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.
Christian Gerhaher’s recording of Mahler Lieder with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano is his first recording of the great Mahler cycles with orchestra. The disc contains Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the Kindertotenlieder and the Rückert Lieder. This is singing of the highest class with great beauty, no lack of power and intense attention to the text. It’s hard to imagine a singer being more in this music than Gerhaher. Being Gerhaher, it’s quite individual and quite restrained (much less exuberant than Fischer-Dieskau) but without sounding unduly mannered. It sounds exactly right and yet no-one else would sing these songs quite the same way. The accompaniment from the Montreal orchestra is also very fine with great clarity of texture and lovely playing of the important woodwind solos.
The recording quality is excellent with a judicious balance between voice and orchestra and a limpidity that does justice to the clarity of the orchestral playing. Full texts and translations are provided.
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.
Calixto Bieito’s production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov recorded at the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2013 is, unsurprisingly, strong stuff. The central concept is that the political classes “don’t give a fig” for ordinary people and that’s as true , or truer, now than in early modern Russia. In such a world, where the people are manipulated into acting as their “betters” demand, is it possible for a person like Boris, who has risen to supreme power through manipulation and violence, to have a conscience?
John Adams’ El Niño was conceived as an oratorio but thoughts turned to it being staged early in the creative process. The final result, as staged at Paris’ Châtelet in 2000, defies easy characterization. There are singers and dancers on stage but they don’t represent unique characters. So, for example, at one moment Willard White is Herod and at another Joseph. To further complicate matters video is constantly projected onto a screen above the stage space. It was specially created for the piece being shot on location in Super 8. There’s no clear narrative either. To some extent it tells the Christmas story but it’s at least as much about the feminine experience of giving birth as anything from Isiah or the Gospels. It also uses a very eclectic mix of texts; from the Bible, from the Apocrypha, from female Latin American poets, from Hildegard of Bingen and so on. There are lots off Sellars’ trademarks in the staging too; semaphore and so on. Does it work? I don’t really know as it’s really hard to tell from the video recording (see para 3).
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.
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.