Intermezzo - New York City Opera at David H. Koch Theater, 9 November 2010
Richard Strauss's Intermezzo doesn't quite deserve a place up there with the likes of Salome and Elektra, but it hardly merits the obscurity that has become its lot either. Hey, even this blog is higher up the Google rankings. The problem I think is that it's not really an opera at all. No big numbers, not a tune you could hum. Strauss himself called it "a bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes." I'd call it a light play set to music (think Noel Coward without the wit or the cruelty) with some orchestral business to cover the scenery changes.
Die schweigsame Frau - Prinzregententheater Munich, 23 July 2010
Die schweigsame Frau's relative lack of success is sometimes excused as bad timing. An adaptation of Ben Jonson's play The Silent Woman, it's inoffensive comic fluff. But the fact that its librettist Stefan Zweig was Jewish ensured the opera was banned by the Nazis after just three performances in 1935.
Now it languishes in a corner of the repertoire, picked up and dusted off only occasionally. But much else that was prohibited in Germany during Hitler's reign - Mahler especially springs to mind - has recovered its position, and more. Do the reasons lie more in the work itself than the unfortunate circumstances of its debut? This new production for the Munich Opera Festival gives it a fair chance, but I can't say that I was blown away. By riddling it with ironic pastiches of his own older works, Strauss was perhaps acknowledging that he had little new to say.
Salome - Royal Opera House, 3 July 2010 (first night)
Justin Way’s revival direction seems under-rehearsed, to conjecture kindly. Even the experienced Johan Reuter looked as hesitant and uncertain as a last-minute replacement straight from the airport. Yet paradoxically on its first return to the Royal Opera House David McVicar’s Salome emerged more clearly and coherently than it did on its premiere. It's a society on the brink of the apocalypse prophesied by Jokaanan, and acknowledged by Herod as he throws a party for the end of the world before retreating to his Führerbunker below. McVicar’s 1930’s update points up the decadence which a modern audience is inclined to mistake for mere extravagance in a more traditional swords’n’sandals production. The child abuse implied by McVicar's imaginative but clunkily-executed seven veils dance explains Salome's destructive, and self-destructive, impulses.
Elektra - LSO / Gergiev - Barbican, 12 January 2010
Starting on a high is one thing, sustaining it for two hours quite another. Gergiev's Elektra landed such a sucker punch in its opening bars that there was nowhere left to go. A cauldron of seething hormonal hysteria gushed out in an earsplitting tidal wave. Nothing was held back. If Gergiev had reined in his forces there and then, perhaps the climactic moments later on would have registered with full effect. But the same thrilling but ultimately wearing pace was maintained throughout. Even a rollercoaster's no fun if you spend all your time at the top of the ride. He seemed buried in his gigantic Russian-edition score throughout - was it simply a lack of full preparation? He had the temperature of the work down, no doubt, but a sense of form and shape eluded him.
Tellingly, the most gripping passage was the entrance of Orest. Here the drastically reduced orchestration literally forced a moment of quietude, a written-in contrast to the tumult around it.
But where dramatic light and shade was missing, colour was not. Though he recognised that the densely-carpeted score needs binding together more than transparency, Gergiev drew details out like flowers in a forest, not easy with the full orchestral complement of 112 on stage.
The vocal honours went to some of the briefest appearances. Felicity Palmer, a fabulous and terrifying Clytemnestra, was the only singer to consistently pierce through Gergiev's decibels. Matthias Goerne's velvet baritone created a world-weary, enigmatic Orest, riveting in his subdued recognition scene, less effective when he had to force his voice above the orchestra.
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, for all her overbaked writhing, was an unpersuasive Elektra. Serene and lyrical, more concerned with tone than text, the impassivity of her singing contrasted with her constantly flailing body. She sang attractively but without either the power or the vocal expressivity for Elektra's matricidal hysteria to register in all its horror. And she didn't quite have the stamina for this very demanding uncut version of the score, flagging noticeably in the final minutes.
Angela Denoke's Chrysothemis wasn't quite right either. Though she matched her resources intelligently to the demands of the role, ultimately there's too much steel and not enough lyricism in the voice to convey girlish innocence. I don't believe the title role is in Denoke's repertoire yet, but it's the direction her voice is headed. Ian Storey completed a less than perfect cast, singing Aegist efficiently but almost totally without inflection, like a brilliant sight reader who'd just been handed the score. Mariinsky soloists of varying quality were shipped over for the bit parts - no doubt a perk of Gergiev's position, but surely an expensive one?
Der Rosenkavalier - Staatsoper Stuttgart, 27 November 2009
You might think the last thing the lengthy Der Rosenkavalier needs is even more music, but Stefan Herheim cheekily pre-empts its prelude with disorientating electronica. In a star-pricked, lavishly draped boudoir, a fading Diana Dors figure contemplates her vanished looks in a dressing table mirror.
Just when I wondered if I'd come on the wrong night by mistake, she furiously thrust her fist through its mirror and Strauss's music began. Horned and hairy priapic satyrs erupt from a giant frieze depicting the rape of Europa. One Pan-like creature fashions a silver rose from the broken mirror shards. They ravish the Marschallin to the famous brassy calls until an Apollonian Octavian descends from the skies to rescue her from the clutches of Dionysian abandon.
This is, needless to say, not the usual comedy of manners - the opulent rococo costuming is deceptive. Herheim's Rosenkavalier employs the primal forms of myth and symbol to explore the Freudian world of unconscious desire revealed by dreams. The unfulfilled Marschallin, tied by social etiquette, seeks satisfaction of her innermost desires in the unbound and illogical realm of fantasy. In this ideal world, she doesn't even have to choose between sex and chocolate - the page boy Mohammed, revealed as another randy satyr, takes her from behind as he delivers her breakfast.
The action is played out beneath a giant version of the Marschallin's blue crinoline, and just to make that clear it's doubled in miniature puppet form in the first act. Sophie is the Marschallin's younger self, and Mariandel yet another side. The bull-horned and horny Ochs (Ochs is German for ox/bull) wreaks Dionysian disruption with his satyr servants and their flapping rubber genitals. The court too have an animal side, establishing character instantly and brilliantly. Faninal and Sophie's maid are preening poultry, the notary a poodle, Valzacchi and Annina a cockroach and a moth, and the servants turn round to reveal sheep's heads behind. The only creature which doesn't quite work is the occasionally interposed pun-too-far of Strauss himself as a pantomime ostrich (Strauss is German for ostrich).
Of course the opera is about more than the Marschallin. Strauss and Hofmannsthal viewed a Europe at the end of an era, on the brink of decay, mirrored in Ochs's unbridled excesses. The painting of the Rape of Europa hanging behind is a constant reminder. Can his third act lesson teach Ochs anything? Guillotined heads on poles and Annina's uniformed gas-masked children bear witness to the savageries of Europe's past and the still worse carnage yet to come. Ochs tries and fails to strangle 'Strauss' the panto ostrich like Rod Hull grappling with Emu (the mostly German audience sat straight faced, enraptured; I was dying). But he is ultimately defeated - the golden stars beneath the Marschallin's blue skirt are echoed in her triumphant final deus-ex-machina entry as the incarnation of Europa and the end of the panto nonsense. Ochs disappears into the skies, rocket-propelled, discharged to outer space.
As Sophie and Octavian are finally united, the Marschallin and Faninal join the audience in the boxes wearing everyday costume. Now it's Pan who's weeping as he stuffs his face with the mirror-rose he made, expiring bloody and writhing as the reactionary and sentimental emerge victorious. Herheim may love the opera, but he's disappointed in Strauss.
If all this makes it sound as if Herheim has replaced Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier with something of his own invention, nothing could be further from the truth. The action respects every turn of the music, and in many cases mimics it structurally. The most overt parody-waltzes are accompanied by knowing unison swaying. When it's time for the big numbers - the presentation of the rose, the final trio - he clears the stage and there's nothing to detract from clearly-presented motive and devastating emotional impact. The libretto may be used ingeniously, but it's never ignored. Neither is the emotional or physical direction that the music implies. Quite simply, it all rings true.
If there's one criticism which could be fairly levelled, it's that some of the smaller moments are not as touching as they might be. That's because Herheim chooses to expose the sentimentality rather than wallow in it - and it could be argued that because Strauss's sentimentality in Rosenkavalier is both conscious and intentional, it should be swallowed whole.
Manfred Honeck whipped up his excellent orchestra with an equal lack of saccharine fluff and a driving pace. Fantastically bold colouring, confidently varied dynamics and daring rubato complemented the hallucinatory visuals, detail swimming in and out of focus.
It's hard to pick a standout amongst the excellent cast, most of whom surpassed their bigger-name counterparts in the recent Covent Garden production. Mojca Erdmann was the only name I recognised. Her Sophie was beautifully-voiced though lacking in colour. Christiane Iven's blowsy Marschallin wasn't quite as elegant but she really held the stage, with even the second act scented by her presence. Marina Prudenskaja's darkly poised mezzo complemented a frighteningly convincing physical portrayal of Octavian, and she wasn't afraid to let rip and squawk her way through Mariandel. Lars Woldt's Ochs was strangely likeable despite his oafish excesses, and clearly a bumpkin (as the directions suggest) rather than a boor (as we usually get).
What a pity there were such a large number of technical problems on the night I visited. Curtains that wouldn't close, curtains that wouldn't open, drapes that snagged on ladders, failing lights, and assorted bumps, bangs and crashes all evening. It's a busy production that must make a lot of technical demands but these were basic issues.