Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Triple Operatic Bill

Der Ring des Niebelungen

A four-opera cycle by Richard Wagner
A Production of the Kirov Opera of the Mariinsky Theatre
Production Designed by Valery Gergiev and George Tsypin
Kirov Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev

Metropolitan Opera House
Performances July 13–21, 2007 (Lincoln Center Festival)

Into the Little Hill

An opera composed by George Benjamin
Libretto by Martin Crimp
Directed by Daniel Jeanneteau
Starring Anu Komsi and Hillary Summers
Ensemble Modern conducted by Franck Ollu

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
Performances July 26–28, 2007 (Lincoln Center Festival)

A Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf

Operas composed by Alexander von Zemlinsky, after works by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Oliver Tambosi
Starring James Johnson, Deanne Meek, Bryan Hymel, Jeffrey Dowd, Sarah Jane McMahon, Hannan Alattar
American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein

Sosnoff Theatre at Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College
Performances July 27–August 5, 2007

A scene from Die Walkure
A scene from Das Rheingold
A scene from Siegfried
A scene from Gotterdammerung
The Metropolitan Opera unveiled its current Ring production in 1986, so the arrival of the Kirov Opera’s cycle during the Lincoln Center Festival was greeted with all the attendant hoopla of a brand-new staging. (The Met’s new Ring won’t be seen in its entirety until 2011-12.)

Of course, since the Kirov production was coming from Russia–where Wagnerian singing and playing has not been highly valued–there were many questions about this Ring; notably, would it be worthy of Wagner’s dense, mammoth work about flawed gods and heroic mortals (and vice-versa), all battling over the all-powerful ring forged from gold stolen from the Rhine River?

Ring fans are a critical lot: every singer–no matter how small the role–is deeply analyzed; the musicians in the pit must be up to the highest standards; and the cycle’s staging must have a unified visual style. On each count, the Kirov’s Ring was partially successful.

The production designed by music director Valery Gergiev and Russian-American designer George Tsypin was disastrous. (No director was credited.) Dominating the stage were four giants, which looked like primitive sculptures or totemic artworks. Both men have said that they were inspired by legends and art from the former Soviet Union, but these oversized giants added nothing to Wagner’s psychologically dense work: in fact, for the first three operas–Das Rheingold, Der Walkure, Siegfried–this quartet of “gods” was simply inert, whether suspended in mid-air, grouped around the actors, or lying flat on the stage. Only in the last opera, Gotterdammerung–the most “primitive” narratively and in its settings–did this uber-large foursome seem part of the proceedings.

Gleb Filshtinsky’s lighting, however, was exquisite. The varied shadings of reds, blues, greens, whites and blacks came much closer to achieving a valid dramatic conception of the entire work than the sets. (In fact, the lighting that gave the four giants emotions at various moments – including bleeding-red hearts–was a nice touch.) In several of the Ring’s sublime set pieces–the arrival at Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold, the “Ride of the Valkyries” in the final act of Die Walkure, and the shattering closing scene of Gotterdammerung–the lighting design very nearly eclipsed the music, which was truly remarkable.

The singers were also a variable success; since these are some of the most draining roles in the operatic repertory, different singers sang the same roles over the course of the four operas. Of the leads, Alexei Tanovitsky as the god Wotan was properly dignified; Mlada Khudoley as Sieglinde was sensual and believably smitten with her brother Siegmund; Leonid Zakhozhaev as Siegfried toughed it out nicely in the third opera’s longest role; and Olga Sergeeva as Brunnhilde was smashingly good in singing, acting and demeanor: Sergeeva was the most plausible Valkyrie-cum-human-cum-heroine imaginable.

Gergiev conducted the Kirov Opera gracefully and at times violently; although it wasn’t always strictly “beautiful” music, Wagner’s most agitated sections–the opening storm and the closing “magic fire music” in Die Walkure, and "Siegfried’s Funeral Music" and "Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene" to climax Gotterdammerung–were hair-raising, one-of-a-kind operatic moments.

Gergiev, his cast and musicians do justice to Wagner’s amazing creation; too bad this Ring was more suited to listening, mostly with one’s eyes closed.

Komsi and Summers
in Into the Little Hill
Since its inception in 1996, the Lincoln Center Festival has been responsible (or can be blamed) for bringing works to New York that would otherwise go unseen hereabouts. This year, it was the North American premiere of a 40-minute chamber opera by British modernist composer George Benjamin.

Into the Little Hill–with a libretto by playwright Martin Crimp, based on the fable “The Pied Pier of Hamelin”–was probably the first time most audience members had heard Benjamin’s music: he was a student of Olivier Messiaen and counts among his influences such disparate composers as Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez and Alexander Goehr. Accordingly, Benjamin has written a dark, complex score that may not be easy to listen to but fits his and Crimp’s conception of the story.

The evening began with two Benjamin instrumental works, Viola, Viola, for two violists, and Three Miniatures, for solo violin, which served as a tasty prelude to his sound world, and probably attuned listeners’ ears to the harsher, most dissonant parts of the opera, which was written for two singers and an ensemble of 15 players. Soprano Anu Komsi, contralto Hillary Summers and Ensemble Modern (led by Franck Ollu) played the Paris premiere and these performances. In fact, Benjamin wrote the opera with these performers in mind.

If the music and drama ultimately lack urgency, composer and librettist couldn’t ask for better interpreters. The musicians gave the score bite and nuance, and Summers and Komsi sounded glorious in the many difficult vocal passages, both alone and together. Daniel Jeanneteau’s staging is necessarily spare, keeping the focus on the two powerhouse actress-singers.


A scene from The Dwarf
A scene from
A Florentine Tragedy
Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra have been performing the most adventurous programs in New York for several years. Since 2003, when Bard College President Botstein extended his annual Bard Music Festival to include the wider-ranging Bard Summerscape, that adventurousness has been extended into full opera productions each summer.

This year, two one-act operas by Alexander Zemlinsky–a composer whose voluptuous music was lost in the shuffle of the changing political and cultural landscape in Europe throughout the early and mid 20th century–are receiving their very first staging together in the United States.

Both based on works by Oscar Wilde, A Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf are populated with characters easy to hate, and Zemlinsky’s sensuously overpowering music is the perfect vehicle to propel the stories forward. These operas have probably remained obscure for reasons other than dramatic and musical mastery, since the pairing of Wilde’s strange dramatic sense with Zemlinsky’s own musical style pays off in spades.

Tragedy is an hour-long dialogue among three people in a Florentine house: a prince, his married lover and her cuckolded husband (who has the most lines). The Dwarf follows the nastily immature hijinks of a princess on her 18th birthday, as she and her entourage mercilessly ridicule the misshapen dwarf who is her birthday present. Neither opera is likeable in the usual sense, but Zemlinsky’s music washes over the proceedings so lovingly that one can’t help but be drawn into both operas’ oddly repellent but dramatically forceful characters.

Oliver Tambosi’s production is appropriately garish: Tragedy is played out in an all-white room, as each character wears one primary color (the prince wears blue; the wife, red; and husband, yellow); The Dwarf is also a riot of glaring colors, particularly pink (flowers all over the stage and the princess’s chamberlain’s suit).

Tambosi’s visuals complemented Zemlinsky’s lushly seductive music, gleefully performed by the orchestra. Botstein–who conducted this double bill in concert at Lincoln Center in 2002–knows how to pace appropriately, when to propel the plot forward and when to linger on the characters’ intimate moments.

The singers did well under dramatically trying circumstances: especially effective were James Johnson in the demanding cuckold role in Tragedy, Hanan Alattar as Ghita, the princess’s favorite maid in The Dwarf, and Jeffrey Dowd as the dwarf, making us believe he really was a deformed, misshapen wretch.

Conductor James Conlon has championed Zemlinsky’s music for years on various recordings; perhaps this production will pave the way for more Zemlinsky in the concert hall and onstage.

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