Into the woods

A spot on review of Claus Guth’s staging of “Don Giovanni.”

operaramblings

Claus Guth’s 2008 Salzburg production of Don Giovanni divided the critics along entirely predictable lines.  It’s a very unusual treatment of Don Giovanni but the concept is stuck to with real consistency and it works to create a compelling piece of music theatre.  The treatment on video too is not straightforward and, in a sense, the DVD/Blu-ray version is as much the work of Brian Large as it is of Claus Guth.

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THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

Pierrot Lunaire from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann) Christine Schafer

Oilver Herrmann was quickly proving to be an artist of provocative potential after creating the innovative short films “Dichterlieb” (2000), “One Night, One Life” (2002), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (released 2004). Tragically, Herrmann’s life and career were cut short when he died of a diabetic stroke at the age of 40 in 2003.  A few months after his death, his partner, soprano Christine Schafer, a specialist in 20th/21st century music, gave birth to their second child.

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

All three have been released on home video with “Dichterlieb” and “One Night, One Life” available together and “Le Scare du Printemps” on a second DVD. The primary interest in the “One Night, One Life” collection is Herrman’s film of Arnold Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” conducted by modern music specialist Pierre Boulez and starring Schäfer. A bit of history may be needed for Schoenberg’s atonal[1], expressionist melodrama. Set to Albert Giraud’s text, the poems, usually spoken by a soprano, are delivered in “Sprechgesang” (spoken singing).

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

Upon its 1912 premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” predictably offended the traditionalists. Much publicity was made about it, mostly bad, but at least this was a period when new music and new composers actually grabbed headlines. As late as the 1970s, conservative NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg claimed that “Pierrot Lunaire”‘s’ failure to enter the standard repertoire was an indictment of contemporary music. Yet, the 21st century has (somewhat) rendered Schonberg’s assessment as premature. If not quite part of the daily repertoire diet, “Lunaire” is extensively recorded and performed. One might envision it someday becoming as commonplace as Beethoven.

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life ( DIR. Oliver Herrmann) Christine Schafer

However, together, Herrmann, Boulez, and Schäfer produce a commendable effort to rectify its potentially harmful respectability. The proof is in the pudding as far as music forum reviews go, with the hopelessly puritan music fans expressing outrage towards Herrmann’s blasphemous filming of music that was labeled blasphemous in 1912. One would think, with the combination of Schoenberg, Boulez, Herrmann, and Schäfer, blasphemy would and should be expected. Schoenberg is a composer who was and remains spiritually antithetical to the tenets of fundamentalism, and yet, long dead in his grave, he holds no sway with that lot. Fortunately, the principals speak blasphemy fluently and refuse to appease those who prefer art-music to be neutered, polished, and pedestaled. Schoenberg’s sense of danger is not only intact, but expanded upon.

Pierrot Lunaire (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

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OLIVER KNUSSEN’S “AUTUMNAL”: Yes, Knussen is making music with it

Oliver Knuseen AtumnalOliver Knussen is one of the most consistently interesting composer/conductors today. He does not join the ranks of the jet setting conductor variety and his repertoire has been varied and carefully chosen: from being an impassioned advocate of late Stravinsky (and late Stravinsky needs all the advocates he can get) to excellent surveys of Peter Lieberson, Colin Matthews, Robert Saxton,Peter Serkin, David Del Tredici, Marcus Lindberg, Poul Ruders, Julian Anderson, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Knussen has been a staunchly committed champion of Elliott Carter’s music and has premiered a staggering amount of new music (well on his way to rivaling Stokowski’s record of premieres), which have included Copland’s Grohg and Henze’s Undine. Among the most valuable of Knussen’s recordings is a quintessential collection of Stokowski’s Mussorgsky’s arrangements, which, perhaps in an actual first, surpassed the original. Continue reading

Another excellent Wozzeck and the usual, superb Tcherniakov production

Dmitri Tcherniakov Wozzeck

It’s a good sign that we now have half a dozen excellent Wozzecks available on DVD. The best is probably the Patrice Chereau/Barenboim production (which was long, inexplicably available only in Europe). However, no single production has the final word and it is refreshing to see this opera (once considered a type of avant-garde boogey man) now almost standard repertoire. Even more encouraging is “standard” does not equate with stagnancy.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov is among the most respected art directors active today and for very good reasons. He is nowhere near as provocative or idiosyncratic in this opera, as say, Calixto Bieto in his 2010 production, but nor is Tcherniakov as by the book as Mussbach (in what was, for a long time, the only available version and an ultimately inadequate at that).

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010

This is not to say Tcherniakov’s staging is not an interpretive one. Indeed, he takes a frightening, Orwellian approach. The tonal shift from soldier to business man casts the opera in a political sheen, which is apt as Berg’s libretto does not shy at all from such implications.

 

Tcherniakov Wozzeck 2010Alban Berg

Sociological themes abound. Wozzeck (Georg Nigel) is caught in a 21st century bourgeoise hell, living his postmodern, virtual life in perverse role playing games while failing to make human contact with his lover, Maire (Mardi Byers). Byers excels in her role of a frustrated sex symbol type. Their son is even more alienated, a constant, distant spectral presence, only coming to life with Wii remote control in hand.

And oh, that box.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

Nigel and Byers are as up to their respective roles vocally,as they are in the acting department. The remaining cast is uniformly superb, including Maxim Paster, as the Captain, Pyotr Migunov as the Doctor, and Xenia Vyaznikova as Margret.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

There is much more to Tcherniakov’s thoughtful concepts, which everyone can probably agree captures the contextual and gestural spirt of Alban Berg (of course, the opera fundamentalists will carp, but they can just go home).

Tcherniakov Wozzeck

The dvd includes a valuable making of documentary. There is room on Berg’s shelf for this Wozzeck.

Tcherniakov Wozzeck DVDAlban Berg by Schoenberg

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A lucidly filmed documentation of a mature Brucknerian’s energetic 4th

It could very well be that maestro Daniel Barenboim’s greatest contribution to music has been in filmed performances. Perhaps, none of his Wagner opera recordings, though “generally” excellent, could be considered reference versions. Yet, his filmed Ring and Parsifal (with Harry Kupfer), and three excellent Tristans (Ponnelle, the much missed Muller, and the recently departed enfant terrible Patrice Chereau) have no serious competition in the DVD market (it remains to be seen whether Barenboim’s 2010 Ring with Cassiers, coming to DVD this year, will hold its own).

Bruckner The Mature Symphonies Barenboim  Berlin

Barenboim’s recordings of the Beethoven piano sonatas, again, while A contender amongst contemporary pianists, will not retire the likes of Schnabel or Serkin. However, his filmed traversal is an epic and indispensable record of sound and vision. Likewise, the recent DVD production of the five Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Staatskapelle Berlin. The 2005 Ramallah Concert with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, despite the naysaying of a few hardened cynics, is one of the most joyously filmed musical celebrations extent.

DIGITAL CAMERA“Barenboim in Chicago”oil on canvas. Alfred Eaker ©2001

Though not generally known as a top conductor of Verdi, Debussy, Mahler, Schoenberg, or Boulez, Barenboim has collaborated in excellent filmed performances of the Requiem, La Mer, the 9th Symphony, Variations for Orchestra, and Notations. Of course, Barenboim has maintained a lifelong commitment to Bruckner with two complete cycles (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic). Both have their proponents and critics, possibly because like Barenboim himself, they are an uneven lot (and while all conductors are uneven, Barenboim is almost radically so). Regardless of one’s stance, few would argue that Barenboim’s way with Bruckner can displace acclaimed masters Furtwangler, Karajan, Kna, Jochum, Wand, Klemperer, Cleibidache, or Giulini (although I would subjectively argue a few of these). Accentus with Unitel Classics has produced Barenboim’s performances of the mature symphonies with Staatskapelle Berlin. So far, the 4th and 5th have been released and although Barenboim has considerably more extensive Brucknerian competition in the DVD/Blu-ray medium (Karajan, Wand, Celibidache) his first two entries have already met with critical accolades.

Barenboim

Bruckner once said that his music, like his faith, was boundlessly expansive. With that in mind, the inherent spiritual quality and devout Catholicity of Bruckner cannot be blanketed, but there is little worry in this since such is rarely the case (although some have argued that Boulez’s Bruckner does just that). The trend has long and often been the reverse: promoting the transcendental qualities at the expense of the music’s corporal muscularity and direct earthiness (which, just about Catholic would say are far more pronounced tenets, despite the trappings, of that epically complex faith).

DIGITAL CAMERA“Barenboim in Chicago” oil on canvas. Alfred Eaker © 1998

While Barenboim acknowledges the composition’s religiosity through the music’s hushed qualities, he commendably keeps it latent and opts for a red-blooded, dramatic reading that emphasizes the theatrical German tradition that he belongs to (and that is the key to Barenboim, as opposed to the tiresome, often repeated claims that he is a mere Furtwangler clone. Barenboim has about as much in common with the likes of Klemperer and Walter as he does Furtwangler).

Barenboim's Bruckner

The camerawork and sound are lucid and non-intrusive. This a welcome release to the DVD/Blu-ray market and can be acquired without reservations. Hopefully, symphonies 6-9 will be forthcoming in a timely manner.

DIGITAL CAMERA“Barenboim in Chicago” oil on canvas. Alfred Eaker © 1998

Not one for the opera fundamentalists, but a vital Figaro for the 21st century.

If one thinks comic book fans are a tad over-zealous in filmed approaches to their tight-wearing heroes, then a quick glance at reactions from many American opera fans, to contemporary opera, will reveal that those Marvel boys are a subdued lot. American opera fans tend to approach staged/filmed opera the way some fundamentalist Christians approach the good book, insisting on face value inerrancy and or the King James Version. So impassioned, or insistent on orthodox and/or period staging, are such American Opera fans that their first line of attack is to typically spew the over-used, tiresome, and oh so predictable “EURO-TRASH” slur. The idea, for those inclined, is to keep the composer locked in his or her own boxed time and, thus, shut the composer off to newer generations and fresh interpretations (Traditional Shakespeare fans are almost as bad). However, Mozart is still a vital voice in music, regardless of his worshippers. It is no accident that opera in Europe is far bigger, far more attended, and better supported than it is here in the states where the opera “fans” make a false religion out of the art form, slap an institutional sheen on it and transform breathing theater into a museum piece.

Over two hundred years after its debut, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date. There is, of course, Peter Sellars mid-nineties version which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower, but the line-up of the 2006 film should be a yield sign to opera fundamentalists. The conductor, Nikolas Harnoncourt, has a well-earned reputation for “weirdness.” In that, Harnoncourt,an Austrian by birth, possibly even surpasses that typically eccentric German music director Michael Gielen. Harnoncourt lead several of the M22 projects but Le nozze di Figaro is Harnoncourt at his most personal and insightful.Harnoncourt’s is not porcelain conducting here; he mirrors the disconcerting underside of Da Ponte’s libretto as interpreted by star director Claus Guth. Harnoncourt’s seasoned pacing reinforces the nuanced poignancy, beauty, mature humor, and prospective, life-affirming drama of this music. Thankfully, Harnoncourt does not try to coat Mozart’s writing with a kind of Rossini whipped topping.

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Claus Guth, Mozart, Czernowin: Relentless Communication

ZAIDE.ADAMA

Mozart’s unfinished Zaide is considered a slightly older, less memorable brother to the composer’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio.]. Zaide is a rescue opera, with a plot based on Voltaire’s “Zaire.” The exiled Christian Gomatz is visited by the Muslim harem slave Zaide, the sultan’s favorite concubine. Zaide falls in love with the enslaved Gomatz, rescues him, and together they flee with the aid of the overseer, Allazim. Zaide chooses spirited freedom over financial security, and invokes the Sultan’s wrath. Zaide and Gomatz are recaptured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Awaiting execution in the dungeon, Zaide remains defiant, and the opera abruptly stops with an emotional quartet in which the principals express their anxieties, hopes, and fears. Entfuhrung/Seraglio ended on an optimistic note. Had it been completed, it is doubtful Zaide would have followed suit; Voltaire’s original play ended tragically. Zaide ends with the Sutlan’s decision to kill Zaide and Gomatz. The unhappy ending may have been the reason for Mozart’s eventual abandonment of the project.

For his Salzburg production, Claus Guth’s intertwines Mozart’s neglected, unfinished work with Adama (Earth in Hebrew), by 21st century Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, commissioned especially for this project. During Mozart’s brief lifetime, he worked with traditional forms and then, especially later in his career, defied those forms. It is one of the great tragedies of music that Mozart did not live another ten to twenty years. His late works (such as the Symphony in G minor ) saw Mozart at his most expansive and innovative. To achieve a true Mozartean spirit, contemporary directors, when interpreting Mozart, should first and foremost forget that this is the work of “THE” Mozart.

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THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: OLIVIER PY’S LULU (2011)

Alban Berg (1885-1934) may be the most notorious member of the Second Viennese School, even more so than leader Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and Anton Webern (1883-1945). Berg, the most romantic of the school, was as influenced by Gustav Mahler as Schoenberg. Berg died young and did not live long enough to compose a large a body of work. However, he did compose what may very well be the two most repulsive operas ever written. Even Schoenberg was aghast, and urged his younger colleague to discontinue writing such filth. A premature death stopped Berg from finishing his final opera, “Lulu.” He completed two of the three acts and the final act was completed in the short particell format. Some forty years later, Friedrich Cerha completed the orchestration for the third act, which premiered under the direction of Pierre Boulez. Both “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” are extreme operas from an extreme composer. One would think that this fact would make opera fans receptive to interpretive stagings.

Olivier Py belongs to that school of enfant terrible stage directors working in European opera today. Py, while creating mixed reactions in Europe, is among the most in-demand and successful stage directors. Singers clamor to work for him, his productions usually sell out within a matter of hours, and are almost always considered newsworthy events. The European climate for opera stems from a different mindset altogether. Most telling was a recent newscast covering the expressionist nightmare “Magic Flute” staged by Martin Kusej. This “Flute” received wildly mixed reactions. The audience was torn between passionate applause and equally passionate catcalls. The newscaster shrugged: “It would not be an event if opera goers were not challenged.”

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THE UNCOMPROMISING ALBAN BERG: CALIXTO BIEITO’S WOZZECK

Calixto Bieito’s 2006 staging of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” has reaped equal parts praise and damnation from critics and audiences. It is a powerfully reprehensible staging of a powerfully reprehensible opera.

Wozzeck is a common solider, shaving his Captain. The Captain chastises him for having fathered an illegitimate child with one Marie. Wozzeck defends his lack of virtue, explaining that he is too destitute to have the blessings of the Church, but Wozzeck reminds his superior of Christ’s words “suffer not the little children.” The Captain heaps even more abuse and scorn on Wozzeck, and the soldier becomes indignant.

Wozzeck and his friend Andres are cutting sticks in a field as the sun sets. Wozzeck tells Andres of horrifying visions and Andres unsuccessfully tries to offer Wozzeck reassurance. Wozzeck visits The Doctor. The Doctor scolds him for abandoning his diet. The Doctor, who is obviously insane, is delighted, however, when Wozzeck tells him of the violent visions he has been having. Meanwhile, Marie notices the regiment’s Drum Major, and the two begin an affair. The Drum Major gives Marie earrings as he parts. Feeling remorse for her infidelity, Marie sings her child a lullaby.

Wozzeck returns him and tells Marie of his hallucinations. Marie is disturbed and the tension between the two of them escalates when Wozzeck notices Marie’s new earrings and begins to question her about them. Wozzeck’s jealousy engulfs him, and he becomes wild with visions of blood.

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HUMANIZING MESSIAH

There are endlessly fascinating artistic directors working in the art of opera. Then, there are great artists. Claus Guth is a great artist. In his 2009 staging of Handel’s “Messiah,” Guth calls to mind the Protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that the Church had become inadequate in speaking about God. Bonhoeffer was embarrassed by the Church’s failure to convey the shocking, liberating, revolutionary power of the divine ideal. To attain that, Bonhoeffer once symbolically suggested a one hundred year moratorium on the name (and word) God. Perhaps then, the name and word could be attained.

Guth’s “Messiah” inhabits Bonhoeffer’s realm with a strikingly prophetic voice. We are, unwittingly or not, starved for such a challenging and provocative voice. Guth’s productions have never been less than impressive. Fortunately, many of these have been filmed and are available on DVD: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (2006), the Mozart/Czernowin Zaide (2006), Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos (2006), Franz Schubert’s Fierrabras (2007), Mozart’s Don Giovanni (2008) and 2011’s Cosi fan tutti (Guth’s most uneven production and an odd fit in his Da Ponte trilogy ). From Guth’s body of work on film, it is clear why he is such an in-demand artist.

Still, I was not prepared for his version of Handel’s perennial favorite, Messiah (2010). Guth’s staging has been called agnostic, and that might be an apt description according to the traditional meaning (as opposed to contemporary interpretation) of the word. Simultaneously, this may also be the most “Christian” filmed religious narrative since Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991). Guth’s Messiah makes an overly familiar yuletide narrative startling again. This production was staged for the 250th anniversary of George Frideric Handel’s death. I believe Handel would have approved.

The history of the composition is well known. Handel was in ill health, destitute, and on the verge on being sent to debtor’s prison when he received a commission from librettist Charles Jennens to write an oratorio on Christ’ Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The libretto was a pastiche, borrowing from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayers. Handel composed it within three weeks and insisted on its being performed in secular theaters, as opposed to churches. Handel’s decision was harshly criticized by the churches, but it was an enormous success. Handel paid off his debts and used his extra earnings from “Messiah” to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and give comfort to those in prison.

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