Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nights at the opera: 2013

The calendar year is tapering quietly to its end; here in Mainz, the days are rainy and the archives are closed, providing ideal conditions for retrospection on a year of opera-going. I've already been enjoying the reports of others on the year in opera: John Gilks at Opera Ramblings, Mark Berry at Boulezian, and the anonymous Opera Traveller. My own year of opera has been an unusual one, divided as it has been between two continents. While I miss the sheer exuberant variety of NYC's opera scene, I have loved discovering the work of solid house ensembles in Mainz and Wiesbaden, and the consistent intelligence of Frankfurt's musically polished productions. So, without further ado, Gentle Readers, I present my entirely subjective roundup of favorite performances this year: ones that have afforded not only excellent nights at the opera, but lingering memories pleasurable and thought-provoking.

7 great nights:

Yes, I've expanded the category this year: five really great evenings, plus another one I didn't have the intellectual energy to review, plus a Parsifal in a class by itself. In reverse chronological order:

At Oper Frankfurt, Brigitte Fassbaender's new production of Ariadne auf Naxos proved intellectually stimulating and warmly humane, with humor and hints of mysticism that both served the work well. The orchestra shone, and the singers not only handled Strauss' music beautifully, but worked beautifully with each other as an ensemble. Also in Frankfurt, I witnessed the minor miracle of a non-sexist Tannhäuser production, with overwhelmingly gorgeous orchestral work (yes, I got teary,) and very fine Wagnerian singing. The Met's all-too-brief revival run of Dialogues des Carmelites was a perfect way to bid a (temporary) farewell to the house that's been my home base for the last five years. John Dexter's production remains striking and effective, the orchestra is of course brilliant, and the cast was truly superb. The Firework-Maker's Daughter was another highlight of my spring season. A children's opera, you ask, Gentle Readers? Yes: and an opera that used small forces creatively, is both humorous and poignant, critiques sexism in opera and society (hooray,) and boasts well-set text and memorable music. I am still unreconciled to the sad demise of New York City Opera. Its last spring programming was so good, and so well-received, that it seemed to promise happier days ahead. Thomas Adès' Powder Her Face--mordant and musically creative--was presented with a uniformly strong cast in a bold production. I'm very glad I got to see it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Gott der Herr die Hand uns reicht: Hänsel und Gretel in Wiesbaden

Die Kinder und die Knusperhexe. Photo © Staatstheater Wiesbaden

Like many other opera houses, the Staatstheater Wiesbaden is presenting Hänsel und Gretel during this festive season, and I took myself to yesterday's performance as a Christmas treat. Fine orchestral work, a carefully revived production, and strong vocal and dramatic performances made it a treat indeed. Heinz Peters' 1982 production, currently in its last season, took its aesthetic straight from the children's books of the turn of the twentieth century. There were a few moments which veered from sentiment into sentimentality, but on the whole, I found it quite charming, and pleasingly unfussy. To the credit of the revival director, choreography was carefully attuned to the score, and the characterizations of the principals were anything but lazy (a lesson could be given to larger houses.) Zsolt Hamar led the orchestra with a light touch, choosing relatively brisk tempi, which I liked. The orchestra gave a spirited performance; there were a few unsteady moments in the brass, but matters were overall well-coordinated and admirably detailed.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Interval adventures: Staatstheater Wiesbaden

Staatstheater Wiesbaden

Mentioning my passion for opera to new acquaintances has elicited a near-universal comment on how fortunate it is that there are multiple houses in the region. A good handful of people piqued my interest by following this remark with: "Have you been to the house in Wiesbaden yet?" While Frankfurt sits preeminent among the companies within easy traveling distance, local consensus seems to be that Wiesbaden is, by some margin, the most beautiful house. And on Tuesday, I found out why.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

House of Cards: The Love for Three Oranges in Wiesbaden

Uneasy lies the head… Act I, scene 1. Photo © Lena Obst
Prokofiev's L'Amour des Trois Oranges has been confusing many and delighting some since its premiere in 1921. (As a clarifying note: the text was translated from Russian into French for its first performance; given in Wiesbaden in German as Die Liebe zu den drei Orangen, with the original Любовь к трём апельсинам on drop curtains.) At that time in America, Michael Pisani notes, "Modernist techniques in other arts were not unheard-of, but were considered grossly inappropriate for the opera house." To complaints about a lack of singable tunes and suspicions that Prokofiev was (gasp!) poking fun at opera audiences, the composer responded that he sought simply to create a diverting piece. Both the irreverent text and the multilayered score, however, would seem to belie such a facile summing-up. It's easy to see the self-absorbed prince and his clever sidekick, not to mention the warring magicians, the fragile princesses, and the cook with the deadly soup ladle, as parodic send-ups of operatic archetypes, while the warring audience factions of the prologue who constantly characterize the piece as being insufficiently comic, tragic, or romantic, are almost impossible not to read as a commentary on opera and theater audiences. The current run at the Staatstheater Wiesbaden, of which I saw Tuesday's performance, boasts a crisp orchestral reading and a clever production, but in it, critique and comedy seem like strange bedfellows.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Eugene Onegin: Kuda, kuda...

Letters in the night: Eugene Onegin Act III. Photo © Staatstheater Mainz
Some nineteenth-century critics commented acerbically that Tchaikovsky's adaptation of Pushkin's masterpiece into "lyric scenes" ought not to be called Eugene Onegin at all, but rather Tatiana. Mainz's current run of the piece (trailer here), which I attended on Friday, reminded of the strengths of this position. Johannes Erath's production, stylized and faintly surrealist, offered a meditation on the tragedies of transience (I was unsurprised to find Marcel Proust quoted in the program.) The orchestra, alas, began without distinction and deteriorated from there. The cast boasted some strong characterizations, and some fine singing; the most consistently compelling in both, in my view, was the young soprano Tatjana Charalgina Vida Mikneviciute in the role of Tatiana [Note: Mikneviciute's name is not in the printed Programmheft; digging on the Staatstheater's website revealed that she sang the role in the performance I saw.]

Pushkin wrote about the sensibilities of a world on the point of vanishing, and Johannes Erath chose a moment of societal transition for his production, as well. The costumes of Noëlle Blancpain suggested the self-conscious modernity and self-conscious nostalgia of the early 1960s, and were also used cleverly in characterization (Olga gets neon colors, Tatiana a pillbox hat, Onegin a white dinner jacket, Lensky a Walther PPK.) Generally, the production seemed much more attentive to the text than to the music. The Nurse, who panics about having forgotten what she once knew, is the anguished guardian of gentle traditions, clinging to a silver samovar in the rapidly rattling train where the first scenes are set. Photographic backdrops suggest the inability of the travelers to linger in the landscapes so lushly described by Pushkin. Even the train compartments gradually separate, pulling people together and apart. Assuming increasing centrality during the letter scene is a photo booth: that curious mechanism meant to enshrine moments trivial almost by definition. While the surrealist touches of the production could be claustrophobic or playful, the society portrayed was essentially (and oppressively) ordered, gradually forcing the conformity of all the principals.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sunday Special: Macht hoch die Tür!

Mainz's Christmas market
This Sunday marks the beginning of a new church year. I love the season of Advent, and couldn't be more ready for it. This weekend also marked my first concerts with a new choir. Having done our full program (to a full house!) on Friday, we got to relax on Sunday with an hour or so of Christmas carols and Advent hymns on the stage at Mainz's Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market.) My fingers were cold, but we were paid with vouchers for Glühwein, so that was only a temporary problem. And I loved getting to sing the wonderful German carols, some of which I'd been taught as a girl, and some of which I was learning for the first time. Händel's "Tochter Zion, freue dich," was simply something I'd never imagined I'd get to sing:


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