Opera On Two Continents

Over the past two weeks I had the wonderful opportunity to return to Vienna, where I studied in 2011 and posted many of the reviews on this blog. While I was there, I attended three more operas at the Wiener Staatsoper, bringing my standing room total there to 29 operas (and one Volksoper opera - for 30 standing room operas in Vienna): Puccini's La boheme, Massenet's Werther, and Strauss' Elektra. All three were excellent, particularly the latter two. Upon my return to the United States last week, I immediately was at a performance of the revised version of Philip Glass' Appomattox. This performance was also quite interesting for me, as it is the second Glass opera I have seen and very different from his Satyagraha in London. As a bonus: a quick review of a concert by The Tenors (formerly The Canadian Tenors) performing one man down. Reviews will be shorter than a standard review, but the performances raised a few interesting points I want to record.

Vienna

La boheme



It was wonderful to return to the Wiener staatsoper and revisit Franco Zeffirelli's much beloved set with it's traditional bohemian trappings, massive second act crowd scene, and mysterious snow-capped third act. While the individual performances of the singers in this particular outing were adequately successful, the true success was with Marco Armiliato in the pit and with some particular moments that stuck out, more from a dramatic than a musical perspective, and really made the evening. Piero Pretti proved an adequate Rodolfo, but like so many in the role seemed to lack the free sweetness one might desire of the poet. Gabriel Bermúdez was the quintessential rock solid Marcello. Aida Garifullina, as Musetta, certainly stole every moment she was given with ravishing looks and a voice that plumbed both the darker color of the role while retaining the soprano freedom required. Dinara Alieva, standing in for Marita Sølberg, sang quite a lackluster first half as Mimì, but from "addio... senza rancor" onward, found a breathtaking sensitivity to the music as her voice warmed to Puccini's lush lines.

It was those moments, so easily missed in a story that practically tells itself, that really made the evening. Take, for instance, the direction to have Marcello introduce Mimì and Musetta in the second act. This opportunity, so often missed, was slyly inserted here, offering much more logic as to how the two might've gotten to know each other prior to Musetta's great care with the muff in the final act. Alternately, in Jongmin Park's performance of "Vecchia zimarra," an often awkwardly placed aria, it truly felt like his clutching of his coat was him clutching onto the life force of Mimì, as though willing it not to depart. Other moments, such as the "addio... senza rancor" I mentioned above and the dramatic transition from lighthearted fun to "C'e Mimì," helped make this a memorable performance, if not a vocal epiphany.

Werther

  • Jules Massenet

  • Frédéric Chaslin | Dirigent
  • Andrei Serban | Regie
  • Peter Pabst | Ausstattung
  • Petra Reinhardt | Kostümmitarbeit
  •  
  • Matthew Polenzani | Werther
  • Markus Eiche | Albert
  • Elīna Garanča | Charlotte
  • Alfred Šramek | Le Bailli
  • Hila Fahima | Sophie
  • Peter Jelosits | Schmidt
  • Mihail Dogotari | Johann


Where La boheme above may have won the evening on its dramatic merits more than its vocal (some exceptional moments notwithstanding), Werther was the opposite - easily one of the most spectacular evenings of singing I have ever experienced but marred by some directorial oddities at the end of the performance. The production, relying on its centerpiece tree that changed with the seasons, is decidedly stylized but not ineffective, allowing plenty of places for performers to hide, recline, or otherwise move in and out of as the production progresses. Unfortunately, it was toward the end of the production that, rather than just closing out the stylized but heartfelt performance, the stage direction took a jarring and unrealistic turn. Though having Charlotte declare her love for Werther and Albert thus reject her makes perfect sense, the degree of sexuality of Charlotte's connection to Werther - passionately straddling him after he has already shot himself, seemed beyond believability. Similarly, Albert's rejection of her, standing resolutely and silently, felt a bit too stylized to make sense given the authentic passions created by the singing and acting of the principals.

That singing, however, made the night. Elīna Garanča did not disappoint in the challenging role of Charlotte, with her pleasant, honeyed mezzo-soprano starting out more robust but finding more and more nuance as the production went along, perhaps not unlike Charlotte herself. Certainly Elīna Garanča's serenity played right into the mid-twentieth century vibe of the production, as well. If there were a standout star, however, it was the slightly less famous Matthew Polenzani, whose tenor serenades throughout the eponymous role boasted drippingly gorgeous tone from ppp to fff. At times he could muster the full Verdian sound that he certainly exhibits in other performances. More often, however, he sang softly, in a head-dominant tone that brought home the nuanced arias Massenet sprinkles throughout Werther. Even "Pourquoi me reveiller," in which I expected more robustness, ended in a diminuendo al niente that brought down the house. Next to these performances, both Markus Eiche, a perennial Viennese favorite, Hila Fahima as Sophie, provided excellent counterpoints through their spot-on fächer, but were left in the dust by the opera's main couple.

Elektra

  • Richard Strauss

    Peter Schneider | Dirigent
  • Uwe Eric Laufenberg | Regie
  • Rolf Glittenberg | Bühne
  • Marianne Glittenberg | Kostüme
  • Andreas Grüter | Licht
  •  
  • Anna Larsson | Klytämnestra
  • Nina Stemme | Elektra
  • Regine Hangler | Chrysothemis
  • Herbert Lippert | Aegisth
  • Iain Paterson | Orest
  • Il Hong | Pfleger des Orest
  • Simina Ivan | Vertraute
  • Aura Twarowska | Schleppträgerin
  • Thomas Ebenstein | Junger Diener
  • Hans Peter Kammerer | Alter Diener
  • Donna Ellen | Aufseherin
  • Monika Bohinec | 1. Magd
  • Ilseyar Khayrullova | 2. Magd
  • Ulrike Helzel | 3. Magd
  • Caroline Wenborne | 4. Magd
  • Ildikó Raimondi | 5. Magd
  • Secil Ilker | 1. Dienerin
  • Jung Won Han | 2. Dienerin
  • Kaya Maria Last | 3. Dienerin
  • Jozefina Monarcha | 4. Dienerin
  • Zsuzsanna Szabó | 5. Dienerin
  • Sabine Kogler | 6. Dienerin

I openly admit I have never been a Wagnerian acolyte, a factor which extends to his apostles such as Strauss and Mahler, as well. Nevertheless, I can certainly appreciate the contributions these great composers brought: the prelude to Parsifal brought me to tears and I personally experienced the power of Mahler in a choral performance this fall, in which I was a singer. It is from that experience that I can say this production of Elektra is Strauss as he is meant to be performed (particularly of the Salome/Elektra period). The production, with its central orange-hued elevators, prison-like showers, and piled rubble conveys simultaneously a sense of early-mid-century Viennese refinement and a concentration-camp-like aura of psychological horror (you know you're back in Europe seeing theatre/opera when the lights come up on a collection of nude women blasted by a hose). The moving of the elevators and the word "Totet" scrawled in blood only added to this feeling. I did feel the production overplayed its hand just a bit toward the end: the many bloodied figures, both human and animal, in the many stalls of the elevators made too explicit the otherwise haunting suggestiveness of the production as a whole. Similarly, while cleverly symbolic, the reunion between Elektra and Orest in which she pulls off her pants to reveal a skirt beneath, ultimately was more confusing than helpful (momentarily seeming to imply incest rather than a transition of traditionally masculine responsibility). Most egregious was the disappearance, rather than apparent death, of Elektra at the opera's close.

Musically, the performance only built on the psychological aura provided by (most of) the staging. Peter Schneider and the massive forces of orchestra managed to never overwhelm the singers while still crushing the audience under the aural power of Strauss' evocative, disturbing score. As Chrysothemis, Regine Hangler sometimes struggled to make it to the very top of the part's range, but never actually failed to achieve those pinnacles. Her voice, generally full and solid but sometimes ranging to shrill, helped to convey the sense of infantilism brought out by this production of the opera (in her costuming, as well as her voice). Anna Larsson, a mainstay of the Viennese scene and the rare truly convincing operatic contralto, was formidable both in the stature of her heeled costume and also in her command of the role of Klytämnestra. Almost paradoxically, this helped to convey the crippling paranoia incited by her manipulative caretakers. Finally, of course, Nina Stemme's Elektra was a force of nature with which to be reckoned. In part due to the excellent guidance of Peter Schneider but largely due to her own vocal prowess, she never struggled to be heard, battling the orchestra even in the opera's loudest, most jarring moments. This fortitude added to the psychological discomfort the opera provokes. Indeed, Stemme's unshakeable Elektra was so effective it not only unmanned a soft Herbert Lippert as Aegisth, but almost overwhelmed the solid Iain Paterson as Orest, as well. Perhaps most interesting was how well defined, through costumes and acting but vocally, as well, the differences between an incapable, infantile Chrysothemis, an aged, crippled Klytämnestra, and a strong "woman in her prime," but nevertheless deranged Elektra.

Washington, D.C.

Appomattox

Philip Glass

Abraham Lincoln / Lyndon B. Johnson                      
Tom Fox
Frederick Douglass / Martin Luther King Jr.           
Soloman Howard±Robert E. Lee / Edgar Ray Killen 
David Pittsinger
Ulysses S Grant / Nicholas Katzenbach 
Richard Paul Fink
Julia Grant / Viola Liuzzo                               
Melody Moore
Wilmer McLean / J. Edgar Hoover                 
Robert BrubakerT. Morris Chester / John Lewis
Frederick Ballentine*Mary Todd Lincoln / Lady Bird Johnson
Anne-Carolyn Bird*Elizabeth Keckley / Coretta Scott King
Chrystal E. Williams*Mary Custis Lee / Secretary
Keriann Otaño
General Howell Cobb / James Fowler
Timothy J. Bruno*
Edward Alexander / Cartha DeLoach
Robert BakerJohn Aaron Rawlins / George Wallace
Aleksey Bogdanov±Mrs. Dorsey / Amelia Boynton
Leah Hawkins*
Col. Ely S. Parker
Dane Suarez
 
Director                                                          
Tazewell Thompson* 
Conductor                                          
Dante Santiago Anzolini* 
Set Designer                                       
Donald Eastman*
Costume Designer                                           
Merrily Murray-Walsh*
Lighting Designer                                           
Robert Wierzel

I admit that I walked into Glass revised version of Appomattox somewhat exhausted due to having traveled back to the United States from Vienna just the day before. I am chalking up to that much of my inattention and boredom in the first act (more or less the original). The act picked up speed as it went along, however, and the conclusion, knitting together the racial themes with the conclusion of the Civil War, set up the emotional roller coaster of the second act. In some ways, the second act felt more inspired, blending humor, racial tension, and interpersonal emotion into a tapestry that truly investigates the racial tensions of the Civil Rights Movement that persist today. Indeed, the haunting epilogue only helps draw that connection to the modern era.

Glass himself drew a comparison between his own Satyagraha and Appomattox, citing the rhapsodic nature of the former as very different from the folksy origins of much of the melody in Appomattox. This division was clear to me and highlights Glass' flexibility as a composer. Nevertheless, the minimalist cyclicality for which he is known, sublimated in Appomattox into the orchestra, works far better in the context of Satyagraha. Both operas use the voice as another instrument, eschewing the vocality of individual performers for a use of the voice more focused on the whole musical experience (Satyagraha) and the telling of the story (Appomattox). My overall feeling about Appomattox was that the opera has some incredible moments but overall feels a bit disjointed between orchestra and voice, between acts I and II, and in its emotional punch (a feeling I do believe is distinct from some of the musical foibles on the particular night I attended). I walked away impressed and affirmed that the work plays a major role in the 20th/21st century canon, but wishing for a slightly tighter work.

Lulu (oops)

I had hoped to make it to the Metropolitan Opera's MetHD broadcast of Lulu as I have not ever watched a production and the work is fascinatingly constructed. Having just returned from my trip to Vienna, it proved impossible, but I will certainly try to catch it if there is an encore broadcast or when it is released for smaller screens.

The Tenors

The weekend brought one more musical performance: The Tenors, formerly The Canadian Tenors at Strathmore Hall in Maryland. I have seen the group several times before, but this performance is part of a tour for their new album. A surprise in this performance, however, was that Remigio Pereira, one of the group's larger voiced performers, was sick in Toronto with bronchitis, bane of singers. It fell to the robust lirico-spinto Victor Micallef and more pop/broadway Fraser Walters and Clifton Murray to make their way through the evening. Consequently, I spent most of the evening trying to evaluate how the group adapted to being down a member. I do believe the harmonies, particularly on some of the spiritual-inspired pieces, were less lush than they would've been had Remigio been present. Indeed, the three remaining members were clearly concentrating much more and taking cues from one another more clearly than in other performances I have seen. I also noted a few places where melody seemed to prevail, perhaps due to some uncertainty as to how to rebuild the intended harmonic structure. In all, though, it was an impressive performance with some moving moments and, to the layman, likely impossible to tell what had changed. While I would never expect them to ditch him, Remigio might do well to recognize the group could survive without him! That said, the immensely impressive operatic quality of the voice of Victor Micallef dramatically overbalanced the voices of the other two members, rectified only by the heavy live mixing going on. Having two more operatically inclined voices rather than one provides better balance for the group as a whole.

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