Friday, February 27, 2015

Thought-provokingly minimalist Das Rheingold at Bavarian State Opera

Nadine Weissmann, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Jennifer Johnston

In this Bavarian State Opera revival production of Das Rheingold, which premiered in 2012, director Andreas Kriegenburg highlights the vastness of the world's third largest stage for the introduction or ante-evening (Vorabend) to opera's unparalleled 4-part epic, Der Ring der Nibelungen. Clad in light, unstained timber and cut with minimal openings, it gives the impression of a large, modern Scandinavian-inspired hall, congregated by a mass of skin-fit-dressed 'nudists'. These inhabitants daub themselves with blue paint and wander to the fore-stage, taking up their position in couples to form what becomes the sensually choreographed waters of the Rhine. It is an extraordinary start to Kriegenburg's thought-provokingly minimalist and highly symbolist production, one sign-posted with many details and sung with combined strength.

The Rhinemaidens protect the gold of the gods which takes the form of human treasure. Wotan, ruler of the gods, waves his spear.  Loge, messenger of the gods, entertains magically with a cane and Alberich, renouncer of love and absconder of the golden treasure, rules his race of slaves with a whip. The giants, Fasolt and Fafner enter on cubes of crushed corpses and Erda, the earth goddess wafts in on a bed of dancers who crawl about her with choreographed beauty.

                              Günther Groissböck, Thomas. J. Mayer and Christof Fischesser
Interpretations and critique of Der Ring der Nibelungen are exhaustive but themes associated with the abuse of power and the elevation of love are most evident, played out via the struggles between gods, heroes, villains and those caught in between. With Kriegenburg's touch, this world of unsettling dark fantasy is seemingly steeped in one where racial cleansing long ago produced the "master race" of bleached-hair, fair-skinned gods and their offspring - an Aryan, Nordic, supreme race suggesting the possible outcomes of Nazi racial policy under which the human race was placed in a hierarchy.

All other parasitic or dark-haired sub-humans are seen devoid of enlightened human emotion. Alberich, the grotesque, low-life, subterranean dweller is representative, along with his race of Nibelung. The giants Fasolt and Fafner, under contract to build a new palace for the gods, are base, brutish, darker-skinned and long-haired. But as events unfold, this supreme race ruled by Wotan, faces challenges and their future is uncertain. Here, the connection to Adolf Hitler's known esteem of Wagner collides powerfully with Kriegenburg's reference to Hitler's racial agenda, one which is doomed to fail.

Set designer Harald B. Thor's voluminous hall undergoes monumental transformation to differentiate the world we see. For the world of the Nibelung, stage surfaces tilt sharply to create a claustrophobic, suffocating space where Alberich, having stolen the gold from the Rhinemaidens, is master of his race of slaves as well as his brother, Mime.

Zenta Haerter's choreography is instrumental in both adding visual detail and symbolic weight. Andrea Schraad's costumes dutifully differentiate the species. Her Aryan gods are cocktail party attired sophisticates, her Nibelungs unkempt and poorly clothed and her giants are formidably trench-coated. Without Stefan Bolliger's cocktail of evocative lighting these worlds and their inhabitants would simply be bland surfaces. The combined artistic team achieves a wondrous setting.

Musically, the expansive swells and contractions of Wagner's score was rendered with pragmatic sensibility by conductor Kirill Petrenko. The tempo pulsated, the sound was shaped and textured, and the musicians of the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra played with clarity. Additionally, Petrenko achieved in bringing the music and vocal performances together without distraction.

Thomas J. Mayer's Wotan displayed both threatening force and suggested vulnerability, but seemed to struggle in finding hoped-for projection. This ruler of the gods was overpowered  by Tomasz Konieczny's magnetic performance in the role of Alberich, meeting the vocal demands with stamina and embodying his character with heaps of conviction.

           L. Molnar, B. Ulrich , E. Kulman and D. Power
Burkhard Ulrich's light, ringing tenor complimented his dandyish Loge. Günther Groissböck's dark bass and Christof Fischesser's warmer bass-baritone impressed as the giants Fasolt and Fafner. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Kulman showed authority as Wotan's wife Fricka and Golda Schultz presented a delightful playfulness in the clutches of danger as Freia, holder of youth and sister to Fricka. Okka von der Damerau appeared and sang with heavenly and matronly comfort as Erda and the Rhinemaidens, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Woglinde), Jennifer Johnston (Wellgunde) and Nadine Weissmann ((Flosshilde) each developed appealing singularity of character despite lacking a purity of tone as a trio.

Kriegenburg's Das Rheingold forms an inviting piece of theatre to continue the journey through Der Ring der Nibelungen. There are odd moments of clumsily-felt direction, the breadth of the stage sometimes distracts from the more intimately protected scenes and the final choreographed crescendo as the gods approach Valhalla (their new Fasolt & Fafner built home) is disappointingly weak in comparison to the works prelude, but this is an overall thoughtfully packaged and powerful production.

Production photos by Wilfried Hösl

Monday, February 23, 2015

Il Vologeso - a long-forgotten work makes a memorable return at Stuttgart Opera

Niccolò Jommelli's Il Vologeso, which I neither knew nothing of nor knew what to expect, surprised immensely. From the wonderfully bright and buoyant overture right through to the more regal extended orchestral ending, the snappy, tireless conducting of Gabrielle Ferro and the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra proudly and vibrantly showed off Jommelli's music - a music rich in texture, unpredictability and variation of mood. Though most of Jommelli's output was opera seria, he was the composer of many comedies and I imagined his music suiting it to bits.

Premiering in 1766 in the German town of Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart to a libretto by Metastasio (who went on to write three libretti for Mozart), the story is based on the sufferance of the Parthian king, Vologeso, after his capture by the Roman general Lucio Vero. Lucio is in love with Vologeso's bride-to-be, Berenice, Queen of Armenia but his position of power rests upon marrying the Roman Emperor's daughter Lucilla. Unsurprisingly it gets more complicated than that but the story moves easily with understated stylistic acting.

From director Jossi Weiler, love unrequited, love put to the test and love rekindled are all tossed about in a conflict that no longer belongs centuries past. Under a Renaissance loggia fronting a modern archetypal Italian town eight youths unite in what seems a game of dress-ups, enacting a story in which acting blurs with reality. It felt dramatically inspired and visually powered by an anachronistic painterly aesthetic courtesy of Anna Viebrock's sets and costumes and Reinhard Traub's subtle lighting.

Both dramatically and vocally, the cast delivered fervent and expressive performances. Sophie Marilley lost no time in displaying security and strength as Vologeso. Her beautiful, dark tones and commanding highs belied her gender while eliciting compassion for her plight. Likewise, Ana Durlovski as Berenice, impressed with the sense this role was years under her belt. Her performance was instilled with both pain and strength which she could express throughout her coloratura and every trill. With Marilley, the couple excelled with perfectly balanced duets.

Sophie Marilley (Vologeso), Ana Durlovski (Berenike), Sebastian Kohlhepp (Lucio).
As Lucio Vero, Sebastian Kohlhepp showed ruthlessness and calculated charm, exercising them with vocal flair, warm tone and solid projection but could have impressed with greater fluidity and confidence during the coloratura passages. Eye-catching from the start, bright to the ear and clean in tone, Helene Schneiderman was endearing as the impetuous Lucilla, unflinching in her love for Lucio but taking an opportunity to flirt with Lucio's friend Aniceto, who is in love with her. Igor Durlovski's Aniceto was assured, jovial and the holder of a dashing schizophrenic altus/bass while Catriona Smith revealed strength beyond her stature as the Roman envoy. After a short but fine vocal starter, in smaller roles Thomas Elwin and Thembinkosi Mgetyengana wove across the stage sporadically to detail the picture.

There was a best moment when Weiler literally spilt the action onto the audience's lap when Vologeso was ordered to be thrown to the lions. From a side aisle he pushed his way through the fourth row in full voice and stopped. Lucio moved forward and stood erect on the front edge of the orchestra barrier, also singing, before Berenice jumped into the audience 'lion pit' to save Vologeso and 'killed' a sound-over roar. Even before Lucilla joined the action in the orchestra pit, the audience was amusingly startled. It was a theatrical and vocal hit.

When the final orchestral passage played, just as in the beginning, the performers disrobed and cast aside their characters but, rightfully or not, left me with an impression that their contemporary onstage identities were much like those they played. Perhaps Stuttgart Opera will find another Jommelli work to revive, next time a comedy and, with the same team, I'd have no qualms about spruiking it.

Photo courtersy © A.T. Schaefer

An entertainingly stretched Nabucco at Stuttgart Opera

Giuseppe Verdi's tapestry of luscious music portraying the assault, capture and liberation of the Israelites by the Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco), is given more a modern 'classroom-conflict' makeover from director Rudolf Frey. Strong performances persist but the direction robbed the work of pathos and compassion. Frey left it to Verdi to drive the drama while he has some cabaret-style fun along the way. It's close to feeling altogether disrespectful but he chooses his moments without exacting too much damage. A modern-day connection with Jewish/Palestian conflicts seems to filter through but, if so, the impact is feeble. As a first-time experience of Nabucco it might leave you unimpressed.

Gergely Németi (Ismaele), Diana Haller (Fenena), Dmitri Platanias (Nabucco), Anna Pirozzi (Abigaille)

What Frey does do successfully is build the picture on the stage with a stealthy eye aided by Ben Baur's set design. The empty stage hull, presumably a synagogue (and the Temple of Solomon in Verdi's version), is dressed with a golden 'Glomesh' curtain (both raised and lowered for effect) for the royal apartments and gardens (Hanging Gardens of Babylon in Verdi's). A light-studded screen drops for Abigaille's showbiz flaunt as she plans to become ruler of Babylon (or at least the stage while accompanied by her guards sporting black feather dance props). After her number ends, the screen is raised to reveal a stepped platform supporting a long dining table where more diplomatic proceedings occur, raised novelly for Nabucco to stand upon and proclaim himself God. Overall, despite being difficult knowing whether Silke Willrett and Mark Weeger's costumes came from the costume department or a department store, the visual effect at least provides legibility for dramatic events.

Fortunately Verdi's expressive music shone under the baton of Australian conductor and Principal Conductor of the Stuttgart Opera, Simon Hewitt. A dynamic harmony existed between the pit and stage, the cast of soloists deliver meaty performances and the Stuttgart Opera Chorus polished every one of Verdi's massed works as they turned the stage into gripping theatre. In the opera's most recognized chorus, when the Israelites long for their homeland singing Va pensiero, sull'ali dorate, a completely moving interpretation concluded with breathtaking, elongated and fading pianissimo.

Liang Li's Zaccaria and Dimitri Platanias' Nabucco stood out with grand performances and both showed sustained strength and sterling vocal shading. Li's respected leadership as the High Priest of the Jews was unshakeable, embodied with both stage presence and a bass that contained a roaring furnace of heat which he vented with finesse. Platanias kept the lid on his staggering instrument, preferring to let the chest and pressure expand while still projecting tyranny.

As Abigaille, Nabucco's supposed daughter, soprano Catherine Foster showed fierceness and conviction in a character matched with vocal stamina and depth. High in her range, however, an abrasiveness tarnished her otherwise fine work in this notoriously difficult role but her vocal cords earned every penny.

After an impressive performance the night before as Steva in Jenůfa,  Gergely Németi returned as the Jewish prince Ismaele and object of Abigaille's attentions, following up with a strong vocal rendition but an uncertainty in action that weakened his character. Other fine performances came from Diana Haller as Ismaele's lover and Nabucco's daughter Fenena (adding to the story's politico-love triangle) and Ashley David Prewett as the hard to forget and colourfully entertaining High Priest of Baal, who both conspired against Nabucco and seemingly against the opera's seriousness. The envelope was really being pushed here, entertaining as it was.

Photo courtesy © A.T. Schaefer

Bieto's industrially fluorescent Jenůfa at Stuttgart Opera

Rebecca von Lipinski as Jenůfa
For three days the sun was reluctant to make an appearance over Stuttgart and it was much the same in Spanish director Calixto Bieito's industrially fluorescent, sunless production of Jenůfa. Realised by set designer Susanne Gschwender and Ingo Krügler's costumes as a modern working class ghetto, its entire cast of seemingly psychologically disturbed characters are immersed in an environment deprived of hope. Coupled with the unrelenting tension of Leoš Janáček's music, the eponymous Jenůfa's struggle is palpable in a soul-consuming theatrical experience.

Rebecca von Lipinski's Jenůfa showed strong behavioural complexity and vocal expression, none more so than when she learns of her child's death though is unaware of the true circumstances. Her character was both full of outward emotion and cold reserve.

From her authoritative entrance Angela Denoke was outstanding as she sinks into a deranged state as Jenůfa's threatening stepmother, shockingly battering Jenůfa's child to death on a kitchen table. It's handled even far more gruesomely than an expected drowning. Denoke's depiction cleverly tangles her murderous reasons. Was it really an attempt to save Jenůfa's future, a selfish attempt to hide shame or an act of unfathomable insanity? It marks the climax at which the complexity of what we see and what we don't understand about every character is magnified.

With stentorian magnitude, a chilling mental instability characterised Pavel Černoch's dangerously good Laca, who is in love with Jenůfa but ridiculed by her teasing. The jealous, ticking time-bomb he is, slashes her face in a grotesquely fine piece of theatre to mar her beauty in order to ruin her hope of being with Steva. Loving Jenůfa only for her beauty then abandoning her and his child, Steva was performed solidly by Gergely Németi with an attractive and seductive vocal warmth which counterbalances his aloofness and rebelliousness.

As Act 2 segues into Act 3 and Jenůfa's silent grief is mulled, visual intensity escalates as a machinists' factory floor is created with choreographic smoothness. Heralding the last act, a baby's prolonged, agonising cries are heard over the set-build as the banality of repetitious work forms the setting for which the story's shocking discovery is exposed.

Conductor Sylvain Cambreling infused the work with a roller-coaster ride of grim horror, especially so at each enhanced dramatic apex. Precision playing emanated from the pit but the underlying angst which the strings thread the work with felt disappointingly underplayed.

Bieito begins and ends the opera with the sound of an uncomfortable laughter. In the finale, even when Jenůfa and Laca exchange a laugh, it seems to suggest things will be better, perhaps short-lived, but never permanent. It's some of the darkest theatre you'll likely experience and, paradoxically, bright fluorescent light feeds it.

Photo courtesy © A.T. Schaefer

A triple-century treat at Stuttgart Opera

Visiting Stuttgart to sample the city's innovative approach to opera over three consecutive nights coincided with what could be, for a first-timer, an explorative crash course in the history of the art form. Night one (17th February) started with Czech composer Leoš Janáček's dawn of the 20th century, unsettling, psycho-dramatic opera, Jenůfa. On night two (18th february) it was Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi's mid-19th century work which firmly established him as a composer. Finally, on the third night (19th February), Niccolò Jommelli's Il Vologeso completed this trio, a work not seen for almost 250 years by a now almost forgotten composer of more than 80 operas and whose works chronologically bridge Handel and Mozart. Reviews for the three operas appear in the following three posts.

Opera repertoire aside, a common thread in this triple-century feast, at the very least, is that Stuttgart Opera's innovative credentials were starkly evident and all three works, updated with everyday contemporary costumes (almost a one batch fits all approach), made laudable attempts at modern day relevance.

Stuttgart Opera House
Interior ceiling detail

The experience was enhanced by the warm, opulent surrounds and appealing intimacy of the 1400-seat neoclassical-styled opera theatre, the unique silver glint which looms over in its detail and the ceiling's stunning azure zodiacal circular inset around which 14 chandeliers arc. Designed by the architect Max Littmann and opened in 1912, it is one of Germany's few remaining opera houses not destroyed in World War II. A love of architecture and opera was here on offer.

Photos: @OperaChaser