Posts Tagged ‘Lothar Koenigs’

Cunning Little Vixen, WNO, Cardiff, February 2013

25 February, 2013

This opera pits the timeless amorality of the natural world against the emotions and melancholy of human beings. The former is represented by the Vixen, her family, and other forest animals, the latter by Forester, Schoolmaster, Priest and Poacher.

Vixen and her Fox

Vixen and her Fox

In the original story by Rudolf Těsnohlídek, based on drawings by Stanislav Lolek, the Vixen lives on, but Janáček has the poacher kill her. This injects a tragic element into the story, yet the end result is the same: the natural world continues regardless of human intervention, and in the final scene where the Forester recalls true love from the springtime of his life, another vixen appears. As he reaches out to catch her, his hand clasps a little frog, who tells him he’s not the same one as before — that w-w-was his grandfather. The natural world is a constant, and while the Forester and other humans live with the memories of love they have lost, the animals know that the meaning of life is life itself.

In David Pountney’s 1980 production, with its designs by Maria Bjørnson, the natural world is pre-eminent, and a small space opens up for those moments when the humans control things: the yard at the Forester’s home, and the inn where the three friends drink together. Otherwise it is the outdoors, where Nick Chelton’s lighting shows the change of seasons and day alternating with night. At one point the snow disappears in a pretty stage trick that made me laugh — a light moment, and the opera is full of them. The story may be as deep as the sky, but the whole thing embraces three half-hour acts plus one interval. In the Czech Republic it is Janáček’s most popular opera.

Schoolmaster and Forester

Schoolmaster and Forester

Musically it’s a treat, and in Act II when the Vixen finds her Fox and opens up to the joy of life, Sophie Bevan and the orchestra rose to heights of lyrical perfection. Her love duet with Sarah Castle as the Fox was glorious, with the orchestra under Lothar Koenigs playing with Wagnerian intensity. Alan Oke made a wonderfully dry Schoolmaster with his steady melancholy, David Stout was very effective in his Act III appearance as the poacher, and Jonathan Summers was full of character and vocal assurance as the Forester. As the opera ended I wished for more intensity in those final musical chords, but Lothar Koenigs gave an intensely lyrical rendering of Janáček’s score.

Vixen's new family

Vixen’s new family

The production as a whole is a delight, and in Act I when the Vixen is tied up in the Forester’s yard, a dancer comes on to express her desire for freedom. Stuart Hopp’s choreography here fits the music to perfection, and Naomi Tadevossian showed true musicality in its performance. When the production was new it would have been a different dancer, as would be the children who played the small animals, but life goes on while human problems remain the same, and that is the point of this wonderful piece of Czech magical realism.

Performances continue at Cardiff, 26 Feb – 28 Feb; Birmingham Hippodrome, 7 Mar; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, 14 Mar; The Mayflower, Southampton, 21 Mar; Milton Keynes Theatre, 27 Mar; Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 4 Apr — for details click here.

Lulu, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff, February 2013

9 February, 2013

Alban Berg’s Lulu, mostly written in 1934, was only performed in a complete version for the first time in 1979. Berg died in 1935, and after his widow could not get Schoenberg, nor Webern or Zemlinsky, to write an orchestration of Act III she refused any attempt at completion, and so it remained until she died more than forty years after her husband.

Lulu and Countess Geschwitz, all images WNO/ Clive Barda

Lulu and Countess Geschwitz, all images WNO/ Clive Barda

Complete productions are much to be desired because in Berg’s unique musical language the three acts hang together, and David Pountney has done us the great service of staying true to the composer’s vision, and indeed that of Frank Wedekind, who wrote the two plays on which it is based. If you saw the Covent Garden production by Christof Loy in 2009, a coldly unrealistic concert-like performance, be assured this is utterly different. Colourful, yet capable of huge coldness towards the end, courtesy of Mark Jonathan’s clever lighting, this production allows us to see Lulu’s abject amorality and the fascination she exerts on those around her.

Schön and Lulu

Schön and Lulu

Johan Engels’ set recalls the circus of the prologue, perhaps even the meta-human achievements of the 2012 Olympics, and the animal heads used in Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes recall the convergence of humanity and inhumanity in The Story of O. The bowler hats represent the world outside, as do the umbrellas in the final scene, where Lulu meets her end in a dreary post-Dickensian London.

After each of her three husbands dies earlier in the opera he is hung on the set and lifted high up, remaining there until the end when each returns in a different guise. This helps exhibit the symmetry of Berg’s opera, centred as it is on the incarceration of Lulu after the death of her husband, Dr. Schön. She kills him herself and he returns as Jack the Ripper. Heady stuff, with Lulu as nemesis to the desire and fascination she evokes, the earth spirit in the first part of Wedekind’s drama.

Lulu, Act I sc.3

Lulu, Act I sc.3

Marie Arnet did a superb job of bringing this Erdgeist to stage, secure in voice and sure in characterization under David Pountney’s direction. Here is something far more than a femme fatale. She is a creature of the spirit world that lurks in our unconscious, befitting the deeply intellectual milieu that produced Freud and the music of the Second Viennese School. Some excellent singing too from others in the cast, with Natascha Petrinsky particularly notable as Lulu’s lesbian lover and admirer, the Countess Geschwitz. Ashley Holland gave a sound performance as Dr. Schön, with Peter Hoare giving a brilliantly incisive portrayal as Lulu’s lover and Schön’s son Alwa. Richard Angas came over very well as the animal tamer and Schigolch, as did Mark LeBrocq as the Artist in Act I reincarnated as the Negro in Act III, Patricia Orr as the schoolboy and other roles, Julian Close as the Acrobat, and Alan Oke was superb as Prince, Manservant and Marquis in the three acts.

Conducting by Lothar Koenigs brought out the full range and value of Berg’s extraordinary score, and in Pountney’s hands this was a production to savour. When Lulu is incarcerated after the death of Schön, her Freiheit removed like Freia in Wagner’s Ring, there was a similar lassitude that could only be relieved by her escape. And talking of the Ring, the patch over Schigolch’s eye, and his appearance at the end, reminded me of Wagner’s Wanderer in Siegfried.

This was a rip-roaring success for WNO, and if you don’t know the story of the opera, read it up first and buy a programme for the excellent essays it contains.

Performances at the Wales Millennium Centre continue until February 23, after which it tours to: The Birmingham Hippodrome, 5 Mar; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, 12 Mar; The Mayflower, Southampton, 19 Mar; Milton Keynes Theatre, 26 Mar; Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 2 Apr — for details click here.

Die Meistersinger, in concert at the Proms, 17 July 2010

18 July, 2010

Wagner’s Meistersinger scales the heights of comedy, passion, youthful energy and mature wisdom. It’s a magnificent opera and should produce some wonderful productions, though I saw a real horror last summer at Bayreuth! In such a case one is better off with a concert performance, which of course this was, and it was terrific. The music was played with clarity and unflagging energy from the orchestra of the Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs, and the cast was the same as their recently acclaimed production. Unfortunately the men were all in plain black, with no nod to the costumes, except for an apron for Hans Sachs in Act II, befitting his role as a cobbler, inundated with worried neighbours wanting to talk, and claiming uncomfortable shoes to justify their visits. This is where Amanda Roocroft as Eva interacted so well with Bryn Terfel as Sachs, their body language as eloquent as their words. Both of them sang magnificently, and Terfel gave a wonderfully nuanced performance. He built up gradually through Acts I and II, and in Act III his Wahn monologue was beautifully done, and he ended very strongly with his Verachtet mir die Meister nicht . . .

Christopher Purves was a superbly arrogant and insecure Beckmesser. He sang wonderfully, and his chewing up of the prize song was a lovely comic turn, but what a pity the translation in the libretto missed a trick in line two, translating ‘Blut’ as ‘blossom’ when it means ‘blood’ — Beckmesser has mistakenly sung Blut instead of Blüt. The last time I saw Purves he sang an excellent Tonio in I Pagliacci at the ENO, another role for a foolish and rejected lover, but I imagine his abilities go beyond these comic roles, and he’s surely a rising star. Andrew Tortise also sang beautifully as David, temporarily abandoning his beautiful tone as he made a gloriously deliberate mess of his first attempt at Am Jordan Sankt Johannes stand early in Act III. Anna Burford did well as Magdalena, and only Raymond Very as Walther was disappointing. His voice lacked youthful energy and did not come over well in the huge Albert Hall, though on the BBC recording the microphone seems to have picked up his voice far better. In close-up on the television he looked fine, if a little old for the part, but in the Hall his little white beard and poor posture made him look like a middle-aged version of Beckmesser.

The orchestra of less than seventy players, apart from some extra brass in the second part of Act III, produced big sounds when necessary yet managed to feel almost like a chamber orchestra at times. The chorus was magnificent, and witnessing Meistersinger in the Albert Hall with these performers was an uplifting experience. For such a feast of music one really wants the dynamic range afforded by a large auditorium, and I applaud The Proms for their first performance of this opera.