Friday, October 21, 2016
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich: so dark and disturbing that it makes uncomfortable viewing. But truly great works of art operate on many levels, the greater the piece the greater the possibilities. It is a measure of Wagner's greatness that the ideas he dealt with nearly 150 years ago apply, almost frighteningly, to the present. This Meistersinger provokes more questions than it gives answers, exactly what we need at the present when assumptions about art, politics and society are in unprecedented flux. Who are the Meistersingers? Wagner makes a point of describing them as distinct individuals, with different backgrounds, united more or less by their love for art. All of them have other day jobs: art is something they choose to place their faith in. Although Hans Sachs and Sixtus Beckmesser dominate, it is wise to consider the Meistersingers as a group of personalities resolving the inevitable conflicts of diversity through compromise. Rules help them muddle through by providing a kind of framework in which to regulate their art. But the rules are, in fact, made up ad hoc. Beckmesser is so obessesed with finding fault that he runs out of space on his marking slate. He works himself into crazed frenzy. Reality is never quite so extreme. Yet the Meistersingers, supposedly wise representatives of common sense, get caught up in Beckmesser's hysteria and hate. How easily civilized society can disintegrate when demagogues take control! Were it not for Hans Sachs and the voice of reason, Walter von Stoltzing, and what he stands for, would have been driven out of Nuremberg forthwith. How easily society descends into mindless, repression and group think. What kind of society cannot cope with change and must suppress new ideas? The Meistersingers here are depicted as ordinary men, to whose credit have worked hard to make something of their craft. Ordinary men, who've meant well. They think they're in control, but are easily manipulated into forgetting the very fundamentals of art, that art should enhance life, and must, like Nature itself, constantly refresh. Hence the urban landscape. Walter learned his art from the birds in the woodland, who are free. Birds don't survive in these grim conditions. As Wagner clearly stated in his stage directions, angles in the Church are distorted. Something's askew. Eva (Emma Bell) participates in formulaic rituals but recognizes Walter (Robert Künzli) as a fellow free spirit right from the start. The apprentices, being young, are also still untamed, but how is their energy directed. Just as each of the Meistersingers is defined as a distinctive personality, this David (Benjamin Bruns) isn't a stereotype but a well-characterized combination of worthiness and weakness, not a youth but not yet an artist until the end. In the First Act, the staging sets the personalities. In the Second, the staging focuses on the community. Sachs (Wolfgang Koch) operates out of a van marked "Schuhe". It reminds us that Sachs is out in the open, in the night air. Is he a Wanderer, who sees all yet can't easily intervene? There's no tree in this square, but a cherry picker crane that can be cranked up and down if needed, a stage idea that's more effective than it looks. Beckmesser can reach great heights, but by artificial means, reflecting the idea of an elder tree and its connotations of delusion. The citizens of this Nuremberg live in anonymous housing blocks, as we'd see in any desolate city where conditions are hard, and expectations are limited. These are the universal disenfranchised, the kind of people whose horizons are curtailed, and who make easy prey for populist demagogues that make them feel they are "taking control" when they are, in reality, being manipulated. Given the events of 2016, and the rise of Pegida and other right-wing extremists, it would be easy to make connections with 1933, but David Bösch, the director, deliberately avoids easy answers. He makes us feel sympathy for these dislocated souls, despite the violence with which they express themselves. To counteract such evil we need to understand and analyze, though not condone. Thus Beckmesser gets beaten up, and savagely. Nothing scenic about this brutality. The Nightwatchman (Goran Jurić) is an ordinary German policeman, a symbol of order, but one who cannot reverse the insanity once it's been released. The mob bully him back into his squad car. They wield poles, like knights n the past would have wielded spears : the romance of the past revealed as petty crime. Similarly, this Beckmesser (Martin Gantner) isn't a caricature, but is interpreted as a weak but opportunistic personality who assumes that playing the right games gets you ahead. He's very nearly right. Were it not for Sachs, his gold lamé suit and string vest might make him a superstar in some eyes, though his instrument is minute. Walter, in leathers, looks like a thug but is the true artist, rough edges and all. David could go either way, meaning well but prone to fudging corners. Wolfgang Koch's Sachs impressed: although he's grimy (as the real Sachs probably was), intelligence shines out of his eyes. His movements are sharp and he takes in all that's happening around him, as a good Sachs should. Koch is so experienced that authoritative singing comes naturally to him: no need for exaggerated folksiness. His "Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!" sounded genuinely perplexed, as if he were trying to make sense of what's going wrong, rather than just sighing in despair. As he sang, his voice warmed with resolve. Sachs can, and will, stand up for reason. No open meadows in the final scene. Perhaps the Pegnitz no longer flows, or has been diverted underground. We still see flags but these are flags of a more sinister kind. We're indoors, in a closed auditorium, cut off from the real world. On a hot Johannisnacht, the atmosphere would be stifling. And so, perhaps, a commentary on the nature of guilds and competition, of the channeling of diversity into an apparently cohesive celebration. "Brought to you by Pogner", a sign declares, for Pogner (Georg Zeppenfeld) was the agent who created the situation through which Eva was auctioned off to the highest bidder, bringing out the worst in Beckmesser, who might not otherwise have dared to move. Pogner's white suit isn't as pure as it might seem. The mob in the square covered the city walls in graffiti. Here, the "promoters" cover the meadow with commercial slogans. Either way, defacement, and the defacement of culture as sacred mission. The guilds come together in a show of unity, but how much of this unity is real, and how much controlled by convention. Each guild flaunts its superiority. Listen to the music: "Streck'! Streck'! Streck'!" and "Beck! Beck! Beck!", violence channelled into ostensibly cheerful chorus. The Tailors hold up the tools of their trade: giant scissors which could cut a man in two, stained with blood. In some shots the blades of the scissors appear above the tailor's heads as if they were the horns of the devil. The Prize scene is a Prize Fight, but the wider scene suggests a kind of Party Rally, with the crowds cheering as if on cue. Alas, Nuremberg has yet to live down 1936, even though not all the good folk of the city were participants. But at least the memory serves to remind us how dangerous Party Rallies can be, when people can be manipulated into unthinking frenzy and violence. Even decent, ordinary people who let themselves be fooled by soundbites. No wonder Walter doesn't want more of the same. Beckmesser gets beaten yet again, and brutally. Fortunately, though, Walter does win, and wins Eva, the two of them offering hope by renewal. What Walter will learn from Sachs will determine the direction of Holy German Art. How much have audiences learned from Wagner, and from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, though, I wonder ? In the dark clouds gathering around us in 2016, have we learned anything from history? Can art save civilization? Or is human nature so venal that the ideals of enlightenment must be destroyed in a wave of ever-narrowing bigotry and the resurgence of fascist values? In this production, the bust of Wagner comes in a box marked "fragile". Fortunately in Munich, the cheers were louder than the boos, a cause for hope. Kirill Petrenko conducted a very good cast even without a megastar like Jonas Kaufmann. For that, I was glad, for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. This production, directed by David Bösch, is finely detailed and will probably reveal its depths as time goes on. It's different, but its insights come from the opera itself. It's not easy. But the issues it confronts are not easy and need to be confronted with courage and with Hans Sachs's fair minded common sense.
drumslight-11. Photo by Kamal Aboul-Hosn What a racket! Shostakovich punctuates his first opera, The Nose , with instrumental interludes, and the first of these is scored exclusively for unpitched percussion. An assortment of drums, cymbals and other motley instruments are bashed and rattled with explosive, feverish energy that builds to climaxes of nightmarish intensity. This ingenious movement is much more than a headache in aural form, though, as Shostakovich shows us that he can reflect the deadpan wit of his source material without needing to use either of those usually essential tools of the opera composer: words or melody. The interlude is sandwiched between scenes that show men with hangovers having awful days. First the barber Ivan Iakovlevitch wakes up hoping to solace himself with some bread and onions. But lurking in the loaf is a nose – possibly belonging to an unlucky customer. His wife screamingly demands he dispose of it, which Ivan miserably slopes off to do. But how to manage that without attracting the interest of the police? Platon Kuzmitch Kovalov, painfully waking after the interlude finishes, has an even worse time of it. Worried about a pimple he noticed on his nose the day before, he goes to fondle it – and finds, instead of a nose, a smooth flat patch of skin. His nose has done a runner. The source for this stupid story is Gogol ’s tiny tale The Nose, considered one of, if not the best, short stories ever written. One of the things that Shostakovich admired most about this miniature masterpiece was how ‘Gogol states all comic events in a serious tone’, and the same unshakeable deadpan characterizes his opera. ‘I did not want to make a joke about the nose’, Shostakovich says. ‘Honestly, what is funny about a human being who has lost his nose? The Nose is a horror story, not a joke.’ Indeed. Horror is laced throughout the many different musical styles Shostakovich co-opts into his score, and has its first real outburst in this gruesome, percussive interlude. He doesn’t give us just a lot of noise, though: like the comedy, this is horror in a very serious tone. As you would expect with a percussion ensemble, rhythm is the crucial compositional ingredient. Shostakovich marshals with ruthless precision the voices of his nine instruments. (Do you want the list? Here’s the list: bass drum, castanets, clash cymbal, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, tam-tam, tom-tom and triangle.) Quite dissimilar to the music of his near-contemporary Stravinsky, which delights in changing time signatures, Shostakovich maintains a regular pulse throughout, fiercely emphasized by ‘ta-ta-TAH’ rhythms and jabbing syncopation – a foreteller of the ferocious marches that storm throughout the music of his later career. There is, inevitably, some of the same militaristic sense here in The Nose. But that’s far from being all that’s going on. Drum roll, if you please! Shostakovich instantly conjures a shadowy circus, and it’s a roll long enough to cover all kinds of alarming animal activities. It ends, though, with a cheeky cymbal crash, punchline to a vaudevillian routine. That marks the end of the interlude’s first half, but its mirror at the end of the second half has bombastic, unsettling jolts like shells falling on a battlefield. Connecting these two long assaults is music that starts off like a fugue, an intricate subject passed between each voice, and becomes something more impressionistic, expressed through muttered outbursts that are quickly stifled. Connecting all those different feelings together, taken as a whole the interlude can morph yet again and even work as a simple (if complex) parody: David Syrus , The Royal Opera’s Head of Music, hears a send-up of Wagner ’s chorus of anvils from Das Rheingold , that track his gods’ descent into the grimy world of the Nibelungs. A march, a chorus line, explosions with a punch line, death and comedy – it’s all there. In this three-minute interlude Shostakovich telescopes the vibrancy of the whole opera, hinting at the wealth of methodical musical madness that is to come, alluding to all of the different styles that make up this exuberant, show-off piece. And he does it all without sounding a single note. The Nose runs 20 October–9 November 2016. Tickets are still available . The production is a co-production with Komische Oper Berlin and Opera Australia and is staged with generous philanthropic support from Hamish and Sophie Forsyth, The Tsukanov Family Foundation and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund .
Fifty years after her father’s death, the music administrator Nike Wagner has been rattling skeletons in the family closet. Wieland, she says, could never talk about growing up as Hitler’s favourite in the family. He was everything Hitler wanted of a young Wagner. After the War, by introducing modernist productions to Bayreuth, he cleansed himself of Nazi guilt and profited from the conversion. German text here. Wieland (r), Wolfgang (l)
New York´s Metropolitan Opera is recognized as the most important in the world, and its satellite transmissions, with excellent sound and image, have been a major contribution to opera in many countries. Fortunately, the Fundación Beethoven took up the challenge and we have had many seasons at the Teatro El Nacional, generally with packed audiences, who know that many of the artists heard and seen don´t come to our city, for the Colón is far from being what it was. However, there has been a downside more and more evident: the Met used to be a guarantee of productions where not only the music but also the libretto were respected. As one great European house after another fell under the evil trend of disregarding the very essence of opera as a genre that allows us to explore different epochs, supplanting it with incongruous and often insulting changes, it finally reached the Met, and its current Director Peter Gelb is responsible for that, as he is in the positive side of the worldwide transmissions. So now we have a Nazi "Manon Lescaut" or a "Rigoletto" in Las Vegas. This year his choice for the opening was curious: generally the Met offers a grand production of operas that have a spectacular side, such as "Aida" or "Turandot", and of course with the most famous singers. Wagner´s "Tristan and Isolde" certainly isn´t that: an intimate story of love, vengeance and death between Medieval Celtic reigns, with few choir interventions and no massive scenes. But apart from the distortion of taste and common sense, there´s another general problem: even if tickets are quite expensive, costs are very substantial; at the Met salaries of orchestra and choir are exaggerated and productions have gone sky high. So the Met complies with reality: this "Tristan" is a coproduction with Festival Hall Baden-Baden, Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera and China National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing. So you can see the same stage conception in four cities; and the HD live process extends this to two thousand venues in 69 countries. Wonderful if the production is good, but deeply destructive if it is bad. And this one is. The producer is Mariusz Trelinski, Director of the Teatr Wielki; stage design by Boris Kudlicka; lighting by Mark Heinz; projections design, Bartek Macias. Director of HD live: Gary Halvorson. And an inexplicable item, for there isn´t any: choreography, Tomasz Wygoda. In the cast I find two characters that don´t exist in Wagner: young (in fact, boy), Tristan; the other isn´t even seen: a Doctor. Now let me stress the musical side, for it was very worthwhile. I didn´t know Sir Simon Rattle as a Wagnerian, and I was pleasantly surprised: his reading was intense, coherent and intelligent, and of course the Met Orchestra is first-rate, so we had the intercrossing of Leitmotiven admirably expressed. And the singers were of undoubted quality. Nina Stemme probably is the best Isolde nowadays, of the Behrens rather than the Nilsson mold: a solid firm voice, but foremost a psychological insight that makes riveting every passage she sings. She recorded it with Plácido Domingo. Stuart Skelton, a new name for me, is tall and portly; his timbre is of the Windgassen rather than the Melchior tradition: it is clear, well projected and of ample register, though lacking in the volume and baritone richness of the ideal Tristan. He sings musically, with no nasality, and has the stamina to arrive fresh to the end of his part (the Third Act has terrible demands). And he is reasonably good as an actor. Ekaterina Gubanova was an expressive and well-sung Brangäne, and Evgeny Nikitin a bluff and forthright Kurwenal. We know the exceptional King Marke of René Pape, for he made his Colón debut two years ago singing the Second Act in the concert version conducted by Barenboim. The production: a) We were robbed of hearing the Preludes concentrated on the music, for a big periscope circle center stage showed confused images of mostly inextricable meaning. b) Costumes were modern and revolvers were used. No sense of Medieval values. c) Clumsy final minutes: you don´t see King Marke´s retinue nor the clash between Kurwenal and Melot, only lights with no people; and in what should be a sublime Isolde Love-death goodbye, she cuts her veins. And so on... For Buenos Aires Herald
Kent Nagano is one of the most complete conductors and some years ago vividly impressed the Mozarteum audiences when he came with the Montreal Symphony. Now he was back with the Hamburg Philharmonic at the Colón with two programmes focussed on German/Austrian Postromantics and they became a major event of the season. Nagano has had a great European career which in principle one wouldn´t expect from a Californian of Japanese ascendance, but he explains that he was trained by a German teacher who imbued him with the very essence of style in the greatest symphonic repertoire. In his DNA there was an innate musicality and it was nurtured by an intelligent guide. A brief résumé. He has held main posts at Lyon Opera (a very innovative tenure), the Hallé Orchestra, Los Angeles Opera, Deutsche Symphonie Berlin, the Bavarian Opera (Munich). And since September 2015 he is Musical Director of the Hamburg State Opera, whose Philharmonic Orchestra gives two hundred performances of opera and ballet plus thirty symphonic and chamber concerts, a tremendous amount of work. I recall that this orchestra came here decades ago led by Aldo Ceccato and for the Mozarteum: a solid ensemble, though not as important as it was on this year´s visit. They trace their origins to as far back as 1828, and during the Twentieth Century they had illustrious conductors: Muck, E.Jochum, Keilberth, Sawallisch and G.Albrecht. Then Ceccato, and afterwards Metzmacher and for ten years before Nagano, Simone Young, the outstanding Australian lady conductress. As it came in this tour they numbered 96 players, big enough for Strauss. They really have 130 players because their enormous yearly task necessitates some rotation of players. And with them came two admirable artists: cellist Gautier Capuçon, who with his violinist brother Renaud played a memorable Brahms Double Concerto here in one of the Argerich Festivals; and Japanese mezzosoprano Mihoko Fujimura, unknown here but very appreciated in Germany, particularly in Wagner. Richard Strauss´ "Don Quixote" (1897) demonstrates his inexhaustible orchestral imagination, who had only one possible match in the late Nineteenth Century: Gustav Mahler. "Don Quixote" has a subtitle, "Fantastic variations on a chivalric subject". The cello is the Don and the viola is Sancho. Between the Introduction and the Finale there are ten variations, some of them with astounding orchestral effects (the sheep sound like advanced atonalism, and flying is cunningly imitated). But it is also a warm portrait of character. It needs a crack orchestra and an inspired cellist: it had both this time. True, Capuçon was somewhat arbitrary as to note values, but his interpretation was expressive and convincing, with beautiful timbre and fine technique. Nagano and the orchestra were stalwart throughout, with perfectly chosen tempi and immaculate playing of the very difficult music, as well as intensity and sustained concentration. Naomi Seiler (viola) and Konradin Seitzer, the concertino of imposing presence and virtuoso quality, made fine contributions. Brahms´ Symphony Nº 1 is probably the best First in history; to say that what we heard was outstanding in the myriad versions we have heard through several decades is no exaggeration. The composer was born in Hamburg and was homaged by the players fully and excitingly. The encores were the subtle Entr´acte from Schubert´s "Rosamunde", lovingly done, and curiously with no hiatus, a fascinating movement from Ligeti´s "Concert Romanesc", as wild a piece as can be imagined, where conductor and orchestra showed that the moderns have no secrets for them. The second programme was very coherent. Before the interval, Wagner´s Prelude to Act One and Love-Death from "Tristan and Isolde", the latter in the orchestral arrangement of the composer; and the five "Wesendonck Lieder", arranged by Felix Mottl the first four and the fifth by Wagner from the original for voice and piano. As two of them have melodies that reappear in "Tristan...", it was a good idea to programme the songs on the poems of Wagner´s muse, Mathilde Wesendonck. Nagano proved a fine Wagnerian, and Fujimura sang with powerful voice and clear understanding of the style. Bruckner´s Sixth Symphony (1881) isn´t as long as the following ones (55 minutes); I find it more technical and less attractive than the Seventh or Eighth, but quite representative of his distinctive personality. Again Nagano and the orchestra showed conclusive professionalism, energy and power of communication. There were no encores. For Buenos Aires Herald
Semyon Bychkov in rehearsal for Tannhäuser, The Royal Opera © ROH/Clive Barda, 2010 With their hummable tunes and engaging characters, Mozart’s operas are often viewed as a suitable ‘way in’ to the art form for a first timer looking to dip their toe in the operatic waters. Following 13 years of performances with The Royal Opera, however, conductor Semyon Bychkov is well used to life at the deep end. While he’s no stranger to conducting Mozart ’s symphonic works and concertos, the operas have been absent from his repertory – until now, as he returns to Covent Garden to conduct his first Mozart opera: Così fan tutte . ‘It’s first of all trying to understand the meaning of the piece’, he says. ‘It’s not always been popular. In its own time it was hugely misunderstood, hugely attacked by eminent personalities such as Beethoven , Wagner , by contemporaries of Mozart, because the whole subject made them extremely uncomfortable.’ While attempts to repackage classic works for a ‘modern audience’ risk being met with rolled eyes, Bychkov is clear: it’s not just The Royal Opera’s production that brings the 1790 opera up to date. Rather, the themes and subject matter are more universal now than they were at the opera’s premiere. ‘Today I think we relate to it very differently from those who grew up in the time of Mozart, because the world has evolved’, he says. ‘Certain subjects were a taboo and couldn’t be easily accepted: the idea of switching partners, the idea of women not being so different from men in how they feel and what their needs and desires are. It’s particularly relevant for a modern audience; I would say that perhaps it’s the first feminist opera I know.’ True, Jan Philipp Gloger ’s production plays with the language of the title, transforming the Italian tutte, the feminine ending tarring ‘all women’ with the same brush through the use of a single letter E, into tutti: everyone, regardless of gender. The characters, for a 2016 audience at least, make a point: we’re all as bad as each other. Perhaps not the cheeriest of realizations for those who don’t enjoy their evenings at the opera served with a side of forced introspection. ‘It starts as a game, but it develops into something that is completely unexpected to all concerned’, Bychkov says. ‘Eventually when they switch partners, they discover that they find themselves with the other person who they should have been with in the beginning. We learn so much about ourselves by watching them go through what begins as something very joyful and then becomes a real drama.’ At least it’s a real drama with a five-star soundtrack: for lovers of a good tune, the score certainly delivers hit after hit, including ‘Come scoglio ’, ‘Tradito, schernito’ and ‘È amore un ladroncello’. But much like the plot, Bychkov explains, there’s an undercurrent of uncertainty throughout the music. ‘Fundamentally Mozart is joyful’, he begins, ‘with certain exceptions – his G minor symphony is a very tragic work. Yet even in the majority of his works where the spirit of joy, humour or dance pervades the entire work, suddenly from nowhere comes something that makes your heart skip a beat with sadness, with melancholy, with a tragic aspect.’ ‘The music is constantly changeable’, Bychkov explains. ‘You always have an expectation to find yourself in a particular tonality and a lot of the time your expectation is betrayed. This is the genius of Mozart because Mozart cannot be predicted. Behind these extraordinary melodies, he’s able to write this unbelievable complexity. ‘There is not one moment where we do not discover something, or do not have to question the way we do it’, he continues. ‘And so one has to decide, because the possibilities of shifting the emphasis are infinite, and the moment you shift it somehow the meaning of what you are saying is going to change. And so this is something that one lives with one’s whole life and one never has a feeling that one has exhausted the possibilities, because they are inexhaustible.’ Suddenly it’s not clear if Bychkov is discussing untapped musical possibilities, or the sheer number of options we have when searching for a partner. Or, indeed, both. At least there are a number of operatic highlights to keep us entertained as we question our life choices from the stalls – aren’t there? ‘There are no “highlights”’, Bychkov replies, and couples planning to attend a performance prepare themselves for something of an awkward date night, until he continues: ‘The whole thing is so high and so light, full of light, that one could not identify, one should not even try to identify one specific moment which is above the others because they all serve the other – they are inseparable. And that is the greatness of this music because there is not one second where you are not amazed by what is going on, because it’s anything except what you expected.’ Così fan tutte runs until 19 October 2016. Tickets are still available . Così fan tutte will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 17 October 2016. Find your nearest cinema and sign up to our mailing list.
Richard Wagner (22 May 1813 - 13 February 1883) was a German composer, conductor, theatre director and essayist, primarily known for his operas (or "music dramas", as they were later called). Wagner's compositions, particularly those of his later period, are notable for their complex texture, rich harmonies and orchestration, and the elaborate use of leitmotifs: musical themes associated with individual characters, places, ideas or plot elements. Unlike most other opera composers, Wagner wrote both the music and libretto for every one of his stage works. Initially establishing his reputation as a composer of works such as The Flying Dutchman and Tannhäuser which were in the romantic traditions of Weber and Meyerbeer, Wagner transformed operatic thought through his concept of the "total work of art". This would achieve the synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, and was announced in a series of essays between 1849 and 1852. Wagner realised this concept most fully in the first half of the monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. His Tristan und Isolde is sometimes described as marking the start of modern music. He had his own opera house built, the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, which contained many novel design features. It was here that the Ring and Parsifal received their premieres and where his most important stage works continue to be performed today in an annual festival run by his descendants.
Great composers of classical music