All Hallows Eve, Celtic Old Year, Dia de los Muertos and Halloween. It’s that time of the year, with dark days ahead, to tell each other scary stories. To scare and most of all be scared because horror is, despite the exuberance of Halloween costume parties, an intimate affair. To enlive the intimate pleasures of horror. For that, true beauty is, as it is with drama, indispensable. Drawn from the world of opera, classical music, metal and movie soundtracks comes the Wagner & Heavy Metal HALLOWEEN Top 10.
Jenufa from Leoš Janáček in a regie by Katie Mitchell at the Dutch National Opera
"We could have went to a nice restaurant for your birthday," she says while Anette Dasch raises her skirt and pulls her tights down. We are on the right side of the stage so we have a good sight of it. The soprano who started the evening with vomiting is sitting on the toilet. We witness in a theater a pretty realistic depiction of pregnancy sickness. It is the trademark of director Katie Mitchell who values realism in the theatre. An approach that seems to fit Jenůfa, an opera that tells about the lifes of ordinary people.
Lifes in which drama is preminent. This goes for both the story of the opera as the life of its composer. For Janáček, the creative process of Jenufa occurred almost synchronously with the sick bed of his daughter Olga. Before the opera premiered in 1904, Olga had died of typhoid at the age of 21.
The man who made her pregnant leaves her and the man who says he really loves her mutilates her face with a knife. And then her stepmother, in a devastating attempt to save her stepdaughter from the mistakes she herself made in the past, murders Jenůfa's child. In the world of Jenůfa, people are trapped between social conventions and survival instincts. Here the mind finds no way, should it even dare to think about it, to elevate. The title character is the only one who dares to hope for a better future at the beginning of the opera. Before Jenůfa sees her dreams about Števa shattered, the man is loaded with money as well as a thirst for liquor, life passes her by like a soap opera. A soap opera in which the banality of everyday life is turned into high brow art (for lack of a better term) by the music of Janáček.
There are some musical similarities with Salome of Richard Strauss (especially in the percussion parts), an opera that was released in the same period as Jenůfa, but more than other operas, Jenůfa - the story of a woman in a patriarchal society - makes me think of a song by the man who has (just like me) his birthday today. John Lennon and his "Woman is the Nigger of the World".
Katie Mitchell sets the story in 2021 and has Anette Dasch play a 42-year-old Jenůfa (the singer's real age). It is background information that is not necessary to understand the setting and the regie. A regie in which profane and vulgar details have to emphasize the worldly character of the play - people go to the toilet more than once (thinking of a Romeo Castallucci-piece I once saw in which someone was shitting his pants - it has become a bit of a cliché to depict realism in the theatre this way). What is human must remain human - any attempt to mythologize must vehemently be avoided. The objective nature of the stage scenery (we see an interior of an office and a caravan) with its claustrophobic appearance, a world from which it is impossible to escape, ensures that the full weight of the drama falls on the shoulders of the characters and the Personenregie. Drama that is in the excellent hands of Anette Dash as Jenůfa, Hannah Schwartz as Buryjovka, Pavel Cernoch as Laca and Evelyn Herlitzius as Kostelnička (Jenufa's stepmother). Yet during the performance I am visited more than once by the idea that a certain abstraction in the design might have lifted the story a bit more above itself. That less emphasis on the tangible would have lifted the story from the stage on which it was presented. The question arises as to whether or not an overly firm pursuit of realism in the theatre not emphasizes that what is shown is, in fact, unrealistic.
Her voice was never among the largest in the field, The great Wagner roles, Brünnhilde and Isolde, she doesn't do anymore. But with the intensity she bring to her roles Evelyn Herlitzius has almost created a niche for herself. With the vocal part always firmly supported by her acting work, her roles rarely fail to leave a lasting impression. (Patrice Chéreau wanted her for the leading role in Elektra, without her he would not have began on the production that turned out to be his last opera regie.)
The great monologue in the second act, in which Kostelnička reveals her motives, shares with us her own chilling logic of killing Jenůfa's child, becomes, through Herlitzius' recitation, a descent into a reality in which illusions invariably perish and experience teaches us that it is better to conform to one's destiny, away from dreams about a happy life. In the end, Jenůfa does exactly that. Her happiness is to exchange the dream of the ideal man for accepting the best option that remains - to marry the man who've cut her face with a knife.
Jenůfa accepts her fate. She trades the dream of the ideal man for accepting the best option that is left for her - to marry the man who've cut her face with a knife.
With one bang Jenůfa drops the tray with glasses on the ground, a glass bounces off the stage and miraculously lands on its leg. It is a, unintentional, graphic prediction for the ending in which everything more or less lands on its feet. Jenůfa turns out to be capable of an amount of forgivingness that would make the Dalai Lama blush (she forgives her stepmother for the murder of her child, she marries the man who wounded her with a knife). Whether the happiness that comes within her reach will remain, can seriously be doubted. It remains extremely uncertain whether her bond with Laca is a close one and whether the community will fully accept their relationship after all that has happened.
"I'm glad we've seen it after all," she says at the end. Orchestra and cast have just delivered a strong piece of music theatre. Music theatre in which music and libretto are strongly intertwined. The music, you can hear a few leitmotivs in it but its use is very sparse, adds to the storytelling but refrains itself from giving too detailed a comment on the action. Whereas the music in a Wagner opera is like a Greek choir, an entity that can contextualise a scene, lies diagonally from the text in order to look forward or look backwards, in Janáček one has to rely mainly on the text for an insight into the motives of the characters and their actions. Text that blends with music and thus forms a sparkling crystal in which many colours can be seen.
You do not have to master the Moravian language to get in touch with the text (for their exact meaning, the surtitles remain indispensable), although a basic knowledge of Moravian is probably necessary for a real appreciation of Janáček, his phrasing and how he unlocks musical secrets in the spoken language. Without that, it probably remains a bit like looking at the sparkling beauty of a diamond with sunglasses on. Still beautiful but a not unimportant part of the brilliance you have imagine yourself.
The Dutch National Opera, 9 October 2018
Dates 10.6 - 10.25
Conductor: Tomáš Netopil
Regie: Katie Mitchell
Decor and costums: Lizzie Clachan
Jenůfa: Annette Dasch
Kostelnička Buryjovka: Evelyn Herlitzius
Stařenka Buryjovka: Hanna Schwarz
Laca Klemeň: Pavel Cernoch
Števa Buryja: Norman Reinhardt
- Wouter de Moor
An interview with playwright Allan Leicht and cast members about "My Parsifal Conductor", a Wagnerian comedy
Wagner was a man of the theater, almost as much as he was a man of music. The theater stage therefore looks like a natural habitat for the man who is considered by many, not at least by the man himself, as perhaps the greatest, most important composer of all.
The Directors Company stages with My Parsifal Conductor a comedic spin-off of real-life events in which Wagner finds himself in a moral, political and musical dilemma when King Ludwig of Bavaria insists that the son of a rabbi, Hermann Levi conduct the premiere of Wagner’s sacred final opera, Parsifal.
Wagner & Heavy Metal asked playwright Allan Feicht and cast members Eddie Korbich (who plays Richard Wagner), Geoffrey Cantor (Hermann Levi) and Carlo Bosticco (King Ludwig) a few questions, starting with the most obvious one: Why this play about Richard Wagner?
1. Why a stage play about Richard Wagner? And who came up with the idea?
EDDIE KORBICH: Well, why not a stage play about Wagner? So many reasons—he IS a fascinating character after all. I think our playwright Allan Leicht came up with this idea. How do you reconcile a man who is arguably the most brilliant and greatest composer of all time—who changed the way music drama and opera is performed by, among other things, putting the orchestra under the stage and using instruments in ways they were not used before—-how do you reconcile this man with his writings and beliefs of anti-semitism? Now we can springboard from there into a whole range of discoveries as to why “This Play”—-and also with our current political situation—if things resonate in a timely way with that, so much the better.
GEOFFREY CANTOR: Well, it seems that the answer to the first part is sort of self-evident. He was a man of enormous artistic talent, an equally enormous ego, and a clearly evident and troubling bias. Pretty fertile ground. The answer to the second question? Allan .
ALLAN LEICHT: As playwright, I take responsibility for coming up with the idea for My Parsifal Conductor. I wanted to explore the roots of anti-Semitism, but not through characters clearly villainous, like those of the Third Reich, but through characters we would otherwise admire, like the musical genius Wagner and equally important his wife, Cosima.
2. Who is the true protagonist of the play? Wagner or Levi?
EDDIE KORBICH: Actually the true protagonist of the play is Cosima Wagner, Richard’s 2nd wife, and how she changes in her views in finally accepting and appreciating the genius of Hermann Levi.
CARLO BOSTICCO: Cosima Wagner is most definitely the protagonist. It is actually a great convention to have her as the narrating voice, as she a wonderfully strong female character (in the play we get to see clearly how her own antisemitic stances affected her husband). More than that, I also think that having her as the emotional focus of the story gives the audience a fascinating "in" for their relationship to Wagner: he is a LOT to handle, but we take his abuse and egomania because of his brilliance. Much like her, and Levi and the King, we are obsessed.
ALLAN LEICHT: The true protagonist is Cosima.
3. What kind of public are you aiming at? The Wagner (or classical music) fan or theater public in general? Will people not familiair with Wagner find access to the content of the play?
EDDIE KORBICH: Ok, so there are “in” jokes and characters mentioned that will resonate more easily with Opera folk and students of Wagnerian history and there are Jewish terms that will be much more familiar to Jews but the overriding theme of hypocrisy and prejudice and how you deal with treating other human beings in addition to all the facts you learn about these people, is universal and won’t detract from anyone’s understanding of our play.
GEOFFREY CANTOR: It is not my place to suggest who the target audience is, but I definitely believe that this play is not only for Wagnerites or Jews. It is a unique piece that is eminently theatrical in tone, conquering huge issues using the convention of a woman’s end of life experience as the gauze or filter through which those issues are broached.
CARLO BOSTICCO: I cannot speak for Allan or Bob, but the audiences we have had in preview have ranged from seasoned theatre lovers to fledgling opera students. Allan writes very refined jokes that those who understand the subject matter will relish immensely, but everyone can relate to the meat and potato of the story: the wonderfully complicated human relationships between these characters.
ALLAN LEICHT: I hope people unfamiliar with Wagner will relate to the play on the level of entertaining theater. The core audience for the play, we believe, will be, of course, Wagnerites, and Jews.
4. A lot has been said and written about Richard Wagner (the story that only about Jesus and Napoleon is written more than about Wagner is apocryphal but still). Did you try to understand him better by doing this play?
EDDIE KORBICH: Well I play him so, yes. I had a horrible time at first with the ugly things I have to say.
I tried putting it in the time period and tried to get my mind set as to the thinking of that historical period.
Then one day Alan and Bob, our director, said something that acted as a jumping off point for me into understanding pretty much everything. And that was—-that the anti-semitism in Germany before Hitler and the 1930’s was a different type of anti-semitism from after the 1930’s, especially in my scenes which take place in the 1880’s. Once I started saying and thinking in terms of their way of thinking which was more like—“well everybody knows this, it’s not a secret—all Jews are good with money but not good in other areas—what’s the problem? —everyone knows this”— that kind of completely accepted generalization with no venom behind it—that’s what we’re dealing with and THAT can sometimes be more insidious than the venomous, hatred type of prejudice.
And then, after all of Wagner’s really dreadful writings from his early life—Alan found a quote of his very near the end of his life where he says to his wife, Cosima, “If I were to write again I would say that I have nothing against the Jews. It is just that they descended on us Germans too soon and we were not yet ready enough to absorb them.”
Well that was a turning point for me and also in our play. Does it forgive him? That’s question 5.
GEOFFREY CANTOR: Perhaps. I certainly dislike him less.
ALLAN LEICHT: Yes, I learned a great deal about Wagner and the people surrounding him.
5. Thinking about Wagner, his musical genious and his antisemitism. Does good / excellent art forgives its maker / creator for his flaws?
EDDIE KORBICH: This is my opinion. Excellent Art doesn’t forgive anything and doesn’t need to. It just is. If Art is excellent it speaks for itself IN EXCELLENCE. And it is created independently of any flaws or beliefs of it’s human creator who is the conduit for it to be brought into being.
Whew! Crunchy Granola spiritual stuff, huh? But that is my opinion.
What happens, at least for me, is that it is tarnished — the excellence is tarnished in my observation of it because of my knowledge of the faults or perceived flaws of it’s creator. I can’t listen to Bill Cosby routines without thinking of his actions. I can’t read certain authors now without having things they did that were made public in the back of my mind when I read their writings. And that’s a shame. Maybe some people can separate it but, I’m not so evolved. But that wasn’t your question —you asked if excellence forgives and I would say —-it’s up to each individual how little or how much they choose to allow forgiveness, if at all.
GEOFFREY CANTOR: Well that’s the question of the play. I leave it to the audience to make that determination. Does it ever?
CARLO BOSTICCO: We look back now on the questionable stances of many of our classic authors and musicians and we try to understand them from a psychological point of view. Just recently I was rereading some of the work by Lovecraft and the blatant racism hit me like a ton of bricks. In his case, xenophobia is justified as an extension of his fear of the "other" and his personal psychosis. With Wagner, his motives are quite a bit harder to fathom. On one hand antisemitism was the norm, on the other it didn't go completely unchallenged. In my research I found that King Ludwig himself had written a letter to Wagner rebuking him, saying that "Humans are pretty much all brothers". In the play it is at least implied that Wagner's antisemitism stemmed from insecurity about who his own father was, and the resulting destabilization. I get to say this wonderful line in the play to Wagner: "You have made jews your demons, and you cannot live without them. Could it be: no jews, no demons, no Wagner?". I believe inner darkness, in itself a wound, can be a source of artistic inspiration. Should we as artist embrace it? I think yes, but only in order to turn it into Light, to work through it and help others do the same through the cathartic process unique to Art. Just to indulge your demons is decadent and puts the artist's ego center stage, where Art should be.
ALLAN LEICHT: Tough, inevitable question. Great art cannot forgive bad behavior or worse, neither, of course can stupid art. The play poses the question of whether or not we should judge men by their music. I personally believe that while we can separate artists from their work, we must also be wary of the evil that charm can conceal - more than wary, we must be vigilant. Too short an answer for a huge question.
6. Nationalism and the far-right claim their place (again) in the political landscape. Did this play a role in chosing Wagner (and his antisemitism) as a subject for this play?
EDDIE KORBICH: Quick answer—-it’s certainly timely that this play is being done right now in our political climate. But “play a role in choosing this subject”? That’s for the playwriter to answer.
GEOFFREY CANTOR: I didn’t write it or choose to produce it. But the timing given the current political landscape is not lost in anyone.
ALLAN LEICHT: Short answer, no, this play was not written in view of any political landscape. Nationalism is currently in the philosophical and sociological doghouse. However, nationalism is not by definition supremacism. There is a scene in My Parsifal Conductor about Theodor Herzl and the Second Zionist Conference in 1898, where Tannhauser was played. Herzl's Zionism was inspired by Wagner's nationalism.
7. Is this there something special you did for preparing for your role?
EDDIE KORBICH: I am a very physical actor and so much of the description that Allan had for Wagner is really close to my own way of living—-stop! I’M NOT AN ANTI-SEMITE!! No I mean the “70 year old child” line (although I’m not 70 ) and always on the brink of tears or dance—and me feeling that my egocentric needs are more special than others (truly, you should try living with me)— yes I can relate to all of that very easily. I grew up surrounded by classical music so the music appreciation including the conducting is second-nature for me.
But his chin and his slight jutting of his jaw?—no I don’t have that but I try to judiciously incorporate that into the performance. We didn’t physically putty my nose but we did work on the hair and that bizarre “neckstrap of hair —-what is that? A neck beard?” And who ever thought that was an attractive look? Anyway, we have that and it really helps me every time I see my finished look capped off with the beret. If you want to know if I went back and listened to every bit of music and read every biography and criticism about him—————ummmmmm no? Sorry? It wasn’t that kind of preparation.
Now, I’ve known and worked with Sondheim quite a bit and some of my performance is inspired by his genius. Yeah, absolutely, I even know the moments where I channel Steve—he is the only genius who I’ve met that could inform some of this part for me. That’s about it. Except that I learn more and more with each performance.
GEOFFREY CANTOR: Safe to say we all listened to a lot of Wagner.
CARLO BOSTICCO: There is a lot of stuff about Ludwig to be found. I watched the Luchino Visconti movies with Helmut Berger for a start and read his (absolutely extraordinary) diaries and letters. Also, when they heard I got cast, my parent went to visit the castles Ludwig built in Bavaria. My dad sent me a 30 minutes video montage for research. I have the best support network!
ALLAN LEICHT: I cannot speak for the actors, but I do know that the result is that Eddie Korbich did an enormous amount of creative soul-searching in preparation to play Wagner, whom he plays with extraordinary humanity. And Claire Brownell, who is riveting as Cosima, delivers an extraordinarily sincere, warm, chilling, and honest portrayal of Cosima, an anti-Semite who truly means no harm. Did they know or care that what they thought and said would lead to what it led to?
8. A comedy about a composer. I had to think about the movies Ken Russell made about Liszt (Listzomania), Richard Strauss and Mahler. Are there movies and/or stage plays that were an inspiration?
ALLAN LEICHT: My Parsifal Conductor is stylistically most directly influenced by Noel Coward (Blithe Spirit), G.B. Shaw, Dickens' ("A Christmas Carol"), and, structurally, Miller's Death of a Salesman. And of course, yes, encouraged by the success of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.
9. Is there music in the play?
EDDIE KORBICH: Throughout! Little phrases and themes all throughout.
CARLO BOSTICCO: There's a ton. Mostly Wagner's. I get to represent the "opposition". As the "gondolier" I sing a lot of Italian arias in one of the scenes: Verdi, Rossini... mostly so Wagner can disdainfully turn up his nose at the inferior composers!
ALLAN LEICHT: Of course there is Wagner's music. Not so much as would overwhelm the play, which Wagner's music could easily do. Wagner also hums a little Brahms.
10. What is your favorite Wagner opera?
EDDIE KORBICH: Can’t pick just one—that’s like asking what role is my favorite
GEOFFREY CANTOR: Didn’t have one.
CARLO BOSTICCO: My very first opera experience was the Ring Cycle. Yes. All of it. It was a quadruple bill. I was a little traumatized at the end.
ALLAN LEICHT: Mine would have to be the one I am listening to at the moment, but probably Meistersinger because it is the most human. And Meistersinger is a Wagnerian "comedy."
Bonus question: Who do you prefer as a conductor for Parsifal: Pierre Boulez or Hans Knappertsbusch?
EDDIE KORBICH: Bernstein. Can we resurrect him?
GEOFFREY CANTOR: It depends. Which one is better?
ALLAN LEICHT: Wow! Very educated question! I'd have to listen to both again. Most memorable for me is Solti.
(This interview took place via email)
- Wouter de Moor
The knight of the Swan in a world of Swasti-swans and war. Opera Vlaanderen starts the new season with David Alden's take on Lohengrin.
Opera Vlaanderen starts the new season with Lohengrin, in a regie by David Alden. A production that played this summer at the Royal Opera House in London. With performances in Ghent and Antwerp, one could say that Lohengrin, which story is set in Antwerp, comes home. Lohengrin is perhaps Wagner's most lyrical opera, written at a time when the man busied himself with revolutionary activities (up to the Dresder revolution of 1849). Activities that forced him to move to Switzerland. It was not sooner than 11 years after its premiere in 1850 in Weimar (conducted by Franz Liszt) that he would be able to attend a full performance of Lohengrin. With Lohengrin, Wagner took a formidable musical step towards to the Gesamtkunstwerk he had in mind, a work of art in which all disciplines; text, music and theatre are an equal part of the final result. This Gesamtkunstwerk would ultimately not take shape according to initial thought. For that the power of music was simply too great, the ability of music to elevate the mind, to achieve transcendence, too unique.
Listen to Lohengrin, with Italian and French Grand Opera in mind, and you will get a sense of the giant leap Wagner is taking towards an opera form that seamlessly integrates the chorusses, recitatives and arias into a music drama that flows and doesn't falter. The choir scenes and the individual arias are not so much climaxes here, no points of arrival, but always new points of departure. In Lohengrin, Wagner strings together, for the first time, his music drama along an Unendliche Melodie.
The story of Lohengrin can be seen as a parable about saviors and strong men. The historically sensitive "looking for a strong man in the German Empire" premise results in a staging that refers to war violence and Nazis. David Alden places the fairy tale-like Lohengrin in a raw, realistic world. Although the Leni Reifenstahl-like stage images don't leave the viewer any doubt about their origin and character, their use remain abstract enough not to nail the piece solely to the Nazi-era.
Both scenery and singers/actors show traces of war violence. A city that has fallen to ruins and in which the sirens of the air raid are prominently present. In search of soldiers for his army to face the (alleged) military threat from the east, King Heinrich finds in Brabant a part of his Empire that is in severe decline. The recruitment of soldiers is a violent matter, Heinrich does not rely on the power of argument, he does not assume that those who have to serve as cannon fodder voluntarily will sign. Heinrich knows, and the stage imagery suggests so, that the people are tired of war as many of them show traces of recent violence. It puts the nine years of peace mentioned by Heinrich when he makes his entrance, in an ironic (call it sarcastic) frame. It's part of a message, addressed to the people of Brabant that should remind them to be grateful for all what the king has done for them. A message that solidifies the debt the people have to their king and that they should not complain about the fact that the king is now asking something (only their life) in return.
The war scenery and Nazi symbolism places the story of Lohengrin in a dark world. A world that magnifies the contrast between Lohengrin, a grail knight, and the deplorable state of the people who ask him for help. A world that underlines the distant journey of Parsifal's son, who comes from a fairy tale kind of world, to the world of mankind, only to have his share of earthly love. Nothing as human as a demigod. His love for Elsa is not meant to last. The relation between Lohengrin and Elsa is one of great inequality. A covenant between a demigod who asks for unconditional love but whose name must remain hidden for those who love him. It puts an impossible burden on the mind of Elsa (encouraged by the intrigues of Ortrud and Telramund) who has to ignore her curiosity.
A class in art history might have saved Elsa a lot of misery. On the wedding night, at the beginning of the third act, we see in the bedroom the famous painting of Lohengrin by August von Heckel. Elsa looks at it as if she is trying to recall its title. In vain. So she asks Lohengrin the forbidden question, she bites into the forbidden apple.
Grail knights and questions, they go back a long way. In Chrétien de Troyes' original version of Perceval, the title hero, Lohengrin's father, forgets to ask his host, the Fisher King, who serves the grail. It is the question that would have healed the wound of the king.
In Lohengrin the forbidden question, in text and leitmotif, hangs above the opera like a sword of Damocles. The fall of that sword is inevitable. When it does Elsa loses her hero and husband, Telramund loses his life (he is killed by Lohengrin when he violently enters the bedroom by breaking through the wall) and the king loses his strong man.
As King Heinrich, Wilhelm Schwinghammer took over the role of the Thorsten Grümbel (who was ill) and did so with great acclaim. Schwinghammer portrayed Heinrich not without humour and turned the king, eventually, into a deeply tragic figure.
Schwinghammer was a last-minute addition to the cast (at the premiere he sang the role from the side of the stage while the sick Grümbel played the role onstage) of which Liene Kinča and Iréne Theorin made their roll debut as respectively Elsa and Ortrud . Kinča's voice sounded as if it was trapped in a small room. This was not a problem in the quiet belcanto parts of the role (she was a sensitive, beautiful Elsa) but with the high notes she pushed her voice over the edge. Her savior Zoran Todorovich had some problems in the role of Lohengrin. He had clearly paid extra attention to his "In Fernem Land" but there were some pale colours on his vocal palette. As a direct consequence of this, the role left much to be desired and it showed the power of the Wagner drama and of this production that the piece eventually managed to make such a convincing impression.
They ultimately bite the dust, the bad guys in this story, but from an artistic point of view, Iréne Theorin in the role of Ortrud and Craig Colclough in the role of Telramund were the real winners of this performance. Theorin's debut role was convincing in every respect; she was portrayed as a kind of secretary, an iron lady whose job, doing the administration, merely coverted that she was the one who was pushing the buttons. As Telramund, Colclough delivered perhaps the best role of the performance. Falling from grace and banned after his defeat by Lohengrin, Colclough epitomized the tragedy of Telramund in an intrusive way. The strenght that Colclough's Telramund displayed was made of superb theatrical make-belief. His strenght was the mask of a con man. As a step-father of Elsa, Telramund was not strong enough to resist Ortrud's evil intentions and he went as far as indicting his own stepdaughter. The child must have had a traumatic childhood.
This production doesn't try to bend the story in a more sympathetic outcome (like this year's "feminist" Bayreuther Lohengrin). This visually impressive Lohengrin ends in tragedy for all those concerned. The only winner seems to be Gottfried, Elsa's supposedly dead brother, who, alluding to the future in the final stage image, presents himself as the new strong man the people so vehemently long for. It is an image that bears in it, perhaps more than the Nazi symbolism, the true warning of this Lohengrin. That totalitarian tendencies do not begin with a strong man but with the longing of the common man for that strong man.
Opera Vlaanderen - 23 September 2018
Ghent: Th 20, Su 23, We 26, Fr 28 September
Antwerp: Su 7, We 10, Su 14, We 17, Sa 20, Te 23 October
Conductor Alejo Pérez
Regie David Alden
Decor Paul Steinberg
Costums Gideon Davey
Light Adam Silverman
König Heinrich Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Lohengrin Zoran Todorovich
Elsa von Brabant Liene Kinča
Telramund Craig Colclough
Ortrud Iréne Theorin
Heerrufer Vincenzo Neri
- Wouter de Moor
Simon McBurney's production is a roller coaster that revamps the magic in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte
The Dutch National Opera kicks off the new season with a production that has proved to be succesful at the Amsterdam Muziektheater before. It was an instant hit at the 2012 premiere, received a lot of acclaim in London (at the English National Opera), the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence and was already endowed with a DVD release. Now, six years later, Simon McBurley's production didn't lose anything of its impact and power to attrack a new audience to Die Zauberflöte.
Simon McBurney, who already astonished us with his production for Alexander Raskatov's 'A Dog's Heart' (the collaboration between theatre man McBurney and composer Raskatov yielded theatre of a rare level, there will be few productions in which opera and staging have found each other so seamlessly), confronts Die Zauberflöte with his seemingly childlike curiosity. His initial unfamiliarity with the opera, bordering on aversion (what is h*ll is this piece actually about?) results in a production in which McBurney shares with us, the audience, in an irresistible way, his own amazement about the sometimes inimitable scenes and storylines. With a lot of inventiveness he shines light in the sometimes muddy world of The Magic Flute and does not forget that Mozart's opera, commissioned by Schikaneder, is besides an important piece in music history, above all an excellent piece of entertainment. It was Mozart's almost-last opera (after this he would only be able to get the rush job La Clemenza di Tito done) in which Salzburg's most famous son explored the boundaries of the genre and, to quote Richard Wagner, delivered the first real German opera. An opera that would, by its innovative concept, inspire Carl Maria von Weber for Der Freischütz and Oberon (the source material for Die Zauberflöte came from a collection of oriental fairy tales by Christoph Martin Wielands, the author who wrote the heroic poem Oberon).
Die Zauberflöte, opera or Singspiel, with its many dialogues, its leaps and bounds between seriousness and jollity, can sometimes give the impression of patchwork. A conglomerate of too much ideas in which the final result does not always exceed the sum of the individual parts. A theatrical layer of sufficient substance is necessary to make the music and the spoken word into a convincing whole. McBurney connects the spoken word to inventive action with finds that are as simple as they are brilliant (for example, the birds that fly around Papageno are simple sheets of white paper in the hands of actors that make fluttering movements with them) and keeps the pace of the action high. There are video projections (they provide a very beautiful fire and water trail) and decorations with a keen eye for contrast (the Drei Knaben with their lovely voices look like they come straight out of a horror movie). Everything about the production breathes freedom and displays a virtuoso handling of the source material (with humour that is really funny and not bland). In addition, the playground for the singers/actors is not limited to the stage. Especially Papageno, a fantastic role of Thomas Oliemans, reaches in the role of the bird catching bohemian literally the audience beyond the front rows.
All involved, both singers and musicians, have an active part in the acting part. For playing the flute Tamino (Stanislas de Barbeyrac) calls upon the flutist in the orchestra pit (no shaky mime act here) and conductor Antonello Manacorda (who spend his time between this production in Amsterdam and Romeo Castelucci's production of Die Zauberflöte in Brussels) not only indicates the entries and the tempo of the music but also shows his (feigned) horror about Papageno's clumsy (and hilarious) behaviour.
In his search for the heart of Die Zauberflöte, for what the opera actually is and what it stands for, McBurney takes the opera far away from the realm of child operas and stiff productions that the catalogue of the Magic Flute is so lavishly filled with. It results in a night at the opera that is like a fantastic voyage in which many (read: yours truly) are exposed, for the first time, to the theatrical beauty of the piece. A performance in which a few side notes that can be made about the vocal performances are no more than just that, minor details in a terrific whole (the voices of the three ladies who save Tamino from the dragon could have harmonized a bit more beautiful with each other and the bass of Dmitry Ivaschenko (Sarastro) lacked some definition in the lower regions of the singing parts).
Die Zauberflöte is an opera about the battle between good and evil, between light and darkness, with strong references to the Freemasonry, the fraternal order from which Mozart and librettist Schikaneder both were members. A group, led by Sarastro here, that abducts children to evade the unreasonable and hysterical influence of their mother. Reason and science show themselves a bit unreasonable and harsh (it's waiting for a production in which Sarastro's temple order is portrayed as the Church of Scientology).
The Queen of the Night is here a fragile old woman. She moves with a cane and sings her famous aria with breakneck coloratura and high F's in a wheelchair. She represents evil and Sarastro, in contrast to Tito, the title hero from the other 'last' Mozart opera, does not grant her forgiveness. This forgiveness still befalls her by the way Pamina (a sensitive role of Mari Eriksmoen) caresses her at the end. It is a human end of an opera in which black and white both become a bit greyer. A production in which Monostatos (a creepy Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) is white and the references in the text to his dark skin have disappeared. Not gone are the sexist, misogynistic parts in the libretto that - even for someone who does not advocate a sanitized version of Emanuel Schikaneder's libretto - are hard to ignore. Although the stereotypical portrayal of the reasonable man and the mentally unstable woman is more laughable than that it fuels the indignation (the knowledge that the patriarchal views that fed those lyrics are far from gone prevents an all too hilarious response however).
With Die Zauberflöte, McBurney delivers once again a staging that gives an incredible added value to an opera that, as an audio-only document, is mainly enjoyable when the dialogues have been seriously cut. In that respect, his Zauberflöte may well be considered a Gesamtkunstwerk in the true sense of the word. A performance in which music, text and theatre are all an equal part of the final result. A theatre experience that makes one curious for more and that makes one hope (this is after all the Wagner-Heavy Metal website) that Simon McBurney will venture into a Wagner opera in the not too distant future.
Dutch National Opera 14 September 2018
Dates 7 September untill 29 September 2018
Conductor: Antonello Manacorda
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra
Stage director: Simon McBurney
Decor: Michael Levine
Sarastro: Dmitry Ivaschenko
Tamino: Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Pamina: Mari Eriksmoen
Papageno: Thomas Oliemans
Der Sprecher: Maarten Koningsberger
Königin der Nacht: Nina Minasyan
Ein altes Weib (Papagena): Lilian Farahani
Monostatos: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
- Wouter de Moor
Laufenberg's production is a bit of a bumpy ride but Parsifal in Bayreuth is an experience like few other opera-experiences ...
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Before being exposed to the music of Richard Wagner, the godly possibilities of dark mooded music to nourish the inner self were already known to him, so it lied in the scheme of things that Wagner's music sounded as a natural extension to his musical world that was inhabited with Heavy Metal bands and melancholic songwriters.
He was a man who, while attending a performance of Die Walküre, now about 17 years ago, found something he knew he had lost, and at that very moment, in the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, amidst Johotoho-chanting Walküre-sisters, realized that there might be a place where he could find it back. The opera house as a place of a musical landscape worth discovering. His connection with pop music was already subject to erosion when the death of Jeff Buckley finally severed it. With the demise of the American troubadour the last artist in the field of populair music that he could identify with was gone (with Chris Cornell as a possible exception). There was not much left that could enchant him any longer, the world of couplets & choruses had become a boring and predictable one. He had gone gone full circle with pop music, a finding that came with age. It was time to move on and only Wotan knew where to go next.
That man, who found in Richard Wagner a doorway to new worlds of music, is heading for Bayreuth again. The place where Wagner built his Festspielhaus. A fitful point of arrival in a summer that started, music travel-wise, in Wagner's birthplace Leipzig (with BachFest).
THE CHURCH OF WAGNER
Attending an opera at the Festspielhaus is a visit to the past. Literally, the theatre dates from 1876, is without air conditioning, and one sits on wooden chairs, like believers in a church for seculars who may consider themselves chosen ones for the duration of an opera. Listening to and watching a Wagner opera in this theater can ask something from the attendee that he or she, pampered by the amenities of modern theaters, not always realize; that the lenght of those operas can not only be heard but also be felt. That listening to the third act of Die Meistersinger for instance not only can bring enlightenment (I think especially of the quintet here, one of the most beautiful pieces in all of opera) but can also translate into a sore back, stiff upper legs and an unquenchable thirst. Physical inconvenience that provides the comments of Wagner's contemporaries (and near-contemporaries) with some necessary context. Debussy, for example, thought that the operas from the Sorcerer of Bayreuth contained beautiful pieces of music - if only you didn't have to wait for them so damn long.
THE ROAD TO PARSIFAL
After attending a complete Ring-cycle in Bayreuth last year, this year's programme sees with Parsifal another deeply rooted wish fulfilled. Parsifal is the only opera Wagner wrote with the acoustics of the Festspielhaus in mind but it was for me, after having fallen for Wagner's music, also the least accessible one in the whole catalogue. Mark Twain's findings come to mind when I am thinking of my first acquaintance with it, listening to the famous Parsifal-recording of Knappertsbusch from 1951 - the year in which the Bayreuther Festspiele were held for the first time after the Second World War.
It can be a pleasure to stare into the Wagner pendulum for a long time. To find in it a mean of elevating the spirit and cleansing the mind, but even for a self-proclaimed Wagner devotee an opera by the man, according to some the greatest genius in Western cultural history, can be a tough trip. After attending a performance of Parsifal in Bayreuth in 1891, Mark Twain had to acknowledge, to his regret, that in Wagner's last opera he could neither recognize melody nor rhythm. After reading in a German music magazine about Wagner's efforts to rid his operas of superfluous “runs, trills and schnörkel”, Twain concluded that he did not know what "schnörkel" was but that it must undoubtedly have been something he desperately missed. Tannhäuser had granted him with a love for opera but for Mark Twain Parsifal was a terrible drag.
I had to go through a process of acceptance myself. The story, or lack thereof, seems to be dragging its way through seemingly static music. Even more so than in Wagner's other operas, the piece consists primarily of recapitulation, elaborating on the past, and it is devoid of any action - with Parsifal shooting a swan (hit) and Klingsor throwing a spear ( miss), you've kind of summarized all the action there is. I have reconciled myself with it by now, with the story of the grail. It has seriously touched me, this Bühnenweihfestspiel, a parade in angel pace on a magnificent tapestry of sound. Many versions and a few live performances later it has become the opera in the Wagner catalogue to which I most often return to.
Rendez-vous at 25 August in the Bayreuther Festspielhaus.
- Wouter de Moor
DIE ZAUBERFLÖTE IN A ROLLER COASTER
PARSIFAL IN BAYREUTH
HEAVY SUMMER (THE ROAD TO PARSIFAL)
LOHENGRIN IN SCREENSHOTS
LESSONS IN LOVE AND VIOLENCE
BERLIN/BLOG: FAUST & THE CLAWS OF TIME
THE GAMBLER: RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH PROKOFIEV
BACH/BLOG#1: THE ROAD TO LEIPZIG
BACH/BLOG#2: BACHFEST LEIPZIG
BACH/BLOG#3: JOHANNES PASSION & MORE
DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER, WAGNER & DRACULA
THE CHRISTINA CYCLUS OF KLAS TORSTENSSON
LA CLEMENZA DI TITO: MOZART ÜBER ALLES
BRUCKNER AND THE ORGAN
GURRE-LIEDER: THE SECOND COMING
PARSIFAL IN FLANDERS: REIGN IN BLOOD
TRISTAN & ISOLDE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE EMBRACE
DANIELE GATTI & BRUCKNER'S NINTH
ON THE BIRTHDAY OF LUDWIG (BEETHOVEN'S MIGHTY NINE)
THE DINNER PARTY FROM HELL
ZEMLINSKY & PUCCINI: A FLORENTINE DIPTYCH
VENI, VIDI, VICI
ELIOGABALO (HERE COMES THE SUN KING)
LA FORZA DEL DESTINO
DAS WUNDER DER HELIANE
'EIN WUNDER' TO LOOK FORWARD TO
EIN HOLLÄNDER IN BAYREUTH
FRANZ LISZT IN BAYREUTH
SALOME & THE WALKING DEAD
LOHENGRIN IN HOLLAND
THE SUMMER OF 2016
PARSIFAL IN SCREENSHOTS (BAYREUTH 2016)
GUSTAVO & GUSTAV: DUDAMEL & MAHLER
HAITINK & BRUCKNER: A NEVER-ENDING STORY
FOR LEMMY AND BOULEZ
BOULEZ IST TOT
LEMMY - ROCK IN PEACE
THE BATTLE: WHO'S THE BETTER LOHENGRIN?
STOCKHAUSEN AND HEAVY METAL
FRANZ LISZT IN THE FUNNY PAPERS
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
SOLTI'S RING AND BAYREUTH IN 1976
BOULEZ TURNS 90
FRANZ LISZT IN THE PHOT-O-MATIC
THE HOLY GRAIL
FRANZ LISZT - ROCK STAR AVANT LA LETTRE
THE BEST THEATER EXPERIENCE IN MY LIFE
Swipe yourself through Bayreuth's latest Lohengrin
Director: Yuval Sharon
Stage design: Neo Rauch / Rosa Loy
Conductor: Christian Thielemann
König Heinrich: Georg Zeppenfeld
Lohengrin: Piotr Beczala
Elsa: Anja Harteros
Telramund: Tomasz Konieczny
Ortrud: Waltraud Meier
Heerrufer: Egils Silins
George Benjamin's latest opera is like a dark crystal that harbours many colours. It was composed with the intended singers in mind and it shows. Barbara Hannigan excels, she brings depth to her character, and always has an ear for the belcanto aspect, even in the most challenging of vocal lines.
Attending a new opera, performed with its composer at the helm, with the cast he had in mind while composing, in a production led by a director who showed herself very close to the material. It happened on the first day of July and it happened four days later - with a performance that was even more impressive than the first one I saw. George Benjamin is in Amsterdam with his latest opera, Lessons in Love and Violence. Last week not only Lessons saw its Dutch premiere, but also Benjamin's previous opera, Written on Skin, was having a semi-concertant performance (led by Lawrence Renes). An excellent opportunity to experience, in quick succession, these two operas live. (An opportunity I missed by missing Written on Skin).
Lessons in Love and Violence is an opera that was created with the intended singers and director in mind and it shows. Aside from musical excellence, this production excels with a direction that fits the story and its musical depiction like a glove. It has been a while since I was so impressed with a Personenregie. The result of such a musically pervasive action on stage - with characters that temporise and slow down - provided the stage image with a cinematic effect. Whereas slow motion in movies often feels no more than gratuitous, as a means to, literally, extend time, it felt completely natural here. It was an effect that did not needlessly confirm what was already obvious and was not an attempt to be unnecessarily hip. It really added an extra theatrical layer to music and text. Benjamin, pupil of Olivier Messiaen, composes with a fascination for counterpoint (a lot of things happen in the vertical dimension of the score) with vocal lines that are atonal but lyrical. Those melodies can seem a bit far-fetched but, on closer acquaintance, don't show themselves more inaccessible than, say, the melodic lines in Bartok's first string quartet. They are the arteries in a musical body that is like a dark crystal that harbours many colours.
Lessons is an opera about people, preoccupied by power, hard-wired to destruct. The king, modelled after Edward II, a stage play by Christopher Marlowe, is pushed aside by his principal advisor, Mortimer, who is assisted in this by the king's wife Isabel. Their plan is to put the king's son forward as a puppet king.
In tradition of Shakespeare's Elizabethan theatre, librettist Martin Crimp uses, on two occassions, the concept of a play within a play. (Think of Hamlet where the title character organizes a play, which involves the same plot line as the events in the larger play, to let his uncle Claudius know that he is aware of the role of his uncle in the murder of Hamlet's father.) The use here is likewise. In the third scene Isabel, uses the intern theatre to show Gaveston, the lover of the king, his fate (death). And in the seventh and last scene, the young king lets his mother Isabel know that he is on to her and her true intentions, that he knows about her role in the murder of his father. In the setting of a theatre play Isabel witnesses the faith of Mortimer (that will be perhaps, the story doesn't tell us, her own fate). By then we've entered the shadow world of the House of Atreus, children seeking revenge for the murder of a parent by the other parent. Lessons doesn't sound like Elektra but it resonates, in heaviness and intensity, with Richard Strauss's screaming-for-vengeance opera.
The whole story is set in the bedroom of the king and queen. A private place that is anything but private. A place we see, in every one of the seven scenes, from a different angle. As to give the public a changing perspective on the story that unfolds. That story is as gripping as it is easy to follow. The scene in which the king becomes aware, by means of the ghost of Gaveston, that he will meet death is one of dreadful beauty. Ethereal music freezes terror into a chilling scene. Benjamin may not compose conventional arias, but his music has a high seductive content, full of suspense, with a keen ear for the storyline. In Lessons he uses relatively exotic instruments like a cymbalon and celesta, and he is able to marvel and impress with a suggestive use of dizzying timbres that by times, even can sound jazzy. (Like meeting Charles Mingus in a dark dream.)
Lessons in Love and Violence is an opera that cannot be valued after only one viewing so I went twice. And the second time was even heavier and more intense than the first time. It is accessible enough, more accessible than Written on Skin if you ask me, to appreciate it once you've made acquaintance with it. Its versatility points towards a (future) masterpiece and it leaves you with many impressions and things that are waiting for further discovery.
Benjamin makes instruments and singers sound like one organic whole. He orchestrates with density, he dares to let the singers battle with the sounds that he allows to rise from the orchestra pit. The singers, all of them, are more than capable of fulfilling their role in a well to outstanding way. With Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, this production also has its ideal singer for this kind of repertoire. Hannigan (is there something she can't do?) never sounds overstretched. She brings depth to a dark character and always has an ear for the belcanto aspect, even in the most challenging of vocal lines. It is hard, and I am echoing others here, to see someone else in the role of Isabel. Lessons is a superior piece of music theatre, high-level storytelling in which the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra turns, in a completely sovereign way, Benjamin's score into brilliant music.
After an hour and a half the end comes unexpectedly, in the middle of the action. The audiences have to confirm themselves that it is really over. It causes the applause to get off to a hesitant start. It would not have been entirely to Benjamin's displeasure because he ends the opera in a D-chord with a deliberately undefined character. No chord that resolves the chord that precedes it, but opens the way to a new, yet to be determined, future. A future in which the lessons learned by the younger generation have already found their way into a nasty and ugly practice.
Dutch National Opera - 1 July 2018
Dates: 25 June - 6 July
Musical director: George Benjamin
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Author: Martin Crimp
Stage director: Katie Mitchell
King: Stéphane Degout
Isabel: Barbara Hannigan
Gaveston/ Stranger: Gyula Orendt
Mortimer: Peter Hoare
Boy/Young King: Samuel Boden
Girl: Ocean Barrington-Cook
- Wouter de Moor