La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Roberto Devereux: Munich Opera Festival

Photo: A modern dress Roberto Devereux starring Edita Gruberova and Sonia Ganassi

Roberto Devereux; The Queen Rules Again, at the Munich Opera Festival, Sunday, July 4, 2010
Richard Rosenman, Editor, Wagner News, Toronto Wagner Society
LSM Guest Reviewer
This is the second season that the Bayerische Staatsoper offers Edita Gruberova in a Gaetano Donizetti vehicle. Wisely or not, it had resisted mounting two of the three queens, last year’s contribution being Lucrezia Borgia. This historical melodrama of intrigue, forbidden love and corruption in Elizabeth’s I court, here shorn of its costumes and royal interiors, is less an equivalent of our time soap opera than a showcase of what ultimately counts –music and singing.
The production, premiered in 2004, has been seasonally revived but still draws full houses of devoted fans. Hearing the frenzied applause one feels it is all about her. Truly, Gruberova is a phenomenon – almost forty one years on stage (twenty after her first Elisabetta, in Barcelona), she still attacks the vocal pitfalls of the role fearlessly, though not as recklessly as in the past and not always as successfully. More successful is her concerted effort to act out the legendary temperament of the historical queen. She retains her charisma like a true primadonna that she is.
The director, Christof Loy, has chosen to place the action in a grey ministerial office, our idea of East German burocracy. The dark suited officials busy themselves with documents and briefcases. They are grave and humorless, whether shuffling papers or drawing blood, beating the hapless Roberto, (José Bros). Violence abounds; even Nottingham, (Paolo Gavanelli), gratuitously ties and abuses Sara, his wife, (Sonia Ganassi) in a fit of misplaced jealousy.
Of her many portrayals of the role, this time Elisabetta, like the rest of the cast, is also in modern dress, a light blue suit, almost a mini, changed only close to the finale for a more dignified black. Listening to Gruberova makes one continuously compare the now with what has been and with other famous Elisabettas. Her singing is now squally, lacking the precision of say, Caballe, in the same role. But one must admire her determination, not deterred by momentary fadings or strainings of her instrument.
Although nominally the hero, Roberto Devereux is forced to remain in the shadow, though he asserts himself when he comes through bright and lyrical when needed. In the snake pit, that the court is, he retains our sympathy as the victim. Nottingham, Paolo Gavanelli, a large and imposing figure, another favorite of the Munich public judging by the second best ovation, held his vigorous baritone in check most of the time. The resulting lyricism contrasted with his fortes, sung not shouted. He was convincing in the stages of his metamorphosis from a devoted husband to a ruthless avenger, blinded by jealousy. The other victim, his wife Sara, Sonia Ganassi, a reliable counterforce to the queen.
The orchestra was led by Friedrich Haider. At the end the queen tears off her wig and passes the crown to the new king. Gruberova suddenly looks her, and the queen’s, age. It is more than a mere opera – it is theater of highest order.

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Dialogues of the Carmelites: Munich Opera Festival

Photo: Dialogues of the Carmelites, Munich Opera Festival, July 2010

Dialogues des Carmelites. Russian steppes or French countryside?
Richard Rosenman, Editor, Wagner News (Toronto Wagner Society)
LSM Guest Reviewer
The curtain rises on a vignette that promises but not delivers the expectation produced –an iconic street scene of rushing, anonymous multitudes is contrasted with a lone immobile figure apart, alone. This is Blanche, and a deep silence envelops all.
This production of Francis Poulenc’s work, revived from the Munich premiere of March 28, 2010, tries to be a mood piece – a lonely cabin in nowhere, an island of light in a dark nothingness; but no matter how it advances from backstage to front, no matter how it turns this way or other to face the public, it is still a transparent cage full of squabbling women, dressed like any homebound housewives. The transparency is visual and acoustic. It allows us to see and hear the dialogues. The action takes place in this one space, now a common room, now the Mother Superior’s death chamber, and so on. There is no nunnery paraphernalia, no Christian symbols to distinguish this group from any gathering of manless women. No reference to their faith. No threatened doom from the synthetic police, wimpy and hardly the instruments of implacable, cruel state.
The only refugee is the text which, mercifully, Dmitri Tcherniakov was not allowed to alter, ringing with addresses like “mother”, “sister”, as the only references to what Bernanos wanted, and names like Chevalier de la Force and Blanche de la Force, the last one the lone figure at the opening and the victim who rehabilitates herself at the end, but the Tcherniakov way.
Tcherniakov drifts too far from the intentions and promises of the text, culminating in a finale difficult to reconcile with sounds of another, embedded in the libretto. The self immolation, or self asphyxiation, planned by the sisters in the now sealed cabin/hut/convent room, is foiled by Blanche, bent on martyrdom, breaking down the door and leading the sisters one by one out into open air. She then locks herself in the now abandoned hut/etc/etc and presumably perishes in the ensuing fiery explosion, complete with a mini mushroom cloud of artificial smoke.
One of the most moving effects of the original is rendered meaningless by this contrived ending, worthy of a Schwartzeneger’s erstwhile films. This whole ado about the sealed hut and the rescue of the sisters, is accompanied by the ominous thumps, referential to a guillotine, here out of context. It is as if at the end Hamlet went on a vacation.
With fine singing overall, still some distinguish themselves. The mature Felicity Palmer, as the dying prioress, Madame De Croissy, quite convincing in her death rattle; Chevalier de la Force, Blanche’s brother, Bernard Richter, fine tenor and her father, Marquis de la Force, Alain Vernhes, engaging; Soile Isokoski as Madame Lidoine, and, of course, Blanche, Susan Gritton, a beautiful soprano, perhaps too lyrical for one consumed so by angst that it drove her to seek refuge from the world in a convent and faith, and ultimately to martyrdom by self sacrifice.
Kent Nagano, who led the orchestra, was visibly the public’s favorite. He received the most dedicated applause among the lukewarm audience reaction. Part of it was surely a reaction to his decision to depart as the Munich Staatsoper’s musical director, a common knowledge by then. Still, a number of empty seats condemned the performance a priori.

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