Posts Tagged ‘Strauss Woche’

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.

Cassandra by Vittorio Gnecchi, and Elektra by Richard Strauss, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Feb 2009

15 February, 2009

Cassandra, by the Italian composer Gnecchi, was written four years before Stauss’s Elektra. It tells of Agamemnon’s return to his wife Klytemnestra, who intends to kill him as revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia at the start of his voyage to Troy, and of course to preserve her relationship with Aegisthus. Agamemnon brings Cassandra with him from Troy, and she prophesies death. He believes her, but his wife whisks him away and the deed is done. The opera ends with the death of Agamemnon, though Cassandra will die later because that is her fate when someone finally believes her prophecies. The main role was for Klytemnestra, brilliantly sung by Susan Anthony, and her lover Aegisthus was well sung by Piero Terranova. Cassandra herself was very well portrayed by Nora Gubisch, but she only appears late in this fifty-minute opera. Agamemnon was Gustavo Porta. The late Romantic music was melodic, but tended to be at fever pitch without much of a let-up — it needed more light and shade.

Elektra had a very strong cast of female singers: Janice Baird as Elektra, Hanna Schwarz as Klytemnestra, and Manuela Uhl as Chrysothemis. Both the latter two, who were in Salome three days earlier as Herodias and Salome respectively, sang their roles in this opera particularly strongly. The small part of Aegisthus was well sung by Burkhard Ulrich, and Orestes was ineffectually portrayed by Egils Silins.

The director for both operas was Kirsten Harms, with scenery and costumes by Bernd Damovsky. In both operas the sets were very plain, having high walls with no top in sight, and the women’s costumes were modern and plain, mainly black dresses. Agamemnon in Cassandra, and Orestes after the murder in Elektra, were both covered in pinkish/red paint from top to waist, and looked like simple butchers.

The conductor was Kazushi Ono, but in Elektra, which I have heard many times before, the orchestra seemed out of control on the loud passages, with the brass too harsh. He certainly brought the quiet passages under control, almost as if in a chamber opera, but I found myself unmoved by the effect.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Feb 2009

13 February, 2009

When this started, silently, with dancers in practice togs marking steps on stage, I thought it might be another disaster, like Salome the night before. But then an orchestra came in, and by the end I was in tears. Fortunately the applause went on for ages, allowing plenty of time to recover and cheer.

This imaginative and coherent production by Robert Carsen sets the opera in modern times, complete with a mobile phone at one point, and it’s the only time I’ve seen the richest man in Vienna actually appear on stage. He enters with the Major Domo and they take tea, watching the dancers practicing. When the Major Domo finally speaks he is the impresario ordering the entertainments to take place as he and his master desire, and things take on a very realistic feel. It gradually builds until Zerbinetta, gloriously sung and acted by Jane Archibald, charms the composer, beautifully portrayed by Ruxandra Donose, persuading her to go ahead with the farce that’s been ordered. This dialogue took place against a black backdrop at a 45 degree angle, with lighting from below focusing on the characters, and it provided a very effective turning point to events. After it was over the composer came into the auditorium, made her way along the front row, handed a copy of the score to the conductor, and went to the corner of the stage to follow events. A spot stayed on her for the rest of the performance.

With no interval, the second part went straight ahead. The performers were in black, except for some funny nonsense with wigs, masks, and changing clothes by Zerbinatta’s followers, and the dancers from the silent prologue reappeared in several ways, with the men doing a charming number with Zerbinetta. At one point she appeared in the auditorium and went to hug the composer, cementing the rapport they’d found at the end of the first part. Finally Ariadne and Bacchus sang in front of a completely white background, Zerbinetta crossed the stage with her final comments, the curtain fell, and as the last notes came out of the orchestra, the composer reopened the curtains to enter a completely blank stage. The audience were so stunned that the applause took a while to start. As soon as it did, the dancers came on to lift the composer and carry her forward to celebrate the success of her composition.

Ariadne was well sung by Violeta Urmana, Bacchus by Roberto Sacca, and I found Matthias Bundshuh particularly good as the Major Domo. The orchestra played with clarity and emotion under the excellent baton of Jacques Lacombe. This was a great performance of Ariadne.

Salome, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Feb 2009

12 February, 2009

In this bizarre production the performers were dressed as clowns, in striped costumes, with upturned buckets, funnels, saucepans, and the like as headgear. They entered and exited through yellow doors in yellow walls, occasionally popping their heads up from behind these walls. Whether this would work for a stage version of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t work for a Strauss opera. Only Salome, right at the end, wore anything reasonable, namely a pink slip, and the evident intention was to show her as the only normal person in a world of lunatics. I felt sorry for Manuela Uhl as Salome, because she didn’t come over well until the final scene, and was given no dance. This high point of the opera started with two of the erstwhile guards dragging in a cleaning trolley and clearing the stage, after which they, along with the other four people on stage danced in a conga. Salome eventually took off her striped clown outfit, but there was no sexual allure whatsoever, and when Herod at the end of the dance sings, Herrlich. Wundervoll, you wonder why. As to the singers, Hanna Schwarz was excellent as Herodias, and Clemens Bieber sang Narraboth with power and incisiveness — what a shame he dies so early. Chris Merritt was a slightly underpowered Herod, Manuela Uhl a powerful but slightly screechy Salome, but they were all badly let down by Morten Frank Larsen as Jochanaan, whose voice was quite wrong for the part — powerful on the higher notes, but completely lost on the lower register. The absurd costumes and scenery were complemented by ridiculous staging, with the performers required to make stylized and nonsensical arm movements, and walk forwards and backwards in meaningless ways. The entire nonsense was attributed to an artist named Achim Freyer. But perhaps if one closed ones eyes and listened to the glorious music? No, that didn’t work either, because Ulf Schirmer as conductor seemed to have little control of the orchestra. In the loud passages they let rip, and in the more lyrical moments they were dull. Strauss’s music needs playing with restraint and emotional conviction. But this one-dimensional performance didn’t begin to do justice to what ought to be a highly charged musical rendering of sexual desire and religious fervour. What a let-down!