La Scena Musicale

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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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Letter from Munich: Lucrezia Borgia

Photo: Wilfrid Hösl

The raison d’etre of this new production of Lucrezia Borgia at the Bayerische Staatsoper is undoubtedly the great Edita Gruberova. Sopranos come and go, but there is always Edita, who has been in front of the public for almost forty years and still going strong, thank you very much. At the age of 62, many of her contemporaries would likely have retired to a teaching post somewhere, or at least moved on to the old ladies, the maids, the witches, and other assorted “character roles” in opera, or disappeared from public view altogether. Not Edita Gruberova, who remains the undisputed Queen of Bel Canto. We in North America don’t get many chances to hear her, and it is entirely our loss. The few times that I have managed to catch her were in European houses like Munich where she has a particularly vociferous following. To put it simply, last evening’s performance was a total triumph. The voice was very much as I had remembered, with only minimal aging of the tone. Her coloratura – and the seemingly infinite variations in dynamics – is as amazing as ever. She obviously warmed up sufficiently just before coming on stage, as the voice was already in full flight from the beginning. The voice had a pronounced beat in beginning of Act Two, likely due to the long intermission, but it soon disappeared. The final high note was attacked a little flat but pushed up to pitch. The volume was impressive as always. I was in the 18th row dead center parkett and she was loud! The theatre had video cameras in strategic places, so you can expect a telecast and commercial DVD release in the near future. Lucrezia is not exactly a charming character, poisoning everyone in sight, but Gruberova managed to make her sympathetic. The final scene was a vocal and dramatic tour de force that one rarely encounters these days. She pulled out all the stops, never mind the vocalism wasn’t quite note-perfect – with such a remarkable performance, to complain about an occasional flat note or pitch deviation would be mere quibbling.

She was well partnered by a fellow Slovak, tenor Pavel Breslik, who was an exceptionally fine Gennaro. Celebrated in Mozart, I wasn’t prepared for his idiomatic Italian, his plangent timbre and stylish yet heart-on-sleeve singing/acting was an unalloyed pleasure. Looking handsome and youthful, he complemented the soprano perfectly, but with enough star power of his own so as not to recede into the background. Given his buff build, he is a natural candidate for any director wanting to show some flesh onstage, witness his Idamante last season. Christof Loy had him scraping a knee, taking off his shirt ostensibly to wipe off the blood. Then Lucrezia materializes (in his dream) and shows her maternal instincts towards her wounded son. I give Loy credit for turning the little gratuitous striptease into something dramatically logical. Another example – the libretto calls for Gennaro to destroy Lucrezia’s coat of arms. In this contemporary production, it was replaced by her name in large illuminated letters attached to the gray background. Gennario rips the B off her name and throws it on the stage floor – rather amusing as “ORGIA” remains on the wall, the implications of which rather unmistakable.

The production is extremely pared-down, with really no set to speak of, a bare stage save for a few office chairs. It is as far removed as one can get from the Venetian grandeur of the Duca D’Este palazzo. Yet there is something to be said about this approach, as it allows one to focus on the emotional and dramatic core of the work. Whether an audience member like Christof Loy’s re-interpreting the libretto depends on the person’s affinity towards the Regietheater aesthetic. The most conspicuous costume touches are the schoolboy garb with rolled up pant legs – why does it remind me of Clockwork Orange or the Barcelona Lohengrin? – and Lucrezia’s Jean Harlow hairdo and smart black pantsuit. Ultimately this is a vehicle for the prima donna so nothing else really matters, especially when the diva delivered in spades like last evening. I understand that at the premiere, there were some vociferous, if predictable, boos for director Christof Loy of the Covent Garden/Ariadne/Little Black Dress fame. But last evening there was nothing but cheers. The third vocal standout was British mezzo Alice Coote as Maffio Orsini. She makes quite a convincing boy, and blends well with the chorus all dressed up as schoolboys with bad behaviour, though for some reason she was the only one without uncovered calves. I must say some of these directorial touches are a tad gimmicky. The Gennaro-Maffio duet was a highlight of the evening. The role of Maffio lies a little low for Coote, who struggled a bit in the Prologue, but her Act Two extended scena was terrific. Baritone Franco Vassallo was a firm voiced, macho Don Alfonso, complete with an interpolated high G at the end of his aria. With such high voltage goings on, the conductor Bertrand de Billy was decidedly second fiddle. Despite a good performance, he received polite applause at the end. This is a much-see show for Gruberova fans and anyone into diva worship – but if you haven’t got a ticket during the July run in hand, you are out of luck as everything was gone a long time ago. Hopefully there might still be a few tickets available for performances this September.

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Letter from Munich: Diana Damrau Liederabend

Lohengrin or Diana Damrau? How’s that for a tough decision! That was the choice I had to make when planning my trip to the 2009 Münchner Opernfestspiele. I decided to forgo the Lohengrin premiere so I could go the one-night-only recital by soprano Diana Damrau. Luckily, there will be several more performances of the Wagner, the second of which I will attend on July 8. Long after having booked the tickets, it was announced that the opening of Lohengrin would be shown on a giant screen in the Max-Joseph Platz in front of the National Theater. The weather was suitably operatic today – a heat wave having given way to bouts of heavy downpour interspersed by brilliant sunshine. It was really touch and go whether the open-air simulcast, part of Munich’s Oper für alle outreach program, would be rained out. As it turned out, there were brief showers in Act One, which began at 6 pm, but the heavens took pity on the opera lovers braving the elements to enjoy Jonas Kaufmann’s first Lohengrin. Since I was a couple of miles away at the Prinzregententheater for the Damrau recital, I did not experience the performance. After Damrau finished at a little after 10 pm, we rushed by U-bahn to the National Theater, only to see people leaving the square. We managed to meet up with a friend and got a brief report, but since I did not see it, I will reserve my comments until after I have seen the July 8 performance.

What can I say about Diana Damrau? She is simply the hottest coloratura around these days. I saw her incredible Zerbinetta last year right here in Munich, also at the Prinzregententheater, in the Robert Carsen production of Ariadne auf Naxos that starred Canada’s own Adrianne Pieczonka. Not only is Damrau a great singer, she is also a totally alluring actress. One got a real taste of it tonight. Her program included songs by Faure, Debussy, and Richard Strauss, all “chestnuts” – not a single unfamiliar song. The only rarity on the program was a song cycle called Day turned to night by contemporary composer Iain Bell (b. 1980), with song texts from Queen Victoria’s writings concerning her love for Prince Albert! It turned out to be a very interesting and accessible cycle of five songs, beginning with a letter the then Princess Victoria wrote to her uncle, King of the Belgians, upon meeting Albert. The last song is from a letter by Queen Victoria to her daughter, the Crown Princess off Prussia, after the death of Albert. This cycle for some reason reminds me of Frauenliebe und Leben, of course only superficially as the content is very different. Damrau sang it with great dramatic commitment, in really quite good English. I read the text over once at intermission and did not refer to it during the performance, wanting to see how much I could understand what she was singing. I was able to understand quite a bit of it. At the end of the cycle during the applause, Damrau gestured to someone sitting directly in front of her in the audience. This person turned out to be the composer, who joined Ms. Damrau for a bow onstage.

Given that it was a contemporary cycle and in a “foreign language”, it would be fair to say that the Bell cycle drew warm enough applause but not the tumultuous reception the audience reserved for the more familiar pieces on the program. Damrau began with a group of six Faure songs. These pieces sit very well in her voice. Despite being a high soprano, Damrau has an unusually warm and full middle voice, and she sang these with plenty of expression and attention to the textual nuances. The seven Debussy songs that followed were even better. Her silvery tone is absolutely ideal and it was a scintillating performance. Damrau’s voice is blessed with a whole palette of tone colours, unlike so many high sopranos with glassy voices and relatively little dynamic variation. Damrau sang with plenty of chiaroscuro, including some wonderful pianissimos tonight! She was also playful onstage when called for in the text, altogether a winning first half. After the intermission, she sang the Bell cycle, followed by Strauss’s Drei Lieder der Ophelia, op. 67. I can’t say this is my favourite Strauss, but Damrau’s performance was superb in every way. She saved the best for last, three of the most beautiful of Strauss songs – Morgen, Wiegenlied, and Cäcilie. These brought the house down, needless to say! Throughout the recital, her pianist, the great Helmut Deutsch, offered expert support. He is certainly among the half-dozen or so greatest collaborative pianists on the circuit today. Damrau gave three encores, all Strauss, but the only one I can recall is Nichts. A lovely Liederabend is always something to treasure, and this was one of them. Now onto Lucrezia Borgia with La Gruberova tomorrow!

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Letter from Munich: Massenet´s Werther (July 4)

Gruss Gott aus Muenchen! I arrived in this lovely city yesterday and already had a delectable beginning to my eight-day opera extravaganza. Last evening’s Werther at the National Theater was to star Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon in the title role, but he was forced to withdraw because of vocal cord surgery in late April. In his place was Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who incidentally sang this role last summer in the same production here in Munich. I felt he was good last year, but this time around, he was magnificent (but more about that later). The Charlotte last evening was once again Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova. Albert was baritone Natale di Carolis. Bertrand de Billy conducted.

The production is quirky but interesting. A scrim and three walls full of Werther’s scribblings make the point that the story is told through the lens of the protagonist. Right in the middle of the stage is a rock with a writing desk. When Werther is there, the story is told from his perspective. This differentiation is helped by changes in lighting – an interesting concept that works reasonably well. The projections on the scrim and the walls seem to change, indicating the gradual deterioration of Werther’s mind. I have always find the opera itself unfolds too slowly. Acts one and two aren’t so interesting. The best music is reserved for acts three and four. This production has only one intermission, with fairly long pauses between the other acts. The audience, typical of the Munich Opera Festival, is knowledgeable and extremely well behaved. There were no breaks for applause, even after set pieces like Charlotte’s letter scene. But after ‘Pourquoi me reveiller’, there was a huge eruption of well-deserved bravos that lasted many minutes. From act three on, Beczala was fantastic vocally and very fine dramatically. He did omit a high C later but it was optional to begin with. His performance seemed to lift everybody else onstage and the performance caught fire. Kasarova began with a very dark tone, and her customary glottal attacks might not be to everyone’s taste. Her acting became increasingly dramatic as the story unfolded. I think the incredible performance of Beczala might have urged her on to give her all. Her singing was characterized by searing high notes coupled with some unusual, contralto like lows - at moments she sounded like a man. Overall hers was a satisfying Charlotte. De Billy conducted this piece as if it is verismo – perhaps a little bit heavy handed. I was dead centre in the 18th row – the sound coming from the pit was very loud. With these two excellent leads and their all-out, ‘take no prisoners’ style, this veristic approach made for an exciting evening at the theatre. If the audience appeared reserved during the performance, they sure did not hold back at the end – huge, huge ovations that lasted something like 10 minutes, with the cast called back again and again. Perhaps more than 20 curtain calls altogether. This was a most auspicious start to my Munich sojourn. Tonight is the Diana Damrau Liederabend – I can’t wait!


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jenufa at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera

The opening, on April 8, of a gripping new production of Leos Janacek’s Jenufa at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera is a feather in the cap of intendant, Nikolaus Bachler. His plan is to provide, during the season, both traditional productions with concept-driven, edgy regietheater. But “traditional” does not necessarily mean “old-school.”

Formerly director of Vienna’s famed Bergtheater, Bachler was aware of stage director Barbara Frey’s work and his engagement of her to stage Jenufa, her first opera, was a gamble that paid off. She took the story of lost love and infanticide to heart and her taut reading makes the story both a searing drama and an epic tragedy.

The setting, an open house on stakes, served to focus attention on the tension of this dangerously dysfunctional family drama. The crowds who appear outside with the discovery of the body of the love child in the lake, scramble over the forbidding rocks in this desolate landscape. Staging, costumes and lighting all contribute to the sense of desolation which permeates this drama. Slightly updated - wind turbine towers are in the background and a cheap TV is on the table - the small town claustrophobia of 19th Century Moravia can be easily understood by contemporary audiences.

Bachler was generous with the assembled talent to bring this off. The blazing work of soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek has generated much press recently and, in the title role, her desperate love for a feckless young man, Steva, could not be more heart-wrenching. With one of the most passionate and generous voices today, her anguish was palpable throughout the hall.

There was a sure chemistry between her and her step-sister, Kostenicka, played to perfection by the veteran soprano Deborah Polaski. Canadian Joseph Kaiser, with a clear, expressive tenor, was convincing as young Steva and Stefan Margita added his disturbing, complex reading of faithful Laca. The secondary characters were also theatrically on target, including opera legend Helga Dernesch, now 70, as the grandmother.

This was also a fine day for Kirill Petrenko who lead the distinguished opera orchestra with vivid clarity. His career is taking off in the last few years with major appearances in the pit at New York, Paris, Vienna and London and his galvanizing leadership contributed to the seamless night of high-voltage music making.

The opera is playing now at the Bavarian State Opera’s National Theater through April 27 and will be seen again as part of the Munich Opera Festival on July 9. Information is at

Frank Cadenhead

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Munich Opera Festival announces tempting 2009 lineup

by Joseph So

Are you already getting the early winter blahs? I admit I am - as I write this, Toronto is getting whacked by a wicked snowstorm, to be followed by a second deluge 48 hours later. When faced with such a depressing scenario, there is no better tonic than planning the next opera trip, especially one as delectable as the annual Munich Opera Festival. This august festival dates back to 1875 - how's that for longevity! I attended the summer fest last July and had the greatest time. In the span of a week, I saw five operas and a Liederabend, starring some of the biggest stars in the opera world - Kent Nagano, Jonas Kaufmann, Diana Damrau, Angela Denoke, and Canada's own Adrianne Pieczonka. There may be other festivals with equally starry lineups and cutting-edge productions - Salzburg and Glyndebourne come to mind - but none can beat Munich for the sheer variety and consistency of product.

The 2009 Munich Opera Festival Season is five weeks long, from June 30 to July 31. It marks the first season at the helm for Nikolaus Bachler, their new intendant. For me and undoubtedly all Wagnerites, the main attraction will be the festival premiere of a new production of Wagner's Lohengrin, starring German tenor Jonas Kaufmann (opening night July 5). I heard him in a Liederabend last July, and to my ears he is the best young heldentenor today. The timbre of his sound is so reminiscent of a young Jon Vickers that it is absolutely uncanny - the only difference is Kaufmann has better high notes. Opposite him will be the marvelous Greek-German soprano Anja Harteros as Elsa. The conductor is the great Kent Nagano. Montreal audiences will be familiar with his work, but mostly in the symphonic repertoire, so this represents an opportunity to hear him conduct this great score. The stage director is Richard Jones, so expect something cutting edge and unconventional!

The second attraction for me will be my favourite tenor, Rolando Villazon, singing two performances of Werther. I saw this very production last July with the fine Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, but to me Villazon is in a class by himself. Also high on my list is a revival of last season's sensational Ariadne auf Naxos starring Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka. It was at the intimate Prinzregententheater - it was the hottest ticket at the festival last July. The 2009 revival will have the same cast, but with Bertrand de Billy replacing Nagano, and it is slated to be taped for release on HD DVD, according to Dr. Ulrike Hessler at a press luncheon last July. Pieczonka will also sing Desdemona in Otello opposite Johan Botha. Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli will sing the title role in Aida in a production staged by Christoph Nel and conducted by Daniele Gatti. An eclectic item on the program is the festival premiere of Leonard Bernstein's one act opera Trouble in Tahiti. Kent Nagano will lead the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a new version especially prepared for Munich, at the Cuvillies Theater.

Last summer in the Cuvillies, performances of Mozart's Idomeneo marked the reopening of this exquisite Rococo theatre. This production will be revised for performances on July 23, 26, and 30. One can also look forward to the return of two big-name divas - Edita Gruberova in Lucrezia Borgia (July1, 6), and Angela Gheorghiu in a gala concert (July 27). Aficionados of song recitals will get to hear Diana Damrau (July 5), Waltraud Meier (July 20), and Jonas Kaufmann (July 26). As is typical of festivals of this calibre, tickets don't come cheap, but there will be a number of free outdoor events to make the festival accessible to all - a concert on June 28 with Nagano conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra will take place on Marstall Square, and on July 5, the opening performance of Lohengrin will be telecast live on Max Josef Square.

The demands for seats to the operas, ballets and symphonic concerts at the Festival have always been high, and given the lineup this coming summer, it is likely to sell out quickly. July is also high season for travel to Munich, so one would be wise to book air tickets early. For details, visit the Munich Opera Festival website at:


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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