La Scena Musicale

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Letters from Munich: Das Gehege/Salome

Angela Denoke as Salome

Photo: Wilfrid Hoesl

The climax of my Strauss week in Munich was reached in a spectacularly powerful performance of the double-bill, Wolfgang Rihm's Das Gehege paired with Strauss's Salome. Given that the director was William Friedkin of Exorcist fame, the audience rightly expected something visceral and galvanizing, if not downright gory - what better opera for gore than Salome? The public largely got its wish when it premiered in 2006. Critical reactions were positive. According to Dr. Ulrike Hessler, director of communications and development of the Bavarian State Opera, for once there was no booing after the performance, only cheers. This certainly was true on July 26.

The opening piece was the 35-minute Das Gehege ("The Cage"). At the premiere in October 2006, critics and audience had a field day speculating on the meaning of this work. Rihm based it on Botho Strauss's 1991 play Final Chorus, on the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are only two characters, one singer (Die Frau), and a non-speaking role of the caged eagle, masked and costumed in black tights and black feathers. The woman sets the eagle free, yet cannot resist taunting it and eventually killing it. Perhaps the "eagle" represents East Germany, and setting it free would be an allegory on the fall of the Wall. Its subsequent demise in the hands of Die Frau would appear to be a dark commentary on present-day German politics. But to my eyes and ears, this piece is strong enough musically to stand on its own without the political subtext. Rihm has composed a powerful - yes, even occasionally beautiful - score that is distinctly contemporary without being inaccessible or alienating. He wrote the role of Die Frau for soprano Gabriele Schnaut, who has a reputation for championing contemporary compositions. She was on stage the whole 35 minutes, showing remarkable stamina given that she had just sung the taxing Elektra the previous evening! She displayed the utmost dramatic commitment, sang with vocal abandon if not beauty of tone, but then perhaps none is required here! Der Adler ("The Eagle") was vividly acted by Steven Barrett. If I were to nitpick, I find the sets aesthetically icy, but then perhaps that was the point.

After a 40 minute intermission came Salome, with Angela Denoke reprising the title role. I have not always enjoyed her work, especially in roles too heavy for her instrument such as Leonore in Fidelio. But she is superb here, the very embodiment of Salome in every way. Costumed in a low cut black gown with slits on both sides up to the hip, this Salome is child-like, petulant, wilfull, seductive, playful, vulgar, sexy, manipulative, and altogether lethal as any good Salome should be. Denoke finds the role more vocally congenial than one would imagine possible, paying great attention to textual nuances, and varying her tone in the repeated demands for the head of Jochanaan. Having seen about a dozen Salome productions, I wasn't really expecting any surprises, but surprised I was! The sheer inventiveness of the Dance of the Seven Veils rivals the Atom Egoyan production for the COC, and Friedkin doesn't have the benefit of projections and shadows to mask any potential problems. Salome dances not just to Herod, but to Herodias, the Page, the Jews, even Jochanaan, coveniently brought up from underground thanks to the marvels of modern stage machinery. The veils fall the ceiling, caught by Salome who proceeds to use them to lasso her victims. As the dance approached climax, Denoke stripped to the waist, but unlike others, she remained topless and sang for extended periods afterwards. At this point, the Eagle in Das Gehege reappeared as a sort of "Angel of Death", directing the stage action, leading the drama inexorably to its denouement.

With such a powerful singing actress, others in the cast were rather overshadowed. Alan Held (Jochanaan) sang strongly, but this rather one-dimensional character didn't offer a whole lot of dramatic nuances. Iris Vermillion made the most of Herodias, a most ungrateful role. Herod has much meatier music to sing, and former heldentenor Wolfgang Schmidt certainly dug into it with relish, his voice in surprisingly good condition, a hint of a wobble notwithstanding. But the most outstanding singing in a supporting role came from the Narraboth of Korean tenor Wookyung Kim, whose trumpety tones were a pleasure. He was extremely well applauded at the end. Hans Schavernoch's rather anticeptic set design served both the Rihm and the Strauss - its many moving arches worked better in the latter. If Denoke was the star of the evening, she arguably shared it with the orchestra under the splendid conducting of Kent Nagano - how often does one feel the orchestral sounds all the way down to one's toes?


Today's Birthdays in Music: August 2 (Bliss, Janowitz)

1891 - Arthur Bliss, London, England; composer

Short biography and pictures

Allegro Furioso movement of Bliss's Piano Quartet in A (Chamber Domaine at Gresham College, London, 2007)

1937 - Gundula Janowitz, Berlin, Germany; opera and concert soprano

Short biography and pictures

Gundula Janowitz sings "Ach ich fuhl's" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (Aix-en-Provence, 1963)

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Letters from Munich: Elektra

Photo credit: Wilfrid Hoesl

Joseph So

The Strauss Week at the Bavarian State Opera continued with Elektra (July 25), in the eleven-year old production by the late director Herbert Wernicke. In the title role was German soprano Gabriele Schnaut. It was rumoured that Frau Schnaut is singing her last Elektra with this performance, moving on to Klytemnestra in the future. If true, Schnaut was certainly going out with a big flourish. In the span of one week, she appeared in Henze's Die Bassariden, sang the taxing Elektra, and in the very next evening, sang non-stop for 35 minutes as Die Fau in Wolfgang Rihm's Das Gehege – now that's lung power!

I first heard Gabriele Schnaut as an amazing Turandot opposite the Calaf of Ben Heppner at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in January 1998. The sheer volume of sound and the steeliness of her tone was impressive – she basically outsang Heppner, who was coming back after several months of vocal ill health. But time has taken its toll on her voice. A few years later when she tackled Brunnhilde at the Met, her vibrato had widened uncomfortably, distorting her otherwise fine performances. As Elektra on Friday, her performance was essentially a triumph of mind over matter. An intelligent artist with total commitment to anything she takes on, Schnaut's Elektra remains remarkable dramatically, even if it suffers from flat high notes and imprecise pitch in the middle, the voice sounding thick and unwieldy. As a result, the text on this evening did not come through with sufficient clarity. But at the end of the one-hour forty-five minute opera, the audience showered her with huge cheers that lasted many minutes. Given that Munich has such a discerning audience, the ovation signified a desire to honour an esteemed artist for what she has been rather than what she is today. If only they were so generous to poor Pamela Armstrong two days earlier...

The abstract Wernicke production is dominated by a huge, hinged, four-sided panel that swivels to allow entrances and exits. The Rothko-like expanse of colour fields is strikingly beautiful. But the downside of this design means severe restrictions in the staging area, although the huge panel served to "push" the voices forward into the auditorium - everyone sounded very loud! Elektra herself is perched on a small, round “island” downstage to the right. Occasionally the hinged panel would tilt sufficiently to reveal a staircase on the left side, presumably leading to the palace. The stage is essentially empty except for the occasional prop, the most important being Elektra's axe which she wields with gusto. In her final "dance", she was swinging it with such abandon that I felt slightly nervous sitting in the 10th row directly in front of her, wondering if she might just accidentally release it into the audience! The most eye-catching costume is a large robe first worn by Klytemnestra, subsequently taken by Elektra, and finally worn by Orest as he enters the palance. Interestingly, this cape-like garment has exactly the same colours and design as the Nationaltheater curtain! At the orchestral climax of the murder of Klytemnestra, Elektra wields the axe with each thundering fortissimo, enough to send a chill into the collective hearts of the audience.

Top vocal honours belonged to Eva-Maria Westbroek (Chrysothemis), whose jugendlich dramatisch soprano, with its huge high C, rang out impressively. She was justly rewarded with a huge ovation. Veteran mezzo Agnes Baltsa may no longer possess the vocal resources of yore, but her Klytemnestra was regal, glamorous, and satisfying. Orest was baritone Gerd Grochowski, a voice new to me. He sang well although without erasing memories of the best interpreters of this role. In modern dress - a suit, no less - he made a handsome and youthful Orest. Perhaps the most surprising singer of the evening was tenor Reiner Goldberg, once an admired Florestan, Siegmund, Erik, and Parsifal. Now a character tenor, his Aegisth was remarkably fresh-voiced and vital, although he was suffering from some sort of tremor in his hands. As expected, the sound coming out of the pit was galvanizing in its impact. I was interested to discover that the conductor was the 34 year old and very talented Johannes Debus. The Canadian Opera Company has just announced that Debus will lead the COC's fall production of War and Peace. I look forward to seeing what he can do with this gigantic Prokofiev's score.

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Letters from Munich: Ariadne auf Naxos

Photos: Wilfrid Hoesl

Joseph So

If Arabella on Wednesday wasn't quite up to the normally high Festival standards, the premiere of a new production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Prinzregententheater was just about as good as it gets. As the ecstatic strains of the finale faded away, the house erupted for minutes of prolonged cheering and foot-stamping, and many curtain calls. Given that we live in an age of hyperbole, the word “great” is thrown around rather indiscriminately, but not in this case. This performance qualifies as great, one that will withstand the test of time in my memory bank.
Ariadne had its Munich premiere in January 1918 in the exquisite Rococo Cuvilliés Theater. With its reopening recently to celebrate the city's 850th anniversary, it would appear to be a logical venue, but the Company wisely chose to make it more accessible by using the larger Prinzregententheater. With only three performances, it was an extremely hot ticket. Fortunately Munich Opera is bringing it back next July, with an essentially identical cast, but with Bertrand de Billy replacing Kent Nagano. Rumour has it that the run next summer will be filmed for release on DVD.

The director of this Ariadne is none other than Canadian Robert Carsen, whose cutting edge productions have won kudos from the Met to Paris Opera. For Munich, he has created an production of layered symbolism that provokes and challenges our conventional views of this piece. Before a bar of music was played, onstage was a ballet studio with dancers warming up in front of mirrored panels. They proceeded to dance the orchestral prelude in pleasant if rather conventional choreography. Setting the prologue in a ballet studio isn't all that surprising, given that Robert Carsen, as the son of important National Ballet patron Walter Carsen, likely grew up in a dance milieu. The predominanatly black modern dress costumes served to lend the focus on the drama and the internal psychological states of the characters.

Carsen's direction tends towards uber-symbolism, with many interesting touches throughout, sometimes surprising and more often than not amusing, refreshing and provocative, and frequently brilliant. In the “seduction scene” in the prologue, in a darkened stage when Zerbinetta tells the Komponist that she isn't what she seems, Damrau takes off her black wig letting her long blond hair tumbling down – a magical moment. The prologue ended with the Komponist in front of the stage, delivering the score to the conductor and then moving to the side where she stays in full view of the audience throughout the opera. The opera was performed without an intermission.

Lovers of opulent stagings of the desert island of Naxos must have felt deprived, since all they got was a bare stage. I am not particularly fond of minimalist staging, but this time it really worked. A dozen or so supernumeraries, consisting of the mixed corp de ballet from the opening plus the comedians in drag, populated the stage, dressed identically as Ariadne and moving in unison with her – it says to me that Ariadne's dilemma is every women's dilemma. In a traditional interpretation, this piece can be seen as anti-feminist. Afterall, we have the suicidal Ariadne stranded on Naxos, abandoned by “her man”. She can only be fulfilled and redeemed when Bacchus shows up to rescue her. At the moment of Bacchus' arrival, the black backdrop opened to blinding light. In this production, the many supers, some representing Ariadne and an equal number representing Bacchus on opposite sides of the stage, implying a sort of gender opposition At the moment of reconciliation, Ariadne and Bacchus cross over to the other opposite sides, a nice symbolic stroke.

To be sure, not everything worked equally well. The significance of three upright pianos being wheeled on and off stage eluded me, ditto to have Zerbinetta popping out of the piano. Overall, there were enough brilliant directorial touches that it made for a very rewarding evening in the theatre. Much of the pleasure of this production was vocal, with a dream cast, led by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, reprising her celebrated Ariadne. She was ably partnered by tenor Burkhard Fritz. The cruelly high tessitura of.Bacchus posed no problem for Fritz, who sang with exemplary freedom at the top of his range. Diana Damrau made a vocally and dramatically scintillating Zerbinetta. Surrounded by a chorus line of ten buff boys, Damrau clearly was enjoying herself as a sassy and sexy Zerbinetta, bringing the house down with a dynamite “Grossmachtige Prinzessin”. Munich Opera ensemble artist Daniela Sindram was a big-voiced, intense, ponytailed, slightly hysterical Komponist. She looked so much like a man that it's positively scary. The other roles were all well taken, with special mention going to Nikolay Borchov (Harlekin), and the three nymphs, particularly Sine Bundgaard (the Fiakermilli two nights ago) as Echo. As expected in this meat-and-potatoes Straussian score, the orchestra under the baton of Kent Nagano, produced appropriately thrilling sounds. All in all, a most memorable evening.

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Today's Birthday in Music: August 1 (Gagnon)

1942 - André Gagnon, Saint-Pacôme-de-Kamouraska, Canada; pianist, composer, conductor, arranger

Official website

André Gagnon plays:

 "Après La Pluie"


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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: July 31 (del Mar)

1919 - Norman del Mar, London, England; conductor and biographer

Obituary (N.Y. Times, Feb. 8, 1994)

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: July 30 (Louie, G. Moore)

1949 - Alexina Louie, Vancouver, Canada; composer

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

"Bringing the Tiger Down the Mountain II", played by Stéphane Tétrault (cello) and Sasha Guydukov (piano) (semi-finals of the Montreal Symphony Music Competition, 2007)

1899 - Gerald Moore, Penn (Watford), England; piano accompanist


Accompanied by Gerald Moore, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sings Mozart's "Die kleine spinnerin"

"Not too loud but not too soft!" - Gerald Moore reminisces (clip from 1951 radio programme)

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: July 29 (Schreier, Theodorakis)

1935 - Peter Schreier, Meissen, Germany; opera and concert tenor, conductor

Biography and pictures

Peter Schreier sings "Svegliatevi nel core" from Handel's Giulio Cesare (Munich Bach Orchestra, conducted by Karl Richter, 1969)

1925 - Mikis Theodorakis, Chios, Greece; composer


Excerpt from Zorbas, ballet-opera by Theodorakis (Arena di Verona, 1990)

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: July 28 (Muti)

1941 - Riccardo Muti, Naples, Italy; conductor


Riccardo Muti conducts the overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni (La Scala, 1987)

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: July 27 (del Monaco, Granados)

1915 - Mario del Monaco, Florence, Italy; opera tenor


Mario del Monaco sings "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini's Tosca (1972)

1867 - Enrique Granados, Lérida, Spain; composer


Jacqueline du Pré plays "Intermezzo" from Goyescas by Granados (1962)

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