Posts Tagged ‘Sebastian Lang-Lessing’

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.

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.

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.