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Ionarts-at-Large: Figaro vs. Gerhaher at the Munich Opera

Why would anyone see an old Dieter Dorn / Jürgen Rose production of Le Nozze di Figaro. Well, Mozart, for one. That’s a good reason… if you haven’t seen Le Nozze in a while. After an out-of-this-world Don Giovanni in Salzburg and an I-can’t-believe-how-good-this-was Così fan tutte in London, the Munich performance of The Marriage of Figaro was going to complete my summer course of the DaPonte trilogy. That alone might not be enough to endure the Dornian dearth of ideas (his execrable Orfeo from Salzburg admittedly being a far worse offender than his DaPonte cycle in Munich). But the promise of Christian Gerhaher as Count Almamiva would. And that being a common sentiment, the audience turned out in droves.

Not having read any reviews of his previous performances, this was not because he is a known great in the role, but because of the promise of Gerhaher’s Almaviva being strangely great. It’s difficult enough to get this conscientious, supremely gifted, difficult, most natural of singers onto the opera stage at all (ask Madrid), but once you do, the results are by all accounts near-miraculous (ask Madrid. Or Munich. Or Frankfurt.) His Wolfram—a role that quite obviously suits him—has been called “the best… ever!” by a critical former Intendant of a mid-sized opera house I know. Almaviva, though? The same figure portrayed by Bo Skovhus in Claus Guth’s Salzburg Figaro? Impossible to tell how that character might turn out. And for a second it seemed like it might remain impossible, too—since it was announced that “unfortunately… tracheal inflammation… Gerhaher…” A groan went through the audience, and a few seemed to be about to get up and leave before it continued from the stage: “however... will try anyway….” Thank goodness, just a case of nerves and a stunt to make him feel comfortable. “Tracheal inflammation” on sunny afternoons being an affliction that in the history of the medical sciences only nervous singers have ever succumbed to.

Gerhaher was in full vocal prowess throughout; he even made himself heard over the crudely playing, blaring orchestra conducted by Constantinos Carydis in a sort of HIP-influenced performance that combined the worst, not the best of both worlds. The fortepiano has become commonplace as the continuo instrument of choice, but for it to be an improvement over any other instrument at all, it would have to be played with at least some modicum of spunk. Here, it was listlessly plunked away on for three hours. The pit, under these circumstances, should never have been raised—not the least because it also made Cherubino’s ‘plunge’ from the Countess Rosina’s window sadly pathetic… a twenty inch plop, duck, and whimper.

But even Gerhaher—and he was by far the best thing about the night out at the opera—could not salvage a hammed up, painfully pointless production. Not with Matthew Rose’s oaf of a Figaro, looking like a big ham with feet who would have been even too cartoonish for the role of Ochs with that portrayal. Including those excruciating fake, exaggerated marching steps when he sings about Cherubino being sent off. It was the kind of performance that might have passed for ‘acting’ twenty, thirty years ago, but hardly today. Only partly his fault; what was he going to in a thirteen year old production that probably asked just that of him, which has aged badly, which by now is frightfully frayed at the edges (I remember the third act—acted out beneath large white blankets—to be remotely clever a decade ago; not a rumpled embarrassment). That the women—Susanna and the Countess—kneel before Figaro on the floor as he pompously divulges his plot, is uncomfortably unrepentant 19th century sexism. Even 18th century classism, where servants grovel, would be preferable.

Erin Wall—the Contessa of the evening—has a lovely voice and her performance stood out as ‘best of the rest’, even as Eri Nakamura’s Susanna turned in a terrific fourth act aria. Sadly their acting was roughly at the level of the production, with the latter resembling a provincial gal devoid of grace, the former exposed to ridicule by constantly appearing in an unflattering negligee that made it look like the role of the Contessa had been cast with a transvestite. Add zero chemistry between the cast members, senseless groping instead of real emotion for example… you get the point. The point might have been less painfully obvious, had it not been for the direct comparison with the other two DaPonte operas; Claus Guth’s Salzburg Don Giovanni and Harry Fehr’s ingenious revival of the Royal Opera House’s 15-year old Jonathan Miller Così production. Once you are shown what it means to take an opera’s characters psychology seriously, once shown what an intelligent treatment of a libretto and a sensitivity to the music can do, there’s simply no going back to the ironic distance and lameness of yesteryear; different in appearance from all that came before, but not quite so different in leaving dramatic potential untapped.

No fun dwelling on disappointment, though. There is, after all, the distinct possibility that Intendant Bachler will give the Munich Opera house repertoire’s Dorn productions (if not Dorn himself) the coup de grâce. Better to return once more to Christian Gerhaher, that wonderfully perplexing artist, who was so terribly wasted in this production (being made to appear in his first scene in a coat clearly pinched from Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dream-closet). Gerhaher’s movements—informally slinking about stage—alone would set him apart. An anti-actor in his own way (working vaguely in the same general way the famous self-portrayalists Jack Nicholson or Woody Allen do), he takes understatement to a new level. No one can relax so uncomfortably, sit so compulsively snug in an armchair as he. And he’s just terrific when he confesses utter rage in act three, sitting in that chair, with no trace of emotion, perfectly casual on the outside but with a pent-up roar in his voice worthy of Lewis Black. Yet, he never pushes, never belts, never gets really loud, and always makes himself worth listening to intently. A fine artist, perhaps an acquired taste, and one who audiences certainly wish to endure many more such enjoyable tracheal inflammations.

Picture courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl


Janet said...

If it were many other singers, I'd guess you were right, but from everything I've ever read or seen of the man, Christian Gerhaher doesn't play games. He's often nervous, but he doesn't usually have himself announced as ill. I wasn't there (and I wish I had been, despite the rest of the of the production, which you convincingly convey as pretty awful). But I'd be willing to bet that if Mr. Gerhaher said he had a tracheal inflammation, he had a tracheal inflammation.

jfl said...

There is no such disease.