Friday, 21 October 2016

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Landestheater Detmold – 16 October 2016

The Act II riot is imminent: the Kobold (Gaetan Chailly, foreground) watches as David (Stephen Chambers) accosts Beckmesser (Andreas Joren). Photos: Kerstin Schomburg

Hans Sachs – Derrick Ballard
Walther von Stolzing – Heiko Börner
Eva – Eva Bernard
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andreas Jören
David – Stephen Chambers
Magdalene – Gritt Gnauck
Veit Pogner – Christoph Stephinger
Kunz Vogelsang – Ewandro Stenzowski
Konrad Nachtigall – Markus Köhler
Fritz Kothner – Insu Hwang
Balthasar Zorn – Markus Gruber
Ulrich Eißlinger – Norbert Schmittberg
Augustin Moser – Uwe Gottswinter
Hermann Ortel – Haeyeol Han
Hans Schwarz – Michael Zehe
Hans Foltz – Bartolomeo Stasch
A Nightwatchman – Michael Zehe
A Goblin – Gaëtan Chailly

Chorus, Extra Chorus, Statisterie & Symphony Orchestra, of Landestheaters Detmold

Conductor – Lutz Rademacher
Director – Kay Metzger
Designer – Petra Mollérus
Lighting – Henning Streck

Hans Sachs (Derrick Ballard)
As Hans Sachs reflects on the riot of the previous night in his Act III ‘Wahn’ monologue, he suggests ‘Ein Kobold half wohl da!’ – ‘A goblin must have helped!’ It’s a cue for director Kay Metzger to enmesh Wagner’s comedy with the magic of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, framing the whole action of the opera as the work of a mischievous, silent puck-like character. This Kobold directs more than just the Act II mayhem: he is responsible for misplacing the items that give Eva the excuse to stay back to converse with Walther in Act I; he ensures that when Stolzing tries to wow the Masters with his song they are put under an intoxicated spell; he orchestrates the pratfalls and knocks that accompany Beckmesser’s clandestine exploration of Sachs’s workshop in Act III; and unseen by the humans he constantly cajoles, teases and reacts. Both Meistersinger and Dream centre on a midsummer night of confusion and unexplained happenings, a Polterabend indeed, and to further the link, Shakespeare’s drama is sometimes known in German-speaking countries as ‘A St John’s Night Dream’, while Wagner’s Johannistag itself dawns with Walther’s own Morgentraum, his ‘morning dream’. In short, imagery from Shakespeare’s play infuses Wagner’s libretto. The composer referred to the opera as a kind of ‘cheerful satyr-play’ to his thoroughly serious Tannhäuser, yet the result here is a different kind of comedy from the one we normally expect from Meistersinger, and despite the over-egged antics of the Kobold (energetically played by the diminutive dancer Gaëtan Chailly), which can distract and frustrate as much as amuse, there is a charm about the thing that suits the intimate, small-scale nature of the staging and the theatre in which it sits.

The Act III Quintet
As if to counter the supernatural imposition, Petra Mollérus’s designs put us in the very real world of reconstructed postwar Germany in the 1950s, from the bland rebuilding of bombed-out Nuremberg to period furniture and clothing. Within this setting, Metzger is able to poke fun at the nationalist sentiments that surface in the text: Sachs’s infamous ‘Deutsch und echt’ speech is accompanied by a tableau of a little wooden summerhouse – of the kind seen throughout the country in its ‘Kleingarten’ allotment gardens – with David raising the modern German flag, a neat, ironic deflation of the portentousness of music and text. The new postwar ‘nationalism’ is only for a cosy, patriarchal domesticity, a point made earlier during the Quintet when the two women, Eva and Magdalene, don house coats as they prepare to defer to their new husbands-to-be against a backdrop of mod-con imagery. There are other nice touches that colour the period setting, from the church service at the start refashioned as choir practice, to the Apprentices as believable schoolchildren, to the obviously newly planted tree in the street in Act II. The human drama is played without over exaggeration of character – Beckmesser is a believable older suitor rather than a caricatured figure of fun, and Sachs, visibly mourning over the mementos of his late wife one minute, then has a difficult time rejecting Eva when she throws herself at him with particularly amorous intent. But it is the Kobold who has the final ‘word’ as he joins Sachs, who is seated with his legs hanging over the front of the stage at the very end, and they crack open beers with a conspiratorial ‘job well done’ salute.

Detmold’s Landestheater is a beautifully intimate space in which to experience the full force of Wagner, and this is only the latest of his works to appear there in recent years, following on from Tristan, Parsifal and a complete Ring – not bad for a place that only seats about 640. Some years ago, the pit was enlarged to cope with these demands, and descends beneath the stage, almost in Bayreuth fashion if without the covering cowl. Even sitting right at the front the sound emerged well blended, at least until the ‘onstage’ trumpets and side drum occupied the stage box right next to me for their two blasts in Act III (Beckmesser’s lute/harp was also positioned there but was less distracting). Lutz Rademacher, who impressed in Strauss’s Elektra last season, took the Overture at quite a lick, but his pacing overall was apt for the context, and he even suggested a Mendelssohnian lightness in some of the dreamier episodes – it made one wonder if Wagner subconsciously aped the MND chords at the start of Walther’s ‘Dream Song’.

David (Stephen Chambers) is manipulated
by the Kobold (Gaetan Chailly)
Derrick Ballard’s Hans Sachs was on loan from Staatstheater Mainz, where he debuted in the role in 2015. His was a highly sympathetic portrayal, with his wavy locks looking not inappropriately like a latterday Dürer, and he sang with plenty of noble tone and variety of colour, ably recovering towards the end from an obvious tiredness, or dryness, during the Quintet. He had his match in the wonderfully detailed and vocally distinguished Beckmesser of Andreas Jören, the Detmold ensemble’s leading baritone. Heiko Börner was also a known quantity to me, having been heard as Peter Grimes and Zemlinsky’sDwarf elsewhere in Germany last season. His singing as a mature-looking Walther was a little strained by Act III and his stage presence needed more sense of involvement, but it was a capable assumption. I was not so enamoured of Eva Bernard’s less than elegantly sung Eva, and Christoph Stephinger was a wooden Pogner, with poor diction and a plodding delivery that added an accent to every note. Gritt Gnauck’s Magdalene was also more stilted than her impressive Klytemnestra in the spring, but Insu Hwang, also a member of the Detmold ensemble, and a Cardiff Singer competitor in 2015, made a strong impression as a burnish-voiced Kothner, and Stephen Chambers was a lively and winning David. The choruses – small by Meistersinger standards, but big for this diminutive theatre – sang their all and capped what was undeniably a superb company and ensemble achievement.

In repertoire until May 2017, and touring to Schweinfurt, Paderborn & Wolfsburg

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Die Frau ohne Schatten - Hessischer Staatstheater, Wiesbaden - 15 October 2016

Andrea Baker (Nurse)
Photos: Karl & Monika Forster

Emperor – Richard Furman
Empress – Erika Sunnegårdh
Dyer’s Wife – Nicola Beller Carbone
Barak, the Dyer – Oliver Zwarg
Nurse – Andrea Baker
Spirit Messenger – Thomas de Vries
Voice of the Falcom/Guardian of the Threshold to the Temple – Stella An
Hunchbacked brother – Benedikt Nawrath
One-eyed brother – Alexander Knight
One-armed brother – Benjamin Russell
Vision of a Youth Aaron Cawley
Voice from Above – Karolina Ferencz

Choir & Youth Choir of Hessischen Staatstheaters Wiesbaden
Hessisches Staatsorchester Wiesbaden

Conductor – Eckehard Stier
Director – Uwe Eric Laufenberg
Revival director – Gisbert Jäkel
Costumes – Antje Sternberg
Lighting – Andreas Frank
Video – Gérard Naziri

Guardian of the Threshold (Stella An), Erika Sunnegårdh (Empress)
The first revival of Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, originally mounted in the Strauss anniversary year of 2014, has maintained much of its initial casting. It’s a fairly straightforward staging – if anything about this opera can be straightforward – and, rather like Laufenberg’s Bayreuth Parsifal, tells the story well enough without really suggesting any great insight or rethinking of the ideas behind the symbol-heavy fairytale. A vertically shifting set moves effortlessly between the spirit and human worlds, one white and clinical (though some of the structure was looking grubby with use), the other dingy and dishevelled. Characters are well delineated – the first human scene is particularly affecting, with Barak’s sexual advances rebuffed by his wife to his own bewilderment. The quality of the acting is truly first rate. Laufenberg does little to temper the sickly sweet denouement, fielding crowds of children and adults to drum home the opera’s message of pro-creation – a little irony would not have gone amiss here, let alone some of the pessimism expressed in Staatstheater Kassel’s far more thought-provoking First World War retelling from the same anniversary year. My other main caveat was with the gratuitous torture scene in which at the Emperor’s behest the poor Youth is castrated rather than divulge his complicity, while the Empress has her nightmares of other things.

Nicola Beller Carbone (Dyer's Wife), Oliver Zwarg (Barak), Erika Sunnegårdh (Empress), Andrea Baker (Nurse), chorus
The casting was mixed in its effectiveness. Erika Sunnegårdh as the Empress and Nicola Beller Carbone as the Dyer’s Wife were the highlights – both characterisations full of musical and dramatic insight and vocally contrasted enough to complement each other. Andrea Baker’s steely Nurse was generally impressive though could have done with more depth of tonal colour, and Richard Furman’s Emperor was virile and capable. Oliver Zwarg’s Barak was the one big disappointment. His tone was blustery, he often sang a smidgen flat and there was none of the burnished bass-baritone that should make the role the most sympathetic of the whole opera. His gruff stage presence, however, made his early scenes of marital break-up touching to watch.

The large orchestra, spilling out into the stage boxes, played magnificently under the commanding baton of Eckehard Stier. He encouraged the players to let rip in the interludes, though there were times when the singers more distantly positioned on the stage struggled to ride the volume from the pit.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Tannhäuser – Theater Aachen – 6 March 2016

Venus (Sanja Radišić) emerges from the altarpiece. Photos: Wil van Iersel

Adapted from review in The Wagner Journal, July 2016

Tannhäuser – Paul McNamara
ElisabethLinda Ballova
VenusSanja Radišić
Wolfram von EschinbachHrólfur Saemundsson
Hermann, Landgrave of ThuringiaWoong-jo Choi
Walther von der VogelweidePatricio Arroyo
BiterolfPawel Lawreszuk
Heinrich der SchreiberJohn Zuckerman
Reinmar von ZweterBenjamin Werth
Young ShepherdSvenja Lehmann

Chorus of Theater Aachen
Aachen Symphony Orchestra

ConductorKazem Abdullah
DirectorMario Corradi
Designer/costumesItalo Grassi
LightingDirk Sarach-Craig

A kneeling Hermann (Woong-jo Choi, left) pleads with Tannhäuser (Paul McNamara) to rejoin their
company as the other ‘knights’ look on.

Compared with Calixto Bieito’s Tannhäuser in Antwerp (reviewed in the last TWJ), which eschewed any reference to religion, Italian director Mario Corradi’s production of Wagner’s ‘Romantic opera’ for Theater Aachen gives the whole drama an ecclesiastical setting. Tannhäuser is a Catholic priest, and we first see him during the Overture celebrating Mass in Italo Grassi’s impressive, atmospheric church-interior set. But he is a priest with a troubled mind. As the music leaves the pilgrims behind and enters the world of the Venusberg, a visual transformation takes place: an angel sweeps down from the flies, Christ staggers in carrying his cross, Elisabeth takes an imprint of his face on a shroud and offers it to Tannhäuser and the congregation is magicked away – our hero’s mind is scrambling as ‘pure’ images give way to ‘impure’. Three stone pillars turn to reveal they house half-naked temptresses, who divest Tannhäuser of his priest’s robes. The chalice from the Mass becomes a vessel for an aphrodisiac potion and the incense an intoxicating perfume, and the confessional box transforms into Venus’s bower. As the Overture ends with a thud (the ‘Dresden’ version of the score is used throughout except for the ‘Paris’ version of the post-bacchanalian Venus-Tannhäuser scene – there’s really no need for the extra music of the Parisian Bacchanal here), Venus herself steps out of the altar-piece as the Virgin Mary and, removing her blue cloak, reveals herself as a Marilyn Monroe-like seductress, complete with dress-billowing-in-the-updraught effect. At the end of their scene together, Tannhäuser is found on his own in a faint and he is stretchered off as the Young Shepherd, an altar boy, sweeps up the last ‘evidence’ of the debauchery from the church floor.

After these theatrical coups, the rest of the staging is comparatively uneventful, but the consistency of Corradi’s narrative re-telling in this context is impressive. It soon becomes apparent that Tannhäuser is a priest torn between his vows of celibacy and the temptations of a vivid imagination, a mind that has an erotic fascination with the Virgin, in whom he sees Venus, yet also through whom is channelled Elisabeth’s purity. Elisabeth’s death in Act III, for instance, is movingly but unsentimentally portrayed as she dons Mary’s blue garb and is led away by the angel, while Venus makes her last-ditch attempt at wooing Tannhäuser wearing the same cloke. The closing image is of the life-size Marian statue finally revealed above the altar, with the sainted Elisabeth lying below. Further clues as to Tannhäuser’s state of mind appear when Venus provocatively saunters in during the song contest to tempt him and spur him on to his self-revelatory critiques of his colleagues – he is obviously the only person present who sees her. There’s also a telling moment earlier in Act II, after Elisabeth has delivered her second big solo to Tannhäuser as her confessor, ‘Ich preise dieses Wunder’, when he stops himself from kissing her head as she bows before him as her priest – for all his words about her purity, he obviously struggles to keep his relationship with her chaste, yet sees her as his salvation from his libidinous vice. So when, at the climax of the contest, he reveals he has experienced the ‘Berg der Venus’, he seems to be admitting not to a geographical dallying but to having actively broken his vow of chastity, making his need to seek penance in Rome for once plausible. He has broken the rules of the Church more than of society and follows – or at least attempts to follow – that organisation’s preferred route to forgiveness.

The one area where Corradi’s rethinking is less convincing is in the general societal context itself. Tannhäuser’s fellow minnesingers are also clerics, which makes the situation of a song contest rather peculiar, with the competitors’ offerings delivered from a lectern as if they are competing in a rather heated sermon play-off. Landgrave Hermann is the bishop, or other such church bigwig, with Elisabeth plausibly his niece (at least the original doesn’t have her as his daughter), but the ‘nobles’ are the common local folk, dressed 1940s-style in cardigans and twin-sets – the music of their ‘Entry’ sounds too grand to go with their simple queue to bow before Hermann and take their places in the pews. Incidentally, nothing seems to be made of this period setting per se, unless one is to read into it a parallel with a whole nation going through a process of penance in the post-war years, or to see it as a critique of the Roman church’s ambivalent relationship with the Third Reich, but I feel either is probably reading more into things than is intended. Instead, the setting allows the Prelude to Act III to be accompanied by archive film of a jubilee pilgrimage to Rome during the pontificate of Pius XII, which sets up the context for the ensuing denouement effectively as the pilgrims return to their home church after their journey. As well as the Marian tableau of the closing bars we also see the green sprouting of the papal staff winding up the altar’s columns like Jack’s beanstalk – a surreal but effective final image of rebirth, both virginal and Venusian.

The difficulties involved in casting of Tannhäuser are often cited as a reason for its relative scarcity among the Wagnerian canon on stage. German houses never seem to have a problem finding the singers for these demanding roles, though, and even the UK has had two productions scheduled this season, at the Royal Opera and Longborough. Aachen’s Tannhäuser was the Irish tenor Paul McNamara. He is not alone in appearing a little stretched by Act I’s often high-lying tessitura, but the rest of the role fitted his voice with natural ease, and he combined lyricism with dramatic heft and a convincing stage presence. Linda Ballova’s Elisabeth was a bit rough round the edges, but made a convincing case for a more pugnacious, forceful vocal characterisation of the role than we sometimes hear, a depiction that set up an interesting counterpoint with her demure stage presentation. Sanja Radišić’s attractively deep mezzo gave Venus her rightful allure, though rather flaccid diction meant the words – and especially consonants – tended not to come across. The staging played down Wolfram’s role more than usual (and certainly compared to the prominence Bieito gave him in Antwerp in the autumn), but Hrólfur Saemundsson made the part his own, bringing expressive subtlety and a warmly engaging tone. Woong-jo Choi’s sonorous Hermann was impressive, too. The Aachen chorus was excellent and made the climax of Act II and the very end of Act III spine-tingling moments. The orchestral balance was a bit uneven at first, with lower brass rather crowding everyone else out in the Overture, but Aachen’s General Music Director Kazem Abdullah eventually tamed them and his generally swift tempi lent an impressive coherence and dramatic cogency to the whole evening.

Tristan und Isolde – Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe – 17 April 2016

Isolde (Heidi Melton) and Tristan (Erin Caves). Photo: Falk von Traubenberg

Adapted from review in The Wagner Journal, July 2016

Tristan – Erin Caves
Isolde – Heidi Melton
Kurwenal – Armin Kolarczyk
Brangäne – Christina Niessen
King Mark – Konstantin Gorny
Melot – Matthias Wohlbrecht
Young Sailor/Shepherd – Cameron Becker
Steersman – Mehmet Altiparmak

Badisches Staatstheater Chorus
Badische Staatskapelle

Conductor – Justin Brown
Director – Christopher Alden
Designer – Paul Steinberg
Costumes – Sue Willmington
Lighting – Stefan Woinke
Movement director – Elaine Brown

With this Tristan added to its recent Parsifal, and with its multi-director Ring cycle launching this summer and due for completion in October 2017, the southwest German city of Karlsruhe seems set to become something of a Badischer Bayreuth. As the brochure calling for donations towards its new Ring claims, ‘Karlsruhe ist eine Wagner-Stadt’. It certainly has some of the necessary credentials: Wagner himself visited seven times, Hermann Levi and Felix Mottl conducted early performances of his works there, Joseph Keilberth cut his professional teeth at what was his home-town theatre, and in more recent times the company has helped launch the Wagnerian careers of Deborah Polaski, Lance Ryan and Stuart Skelton. Now, too, it is attracting some of the bigger names in operatic production, and this Tristan was put in the capable hands of Christopher Alden, a director known for his ability to draw out unexplored facets of an opera’s essence.

With Tristan und Isolde, Alden isn’t interested in a specific milieu or even a strictly narrative telling of the story. Costumes are mid-20th-century and the single setting for all three acts is perhaps a lounge on a luxury cruise liner in 1920s modernist style – a light, bright environment for characters who constantly seek night and darkness. In a programme interview, Alden says he sees Wagner’s concept of love here as of an insoluble togetherness, and not simply a romantic attraction. He plays off this existential relationship between Tristan and Isolde with a more traditional, down-to-earth love-play between Brangäne and Kurwenal: during the Act II tryst they hover in the background, each in their own tormented world, until Brangäne plucks up the courage and makes a pass at her opposite number but is spurned; then, during the climax of the duet, as her warning flames almost seem to set the whole place ablaze, he finally attempts to return the favour but backs off. 

Meanwhile, Tristan and Isolde’s attachment is at different times physically distant (they greet each other at the start of Act II from opposite sides of the stage) and intimate – they spend Brangäne’s first warning dancing a slow, smoochy waltz in each other’s arms. Their physical engagement is therefore not nearly as cool as in Christoph Marthaler’s Bayreuth production (there are visual parallels, though, with the liner setting, the light manipulated by switches on the wall and the secondary characters often emoting in silence in the background), but their apartness is shown to be a crucial element of their interaction. For instance, they seem to spend a lot of time standing staring at each other without touching – as preceding the strikingly delayed consumption of the potion in Act I. Isolde is present on stage for much of the last act, in Tristan’s environment, in his mind, but each is unaware of the other’s physical nearness. Theirs is a world where being apart is to be alive and in agony, together is oblivion and ecstasy. Tristan’s wound, supposedly healed by Isolde’s magic powers, is an open one that like Amfortas’ refuses to heal, and in keeping it fresh he becomes the agent of his own demise. Brangäne had concocted the love potion from the lounge’s cocktail bar, following one of Isolde’s mother’s recipe cards, and in Act III Tristan hopes in desperation that by mixing his own drink from the same pool of ingredients he will find the poison that they had both expected and longed for. His death-wish is viscerally exposed throughout the evening, while Isolde’s ultimate fate is left open – she sings the Liebestod far from Tristan’s body and poised with a pistol in hand but unraised as the lights cut.

Alden also points up the formal similarities between all three acts. Each opens, after an orchestral prelude in each case, with an offstage contribution that defines the real world: the young sailor in Act I, the hunting horns in Act II and the shepherd’s ‘alte Weise’ in Act III. All three are visually suggested to be coming from a wind-up gramophone, hinting at an artificial intrusion into the imaginary, internal world that takes over for the rest of each act. Each also ends, like a stuck record on that gramophone, with the arrival of King Mark and his men, here a brutal lot who are happy to duff Brangäne and Kurwenal up in Act II and who, with Melot standing aloof above them on a balcony, maintain a menacing presence whenever they are on stage. Thus in each case, the ‘real world’, the world of ‘light’ and ‘day’, prevails. With these arching parallels and his fascinating, often provocative Personenregie, Alden’s conceptual exploration of many of the opera’s themes is thus impressive, and everything works consistently within the world he has chosen to present.

With no fewer than three Tristan productions staged within this quarter of southwest Germany inside of a month (the others were at Baden-Baden and at the regional theatre in Kaiserslautern) the call upon singers for the main roles has naturally been competitive. Karlsruhe hit lucky with two Americans, Erin Caves and Heidi Melton. Caves, who had previously sung Tristan in Stuttgart, doesn’t have a big voice, and at times struggled to equal the vocal power of his Isolde, but he gained in sonic penetration as the evening progressed and, apart from some unfortunate but forgiveable evidence of tiring in the latter stages, sang with both mellifluous and incisive command, and he threw his all into a highly physical presentation of the role. Melton, a former member of the Karlsruhe ensemble and who was due in London shortly after this performance to begin rehearsing the part of Isolde in English for ENO, was magnificent: a full, rich soprano with carrying power to match her lyrical and word-sensitive delivery. With the subsidiary roles double-cast during this six-performance run, this was the debut night for the ‘B’ team, who acquitted themselves generally positively. I had some caveats about the Brangäne of Christine Niessen, whose voice exhibited a rather large tonal divide between a somewhat shrill upper range and sumptuous lower one. Armin Kolarczyk, though, was a determined but sympathetic Kurwenal and his warm, subtle singing gave evidence of why he has been snapped up by Bayreuth for its new Meistersinger next year. Konstantin Gorny’s Mark conveyed the bitterness in the character’s sense of betrayal and Matthias Wojlbrecht’s Melot made his mark without resorting to clichéd villainy. Cameron Becker’s Young Sailor and Shepherd (and manipulator of the wind-up gramophone in Act III) was lyrical and sensitive, and Mehmet Altiparmak made a telling cameo as the Steersman. 

I can’t claim to have registered any differences, having read of the fact after the event, but the musical preparation for this production had had recourse to a copy of the score in the Staatstheater archives that bears annotations by Felix Mottl from the time of the Karlsruhe premiere of Tristan in 1884 – instructions conveying first-hand evidence of the Master’s wishes that seem to go beyond the stage-direction additions already present in the Peters Edition/Dover score and chiefly cover dynamic variations. Justin Brown certainly drew nuanced playing from the Staatstheater orchestra which, despite one or two smudged entries and links, had both suavity and fire, characteristics that also marked Brown’s interpretative decisions.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Bayreuth Festival 2016

Links to my reviews for from the 2016 Bayreuth Festival:

Das Rheingold
“Aleksander Denić’s designs are phenomenal in their eye for detail and realism”

Die Walküre
“The final scene has rarely come closer to drawing tears”

“Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde was glorious in its tonal allure”

“Marek Janowski’s conducting throughout has been a revelation”

Tristan und Isolde
“Gould was... tireless, crisply enunciated, shapely phrased and even in vocal weight”

“Zeppenfeld’s Gurnemanz was a masterclass in clear enunciation, opulent bass tone and vocal charisma”

Friday, 3 June 2016

Holofernes – Theater Bonn – 2 June 2016

Judith (Johanni van Oostrum) with the head of Holofernes
Photos: Thilo Beu

Holofernes – Mark Morouse
Judith – Johanni van Oostrum
Abra, her maid – Ceri Williams
High Priest of Bethulien – Daniel Pannermayr
Achior – Johannes Mertes
Assad – Martin Tzonev

Beethoven Orchestra Bonn
Theater Bonn Chorus

Conductor – Jacques Lacombe
Director – Jürgen R. Weber
Sets – Hank Irwin Kittel
Costumes – Kristopher Kempf
Lighting – Friedel Grass

The chance to experience an opera from the 1920s that hasn’t been seen or heard for nearly 90 years was in theory too good an opportunity to miss. Holofernes by Emil von Reznicek was premiered at the Charlottenburg Opera in Berlin (now the Deutsche Oper) in 1923 and was revived for a further couple of seasons before, like Reznicek’s other dozen or so operas, falling completely from the repertoire. The Viennese-born, Berlin-settled composer (1860-1945) is now known, if at all, for the overture to his 1894 comic opera Donna Diana – that work was only revived on stage in modern times as recently as 2003. Some of that neglect must be down to the retrogressive nature of his musical language, which would have sounded distinctly passé at the time of its writing, if Holofernes is anything to go by. A subject as dramatic, and lurid, as the beheading of Nebuchudnezar’s general Holofernes by the beautiful Judith, written in the wake of Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, would seem a shoe-in for the lush, late-Romantic bordering on Expressionist musical styles that were prevalent at the time. But Reznicek resorts to a kind of third-hand Wagner for his declamatory vocal writing and orchestral textures, with intermittent local colour hinting at the Russian colourists. In short, the music wouldn’t have sounded out of place 30 or more years earlier. Moreover, Reznicek doesn’t seem able to sustain anything for long: the score sounds fragmentary, a sequence of short, unconnected moments, rather than the through-composed music drama it is presumably aiming to be. A lot of the musical ideas are trite and short-winded, the melodies – apart from the quoted Kol nidrei – are unmemorable, and only some occasional flashes of orchestral imagination – for instance when trying to sound ‘modern’ in the Straussian sense – hint at what could have been. The saving grace of the opera is that it is short – about the length of Salome, including an interval, though it was made a little longer here by the inclusion of an overture added, presumably for its last revival, in 1926.

Judith beneath the 'banana'...
Bonn Opera threw everything at it to try and convince us that it is worthy of being staged. Or at least that is the impression left by a completely over-the-top production by director Jürgen R. Meyer, in which excess seems the order of the day. (Fortunately, the company also threw musical quality its way, of which more later.) Any attempt to exaggerate, to camp it up, is taken. Kristopher Kempf’s costumes are straight out of 1960s Star Trek, as the Israelites and Assyrians are dressed to kill like the exotic humanoid aliens encountered by the Enterprise crew. Quite why the Jewish priests had huge boxes on their shoulders (misplaced tefillin?) or why the Assyrian soldiers were dressed up as spiders or horses was not made clear. And what was with the giant inflatable banana looming over the Jewish village (Abra, Judith’s maid, at one point tries to get her mistress to eat a real one, too)? Perhaps related to the phallic graffiti decorating Holofernes’s siege tower that dominates Act II. There is more fruit later, when Judith tries out her machete skills on a water melon before moving on to the sleeping Holofernes himself. Throughout, there is a surfeit of imagery conveying torture – bodies on poles, severed heads used as counterweights to drawbridges, and in Act I some rather unsavoury video imagery of someone severing the head of a plastic doll with a knife and hatchet. The director attempts to inject some humour into proceedings in his direction of character – especially with the tiresomely over-demonstrative Abra – but it only points up how laughable the whole production is, for instance with the poor onstage orchestral trumpeter forced unconvincingly to ‘act’ out a tiff with the slave holding his music (the second time he appears, he gets stabbed for his labours). And is that Chinese calligraphy projected on to one of the suspended, vegetable-like balloons in the closing scene? It all makes Judith’s suicide at the end seem a saving grace rather than a tragic denouement.

Holofernes (Mark Morouse)
The cast, chorus and orchestra did as much as they could with the material. Mark Morouse’s Holofernes saved the character from becoming too much of a pantomime villain (the vocal writing suggests Alberich at times), while Johanni van Oostrum’s Judith was suitably alluring of voice and stage presence. The subsidiary roles were also creditably performed. And conductor Jacques Lacombe deserves credit for keeping the performance moving, not easy given the often perfunctory nature of Reznieck’s writing. I went with an open mind and wish I had enjoyed it more, but it does go to show that, try as we might to persuade ourselves otherwise, some works are forgotten for a reason.

Die tote Stadt – Staatstheater Kassel – 1 June 2016

Marietta (Celine Byrne), Paul (Charles Workman) and Marie (Eva-Marie Sommersberg)
Photos: N. Klinger

Paul – Charles Workman
Marietta – Celine Byrne
Marie – Eva-Marie Sommersberg
Frank – Marian Pop
Brigitta – Marta Herman
Fritz – Hansung Yoo
Juliette – Lin Lin Fan
Lucienne – Maren Engelhardt
Victorin – Paulo Paulillo
Graf Albert – Johannes An

Staatsorchester Kassel
Opera Chorus & Cantamus Choir of Staatstheater Kassel

Conductor – Patrik Ringborg
Director – Markus Dietz
Sets – Mayke Hegger
Costumes – Henrike Bromber
Video – Lillian Stillwell
Lighting – Albert Geisel

Brigitta (Marta Herman) and Frank (Marian Pop) at the start of Act I

Although Korngold’s Die tote Stadt offers more scope for the director’s imagination than many an opera, with its meshing of real and imaginary worlds and its convoluted psychology, it is perhaps unsurprising that as the work becomes more of a repertoire piece the ideas presented on stage are becoming less original. This, if my memory is correct, is the eighth staging I’ve seen in a little over two decades, and while Markus Dietz’s interpretation is coherent and well presented, it is also unmistakeably reflective of previous efforts. Mayke Hegger’s set thrusts the action into the auditorium by encompassing the full perimeter of the orchestra pit, thanks to the theatre’s generously deep dividing line between instrumentalists and audience. This box-like forestage is Paul’s space, with his ‘shrine of memories’ a shelving unit providing the back wall that eventually opens up on a receding vista of his imagination. The false proscenium idea here, dividing real from dreamt worlds, was also used by Jakob Peters-Messer in Magdeburg in the winter, while the updating of Paul’s memorabilia of his dead wife Maria to include video footage was exploited by Anselm Weber in Frankfurt (the Cologne staging of 15 years ago or so went further and made the pertinent connection with Hitchcockian film, not least as Vertigo shares source material and some of the plot).

A scenic device that recalls Willy Decker’s much-travelled production is the use of the Doppelgänger to delineate the two ‘realities’. Here the ‘dead’ Marie is a constant presence in the form of a silent dancer, a seeming ghost of Paul’s dead wife, who is as bereft with her loss as he is with his. Her actions seem to mirror and at times contradict those of Marietta, the ‘real-world’ lookalike with whom Paul becomes obsessed. Also made out to be a double, seemingly, is Frank, since he is dressed just like Paul in white shirt and black trousers – is he perhaps made out to be Paul’s rational side? Paul’s attempt to kill Frank off in their Act II struggle is coupled with his need to kill Marie/Marietta again, as if by only doing the deed himself can he finally come to terms with his loss. Intriguingly, there’s a hint of erotic tanglement between Paul and Brigitte, as they kiss when she leaves him for the convent in Act II, and at the very end, Frank – and now we really do have to believe he is the rational Paul – addresses his invitation to leave Bruges, the ‘dead city’, to her, and is taken aback when Paul replies: Frank happily slips away with Brigitte to a new life, as Paul walks off into the darkness of the rear stage, his bereavement cast into oblivion. Weber in Frankfurt explored the anti-clerical element in contributing to Bruges’s ‘deadliness’, but Dietz explores more obvious religious connotations, making the religious procession in Act III specifically a Good Friday one and thence a cue to showing a bloodied Marie crucified as part of her continuing death process. Extensive use is made of the stage risers to achieve all the comings and goings of chorus and characters, and the visual flow is as seemless as a series of cinematic cross-fades.

Charles Workman brought a Heldentenor’s bright, ringing tone to the exhausting role of Paul. A couple of the high notes slipped from his grasp, but he almost always managed get a settling vibrato going in even some of the most trying of musical phrases, and he physically lived the role from beginning to end, despite the indignity of having to sing, for a fair chunk of the evening, wearing nothing but his underpants. Celine Byrne’s crisp diction was just one of the delights of her performance as Marietta, and it was coupled with plenty of sinuous tone and a stage presence that confidently suggested this was a character who wasn’t going to be messed with. As her Doppelgänger, Eva-Maria Sommersberg put just as much conviction into her silent role. The rest of the cast, drawn from the company’s ensemble, acquitted itself with equal commitment, but special commendation must go to the Fritz of Hansung Yoo, whose suave, beautifully paced Pierrot’s Lied was a highlight of the performance. Choruses, especially the professional-sounding children of Cantamus, were excellent and the Kassel orchestra played its heart out, Patrik Ringborg revealing extensive musical preparation in the way so much inner detail emerged while making the score as a whole soar, glide and ensnare as ever.