Tuesday, 24 February 2015

A Great Operatic Comedy

I'm using the term "operatic comedy" instead of "comic opera" for a reason.  Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is a comedy in the classical sense of a piece that invites us to laugh at the characters while ruefully recognizing ourselves in them.  It's not  by any means a lightweight operetta -- after all, this is Wagner!  Indeed, measured by the clock, it's his longest single music drama.  But it's a humane, warm-hearted work that beguiles us with its inherent idea that perhaps, just this once, all can indeed be put right with the world.

A lot of the warm-hearted character of Die Meistersinger derives from a simple musical fact.  In this opera, Wagner set aside many of the advanced chromatic harmonies colouring his other works, as well as his developing mastery of flexible tempo and phrasing.  Die Meistersinger operates largely in a world of straightforward diatonic harmonies, with major keys predominating, and contains far more simple 4-bar musical phrases than any other work by the mature Wagner.

The characters in Die Meistersinger are so developed in terms of their motives and their actions that the score totally demands powerful Wagnerian singers who are also fine actors.  In this piece especially, the old bad tradition of stand-and-deliver singing would be absolutely fatal to the impact of the whole work. 

This opera also raises a problem which is almost unique among Wagner's mature masterworks (discounting his earlier operas, Lohengrin and those before it).  That is the need to plan and to stage scenes with large numbers of chorus members who need to be very actively in motion from time to time, according to the demands of the drama.  Parsifal is a rather different case because the choral scenes are so strongly ritualistic that a great deal of action is neither necessary nor desirable.  Really, the only comparisons in mature Wagner are found in the Nibelheim scenes of Das Rheingold and in the wedding festival of Götterdämmerung.  

And although I haven't counted bars, I suspect there is more work for the chorus (certainly for the female chorus) than in all the rest of the mature Wagner works combined!  Die Meistersinger thus joins the short list of operas in which the chorus basically serves as an additional, and pretty significant, character  in its own right -- another feature of the score which the staging necessarily must acknowledge.

Die Meistersinger is also an opera in which staging has to at least suggest Germany in the Renaissance.  A strongly modern setting, which would evoke some very different and very contemporary social attitudes as well, would end up in conflict with the society so clearly delineated in the text as written.  For these reasons, I've always felt that this opera works best when placed in a visual setting that gives more than a mere nod in the direction of Nuremberg.

The Metropolitan Opera's current production, directed in the 1990s by Otto Schenk, (which I saw yesterday live in HD at the Cineplex) goes much further than simply a suggestion.  Gunther Schneider-Siemssen's stage setting is not merely period-apt, but heavily realistic and very detailed.  Since the opera requires four different sets among its three acts, the Met necessarily has to schedule two lengthy intermissions of 45 minutes each (no bad thing for the audience in such a long work!) to allow the huge and heavy sets to be dismantled and replaced.

From the viewpoint of the audience, the richly detailed settings and costumes land us squarely in the proper time and place -- Nuremberg in the 1500s -- and allow us to appreciate the nuances of character relationships appropriate to that society.  We also got the fascinating opportunity to appreciate the stagecraft involved.  A set of cameras were used backstage to film the first major set change from start to finish, and this footage was shown on screen during the intermission, complete with sound.

Costuming also very aptly highlighted the social gradations of the cast.  Clothes were for the most part sober and workaday, but even the festive costumes of the final festival scene were dressy without becoming over-elaborate.  The one exception, of course, was the final costume of Walther (the one nobleman in the story) which rightly made him stand out like a peacock among the townsfolk -- a doubly-apt simile since his costume was coloured in the hues of a peacock's tail.

Many of the scenes require a good deal of movement on the part of the characters, not surprising in a comic opera where confusions of identity and concealments of one sort or another are de rigeur.  The sets allowed ample space for the principals to move about, with the necessary nooks and crannies (read: hideouts) all well placed.  The hiding place of Eva and Walther in Act 2 was especially good, a shadowy corner well downstage left where they could easily be seen by the audience but wouldn't pull focus from the main action in the centre and down right.

Sadly, the one exception to this quality of fine stage pictures occurred in the two biggest scenes with the chorus, the riot at the end of Act 2 and the festival procession at the start of the final scene.  The Met Chorus, wonderful as it is, took up so much space that only a small area down centre was available for the various shenanigans that had to occur.  I saw the opera staged over 20 years ago at the Royal Opera House in London, and there the riot scene was a whirl of motion and action -- admittedly with a much barer setting.  Somehow, the director has to build in more motion because the Act 2 ending, as staged, hardly justified the description of "riot" which is applied to it by Beckmesser in the next act.

The singing cast was universally strong, as you would expect from the Met, and all the principals were fine actors as well as fine singers.  Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was a warm-toned Magdalena, with apt face and body language for this servant with a heart of gold who is also devoted to the great scheme.  The apprentice David was sung with great verve and precision by Paul Appleby, a young tenor who will certainly be one to watch in coming years.  He was also notable as one of the strongest actors in the company.

Johannes Martin Kränzle made a very strong Beckmesser, bringing out the all the character's fussiness and pedantry while still making him unexpectedly sympathetic.  It's far too easy to turn Beckmesser into an unlikable old fool, but this was a more human and believable portrayal.  His singing, too, was excellent,  maintaining pitch clearly in even the fastest and most awkward passages in this challenging role.

Bass Hans-Peter König sang with warmth and feeling as Pogner, although his acting was much more limited than other company members.

Annette Dasch was a charming Eva.  At first she seemed a little limited in her range of both vocal and physical expression, but by Act 3 she was fully warmed up in both areas.  The opening of the famous quintet was a sheer delight as her clear soprano began with a mere thread and then slowly swelled to glorious full voice.

Johan Botha was a fine Walther, in one of the most challenging of all tenor roles.  The poor man has to appear in all three acts, spend a great deal of time on the stage, and deliver three major songs, the last of which -- the daunting Prize Song -- soars to the greatest heights with the fullest of expressive singing demanded.  It's by no means an exercise merely in pumping out sound.  Botha was certainly beginning to sound a bit tired by this point (has there ever been a Walther who didn't sound tired in the Prize Song?) but he still gave it his all, and richly deserved the cheers at the final curtain.

Which brings us to the heart and soul of any Meistersinger: the role of Hans Sachs.  This surely ranks as the richest, most complex, most heart-warming character Wagner ever created.  Baritone Michael Volle remarked in his intermission interview that he felt Sachs was Wagner's portrayal of the man that he wished he could have been, an interesting idea.  Volle combined strong and flexible singing with first-rate acting to create the character in all his vivid and varied personality.  This Sachs was, by turns, warm, funny, bitter, sharp, depressed, exhilarated, and profound, just as he had to be.  It was, by any standards, a memorable performance.

That covers the characters individually.  They also worked well as a team.  In the complex ensemble passages of Act 1 and Act 2 you could easily dive in and single out any one voice to follow, as the balance of all the voices was exemplary.  This was also true of the magnificent Quintet in Act 3, and here the beauty and poise of the singing actually brought a lump in my throat and tears to my eyes.
So, of course, did the final chorus that crowns the whole work, recapitulating the closing bars of the famous overture.  The Met Chorus were simply splendid here, having carefully saved their biggest, grandest sound of the entire evening for this final one and a half minutes of glory.

And speaking of glory, let us by no means neglect the magnificent playing of the Met's orchestra under their music director James Levine.  Sadly, Maestro Levine now has to conduct from a wheelchair but this in no way diminishes his obvious love for this score, and the playing of the orchestra under his careful direction was exemplary throughout.

It was unquestionably a long evening -- the cinecast began at 6:00pm and ended a few minutes after midnight -- but it was wonderfully rewarding.

This was the final repeat broadcast of this year's video production.  However, if you would like to see and hear the piece on video, there's a DGG DVD of an earlier staging of the same production from some years back, with James Morris in the central role of Hans Sachs and also under Levine's baton, which is still available.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Anti-Romantic Version of The First Romantic Opera

Mozart's Don Giovanni, subtitled in the score as a dramma giocoso, is considered by most musicians to be the greatest single achievement of its creator in the operatic realm.  To me, it definitely appears as the first great flash of light in what would come to be known as the "Romantic era" in music.

Mozart stakes his turf right in the first two chords of the overture.  Those thunderous chords, and the dogged slow march that follows them will of course re-appear in the penultimate scene when the statue of the Commendatore comes to dinner and then casts the unrepentant Don Giovanni (Don Juan in Spanish) into Hell.  It's powerful, deeply unsettled music, and definitely reaches far forwards from the well-defined and well-mannered courtly world in which Mozart began his career.  Any stage production of this masterwork has to take account of that one foot planted far ahead of the composer's own time, while also finding a way to deal with the other foot as firmly planted in the conventions of the late eighteenth century theatre. 

The Canadian Opera Company's new production is the second I've seen from this company.  The first, some years back, was a rather lame effort in which the director and designer -- after a fairly traditional take on the entire story -- saw fit to imply that the appearance of the statue was just a cutesy little pantomime staged by two of the other characters to scare Don Giovanni into repentance.  Oh, please.  The major effect of this directorial conceit was to make nonsense of the truly frightening music which accompanies this scene.

This opera was written in a time when Hell was a very real concept to the vast majority of people, Mozart probably not excepted.  I'm not going to argue that we ought to stage it as if we were in an eighteenth century theatre, but at the same time I see no good purpose to be served by imposing a demeaning gloss of twenty-first century scepticism onto the traditional story. 

So, now that I've staked my turf, let's look at this new production.

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov has done a significant rewriting of the opera's libretto by altering all the relationships among the characters so that all of them, except Don Giovanni himself, are members of or connected to a single family, a well-to-do modern family.  The entire action takes place in one single room of their home.  He has then ripped open the libretto's use of a single 24-hour time frame by recasting the scenes over a period of several months.  As the production progressed, these innovations caused more and more difficulty by conflicting with the sung text of the opera in various ways.  These jarring inconsistencies -- and they were jarring -- could quite well have been resolved by "dropping the other shoe", so to speak, and also rewriting the sung text.  Then the work could quite clearly have been presented as "Don Giovanni, music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, adapted by Dmitri Tcherniakov."  But that was a step that Tcherniakov did not take.  I wonder if he did not dare to go that far. 

By going as far as he did, he has already significantly altered the nature of the work he was staging.  This is risky territory for any creative artist to enter.  How far can you go without effectively creating a new work of art, your own, out of the fragments of the previous work?  I don't feel that Tcherniakov exactly crossed this line, but he came dangerously close to doing so.  The results were challenging, and at times stimulating, but I don't feel on the whole that the approach served Mozart or the audience especially well.

The program booklet included a lengthy Director's Note which I read after the performance.  It did not clarify at all the staging of the second act, which was especially baffling.  Why were all the characters grouped together around the stage in attitudes suggestive of a catatonic stupor?  What motivation caused each one to come to life when his/her turn to sing arrived, and then lapse back into silence, stillness and possible madness?  Not only confusing, this was also -- quite frankly -- boring. 

So was the excessive use in Act II of stand-and-deliver singing, where the performer simply stands still in one spot while singing.  When the entire stage picture telegraphs detachment, non-involvement, disinterest, and inaction to the audience -- what is there to interest or involve the audience?

The other point which grated on me especially was the confusion which Tcherniakov's changes caused around Zerlina and Masetto.  In the original text, they are members of the peasant class, and the scenes involving them are totally coloured by the power dynamics of class.  Don Giovanni, as an aristocrat and landowner has immense power over this couple.  In Tcherniakov's version, where they appear as his social equals, the sung text becomes nonsensical. 

The time lapses which Tcherniakov built into the story became simply annoying, as each one was announced by a subtitle projected on the black curtain that collapsed across the stage at each of the numerous scene breaks.  Those breaks also interrupted the flow of the action to excess.  Of course in a traditional production scene changes have to happen, but is it really necessary to keep lowering the curtain?  Those subtitles could equally well appear on the Surtitle screen above the proscenium.

One other directorial choice caused significant problems.  Tcherniakov aptly chose to present Don Giovanni and his sidekick Leporello as fountains of energy, in contrast to the relatively static behaviour of the other characters.  Fair enough.  But having the singers moving too energetically -- while singing -- caused periodic dropouts in the vocal sound.  Since the pre-eminent feature that distinguishes opera from theatre is the singing, I certainly have to complain when the stage movement makes the music vanish!  If this happens in a house of relatively modest size like the Four Seasons Centre, how much worse would the problem be in one of the more cavernous major opera houses of the world?

If all of this sounds like the production was a resounding flopperoo, be not deceived.  The musical quality of the performance was totally impressive, right across the board.  The singing cast were uniformly strong.  Among the women in the company I would single out Jennifer Holloway as Donna Elvira, who rose very effectively to both the musical and dramatic challenges always present in this conflicted character, as well as the extra challenges inherent in Tcherniakov's re-visioning of the opera.  Her powerful rendering of Mi tradi was a major highlight of Act 2.   Canadian tenor Michael Schade, a world-renowned Mozart specialist, sang with great finesse and beauty as Don Ottavio, including the use of his finest light tones in pianissimo singing that was still clearly audible in every note.  Sasha Dijahanian impressed with her lovely clear tone as Zerlina, while also effectively portraying the young woman bewitched by Don Giovanni's powerful personality.

Baritone Kyle Ketelson was a fine Leporello, his playful acting complementing his magnificent singing in the famous Catalogue Aria in which he discusses the contents of Don Giovanni's "little black book" with Donna Elvira.  His onstage acting partnership with Don Giovanni definitely cranked up the energy level whenever the two appeared together.

In the title role, Russell Braun gave a memorable performance.  This production demands that the Don descend by degrees into dissolution, his drinking becoming progressively more extreme as the voice and face of the Commendatore haunts him.  In the end, he dies on stage from what appears to be a heart attack.  My sister (who attended the show with me) aptly commented that he didn't need to be dragged into hell because he was already there.  I would agree, and add that the hell he suffered wasn't even of his own making since the forces within him driving him through his life to his death were too great even for him to control.  Braun captured all the degrees of this descent powerfully and clearly, and matched it with singing of even greater power and energy.  His greatest moment was his high-stakes reading of the near-impossible Finch'han dal vino, the high speed delivery of the text well paired with an energetic staging that yet made the aria completely audible and intelligible. 

Conductor Michael Hofstetter in his COC debut drew beguiling sounds from the orchestra and led a nimble, alert reading that strongly supported the singers.  As a musician, my one quibble lies with the powerful opening of the overture.  Why, oh, why is it considered impossible to play that thunderous opening as Mozart wrote it?  The rolling chord of D Minor lasts five beats with a clearly marked three beats of rest following, but in practice (last night being no exception) you get maybe 1.5 to 1.7 beats of rest if you are lucky.  If there is such a thing as "grammar" in music (I believe there is) the failure to respect those three full beats of rest makes nonsense of the opening chords.  Some day, maybe I'll hear a conductor who is brave enough to play it as Mozart wrote it.  Maybe.

You will never get such a thing as a "definitive" interpretation of a masterpiece like Don Giovanni.  It ranks as one of those art works which can be infinitely re-interpreted for centuries after its creation.  This COC production certainly was challenging, intriguing, and maddening in equal measures.  The director's conception was an interesting one, even when it conflicted with the text.  The musical values of the performance were first-rate throughout.  Where it failed was with the staging of the second act, with all its confusing and tedious stillness, and unclear stage pictures.  This, I think, was probably responsible for the rather "polite" applause which greeted the closing curtain, applause which really only became enthusiastic with the appearance at the end of the curtain calls by Leporello and Don Giovanni.  This entire cast of singers certainly deserved better recognition for their fine work.