La Scena Musicale

Friday, July 17, 2009

Letter from Munich: Palestrina

Left: Christopher Ventris as Pierluigi Palestrina
Act Three of Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina
Bayerische Festspiele July 2009

Photo: Wilfrid Hosl

Palestrina, Hans Pfitzner's masterpiece, is held in high regard in German-speaking countries, but only rarely performed in the rest of the world. It didn't receive a professional premiere in the UK until 1997 at Covent Garden. The production subsequently travelled to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it received mixed reviews. There are a number of reasons for its checkered performance history. Composed in 1917, Pfitzner's musical idiom is considered old fashioned for its time - he bucked the trend when all his contemporaries were moving away from tonal compositions towards serialism. The score is stylistically closer to Wagner and Strauss than Schoenberg and Webern. Also there is the not-so-minor issue of Pftizner's Nazi leanings. There exists plenty of documented evidence of his racist and anti-Semitic views, and it's inevitable that Pfitzner the composer and Pfitzner the man are often conflated in any discussion. Even within Germany, a musically worthy opera like Palestrina received scant attention - until now, that is. There appears to be a mini-renaissance at the moment. Frankfurt Opera is offering a Harry Kupfer production of Palestrina with Kirill Petrenko in the pit, slated for June-July 2010. Munich is bringing back its production in spring 2010 with major changes, chiefly Charles Workman replacing Christopher Ventris in the title role, and Asher Fisch taking over from Simone Young. And finally, Chemnitz Opera staged the composer's Die Rose vom Liebesgarten starring its house prima donna Astrid Weber this past season.

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to greater popularity of Palestrina is its musical complexity and its inordinate length - with two intermissions, it typically runs in excess of five hours. It takes a house with deep pockets like the Bavarian State Opera to do it justice, and it is fitting that a revival of this work takes place in Munich, as it began life in the Prinzregententheater in Munich in 1917, with Karl Erb in the title role and conducted by Bruno Walter. The opera tells the story of Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina writing the Missa Papae Marcelli in the 16th century, a time when the church was trying to ban polyphony and return to Gregorian chant. His writing of this mass prevented the regression of church music.

The current production, first seen last January, is by director Christian Stuckl, who has done a superb job in coming up with a modern, stylized production that pulls no punches in its condemnation of the Catholic Church. The use of vibrant colours, the various updating - including Giovanni Morone (Michael Volle) arriving in a white stretch limo! - and most of all his ability to inject action into an essentially static opera all make it much more accessible than it would have been. Despite his best efforts however, there is no escaping the fact that there is simply too much text in the opera. Act One moves at glacial pace. In about one hour forty-five minutes, the only thing that happens is Palestrina - sung magnificently (July 10) by British tenor Christopher Ventris - sitting at his desk trying to compose but suffering from writer's block. He is interrupted by the arrival of Borromeo (Falk Struckmann), and the two men carry on a very lengthy dialogue. Without English translations, it's hard sledding for non-German speakers, no matter how well prepared one is beforehand. The appearance of angels in the last fifteen minutes relieved the tedium somewhat.

Act Two is set in the Great Hall in Cardinal Madruscht's Palace in Trent, where a convention is taking place. Stuckl livens up this ninety minutes with a colourful display of papal-wear. Each character is finely drawn, and expertly acted by the large ensemble cast. They all wear black makeup around the eyes and mouth, creating an air of grotesquerie. As incongruous as it may seem, there are actually moments of slapstick involving Bishop of Budoja (tenor Ulrich Ress) and other characters, particularly the highly unlikable Bernardo Novagerio, played and sung brilliantly by tenor John Daszak. Act Two ends in a brutal massacre, and an all-out brawl reminiscent of the end of Act Two Die Meistersinger.

After the two lengthy acts, Act Three at forty minutes is refreshingly brief. It is also here that Pfitzner is at his most musically inspired. Palestrina, now aged and weak, faces imprisonment by Borromeo. He is saved by his student Ighino (soprano Christiane Karg in a luminous performance) who hands over the music of the Mass. The work is then performed and is well received. The populace can be heard offstage singing the praise of Palestrina. Pop Pius IV appears and invites Palestrina to lead the Sistine Choir. There are moments of great beauty in the score here that rivals Act Three Parsifal. Palestrina dies amidst cries of "Evviva Palestrina!" Seen on July 10, I find Ventris supremely moving and heart-felt throughout, but particularly in Act Three. When Ighino makes a garland from branches and puts it on Palestrina, the echos of Act Three Meistersinger is unmistakable. However, the star of the evening was the orchestra under Simone Young, who coaxed fabulous sounds from the Munich forces. The singers and conductor were rewarded with enthusiastic ovations at the end. But it must be said that the intensity of the ovations in no way matched the other evenings at the opera. It seems that even for Germans, five hours of theological debate is too much - I noticed more empty seats with each passing intermission. I also noticed that there were six cameras in the auditorium, so we can expect a DVD release sometime in the near future. I look forward to experiencing it again, this time with subtitles!

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Letter from Munich: Lohengrin

Photo: Wilfrid Hosl

The centerpiece of this year's Munich Opera Festival is undoubtedly the new production of Lohengrin. It features a stellar cast led by German tenor sensation Jonas Kaufmann in his first assumption of the title role, which he is scheduled to reprise in Bayreuth next year. Kaufmann is partnered by the fast rising Greek-German soprano Anja Harteros in her first Elsa. The stage director is Briton Richard Jones, who has a long list of cutting edge productions to his credit. My own experience of Jones's work is limited to the Queen of Spades at the COC four years ago (originally staged for WNO), Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at ROH, as well as Hansel and Gretel at the Met (also originally staged at WNO). To my eyes, the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich are successes, but I find his vision of the Humperdinck excessively dark. When it comes to the musical side of things, one can be assured of excellence in the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Kent Nagano. So it is no wonder that this Lohengrin is the most highly anticipated event of the summer. Tickets were sold out months in advance. In the performance I attended on July 8, I saw more people than usual milling about in front of the National-Theater before the show, holding up 'Suche karte' signs. Thanks to the Oper fur alle program, over 10,000 people got to experience the July 5 opening al fresco and for free, in Max-Joseph-Platz. The weather was threatening all day, and it did rain a little during Act One. The faithful stuck around and finally the they were rewarded with sun and dry weather to go with the magnificent singing for the rest of the evening.

How to describe the production? Upon entering the theatre, one sees flyers being handed out with the photo of a child, with the word "Vermisst" (missing) printed on top. A few of these are even pasted inside the auditorium. It doesn't take long to figure out the child in question is Gottfried, Elsa's brother. With the first strains of the prelude, Elsa stands with her back to the audience, in front of a vertically placed drafting table, designing what appears to be a house. In fact the house metaphor figures prominently throughout the opera. It is obvious that Jones has a singular vision in his re-interpretation of this most beloved of Wagner operas. His concept may be well thought out, but its execution I find problematic. If one is looking forward to a glamorous and Romantic production, he/she will have to look elsewhere. There are no pretty scenary and little hint of nature. Also problematic is the way the characterization of the leads. Dressed in track pants and a blue T shirt, this Lohengrin is a common man - albeit one who hangs out with a mechanical swan - someone who longs to settle down with Elsa into a middle-class existence, making babies in a suburban house with a nicely planted flowerbed. The two spend a lot of time building their dream home onstage, but a house without a proper foundation isn't going to withstand evil winds. When the doubting Elsa can't hold her tongue anymore on wedding night, their dream of a life together is dashed. But who could have anticipated that this Lohengrin would douse the crib with gasoline and setting it on fire! Telramund (Wolfgang Koch) is a big bully, manhandling Elsa throughout Act One. At one point, poor Elsa is threatened with immolation a la Joan of Arc at the hands of Telramund, only to be saved in the nick of time by the arrival of Lohengrin. The townspeople are also a curious bunch, the men in brown shirts and the women in sneakers and uniforms that recall National Socialist youths - the implication is clear. The opera ends with the townspeople sitting on barracks-like long tables, each drawing a pistol pointing to the mouth, a mass suicide that is both unnecessary and gratuitous. It's no wonder that the vociferous booing at the end was targeted for Mr. Jones. To be sure, protests of concept productions in European houses are par for the course. Yes, opera houses should not be museums and it is imperative to re-think and make historical works relevant to the 21st century audiences, but it is also important that such re-imaginings not go against the music, and the overall spirit of the work.

If the production was not to everyone's taste on July 8, the musical side of things received only kudos. To my eyes and ears, Jonas Kaufmann is simply the finest heldentenor since Jon Vickers. His timbre is reminiscent of the great Canadian, except Kaufmann has a more secure high register. Kaufmann embodies the role of Lohengrin fully. His In fernem Land was the most poetic I have heard. Arguably the best jugendlich dramatischer sopran to come out of Germany in years, Anja Harteros sang a radiant Elsa on Wednesday, her rich, luminous tone an unalloyed pleasure. She was dramatically powerful as well - this Elsa is no shrinking violet. The rest of the cast was almost as good, with Christoph Fischesser a well sung and unusually youthful Heinrich. As Telramund, Wolfgang Koch gave an intensely dramatic performance in his interaction with Ortrud. If there was a weak link, it was the Ortrud of Michaela Schuster - her voice is a bit underpowered and her timbre not sufficiently dark and menacing to contrast with Harteros. Schuster was mightily taxed in the final outburst in Act Three. Nagano led the Munich forces in a thrilling performance, perhaps a little too much power at the expense of spirituality. But all in all, this was a most memorable evening at the opera.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

This Week in Toronto (July 13 - 19)

After a brief hiatus in late June and early July, the classical music scene in Toronto and beyond has come alive again with a number of festivals that are well worth investigating. Now in its fourth season, the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy under music director Agnes Grossmann (July 21 to August 13) has proven singularly successful in offering high quality performances that Torontonians previously could only get by leaving the city. I remember fondly last year's production of Ariadne auf Naxos. The Festival opens on July 21, 8 pm at the Carlu with violinist James Ehnes and pianist Jon Kimura Parker, playing together for the first time in a program of Mozart, Ravel Prokofiev and Kernis. If you haven't been to the beautifully restored Carlu at the downtown College Park location, it is well worth experiencing. For information and tickets, visit or call (416) 597-7840.

Several other southern Ontario festivals are currently in full swing. The venerable Elora Festival (July 10 - August 2) opened with Berlioz Requiem, with tenor soloist Lawrence Wiliford, the Elora Festival Singers, the Mendelssohn Choir, andthe Elora Festival Orchestra under Noel Edison. Go to for more details and ticket information. Starting this week is the Festival of the Sound (July 17 - August 9) in its 30th anniversary season. Located in Parry Sound - a little farther afield from Toronto but well worth the effort. It opens on July 17 with Gold Medal Brass, a program of brass fanfares played by the Hannaford Street Silver Band under conductor Curtis Metcalf. On Saturday July 18, the Canadian Brass offers Swing that Music - A Tribute to Louis Armstrong. For more information, go to or call toll free at 1-866-364-0061 to purchase tickets.

Also of note is the Westben Concerts at the Barn in Campbellford, in the rolling countryside of eastern Ontario, a comfortable drive from Toronto. On Saturday, July 18 will be Schubertiad: Esterhazt 1809. It contains three separate segments - Segment 1 at 5 pm is Haydn Chamber Music, Segment 2 at 7 pm is Songs of Haydn, Schubert and Mendelssohn sung by soprano Virginia Hatfield, and Segment 3 at 9 pm is Mendelssohn Chamber Music. Go to for more information. Going in the other direction is the Brott Music Festival, under the artistic directorship of conductor Boris Brott. It has been under way since June 13 and will go until August 20. This week, pianist Sarah Davis Buechner plays Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto, with the National Aacademy Orchestra conducted by Brott. For light fare, on Saturday July 18 is Gilbert and Sullivan Go to the Proms featuring music from Priates of Penzance, plus such perennial Proms favourites as Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory, and Rule Britannia. For information and tickets, go to

Finally, I want to mention Digiscreen's Summer Cinema Series of productions from the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, to be shown in selected Empire Theatre locations across Canada. In Toronto, it will be at the Empire Theatres in North York. It opens on July 25 and 26, with BBC's Last Night of the Proms from the Royal Albert Hall in London. It is conducted by Sir Roger Norrington in his first Last Night at the Prom's appearance. This and other shows are pre-recorded, but the sense of occasion is still very much in evidence. Tickets are at $19.95 per adult, $16.95 senior and $9.95 per child, tax extra. For exact cinema locations and to purchase advance tickets, visit

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mozart Mistreated at Aix-en-Provence Festival

At the festival of Aix-en-Provence, now in its sixty-first year, the final installment of Wagner’s Ring, with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, has hogged the spotlight. Nevertheless, Mozart has always been at the core of the Festival repertory and the new production of Idomeneo did look good on paper. The opera has 6 performances, from June 4 through 17, in the traditional venue, the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace in Aix.

Director Olivier Py has been heaped with praise for his work at Geneva’s opera for the past several years. Recently appointed to head the top Odéon–Théâtre de l'Europe in Paris (where the great Giorgio Strehler did much of his best work) he seemed a theater god who could do no wrong. This lumpy, limping production, however, suggests a serious case of clay feet.

First seen on stage are well-dressed African boat people (the Trojan prisoners in the libretto) who are menaced by AK-47 bearing men in black for no apparent reason. The story-telling did not subsequently improve. The use of massive amounts of structural steel led one critic to suggest that it was like Mozart meeting Gustav Eiffel. Actually, it was Eiffel who consistently demonstrated how light and graceful steel structures could be. Py’s “heavy metal” approach was garishly lit and oppressive to the eye. The ungainly sections twirled on wheels and, during duets, couples were compelled to sing while ascend stairs and opening doors all the while negotiating Mozartian rapids. The usually-cut ballet sequences (no choreographer was credited in the program) had half-naked young men camping it up when they were not pretending to dismember each other, reminding me of Madonna’s back-up dancers on tour.

It was not great vocal night when the singer with the only real feel for Mozartian style was the Arbace. Very impressive here, young Xavier Mas is clearly one to track. In the title role, tenor Richard Croft (Mozart’s 1789 tenor version was used) often had fine moments and his "Fuor del mar" was well received. However, his singing was strained when the music went “forte” and beyond. French tenor Yann Beuron, as Idamante, has had his voice fill out and thicken these past years and, while still lovely, it no longer has ease and agility. The talented Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser impressed as Ilia but, as with the decor, less steel would have been preferred.

When the grand Mireille Delunsch first descended the staircase as Elettra there was electricity in her voice that demanded attention. But, reaching stage level and directorial requirements - silent-screen gesticulations that would have embarrassed Theda Bara - all hope of a definitive character vanished. Later, during her final scene, there actually was a bucket of blood and she went ahead with the sponge bath, putting to rest the French idea of “du trop.” The Neptune - almost always on stage waiving his trident - was wearing what appeared to be a Woolworth’s bargain Halloween costume.

The singing, while not up to highest festival standards, served the music and Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble contributed a strong orchestral underpinning with their traditional gusto. A few orchestral sour notes could be attributed to the changing humidity as night falls - a traditional problem with outdoor concerts. This opera written when Mozart was only 25 year has been receiving much deserved attention in recent years; for instance, a fine new production of Luc Bondy at the Paris Opera. The Aix production, however, broadcast throughout Europe on the night I saw it, July 10, is not likely to induce a flood of ticket request for next season. This is an extraordinary opera but marred by cumbersome staging.

- Frank Cadenhead

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