Saturday, April 30, 2016

Elektra in HD

Conductor:  Esa-Pekka Salonen
Production:  Patrice Chéreau

Klytämnestra, Elektra's mother: Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano)
Elektra: Nina Stemme (soprano)
Chrysothemis, Elektra's sister: Adrianne Pieczonka (soprano)
Aegisth, Klytämnestra's new husband: Burkhard Ulrich (tenor)
Orest, Elektra's brother: Eric Owens (baritone)

Two different performances of Richard Strauss' Elektra in the same month is a bit overwhelming.  The first was at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on April 7.  The second was the live simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera.  I will not be able to help comparing them.  The libretto is by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

We were told in the interviews at the beginning that this was probably the largest orchestra ever crowded into the Met orchestra pit.  The simulcasts seem to find a way around any problems with the orchestra covering the singers.  Both Esa-Pekka Salonen and Donald Runnicles are excellent conductors, though I have heard Runnicles many more times.

There is not much to contrast about the productions.  Both were drab, gray, modernized productions designed to emphasize the grimness of the story.  Elektra, Chrysothemis and Orest are all children of Agamemnon, the chief commander on the Greek side of the Trojan war.  While he is gone for 10 years fighting the war over Helen, his wife Klytämnestra takes up with another man.  When Agamemnon returns, Klytämnestra and Aegisth kill him with an ax.  Orest is banished, and Elektra spends her years wishing for revenge.

The two productions reference the ax differently.  In Berlin Klytämnestra enters using it as a cane, and she leaves it behind when she flees from Elektra who is threatening her.  In New York Elektra brings the ax out of Agamemnon's tomb where she has been keeping it.  I think the New York production follows the libretto more closely.  It is clear there that Klytämnestra is making animal sacrifices to appease the gods.  I thought for some reason that in Berlin she carried the ax around to kill people with it and don't remember a reference to animal sacrifices.  She comes to visit Elektra to ask her what she must do to stop dreaming that Orest will come to kill her.  What sacrifice must I offer?  Who do I need to kill?  Elektra's answer:  yourself.

In Berlin Klytämnestra and Aegisth were both killed at the back of the stage by Orest.  At the Met Orest's tutor kills Aegisth downstage while Orest is offstage.  For me the Berlin staging of the killings worked better.  It's perhaps a tossup.

The Elektras from both productions are the same age, 53.  The greatest contrast in the two productions was in the singing.  At the Met the whole cast were heavier voices than the Berlin cast, with the possible exception of Waltraud Meier who sang in  sweet but terrified style.  She is a wonderful singer who brings her great presence to the role.  [Was she wearing Venetian beads?]

In Berlin Chrysothemis was sung by a lyric soprano, while Adrianne Pieczonka is a dramatic and sang much heavier.  She seemed to be auditioning for Elektra.  Perhaps.  I always love and respect Nina Stemme who was simply glorious.  The intensity and drama carried throughout both productions.  In Berlin Elektra dances and then dies.

Occasionally you hear in the orchestra tiny hints of the Strauss opera which comes next:  Der Rosenkavalier.  I feel that I have had my fill of Elektra.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


I returned from my trip to Berlin with the deep conviction that all of the great Strauss conductors are now dead.

Georg Solti.

Kurt Masur.

Bruno Walter.

George Szell.

Herbert von Karajan.

Forgive me if I have omitted your favorite.  What are we to do?  No one today goes deep enough.  I am a great believer that all the music does not lie on the page, that it lives also in the hearts and minds of those who love it.  That musicians can deepen their own understanding by listening to the interpretations of the past.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Roberto Devereux in HD

Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Production: David McVicar

Elisabetta: Sondra Radvanovsky (soprano)
Sara, Duchess of Nottingham: Elīna Garanča (mezzo-soprano)
Roberto Devereux: Matthew Polenzani (tenor)
Duke of Nottingham: Mariusz Kwiecien (baritone)

Roberto Devereux by Donizetti completed Sondra Radvanovsky's tour de force trilogy of Donizetti's three queens in a single season.  For my money this is the opera that most suits her gifts.  Overheard talking to myself, "But this is a wonderful opera."  Perhaps it is wonderful because a constantly enraged queen suits so perfectly the voice of Sondra Radvanovsky.  I did not see in Sondra's portrayal the nonsensical pseudo-butch portrayal of Bette Davis, but saw instead someone with difficulty walking and deteriorating health.

Each of the four stars listed above gets wonderful music, perhaps also perfectly suited to their gifts.  Benini found the drama in the singing. 

What a mess of a plot.  Perhaps Roberto once truly loved the queen as she clearly thought he did.  And then he fell in love with the decades younger and still unmarried Sara.  He goes off to war and after clearly winning it, he is accused of being a traitor.  While he was away, Sara with the queen's help married the Duke of Nottingham because her father died. Women at that time required the protection of a man, either husband or father.  The opera opens with her clear unhappiness.  It is not clear if she is unhappy because Roberto is returning, or if perhaps it is her marriage to someone she does not love and who seems also not to love her.

The queen marches down into her tomb and dies at the end.  This is a poetic rather than a historically accurate ending.  The opera plot more closely resembles the movie The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex than it does historical fact.  It's important to remember that opera is about love, and historical accuracy is irrelevant.

Debbie Voigt announced it as a play within a play, but this is only true if you count the fully costumed chorus clapping when the audience clapped.  In the bows the characters turn and bow to the chorus.  This was all discrete and not at all annoying.  It provided a context for the frequent choruses.  In the period there would have been courtiers standing around watching.

I loved it.  It was filled with both beautiful singing and overwhelming dramatic intensity. 

And yes, that was indeed "God save the Queen" in the overture.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

James Levine to Retire

It has been announced that James Levine will retire at the end of this season.  He is finally facing up to reality.  He has had a fabulous career, but it is better to leave now.  He was scheduled for at least 2 operas for next season.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Staatskapelle Berlin

On our final night in Berlin we visited Philharmonie, the concert hall for the Berlin Philharmonic. The Berlin Philharmonic was on tour, as usual, and we saw instead the Staatskapelle Berlin.  Disney  Hall in Los Angeles looks far odder on the outside, but inside this one is very confusing indeed.  In fact one of our group members got lost, and a search party had to be dispatched.  Here is the view on the inside.

It was a very wowie concert.  We started off with that rarest of pieces, the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto.  I feel fairly certain I haven't heard it before.  A piano concerto is supposed to be a  battle between equals, but in this work the piano wins hands down.  In the first movement the orchestra hardly has a chance to compete.  For the pianist it is notoriously, spectacularly difficult.  Our pianist was Daniil Trifonov, and he never stumbled once.  If you haven't heard of him, watch out.  It was marvelous.

The second half of the program was Manuel de Falla's Three Cornered Hat.  It was fun and very loud.  That might possibly be a problem with really good acoustics.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Der Rosenkavalier at Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Conductor: Ulf Schirmer
Production: Götz Friedrich

Die Feldmarschallin Fürstin Werdenberg: Michaela Kaune (soprano)
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau: Albert Pesendorfer (bass)
Octavian: Daniela Sindram (mezzo-soprano)
Der Herr von Faninal: Michael Kupfer-Radecky (baritone)
Sophie, his daughter: Siobhan Stagg (soprano)
Valzacchi: Patrick Vogel (tenor)
Annina: Stephanie Lauricella (contralto)
Ein Sänger: Matthew Newlin (tenor)

This performance of Der Rosenkavalier has to be ranked a success, even though the much anticipated Anja Harteros did not appear. I noticed that I was hallucinating her voice throughout the first act.  For the first time the orchestra was not too loud.

Daniela Sindram projected a very boyish Octavian in a pleasing style.  The falling in love was beautifully staged in very traditional looking costumes.  Everything else seemed contemporary with the opera (1912). The opera was not upstaged by its production as is often the case these days.  The third act was not over-staged, and so remained clear.

I love, among many things, when Ochs says after finding out that Octavian and Mariandel are the same person, "I will never stop feeling astounded.  Such finesse."  He is genuinely impressed. The trio was spectacular.  At the very end the Feldmarschallin watches from a distance.

Forgive me for not writing a long essay.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Die Liebe der Danae at Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Jupiter with his 4 exes

Conductor: Sebastian Weigle
Production: Kirsten Harms

Pollux: Andrew Dickinson (tenor)
Danae, his daughter: Manuela Uhl (soprano)
Midas: Raymond Very (tenor)
Jupiter: Mark Delavan (baritone)
Merkur: Thomas Blondelle (tenor)
Semele: Nicole Haslett (soprano)
Europa: Martina Welschenbach (soprano)
Alkmene: Rebecca Jo Loeb (mezzo-soprano)
Leda: Katharina Peetz (contralto)

I rather liked Richard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, another opera I had never seen before.  I will try to explain the plot.  King Pollux, who lives in a palace filled with classical art, has fallen on hard times.  His creditors are there to haul off all his belongings.  A piano is lifted into the air where it turns throughout the opera.  Hmmm.

According to the plot summery, Danae dreams of gold falling from the sky.  In our production it was sheets of paper.  We thought perhaps they were sheets of music but couldn't tell.

They think they can save things by marrying Danae off to Midas who has the power to turn anything into gold by touching it.  Midas shows up wearing gloves and pretending to be Chrystopher, the servant of Midas.  He and Danae fall in love.  Jupiter then shows up disguised as Midas to woo Danae.  He doesn't know he is already too late.  His four ex girlfriends also show up:  Semele, Europa, Alkmene, and Leda who all seem like four Barbie dolls.  Danae is more of a real girl.

First the real Midas turns everything into gold, including Danae when he tries to kiss her.  Then Jupiter turns her back into a human.  She chooses Midas over Jupiter even though he has lost his power to turn things into gold and she will live in poverty.  Jupiter gets angry and blows everything up.  The other gods laugh at him.

There is a lot of beautiful love music in this opera, but it isn't done often enough to result in very polished performances.  All seemed to be struggling with their roles.  The orchestra was much too loud, which contributed to the problem.  It was nice to see Mark Delavan again.

At the end of the opera Danae looks up--at last someone looks up--and notices the piano floating in the air.  I kept worrying it would fall on someone.  She knows we are in the tumbled down old palace and that this is her piano.  She finds the piano stool and sets it down in its former place.  She finds the suitcase of treasures from prosperous times.  She knows she is at home and is happy with her present life.

This one I could do again.  The role of Danae is very sweet.  Manuela Uhl also sang the sister in Elektra.


Saturday, April 09, 2016

Die ägyptische Helena at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Menelas and Helena

Conductor: Andrew Litton

Helena: Ricarda Merbeth (soprano)
Menelas: Stefan Vinke (tenor)
Aithra, a sorceress: Laura Aikin (soprano)
Altair: Derek Welton (baritone)
Da-Ud: Andrew Dickinson (tenor)
The allknowing mussel: Ronnita Miller (contralto)

Friday night we saw Strauss's Die ägyptische Helena, me for the first time. 

It is interesting to realize that all three Greek generals in the Trojan war have returning home operas.  One of the first operas, Monteverdi's Il ritorna de Ulisse in Patria concerns the return of Ulysses to Ithica after years of wandering around lost in the Mediterranean.  He sees his wife's suitors and just kills them all.  Short work.

Elektra is another after the Trojan war story.  Agamemnon returns home to his wife and apparently fails to notice her new lover.  Instead of Agamemnon killing the boy friend, the boy friend kills him.  Elektra, his daughter, doesn't respond well and obsesses over her revenge.

The last of our trilogy is King Menelaus, whose wife was kidnapped by Paris as a gift from Venus.  He is the cause of the Trojan war and brings his wife back with him from the war after ten years of fighting.  It is to argue whether Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, is kidnapped or goes off on her own.  In this version King Menelaus seems to believe it was all her idea.  So this is one long jealous tantrum.

For some reason they are in Egypt.  Aithra, intensely obsessed with Helen of Troy, is a sorceress who apparently lives in an Egyptian brothel with a clam who knows everything.  The clam tells Aithra that Helen is in the sea near their island with her husband who is trying to kill her.  Aithra conjures a storm to distract Menelaus from killing his wife, then sends it away before it kills both of them.

Various tricks and potions are tried to trick Menelaus to take his wife back.  First they try forgetting which is temporarily successful.  The second act starts with the aria "Zweite Brautnacht,"[Second bridal night].

The plot gets vague at this point.  He gets angry, kills people, etc.  but finally they are resolved, and all ends happily.

I'm not sure this worked for me.  The final happiness was far too abrupt.  The orchestra was too loud.  I discussed this with other people, and they seemed to feel this was an acoustical problem.  The role of Menelaus is the only extended role for tenor I have heard from Strauss.  He sings constantly and very loudly.  Stefan Vinke was game.  This was a new opera for me so I have nothing to compare it to.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Elektra at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Production: Kirsten Harms

Klytämnestra, Elektra's mother: Doris Soffel (mezzo-soprano)
Elektra: Evelyn Herlitzius (soprano)
Chrysothemis, Elektra's sister: Manuela Uhl (soprano)
Aegisth, Klytämnestra's new husband: Clemens Bieber (tenor)
Orest, Elektra's brother: Tobias Kehrer (baritone)

It was a wonderful privilege to experience this production of Strauss's Elektra at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.  I am very familiar with Donald Runnicles, of course, from his years at the San Francisco Opera.  He still comes to us on occasion to bring us wonderful things like the recent Les Troyens. Elektra is just his stuff.  It was beautiful and intensely dramatic throughout.  Runnicles is a great Wagnerian, and this is the most Wagnerian of Strauss's scores.

Elektra comes every day to a sacred place to mourn the death of her father Agamemnon.  In our production this is something like a dirt filled trash heap.  New trash falls from above during the opera.  The other women of the palace ridicule her.

Klytämnestra cannot sleep and comes to ask Elektra for advice.  She has been executing people and enters carrying an ax.  She imagines that if she kills the right person, her nightmares will stop.  Elektra explains that it is she who must die.  In the above picture Elektra holds the ax and Klytämnestra lies on the ground.

The cast was all excellent, but it was Evelyn Herlitzius with the guidance of Runnicles who brought the opera to a state of overwhelming intensity.  It would be difficult to imagine something more difficult.  Bravi.  It was very moving.

I have to add:  you will notice from the pictures that this is my second opera with an ax since arriving in Berlin.  In Der Vampyr the heroine wields her ax in an attempt to hit a vampire, but misses and hits her father instead.  In Elektra Klytämnestra wanders around the house using an ax rather like a cane.  In case there is a problem she has a weapon ready.  She leaves it behind when she leaves in a hurry.

Thursday, April 07, 2016


I am in Berlin for the Strauss, 5 Strauss operas in as many days.  Today is Elektra.

I was in Berlin once in the seventies when Germany was still divided.  I remember only a few things.  I went once to east Berlin to see Nefertiti.  The buildings were all black and dented.  I went two times to the Deutsche Oper where my friend Janis Martin was singing.  I saw her in Tosca and Le Nozze di Figaro.  After one of the performances we went out to eat steak.  She told me I should have come in the sixties.

Berlin has become very modern in the intervening years.  Here and there are old buildings, but not many.  It is less chaotic than New York and more orderly than Paris.  Somehow one longs for cars that drive recklessly and people that walk too fast.

I get to practice my German which is not bad.

Salome at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Conductor: Alain Altinoglu
Production: Claus Guth

Herodes:  Thomas Blondelle (tenor)
Herodias: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (mezzo-soprano)
Salome: Allison Oakes (soprano)
Jochanaan: Michael Volle (baritone)
Narraboth: Attilio Glaser (tenor)

In case you hadn't noticed before, Salome is an abused child.  She is sexually obsessed because she has had sex since she was small.  My feeling is that this is absolutely so.  There are many things about this production that I could not explain, but one thing seemed clear--Herod is sexually obsessed with Salome.  You knew that.  His wife knows it.  Perhaps it is as I have long suspected, perhaps Herodias has suggested to Salome that Jochanaan would be better off dead.  Certainly she has told Salome that he is ranting about her.

Jochanaan arises from a pile of clothing on the floor wearing only underpants.  Blond girls of various ages come out and dress him.  I cannot explain the pile of clothing, but the young girls seem skilled at dressing an adult man. From years of practice, perhaps.  Salome begins in a nightgown and changes to a dress.  The other girls remain in their night gowns.  Clearly the girls represent Salome at various stages of her life.

At the end we are in a men's clothing store.  I have no idea why.  Clearly this is a regie opera.  For no reason that I could possibly explain I enjoyed this.  Strauss' Salome is generally about dancing, which here is only symbolic.  Be aware that there are virtually no opera singers who can both sing Salome and actually dance.  Our Salome danced with Herodes.  Perhaps that is why he liked it.

I have seen Alain Altinoglu before only with Jonas Kaufmann.  He conducted the Munich Manon Lescaut and the Met Werther.  He was excellent then and now.  The music was varied and interesting, expressing the changing atmosphere of the scenes as they progressed.

Alison Oakes seems a young woman, who nevertheless performed this difficult role well.  Of the others, I especially liked.Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet.  For some reason there was a lot of twitching which appeared and disappeared.  Men from the ballet stood around and then twitched.  Jeanne-Michele twitched rather better than the others.  IMHO:

Salome normally builds to an overwhelming climax, one where you also feel that someone should kill Salome.  But in this production the perversity is blunted.  She does not actually kiss the head of Jochanaan, though she says she does.  She sings and then sort of wanders off.  They don't kill her.  The effect is unmelodramatic and seems more a successfully executed revenge on Herodes than an obsession.

Footnote:  Michael Volle was the Sachs in the wonderful Die Meistersinger I saw at Salzburg.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Lieder in Berlin

I went to hear a recital with Heidi Stober at the Deutsche Oper because she and Simon Pauly were performing Lieder by Mahler, Pfitzner, and Wolf, all composers that I enjoy very much.  They know when to clap here.

Someone named Monika Rinck spoke similar but not exactly the same texts between them.  This I have never seen before. They called it Lieder und Dichter.

I have seen Heidi many times in San Francisco and three times in Santa Fe.

I had a fine dinner before at the restaurant at the opera.  I was here at this opera once before in the 70s to see Janis Martin who is not completely forgotten.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Der Vampyr 👍🏻

I had other choices of things to see in Berlin, but I thought Der Vampyr by Heinrich Marschner at the Komische Oper would be fun, and I was right.  Or as it says in the program 'after Heinrich Marschner.'  The Dracula novel appeared in 1897 while this opera was first performed in 1828.

Conductor:  Antony Hermus
Director:  Antu Romero Nunes

Lord Ruthven, Vampire:  Heiko Trinsinger (baritone)
Sir Humphrey, Lord von Davenaut:  Jens Larsen (bass)
Malwina, his daughter:  Nicole Chevalier (soprano)
Edgar Aubrey: Zoltan Nyari (tenor)
Emmy:  Maria Fiselier (soprano)
George Dibdin:  Ivan Tursic (tenor)

This opera is primarily about costume and makeup.  They also do not hesitate to lower painted sets from the flies which makes all the scenes flow rapidly from one to the other.  The stage is enhanced with a nice runway around the orchestra.

We begin with Edgar roaming the stage, coming out of a casket, going back in.  Then the actual opera begins with Ruthven and the other vampires, who all look ghastly.  Other ghastly looking vampires roamed the audience.  A woman behind me screamed.  Ruthven can only stay alive if he gets and kills two brides by midnight.  He sets to work.

Here is a scene with Edgar and Malvina making love.  The main arias are here.  The vampire Ruthven comes and takes her off.  Her father prefers Ruthven.  We have a ball where everyone looks lovely, but then for some reason they become hideous.  Someone shoots them all with a machine gun, including the conductor who comes out of the pit for this.

Maybe I shouldn't tell everything.  Eventually the clock strikes 12 and Ruthven has only one bride with one more to go.  Not good for him.  I have to tell the end.  Edgar gets Malwina and starts to bite her on the neck.  She pulls out her wooden stake and goes to work on him.

I enjoyed this a lot but found the music wandering away from standard Spieloper style.  Spieloper is basically the style of opera in Germany between Beethoven and Wagner, practiced by Marschner and Lorzing, and generally resembles Weber.  It differs from Singspiel primarily for the slightly more serious subject matter.  More modern musical effects were sometimes heard.

One doesn't want to always be serious.