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Ionarts-at-Large: Munich Opera Festival Recap

The 2009 Munich Opera Festival was the first under the aegis of Nikolaus Bachler, and a few touches—design apart—were notably different. The closing performance, for one, wasn’t Die Meistersinger, as had been the (recent) tradition. It’s indicative of Bachler’s love for shaking things up, but more so for love for Verdi, and there were three more Verdi operas in the last week to make that point: Macbeth, Luisa Miller, and Otello.

The 2001 production of Falstaff itself dabbles along happily and is carried by the strength of the performing singers. Ambrogio Maestri played his Falstaff up with theatrical gusto and more vocal strengths than weaknesses. Michael Volle’s dramatic talent is wasted on this prickly Ford, but he’s a luxuriously cast voice. Alice and Meg (Anja Harteros and Gabriela Scherer) are gorgeous to look at and Anja Harteros’ Alice a pleasure to listen to. Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s must have watched every re-run of “Are You Being Served”, so closely was her Miss Quickly modeled on Mrs. Slocombe. I half expected her to inquire about her missing pussy mid-aria. And who is Elena Tsallagova? Her stupendous Nanetta, in glorious, silvery voice and stupendous acting, was the most enthusiastically cheered performance of the night.

Not so stupendous, albeit similarly cheered was the Liederabend with Waltraud Meier. There are few singers on stage that I admire more, whether as Kundry, Ortrud, or even Isolde. But a Schubert voice she hasn’t. Much of Die Wehmut, Die Forelle, Gretchen am Spinnrad, and the Nachtstück was awkward and harsh—only the Erlkönig was instantly superb. Little wonder: It’s like a mini opera; a whole story in five minutes, and Meier’s dramatic instincts immediately responded. Richard Strauss wasn’t served much better. In a city that had Strauss’ songs performed by the likes of Karita Mattila, Renée Fleming, and Diana Damrau in the last few months, rasping through these potentially sublime pieces along with an uninspired and uninspiring pianist (Joseph Breinl) simply doesn’t cut it. Had Strauss only known a voice like hers, he wouldn’t have composed these songs. There were moments, but not nearly enough. The best thing about the evening was perhaps Meier’s new, short and foxy, haircut.

There was of course the much heralded and trumpeted debut of Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin . He was wonderful, but overshadowed by an even better Anja Harteros. Her dark overalls, though not particularly flattering, had her look cute as a button and look eminently (innocently) pinchable . Richard Jones’ staging was confounding and consequently booed. But the more time passes, the more I’m beginning to appreciate it; there’s more to the “we’re building a house” idea than meets the eye at first. Maybe it is about classical liberalism, after all. My initial, mixed opinion was that this was good to have seen once for a few touching moments, but not good enough for a long life in the repertoire. Now I’m not so sure anymore and eager to try it again, even if the cast of singer/actors won’t likely be as exalted again.

Some of the side events—chamber concerts and an a cappella concert—were disappointments. Bach’s Motets are very difficult, of course, but the debut of the newly formed Munich Hofkantorei (looking back on a 500 year tradition of the Munich Court Ensemble) suffered from lack of precision and delicacy under the awkwardly conducting Wolfgang Antesberger. Corinna Birke’s soprano and Ruth Irene Meyer’s alto were lovely surprises, though. The fourth festival chamber concert—Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert—was dreadful tedium, courtesy of the Cuvilliés Quartett. Writing for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Klaus J. Kalchschmid summed it up perfectly: “Not a single measure was festival-worthy.” Business as usual, one is tempted to say.

The concluding Festival Concert, dedicated to Beethoven, was considerably better. The Fourth Piano Concerto was strangely un-interpreted by Nicolai Lugansky, but appreciable precisely for that particularly brand of unfussiness. The Pastorale Symphony needed two movements to get into gear, but then Kent Nagano brought some of the finest sound out of the Bavarian State Orchestra that I’ve heard him produce in these orchestral concerts. Any performance that makes the Sixth Symphony more rousing than drowsy deserves much credit.

Nagano also conducted “Trouble in Tahiti”—Leonard Bernstein’s send up of 1950s American suburbia in the gloriously clashing setting of the rococo Cuvilliés Theater. Read Raphael Mostel’s review—as exhaustive as excellent—for the details and analysis I can’t provide. So much, though: Despite violating some of Bernstein’s suggested staging (production Schorsch Kamerun), it worked very well as entertainment. “Trouble in Tahiti”, enjoyable 45 minutes short, is a far superior autobiographical venting of Bernstein’s spleen than his pompous ego-trip of a Third Symphony, “Kaddish”. The singers Beth Clayton (her “Dinah” a dead ringer for Amy Winehouse) and Rodney Gilfry took on their vapid characters with gusto, a hint of crudeness, and awkward rigidity not all of which may have been intentional. The “Greek chorus born of radio jingles” made up of Angela Brower, Jeffrey Behrens, Todd Boyce (all in clown costumes) was terrific. And the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra was fleet and eager all throughout. Only the intentionally cringe-inducing punk songs (part of the director’s youthful crimes) that served as the prologue were even more ghastly than intended. The effect crossed from the ironic to plain cruelty.

The world premiere of Jay Schwartz’ “Narcissus und Echo” was made of different stuff. Also with a minimal cast—one countertenor, one viola, the composer doubling as conductor and occasional organist, and two percussionists— visually it was an impressively-unassuming affair. In the bare bones All Saints Court Chapel, just yards from the gilded pomp of the Cuvilliés Theater, producer Christiane Pohle inserted her ideas with an element of thoughtlessness, imposing on Schwartz’s oratorio on the classical subject with a strained parallel of embittered, subliminally horny, flower sales girls (which I mistook for nurses, even after I realized they had doctored with Narcissuses all along). The spoken commentary—in part or wholly taken from George Sand?—was oddly out of place when the rest exuded eerie calm, evoked by the surrounding architecture, the natural light, the sparse textures of Charles Maxwell’s marvelous voice, and Lila Brown’s assiduous viola fiddling. (Her solo part, if resected from the score, should make one of the most popular contemporary compositions for solo viola.) As it was, “Narcissus und Echo” had something of Heiner Goebbels’ “Wars I have seen”. A promising premiere that should be even more enticing when performed, director-unmolested, at the Salzburg Landestheater next June.

Andreas Kriegenburg’s Wozzeck remains the most successful new production of the 2009 season; seeing it a third time only cemented that impression. Angela Denoke made the role her own in a performance every bit as good or even finer than Michaela Schuster’s and Nagano simply has a way with the score (or the score with him).

Ariadne auf Naxos , meanwhile, benefited from Bertrand de Billy’s conducting (taking over from Nagano who was on the rostrum last year). Robert Carsen’s direction is largely dependent on lighting and acting. The former is well provided by Manfred Voss, of the latter there is a bubbly abundance courtesy of the infectiously energetic Diana Damrau who focuses all the attention on her (appropriate for her character) and turns the opera into a one-girl Zerbinetta show. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Ariadne is marvelous, and Daniela Sindram’s Composer touching; Burkhard Fritz’ Bacchus impressive, smaller roles like Harlekin (Nikolay Borchev) and Brighella (Kevin Connors) even superbly executed. But one remembers only Zerbinetta, after leaving the Prinzregententheater.

You could sit through Barbara Frey’s Jenůfa and completely miss out on the fact that you have witnessed greatness. It doesn’t take much exhaustion, a touch of uncharitable mood, or slight dullness of mind to not pick on the subtleties that lift this production so far above others. A theater director by day, Mme. Frey went for the most human, most realistic approach to the drama, taking Janačék’s music and libretto seriously. The result was un-operatic in that it lacked grand gestures and pathos. And precisely that made it a terrific, terrifying experience that snuck up on the audience at any given, but never the most expected, moment.

The cast was almost the same as that of the premiere in April (the first time I’ve seen a row of critics in unrepentant tears), except for the excellent Joseph Kaiser who was seamlessly replaced by Pavel Cernoch. When that Steva hits the stage with his drunkenly swaggering, pompous, yet vacuously innocent persona, suspense takes grip of the audience and—Turn of the Screw-like—won’t let go until the last notes. Infused with Eva-Maria Westbroek’s searing pain as Jenůfa, well sung and still more touchingly acted, Jenůfa becomes imperiled by the others’ actions, but never just a passive ball in the courts of Kostelnicka, Steva, and Laca. Deborah Polaski (Kostelnicka) and Stefan Margita (Laca), highlights among highlights, turned in performances worthy of a superlative or two.

So much barefaced humanity on stage, so many crushed dreams and thwarted life-goals, had to elicit from the audience the utmost empathy for all characters, Cernoch’s Steva included, who finally collapses, overwhelmed by the events of the third act (and probably still not quite aware of having done anything wrong). When Laca and Jenufa timidly, quietly approach each other after one of the most severe silences in opera following the climactic turmoil, they do so by inching toward another, their hands touching in clear-sighted yet bashful recognition of the last chance at happiness (or something resembling it) they have. Proof that a touch of hands that can be as powerfully moving as a whole Mahler Adagietto.

Bettina Meyer’s set, which could equally serve a production of Peter Grimes, serves as a calm background if—easily done, I think—you can ignore the idiotic subtext about toxic waste and chorus mutants. Kostelnicka's shack on the shore, shorn of its walls, becomes the ingeniously uncomfortable, awkward place for the wedding ‘festivities’. The costumes by Bettina Walter, somewhere between Scandinavian 70’s and timelessness, support the action rather than drawing attention to themselves. Kirill Petrenko elicited, again, the most emotional performance from the Bavarian State Orchestra I've heard this season: seething, harrowing, and placid in turns. Rarely is opera such a moving place to spend two hours atbut when it is, it is worth being savored.

All production images © Wilfried Hösl, courtesy Bayerische Staatsoper. Image of Mlle. Tsallagova © IMG.

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