La Scena Musicale

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rosenkavalier in Paris - February 4, 2009

A rare Parisian standing ovation paid tribute to the starry assembly of voices for Richard Strauss' most popular opera, Der Rosenkavalier. When Christian Thielemann, the Munich Philharmonic's music director, spoke of "a galactic cast," he was using only a measure of hyperbole. With fewer gold-standard artists and more world stages chasing them, it is not easy to get so many in one spot at one time. Oddly enough the main draw, mega-star Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, made the fewest waves as the evening progressed. It was the conductor's night to shine.

Assembled for three staged performances and a HD video recording while opening the Winter season in Baden-Baden, the troupe travelled to Paris' Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for a single concert version on February 4, witnessed by this writer, with a final concert performance in Munich a few days later. In Baden-Baden, one of the rich legacy of productions from the late producer Herbert Werneke, seen in Paris and Salzburg, was re-staged for the occasion.

Fleming, while her trademark golden tones were in plentiful supply, never seemed to occupy the role of the princess facing painful transitions and the arch of Strauss' musical line was only hinted at. The French mezzo Sophie Koch's Octavian, however, was detailed and opulent and her portrait of the young knight was full of blossoming life. The Second Act duet between Octavian and Sophie, sung radiantly by no less than soprano Diana Damrau, was, for many, the highlight of the evening. There were special discoveries in the secondary roles. Soprano Irmgard Vislmaier as the maid, Marianne, made surprising impact even next to Damrau. The rich baritone of veteran, Franz Grundheber, now over 70, made Faninal sound ageless but still could not erase my memories of Derek Hammond-Stroud's definitive rendering of this role.

The baritone Franz Hawlata sings his Lerchenau-lite so often he probably gets mail in the Baron's name. His lower register lacks warmth or weight when needed - which is rather often in this role - and fails to satisfy, however intelligent the delivery. The Italian Singer, in keeping with the "galactic" level, was no less than Ramon Vargas whose aria was delivered with such easy Italianate elegance that only Luciano Pavarotti could rank above it in my memory. As Annina, star mezzo Jane Henschel was clearly having fun as was her Valzacci, tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhake. The Philharmonia Chorus of Vienna helped out as did, in the final scene, The Children's Chorus of the Helmholtz School in Karlsruhe.

Near the top of most "favorite orchestra" lists, the Munich Philharmonic was, this night, a master ensemble with a singleness of purpose, rich sound and the sensitive interaction characteristic of the great orchestras. Playing with ardor and technical brilliance, you could even hear a touch of classic Viennese Schlamperei. This word, which is best translated as "sloppiness" describes the loose, familiar playing of a typical Viennese orchestra. It could even have been a soupçon too much during the mighty sounds of the "Presentation of the Rose." Otherwise, the passion between conductor, orchestra and singers, all carefully balanced, in bringing this score to life was always vivid in the hall. Christian Thielemann, now just 50, is regarded as a leading Strauss interpreter and the sheer musicality he can draw from the orchestra makes any appearance in your city an event not to be missed. It is easy to imagine audience members holding on to the memory of this evening for years to come.

- Frank Cadenhead

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Friday, January 9, 2009

"It's all a bunch of crap!" - Thaïs on Met HD Live!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson

Over the years opera has developed a reputation for telling stories that are too often silly, risible or incomprehensible, and sometimes all three at once. As we settle into the twenty-first century most managers of opera companies have faced up to this problem, and to the fact that it makes selling their product very difficult indeed. The solution is often to bring in a director whose primary function seems to be to alter everything except the music. So, we often see stories set in Biblical times moved up to the present on the premise that they will thereby seem to be less ridiculous. The result is usually that they then appear both ridiculous and mismatched with the text and the music.

These thoughts came to mind as I watched John Cox’s production of Massenet’s Thaïs, a vehicle for Renée Fleming and made available to millions around the world last week via the Met’s HD Live series.

Massenet’s libretto is based on a contemporary novel by Anatole France set in Alexandria, Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Cox has updated it to something close to our time, presumably, to clarify the universality of the story. Cox’s updating, however, is so haphazard that we end up losing our bearings completely.

Some characters in the Cox production appear to be dressed in costumes approximating fourth century Egypt, others in modern dress and still others seem to have grabbed whatever was left on the racks in the Met’s wardrobe department. Set and costume designer Paul Brown created a lavish world for his Thaïs - so lavish that one might think he had somehow benefited from all the billions of bucks flying around New York these days, as Wall Street investment houses run amok and the U.S. Treasury rushes to reimburse them!

Cox’s vision called for monumental sets requiring battalions of high-priced stage hands to move them around – Met HD Live generously showed us in great detail how it was all done – but in the end Cox could probably have achieved much more with a bare stage.

These observations notwithstanding, the basic problem with this opera, is that Louis Gallet’s libretto is dreadful. The story originally told by Anatole France has a monk Athanaël attempt to convert the courtesan Thaïs to a Christian life (i.e. enter a convent). No sooner has Athanaël achieved his goal, however, than he realizes that he lusts after the girl himself. Too late! He rushes back to the convent to declare himself, but Thaïs passes away in his presence without understanding or appreciating his declaration of love.

The tough part here is Thaïs’ conversion, and Gallet simply couldn’t figure out how to handle it. Without a convincing conversion, the opera really doesn’t work. Nor is there much in the libretto to enable the singer playing Athanaël to grow from religious obsession to earthly passion.

In an interview published in the Met HD Live Program Guide, Thomas Hampson, singing Athanaël, articulated perfectly what it is all about: “It’s in the last scene, when Athanaël comes crashing into reality, that he probably blurts out the most self-examining line of the entire evening, right before she dies and (he) says, ‘It’s all a bunch of crap; it’s only about finding love in life – that’s the only thing that matters.’ ”

The problem lies in convincing the audience that this man Athanaël could really come to such a realization based on who he appeared to “be” earlier in the opera. The libretto doesn’t give him much to work with, and the director John Cox hasn’t offered much help to either Hampson, or Fleming in working out their characters. What he does do is throw in some pathetic Middle Eastern kitsch in the form of laughable belly dancing.

A more imaginative director could have mirrored the motivations of the protagonists by means of projections, or perhaps some kind of dramatic tableau during the famous Méditation, beautifully played by concertmaster David Chan. Such elements could have been incorporated into a production still based in the fourth century, or even into a more abstract version. Cox just didn’t seem to be able to come with anything integrally creative.

The result was that Fleming and Hampson were left to fend for themselves. The direction, sets and costumes all seemed to be working against them. Fortunately, they both sang magnificently and for many opera fans that was more than enough. But why then bother spending all that money on sets and costumes?

Another factor that worked against one’s enjoyment – at least mine – was the way the opera was presented to the Met HD Live audience. The producer seems to feel that the audience needs to be looking at something interesting all the time; accordingly, we got to see every scene change in great detail, including all the sweating and some of the swearing too.

All this backstage business was engaging, perhaps, but it doesn’t belong in the live performance. After all, in any theatrical production, the curtain is lowered so that our ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (Coleridge) is not utterly destroyed.

This Met HD Live producer apparently doesn’t understand that when there is music being played by the orchestra, as in the Méditation and the Prelude to Act Three, it is meant to express feelings related to the story, not to be an accompaniment to parts of sets being heaved about behind the curtain.

Finally, I could also have done without the breathless interviews done by Placido Domingo, as Fleming and Hampson either prepare to go on stage or as they are leaving the stage. This ‘between innings chatter’ may be alright for sports events but it again breaks the spell of the drama.

There is not much point in the artists suiting up as Thaïs and Athanaël if they are going to present themselves to the audience seconds later - still in costume and make-up - as, well, Fleming and Hampson.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Strauss: Arabella

Renée Fleming, Julia Kleiter, Morten Frank Larsen, Johan Weigel
Chorus and Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich / Franz Welser-Möst
Decca 074 3263 (147 min)
*** $$$
I had the pleasure of being present at Renée Fleming’s first performance of Arabella with the Houston Grand Opera in 1998. She was splendid and consolidated her position as one of the great Straussians of her generation. She went on to repeat this triumph at the Met in 2001, again with Christoph Eschenbach conducting. Now comes a DVD of a 2007 performance in Zürich. Fleming is better than ever but she is part of a production by Götz Friedrich that sucks most of the charm and magic right out of the piece.

The opera is essentially a lightweight, operetta-style love story set in 1860s Vienna. Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmanstahl were very specific as to time and place and the peculiarities of social etiquette and entertainment. But Friedrich chose to move the story to some vaguely 1920s place and offered no apparent imaginative concept to replace the Viennese original. What’s more, the sets suggest not so much a new vision but simply lack of time or money or both. The Act I set is so bare it looks less like a Viennese hotel room than a hospital waiting room. The critical staircase in the last scene has as much character as a neon sign. Worst of all, the orchestra appears to have been recorded in a closet and a very small one at that; the sound is dry and boxy in the extreme.

- Paul E. Robinson

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: February 14 (Fleming, Sor)

1959 - Renée Fleming, Indiana, PA, USA; opera and recital soprano

Wiki entry

Renée Fleming in Copenhagen sings Handel's "Let the Bright Seraphim"

1778 - Fernando Sor, Barcelona, Spain; composer, guitarist

Wiki entry

Fernando Sor: No. 3 from Six Petite Pièces for Harpolyre, played by John Doan

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