Tcherniakov’s Khovanshchina

Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina is a bit of a weird opera.  It’s ostensibly based on a series of not entirely related events that unfolded during the succession crisis following the death of Tsar Fyodor III (which took about 12 years to play out) into a story that takes place in a day.  It’s complicated by the fact that key players in the story; the Tsars Peter and Ivan and the Tsarevna Sofia don’t actually appear because the Russian censorship would not allow members of the dynasty to be portrayed on stage.  Perhaps unsurprisingly Tcherniakov isn’t much interested in the details of the history and uses it to make some, not always entirely obvious, points about modernity vs tradition, personal power and the nature of religious cults.

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Mock turtles know all the rest

Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland premiered at the BayerischeStaatsoper in 2007 in a production by Achim Freyer.  It’s a curious work.  It cleaves fairly closely to Carroll but the beginning and ending are altered to make it clear this is all a dream.  In between those two short scenes we get all the familiar stuff; Cheshire Cat, Caterpillar, Tea Party, Croquet Lawn, Trial etc.  It’s all staged on a steeply raked stage with a sort of set of “advent calendar” openings.  Lines of light are used to suggest scale changes and the characters (almost) all wear mesh masks and have puppet selves too.  It’s a look that won costume designer Nina Weitzner an award.  Everybody seems to be wearing an aerial wire and there’s a fair bit of flying about.  It looks, on the face of it, visually inventive and psychologically convincing.

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Palestrina and the prattling prelates

Pfitzner’s Palestrina has had some pretty extravagant claims made for it.  Bruno Walter said “The work has all the elements of immortality”.  I’m not so sure.  The music is very appealing but it’s structurally problematic.  It’s ostensibly about Palestrina and the struggle to convince Pius IV that polyphony had a legitimate place in church music but while the first and third acts are just that they frame a second act that’s about the various squabbles at the Council of Trent, of which the question of music was but one.  I think it’s meant to be a satyr on church politics of the time but it feels heavy handed, overly long and introduces a vast number of minor characters.  These are not only confusing but probably make the work unstageable for all but the very richest houses.  There are over 40 named solo parts but only one is a woman (and she’s dead) so major Bechdel fail here too.  I think if one took a chainsaw to Act 2 a pretty decent opera might come out of it because the human story is quite affecting and the music is distinctive and rather good.  Although premiered in 1917 it’s stylistically anti-modern and would likely appeal to a lot of people who are not normally drawn to 20th century opera.

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Quirky Idomeneo

Dieter Dorn’s production of Idomeneo, filmed at the Bayerisches Staatsoper in 2008 has some interesting ideas and some arresting images but ultimately it’s hard to figure out where he is trying to go.  There’s a lot to like.  He clearly places Elettra as a member of the House of Atreus which makes her more believable.  He also creates credible personalities for Ilea, Idamante, idomeneo and Arbace.  No mean feat.  Some of the images are quite arresting too.  There is lots of blood and plenty of stage action.  The sets are chaotic piles of stuff.  Idamante gets a killer sea monster hunting rig.  Then there is the ending.  Instead of finishing on the “final chorus” the chorus drape the set with white sheets and for ten minutes the orchestra play what is listed in the booklet as a ballet but there is noone on stage and nothing is happening.  Going out on ten minutes of the most boring music in the opera is just bizarre.

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de Bello Gallico

Bellini’s Norma is a tale of illicit love between two Gaulish priestesses (can women be called druids?) and a Roman tribune.  In this 2006 production for the Bayerische Staatsoper director Jürgen Rose has set the piece in the present day in a vaguely Middle Eastern setting.  Within that framework the story is told quite straightforwardly and there’s no attempt to project some kind of agenda.  The designs are very striking.  Blue figures a lot.  Norma’s home is an underground bunker.  When the Gauls arm for war they put on ski masks and supplement their spears with assault rifles.  It all looks really good.  The acting is also excellent and we get some real intensity in the Norma/Pollione/Adalgisa love triangle and in the tension between Norma and her father Oroveso.  It works as drama.

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Die Fledermaus auf München

I didn’t really feel that the Mörbisch production of Die Fledermaus was giving me the reference point I needed. The Dalek BDSM ballet and Russian roulette certainly suggested that it was a production with ideas, albeit not terribly coherent ones and a baseline was what I was after. Fortunately the answer was at hand. Surely an Otto Schenk production could be virtually guaranteed to be free of ideas and his 1987 production for the Bayerischen Staatsoper was conveniently to hand. What’s more it’s conducted by Carlos Kleiber so I expected good things musically.

The production is typical Schenk. It’s very opulent; big on stuff, short on ideas. It would go down well at the Met. The only real interpolation is incorporating the Donner und Blitzen polka as a ballet number in Act 2 (which turns into something really a bit bizarre that looks like it might have happened at the Drones’ Club dinner dance) and the updating of a few of Frosch’s gags in Act 3. The transition from ballroom to dining room is carried out by means of a rotating stage, to the applause of a rather easily pleased audience. There’s really nothing much else to say about it.

Musically this performance is very high quality and much more operatic than the other production. The quality is apparent from the first few bars of the overture where Kleiber’s command of this material and his ability to inspire the orchestra is very clear. He’s backed up by a pretty heavy duty singing cast. Eberhard Wächter is Eisenstein, Benno Kusche is Frank and Pamela Coburn is Rosalinde which is pretty heavy duty casting and very effective. Even the roles which might get more operetta type voices are quite heavily cast. Adele, for instance, is sung by Janet Perry who seems to have a biggish voice for the role though she floats lightly enough through the coloratura passages. Similarly the Alfred of Josef Hopferweiser and the Falke of Wolfgang Brendel are full on operatic voices. Orlofsky is cast to a mezzo, Brigitte Fassbaender, and her voice suits the music much better than a counter-tenor’s does. So, solidly good singing across the piece and it’s backed up by good acting. Frosch, here is played by German TV actor Franz Muxeneder and he’s actually quite funny and not too over the top. So, all in all, a satisfying traditional performance which is pretty much what I was after.

The DVD isn’t so great in many ways. The sound is good. I listened using the DTS 5.1 track which is a remix using DG’s AMSI II technology of the original stereo recording. It’s very vivid and quite spacious. There are also Dolby 5.1 and PCM stereo options. The 4:3 picture is typical of 1980s TV recordings. It’s very soft grained and lacks definition. There are English, French, German and Chinese subtitles and a bilingual French/English booklet with a synopsis, cast listing and chapter listing. The only extra is a trailer focussed on Carlos Kleiber.

The main problem with the disk is the video direction. It’s the work of Brian Large whose quirks seem to be exacerbated by the Schenk approach. Schenk puts lots of “stuff” on stage; tons of furniture, chorus, dancers and supers all over the place and then Large focusses in on a head shot or an upper body shot which, inevitably, has all sorts of distracting background whirling in and out of shot. He also does something I’ve never seen before; he films the conductor while there is singing going on on stage. I know appearances by Kleiber were pretty rare but that’s just ridiculous.

I really must contrive to get hold of the recent Glyndebourne version of this work. It sounds like it should be much better.

The house that Elsa built

I guess Richard Jones’ 2009 Munich production of Lohengrin isn’t to everyone’s taste but I found it quite compelling. He’s set it in the 1930s and Elsa is building a house; a symbol for rebuilding the state and society of Brabant torn apart by the loss of her brother and general internal disorder. In the prologue we see her designing the house on a drawing board and then it gets built by stages culminating in a topping out ceremony as Elsa marries Lohengrin. At key points of the action the symbolism is manifest. Telramund kicks over half finished walls in the scene where he accuses Elsa and Lohengrin, having defeated Telramund in the duel, joins Elsa for a spot of bricklaying. After Elsa breaks her oath to Lohengrin he burns the house down so the final scene is played out on a more or less empty stage. There’s some really skilled stage handing going on to support all that! For contrast, and to facilitate the practicalities of the concept, some of the scenes are played out in front of a plain flat decorated solely with some coats of arms and a door. The alternation of very stark and very busy is intriguing. Inevitably there are times when the concept is stretching possible interpretations of the libretto right to the limit and the duel between Lohengrin and Telramund is a bit lame but mostly for me it worked.

Within the overall concept Jones has obviously given a lot of thought to the relationships between the characters. The Personenregie seems almost obsessively detailed and he seems to have taken his cast along with him because the acting is first class. Every look and gesture, especially from Wolfgang Koch as Telramund and Anja Harteros as Elsa, carry a depth of meaning. It’s very impressive.

The singing performances are very strong across the board. Again, for me, Koch and Harteros are the standouts. Harteros is really lovely to listen to even when she’s cranking out the decibels and Koch was never less than musical even in his angry outbursts where the temptation to shout or bark must be strong . Michaela Schuster as Ortrud and Jonas Kaufmann in the title role are pretty much as good. Schuster gets a bit strident but that’s not inappropriate to the role and Kaufmann has moments when he is just gorgeous to listen to. His hushed and unearthly “In fernem Land” was gripping. Christof Fischesser was a solid Heinrich and Evgeny Nikitin (a superb Dutchman in Toronto a few months later) made more of the Heerrufer than some might. All of this is very well supported by the orchestra under Kent Nagano.

The production for DVD is pretty good. Karina Fibich directs for video. She gives us a pretty good idea of the overall set and blocking and rations her closeups. It’s hard to argue with going to close up when there are just one or two singers in front of a flat. She gets a bit overambitious in the more crowded scenes and experiments with camera angles that are quite confusing. Sometimes the shot even seems to be behind the action. Overall though it’s a decent presentation and it’s backed up by a sharp 16:9 anamorphic picture and solid DTS 5.1 sound (LPCM stereo as an alternative). There are English, French, Spanish and Chinese subtitles. There are no extras but the trilingual booklet (English, French, German) includes a synopsis and a short essay about the production.