Can Bayreuth really tackle Meistersinger?

Die Meistersinger is a problematic opera, particularly for Bayreuth.  It has rather disturbing elements of German nationalism and a performance tradition at the festival of those being used for ends that most people would rather be able to forget.  No surprise then that Katharina Wagner’s production, recorded in 2008, tries to deal with both.  It’s a bold effort.  Like Robert Carsen’s Tannhäuser it tries to use visual art as a metaphor for music and art in general.

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Rosenkavalier on the brink

Robert Carsen’s 2004 production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival was apparently enormously controversial at the time.  In many ways that says more about the iconic status of the piece in Salzburg tradition than about Carsen’s production.  There are a few controversial elements.  He has updated the period to 1914 and the third act is set in a brothel with a fair amount of nudity.  Beyond that, the production is pretty faithful to the libretto and has, I think characteristic Carsen touches like long lines of tables and chairs and a certain geometric elegance.  He seems to be using the sides of the stage to comment on the action which tends to be fixed centre stage.  I say seems because the video direction (by Brian Large) is utterly perverse and makes it extraordinarily difficult to see what Carsen is doing, let alone decode it.  We see the whole stage, maybe, for three seconds in the whole piece.  Otherwise 99% of what we get is either close up and even closer up or apparently shot from the restricted view seats high up and close to the side of the stage.  The other 1% is just plain nuts and includes a section of the Sophie/Octavian duet in Act 2 where, on stage, Octavian is maybe twenty feet to Sophie’s right but on camera he’s standing right up close on her left hand side.  I could go on but I won’t.  Suffice it to say the video direction comes close to wrecking an otherwise excellent DVD.

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Best of 2011

Herewith a personal take on the best things that came my way operatically in 2011.

Live performances

It was a pretty good year for live opera in Toronto. I’m certainly not going to complain about two Robert Carsen productions in the same calendar year. Good though the Gluck was though top honours in the fully staged opera in a real theatre go to the COC’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Neil Armfield’s production was fairly conventional but the music making was superb. Adrienne Pieczonka, Jane Archibald and Alice Coote headlined with strong support from Richard Margison and a whole bunch of past and present Studio Ensemble members. The orchestral playing too was absolutely first class and Sir Andrew Davis conducting looked like he was enjoying it as much as the audience. Later in the year I think we had a bit of “a star is born moment”. Christopher Alden’s Rigoletto was challenging enough that I wanted to see it a second time so took the chance to get a cheap ticket for the B cast. Thus I got to see the extraordinary chemistry between two very fine young singers; David Lomeli and Simone Osborne. Go see them if you get a chance. Actually, nothing at the COC seriously disappointed in 2011 (well maybe the The Magic Flute had a bit of a 200th performance of my career feel to it.) It looks like we are moving at last into an era when Toronto gets consistently high class singers and conductors in decent or better productions. It’s a shame there are only seven productions per year.

As for smaller venues, highlights included Against the Grain’s funky La Boheme in the highly outlandish setting of the Tranzac Club and Queen of Puddings’ world premiere of Ana Sokolov’s Svadba – Wedding; an hour long piece for six unaccompanied female voices. There were also any number of excellent free lunchtime concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

DVD

The surprise highlight of the year for me was the restored print of the 1961 Rosenkavalier from Salzburg. Everything about it is surprising and wonderful and undermines a great deal of received wisdom about opera in that era. Other personal discoveries were the Salzburg King Arthur (who knew Germans could be funny?) and Calixto Bieito’s truly disturbing Wozzeck starring Franz Hawlata at his very considerable best.

Personal epiphany

I started the year thinking I didn’t really like John Adams much. I had hated the Met broadcast of Doctor Atomic and while I liked some of the non-operatic stuff rather more I wasn’t a fan. After watching Nixon in China twice in 24 hours (COC on the Friday night followed by the Met broadcast on the Saturday) and attending a lunchtime concert of arias introduced by the composer and sung by Peter McGillivray and Betty Wayne Allison I was converted. I even went back and watched the Amsterdam production of Doctor Atomic on DVD. I still think Doctor Atomic has its weaknesses but Nixon in China is pretty much a masterpiece.

On-line stuff

I started this blog as a way of keeping up writing analytically while I wasn’t working. It’s helped keep me sane. Through this and Twitter and other on-line stuff I’ve met some really cool people in 2011; some in meatspace including Lydia of Definitely the Opera, Cicely Carver from COC, couturier Rosemary Uhmetsu and up and coming soprano Simone Osborne. On-line folks who have helped this year along are really too numerous to mention individually but thanks anyway!

Other stuff that happened

I met Lawrence Brownlee and Leonardo Vordoni in the cinema at a MetHD broadcast! I discovered that baritone Brett Polegato (one of the funniest people in opera) has a little grey cat called Lady Jane Grey just like my little grey monster.

More Carsen genius

I’m a big fan of Robert Carsen. His Orfeo ed Euridice was one of the highlights of last year’s COC season and his Iphigénie en Tauride promises to be one of the events of the upcoming season. So, as you can imagine, I had high expectations for the DVD of his 2002 Paris production of Dvořák’s Rusalka with Renée Fleming in the title role. I wasn’t disappointed. The production is pure magic. It’s almost a mathematician’s production. In Act 1 he gives us symmetry in the horizontal plane. There’s a bedroom reflected horizontally floating above the water sprites’ abode which resolves itself into the bedroom that is the setting for Rusalka’s initial encounter with the prince. In Act 2 we get the same bedroom but in a left right symmetry and the movements of the characters are also mirrored with non singing actors mirroring the singers. The symmetry continues with Rusalka balanced against the foreign princess. It’s very cool. I’m guessing that Carsen is suggesting the distance between the world of the sprites and the human world diminishing then opening up again. In Act 3 we get geometrical chaos as Ježibaba’s hut is presented at crazy angles poised above the stage and all sorts of dissolution goes on before we again get the symmetrical bedroom in which the final tragedy plays out. The general concept is supported by a superb lighting plot (Carsen and Peter van Praet) that brilliantly brings out the moods of the different scenes. And there’s no clutter. Scene follows scene pretty much seamlessly. It’s terrific stagecraft.

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