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More than ten years after the production of Nikolaus Lehnhof in 2007, Tannhäuser returns to Amsterdam. Christof Loy stages for the Dutch National Opera a new production of the opera that would keep Richard Wagner occupied until the end of his life. "I still owe the world another Tannhäuser," he would have said just before his death. Tannhäuser is about the classic struggle between heart and mind, lust and love and what it means to be a man (or human being for that matter). 
© Monika Rittershaus (DNO 2019)
He lived there from 1839 to 1842, sought the support of Meyerbeer, but Richard Wagner saw his attempts to work his way up to an established name in Paris (the cultural capital of Europe, of the world) fail. In 1861, to his great delight, he seemed to be given another chance when he was asked to stage a French production of his opera Tannhäuser in Paris. Extensive preparations followed; the music was revised, the sets were designed by three artist who were amongst the most famous of their time, and more than 160 rehearsals took place until the premiere.
 
It wasn't supposed to be. Tannhäuser in Paris was a fiasco. Main cause: the Jockey Club, a group of men of the aristocracy who had to miss their ballet at the beginning of the second act because Richard Wagner, that stubborn Teutone, allowed artistic reasons to take precedence over the conventions of the Grand Opera. Wagner had placed the ballet at the beginning of the opera, at the end of the overture, because from a narrative point of view it was best placed there. The members of the Jockey Club, who were usually still having dinner during the first act, and more into the bosoms and bare legs of the ballerinas than into opera, were all but pleased. They disturbed the performances to such an extent, handed out whistles and rattles to the audience, that Wagner felt compelled to withdraw the opera after three performances. Despite the fact that he found supporters and kindred spirits in French artists, such as Charles Baudelaire, Wagner would not live to see the day that he would be a household name in Paris; it did not leave him without a grudge. "Without any pose, I assure you that I do not believe in any revolution more than the one that starts with the burning down of Paris," he wrote, and in 1870, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, Cosima writes in her diary: "Paris is being bombed, who doesn't want to listen, has to feel [...] Rumours about a truce. To our displeasure, R. wishes a bombardment."
© Monika Rittershaus (DNO 2019)
In his new production of Tannhäuser for the Dutch National Opera, director Christof Loy brings Paris and Wagner together again. He has the Jockey Club appear as well as knights of the Wartburg as participants of the bacchanal in the mountain of Venus. The world of Venus and the Wartburg come together in what most resembles a painting by Degas (Foyer de la Danse). One world, one stage image, in which lust and prudery come together, separated only by the male perspective on the woman - the way in which the man sees a woman (as a saint or as a whore).
 
The story of Tannhäuser is the story of a man who tries to find a balance between these two opposites (are they really opposites?); a search for the answer to the question how to be a man, how to be a human being. In his career, Wagner would repeatedly return to the question of lust & love, salvation and the role of women in it. In a superlative way. His talent to expose the drama hidden in the human condition with compelling musical prose can be considered awe inspiring and well-known.

© Monika Rittershaus (DNO 2019)
Tannhäuser (consistently addressed as Heinrich, named after the semi-mythical minstrel Heinrich von Ofterdingen) begins the opera that bears his name behind a piano, composing. As the overture progresses, the room changes from a quiet artist's place into a bacchanal in which members of the Jockey Club are chasing ballerinas. The staging of the overture is, as is often the case in this opera, the part that appeals most to the imagination. There is nudity and sex, with or without consent. We are in the mountain of Venus, that part of the masculine mind where the woman serves only as a prey for red hot testosterone. After a long stay there Tannhäuser has enough. He is fed up with constant copulation, he wants to return to the mortal world, to nature, to the world where he will be able to be creative again. The instant satisfaction in Venus' garden of lust deprives him of the inner struggle necessary to give birth to a dancing star (after Nietzsche who, at the moment that Wagner started composing Tannhäuser, wasn't even born).
​so, daß mein Sehnen ewig brenne,
lab an dem Quell ich ewig mich!
Und wisse, Walther, so erkenne
der Liebe wahrstes Wesen ich.
(Tannhäuser)
That my desire may ever burn
I will ever refresh myself at the source!
Then know, Wolfram, thus do I conceive
love's truest essence to be!
(Tannhäuser)
Wagner would later present an unsurpassed and all-encompassing argument for it with Tristan und Isolde, but the premise that art is unrealized sex is already hinted at in Tannhäuser. Tannhäuser, the minstrel of the Wartburg, is left behind in the coital world of Venus with an unsatisfactory feeling and asks the goddess of lust to let him go. The goddess feels rejected and is surprised that Tannhäuser wants to return to the mortal world; she is shocked by his ingratitude. What Tannhäuser really wants becomes not entirely clear. Once back in the world where pure love is considered the highest ideal, the Wartburg, the world in which Elisabeth is waiting for him, he insults and shocks his entourage by chanting the glory of lust. The source does not dry up by drinking from it, he tells his friend Wolfram during the Sängerkrieg, the singing contest in the second act. Wolfram von Eschenbach is, in this production perhaps even more so than usual, with Tannhäuser the most important male character of the opera. His struggling with his ideas about pure love, his inability to indulge in lust, puts him in sharp contrast with the rest of the members of the Jockey Club whose madonna-whore complex is as big as the hypocrisy they are guilty of. The hypocrisy, that lurks in the background when they condemning Tannhäuser, is prominently placed in the foreground by Loy. Here hypocrisy is not just suggested for those who want to see it but find an unambiguous representation on stage.
© Monika Rittershaus (DNO 2019)
The masculine inability to see love and lust as a unity is reason for Loy to supply both the world of Venus and the world of the Wartburg with the same stage image. The result is a rather static space that is not abstract enough to be interpreted too broadly. As a consequence the emphasis lies, almost automatically, on the Personenregie. This works very well in the mass scenes (with a magnificent chorus!). The more intimate scenes would probably have benefited from a higher dynamic in the scenery; for a more compelling effect, the suggestive music could have been paired with a more inventive graphic representation.

© Monika Rittershaus (DNO 2019)
Tannhäuser's struggle, his quest, his audacity plus the fact that he too - as in a Sartrean world (l'enfer c'est les autres) - gives in to peer pressure (let's go to Rome) make him like a real man. It makes him one of the more sympathetic characters who usually populate a Wagner opera. In Daniel Kirch's interpretation, Tannhäuser is more of a troublemaker than a hero, a man for whom the creation of turmoil almost is like a goal in itself. Kirch had to look for the pedals at the start but once going his performance fitted in perfectly with Loy's concept.
 
Wolfram was an exceptionally strong role by Björn Burger, a powerful interpretation of a person full of doubt- it made the principled Wolfram a more congenial man, less of a trotter, than he usually can be.
© Monika Rittershaus (DNO 2019)
Stephen Milling, who combines a tall posture with an equally large voice, is a regular inhabitant of the Wagner-sphere. The Danish bass (a.o. Hunding in the Copenhagen Ring, Hagen in the Bayreuther Castorf Ring) sung and acted Landgraf Hermann with known authority. It is a role he will also sing later in the year in Munich and Bayreuth (in the new Tannhäuser production of Tobias Kratzer, theatre maker who directed a roaring Contes d'Hoffmann, DNO’s closure of last season). As Elisabeth's uncle, he is organising a singing contest, a singing contest with a woman as the main prize ( Wagner would take it as starting point for his Meistersinger) in which the old partriarchal convention, the woman as a commodity, as a kind of Stepford Wife, is ubiquitous. Loy deserves credit for breaking open Tannhäuser's patriarchal world, putting it in a perspective that synchronizes more with topical times, without turning the result in something artificial.
© Monika Rittershaus (DNO 2019)
It is Wagner's instinct, his genius, that saves Tannhäuser (the opera) from a grotesque gap between love and lust. He turns the goddess Venus into a woman who wants love as well as lust, and Elisabeth, a model of pure spiritual love, a woman who longs for sensual pleasures. With music, he juxtaposes both body and mind, while at the same time lets them intertwine. Loy had both women, following Wagner's instinct and not his libretto, appear at the beginning of the third act. Like two women embodying together that one woman that the man does not see (or does not want to see).
 
In Amsterdam, Ekaterina Gubanova made her role debut as Venus. She will also sing the role in Bayreuth this summer. Her voice was a bit sharp, which was not entirely out-of-character, with a convincing stage presentation. Her Venus was a multi-layered woman who did not get stuck in lust and envy and carried the weight of her role on strong but sensitive human shoulders.
© Monika Rittershaus (DNO 2019)
That drama and beauty often go hand in hand was proven by Elisabeth's performance by the Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova. In an ethereal sound garden, Aksenova picked flowers of desire and clamped a rose of passion between her teeth. She brought to life an Elisabeth who carried with her both the exaltation and the drama of love, in which her love for Tannhäuser, which she loved more than the other way around, condemned her to a certain death; the only one in the opera as we shall see. Her performance gave her character a beauty that by Elkisabeth's inevitable faith took on a monumental dimension. From her Teure Halle, at the start of the second act, she expressed an irresistible desire for something pure in this world, something that has not yet been affected and contaminated, like snow that is still free of footsteps ...

Like snow …
There are various ways for a director to trigger a singer/actor. For Svetlana Aksenova, the word "snow", brought up by Christof Loy, worked wonders. It opened a door in Aksenova's Russian soul and plunged her into an extraordinarily impassioned interpretation of Elisabeth.
Like Lucas van Lierop, who took care of the role of Heinrich der Schreiber, Julietta Aleksanyan comes from the Dutch National Opera Studio, the training institute of the Dutch National Opera. As the young shepherdess she reached to great heights in the first act - a performance that promised much for the future
 
In Tannhäuser, Wagner is still a few operas away from his leitmotivated tapestries of sound; the orchestral accompaniment is of a rather austere nature, is characterised by an economic use of ideas and deliberate chosen moments of exuberance. It is music that Wagner would revise several times after the premiere in Dresden and to which he would add beneficent, mystical sounds. Sounds that would bear witness to his newly acquired musical findings in a Tristanesque world, anticipating Sacre-like violence. Sounds that are like a second home for conductor Marc Albrecht. As always, Albrecht let the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra shine in romantic repertoire. In 2020 Albrecht will leave the Dutch National Opera - unfortunately without having conducted a complete Ring cycle - and with his orchestra he laid the foundation for what was a strong performance indeed.

© Monika Rittershaus (DNO 2019)
For the redemption of the man, the woman has to die, it's a constancy with Wagner. In this production Elisabeth does indeed die by taking on Tannhäuser's sins but in addition to Tannhäuser's salvation she also provides salvation for everyone. Tannhäuser stays alive and the opera ends as it started, with an orgy. Tannhäuser slowly begins to understand the depth of Elisabeth's sacrifice and removes himself from Venus. The cheerfulness on stage comes with a bitter taste, for one may wonder what one has really learned from it all. When asked how to find the balance, in life, between the sensual and the spiritual, Loy explicitly leaves the answer open.
 
There is usually no shortage of quality in the Wagner performances of the Dutch National Opera and also this Tannhäuser can be considered (after an excellent Tristan last year) first rate. Wagner-lovers know enough by now, as do the rest of the opera-loving public: they will find their way to the Muziektheater in Amsterdam.
Dutch National Opera 6 April 2019 (premiere):
Dates 6 April until 1  May

Conductor: Marc Albrecht
Netherlands Philharmonisch Orchestra
Stage direction: Christof Loy
Decor: Johannes Leiacker
Costumes: Ursula Renzenbrink

Tannhäuser: Daniel Kirch
Elisabeth: Svetlana Aksenova
Venus: Ekaterina Gubanova
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Björn Bürger
Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen: Stephen Milling
Walther von der Vogelweide: Attilio Glaser
Heinrich der Schreiber: Lucas van Lierop
Ein junger Hirt: Julietta Aleksanyan
- Wouter de Moor
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Why bother about the tempi in a Wagner opera or the orchestration of a Schumann symphony if one can at the same time listen, not literally of course, to one of the most extreme forms of music on the planet, deathcore, and actually enjoy that? Why bother about  contrapunctal finesse and orchestration in Bach and Mahler when all it takes is an unholy barking from the pits of hell to entertain oneself? Does brute primal force not exclude layered, 'civilized' craft, and vice versa?
​If extreme music only was about relentless noise, about extremism as a goal in itself, about violent mayhem as a gimmick, than those questions - with ears apparently not in need of distinguishing racket from music - would meet an answer that would exist of just echoing the question: indeed why bother. If the vocal lines (see the accompanying clip for illustration) were only about moaning like an animal, without context, listening to it would not have been fun but in music, good music, that shakes and slides over the gravel pit chords of a D-tuned hardcore guitar - creator of sounds of concrete - the grunt becomes something exciting & fascinating by which the song escapes the syntax, the predictability of its simple chorus-couplet scheme. Out of the guttoral vocals and heavy instrumentation a world emerges, an aural representation of a state of being; nature-wise, mentally and/or physically, in which one recognizes things that forces one to awe, things that one most likely prefers to keep at an appropriate distance in daily life. 
Elysia- Masochist [2006] (Full Album Stream) HD - YouTube
Isn't that exactly one of the beautiful things in art? To enjoy and enrich oneself, to get to know something, with what one prefers to avoid otherwise? It is the emancipation of dissonance, a way to tell with dissonances, disturbing sounds, a story that in the core is sensitive to the things most beautiful and thus vulnerable in life. It is music, in my experience,  that  cares for the love in life, rather than for hate and/or nihilism.   

Topics in the genre often range from teenage angst, depression to downright suicidal thoughts. They testify to the hardship of life and provide, at best, a channeling of emotions. They are, if possible, an airbag for heavy incentives. It gives the music, in this case deathcore, a beating heart, testimony to the sensitivity of its musicians, that is not to ignore but as it is with programme music ((late-)romantic compositions by Liszt and Strauss) it are one's own associations rather than the accompanying programme, in this case the lyrics, which provides the real impact, turning the listening into an experience to cherish.

​\../
- Wouter de Moor
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De Nederlandse Reisopera brings Korngold's Die Tote Stadt to life
© Marco Borggreve
ten De Nederlandse Reisopera, the opera nomads who keep surprising us with interesting and inventive productions, brings in the darkest months of the year Die Tote Stadt to life on the various stages in Holland. After an extraordinary Fliegende Holländer last year (read the review here), they take with Die Tote Stadt again a German opera to the stage in which the concentric circles that revolves around love (preferably unconditionally) and death (always irrevocably) come together in a production in which great gestures are always in connection with the most subtle of feelings and the theatrical potential that lies in this late-romantic piece is articulated with skill. It results in an evening filled with lyrical drama, to experience, as often in good art, on multiple levels.

Die Tote Stadt is the third opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold who had, at the time of composing, with Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, already two successful operas (as a 23-year-old!) to his name. The success of these operas made Die Tote Stadt, even before the premiere, to a sought-after piece, of which several theatres in Germany competed with each other to be allowed to give the world premiere. This eventually led to the rather unique situation that in 1920 the world premiere took place simultaneously in Köln and Hamburg (Otto Klemperer conducted in Köln, his wife sang the role of Marietta there). Despite the success of his operas and the fact that at the age of 11 the composer had been labeled by Gustav Mahler as a musical genius (he better didn't go to the conservatory, there was nothing he could learn there any more), Korngold's career was ultimately one in which the expectations raised at a young age were not completely fulfilled. This was, in part, due to the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. Because of them the composer fled to America (to find a job in Hollywood). There the film soundtracks earned him two Oscars (for Anthony Adverse and The Adventures of Robin Hood) but the step from a composer of operas to a composer of moviescores would seriously damage Korngold's image as a serious composer. 
In 1920 the world premiere of 'Die Tote Stadt' took place simultaneously in Köln and Hamburg. Otto Klemperer conducted in Köln, where his wife sang the role of Marietta.
Die Tote Stadt is an opera about a man in Bruges who scourges himself and his immediate surroundings with the memory of his deceased beloved Marie. It is the story of Paul who has locked himself up in a room that he has decorated as a temple for the woman whose death he cannot accept. Death shows itself inexorably in his mind and any attempt by his friends to free that mind, to penetrate it, seems doomed to failure. The battle with what is frozen in time seems to be a futile one with everything that can lead to a possible new life a testament to the inviolability of death. Marietta, in whom Paul recognizes his deceased beloved, finds him a strange guy but feels attracted to him nonetheless. It will be her will to life that ultimately causes her to attempt to persuade Paul to exchange the memory of his deceased Marie for a new life with her, a new love.

Music and libretto follow Paul's journey from the dark grey world of the first act to a world full of colour, the world of Marietta,  in the following acts. Marietta is mirrored, projected on a large screen, to a few female protagonists from Hitchcock films. Kim Novak, Grace Kelly and Janet Leigh. Portraits of actresses who are like visual leitmotifs. They indicate what Marietta is; the woman as a substitute (Kim Novak in Vertigo), and they predict her fate (Janet Leigh in Psycho). Marietta and Marie's appearance are played by Iordanka Denlova. A Bulgarian soprano who combines the requested zest for life and feeling for the theatrical in a role as powerful as it is sensual. Acting and singing melt together in a woman who, contrary to the libretto, is not to survive the opera.  But more about that later.
Turning to the world of opera in 2009, former rock singer, Swedish tenor Daniel Frank by now has added the Wagner roles Tannhäuser and Siegfried to his repertoire. Roles that have to carry an opera, and that experience is expressed in an interpretation of Paul that is firm yet by times a bit erratic. For the sensual, that titillating of Korngold's melody lines that have to lift the piece, we have to wait for his duet with Marietta, the famous "Glück, das mir verblieb". But from that moment on it's a hit. From that moment on music, lyrics and staging pick you up to deliver you almost 3 hours later, the mind satisfied and the spirit ripened, at the exit of Theater Carré where a glance at the city that is anything but dead, Amsterdam, has proved itself to be a perfect host for the dead city; 19th century Bruges. A city that is by then engraved in the mind like a woodcut of Frans Masereel. 
Frans Masereel: Bruges ("Het Minnewater")
What refuses to die in the mind ends up in a lifeless life. A life that makes further life on this earth impossible. What can serve as consolation, a memory, becomes a curse when it draws the living into the realm of the dead, holding it in the kingdom of the undead, preventing it to return to the land of the living. That gothic element, following their Fliegende Holländer of last season, The Reisopera once again shows itself very much at home in gothic scenery (the nuns in this production are unintentionally reminiscent of Dracula's brides ), is the graphic icing on the cake. An addition to music and text that creates a world in which we safely embrace what in real life is preferably kept at a great distance.
For the plot this production goes back to George Rodenbach's novella "Bruges la Morte" on which the libretto is based. Korngold's father, Julius, music critic of Die Neue Freie Presse, where he succeeded Eduard Hanslick, proposed to stage Paul's murder of Marietta in Paul's mind. Here the opera adds a ray of light to the dark ending in the novella; Paul is given a second chance. With Korngold the drama lies in the fact that Paul has to face that a resurrection, an Auferstehung, of a loved one is impossible (we'll have to turn to Mahler's Second Symphony for that). 
© Marco Borggreve
A murder, an act of violence, in a dream as trigger for catharsis. Director Jakob Peters-Messer does not find this credible and sees his finding supported by Sigmund Freud's dream theory, well known at the beginning of the twentieth century. Peters-Messer draws the murder away from the libretto, away from the dream, and places it back into reality. This is scouring with the text and libretto that, from the dark beginning, express an increasing alienation from reality. In art, and in opera perhaps even more so than in literature, theatre and film, aesthetics largely determine the content. Many an implausible opera plot is saved by music. This is also the case with Korngold and the musicians who serve him here. Sensual colorite rises from the orchestra pit where conductor Antony Hermus and the Noord Nederlands Orkest bring to life what Korngold entrusted to paper almost a century ago. What seems far-fetched from a narrative point of view is made acceptable by the music, making the turn the libretto makes to the novella a unnecessary one.

Paul's friends, Frank and housekeeper Brigitta, see Marietta's corpse lying on the floor and when Frank asks Paul if he might not go to another place now that his memories of Marie apparently no longer hold him to his room in Bruges, we see police and medical staff. That other place, in the libretto another city, can be interpreted here as a cell in the prison or institution. When the curtain falls for the rest of the cast, Paul is the last man standing, singing a reprise of "Glück, das mir verblieb" - the aria he sang in duet with Marietta in the first act. It is a farewell to Bruges and a farewell, in this production, to his freedom. He exchanges the prison in his head for a real one. The dream of reality has put an end to the dream of love.

Thus, De Nederlandse Reisopera brings Die Tote Stadt to life almost one hundred years after its premiere. An opera by a composer who has been somewhat neglected by music history. The thoughts of Korngold and the composers who suffered a similar fate, popular during the interbellum and for a big part forgotten after the Second World War, make this production an extra sympathetic one and a justifiable attempt to evade from obscurity where history so mercilessly has condemned it to. It would therefore be nice, with the success of this production fresh in mind, if someone contemplating possible productions for upcoming seasons thinks of the name of Franz Schreker. 

Theater Carré Amsterdam - 30 January 2019

Conductor: Antony Hermus
Noord Nederlands Orkest
Choir conductor: Andrew Wise
Consensus Vocalis

Regie: Jakob Peters-Messer
Stage design: Guido Petzold
Costume design: Sven Bindsell

Paul: Daniel Frank
Marietta/Marie: Iordanka Derilova
Frank: Marian Pop
Brigitta: Rita Kapfhammer
- Wouter de Moor
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'Mouvement' by Helmut Lachenmann sandwiched between two Mozart symphonies
Do not pay attention to the music. Keep on talking. Thank you. 

There are hardly any more cynical words imaginable to urge the audience to be silent. However, the request is anything but cynical, it must be taken literally. It serves as an introduction to Erik Satie's Vexations. Music d'Ameublement. Music while you're doing something else. Music that may be regarded as a forerunner of elevator music and noise. Music that tonight has to prepare the audience for the piece Mouvement by Helmut Lachenmann. A piece that, sandwiched between Mozart's symphonies 39 and 41, should lead the listener to a new world of sound, perhaps even to a new way of listening.

A listening experience in which every sound can be music. A listening in which the listener himself can check the boundaries of what he considers music, what he wishes to consider music. An aural journey that will go from the first Viennese school to the acoustic techno, Musique Concrète Instrumentale, of Helmut Lachenmann. A journey that can perhaps best be described as a descent into modern Nibelheim - a place where the consumer society has taken the place of nature. Perhaps a combination with the music of Gustav Mahler would have been more appropriate. Where Mahler tried to capture the essence of nature in his symphonies, one can say with Lachenmann, and this is mere a listener's opinion, that he aims for the world after nature. The world of the industrial revolution and its outcome, the modern consumer society. Lachenmann creates sound images that must point the nowadays listener to the essence of their desire to consume. He aims his arrows at instant satisfaction and his music certainly does not have an obligation to please. Instead of ecstasy and entertainment Lachenmann seeks danger, stirred by alienation, frustration and confusion - a danger every composer should strive for in our time, The real danger for him comes from the listener who wants to be entertained and the composer who wants to please. 
In an era of magic conveniently available at the touch of a button, new music should on principle represent something akin to 'danger'... 
(Helmut Lachenmann)
There is this story about Ennio Morricone, told by Lachenmann, who did not want suites from Once Upon A Time In The West to be played on the same evening as Lachenmann's Mouvement. Despite Morricone's objections, Morricone and Lachenmann shared the same programme, with both composers sitting side by side during the concert. Aware of what the famous film composer thought of him, Lachenmann (a great admirer of Morricone by the way) didn't dare to say anything to the Italian maestro. What Morricone, the good, found so bad & ugly in Lachenmann's music, the story doesn't tell and it won't become clear tonight either. Because that music turns out to be exciting and by no means as inaccessible as might have been feared beforehand. 
For the creation of his music, Lachenmann doesn't use other kind of instruments than Mozart had at his disposal. Where Mozart sought innovation in his orchestration, for example fitting in a clarinet where an oboe was more in the conventional line of expectation (in symphony 39), Lachenmann takes other, more extreme, paths. He ignores the academic rules on how to play an instrument and moves aside classical harmony and counterpoint.  Thus oboes are used as percussion instruments, the bow of cello and double bass does not play only the strings but also the body and tuning pegs and a kettledrum is put upside down. With something as anachronistic as a classical orchestra, he emancipates sound into music. He looks at modern times with classical means - like making an engraving of a computer screen. With the result, in which every sound can ultimately be music, what is heard must also be felt. It is an awareness through sound. A music that leads to thinking, whether or not about concrete topics. Music that takes you back in your thoughts, makes you aware of those thoughts without the need to formulate or express them. It leads to a kind of "knowing through feeling". It seems to be both inspired by Wagner as well as revolting against it. Over the rainbow bridge that leads to Valhalla, Lachenmann lays a grey carpet. He covers the opulent colours of Romanticism with shades that are (much) less seductive but the question whether there is music in his soundscapes does not come to mind. For example, the confusion that can arise from a piece like Heinz Hölliger's string quartet - am I listening to randomly chosen notes or a composition? - stays here at great distance. Lachenmann's acoustic techno (it would lend itself well for an unplugged session with Nine Inch Nails or Mike Patton's Fantomas) sounds too structured for that, too comfortable also.
Lachenmann's music is no less structured than the classical music that preceeds it, but the ordering effect of his music - which is able to sharpen the mind, to make you feel smarter (if only by the power of suggestion) - is less compelling than with Mozart. It appeals more to one's own interpretation. You have to feel it. The resonating of the air. The sine waves that land on your eardrums. Attending it live is (even more than with the classical repertoire) a necessary condition for possible appreciation. The Jupiter symphony can sound good on your smartphone, Lachenmann not. His music is for modern ears an invitation to link image to sound. An invitation that, once accepted, turns the head into a space that one can travel in. The fact that this journey leads less far into unknown territory than was previously thought says something about the emancipation process that the dissonant has gone through over time. Film music makes ample use of it. Of note clusters that are used purely for their suggestive power. The contrast that lies in Lachenmann's work - catching the modern world with classical means - makes his music, at least the music I became acquainted with tonight, a fascinating experience. (It seems that nothing offends Lachenmann more than saying that you find his music interesting, so I will mark my words here.) It is an experience in which tuning the instruments prior to a Mozart symphony becomes part of the programme.​
How does one listen to Mozart when one have just breathed the air of a new world? Does the introduction to new music provide a new perspective on old music? Tonight's concert did not give an unambiguous answer to that. Before the intermission I felt some reservations about the performance of Mozart's 39th symphony. Under the baton of Francois-Xavier Roth, the rendition of Les Siecles sounded a bit stiff. As if the piece was a bit underrehearsed. After the break, after Lachenmann, the Jupiter and the Overture Nozze (as encore) sounded significantly better. But that was simply because of the performers and (probably) because of the compositions themselves. Also in music of centuries ago one can, every performance again, stare into a new world. For example in that superbe Adagio of the Jupiter symphony. A sound carpet that is like a sky with clouds in which one can see faces appear, again and again, the longer one looks at it. It are meandering sounds that are an invitation to fill in the silence between the notes with one's own panoramas. In that Adagio, music automatically becomes a landscape in which one can let the mind wander. Here Mozart reached out a hand to his 20-21th century colleague. His music became here, as the musical companion of Lachenmann's Mouvement, a sound in which the spirit was encouraged to go on a journey of discovery itself. It was as if the two composers, each a child of their own time, met on the banks of the IJ and engaged in conversation.
Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ - 12 January 2019

Les Siècles orchestra
François-Xavier Roth conductor

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony 39
Helmut Lachenmann Mouvement
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony  41
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Nozze di Figaro - overture (encore)
- Wouter de Moor
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The Dutch National Opera closes 2018 with OEDIPE by George Enescu.  An opera about a man who thinks he can escape his fate, who walks straight into it as a result, and eventually reconciles with it.
© DNO 2018
This year the winter solstice coincided with a performance of Enesu's Oedipe. On the shortest day of the year I saw the opera about the man who blinds himself after he finds out that the man he once killed was his father and the woman he married was his mother. The Romanian composer George Enescu was a musical child prodigy. At the age of four he played the violin, at the age of five he started composing and at the age of seven he went to the conservatory in Vienna where he graduated at the age of thirteen. After that he went to Paris where he studied with Massenet and Fauré. Oedipe had a difficult history of creation (the time of composition was interrupted by the First World War). It was almost 25 years after Enescu had put the first ideas for Oedipe on paper that the opera premiered in Paris in 1936. Only to be forgotten afterwards.

The Dutch National Opera brings Oedipe in a production by Fura dels Baus that could previously been seen in London and Brussels. A very justified attempt to keep this opera artistically alive. My introduction to it was anything but a punishment. 

In the poisonous mud that caused an ecological disaster in Budapest in 2010, the theatre makers of Fura dels Baus found inspiration to provide Oedipe's stage image with clay. The poisonous clay in Budapest as an analogy to the plague epidemic that ravaging Thebes. Clay as a depiction of the world of Greek antiquity. The world of Sophocles and the Oedipus myth. 

© DNO 2018
Enescu's only opera, in this respect he is in the company of Beethoven and Debussy, strings together the story of Oedipe with music that has freed itself from the romantics of the 19th century and shows itself to be acquainted with the modernity of the 20th century without sailing into atonal waters. Enescu remains true to the classical tonal music system and adds in the score, which he spices with elements of Romanian folk music, his own harmonic inventions and the use of quarter tones. Enescu's music surprises with its originality and the inventive use of orchestral means. Besides a grand piano, celesta, harmonium and Glockenspiel we hear a singing saw and a whip against a piece of wood. The large orchestra may sound impressive, but Enescu is more concerned with the richness of sound than with gratuitous orchestral force. He does not escape the inevitable orchestral eruptions during dramatic events either but Oedipe's tragedy is musically dressed up with a remarkable consideration for detail (especially for those who see finesse as an important condition for acceptance and appreciation). For me the opera made me think (associations are difficult to control) of George Benjamin who, in his Lessons in Love and Violence (a favourite of the past opera year), does not so much as drive the drama forward as well freezes it with his music. Frozen horror instead of music that boils the blood. As if the music - by keeping a certain rational distance to the depicted events - emphasizes what the story implies with every new turn: that it is a tragedy to be a human being. How to deal with this, how to conform yourself to your fate, is the task for every human being and the victory over fate consists only in accepting that fate in the end. 

The musical world of Oedipus is a symphonic one. A world that, with every listening, prints its musical splendour in your brain (I have, after last Friday's performance, listened to it several times and the voyage of discovery through the mythical-human world of Enescu's Oedipe is one where the musical richnes continue to reveal itself). It's a world with music that can be used as a film soundtrack, but in general Enescu keeps far from emphasizing what's already obvious. You get a taste of musical umami that has a strange hypnotic effect (for me comparable to the last half hour of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, where the music has both a very explicit and a strong suggestive effect). Next to the orchestra, the choir plays a leading role in this beautiful palette of sounds. At the premiere in 1936 some singers complained that the vocal parts seemed to be written more for violin than for the voice and - certainly in context with the excellent orchestra and choir - this performance of the Dutch National Opera brought some vague memories of that old complaint to mind. The demand on the vocal parts were considerable and listening to an otherwise excellent Johan Reuter in the title roleone might hear possible reasons why this opera has not become part of the standard repertoire yet. 

© DNO 2018
​Oedipus is a name that today is perhaps identified as much, if not more, with the complex that bears his name than with the original myth. The opera pays no further attention to this, but a reference to Freud is made in the scene in the second act in which Oedipe doubts his origins and tells his foster mother Merope about the images that are haunting his mind. The setting here is one of a patient sitting on a psychiatrist's sofa. 
© DNO 2018
In the lower regions of the strings, the base on which the opera rests, the male voices find their natural habitat. In this dark musical world the female roles for the Sphinx (Violeta Urmana) and Antigone (a sparkling and moving Heidi Stober) stand out. The role of the Sphinx is one with notoriously difficult quarter tones, Urmana (known from her role as Kundry in Parsifal under the baton of Adam Fisher) fulfills that task of singing those notes with great dramatic effect. Music and image create a terrifying sphinx.  Her appearance comes with horror-like elements. Slowly she crawls over the back of a fighter plane into the field of vision of Oedipe who - in order to pass - must answer her question properly. "What is stronger than fate? Enescu and librettist Fleg replace the original question "What walks in the morning on four, in the afternoon on two, and in the evening on three legs?" with a (perhaps less childish) question with the same answer: "man". That question on life and death, we know it from both Wagner and Monty Python, is answered well by Oedipe. The Sphinx surrenders and hears her dying notes pass into the rising glissandi of a singing saw. With this musical discovery she leaves the story with a laugh. A laugh that places Oedipe's answer in an ambivalent light. Because is man really capable of overcoming his fate? Not for Sophocles anyway, but Enescu sticks an epilogue to Oedipe's story, which more or less brings the story to a good end. Oedipe may plead his innocence because he did not know that the man he killed was his father (Laios) and the woman he married was his mother (Jocaste). His intention, not the deed itself, is of guidance to determine that he's innocent. And Oedipe, as a reward, can see again. After a shower which cleanses the burdened mind of Oedipe (the staging here does not avoid cliches) he is given a new future after death. Walking into the light and out of the story. Leaving this opera year with a worthy closener. 
© DNO 2018
Dutch National Opera - 21 December 2018
Oedipe: Johan Reuter
Tirésias: Eric Halfvarson
Créon: Christopher Purves
Le Berger: Alan Oke
Le Grand-Prêtre: François Lis
Phorbas: James Creswell
Le Veilleur: Ante Jerkunica
Thésée: André Morsch
Laios: Mark Omvlee
Jocaste: Sophie Koch
La Sphinge: Violeta Urmana
Antigone: Heidi Stober
Mérope: Catherine Wyn-Rogers
- Wouter de Moor
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Beyond the rationale that 20+ complete cycles (on CD, DVD and harddisk) is already more than one person possibly will and can listen to in his or her lifetime, it calls me: DER RING. The prospect of going through the whole endeavour of Wagner's Nibelungen saga with another cast, another orchestra and another conductor is hard, if not impossible, to resist for the Wagnerite that resides in me for almost two decades now. A cycle, moreover, with a conductor that has proved himself in Wagner. Who showed with beautiful and enthralling renditions of Lohengrin and Parsifal that he knows how to find the key to the Erlösungsbedürftige operas of the self-proclaimed composer of the music of the future. New, in tremendous sound, critically acclaimed, every bit a Ring of our times. The fear of missing something defeats the notion to restrain oneself, by far, and I listen to the woodbird in my head telling me to pick it up. So I add another cycle of DER RING, the one from Hong Kong with Jaap van Zweden, to my collection. Because the one Ring that rules them all is made out of many. 

Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen
Matthias Goerne (Wotan), Petra Lang (Brünnhilde - Die Walküre), Heidi Melton (Sieglinde/Brünnhilde - Siegfried), Gun-Brit Barkmin (Brünnhilde - Götterdämmerung), Daniel Brenna (Siegfried - Götterdämmerung), Simon O’Neill (Siegfried - Siegfried); Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden

See also: One Ring to rule them all >>
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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.
10. Erlkönig – Franz Schubert
 
There are more songs by Schubert that send chills to the bone (Der Doppelganger) but in Der Erlkönig, Schubert transforms an already scary poem by Goethe, inspired by the high infant mortality of the time, into a pinnacle of 19th century horror.
Franz Schubert: Erlkönig - YouTube
9. Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra - Henryk Górecki

​Gorecki's harpsichord concerto shows the solo instrument of its most heavy and spooky side. The frantic sounds rising from harpsichord and string orchestra, delivered with percussive persuasion, are like the beating of the wings of a giant bat. Perfectly suited for a living room concert in castle Transylvania.
Henryk Górecki - Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra Op. 40 - YouTube
8. Wozzeck – Alban Berg

​One of the first operas I saw in the theatre was Wozzeck (more than the appeal of attending the first atonal opera in music history, it was the low price of the ticket I was drawn to. Ahum). Not immediately an obvious starting point for one’s exploration trips in the world of opera, Alban Berg's music drama was surprisingly accessible to ears that had grown up with movie music. Music in which notes and chords don’t have to shape themselves into recognisable melodies in order to be understood and be full of expressiveness.
 
“Music for the Haunted House” was the first association I had with Wozzeck and although Berg's opera cannot be narrowed down to a horror story that comes with scary music, Wozzeck has lost none of its creepiness that came at first impression. 
Berg- Wozzeck "Act 3 Scene 4" - YouTube
7. The House That Dripped Blood – soundtrack
 
“Music for the Haunted House” in a literal sense is the music score for the film The House That Dripped Blood. Music by the young deceased composer Michael Dress (he only turned 39) who also signed for the soundtracks of largely forgotten gems like The Mind of Mr. Soames and Rotten to the Core.
 
Atonal music had its share of hostile perception and is still considered by many as elitist, inaccessible and audience-unfriendly. It found its way to the mainstream nonetheless. Paired with moving pictures, it can serve as extremely effective film music.
The House That Dripped Blood (1971) - YouTube
6. Witchhunt - Rush
 
From the album "Moving Pictures" comes one of the darkest and moodiest songs Canadian progrock trio Rush came up with in their decades long career. With a message that resonates more with topical times than one can consider comfortable.
Rush Witch Hunt Lyrics - YouTube
5. God of Emptiness - Morbid Angel
 
The dynamics of this extremely atmospheric death metal song lies in the tension between the deep grunt of vocalist/bassist Dave Vincent, the jackhammer drumming style of Pete Sandoval and the ingenious guitar licks of Trey Azagthoth, a musician who is inspired by Mozart as well as Eddie van Halen (something that can be considered remarkable in this genre). It adds substance to the musical world of Morbid Angel and gives it an extra dark taste of the macabre. 
Morbid Angel - God of Emptiness [Official Video] - YouTube
4. Via Crucis – Franz Liszt

A place in the Halloween top 10 must be reserved for Franz Liszt. Not taking anything away of the usual suspects in the Liszt catalogue when it comes to shiffer and shudder - Totentanz, Lugubre Gondola and Unstern –, it will be Via Crucis that makes it to the list. It’s a late work of Liszt, a piece of church music that can shroud itself as a soundtrack for a horror movie.
Liszt Via Crucis, deel 1, 5 en 6, met piano - YouTube
3. Halloween – soundtrack
 
The film par excellence for Halloween is the movie with that name by John Carpenter. With a soundtrack, an earwig in the league of the Jaws-leitmotif, that tells the story, in all its simplicity, almost by itself. Here it is, copy-pasted into a clip of two hours. Music in which repetition, the predictability of the next note, does not bore but takes the suspence to an uncanny, unmatched level. A musical motive that is as Michael Myers, the bogeyman, who, in the end, always comes back. One of the very few pieces of minimal music that I not only endure but leaves, in fact, an emotional mark.
2 Hours of Halloween Theme Main Title (1978 John Carpenter) continuous. (HD-HQ) - YouTube
2. Siegfried’s Trauermarsch (Götterdämmerung) – Richard Wagner
 
Of course this list must contain a piece of music from the man who gave this website its name. In Wagner's operas, possible candidates for a Halloween soundtrack can be found in Der Fliegende Holländer (the entry of Der Holländer), in Das Rheingold (the descent to Nibelheim) and Siegfried (the prelude of act 3 in which Wotan meets up with Erda). The cake, however, goes to Götterdämmerung. To the part where Siegfried is slain by Hagen and the Funeral March that follows. It is a intense piece of music that bears in it the prediction of the end of the world as we know it. It is richly variegated and is of a terrifying beauty that never fails to fascinate and move.  The indefinable and the impenetrable of its beauty sends a shiver down the spine. A chill to the bones with which the piece claims its place in this top 10.

Wagner - Siegfried's Death and Funeral March - YouTube
1. Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan (Salome) – Richard Strauss

For the top of this Halloween top 10 Salome comes to dinner. Necrophilia served with scorching, tantalizing music. A strong stomach is needed. Herodias' daughter is performed here by Malin Byström who in looks, acting and voice, is a very impressive Salome. In this blood & gore production of Ivo van Hove, she occupies herself in the final scene not only with the head of Jochanaan but with his whole body.
Ich habe deinen mund geküsst from Strauss' Salome by Malin Byström - YouTube
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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. 
© DNO 2018, Ruth Walz
OLGA
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.

JENUFA
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".  

© DNO 2018, Ruth Walz
KATIE
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. 
EVELYN
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. 
© DNO 2018, Ruth Walz
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. 
DIAMOND
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
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An interview with cast members of "My Parsifal Conductor", a Wagnerian comedy
© Carol Rosegg
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 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 [Leicht, who wrote the play] . 

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.

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.
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. 

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.

© Carol Rosegg
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.

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!
© Carol Rosegg
8. 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 as the inferior composers! 

9. 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.

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?

​(This interview took place via email)
- Wouter de Moor

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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. 
© Annemie Augustijns
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.​
© Annemie Augustijns
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 message, addressed to the people of Brabant that should remind them to be grateful for all what the king has done for them. That they are in debt 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. 
© Annemie Augustijns
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.

© Annemie Augustijns
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
Dates:
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
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