La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Letter from Munich 2012: Rheingold, Die Walkure, La cenerentola

The beautiful National-theater in the day time and at night, with the spectacular projections of Wagner's Ring onto the front facade after the performance ends inside the house (photos: Joseph So)

Once again, I am in the beautiful Bavarian city of Munich to attend the annual Munich Opera Festival for the month of July. Always exciting in high tourist season, this year Munich (and practically all of Europe) has been facing a particularly severe heat wave, which spells trouble for opera attendees as the National-theater, like most European opera houses, is not air-conditioned. With 2000 bodies in an enclosed space, it can get sweltering in no time. The normally extremely dressy audience aren't about to give up their haute couture just for a bit of discomfort. But the more sensible men in the audience would take their jackets off discreetly once the house light goes down - after all, it's not worth it to suffer heat stroke! 

This year's Festival is particularly special because the Bavarian State Opera is unveiling its new Ring Cycle.  Actually the four Ring operas were premiered one at a time starting last February, and the fourth opera, Goetterdammerung, had its premiere at the end of June. Then two complete cycles are presented during the July Festival. The stage director for the Ring, Andreas Kriegenburg is primarily a theatre director with relatively little opera experience.  Following his highly successful production of Wozzeck for the Bavarian State Opera in 2008, Kriegenberg was entrusted with the task of designing the new Ring Cycle. Much have already been written about this, and the critics are divided - so what else is new!  

Having now seen two of  the four installments for myself, I can certainly see what all the brouhaha is all about. This is quite literally a human Ring, you can also say it's a low-tech Ring, one that is the polar opposite of some of the more celebrated productions in recent memory, such as the Valencia and the Met Rings. Instead of relying on high tech wizardry, this one has bodies. There is no physical set to speak of, only a few props and pieces of furniture and fabric, and of course the stage mechanisms.  What we do have is the use of the human body, masses of bodies in fact, to form the Rhine in Das Rheingold. I have no statistics to back it up, but my guess is this production probably have the greatest number of supernumeraries of any Ring. I didn't do a careful count, but my guess is well over a hundred.  Given the increasing reliance on high tech in opera productions, especially in something as complex as the Ring, the Kriegenburg production is something of a departure. It's interesting to see the masses of humanity that cluster together to form the Rhine, simulating the motions of the waves. Also, the opening staging with the extras has a strong sexual flavour to it, and why not... Given that all life forms originate in the watery depth, there's something symbolic, even poetic, about the staging. The execution could be a bit more seamless, less obtrusive. If I were to quibble, sitting so close meant the imperfections of the movements of the masses of bodies took away some of the realism.  
Kriegenburg's staging of the "horses" before the music starts in Act 3 Die Walkure (Photo: Bavarian State Opera)

On the subject of the body-driven nature of this Ring, the ideas are always original and occasionally brilliant.  The tux-clad men kowtowing to Wotan, serving him drinks in Valhalla (Act Two Walkure), one offering his back as a writing desk, speaks volumes about his stature as head honcho.The recycling of the fiery snake (in lieu of a dragon) from Rheingold to form the ring of fire protecting Brunnhilde was also a very nice touch. The one misfire - to my eyes and ears - by Mr. Kriegenburg was spectacular. Before the music started in Act 3 Walkure,  some two dozen women, in the same silver lame bodice as the valkyries, did some sort of stomping routine, complete with grunting noises. The significance of this little episode eluded me, I have to say.  It lasted about 8 minutes, word-less and no music, except for the thumping of their boots. I am afraid to a substantial segment of the audience, it was 8 minutes too long.  At about the 3 minute mark, some decided to boo, which was replied with applause by others. The booing intensified and it became a tug of war. In my 45 years of attending operas, this the the most vociferous booing I have witnessed.  I only realized later that these women were supposed to be horses. As it was happening, I thought they were "valkyrie-wannabes" doing some sort of aerobics routine!  Frankly, any directorial touch ceases to be effective if a substantial segment of the audience just don't "get it."  On the other hand, I find the staging of the Todesverkundigung scene and Wotan's Abschied effective and moving, among the best I've seen. Also very nice was the 20 or so women each carrying battery powered lights in their palms shining the spotlight on the lovers during Wintersturme in Act one Walkure - to me, these women represent 'destiny' lending a helping hand to the lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde.. 
The finest Siegmund and Sieglinde today - tenor Klaus Florian Vogt and soprano Anja Kampe (Photo: Bavarian State  Opera)

If there were some reservations about the production, no such reservations existed for the musical aspects of Rheingold and Walkure. The singing was uniformly excellent. Thomas Mayer impressed with his authoritative Walkure Wotan, with a glorious high register, tireless in a very long role. Johan Reuter as thee Rheingold Wotan, with slightly more slender vocal resources, was almost as good. The Loge of Stefan Margita was simply magnificent, and so was Wolfgang Koch's Alberich. Most impressive were the lovers - Klaus Florian  Vogt's clarion, sweet tenor as Siegmund and the joy and womanly warmth of Anja Kampe as Sieglinde.   Replacing Katarina Dalayman (for unknown reasons) was Irene Theorin, who sang a sensational Brunnhilde.  Her Ho-jo-to-ho had the best hi Cs and B naturals in memory. She also looked regal and aristocratic. The casting of Munich is so much stronger than the Met - to be able to replace Dalayman with an equally wonderful soprano like Theorin underscores the depth of this theatre - bravo! If there was a fly in the ointment, it was the rather uneven singing of the valkyries, which, given the wealth of talent at the Munich Opera, should have been easy to cast.  For some reason, the Gerhilde had very little voice and could not sustain her brief lines. It was very unfortunate and very obvious since Gerhilde opens the singing in the Ride of the Valkyries, but in the grand scheme of things, this was a minor quibble. Kent Nagano led both operas with a surprisingly leisurely tempo, but never losing sight of the architecture of the piece. He received the biggest ovations, even more than the excellent singers.  Munich simply loves this guy.
Joyce DiDonato as a scintillating Angelina despite being under the weather (photo: Bavarian State Opera)

The one non-Ring operas I've seen so far was La cenerentola - what a jarring experience to go from Wagner to Rossini!  It was almost more than my system can bear... just kiddin!  The big draws are the two lovers - Joyce DiDonato as Angelina, probably the best in this role today.  Intendant Nicolaus Bachler came in front of the curtain at the beginning, leading to a wave of groaning from the audience. Fortunately, she consented to sing despite a cold. DiDonato was quite careful at first, but grew in strength during her last act aria and finished in a blaze of glory. She received a huge hand from the audience. Lawrence Brownlee as the Prince is the "alternate" to Juan Diego Florez, arguably the most famous interpreter of this role these days. Brownlee was sensational when he sang it in Toronto last season and wowed the audience last evening. The old "black and white" Ponnelle production is showing its age but still functioning quite well - one wouldn't want to "update" this piece with some crazy far-out staging. Conductor Antonello Allemandi led a middle-of-the-road reading of the score.

Tomorrow is Siegfried, followed by the DiDonato recital on Saturday and Goetterdammerung on Sunday. Let's hope she will be in full health by then. Can't wait!

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Sunday, 8 July 2012

Baton Toss: Yannick Channels Stokowski in Philadelphia

by Paul E. Robinson

Academy of Music (Philadelphia, PA)
Brahms: Symphony No. 1
Ippolitov-Ivanov: Caucasian Sketches
Wagner: Tannhäuser: Overture

Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Academy of Music
Philadelphia, PA
June 22, 2012

Audience Choice Program
Bach arr. Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565
Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite Op. 71a
Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Bernstein: West Side Story: Symphonic Dances
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919)
Wagner: Die Walküre: The Ride of the Valkyries

Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Academy of Music
Philadelphia, PA
June 23, 2012

Leopold Stokowski (photo: right) conducted his first concerts as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra almost one hundred years ago (1912). In commemoration of this anniversary, the orchestra presented a 4-concert festival led by music director-designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the Academy of Music  where Stokowski and his orchestra made music for decades.

Did the currently financially troubled Philadelphia Orchestra rise to the occasion? And could the young music director-in-waiting bear comparison with a conducting legend? The answer in both cases is emphatically “Yes.”

I attended the two concerts listed above and my overall impression was that Yannick Nézet-Séguin is already well into a honeymoon with both the orchestra and the audience. Frankly, Philadelphia has never seen a leader like Yannick; given the problems facing the orchestra, he may well prove a good part of the solution. 

Maestro's Winning Ways a Coup for Philly
As Montrealers have known for years, Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a superb musician. A huge natural talent, he has worked diligently to master a vast repertoire. He also has an easy manner with audiences. Predecessors like Dutoit, Eschenbach, Sawallisch, Muti and Ormandy rarely spoke to the audience and when they did, often erred on the side of formality. Stokowski certainly addressed his audiences, albeit in a pompous manner that did little to make classical music more accessible to them.

The two concerts I attended started with introductory comments by both Yannick (photo: left) and an actor portraying Stokowski, in a sequence put together by stage director James Alexander. The two conductors appeared on film in first tier boxes on opposite sides of the stage, seemingly in conversation. At the conclusion of this short dialogue Stokowski passed the baton to Yannick, in a bit of movie magic that showed the baton being thrown by Stokowski, tumbling across the big screen covering the stage opening and finally being caught by Yannick. The audience loved this charming “coup de théâtre.”

At the end of the “Audience Choice” program, Yannick again demonstrated how charming he could be with an audience, asking them to choose an encore. It would be either Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 or Strauss’ Radetzky March. The audience was asked to indicate its choice by applause. The winner would be decided on the basis of the height of the green lights on the applause meter registering sound on the columns beside the stage.

Philadelphia Orchestra Alive and Well!
Yannick led the audience through the process with all the energy and expertise of a circus ringmaster. The audience choice? The Radetzky March, that perennial encore for the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert.

Ultimately, Yannick will succeed or fail in Philadelphia on the basis of what he does with the music, and all indications are positive. While the programs for this Stokowski Celebration were essentially chosen by Stokowski, not by Yannick, he conducted every piece with total commitment and authority.

The first concert I attended was a re-creation of Stokowski’s first concert as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The only change – perhaps because the program was thought to be too long – was the omission of Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 Overture which opened the 1912 concert. Instead, this 2012 tribute began with Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in a glorious performance.

The Baton Has Passed! 
Yannick had just conducted all four Brahms symphonies in Montreal, and on this occasion, led a performance that was powerful, exciting, beautiful and entirely without eccentricity. 

Stokowski, a great interpreter of this music – he recorded it several times with the Philadelphia Orchestra – made many changes in the score, most notably in the big brass chorale in the last movement, where he added more brass instruments and changed the voicings of the chords to make the chorale bigger and grander. Yannick, on the other hand, played it “as written” and it was just fine. 

Academy of Music a Treasure Worth Preserving...

In the Brahms performance and elsewhere in the two concerts I attended, I was struck by the sonority and power of the basses and cellos. While the Academy of Music has a basically dry acoustic, the bass response is extraordinary. I understand that some renovations were done fairly recently and the result may have been favourable to bass instruments. Make no mistake: in spite of all the financial turmoil swirling around it, this orchestra remains one of the finest in the world. From concertmaster David Kim on down the principal players are outstanding and the unanimity of ensemble is remarkable. The strings play with an intensity and depth of sound that rivals the Berlin Philharmonic.

The “Audience Choice” program was a very mixed bag as programming. The concept, which was Stokowski’s, entailed giving the audience a list of pieces and asking for their preferences. This time around the audience was given a list that was in part similar to what Stokowski’s might have been, with a few additions. The result was a program of mostly symphonic pops pieces and too many big finishes for a balanced program. By the time the orchestra got to the Ride of the Valkyries, it was clear that the brass players were beginning to run out of steam.

This was definitely not the kind of program that Yannick himself would have chosen, but he made the best of it. He and the orchestra were especially impressive in the Stokowski orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This is a very effective piece and a real showcase for a virtuoso string section. Yannick made the most of all the improvisatory episodes and tempo changes, not to mention the organ-like pedal notes in the brass.

In the Tchaikovsky and Dukas pieces, Yannick and the orchestra provided the live soundtrack for the iconic scenes from the film Fantasia. This meant that Yannick had to conduct the music exactly the way Stokowski conducted it to make the music match the action on screen. I understand that when this was done at the family concert earlier in the day, Yannick had some difficulty putting it all together. In the evening concert, however, it was nearly perfect.

...But the Kimmel Center Not Quite So!
Along with many other listeners, I have been very disappointed with the Kimmel Center and Verizon Hall in which the orchestra now presents nearly all its concerts. The acoustics are overly bright and metallic and the sound lacks presence. The Kimmel is a disaster as a people place. Dark and forbidding, it’s more like a funeral parlor than an arts center. Attracting audiences to the place is going to require lots of imagination and money. Improved acoustics in the performance hall will not be enough; the lobby too will need a makeover.

The Academy of Music is no substitute for a modern concert facility. It has rudimentary amenities, only fair acoustics, and very uncomfortable seats. After its recent renovation, however, it remains an impressive treasure from another age and it is an ideal place for special series such as the Stokowski Celebration.

For Something More…
Apart from the great Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia has a good deal to offer arts-oriented visitors, including a number of excellent galleries and museums, the latest being the new home of the Barnes Foundation. The original Barnes Museum was located in Meirion just outside Philadelphia and because of the small galleries and the owner’s preferences, reservations to view the collection had to be made far in advance. After much controversy, the major part of the collection was moved to a new building near the grand Philadelphia Museum of Art in the arts district on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Albert Barnes, who died in 1951, left instructions that his paintings always be displayed according to his wishes – in what he called “ensembles” according to colors and subject matter, in small rooms. For better or worse, Barnes’ wishes have been carried out in the new building. In my opinion, these “ensembles” makes no sense at all. Each wall of each small room is jammed with dozens of paintings and other art objects, making it difficult for an observer to give each one its due. In addition, these small rooms are actually part of a large building, in which the most spacious room has no paintings at all on the walls, but rather rows of benches giving it the look and feel of a waiting room in a railway station. That said, the collection is definitely worth viewing. Reservations, which are still required, can be made at

Jumbo Lump Crab Cake (Bliss)
If you’re looking for a place to have dinner before a concert at the Academy of Music or Verizon Hall, there are several fine restaurants nearby. The Greek restaurant Estia is right across Locust St. from the stage door of the Academy and offers a full range of excellent dishes. Around the corner on Broad St., the Bliss restaurant is cosy and welcoming.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: The Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcastClassical Airs.