La Scena Musicale

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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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bavarian State Opera's Macbeth

by Jens F. Laurson

As long as Zeljko Lucic and Nadja Michael take the lead roles as Mr. and Mrs. Mayhem in Munich's new Macbeth, the response will be divided equally between delight and disgust. The production has been stirring emotions and drawing a heated response from audiences and critics.

Delight in Michael's ravishing interpretation of Lady Macbeth, a woman who finds plotting to be an (a)rousing activity. From limber acrobatics in the lowered chandelier to her wildly vibrating yet piercing voice, she played a Lady Macbeth to murder for.

Disgust at the band of extras and chorus members that director Martin Kušej sends downstage to urinate all over the place at the opening of the third act. Choreographed urination is such a clichéd element in European Verdi direction. When 13 topless playboy bunnies with pink wigs appeared shortly after, a smart aleck yelled “bravi”, creating unusual audience merriment for a performance of Macbeth.

At this point, the show was on the verge of being hijacked by the audience; laughter, lusty boos from every tier, and blatant chatter created a casual, irreverent atmosphere rarely encountered in modern opera houses. Slightly rowdy, perhaps, but enjoyable.

As enjoyable as Zelijko Lucic, the Serbian baritone who sang Verdi, his voice ringing effortlessly through the round of the Staatsoper. He out-sang even the very fine Banco of Roberto Scandiuzzi whose severed head would become the play-toy of Lady Macbeth.

And as enjoyable as the homogenously played Bavarian State Orchestra under Nicola Luisotti who got a salvo of boos. His nervous, restless reading that had all the accents in the right places and deserved more bravos than boos.

Kušej (whose Salzburg La Clemenza di Tito is my measure of direction excellence) and his stage designer Martin Zehetgruber created many fine views: including the vast field of skulls and the walls of plastic sheets (á la Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch”).

But too many ideas were crass, as if Kušej’s team had not filtered out the unnecessary ones, or distinguished between the obvious and the obscure. The handful of blond children who represented the witches, fate, and murdered innocents, the obsession with Banco’s severed head, the constant dressing and undressing of the chorus, all veered between gratuitous and dense. It made for a production worthy of laude and mockery alike – a curious opening for the new Bachler regime at Germany’s most important opera house.

Photo credit: Wilfried Hoesl

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Letters from Munich: Jonas Kaufmann liederabend

Photo credit: Wilfrid Hoesl
Greetings from beautiful Munich! I arrived Tuesday morning for a week of wonderful music. With the Munich Festival in full swing, summer time here is a feast for opera lovers. This year is even more special because it is the 850th birthday of the city. Among the celebrations is the re-opening of the exquisite Rococo Cuvillies Theatre. We Canadian journalists are fortunate to have scheduled a private tour of this theatre, so I will have more to say in a few days.

Our Munich sojourn got off to a terrific start, with a lieder recital by the fast-rising tenor Jonas Kaufmann. It sold out days in advance. By six o'clock, there were quite a number of desperate people milling about outside the Prinzregententheater, with “suche Karte” signs in hand, hoping to get lucky. Those in possession of a ticket were treated to a remarkable display by an artist in his vocal prime.

Kaufmann is that rare breed - a budding heldentenor with gorgeous tone and great technical facility, not the least of which is a completely secure top register. He has total command of his voice, from the tiniest pianissimo to full throat forte. Everything is executed with utmost taste and musicality. Being tall, dark and handsome doesn't hurt either. Born in Munich, Kaufmann mostly sings elsewhere – in Zurich where he lives, in Covent Garden where he is a big star, and in New York and Chicago where he has loyal fan bases. Munich is very proud of its native son and Kaufmann was vociferously applauded when he entered. The applause only grew throughout the two hour concert.

Kaufmann opened with Schubert's Die Burgschaft, D. 246, which showed off his story-telling skills. Only a native German speaker is capable of such clarity of diction, coupled with lively acting that comes with a full understanding of the text. The long aria is really a mini-opera, and he held the audience’s attention throughout.

He followed the Schubert piece with Sieben sonette nach Michaelangelo, Op. 22 by Benjamin Britten, written for the tenor Peter Pears, Bitten’s partner in life and in art. The tessitura is very high, designed to show off the best part of Pears' voice. From the words of the opening song, “Si come nella penna” Kaufmann's tone rang out, fully bringing out the dramatic nature of the text. His Italian may not have the incisiveness he had in the German songs, but it is still pretty darn good. His singing had great variety, with all the requisite chiaroscuro one could want. Kaufmann was unsparing with his high notes, particularly his remarkably secure pianissimi, but he never resorted to a falsetto like some dramatic tenors. The baritonal timbre of his sound recalls a young Jon Vickers, although unlike Vickers, Kaufmann never croons. He always incorporates the chest register into his head voice. Judging from his concert and his Don Jose from Covent Garden, he is the premier jugendlich dramatic tenor voice in front of the public today.

After a 30 minute intermission, Kaufmann returned for an all Strauss program, in keeping with the Festival theme. He began with a most expressive "All mein Gedanken" – what a joy to the ear! Similarly, his "Du meines Herzens Kronelein" had lots of lovely soft singing. He brought out the humour in "Ach weh mir ungluckhaftem Mann", and the audience responded with spontaneous applause - unusual in Germany where the ever respectful audience always waits until the end of a group to applaud. "Ich liebe dich" was sung in an unusually declamatory manner, a little unusual for a love song. The vocal line is very emphatic, and the piano accompaniment curiously echoes the introduction to the presentation of the rose in Die Rosenkavalier.

If there was a fly in the ointment, it was the over reverberant acoustics in the Prinzregententheater, accentuated by the fully opened piano lid. Sometimes Helmut Deutsh’s ever-excellent playing was a little loud. Deutsch was/is Kaufmann's teacher, and the two performed with great rapport, with much communication and mutual trust.

Of all the Strauss songs Kaufmann sang this evening, I have two favourites. One was "Heimliche Aufforderung". I know some women singers tackle this, but for me this is a man's song, and Kaufmann's singing here has a certain, full throated, 'let it rip' quality but also plenty of sensitivity. My other favourite was Sehnsucht: wonderfully sustained, high piano soft singing in the last verse. If I were to allow myself a third favourite, it would be Cacilie. This closed the formal concert, showing once again his thrilling top.

The evening ended in many, many shouts of bravo and the two were called back time and time again. The inevitable encores began with Breit uber mein haupt, delivered in a straight forward, honest fashion. I have a soft spot for Beverly Sills' singing of this with orchestra, in half voice only, and very, very slow. Not at all authentic, but still very beautiful. The name of the second encore escapes me, but the third was Nichts. Kaufmann even offered a fourth encore. He gave unstintingly and I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to hear a wonderful artist at the height of his powers. As if a two hour concert wasn't tiring enough, Kaufmann signed autographs after the show. I didn't stay but one of my Canadian friends, a huge Kaufmann fan, lined up for autographs and photo ops, and I am sure I will get choice pictures from him soon!

I will have more to report after the Ariadne tomorrow.

Joseph So

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Letters from Munich: Arabella

Marlis Petersen (Zdenka) and Pamela Armstrong (Arabella)
Photo credit: Wilfrid Hoesl

My operatic feast here in Munich began last night with a performance of Arabella. We arrived at the theatre and found a dreaded white strip of paper in the program, signaling a cancellation. Soprano Anja Harteros was indisposed and Pamela Armstrong, an American, replaced her. I was so looking forward to hearing the much celebrated Harteros, a German soprano of Greek parentage and a Cardiff Singer of the World winner a few years ago. She sung to great success at the Met in recent seasons but I have not managed to catch her live. As for Armstrong, I only knew her as the Nozze Contessa and Rosalinda from Fledermaus – a well schooled, stylish singer with a beautiful sound.

The company has retired the 1977 production of Arabella, the one I was familiar with during the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau-Julia Varady era. The "new" 2001 production is more symbolic than representational, more in keeping with modern-day theatre design and direction sensibilities. Call me a traditionalist - while I found that it had its moments, it didn't touch the heart like the old production.

The curtain opened to what looked like an attic. The stage floor was severely raked and covered in papers (unpaid bills!). An auctioneer began appraising the furnishings and workmen took pieces off stage. A quirk in the direction: the Adelaide-Fortune Teller scene had Arabella onstage observing the proceedings, something I’d never seen before. The Fortune Teller was costumed more like a "lady of the evening" than your conventional gypsy fortune teller. I am sorry to report that as Arabella, Armstrong sounded underpowered in the middle and lower registers and tentative in her delivery. I was in the 10th row, but I had trouble hearing her middle and lower registers. But she got stronger as the evening went along, in the end delivering a beautiful last act aria. Physically she is not ideal as the heroine, especially in this production. She has gained weight since the last time I saw her, a bit plump and short, looking rather matronly, especially compared to the tall and willowy Harteros. Physically Armstrong and Marlis Petersen (Zdenka) aren't the best match. Armstrong's voice sounded smaller than the fabulous Marlis Peterson as Zdenka, resulting in a musically unbalanced Act One duet Aber der Richtige. The conductor (Stefan Soltesz) stopped the orchestra afterwards for applause but there was none.

I don't want to give the impression that Armstrong was a bad Arabella. She is a fine singer with a lovely voice perfect for Strauss in the Schwarzkopf mode. But at least on this occasion, it lacked impact in the theatre, and her overall portrayal was under-energized. To her credit, she got better and better, and her finest moment was Das war sehr gut at the end. She opened the aria with really lovely, pure tones which finally won me over. But perhaps for some of the more critical members of the audience, it was too little, too late.

To my eyes, the unit set did not work all that well for Act One and lacked grandeur for Act Two. A bed was left in stage center. I suppose in post-modern deconstructionist discourse, Arabella is all about sex, but do we really need a constant reminder? Mandryka was Bavarian evergreen Wolfgang Brendel. I first heard him in the 1980s at the Met; he was in possession of one of the most beautiful baritone voices at the time. Now well into his third decade of singing, the voice is still in good shape, but inevitably it has lost a certain amount of vocal sheen and richness. His technique didn't have quite the freedom of the past, and his vocal production is a little stentorian, lacking a full palette of tone colours. But given the nature of Mandryka's character, I thought Brendel did well. Unfortunately, the audience didn't agree with me, and he was greeted with some boos. More shocking was the persistent booing of Pamela Armstrong, who didn't deserve such boorish behaviour from a small segment of the audience. She is a lovely singer and there was much to enjoy in her performance. Perhaps an announcement before the show would have curbed some of the boo-birds - afterall, she stepped in with a couple of days' notice to save the performance, and Arabellas don't grow on trees!

The rest of the cast was exceptionally strong, notably Alfred Kuhn as a wonderfully dotty Graf Waldner. His voice is typical of a comprimario, but it is steady and without the wobble one often encounters in superannuated house singers. And what acting! He pretty much stole the show. Marlis Peterson made a totally believable boy, and her soubrette sound was ideal as Zdenka. A strange quirk in the direction by Andreas Homoki: in the first encounter between Zdenko (Zdenka) and Matteo, he/she has her hands all over Matteo's body and he doesn't bat an eye. Perhaps this is the director's way of introducing a homoerotic element to the story? As Matteo, Will Hartmann, whom I only know from his Tamino, hit all the high notes. He sang everything without having to yell in his ridiculous Strauss tenor role. The other suitors (Elemer, Dominik and Lamoral) were all fine, as was the silly role of Fiakermili, sung with great flair by Sine Bundgaard.

The best part of the performance was the wonderful orchestral sound under the firm direction of Stefan Soltesz. The overall performance, though not quite up to festival standards, was good and I am glad I saw it.

Joseph So

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