MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Guest Review: An Unusual but Successful Meistersinger in London

Fulham-Opera-Meistersinger

Fulham Opera, Die Meistersinger
image: Matthew Coughlan

Guest review by Tom Luce of Die Meistersinger at the London-based Fulham Opera:

Wagner’s epic comedy is one of the longest and largest pieces in the operatic repertoire. Sixteen solo roles, the semi-chorus of apprentices, and big chorus and orchestra requirements combine with its up to five hours’ duration to make Die Meistersinger one of the most daunting artistic and financial challenges opera managements can face.

Outside Germany and Austria, where some houses do it every year, it is difficult to find performances. I have been lucky this year to see it twice, in Berlin and then London.

In April, the Berlin Staatsoper staged Die Meistersinger with a distinguished and experienced cast, the world-class Berliner Staatskappelle in the pit, and Daniel Barenboim, one of our epoch’s most outstanding musicians, on the podium. It was every bit as powerful and inspiring as one would expect. Andrea Moses’ production presented Nuremberg as a center of global capitalism, with its Mastersingers as major corporate figures. Not everyone appreciated this approach, but the director did interestingly convey the crowd’s response to Hans Sachs’s concluding monologue as a commitment to art rather than nationalism.

The forces involved in the London performance around a month ago could not have been more different. The Fulham Opera is a small fairly new undertaking of the type often characterized as “fringe.” It presented this most challenging of operas without cuts but with a chorus totaling only 23 (including the apprentices). There were 19 musicians in the pit: 9 winds, 9 strings, and a lutenist for Beckmesser. They played Jonathan Finney’s reduced version of the score.

One might think that an ensemble on so small a scale would guarantee failure to deliver Wagner’s expansive epic. But the actual event undermined such prejudgments.

There were indeed some elements not wholly successful — the overture sounded thin and unbalanced, and the brawl at the end of the second act did not fully come off. But other big moments were successful. The third-act prelude was warmly and beautifully delivered, and the great “Wach Auf” Chorus came across powerfully. Throughout, the staging, acting, singing, and playing gave a real sense of the lyrical flow and the interactions between characters that are essential to the piece.

The limited scenery concentrated more on furniture than on the Nuremberg setting but did provide plenty of scope for the comic interactions between the apprentices and their leader David and the Mastersingers in Paul Higgins’ effective and enjoyable staging. All the soloists sang and acted convincingly and were matched by skillful and committed playing in the pit under the fluent and sympathetic musical direction of Ben Woodward.

Rather, I must confess, to my own surprise, l left the Fulham Opera performance with the wonders of Wagner’s great masterpiece resonating not all that much less than I had left the Berlin performance.

The success of this daring enterprise shows that there are a large number of very gifted singing actors in the operatic profession without — at least for the present — the celebrity status expected by big opera company audiences. It also shows that elaborate scenery is not necessary for an effective staging.

This prompts an interesting question. Die Meistersinger has been performed by London’s two big established companies twice in the last decade. Seattle Opera’s last performance was in 1989. Do the glitzy expectations of big companies’ audiences and supporters inhibit their managements from considering less infrequent and more affordable presentations of this astounding and essential masterpiece?
–Tom Luce

Filed under: Wagner

Bayreuth’s Free-Willing Tannhäuser

Here are the most perceptive reviews I’ve encountered so far of the controversial new Bayreuth “Venus-goes-to-Burger-King” Tannhäuser that recently opened the 2019 season.

In [Tobias] Kratzer’s rollicking production — intelligent and surprisingly wrenching, though not quite fully formed — the Venusberg is not the libretto’s mythical pleasure realm so much as a lifestyle of young, brash artistry.

Some confusion aside, Mr. Kratzer’s reading of the opera is both novel and clever. … The idea is that our interpretations of Wagner are ever-evolving; that’s why directors are hired for several years, to tweak their productions with each revival.

Joshua Barone in The New York Times

Kratzer and his team simply refused to let themselves by intimidated by tradition, by the overwhelming aura of this historic theater, and by the ever-virulent orthodoxy of the Wagner cult. They instead choose to tell the narrative-romantic saga of the inner human conflict between love and lust, between conformity and rebellion, using sassy, fresh images. And for all their irony, they avoid the trap of playing with it in a way that degrades the work. The opera’s lofty pathos has always provoked parody, but Kratzer does it better: he does it brilliantly.

Christian Wildhagen in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (in German)

The real trick [of Kratzer’s staging] is that the jokes are not all at the expense of the work. Kratzer doesn’t aim to mock Wagner but to humanize his mythically enraptured figures … Most of all, he shows two forms of art clashing with each other. On the one hand, the world of canonical masterpieces … on the other, the sensual, spontaneous world of performance and counterculture. Wagner himself contained both: the anarchic revolutionary who became a classic during his life. Kratzer doesn’t glorify either side in the process. Venus’s subversive gang is shown to be not only violent but also venal and selfish.

Bernhard Neuhoff for BR-Klassik (in German)

A shared observation: despite the excellent cast and stimulating (while problematic) staging (especially in the third act), Valery Gergiev was less than satisfactory in the pit.

And here’s an interview with director Tobias Kratzer from Deutsche Welle:

DW: How do you tell the story of Tannhäuser in 2019?

Tobias Kratzer: For me, the biographical context behind the creation of Wagner’s Tannhäuser is important. If you take that into account, the opera appears more up-to-date and contemporary. Wagner developed his play during a phase in which he didn’t really know where his life was going; whether he’d go down in history as a revolutionary and anarchist, or as a composer. That was a really interesting insight for me.

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Filed under: Bayreuth Festival, music news, Wagner

Festival Season, Opera Style

The wonderfully provocative new production of Tannhäuser directed by Tobias Kratzer (responsible for a first-rate Der Zwerg this spring) was streamed live and is currently available from BR-Klassik (configure your VPN as needed); the audio is at the moment available here.

Elsewhere in Bavaria, Barrie Kosky has applied his stage genius to Handel’s Agrippina, with Ivor Bolton conducting. You can watch it on Bayerische Staatsoper TV here (available 29 July-12 August).

There’s lots of information about Salzburg Festival’s new Idomeneo here, including interviews with director Peter Sellars and music director Teodor Currentzis.

Here’s another piece on the season-opening production from ORF’s Kultur Heute program.

At 19:00 EST on 28 July 2019, the concert performance of the complete Die Walküre with the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, led by Andris Nelsons and taped over two days, will be broadcast via WMNR Radio. Marc Mandel’s program notes here.

For more Mozart, Glyndebourne Festival’s new Barbe & Doucet production of The Magic Flute will be streamed live on Sunday 4 August and remain available for seven days.

Filed under: Bayreuth Festival, Mozart, Salzburg Festival, Wagner

Deutsche Oper Offers Two Back-to-Back Rarities: Der Zwerg and Rienzi

Mick Morris Mehnert and David Butt Philip-Monika Ritterhaus

Mick Morris Mehnert and David Butt Philip as the title character in Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (c)Monika Ritterhaus

For Musical America, I reviewed two productions of rarities appearing this month at Deutsche Oper: Alexander Zemlinsky’s moving and powerful Der Zwerg and Rienzi, Richard Wagner’s early appropriation of French grand opera.

BERLIN — Deutsche Oper presented a pair of rarely seen operas in rotation over the past few weeks: Alexander Zemlinsky’s unfairly neglected Der Zwerg (“The Dwarf”) and Richard Wagner’s grandiose early breakthrough, Rienzi — a work understandably overshadowed by what came after it.

Zemlinsky tends to show up as little more than a footnote in discussions of Schoenberg (his student) and Mahler (his sexual rival) — both of whose work he championed. But this compelling production of his one-act opera (which premiered in 1922) left no doubt that Zemlinsky is long overdue for a proper and sustained revival…

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Filed under: Alexander Zemlinksy, Deutsche Oper, Donald Runnicles, Musical America, review, Wagner

Lohengrin Stream from Bayreuth

If you missed the live stream last Wednesday (25 July, the traditional opening day of the Bayreuther Festspiele), through the magic of VPN you can still view a recording of the complete performance on BR-Klassik here. Apparently it’s still available to view until 31 December.

This staging by Yuval Sharon is a genuinely historic production. This is the first time an American has directed at Bayreuth. It also marks the achievement of a complete “cycle”: Christian Thielemann, 59, has now conducted all ten canonical Wagner operas at Bayreuth. And one of the production’s especially powerful elements is the portrayal of Ortrud — Wagner’s most fascinating villain? — in her return to the Green Hill after a long hiatus.

David Allen’s review for the New York Times is particularly astute:

[Sharon] is the closest thing that American opera has to a genuine avant-gardist. … This is a story, in the director’s mind, not about Elsa’s tragic failure to keep her faith, but about Lohengrin’s unreasonable demands, about the hypocrisy of his — and, therefore, modernity’s — inability to live up to his own vision for society. And who will make that hypocrisy clear, challenge it, overcome it? The women.

Christian Wildhagen, writing for the NZZ, was less swayed by the young American. He observes:

Doch dass die offenbar tiefschürfend reflektierte, mit allerlei Romantik und Farbensymbolik angereicherte Szenerie und das über weite Strecken biedere, ermüdend oft auf die Zentralperspektive fixierte Stehtheater im weiten Bühnenrund sinnstiftend (und nicht bloss illustrierend) ineinandergriffen – davon kann auch hier keine Rede sein.

The indispensable perlentaucher.de rounds up some of the German critical press here.

Filed under: Bayreuth Festival, directors, Wagner, Yuval Sharon

Götterdämmerung Caps Triumph of SFO Ring

Götterdämmerung-SFO

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde with members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Here’s the final installment of my coverage for Musical America of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary Ring cycle.

SAN FRANCISCO—If Siegfried highlights Zambello’s ability to tease out vital, three-dimensional characters from a deceptively simple surface, Götterdämmerung shows her clarifying the most complex component of the entire cycle–an installment which introduces an entire generation of characters new to the Ring–with a gripping theatrical momentum. The night/day dichotomy of the Prologue aptly summed up the diametrical viewpoints of this staging…

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Ring review: Part 1

Ring review: Part 2

Ring review: Part 3

Filed under: directors, Musical America, review, Ring cycle, Runnicles, Wagner

SFO’s Newly Forged Ring: Siegfried as More Than a Prequel

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Daniel Brenna as Siegfried and David Cangelosi as Mime in Wagner’s “Siegfried.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Continuation of my coverage of San Francisco Opera’s Ring for Musical America:

SAN FRANCISCO—From an emotional force akin to Greek tragedy to the straightforward exploits of a superhero: for a director, one of the main challenges posed by the Ring’s third evening is how to bridge that gulf, all the while clarifying the stakes in Siegfried so that the audience will buy into the return to full-on tragic mode in the cycle’s mammoth finale….

continue [behind Musical America‘s paywall — but will be open access Friday afternoon]
Part 1 here

Filed under: Musical America, review, Ring cycle, San Francisco Opera, Wagner

San Francisco Opera Reforges Its Ring

SFO-Ring-Walküre

Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde and Greer Grimsley as Wotan in Wagner’s “Die Walküre.”
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Here’s Part 1 of my review for Musical America of San Francisco Opera’s Ring, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by Donald Runnicles:

SAN FRANCISCO—One sure gauge of a successful Ring production is when it consistently leads you to a liminal state: to a kind of hovering between rapt focus on the moment and deliberation about what it all implies. Over the course of San Francisco Opera’s Ring, I found myself taking that threshold for granted, encouraged to ponder the connections, musical and dramatic, that are essential for Wagner’s project to make its desired impact.

continue [behind MA’s paywall]

Filed under: directors, Musical America, review, Ring cycle, San Francisco Opera, Wagner

Parsifal back at the Met

The Met’s revival of the François Girard production of Parsifal has started its run, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting.
My essay for the Met’s Playbill program is here.

Michael Cooper offers this report for the New York Times on >1,000 gallons of fake blood Girard calls for in his staging:

The blood creates striking tableaus — drenching the dress Evelyn Herlitzius wears as she sings the role of Kundry, a wild woman in the thrall of an evil sorcerer; and helping the audience visualize the spiritual quest taken by Parsifal (the tenor Klaus Florian Vogt). And it fits squarely into Mr. Girard’s conception of the opera.

 “We’re talking about life, Christ, Amfortas’s wound, sexuality, all of those things,” he said. “Blood became the connector.”

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, Wagner

Kunstreligion

 

Parsifal at Staatsoper Berlin.

Filed under: Staatsoper Berlin, Wagner

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