Posts Tagged ‘Camilla Nylund’

Rusalka, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, February 2012

28 February, 2012

Can a force of nature acquire a soul? This is what Rusalka wants, to become human. As she says to the water spirit Vodník, humans have souls and go to heaven when they die. But souls are full of sin, says Vodník, …  and of love she responds. She has seen her prince and wants him to love her.

Dvořak’s opera Rusalka pits the powers of nature, particularly water, against human feelings and emotions. Like Ashton’s ballet Ondine it is loosely based on Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s fairy tale Undine that tells of a water nymph who falls in love with a prince. After acquiring human form, she loses her ability to speak, and at their wedding spurns his advances, feeling unable to compete with the fatal attraction of the articulate foreign princess. She abandons her prince, and though he searches for her and they are briefly reunited, his fate is sealed by his own unfaithfulness, and he dies in her arms.

Camilla Nylund made a lovely Rusalka, and Alan Held a very powerful Vodník. Both these performers sang the same roles in the original version of this production at Salzburg in 2008, and here at Covent Garden they enjoyed huge support from the other cast members. Bryan Hymel’s gloriously melodious voice was perfect for the Prince, and Petra Lang was superb as the foreign princess. Her body language is wonderfully expressive, and this singer who has made such a marvellous Ortrud in Lohengrin at both Covent Garden and Bayreuth, is perfectly suited to the role of a princess who feels not love but anger, determined that if she can’t have the prince then he shall be denied happiness. Compared to the princess he’s a weak man and instead of happiness he finds death as he begs Rusalka to kiss him at the end.

The power that allows this water nymph to turn into a human is the witch Ježibaba, strongly sung by Agnes Zwierko, and the singing of the three wood nymphs was beautiful, Madeleine Pierard in particular. Underlying it all was the conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who imbued the music with huge emotional intensity at just the right moments. This was a terrific performance, and the singers were loudly cheered at the end, though the production team was roundly booed.

A bizarre production, photo Clive Barda

The production itself was brightly kitsch in parts, and like many other productions imported from the Germanic world, it presumably had a Konzept — in this case perhaps a brothel with Ježibaba as the madame, carefully checking the banknotes at one moment — but what’s the point? The ethereal nature of Rusalka and the watery forces of nature are better viewed without such a concrete representation. They inhabit a dark and mysterious world, yet the lighting at some points in Act III was extremely bright in a way that might work in Cosi fan tutte, but not in Rusalka.

This is a Czech opera — the very word of the title means water nymph in Czech — and does not fit easily with this Germanic-Italian production by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. The theme of nature here is very much a Slavic one, and the term rus has an ancient Indo-European origin, meaning dew or humidity.

Do look beyond the superficialities of the production to the deeper meaning of the opera and don’t leave at the interval as several people did, because the performance is superb.

Performances continue until March 14 — for details click here.

Tannhäuser, Bayreuth, July 2011

27 July, 2011

What fun this was at the end! The production team were booed to the rafters with not a handclap to be heard, and Stephanie Friede as Venus was so roundly booed she didn’t return for her second curtain call. What a relief to cheer the chorus, along with Michael Nagy’s beautifully sung Wolfram, and Günter Groissböck’s powerful voice and presence as Hermann the Landgraf.

All photos Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Bayreuth is celebrating its 100th festival, delighting the management if not the audience by opening with another extraordinary production, this one by 42-year old Sebastian Baumgarten. His Konzept — and directors’ concepts are of the essence here — is that Tannhäuser is a huge experiment, reflecting the idea that the hero is experimenting with excess and its subsequent rejection. An audience on stage observes everything, and apparently Baumgarten wanted to run it without intervals. Thankfully the caterers objected, so he settled for the stage audience staying in place while the real audience left and the experiment continued. But anyone who thought they could stay to watch was soon ejected because that’s the way they do it in Bayreuth — the auditorium is emptied and the doors locked.

The Venusberg

The Venusberg is a cage with ape-men and various animals, including three giant tadpoles — could these be the three Graces who intervene to halt the ever more frantic proceedings? When it descends below stage we see three huge chemical processing plants in red, green and blue. Bold colours and big designs by Joep van Lieshout, but one gets lost in the details. The Act I shepherd in yellow trousers and white shirt is drunk, and reappears in the same state at the song contest of Act II where scantily dressed girls in knickers and stockings, with holsters on their belts, occasionally enjoy caresses with one another, and the pregnant Venus comes to watch proceedings. After going up to a high gantry and throwing water onto Wolfram and Biterolf as they’re singing, Tannhäuser holds Venus centre stage, and Elisabeth slashes her wrists.

Elisabeth at the Act II Song Contest

Video projections continued throughout, and one of a young woman operating machinery suddenly reminded me of the Nazi period. Perhaps that was my imagination, yet in Act III Wolfram accompanies Elisabeth to the huge BIOGAS cylinder and locks her in. “Kinder schaff’ Neues” (Children do something new) said Wagner, but did he really mean them to alter his dramas in this way? Elisabeth represents a pure type of love, and Wolfram adores her, yet he apparently murders her and sings O du mein holder Abendstern (Oh you my precious evening star) to the pregnant Venus, whose baby is passed round among the chorus ladies at the end.

Stage audience, Tannhäuser, Venus and tadpole in Act I

Yes, this is still Tannhäuser. Words and music remain Wagner’s, and conductor Thomas Hengelbrock gave us thrilling crescendos in the prelude to Act III. Production concepts notwithstanding, Lars Cleveman in his many costumes sang strongly as Tannhäuser, and Camilla Nylund made an attractive Elizabeth, with Michael Nagy and Günther Groissböck as Wolfram and the Landgraf giving the performance real vocal heft.

Ironically there really is a great experiment going on in Europe at present. It’s the Euro, and two of its gods sat a few rows behind us in a box — I refer to Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Trichet. What they made of this I don’t know, but it’s now the Greeks who have been metaphorically in the Venusberg, and are trying to gain redemption. Tannhäuser was denied it in Rome, and it took a miracle from on high, yet he dies in the end.

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.