Friday, 27 March 2015

Le grand macabre – Aalto Theater, Essen – 18 March 2015

Nekrotzar (Heiko Trinsiger) summons Piet the Pot (Rainer Maria Röhr)

Photos: Matthias Jung

Nekrotzar – Heiko Trinsiger
Piet the Pot – Rainer Maria Röhr
Astrodamors – Tijl Faveyts
Mescalina – Ursula Hesse von den Steinen
Gepopo/Venus – Susanne Elmark
Prince Go-Go – Jake Arditti
White Minster – Jeffrey Dowd
Black Minister – Karel Ludvik
Amanda – Elizabeth Cragg
Amando – Karin Strobos
Ruffiack – Mateusz Kabala
Schobiack – Swen Westfeld
Schabernack – Michael Haag

Opera Chorus & Statisterie of the Aalto Theater
Essen Philharmonic (Essener Philharmoniker)

Conductor – Dima Slobodeniouk
Director – Mariame Clément
Designer – Julia Hansen
Video – fettFilm
Dramaturge – Janina Zell

Amando (Karin Strobos) and Amanda (Elizabeth Cragg)
György Ligeti’s magnum opus about the end of the world is a gift to the imaginative director. And Mariame Clément hasn’t held back in her new staging for the Aalto Theater in Essen. It is relatively sparing in scenery – certainly compared to the striking giant human figure that dominated the much-travelled La Fura dels Baus version – but crammed full with visual jokes, often of a deliberately puerile phallic nature, and clever characterisation. The evening begins with Piet the Pot emerging from the seat in the stalls he had rather obviously been occupying – can of beer in hand – since the audience had begun assembling, and a tail-suited Nekrotzar rises from the orchestra pit into the auditorium as a supposed ‘conductor’ of the events that are to follow.

Octavian and Sophie (Amando and Amanda) then take the stage and to his lover’s delight, the young knight of the rose whips out his erection, taking the concept of the trouser role to new extremes as the two head off to ride out the unsuspected apocalypse in the ‘Orchester-graben’. Piet is a computer nerd – complete with long greasy hair and a workstation surrounded by the remnants of lonely takeaways – who is summoned by Nekrotzar to play his new online game, ‘Le grand macabre’. Their internet messaging and Piet’s subsequent choosing of his gaming characters and weapons is projected on to a screen suspended above his desk, as those props materialise into the setting for Astrodamors and Mescalina’s den of sado-masochism. When Mescalina conjurs up Venus, the goddess rises on Botticelli’s shell but is obviously on a physical downer given her wrinkly body-stocking and droopy boobs.

Prince Go-Go is the incumbent of the Oval Office, where the White and Black Ministers bicker violently (the Black Minister is a Thatcher-like drag gorgon), and his chief of the secret police, Gopopo, is an android-like robot (cue more priapic jokes with the Statue of Liberty’s torch). Despite the stage directions, we see nothing of the imminent comet, but the music and the visuals take over for the big event, and as if to prove nothing happened after all, we are faced with a proscenium-sized blow-up of a Breughel painting which gradually comes alive with the opera’s characters taking the place of the painter’s originals. Finally, Clément recognises the profundity in the closing scene where a new Adam and Eve rise to suggest a new, possibly less debauched future.

The Essen cast and orchestra did Ligeti’s opera proud, from Heiko Trinsiger’s mesmerising, black-voiced Nekrotzar to Jake Arditti’s playful countertenor Go-Go and Susanne Elmark’s stratospheric Gopopo, if the latter didn’t perhaps reach Barbara Hannigan’s extremes of expression in her famous Mysteries of the Macabre performances. Rainer Maria Röhr was a likeably roguish Piet and Tijl Faveyts a suitably downtrodden Astrodamors, and all the smaller roles were taken with distinction. The players, from car-hornists to the solo instrumentalists who invaded the auditorium during Nekrotzar’s summoning of the apocalypse (an end he becomes too drunk to see through), together brought out all the sonic marvels of Ligeti’s writing under the firm but flexible handling of conductor Dima Slobodeniouk.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Die schweigsame Frau – Aalto Theater, Essen – 17 March 2015

Sir Morosus (Franz Hawlata) selects 'Timidia' (Julia Bauer as Aminta) as his wife

Photos: Matthias Jung

Sir Morosus – Franz Hawlata
Housekeeper – Marie-Helen Joël
Barber – Martijn Cornet
Henry Morosus – Bernhard Berchtold
Aminta – Julia Bauer
Isotta – Christina Clark
Carlotta – Liliana de Sousa
Morbio – Karel Ludvik
Vanuzzi – Tijl Faveyts
Farfallo – Baurzhan Anderzhanov

Men’s Chorus & Statisterie of the Aalto Theater
Essen Philharmonic (Essener Philharmoniker)

Conductor – Martyn Brabbins
Director – Guy Joosten
Design – Johannes Leiacker
Dramaturge – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach
Choreography – Matteo Marziano Graziano

Morosus (Franz Hawlata)
and his Barber (Martijn Cornet)
Among Richard Strauss’s little-performed operas of his later career, Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) seems the greatest loss to the mainstream repertoire. It was fated to be sidelined from the start, given Strauss’s choice, in mid-1930s Germany, of an Austrian Jewish librettist in Stefan Zweig. It survived for three performances after its premiere in Dresden in 1935 before a leaked letter from Strauss to Zweig criticising the Nazi regime reached Hitler and caused it to be pulled immediately from the repertoire, a state it inevitably endured until after the war. Yet this seems to have been one of Strauss’s happiest collaborations, Zweig’s wordy but suggestive text inspiring in him his one truly uninhibited operatic comedy – a delightful three-hour scherzo of a work, full of musical banter and fleet-footed energy that some have even compared with Verdi’s Falstaff.

Without disowning the whole of Strauss and Zweig’s period setting (the creators had already moved Ben Jonson’s early 17th-century original to Handelian London), Guy Joosten and Johannes Leiacker have set Die schweigsame Frau (The Silent Woman) in the present, but a present in which the main character is living in the past. A compilation of nautical film scenes shown during the Potpourri overture – in which Pirates of the Caribbean featured strongly – suggests the back-story of Sir Morusus’s hearing damage from cannon blasts.

The curtain rises on a desert island (liberally planted with cacti, rather than the true meaning of a deserted island), created in his home by the old sea dog, who lives like a bedraggled hermit in his treasure trunk to avoid the noise of the outside world. Playing on the idea of ‘no man is an island’, Joosten thus explores the opera’s more fundamental theme of freeing Morosus from his self-imprisonment through his nephew’s cunning scheme of attempting to ‘marry’ him to a supposedly silent wife. But there’s nothing didactic about this approach, rather a surfeit of charm and irreverence, from the over-the-top costumes to the sometimes larger-than-life characterisation. The island setting seems to play on the opera’s humorous nod to Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, already suggested by the composer in the disruptive presence of a troupe of opera singers and lead role for a coloratura soprano, and there was indeed a hint of the commedia dell’arte in their portrayal.

Sir Morosus (Franz Hawlata)
finds inner peace at last
Franz Hawlata seems to take the role of Morosus wherever Strauss’s opera is performed these days, including in recent productions in Chemnitz and Munich. He thus inhabits the role completely, both vocally and physically. His final ‘aria’ - ‘Wie schön ist doch die Musik’ ('How beautiful music is, and even more beautiful when it is over'), sung as he begins to explore the world beyond his isolation by leaving the stage and edging his way to the front of the stalls - was glorious in its tonal warmth and depth, especially for those of us lucky enough to be sitting nearby, and one sensed the feeling of the character being at one with himself through his final, basso profundo repetitions of ‘Ruhe’ (‘peace at last’).

Bernhard Berchtold, a lyrical tenor of Mozartian nimbleness, was a substitute for the advertised Henry (at what timescale wasn’t clear), but as a former exponent of the role in the Chemnitz production, he fitted into Essen’s staging with little or no sign of not having been there from the beginning. Threatening even to out-stage Hawlata’s Morosus, Martijn Cornet’s acrobatic Barber kept his baritone focused and lithe in the face of a daringly athletic performance. As Aminta, Henry’s wife who poses as Sir Morosus’s shrew-like betrothed, Julia Bauer gave a spirited account – I love Strauss’s joke of making his supposedly ‘silent woman’ a coloratura. The smaller roles were taken with equal distinction, among them Marie-Helen Joël vocally secure Housekeeper.

The Essen Philharmonic played Strauss’s miraculously febrile and busy score like a dream – in over 20 years of hearing Martyn Brabbins’s conducting, this is the best he’s done.

In repertoire until 30 April 2015. Aalto Theater -  Video preview 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Vanessa – Theater Hagen – 14 March 2015

Vanessa (Katrina Sheppeard) and Anatole (Richard Furman)

Vanessa – Katrina Sheppeard
Erika – Kristine Larissa Funkhauser
Anatol – Richard Furman
Doctor – Ilkka Vihavainen
Baroness – Marilyn Bennett
Major Domo – Horst Fiehl
Musician – Alexander Pankow

Opera Chorus of Theater Hagen
Hagen Philharmonic Orchestra (Philharmonisches OrchesterHagen)

Conductor – Florian Ludwig
Director – Roman Hovenbitzer
Designer – Jan Bammes
Lighting – Ulrich Schneider
Dramaturge – Imme Winckelmann
Video – Volker Köster

Seeing a production as well-presented as this makes one wonder why Samuel Barber’s mixture of gothic melodrama and verismo isn’t staged more often – there’s certainly no faulting the dramaturgy, or the richness of his musical imagination, for all its nods to Puccini, Strauss and Britten. Theater Hagen has an honourable history of reviving American operas, with works by Bolcom and Floyd appearing in recent seasons. Here, Roman Hovenbitzer presents Vanessa as a psycho-thriller, one whose cinematic gloss and emphasis on obsession give it a Hitchcockian colour.

As it’s not the best known of 20th-century operas, a brief resumé of the plot seems appropriate, as interpreted in Hagen. Vanessa, a silent film star, has put away her reels of film to avoid the pain of watching herself with her leading man, the Anatole who left her 20 years before and for whom she has been in constant vigil ever since. As the curtain opens, she is in a state of high excitement because she has had word that he is finally returning to her. But the man who arrives turns out to be Anatole’s son, also called Anatole, and he immediately proceeds to seduce Vanessa’s niece, Erika. Vanessa’s mother, the mysterious Baroness, has refused to speak to her daughter or to the ever-present family doctor for those 20 years. The implication, though nothing is stated that openly in Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretto, is that Erika is in fact Vanessa’s daughter by the elder Anatole and the doctor was complicit in allowing the birth to go ahead. When Erika becomes pregnant by Anatole’s son, therefore, her eagerness to abort the baby and spurning of his marriage proposal suggests the Baroness must have warned her of their shared blood link. Her shallow half-brother quite blithely turns his attentions to Vanessa instead and when they marry and head off for a new life in Paris, they leave Erika behind to become the new one to sit and await the return of her Anatole.

Jan Bammes’s designs are effective in suggesting both the claustrophobia and the wintry isolation of the setting, and Volker Köster’s black and white film adds extra atmosphere as a way of indicating both the past and the off-stage shenanigans of the lovers. A handful of Anglophone singers helped with the communicativeness of Menotti’s text, with Australian soprano Katrina Sheppeard leading the cast in a dramatic but vocally subtle interpretation of the title role and US tenor Richard Furman combining ringing tone and perceptive characterisation as a particularly manipulative Anatole. The German mezzo Kristine Larissa Funkhauser as a fiery Erika and Finnish baritone Ilkka Vihavainen as the Doctor both proved just as adept in conveying the English libretto. 

Barber’s orchestral score is not an easy one to bring off, with its rhythmically fluid rhetorical passages alternating with surging Romanticism, but Florian Ludwig drew some superb playing from the Hagen Philharmonic, whose players literally spilled from the rather confined pit into boxes and side lobbies at floor level. What one brought away from the performance is Barber’s skilful combination of piquant harmonies with relatively straightforward melodic outlines, culminating in the deeply moving final quintet ‘To leave, to break, to find, to keep’ – exquisitely sung here – and one of those key operatic motifs that can remain an earworm for days afterwards.

In repertoire until 28 May 2015. Theater Hagen. Watch a preview here.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Don Giovanni – Theater Dortmund – 13 March 2015

Don Giovanni (Gerardo Garciacano) tries it on with Elvira (Emily Newton) during the Overture

Photos: Thomas Jauk

Don Giovanni – Gerardo Garciacano
Commendatore – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Donna Anna – Eleonore Marguerre
Don Ottavio – Lucian Krasznec
Donna Elvira – Emily Newton
Leporello – Morgan Moody
Masetto – Sangmin Lee
Zerlina – Julia Amos

Opera Chorus & Statisterie of Theater Dortmund
Dortmund Philharmonic

Conductor – Gabriel Feltz
Director – Jens-Daniel Herzog
Set designs – Mathis Neidhardt
Costumes – Sibylle Gädeke
Dramaturges – Hans-Peter Frings, Georg Holzer

Don Giovanni (Gerardo Garciacano) plots with Leporello (Morgan Moody)

Before the lights go down, cast members amble on to the stage and take their seats facing the audience. As the overture begins, they inflict every crime inflicted by audiences worldwide, from answering a mobile phone to wrapping a noisy sweet-wrapper. At the same time, the tensions between the characters of Mozart’s opera begin to be laid bare, as Giovanni pushes Leporello aside to get his own hands up his neighbour’s skirt. Gerardo Garciacano, a charismatic performer and suave singer, portrays the Don as a man who appears to be willing his own destruction by the audacity and outrageousness of his deeds. His sidekick, meanwhile, played with real zest and crisply sung by Morgan Moody, is a man desperate to follow his master’s success with women but never succeeds – the very final image of the evening is of the remaining characters regaining their ‘theatre’ seats and Leporello once more trying his luck with Elvira with a surreptitious hand on the knee, to a fearful, warning stare from the other four remaining characters.

Don Giovanni (Gerardo Garciacano) scatters the Commendatore's ashes
For his new production of Don Giovanni, Dortmund’s Intendant Jens-Daniel Herzog has stripped Mozart’s ‘dramma giocoso’ back to the essentials. There’s little in the way of scenery: in a striking reversal, the orchestra is placed behind a gauze on the stage and the raised pit area becomes the stage, with a ramp extending right up into the stalls. With little more than some red-plush chairs, party paraphernalia, two doors and spiral staircases for entrances and exits, and a few requisite props, the action is brought right in among the audience. The loss may be a slightly unconventional orchestra/singer balance, one that takes a little getting used to (the continuo takes a corner of the forestage), but the gains are immense in the immediacy of the dramatic performance. Otherwise, the staging is more effectively taut than simply conventional. Apart from a ghostly extra apparition of the Commendatore haunting Giovanni at the end of the Act I party scene and the climax in which instead of a vision of the fires of hell the six wronged avengers plunge knives into Giovanni’s back as he attempts to dispel Anna’s father’s ghost by emptying his urn of its ashes, the emphasis is more on tight portrayal and interaction of character than gratuitous intervention. There are some telling details of characterisation, such as Ottavio’s obvious discombobulation when the Don gives him a prolonged smacker on the lips to silence him – an act repeated in the final moments where Giovanni kisses each avenger in turn before they set upon him.

This was a remarkably accomplished cast, almost entirely drawn from the Dortmund Theatre’s own ensemble. In fact one of the joys of revisiting companies like this is seeing singers one has admired in one production reappearing in another. Here the two leads from Paul Abraham’s jazz operetta Roxy und ihr Wunderteam, which I saw in December and which has only just completed its run, reappeared as Donna Elvira and Don Ottavio. Emily Newton, on secondment from the New York Met for the season, introduces Elvira in a cooler way than most, with her fury at her betrayal building through the drama and reflected in her vocal journey. Lucian Krasznec is an echt Mozartian tenor, lyrical and agile, and giving Ottavio a sense of poignant sympathy. Eleanore Marguerre’s Donna Anna had real bite – a focused voice with a clear but cutting edge. First-class singing from Sangmin Lee as Masetto, Julia Amos as Zerlina and Karl-Heinz Lehner as the Commendatore completed a true ensemble of a cast.

Interestingly, the last time I saw a staging in which the traditional positions of orchestra and stage were reversed was last summer in Calixto Beito’s production of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in Berlin, where the conductor was one Gabriel Feltz. Here he was again in the same theatrical setup – had he perhaps suggested it to the director, based on his experience there? In this case, he had to strive harder to give the orchestra its rightful focus and yet he led a dramatic reading of Mozart’s score, particularly pointing up its instrumental contrasts and making the climax brassily towering.

In repertoire until 28 June 2015. Theater Dortmund

Friday, 20 March 2015

Les contes d’Hoffmann – Theater Mönchengladbach – 12 March 2015

Hoffmann (Max Jota, centre) is led on by Coppelius (Johannes Schwarsky)

Hoffmann – Max Jota
Muse/Nicklausse/Voice – Susanne Seefing
Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr Miracle/Dappertutto – Johannes Schwärsky
Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pittichinaccio – James Park
Olympia – Amelie Müller
Antonia – Izabela Matula
Giulietta – Janet Bartolova
Stella – Margriet Schlössels
Crespel/Luther – Matthias Wippich
Hermann/Spalanzani/Schlemil – Andrew Nolen
Nathanael – Sun Myung Kim

Chorus of Theater Krefeld-Mönchengladbach
Lower Rhine Symphony Orchestra (Niederrheinische Sinfoniker)

Conductor – Andreas Fellner
Director – Hinrich Horstkotte
Designer – Hinrich Horstkotte
Dramaturge – Andreas Wendholz

Olympia (Sophie Witte in this picture) sings, accompanied by two of Spalanzani's
other creations, as Spalanzani himself (Andrew Nolan) looks on

It’s rare to see a traditional production of an opera in Germany these days, with period costumes and a realistic setting, so it is perhaps ironic that it should be found in a presentation of a work as open to imaginative fantasy as Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann (or Hoffmanns Erzählungen, as rendered into German – this performance was sung in the original French). But no Met-like museum culture here – there’s no shortage of freshness or ingenuity in Hinrich Horstkotte’s staging for Theater Mönchengladbach, which premiered in November 2014 and moves to its sister theatre in Krefeld in the 2015–16 season. Horstkotte’s basic single set services for all the scenes of the opera, with quick transformations from Luther’s inn into Spalanzani's eye-popping workshop and with the walls literally slumping to an angle upon arrival of the action in debauched Venice. Setting, then, is firmly in period, though additional 19th-century fiction is also drawn upon with Spalanzani recast as the creator of Frankenstein’s monster as well as his wind-up ‘daughter’. There is an atmosphere of Gothic horror to the whole that presents Offenbach’s fantasy worlds with wit and humour – Dr Miracle’s ‘haunting’ of Antonia through the walls of the room proved particularly effective in this respect.

Despite the presence of guest artists, this felt very much a company effort, with ensemble regulars and participants of the theatre’s studio scheme playing major roles, no more successfully than Amelie Müller’s exquisitely sung and acted Olympia. Brazilian guest Max Jota, a Latin tenor to the core, was a charismatic Hoffmann, though his tendency to sing sharp – as much as by a whole tone in some of his ‘Kleinzach’ song – was an unfortunate constant, and seemed as much a consequence of his exuberance as an actor as one of vocal control per se. (This was his last performance in the run and, over-obvious self-congratulation apart, he appeared quite emotional at the curtain calls, at one point kneeling to kiss the stage.) As Hoffmann’s sidekick Nicklausse (and in the framing scenes his Muse), Susanne Seefing began a little uncertainly, but her vocal security firmed up through the evening into a performance of ebullience and quick-wittedness. Izabela Matula’s Antonio was warmly and sympathetically sung with a steady and resonant tone that belied the character’s supposed frailty but was welcome nonetheless. Janet Bartolova’s Giuletta, though, was a bit wobbly for my taste, though she acted the role of the Venetian courtesan with panache, and Johannes Schwärsky’s collection of villains was vividly and menacingly portrayed if a little constricted in tonal variety. Andreas Fellner conducted Offenbach’s tuneful score with flair and the chorus and cast of smaller roles performed well-honed characters with imagination and enthusiasm – a true company achievement.

Further performances 27 March, 25 April. Theater Krefeld-Monchengladbach