La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

La Scala Opening Night Die Walkure

Photo: Program cover of the live satellite transmission of La Scala's opening night Die Walkure today.

The Canadian distributor D Films, under license from Emerging Pictures, the largest all-digital specialty film and alternate content theatre network in the US, has been testing the Canadian market by bringing live events to Montreal and Toronto AMC cinemas this year. In Toronto, the screenings take place at the AMC Cinemas at the Dundas Square location in downtown. A couple of months ago, it was the screening of Carmen from Teatro Liceu in Barcelona. Today, it was Wagner's Die Walkure which opened the new opera season at La Scala in Milan. Opening night of La Scala always falls on December 7, and it is always a special occasion for opera lovers and a focus of media attention, never more so than now.

Italy's art and culture is currently under attack by the austerity-minded Berlusconi government, which has made deep cuts to state funding for music, theatre, and visual arts. This year, several Italian opera houses were hit with strikes by musicians and union members protesting the cutbacks. Today in front of the La Scala opera house, there were demonstrators outside clashing with the police, with ten people reportedly injured. At the very beginning of the satellite feed, shouts could be heard as the well heeled patrons were entering the theatre. Before the start of performance, conductor Daniel Barenboim broke with tradition and spoke to the audience. Barenboim directed his remarks specifically to the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, who was sitting in the royal box. Barenboim spoke in Italian, which was roughly translated as "I am speaking on behalf of all my colleagues who play, sing, dance and work in this magnificent theatre. We are worried about the future of culture in this country and in Europe." Barenboim received a round of applause in the house.

After that, it was business as usual, beginning with the National Anthem, followed by a five hour and fifteen minute performance of Die Walkure, with two intermissions. Perhaps these satellite transmissions are new and not very well publicized in Toronto, there were only about 40 people in the fairly small cinema. Unlike the Met Live in HD which is always on Saturdays, today's show was on a weekday, starting at 11 a.m. no less - it obviously had a negative impact on the turnout. I recognized quite a number of the people in the audience, mostly die-hard Wagner opera fans. I think with more advertising, opera fans in Toronto - and there are many - will turn up. I randomly canvassed several people after the show, and there was not one who did not enjoy the performance. In fact, many felt it's good to have programming from opera houses other than the Met in Canada. European opera productions tend to be more avant garde and feature star singers who don't often sing on this side of the Atlantic. This Walkure is a case in point - while Nina Stemme and Ekaterina Gubanova have recently sung at the Met and San Francisco, others like Daniel Barenboim, Waltraud Meier and John Tomlinson have essentially Euro-centered careers.

There was however one important cancellation, that of German bass Rene Pape who cancelled some months ago. He was replaced by Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow, who sang in the LA Ring earlier this year. The absence of Pape was a disappointment, but Mr. Kowljow was up the the task, singing with mellifluous and youthful tone. The overall performance level was high, particularly the women. Nina Stemme, whom I saw as Brunnhilde in San Francisco last June, is arguably the best in this role today. Her voice is very dark, more so than the Fricka of mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova. But Stemme has a firm upper register, and had no trouble sliding up to the high Cs in Hojotoho. Waltraud Meier, one month short of her 55th birthday, looks and sounds miraculously youthful as Sieglinde, and her vivid acting is always a pleasure. In this performance she sang wonderfully well. Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova was also excellent as Fricka, a far cry from her wooden and uninvolved Giulietta in the Met in HD Tales of Hoffmann last season. The men are more variable. Kowaljow is a basso cantante, and doesn't have the huge, enveloping sound of some Wotans in the past. But he sang with fresh, youthful sound and had no problem with the high tessitura in his Act 3. But visually I wouldn't say he's nearly as believable a Wotan as many I have seen - James Morris and John Tomlinson are two that come immediately to mind. New Zealand tenor Simon O'Neill has been making a big splash since migrating to the Wagner heldentenor fach the last couple of years. His tenor is what one would call a "big, juicy lyric" instead of a true heldentenor. There is no baritonal heft and rafter-raising power, but it is a beautiful sound. He received only lukewarm applause, as did Tomlinson as a rather uninteresting Hunding. The great English bass has had a long career in Wagner. I saw his wonderful Wotan in the Kupfer Ring in Bayreuth twenty years ago. But twenty years is a very long time in a singer's life, and Tomlinson has essentially moved onto other, less demanding roles, like Hunding. The valkyries were mostly good. However, the Gerhilde who opened the ensemble Ride of the Valkyries was tremulous - a case of opening night jitters? There was one other feeble voice in the bunch.

What of the production? This is a co-production shared with Berlin Staatsoper unter den Linden. The first installment, Das Rheingold premiered in Milan last May, and the full cycle won't be mounted until June 2013. Dutch director Guy Cassiers is essentially a theater director with limited experience on the opera stage. He offers a visually dazzling Walkure that has many nice touches. Particularly striking is the projection of masses of bucking horses and fallen heroes in Act 3. I also like the spinning globe, however the meaning of the "falling alphabets" eludes me. Indeed some of the visual effects didn't turned out as intended - particularly humorous was Brunnhilde falling asleep on the stage floor, which then rose up about five feet and a cluster of red lamps descended right on top, signifying the magic fire. I am afraid it looked more like some fast food being kept warm by 25 heat lamps! The costumes are traditional - in fact the elaborately formal dresses of the women look a lot like those in the COC Walkure. Overall, I feel that interpretively this Walkure dosen't really have anything unusual or controversial to say - as European productions go, this is rather middle-of-the-road. Supporters of Regieoper are sure to be disappointed. Daniel Barenboim is of course an old hand in Wagner, and he conducted with energy, drawing beautiful sounds from the orchestra. His tempo was on the leisurely side, allowing the lyrical and quiet passages to breathe, but in the crucial climaxes, his conducting had plenty of excitement. It was just too bad the theatre was not full. I hope D Films will not abandon its plan to bring these shows to the Canadian market. The market is there - there are plenty of opera lovers in Toronto. The shows just need more time and better advance publicity to properly build an audience.

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