Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Laufenberg's Meistersinger at Cologne Opera

Famous operas tend to pick up baggage along the way, and none more so than those of Richard Wagner. The mythological settings of most Wagner's operas and musicdramas allow modern directors plenty of scope to add in ideas relating to the works' reception history and to the multiple politicised readings they have been subject to over the years. The Nazis, of course, loom large in many productions of this sort, but given their wholesale ideological re-appropriation of Wagner's art, there are still plenty of issue here to work through.
Meistersinger has remained largely untouched by such revisionist tendencies. The historical rather than mythological setting seems to have insulated it somewhat, but that doesn't explain the apparent denial from almost the whole of the opera world of the central status this work, and especially its finale, played in Nazi pageantry. Things appeared to have changed in 2007 with Katharina Wagner's production at Bayreuth. Her confrontational, even angry, approach to the work and its history at the house seems proportionate in retrospect, but in won few friends, even among critics usually sympathetic to such treatments.
Even so, the production seemed like a turning point in the history of Meistersinger. Surely after this any traditional production would seem hopelessly naïve – or worse. But no, the opera world has remained largely unperturbed, and Meistersinger still remains the only one of Wagner's mature operas to be routinely performed in its original setting and in productions that seek only to project Wagner's own message, without further comment or criticism.
Katharina Wagner was clearly making a statement with her Meistersinger, the first opera she had directed at Bayreuth since taking the helm there. Two years later, in 2009, the theatre director Uwe Eric Laufenberg took over as Intendant at Cologne Opera. He too began with a Meistersinger. Like Katharina's, his is clearly a statement of intent, with less shock tactics perhaps, but certainly moulding the work into a narrative paradigm entirely of his own making. He has a different agenda, but one that also requires the opera to acknowledge how its status and meaning have changed in the century and a half since its premiere.
Laufenberg clearly has big plans for Cologne Opera, and he uses Meistersinger as his manifesto. This is a very dangerous strategy, but then taking risks is obviously a big part of his plan for the company. 'Oper für alle' is his slogan, and he plays out the work as an illustration of how the people of Cologne can get involved with the medium, and, more importantly, what it has to offer them.
The crucial element of this plan is the idea that Walther is a member of the audience who is drawn into the stage action having originally just come to see the show. Laufenberg could have made much more out of this idea, but it is presented quite literally at the start of the show. As the lights go down, a mobile phone is heard going off in the stalls, followed by somebody taking loudly into it. This of course, is Walther, and when he does take the stage, he is in modern dress, while everybody else is in 16th century garb, and he is taking pictures all the time on his mobile phone.
So, in effect, everything here is taking place in the present. To emphasise that idea, the stage at the start of the show is completely clear. The curtains are drawn just before the overture starts, and when they reopen, a traditional 16th century setting for the first act has been set up. But everything in the historical setting is provisional, which is forcibly demonstrated at the end of the first and second acts, when a key piece of the staging comes down to reveal the empty stage behind.
It is one of those productions that starts in the period in which the work is set, then moves forward historically in each act up to the present day. There is nothing particularly original about that, it's a fairly standard regietheater conceit, but Laufenberg has good reason to follow that plan here. He sets the second act in the Biedermeier period. Again, that's not particularly radical for Meistersinger, and it called to mind last year's Glyndebourne production. But it did bring a sense of foreboding about what might be lined up for Act Three.
This where Laufenberg's revisionist tendencies really kick in. So much so that it is difficult to understand why the first two acts are presented in such a conventional way. Act Three scene one is set in the 1950s, and this is where all the issues of post-war rehabilitation for the work play out. It is now clear that the opera has baggage, and this is represented literally in the form of a sea chest containing a model of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, a model of the set for this act, some Nazi flags etc. Tensions now start to appear between the work and the interpretation, but there is enough common ground for it to function. So Sachs, instead of reflecting on the riot at the end of Act Two, is now reflecting on the war and its aftermath.
In the finale, Laufenberg takes his biggest gamble yet, setting the song contest in modern day Cologne, on the Offenbach Platz outside the opera house. You might think that presenting the people of Cologne to the people of Cologne would require a good deal of tact. But then, they're a famously liberal lot and he doesn't feel any need to pander to them, instead presenting the crowd as a fairly proletarian rabble, but one with a great interest in the contest and its outcome. We get some reality TV type coverage, with the mastersiners introduced through a series of television trailers.
The actual contest seems almost a distraction from Laufenberg's applied narrative, and this is the one great weakness of the concept. He finds meaningful roles for Walther and Sachs in his scenario, but everybody else is expected to play out their parts as if this were a traditional production.
Predictably, the crucial point for Laufenberg's reading is Sach's concluding oration. By now, it has become clear that the German values that the mastersingers uphold are defined by history as much as by tradition. When Sachs implores Walther to respect his German masters, the screen behind show images ranging from Durer to Bueys, with Stockhausen and even Jimi Hendrix thrown in.
But the vital ingredient here is the idea that innovation is at the heart of tradition. That's the moral of the opera, and Laufenberg cleverly uses it to redeem the work of its Nazi connotations. The whole of the third act plays on the idea that everything that came before is open to interpretation, and that modern views on German culture and values need not correspond with those imposed by the Nazis. The section of Sach's oration where he laments the invasion of German lands by foreign forces is turned on its head by the inclusion of Nazi imagery here, as if it is they who have occupied the German cultural values, now redeemed.
And most impressively of all, this final scene focuses wholly on the present. The Nazi thing is acknowledged and worked through, but never dwelt on, certainly not to the same extent as the Katharina Wagner production. Instead, the ending is all about the inclusivity of art and culture, and of opera in particular. So a reconciliation is enacted between Sachs and Beckmesser, and the mastersingers all come down from their podium and mingle with the crowd. At last the message of the production comes fully into alignment with the message of the opera. Laufenberg may have democratised the idea a bit more than Wagner would have been inclined to, but both are driving home the idea that culture sits at the heart of society, and that artistic innovations can benefit all.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Verdi Requiem Mariinsky Opera, Gergiev, Barbican 4 April 2012

Verdi Requiem
Victoria Yastrebova soprano
Olga Borodina mezzo
Sergey Semishkur tenor
Ildar Abdrazkov bass
Mariinsky Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Valery Gergiev conductor

So, it turns out the Mariinsky's Verdi sounds just as Russian as its Wagner. That isn't a bad thing necessarily – in these diverse times there's room for many interpretations – but it does take some getting used to.
Gergiev has brought a relatively small ensemble with him from St Petersburg. For the most part, they punch above their weight, but that still doesn't explain why he has programmed some of the largest-scale works in the repertoire: Parsifal, Mahler 8 and, this evening, Verdi's Requiem. Fortunately, they never really sound underpowered, but there are gradations of timbre as well as volume needed here, and a small orchestra trying to sound like a large one can only offer so much tonal variety.
The choir was also surprisingly small, although you'd struggle to get a larger one on the Barbican stage. For my money, the choral singers were the real stars of this performance. They are a well trained group, with excellent ensemble and internal balance. When planning this sort of tour, Gergiev and his Mariinsky colleagues presumably assume they can take greater chances elsewhere knowing that they can rely on strong support from the back of the stage.
The orchestra consisted of full-sized woodwind brass sections, a timpanist, a bass drummer, and a surprisingly small group of strings, with six desks of firsts and three of cellos. Again, the ensemble here was excellent, although perhaps not quite up to the world-class standards of most London orchestras. The woodwind section got a bit lost in the melee at times, but they can hardly be blamed for that. The Russian brass sound is perhaps the only aspect of this ensemble to bear any relation to 19th century Italian performance conventions. Like Verdi's opera orchestras, the Mariinsky's brass sound is slightly husky and sometimes nasal, but always focussed and with an appealing vocal quality.
Of the four soloists, soprano Victoria Yastrebova gave the most impressive performance. She's a rising star of the Mariinsky company, and it is easy to imagine her as Tatiana say, or Violeta. Like everybody else on the stage tonight, she has projection and vocal support that most Western singers can only dream of. But there is also nuance and elegance to her sound, and a sense of intimate human scale that most of her colleagues lack.
Mezzo Olga Borodina is the biggest name among these soloists. The bottom end of her register is particularly impressive, especially for a mezzo, but on the whole her performance lacked subtly, and was rarely easy on the ear. Tenor Sergey Semishkur and bass Ildar Abdrazkov were similarly powerful but unnuanced. Abdrazkov is one of those Russian basses who always sounds like he is singing an octave lower than he actually is. He had a few problems keeping the pitch though, and like his mezzo and tenor colleagues, resorted to foghorn mode a little too often for my liking.
One other grumble about the singing - I don't think I heard a single word the whole evening. In fact, for the first few minutes I wondered if they were singing in Russian. Yastrebova's first entry put me right. Her diction wasn't great either, but it was a considerable improvement on that of her colleagues.
As he might with his London orchestra, Gergiev gave an energetic and driven reading of the score. He's always on the lookout for the next opportunity for dramatic impact, and often seems impatient in the intervening lyrical passages. That said, he is always a practical musician. Verdi writes for a cathedral acoustic, and what the Barbican offers is about as far from that as you can imagine. So, when Verdi leaves long silences after fortissimos for the reverberation to die away, Gergiev doesn't dwell on them, and by getting on with the following passage he considerably improves the coherency of the result.
It is always clear who is boss. Gergiev lines the soloists up in front of him and makes sure they do exactly as he indicates, only rarely and reluctantly giving them brief moments of interpretive freedom.
For the most part, the ensemble lacked clarity, but it was difficult to tell why. Presumably the players are used to more reverberant acoustics, which might bring out the middle of the orchestra better and particularly the woodwind. But Gergiev has spent enough of his career in this hall to know its foibles. There were one or two moments of illumination though, and these were wonderful. The fugue in the Sanctus really worked, with both singers and instrumentalist giving tight, clipped phrases and weaving in and out of each other with impressive skill. And the last few movements were redeemed by the greater focus on soprano Victoria Yastrebova. Her whispered/sung passages sounded a little forced, but otherwise her singing at the end here was great. And some of the quiet choral writing in the last ten minutes or so allowed the choir to move into Orthodox chant mode. Again, not quite the right style for the piece, but wonderful to hear nonetheless.
For all the impressive musical skills that the Mariinsky brought with them to this evening's event, the overridding impression was of a messy clash of styles. We certainly learned more about opera in Russia from this conflict than we did about liturgical music in Italy. But hearing this music performed in such a different way helps to resist complacency about the uniformity of orchestral playing in the UK. I wonder what Russian audiences make of British orchestras when they visit? Nothing unprintable I hope.