, and found Rienzi stunning after a rather dubious first half. Congratulations to the Deutsche Oper for putting it on in this new Philipp Stölzl production.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wagner Wochen, February 2010

15 February, 2010

Rossini’s comment that, “Wagner has lovely moments but awful quarters of an hour” was spoken before Die Meistersinger was created, and this opera has, for me, not a dull moment — it’s one glorious thing after another. Of course a determined director can spoil it, as happened at Bayreuth this past summer in Katharina Wagner’s diabolical production, but here in Berlin the production by Götz Friedrich was a wonderful antidote. The church pews became visible during the overture, the houses of Sachs and Pogner were opposite one another, the Flieder bush was visible on stage in Act II, and Sachs breathed its scent during his Flieder monologue. All this is as it should be, and I loved the sets by Peter Sykora, who collaborated with Kirsten Dephoff on the nineteenth and twentieth century costume designs. The production had a sense of movement and spontaneity, and on the fields outside Nuremberg the opening events of the final scene were enlivened by acrobats, and a wonderful charade with the tailors, their goatskin, and men dressed in armour, showing how they protected the city from a long siege by pretending it still had frisky goats inside.

Within this delightful production we had Klaus Florian Vogt as a glorious Walther, with Michaela Kaune as a lovely Eva, both having sung these same roles in Bayreuth last July. Beckmesser was brilliantly performed by Markus Brück, clearly sung, amusingly pompous and clumsy, but never over the top. Kristinn Sigmundsson was a strong Pogner with fine stage presence, and Paul Kaufmann and Ulrike Helzel did well as David and as Eva’s confidante Magdalena. James Johnson sang a very sympathetic Hans Sachs, and though he was a little underpowered and lacking in stage presence, he interacted well with the other cast members. The chorus sang strongly, and the conducting by Donald Runnicles never flagged, never went over the top, and gave the singers plenty of space.

As I said, this was the perfect antidote to the nonsense from Bayreuth, and I’m delighted I came to Berlin to see it.

Tannhäuser, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wagner Wochen, February 2010

13 February, 2010

With Stephen Gould as Tannhäuser, and Nadja Michael as Venus/Elisabeth we had the singers for a great performance, and they didn’t disappoint. Reinhard Hagen as Landgraf Hermann also sang strongly and with a lovely tone, and Dietrich Henschel was an earnest if somewhat underpowered Wolfram. The chorus was powerful, as was Ulf Schirmer’s musical direction, but what really made the evening was Stephen Gould’s Tannhäuser. He was forceful and articulate with a superb tone and strong stage presence. This is the sort of singer one wants as Tristan or Siegfried — Covent Garden please note.

The production by Kirsten Harms was well lit by Bernd Damovsky who also designed the sets and costumes. It had some interesting and powerful moments, particularly the silver armoured horses and riders that met up with Tannhäuser in the second part of Act I, and reappeared at the back of the stage at the very end of the opera when miraculous news from Rome shows that Tannhäuser is forgiven and redeemed. At the start of Act II forty suits of armour appeared on stage and remain suspended above the action for the rest of the opera. These matched the forty beds in Act III, for the healing of the pilgrims, but those I could have done without. I want to see the pilgrims returning from Rome — the heavy tread of these exhausted men is there in the music, and when I first saw this opera, in a Götz Friedrich production at Bayreuth in 1974, they made a huge impact. Here we merely had them in the beds of a hospital ward, which I found disappointing and lacking impact.

That aside, this production was good, and Nadja Michael in her simple long white dress gave a wonderful performance as both Venus and Elisabeth. The transformations between the two were accomplished quite subtly on stage by modifying her hair, long for Venus, and braided on top for Elisabeth. But in the end this was about the singing, and that is where Stephen Gould and Nadja Michael, along with the chorus and orchestra carried it all off with great effect.

Der fliegende Holländer, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wagner Wochen, February 2010

12 February, 2010

The stars of this performance were Manuela Uhl as Senta, and Hans-Peter König as her father Daland. Both sang very strongly, and along with Endrik Wottrich as Erik, they portrayed their roles with great sensitivity. Egils Silins as the Dutchman was not in the same league as Uhl and König. He would have made a good Hunding in Walküre, but did not have the voice to dominate in this particular cast. His stage presence was also weak, and when facing Senta alone on stage he held a rather pathetic stance. A good director should be able to overcome this, but I’m afraid Tatjana Gürbaca was not up to the job. She was probably more concerned with her own strange concept, in which the men were shown as financial traders, and the women as performers and party girls. In the end the Dutchman gave Senta a knife to kill Erik, which she did, and Senta’s nurse Marie killed Senta the same way. I haven’t the faintest idea what story Ms. Gürbaca was trying to stage and, judging by the enormous amount of booing at the end, nor did most of the audience. The words, however, were by Wagner and so was the music, beautifully played under the direction of Jacques Lacombe.

In the previous two operas this week, Lohengrin and Rienzi, the lighting was wonderful but there was no mention of the lighting designer. In this opera, however, Wolfgang Göbbel took credit and it was appalling — far too bright much of the time, and when lights were shone directly into the auditorium it suggested that the director wanted to insult the audience as well as Wagner. Indeed the director was the problem, rather than Herr Göbbel, who designed wonderful lighting for Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt at Covent Garden a year ago. But if you closed your eyes, as I did most of the time, the great music still came through with fine effect.

This is apparently Ms. Gürbaca’s first Wagner opera, and I hope it may be her last.

Rienzi, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wagner Wochen, February 2010

11 February, 2010

Rienzi gets a mention in the libretto of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, because Boccanegra, as Doge of Venice, had a similar plebeian background to Rienzi in Rome. Both lived in the fourteenth century and were raised to the highest office, despite opposition and resentment from the patricians. There are other comparisons such as Boccanegra’s long lost daughter, and Rienzi’s sister Irene, both adored by young patricians. In Rienzi, this young man is named Adriano, and when the patricians revolt against Rienzi’s government, Adriano’s father Stefano is killed, and Adriano vows to take revenge by killing Rienzi. His attempt fails, but he still adores Irene, and when the crowd turns ugly he decides to save her and her brother, but all three are killed. This is an obvious difference from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, where the great man appoints the young patrician as his successor, but in this production of Rienzi by Philipp Stölzl we can only wish for the death of the great leader with no successor.

Rienzi is portrayed as a twentieth century populist dictator, who is an almost clown-like megalomaniac. During the overture he is seated in a vast office overlooking the city, and gradually starts to move to the music, first with a hand and arm, later doing somersaults and cartwheels. The acrobat taking this role is immensely fat and the result is almost grotesque. Suddenly he jumps on the table imagining he is steering the whole office into the sky and beyond, as the view of the city gradually changes to a perspective from outer space.

Back to earth in the first part of the opera, the Roman people are shown like clowns and cabaret performers, as in Berlin of the 1920s. As Rienzi rises to power, the clown-like women change into black dresses with white aprons, the men into black Nazi-style uniforms, and there appears a backdrop of black flags with a white symbol having sharp corners. Could this be Hitler and Germany? Or do the later white uniforms with broad military caps suggest a South American dictatorship? Certainly Rienzi is in a white uniform, while Irene looks like a cross between Eva Peron and Yulia Timoschenko, and at the interval the production attracted plenty of booing.

In the second part, however, it all came together. The amateurish rise to power of the clown-like Rienzi is over. Here he is shown in his bunker on the ground level of the stage, with the people on the street level above. The staging by Stölzl and Mara Kurotschka, with freezes and occasional dramatic movements in slow motion was very powerful, and the sets by Stölzl and Ulrike Siegrist, along with excellent lighting, helped give the impression of organised chaos. There continued to be a Monty-Python flavour to events, with Rienzi performing for the cameras, orating to a bank of microphones in his Hitler moustache. The comparisons were unmistakable, particularly in the bunker when he played around with scaled-down models of some Berlin monuments, including the Reichstag and the Siegesäule. On the screen behind, which frequently showed Rienzi in populist and orator mode, we even saw Luftwaffe planes from the Second World War flying in a formation representing Rienzi’s symbol from the flag. That and the Wehrmacht helmets leave us in no doubt. The opera closes with Wagner’s original version where Rienzi condemns the people as being degenerate. Only the great man himself is a hero, dragged from his bunker and beaten to death, while Irene was beaten to death underground. Wishful thinking, but the effect on the audience was terrific. Huge applause and none of the booing that greeted the end of the first part.

In a recent interview, Stölzl was asked about his work, which has included being a theatre director as well as working in cinema films and music videos. He said that as an opera director he wasn’t much interested in seeing very traditional productions, but “. . . als Zuschauer ist mir eine Aufführung ohne Interpretation lieber als eine Interpretation, die ich nicht verstehen oder nicht nachvollziehen kann.” (as a spectator I prefer a production without interpretation to an interpretation that I cannot understand or completely follow). I couldn’t agree more, and though I began to doubt his faithfulness to this comment during the first part of this production, the second part fully made up for it.

As to the performers, Rienzi was very well sung and acted by Torsten Kerl — it’s a heavy role, and he carried it off with great power. Camilla Nylund was a statuesque Irene with strong voice and stage presence, and Kate Aldrich sang Adriano most beautifully, showing him to be an indecisive young man yearning for Irene’s strength and approval. The orchestra played well under the direction of Sebastian Lang-Lessing, and the chorus of nearly fifty men and fifty women were involved the whole time and sang with huge effect.

As a final word on Philipp Stölzl’s interpretation it is worth noting two facts. One is that Wagner rejected Rienzi well before the end of his life, yet it continued to attract large audiences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The other is that Hitler had the original score of this opera in his possession, and it is now lost, presumably having gone up in flames in the bunker.

Lohengrin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wagner Wochen, February 2010

10 February, 2010

This Götz Friedrich production, with sets and costumes by Peter Sykora, has a warmth and immediacy that emphasises the human weaknesses and machinations of the story. Friedrich’s excellent staging is well supported by the performers, particularly Waltraud Meier, who plays the evil Ortrud with subtle malice, and Eike Wilm Schulte, who portrays a fiercely tendentious Telramund with a commanding voice — this nasty pair both exhibit great stage presence. King Henry the Fowler was beautifully sung by Markus Brück, and Elsa was well portrayed, with suitable frailty, by Ricarda Merbeth. She sang well and I only wish she’d shown less tension in her face during Act I, as I prefer to see Elsa exhibit sublime confidence in finding a champion against the malicious accusations that she has killed her young brother Gottfried. The hero she awaits, who will defeat Telramund and his sorceress-wife Ortrud, is Lohengrin himself. This was Ben Heppner, who sang out boldly with great lyricism, though his stage presence was mainly notable by its absence.

The orchestra was excellently conducted by Michael Schønwandt, and I loved the horns on stage, and later off-stage. These were glorious instruments without valves, beautifully played by Gerhard Greif, Kurt Kratz, Ulrich Riehl and Joachim Weigert. The staging and the music were both very fine, and the lighting was quite remarkable. The gradual fade-outs on Telramund and Ortrud, and the glow on Elsa, were particularly well done. The bridesmaids and church choristers were nice touches in this production, and as Elsa enters the church at the end of Act II she pauses to look back at Ortrud, a moment that was well lit and dramatically emphasised.

Although Lohengrin is my least favourite Wagner opera — I find Act II overlong, and have a secret admiration for Rossini’s alleged comment that, “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend hearing it a second time” — this production is wonderful, and perhaps the best I’ve ever seen.

Wagner Week at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, February 2010

31 January, 2010

On February 9th I shall be in Berlin for a week of Wagner operas at the Deutsche Oper. Here is the list, with details of the performers.

Lohengrin: production by Götz Friedrich, conducted by Michael Schønwandt, with Ben Heppner as Lohengrin, Ricarda Merbeth as Elsa, Waltraud Meier as Ortrud, and Eike Wilm Schulte as her husband Telramund. I recall that Shulte sang a very strong Kurwenal in the Metropolitan live relay of Tristan in March 2008.

Rienzi: production by film director Philipp Stölzl, conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing, with Torsten Kerl as Rienzi, who sang Tristan at Glyndebourne in summer 2009. Camilla Nylund will be his sister Irene, Kate Aldrich her lover Adriano, and Ante Jerkunica as Adriano’s father.

Der fliegende Holländer: production by Tatjana Gürbaca, conducted by Jacques Lacombe, with Egil Silins as the Dutchman, Hans-Peter König as Daland, Manuela Uhl as his daughter Senta, and Endrik Wottrich as Erik. Ms Uhl had the misfortune to portray the eponymous role in the dreadful production of Salome by the Deutsche Oper last year, but let’s hope she has the advantage of a sensible production for this opera. Mentioning last year in Berlin, I recall Jacques Lacombe conducting an excellent Ariadne auf Naxos for the Deutsche Oper, and last summer a very fine Tosca for the Royal Opera in London.

Tannhäuser: production by Kirsten Harms, conducted by Ulf Schirmer, with Stephen Gould as Tannhäuser, Nadja Michael as Venus/Elisabeth, and Dietrich Henschel as Wolfram. Both Stephen Gould and Nadja Michael were together at the Royal Opera last January in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, an opera, like Tannhäuser, where a young man is pulled into a vortex of desire by a woman portraying two roles.

Die Meistersinger: production by Götz Friedrich, conducted by Donald Runnicles, with James Johnson as Hans Sachs, Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther, and Michaela Kaune as Eva. She was the Marschallin in the Deutsche Oper’s Rosenkavalier last year, and I saw both Vogt and Kaune in the Bayreuth Meistersinger this past summer, where he sang brilliantly despite the diabolical production. Beckmesser will be Marcus Brück, with Ulrike Helzel as Magdalena, and Paul Kaufmann as David.

Der Rosenkavalier, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Feb 2009

18 February, 2009

This production by Götz Friedrich sets the opera in the early twentieth century, and it works very convincingly. Daniela Sindram was the best Octavian I’ve ever seen, singing and acting the part of a young man to perfection. Her body movement was entirely masculine, and when she pretended to be the little maid Mariandel, she managed to do the young man being a young woman brilliantly. Kurt Rydl’s portrayal of Baron Ochs was superbly natural, without over-acting or stepping over the line into farce, as sometimes happens with this part, and his singing was thoroughly engaging. Michaela Kaune as the Marschallin also sang well, and while she did not portray the knowing sexiness and air of quiet command that some of the great Marschallins have, she evinced a lovely vulnerability, and her voice in the solo passages at the end was sublime. These three cast members carried the opera, and were very well supported by Burkhard Ulrich and Ulrike Helzel as the scheming Valzacchi and Anina, and by Ofelia Sala as a rather frumpy young Sophie, who had a little more vibrato than I would like. The orchestra played in a restrained and lyrical way under the baton of Peter Schneider, and this was a fitting finale to a great week of Richard Strauss.

Die Ägyptische Helena, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Feb 2009

16 February, 2009

This little-performed opera by Richard Strauss received a wonderful staging by Marco Arturo Marelli and his team. Marelli had read Strauss’s performance notes in the archives of the Vienna Staatsoper, where the composer alters and withdraws some of the music, and in following these notes he made welcome cuts in von Hofmannsthal’s over-complicated libretto. The upshot of the story, written shortly after the First World War, is the reuniting of husband and wife after years of separation due to war. A man’s difficulty in dealing with life after conflict is brought into focus here by Menelas’s desire to kill his wife, Helen as he brings her home from Troy. However, in this story Helen has allegedly been in Egypt throughout the ten years of war, and the Helen that Paris took to Troy was a fake conjured up by the gods. The existence of two Helens confuses Menelas after he arrives in Egypt — he cannot distinguish the real from the fake, and nor indeed can the audience. The entire scheme is presided over by an Egyptian sorceress Aithra, who in this production keeps a high-class brothel in Cairo. She gets intelligence on the coming of Menelas and his wife, and of her own lover Altair, from a clever and all seeing mussel, represented here as a colourful fortune teller. Altair’s son Da-ud is in love with Helen, and is killed by Menelas, who then reunites with his wife, partly with the help of a drink potion, and later through the magical appearance of their daughter Hermione.

In this performance, Ricarda Merbeth sang strongly in the very difficult part of Helena, as did Robert Chafin as Menelas, despite suffering from a cold. Laura Aikin was terrific as Aithra, and the other women all sang well. Morten Frank Larsen as Altair had no voice beyond a very limited range of pitch — how astonishing that he was cast as Jochanaan in Salome — but Burkhard Ulrich sang well as Da-ud. The sets were glorious, with a rotating stage that provided two separate rooms, for two separate Helens, and the costumes for Aithra and her ladies were elegant and sexy. What a shame that Helena herself appeared at the start, and at the end, in a frumpy long skirt and matching jacket, looking like a member of the local rotary club, rather than a mistress of the universe. Menelas was clothed in a greatcoat, presumably to emphasize the First World War imagery.

Andrew Litton conducted this difficult music with restraint and understanding that gave particular coherence to the second act. Altogether worth seeing again, but this is an opera where one needs to understand the story before reading the surtitles.