Prokofiev’s The Gambler

12_Der_Spieler_101941_DIDYK_GUSEVA In Vienna State Opera’s new production (Karoline Gruber), the set looks like one of Trump’s palaces- 1930’s pomp, all black and gold, but smashed up: there’s a huge frame at the back of the stage, the glass in fragments. Objects lie around- symbols of whatever – resembling a Salvador Dali painting. Foremost is the funfair merry-go-round, and the playground horse: representing the wheel of fortune, a carousel whose bright lights offer the illusion of happiness.
How can Alexei (Misha Didyk) explain to Polina, his passion, that he’s lost all the money she asked him to gamble with? (Actually, she’s in debt to the Marquis, her former lover.) And she’s the step-daughter of the General, another heavily-indebted gambler. The General (tremendous Russian bass Dmitry Ulyanov), reads a telegram, and sings his grandmother is not well at all. He’s madly in love with the scheming , but penniless, Blanche, his floozy, Elena Maximova, wearing a shimmering white roaring-twenties creation with tassels. He’s hoping to inherit to marry her. And he’s also deeply in debt to the Marquis (Thomas Ebenstein), who runs an extortion racket, enforced by mobsters.
So in this aristocratic, rich-man’s world of bling, all isn’t what it seems. And although Prokofiev composed his opera in 1917 – the year of the Russian Revolution- red-jacketed waiters polish the marble-effect floor like serfs. One is on his knees, a bucket on his back, in a frozen pose like a street performer.
Yes! This is supposed to be (in Dostoyevsky’s novella) mid-19th Century Germany: Roulettenberg, the pun intended!
Didyk’s Alexei is black-suited, white-shirted- he’s meant to be a tutor, so the General berates him, he should have his wits about him and not play roulette. Didyk’s magnificent tenor voices Dostoyevsky’s deeply mystical vision: singing of a nightmare of six generations of debts passed on from father to son.
07_Der_Spieler_101910_EBENSTEIN Seated on a gold bullet blown up to surrealistic proportions, Ebenstein, the Marquis, dressed like a gangster, in black jacket, brocaded waistcoat, and jeans, metes out credit to a long line of 1920s partygoers, and fashionistas – his enforcers in black-shirts.
By contrast, Didyk’s Alexei embodies Dostoyevsky’s Russian soul. In one of a number of soliloquies as arias he sings, he doesn’t know what’s happening to himself, or in Russia. The poet, he is indifferent to everybody else. And enigmatically, Hamlet-like, ‘You probably didn’t have a good heart, but the mind is irrational.’
In her Act 1 aria, Polina, Elena Guseva , a lyrical soprano with a powerful upper range- another magnificent Russian soprano- challenges Alexei: so you want to buy me with your money. She plays with the love-obsessed Alexei. No, it’s difficult to explain, he sings; he sits in his garret and muses. But led on by her, in his desire, he could devour her. Guseva, with her mousy blonde hair, wearing a navy silk gown, does, indeed look gorgeous. He sings, he’s burning with fever: but he knows it’s just impossible. She sits coldly. (Why should she force him to do that? No use to her.) Prokofiev’s music is spiky, brass and wind players bristling.
A glimpse of the Marquis’s strong-arm ‘debt collectors’: The General, in his gold-braided uniform, is still at the mercy of these spivs, one of them marking him with a pistol.
Then- in another episode- Polina, playing on Alexei’s devotion to her, orders him to offend the Baron and his wife. Who is that woman, the Baroness, to eye him like that! Polina, the paragon of 1920s cool indifference, just wants to have a laugh. 03_Der_Spieler_101996_GUSEVAProkofiev’s music pointing up the subversive mood, veers from harsh metallic dissonance to lush romanticism. Didyk removes his shirt – waving it over his head like a soccer fan – baring his muscular chest.
Opening Act 2, the stage is dominated by a long banqueting table, but it’s covered in green felt like a gaming-table. The star turn is provided by Babulenka, the marvellous Linda Watson, in a white wig, who announces she would rather gamble away her fortune than bequeath it to anyone else. (And she seeks Alexei’s help.)
The General, Ulyanov in white, wearing black boots, soaked in vodka, slumped in his armchair, rails at his lost inheritance. He wanted to stop her; she waved her cane at him. She’d already lost 40,000; it was an insult to a gentleman.
The set is now a revolving stage of half-opened black doors, with enclaves of debtors: a gambler’s purgatory. There’s a message from the General to Alexei not to destroy him. And the General is warned by the Marquis of a bill outstanding: business is not doing well.
Alexei sings there’s nothing to be done. Such a mess: what will become of them. Didyk’s is a wonderfully expressive tenor. Oh, Polina, why are you shouting my name like that? Where is the Marquis- the rogue, he sings – now realising he has a hold on Polina.
09_Der_Spieler_101982_WATSON_ENSEMBLE Good day, my dear Alexei. Please put up with an old woman. Linda Watson’s Babulenka, frail-looking, is trailing a fur-like coat, which someone greedily tugs away. They- grotesque figures in glitter jackets- pull off her jewellery; sold to others behind the scenes, ‘fences’, or pawnbrokers. Please forgive an old fool; she bids them well. She will build a church. Down to her nightdress, they even rob her of her sticks as she exits.
She’s defamed the nobility, it’s all gone, moans the General. Meanwhile Blanche leaves him the day before the wedding. We see her, Maximova, dancing off the stage with a slick Latino, brilliantined hair and Valentino moustache. Ulyanov’s brutalised figure seems to choke to death with rage, collapsed in his chair.
(Opening Act 4) Didyk is sitting alone on the edge of the stage. Guseva’s Polina grabs him and pulls him to her in a passionate kiss. And she begins to strip. She sings of a letter from the Marquis- forced to leave immediately- having lost all his loans to the General. He will now waive the 50,000 she owes him. Now she has the chance of a new life. That rogue! How she’d love to throw the money in his face! She kneels, coaxing Didyk seductively. But he leaves (convinced that, with her money, he will win, and her too.)
Prokofiev’s score has a rhythmical momentum- a train of Fate inexorably moving forward. Now the stage is a fairground roundabout. The gamblers, party animals, throw up gold dust – coins from heaven- in a remarkably choreographed scene (Stella Zannou). Rien ne va plus. They are gamblers, obsessed, addicted. (One sings he’d lost everything on red.) The stage is showered in gold dust. Croupiers wear glittering emerald jackets The table is now closed. Alexei has won 60,000. He broke the bank twice. What a man!
Alexei, by himself, Didyk appears disfigured; he’s kind and good-natured, but keeps challenging his luck, one sings. The gamblers wear carnivalesque masks- their grotesque appearance reflects their inner torture. Clever staging, but all too extreme. Nevertheless, a tour-de-force of choreographed spectacle.
Didyk is standing triumphantly on the gaming table. He reaches up to heaven; goes berserk , (like you would if you won the lottery.) ‘Insane luck’ he sings, staggering like a cripple. Polina can’t accept his money.
In the powerfully enacted closing scene, Didyk sings he’s offering her his life. He’s paying a high price- 50 thousand: the Marquis’ mistresses cost less! Now she deserts him: he’s like the Marquis, just like him. But do you love me, she pleads. It’s always been hers, he insists. Then she throws it back. Take your money! He’s been corrupted, fallen for ‘a far more capricious mistress.’
The staging (Roy Spahn) was bizarre, a concept misunderstood, incomprehensible to all but Gruber. But what a cast, the leads, Russian and outstanding, Vienna State Opera orchestra excelling under Young’s baton. Prokofiev’s opera -he composed the libretto- is a revelation. The operas, too rarely heard, contain some of his finest music.© PR.20.10.2017
Photos: Misha Didyk as Alexei, Elena Guseva as Polina; Thomas Ebenstein (Marquis); Elena Guseva (Polina); Linda Watson (Babulenka); Misha Didyk (Alexei); Featured image: Misha Didyk
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Richard Strauss’s SALOME

01_Salome_101798_BARKMIN_OSUNARichard Strauss’s Salome, premiered 1905, provoked a furore, both for its scandalous subject, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, (Strauss’s German libretto), and the modernity of its music. Strauss broke the boundaries of tonality- the opera’s final cord shocking in its dissonance; truly revolutionary, years before Stravinsky’s iconoclastic Rite of Spring (1912).
Oscar Wilde,famous for his brilliant wit, was yet a moralist and commentator on society. He was fascinated by the Christian biblical tale, in its perverse eroticism and barbarism. Also Wilde’s aestheticism was preoccupied with beauty for its own sake, independent of conventional morality.
It’s appropriate then that Vienna State Opera’s stage set draws on jugendstil (art nouveau) design , suggesting a luxuriant decadence that defined the new art at the turn of the 20th century.
The tiered steps of the Colosseum-like stage set (Jürgen Rose) are covered in a Klimt inspired decoration, gold symbols in a mosaic of jewelled colours . Back of stage there’s a Japanese tree in silhouette , stylised as in a mural.
03_Salome_101811_BARKMINSalome- Herod’s daughter, who leaves the banquet in a surly mood- is described as seltsam (strange), like a woman who is dead. So pale, never seen her so pale, like a white rose. Grun-Brit Barkman, platinum blonde, is a slight figure, a slim, cool beauty- physically the adolescent young woman. Her soprano has a crystalline clarity, but colourless, somehow lacks reserves of dark passion: the psychotic capable of demanding, in revenge, the head of John the Baptist, who all but ignores her lustful advances.
Jochanaan der Taube (John the Baptist), the prophet who emerges as if out of the dead, is being held captive in a cistern, an underground cell positioned in the middle of the stage, guarded by Roman centurions. Salome, fascinated by the voice she hears from underground, demands to see him . Against Herod’s wishes, she persuades Narrabeth (Carlos Ozuna) to free him . Barkmin, a very physical actress, wearing an alluring white silk dress with embroidered gold decoration , all but seduces the Captain of the Guard. How terrible it must be to lie there, (beneath what looks like a drain cover.) She simply wants to see the curious prophet. Barkman’s is a light seductive soprano.
A wild figure all in black emerges, Jochanaan, (Zelijko Lūcik) in a black cassock, with long black hair. Lucik’s baritone has glorious timbre . (He’s frequently cast here as Nabucco.) He sings with enormous dignity and nobility. He, other-worldly, a spiritual man , is being tantalised by a silly girl. She sings of his ivory white skin. She wants to get closer. He doesn’t want to know her, the daughter of Herodias. 02_Salome_101801_LUCICBut for her, his indifference is music to her ears. He pulls away from this ‘daughter of Sodom’. I’m in love with your body, sings this teenage girl (like she saw him on Facebook with her I-phone.) Get back, daughter of Babylon! He will listen only to the voice of God. It goes on, she, lewdly suggestive- his hair is like a vineyard, his lips red like a pomegranate- his repeating, there’s only one who can save him.
This Jochanaan, Lucic, seems relatively young, good-looking -not the gnarled, hermit-like figure we would expect. So their interchange- a sparring match between the monk and the profane bitch – has an electricity because plausibly dangerous.
Herod’s court assemble on the top of the ampitheatre steps. Herodias (Iris Vermillion) wears an outrageously plumed hat, her dress, exotic art nouveau design, out of a Klimt pattern book. With her husky mezzo, she has a camp manner; but deadly serious in demanding the blood of Jochanaan for repeatedly condemning her immorality: she wants him silenced once and for all. Now is the time!
But Herod, (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) is concerned about Jochanaan’s status as a cult religious leader, even rumoured to be a Messiah. Ablinger-Sperrhacke, dressed in splendidly patterned robes, comes over as effeminate and indecisive, lacking the heft of authority.
Herod want his daughter dance for him: Salome agrees, provided Herod grants her every wish. In the famous Dance of the Seven Veils , Barkmin is the real thing. Can she dance! It’s astonishing that the role makes exceptional vocal demands, while requiring formidable dance skills. Salome demands ‘the volume, power and stamina of a true dramatic soprano’, convincing as a young woman; and physically ‘the agility and gracefulness of a prima ballerina.’
Opening with an array of brightly coloured veils, the brilliantly choreographed movements become increasingly frenzied. Barkmin dances as if possessed, down to the last and black veil, her back to us as she faces Herod and Herodias naked full-on.

07_Salome_101807_ABLINGER_SPERRHACKE Herod admits he entered into an oath, ein Eid geschworren. But he demurs, holds out to the end. He offers her just about everything , from emeralds to the palace itself. But she still demands the head of Jochanaan on a platter. (Her revenge for his contempt of her?) Herod may well be frightened to hysteria at the unforeseen consequences; nevertheless Ablinger-Sperrhack’s lyrical tenor can hardly prevail over the sheer weight of Strauss’s orchestration. Vienna State Opera’s orchestra pit was filled to capacity with a full orchestra, (percussion including 5 timpani,tam-tam, tambourine, castanets, glockenspiel and xylophone.) Simone Young, highly regarded, is repeatedly invited back to conduct Strauss.
Shrill flutes and piccolo, stabbing intervals of woodwind, snare drum rolls: sounds out of a vision of hell. Barkmin holds ‘the head’ on a silver plate, front of stage. In her monologue, she sings, you didn’t want my mouth to kiss you: now she will kiss his mouth, bite on it like a ripe fruit. The stage is now bathed in a blood-red light. He spoke nasty words to her: now she can do what she wants. Barkmin is wearing a black gown , embossed in an oriental gold pattern. She gloats, I’m living , you are dead , and your head belongs to me. You have seen your God, Jochanaan, but never seen me. I was a Princess, a virgin, and you despised me . And the secret of love is greater than the secret of death. Und das Geheimnis der Liebe ist grosse als das Geheimnis des Todes.
In her aria, Barkmin’s singing is technically proficient , but lacking in that desperation, the sense of high drama -even of derangement or psychosis: Barkmin is too cool. I don’t remember any exceptional high notes. (And dramatic sopranos in this iconic Straussian role are legendary.)
Herod curses her as a monster , Ungeheuer, ordering her execution. We last see Barkmin, front stage, addressing the head at her feet. She has kissed his lips. A bitter taste. They say love tastes bitter. (Surely Wildean ?) Strauss’s orchestration uses dissonance, an ‘expressionism’, radical for its time, chilling in its intensity. Uncomfortable, prescient of the 20th century, its modernism with contemporary resonances.
Plaudits to Vienna State Opera for keeping Barlog’s magnificent jugendstil production. Even if tonight’s cast were not ideal , Simone Young’s Vienna State Opera Orchestra excelled.© PR. 16.9.2017
Photos: Grun-Brit Barkin (Salome) and Caros Osuna (Narrabeth); Grun-Brit Barkin (Salome); Zelijko Lūcic (Jochanaan); Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Herod)
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Vienna State Opera

11_Il_Trovatore_101425_PETEAN_EYVAZOV_SIRI Cards on table. Il Trovatore isn’t my favourite Verdi. The plot seems too far-fetched, preposterous: the son of a Count rescued from a fire by a witch- the troubador Manrico, who falls in love with Leonora, the beloved of Count Luna, his arch-enemy. Unbeknowingly ‘Blood Brothers’. And it’s so bloodthirsty, with witch burnings, eye-gouging gore. And yet this gothic intrigue, of its time , so appealing to 19th century audiences, is much for our time. Against the demonization of witches, Azecuna, is so powerfully portrayed, she’s sympathetic.
We seem to miss the psychologically complex characters of Verdi’s later operas, yet this action drama is thrilling stuff, an exercise in Verdi’s orchestral colour. And the choruses are amongst the greatest in all Verdi.
Well, time for a rethink. Il Trovatore, of a trio of brilliant successes -flanked by Rigoletto (1851) and La Traviata (1853)-has been rather eclipsed: misunderstood, condemned for its sensationalism. Perhaps unappreciated for its unconventional, almost ‘modernist’, episodic format. As to Verdi’s incorporation of witches and gypsies- part of the 19th century obsession with mystery and the supernatural- could be seen as Verdi’s genuine interest in the ‘underdog’, the socially marginalised . Verdi espoused ‘freedom fighters’ against the corrupt political establishment. So Manrico, brought up by a so-called ‘witch’ Azecuna, is caught up in the ‘civil war’, along with ‘the gypsies’.
The episodes/Acts switch between establishment, aristocratic protagonists, and the dispossessed, alternative society, the itinerants. Manrico is a troubadour, a street singer, after all.
If any production needed to convince us of Il Trovatore’s worth, this Vienna State Opera production (Daniele Abbado) was it. And conducted by a great Verdian, Marco Armiliato, with a star cast.
The stage (Graziano Gregori) is ‘traditional’, a courtyard- sandstone-effect walls, bleached-wood – with balconies on either side. The soldiers’ uniforms, in the opening scene are vaguely modern. Ferrando, (the tremendous Korean bass Jongmin Park) incites his men’s hatred of gypsies, narrating the ‘official’ Luna family history. He sings of a ‘grisly old woman- clearly a witch- staring, with blood-shot eyes at a little boy’; and how ‘the old hag’ was driven out. What joy to hear lusty Verdi choruses- sung with robust fervour by Vienna State Opera Choir- even if it’s an exercise in machismo, and the message is racist. In the folklore of rumours and fear-mongering, some have seen the witch (Azecuna’s mother) crawling the roof tops, rat-like.
06_Il_Trovatore_101413_SIRIBy contrast, Leonora (soprano Maria José Siri) is dressed in white, and a rose-pink over-gown. In her aria, she sings (to her maid) her man was revealed to her as if in a dream. Tacea la notte placida. One serene night suddenly she heard the sound of a troubadour singing a melancholy song, like a man appealing to God. Siri is warmly expressive, endearingly self-effacing, her pure soprano technically accomplished. The earth was transformed into heaven. Then, filled with apprehension, her voice rising, if she cannot live for him she will die for him.
Count Luna (George Petean), opening ‘The Duel’ episode, wears a red-brocaded coat. Petean, black-haired, bearded , looks swarthy; his magnificent baritone is a highlight. He sings, every fibre of his body is crying for her. But his reverie is jarred hearing the sound of the troubadour off-stage. (In the plot, Manrico approaches Leonora in the arms of Luna, ‘whom Leonora, in her excitement, had mistaken for Manrico’!) A trick of fate has brought him to her, she sings. Tenor Yusif Eyvazov (on very good form without Netrebko) appears in a crumpled beige suit. The men come to blows, in their jealousy, a duel takes place. Luna is overpowered, Manrico about to fatally stab him, is inexplicably held back.
‘The Gypsy’. Azecuna, movingly sung by mezzo Luciana D’Intino), is on all fours in the middle of a group of soldiers taunting her. Again the soldiers’ (Anvil) chorus- bravado male bonding, preparing for battle – is irresistibly catchy. Who brightens up our days, what gives them their courage, a young girl. (The soldiers are carrying an effigy of a saint.)
Azecuna (who nurses the war-wounded Manrico), sings in her aria, Stride la vampa the hair-raising story of her mother’s burning at the stake, surrounded by her executioners. D’Intino’s mellow mezzo is plaintive, vulnerably human. Verdi’s aria is sympathetic. 05_Il_Trovatore_101405_DINTINO D’Intino, gothic long black hair, carried away in emotion, hits terrific high notes singing how she felt a shudder through her at the death of her child. No, the Count’s son perished, her own survived, she assures Manrico. She urges him, every drop of Luna blood shed is revenge for her mother.
In Verdi (and librettist Cammarano’s) dramatic counterpoint, we switch back to the ruling classes. In Luna’s aria , believing Manrico is dead, Petean powerfully confesses his fear of Leonora entering a convent. He plans to abduct her, abetted by his soldiers, positioned in black uniforms on each side of the stage. He sees the Church as his rival- and deranged- seizes a crucifix. When Manrico appears- as if from the dead- it’s seen as a ‘divine judgement’. Leonora, Siri, in a poignant aria, sings to ‘he who offers consolation.’ And, as if in a dream, is confronted by her Manrico. The staging is spectacular, with Luna’s men raising – but refusing to use – their rifles, while Leonora sings to Manrico come from heaven, with Luna powerless to stop their escape.
An old woman is caught wandering around the camp. In a frightening scene, Azucena, caught in the soldiers’ ropes – lassoed like a steed- is interrogated. She sings, her aria a cri-de-coeur, D’Intino almost appealing directly to the audience. She has been poor all her life, but happy; everything she did was for her son, but he left her. Never has a mother loved so dearly. Then Petean’s Luna -reminded by Ferrando about the Count’s son captured fifteen years ago- realises she’s Manrico’s mother, and he’s in his power.
Fearsome! There’s a very real-looking fire in a trench at the front of stage- giving off smoke- and various men with burning torches. They turn her round and round in a gruesome ritual.
From the subplot, the marginalised, to the main protagonists: the aristocratic Leonora absconded with Manrico, the gypsy’s son: a bold subversion of the social order. Siri and Eyvasov in their duet are outstanding. ‘At such moments , you must allow sublime love to speak to your heart’. There’s a lot of feeling from Eyvasov. He kisses her affectionately (perhaps imagining his wife?) His spirit will be fearless if slain by his enemy, he sings.
01_Il_Trovatore_101419_EYVAZOV_SIRIThey are interrupted by news that ‘barbarians’, the Count’s soldiers, have lit the funeral pyre. Eyvasov sings, Di quella pira, with impressive high notes, his heart is inflamed by the horrible blaze.
The scene shifts to Luna, planning a victory celebration, and plotting revenge. Where are you, heartless woman? Leonora begs him to have pity on Manrico: Drink my blood , but spare the troubador. His fate must be crueller than cruel, counters Petean. Più l’ami e più terribile divampa il miu furor! the more you love him , the worse will be my anger. In their duet, she almost screams, but you shall have me, cold and dead. Finally, submitting, she sings, she can tell Manrico that she it was who saved him. Petean gloats- repeat you are mine! ( She is his; he can hardly believe it.)
Beginning the execution scene, the stage is strewn with blooded corpses. Realismo! The tower where prisoners are held. In Leonora’s aria, her mournful sighs will fill his dungeon with hope, D’amor sull’ali rosėe; offstage, Eyvasov’s troubadour song.
A staircase out of the back of stage. Mother and son tortured. It is harrowingly moving: mother can’t you sleep? Eyvasov, not quite the show-stopping virtuoso tenor, rather sombre and soulful. D’Intino’s Azecuna sings, a dreadful weariness torments her.
Luna allows Leonora to persuade Manrico to escape. He reproaches her. What was the price? She, how cruel and unfair you are to me. In their sublime duet, she confesses she has taken poison; Eyvasov’s Manrico now tormented by his curses. Siri, with great pathos, she preferred to die with him than live with another.
In the nemesis, Luna orders Manrico’s execution. To be told by Azecuna, he was your brother; you are avenged mother.
The ending is Shakesperean – Hamlet, Titus Andronicus– a senseless blood letting , without remorse, the fulfilment of blind Fate. As opera it’s as great as any Verdi masterpiece. I thank Vienna State Opera for my conversion.© PR.13.09.2017
Photos: George Petean ( Count Luna), Maria José Siri (Leonora) and Yusif Eyvazov (Manrico); Maria José Siri (Leonora); Luciana D’Intino (Azecuna); Simina Ivan (Ines), Yusif Eyvazov (Manrico), Maria José Siri
© Wiener Staatsoper /Michael Pöhn

Pelléas and Mélisande all at sea

01_Pelleas_et_Melisande_100073_BEZSMERTNA_EROED Marelli’s staging at Vienna State Opera. Grey marble slabs, built-up, line the stage – cliff-like, perhaps resembling a fortress; there’s a seaview; and a grotto, or is it a small lake? There are 5 Acts, over 14 scenes in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and this, with some small variations, is the gloomy setting over three hours, with one interval.
Simon Keenlyside as Golaud, in modern hunting gear, is playing with his rifle as if to shoot himself. Keenlyside’s baritone is probably the star attraction in an impressive cast, with Alain Altinoglu, arguably the finest exponent of French repertoire, conducting Vienna State Opera orchestra and chorus.
The start of the first Act is shrouded in mystery. He’ll never find his way out of the forest, he sings-thought he’d killed it, the boar. Lost-perdu– the dogs will never find him. There’s a boat right of stage, he wades thigh-deep through water. A woman, the glorious soprano Olga Bezsmertna as Mélisande, fearful, trembling, sings repeatedly, Don’t touch me! He insists on staying; she need have no fear of him. Who has hurt you?- Everyone, everything! She ran away, escaped . Je suis perdu. The crown he gave me, no she doesn’t want it anymore. She’d rather die. He announces himself as Prince Golaud.
So it’s a medieval tale brought up to date. He, a man like any other, hunting in the forest pursuing a wild boar. Yet she, Bezsmertna, red-haired, chic, is dressed in white designer suit? They’re both lost. It could be Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, everyone in an existential puzzle, trying to find their way out of a maze. Anyway, Keenlyside has impeccable intonation, Bezsmertna’s French is also very impressive.
In Debussy’s opera the interludes are nearly as important as the action. In Scene 2 their mother Geneviève (Bernarda Fink) reads Golaud’s letter to Pelléas, explaining that he’s married Mélisande; but vowing not to return if the family- the patriarchal grandfather Arkel- will not accept her. Geneviève sings of ‘the woman who keeps on crying six months after she married him.’ (The blinds backstage reflect the shimmering water.)
Arkel, (Franz-Josef Selig) one of the highlights, sings of the reverse side of destiny. He’d thought the bride he’d arranged would make him happy. But so be it.
21_Pelleas_et_Melisande_100300_BEZSMERTNA Bezsmertna, now in white lace (a wedding dress) arrives in Allemonde and finds the darkness oppressive. Geneviève tells her she too had to come to terms with it. There could be a storm that night, the mist is lifting slowly. In the opera’s symbolism, everything is covered in mist.
Pelléas (Adrian Eröd), Golaud’s half-brother, literally bounces onto the stage. Eröd, as the ingénue, is a wiry figure in an off-white baggy suit. Eröd, a superb light baritone, though immaculately sung, physically lacks the aura of the romantic hero.
In Act 2 Pelléas and Mélisande are sitting at the back of this grotto, supposedly the abandoned ‘fountain of the blind.’ Bezsmertna appears to be hanging over the fountain- like a lake on stage- her long plaited hair actually submerged in the water. (Is it a hair piece?) Her hands trembling, she throws up the wedding ring- more symbolism- and drops it; and she’s up to her knees looking for it. There’s no need to worry about a ring! sings Eröd. What shall we tell Golaud?- La verité. The truth.
And as if simultaneously, Golaud has had a heart attack, while Bezsmertna is lying on the upturned boat. A wounded Keenlyside is carried in by seamen in oilskin coats. His heart seems to have been ‘torn out’; now he’s strong and healthy, he sings. She dotes on him. 17_Pelleas_et_Melisande_100222_KEENLYSIDE_BEZSMERTNA
In their powerful scene- Keenlyside and Bezsmertna’s duet outstanding- she thinks he doesn’t love her. But there’s love in his eyes. He’s still young- albeit greying hair. – Could she not get used to life there. It’s true you can never see the sky here , he sings. She saw it for the first time today. (More symbolism.) Besides isn’t it summer now? But Mélisande cannot stand the eternal gloom. Nor we.
Opening Act 3, we see Pelléas and Mélisande on a boat. Bezsmertna lies, reclining , dressed in white. ‘My hair is so long’ , she sings. She was born on a Sunday afternoon at noon.- He too,(et moi.) He, Eröd, is lying beneath her . They are raising their hands in unison.
Yet, in Maurice Maeterlinck’s French libretto, he sings ‘he can’t climb any higher’ and she ‘can’t reach his hand with her lips? Her hair is ‘tumbling down.’
But isn’t this supposed to be that medieval tale, the damsel locked in the tower; the young lover climbing the ramparts. Which doesn’t make sense in this modern reconstruction.
Marco Marelli’s staging is nonsense. In the libretto, Mélisande’s hair is ‘draped over the willow branches’. No he won’t release her tonight; she is his prisoner, he sings. He’s tying her hair to the willow branches. But where’s the tree Marelli?
Here, sitting side-by-side, enveloped by her hair, he holds her hair behind his ears. Then, ‘she hears something down there.’- It’s the doors of the tower flying open. Then she, ‘Wait, her hair is tangled in the branches’.
Keenlyside’s Golaud arrives ,and sings, ‘Mélisande, don’t lean so far out: you will fall!’ Don’t play in the dark , he admonishes them, You’re like children. But they’re both dressed in white – Eröd an off-white suit- and under spotlights.
More convincing is Golaud’s leading Pelléas down to the dungeons (steep steps back-of-stage.) They’re as if suffocating. Eröd sings of the air as heavy as paste. Suddenly Eröd rushes out into the daylight. Debussy’s music rises in a crescendo to describe the epiphany: the sight of freshly watered flowers. Golaud again warns Pelléas to stay away from Mélisande.
Keenlyside effectivelyconveys the man obsessed by jealousy: ruthless in questioning his son Yniold (Maria Nazarova) about his half-brother’s relationship with Mélisande. Do they like each other: do they often quarrel? Mazarova is remarkable vocally, convincing in the trouser role. But again the staging is anachronistic. Golaud bribes him with a ‘quiver and arrows’. Mazarova sings, the’yre always crying, and how pale Mélisande is.Do they kiss? The boy is standing on a boat, precariously balanced, looking into a narrow window.
Later Keenlyside twists Pelléas’ arm. And turns to Mélisande, accusing her ‘great innocence’.(He knows those eyes.) When she tries to escape, he holds her by the nape of the neck, pushing her down. Geneveviève and Arkel are cowering for their lives. Selig sings , if I were God , I would have pity on the lives of men.
In Act 4 the family reunited, it’s to be their last evening. Pelléas will leave, as his father’s wishes. Selig, in an affecting arias, sings of Mélisande’s troubled look, expecting tragedy: ‘too young and beautiful to be inhaling death day and night.’
03_Pelleas_et_Melisande_100276_BEZSMERTNA_EROEDLa dernière fois. Pelléas and Mélisande arrange one last meeting. Eröd sings, everything must come to an end. He’d been in a dream ; but he’d never looked into her eyes.
They finally declare their love for each other. Je t’aime– she sings it in ‘a voice from the end of the earth.’ Now that he’s found her, she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. Come into the light. She is heureux et triste, happy and sad. How beautiful in the dark: his heart is suffocating. Yet the stage is lit up?
Golaud’s prowls around back of stage, Keenlyside knee-deep in water. They’re embracing, He in the water, she in the boat. (Not quite convincing.) Golaud kills Pelléas, and wounds Mélisande.
Act 5 is magnificently sung, but the staging again verges on the absurd. Keenlyside sings, he killed without reason, against his will; saw them embracing. Bezsmertna, still in white , raises herself up- but why is she in that boat, in ‘the lake’? the men standing on the shore?
Mélisande, can you forgive me.- But for what, she sings. She’s dying, but Golaud must know the truth. La Verité. Did you love Pelléas ? A forbidden love. Non. They were greetings of nothing. She slips into unconscousness.
There are three women, as if sleepwalking -now seven- in bright summer dresses. They push the boat out. There’s a brilliant sunrise. The most colourful moment of the evening. And there he is again, Kennlyside, playing with his rifle, now with his son.
Marelli obviously has a thing about water. With all the resources of Vienna’s stage, he could have done better. At least musically it did Debussy’s rarely performed opera justice. (Shame if Vienna has to live with this for another 20 years.) © P.R.1.7.2017
Photos: Featured image: Simon Keenlyside (Golaud); Olga Bezsmertna (Mélisande) and Adrian Eröd (Pelléas; Olga Bezsmertna (Mélisande); Simon Keenlyside (Golaud) and Olga Bezsmertna (Mélisande); Adrian Eröd and Olga Bezsmertna
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

COSMIC RAGE: Strauss’s Elektra

01_Elektra_100478_STEMMEVienna State Opera’s previous Elektra reminded us of the opera’s classical roots through giant dismembered Greek statues. Uwe Laufenberg’s new Vienna production is modernist, brutally minimalist. It looks forward into the 20th century. As does Richard Strauss’s expressionist music- nothing, except for Salome(1905), that we’ve heard before- dissonant, its ‘fluid tonality’ anticipating Schoenberg. A radical departure, it crossed for Strauss a red line never to be repeated.
Left of stage, naked women cavorting in what looks like a latrine. Blood-splattered, they’re being showered down with a hose! What seems a volcanic heap, actually a coal bunker. Five women, watched over by female prison guards in grey uniforms, are talking about Elektra. ‘Is she not a King’s daughter?’ – Nothing in the world is more royal than her. The one who sticks up for Elektra – none of you is worthy to breathe her name- is put into a straight-jacket. It’s a grim vision, between penitentiary and concentration camp, ‘the Kommandant’ armed with a baton.
Totally alone. Allein weh, ganz allein. Her father gone, slaughtered; murdered in his bath, purple blood flowing from his wounds. Nina Stemme’s Elektra, very manly in a double-breasted suit, her hair slicked-back, is as if de-sexed. Far removed from Stemme’s romantic roles, the sex goddesses, it’s a brave characterisation. With soaring intensity, her soprano a power house, she holds the stage for much of two hours.
Agamemnon, where are you father? She pleads, hasn’t he the power to carry her away. Now it’s our turn. His woman sleeps in what was his royal bed. Stemme truly enacts her cosmic rage. She plays with, and finally opens, a black suitcase, her father’s. She lays out on a silk handkerchief, his cap his gun; then cleans and holds high an axe, prancing and dancing across the stage: her victory dance, Siegestanze, tansen!
Chrysothemis, her sister ( Regine Hangler) has come to warn her. What does her mother’s daughter want? Chryso appeals for conciliation with their mother Clytemnestra and her consort, Aegisth. Hangler in a white lace dress, her soprano is expressive, with powerful reserves. She is a woman, she insists, and wants a woman’s fate, to live, to have children. Better dead than live without life.
The façade of this high-rise palace lights up revealing lifts moving up and down. Guard dogs sniff around beneath the coal heaps. Clytemnestra descends. Waltraud Meier, white-haired, her sparkling diamonte evening wear suggests luxury and excess. She sings of her sick-livered body, of the god’s remorse. (Why must her powers be crippled.) Her distinguished mezzo lacks some ballast. Her daughter Elektra patrols outside the lift area. Finally, she will come down to speak to her. Meier is led off in her wheelchair.
2_Elektra_100504_MEIER_STEMME The dramatically-charged mother-daughter faceoff is a highlight scene. Do you dream mother? – Her every limb cries out for death. Meier sings of her gruesome nightmares: this dream must have an end. Stemme replies cryptically, when the blood sacrifice is made, you will dream no more. (The staging is curious; Stemme is moving around in Meier’s wheelchair.) Stemme mentions her son Orestes, ‘a taboo in this house’. (He is coming? She’ll position her armed guards.) Finally, Stemme, Was bluten muss, your neck must bleed. And I will see you die at last- Stemme on a tremendous high note- then you’ll stop dreaming. Meier crumpled with guilt, brutalised by her daughter’s grilling, is wheeled off. The guards shine their torches on Elektra.
Chrysomethis’s rushes in, her news, Orestes is dead- initially denied by Elektra. (No one can know!). It occasions another high-powered scene in which Elektra tries to win her over in her revenge plans. Who will kill Aegisth, their stepfather? Elektra goads her sister on; you are so strong. Stemme ugly and brutalised convinces as Elektra worn down by others’ guilt. Finally Chryso runs away. Elektra now alone, wipes the axe and cowers.
A hooded figure appears, weirdly dressed, like a rough sleeper, in a black leather coat. Is she one of the women of the house? Held, shaven-headed, chin white-stubbled, his powerful baritone has impressive stage presence. He sings of an assignment. Do I have to see you? Stemme is actually spitting out her emotion. He’s come on behalf of Orestes, who’s glad she is living.
Elektra is barely recognisable. Verwandt bin ich dein Blut– he’s related, a blood brother, both without their father. Elektra sehe ich dich. He sees her, yet her eyes are terrifying furchtbar, her cheeks sunken. Orest lebt! Orestes lives, uninjured!
Wer bist du, denn, Who are you, she asks. The dogs recognise him. A moment of revelation, the orchestral strings uneasy, like a windstorm. He and she remove their coats. They embrace in a corner of the stage. They fondle each other with – in this production- some suggestion of incest. Oh, let her eyes see – more beautiful than any dream. Noble, indescribable: stay with me. Then she will die, more blessed than she lived. 06_Elektra_100490_STEMME_HELD
In Strauss and Hoffmannstal’s poignant scene, Stemme sings, she believes she was a king’s daughter, then beautiful when she looked in the mirror. Her glorious hair, before which men trembled. Now dirty, tangled. Stemme sings, a harrowing figure. Does he understand, she has had to give everything up. Her glamour, her beauty, her youth. She kneels. Why is he looking so anxiously at her?
He will do it! In haste. He opens up her father’s suitcase, uncovering his military uniform. Stemme stands by in a plain black dress, black stockings, as if still in mourning after all these years. He leaves, then she realises she didn’t give him the axe!
Lippert’s Aegisth stands on a darkened stage . Lichter, is no one there to light up? Who is the strange man who calls himself Orestes? And the announcement that he’s dead? Indubitable! She, Elektra, is as if dancing around him, the one she’s been waiting for. (Held’s Orestes, hooded, gets into the lift with him.) Murder- you are murdering me! Down the other lift , the body of Clytemnestra.
Chryso, like a fair-weather bell, enthuses at Orestes side, and rushes across to Elektra. As if a thousand birds are released, the music comes out of her.
In Elektra’s powerful aria, Stemme sings, with her rage spent, she cannot move, or lift herself . Her limbs stiffen, she is doomed to silence. She is done for by the gods. The ‘burden of happiness’, the hope of a new start, is thwarted by a relentless, inescapable fate.
Yet, in Laufenberg’s scheme, Stemme leads a dance of celebration! She sings,’she carries the burden of Fate, and dances for them’. It’s a frantic, desperate troupe, a commotion leading off stage.
With this star cast, and headed by a tour-de-force from Stemme, it would be churlish to complain about Rolf Glittenberg’s staging. (I overheard an American saying, it reminded him of Nazi Germany.) Vienna State Opera orchestra (and Chorus) conducted by Michael Boder were on exemplary form in Strauss’s stunningly modernist score. Strauss/Hofmannstahl’s opera is a grim, nihilistic masterpiece without religious consolation, its characters caught up in a web of fate. A portent for the 20th century. © P.R.26.06.2017
Photos: Nina Stemme as Elektra; Waltraud Meier, Klytaemenestra and Nina Stemme; Alan Held as Orest and Nina Stemme
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn


barbara pálffy/volksoper

barbara pálffy/volksoper

Carl Millöcker is up there with the greats of the first “golden era” of Viennese operetta, along with the waltz king Johann Strauss, Franz von Suppé and Carl Zeller. Millöcker conducted the first performances of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, but his own masterpiece Der Bettelstudent was one of the most successful Viennese operettas in both Europe and America, (with between 1896 and 1921 almost 5000 performances in German.)
Millöcker’s musical comedy is a staple of Vienna Volksoper repertory, who give it a traditional period dress production, wisely as it’s based in 18th century Polish Cracow. So there’s a historical subtext- the fight for Polish independence against their German masters- beneath this romantic comedy. Musically it’s full of “eminently hummable polkas, krakowiaks, polonaises, marches, and waltzes and brilliantly constructed and scored” (Richard Traubner.)
The lush romantic overture- a pot-pourri of Der Bettelstudent’s surprisingly familiar melodies- is used to set the scene, Anatol Preissler’s imaginative production for Vienna Volksoper is never tacky, but tasteful. A globe fills the stage, homing in on Cracow in 2016, and through postcards, leading us back to 1704. We are treated to a classic ballet sequence, Vienna State Ballet male dancers enacting a baroque fantasy. There’s polished playing from Vienna Volksoper orchestra under Guido Mancusi.
(c) barbara pálffy/volksoper By contrast, at the front of the prison, jailer Enterich (Boris Eder) is busy confiscating the gifts, food and money brought by the prisoners’ wives. Good man Enterich, don’t be such a raging madman! He looks like a pirate. A group of Saxon officers- a weird bunch of aristocratic degenerates, they’re the baddies- announce Colonel Ollendorf, Governor of Cracow’s visit. Ollendorf, sung by Morten Frank Larsen, has the operetta’s big hit ,Ich hab’ sie nur auf die Schulter geküsst. He only kissed her on the shoulder, and she hit him with her fan! (The Countess won’t have her daughter Laura marrying a braggart.) Ollendorf, a social-climber, the ‘respected hero’, considers himself slighted.
So, in Ollendorf’s revenge scam, two students are released, Symon (Lucian Krasznec, a thrilling lyric tenor) to pose as ‘Prince Wybicki’, and Jan (David Sitka, another competent tenor) as his servant. So, Ollendorf sings, the game begins, his revenge plan in place. (Das Spiel began…es greift unser Racheplan.) The memory of it still makes him shudder, to be so insulted!
Imagine students imprisoned for debt! Krasznec’s Symon sings, protesting he’s only a poor student – ‘he’s no beggar, but in debt’ – and at first swears at Ollendorf. Swindler, and hypocrite! Then, can you get us pardoned; really a Duke? – All he has to do is to marry a woman for his freedom!
The Ladies at the Cracow Spring Fair, Countess Nowalski (Sulie Giardi) and her daughters, are a snobbish lot. They’re out shopping. With ‘Ooh and ah’, they’ll only pretend to buy. Actually, they’re broke , they’ve spent the last of their money on Laura’s (Anja-nina Bahrmann) dress. Potatoes from America are newly in vogue, (it being the 18th century), so Bronislava, the younger sister (Anita Götz), obviously starving, stuffs her pretty face.
‘Prince Wybicki’ is supposed to be fabulously wealthy – a millionaire, perhaps more!- and, he’s travelled the globe. Yet sings of the praises of Polish women, Die schöne Polen. Krasznec’s is a pedigree tenor: he’s got real stage presence. Laura is spellbound, he -in the scam- asks her to marry him, and she accepts without hesitation. He sings of tears of delight, she counters affirming jubilant joy, Bahremens an exquisitely light soprano.
Meanwhile, (Act 2), with Laura preparing for her wedding, the Countess and her daughters are like panto dames counting their fortune. Jan,(Sitka)- remember he’s Symon’s sidekick- confesses his love for Bronislava, and asks for her hand in marriage. Their duet is a highlight: I ask just for one thing of you, love me true, and the moving, In love I bind myself to you, unser Bund geweiht.
Equally powerful, Symon and Laura’s duet. Krasznec, in his aria, wonders if he should speak out or remain silent. She sings, ‘what’s on his mind’. But how does he tell her the truth? Supposing I was a vagabond, just supposing, he sings. She counters, even if he were poor, or in disgrace, love doesn’t think of such things.
Bronislava accepts the discovery they are, after all, both students. Hardly bothered if her Prince is only a beggar.(Der Fürst soll nur ein Bettel sein und mich ruhrt es kaum. But Symon notwithstanding writes the Countess a letter of confession, which the meanie Ollendorf keeps until after the wedding for his revenge. barbara pálffy/volksoper
Preissler’s Vienna Volksoper production is distinguished by its set pieces with sensational choreography for the famous Bettelstudent Polka in Act 2 featuring Vienna State Ballet dancers. The wedding staging is impressive, the ballroom’s minimal props, lifted by a tapestry backdrop.
The light, sometimes slapstick, comedy in the first Act is replaced by a more serious tone. At the wedding reception Symon is exposed publicly for only a beggar student, and Laura is disgraced. But in the complicated plot Jan consoles the love-sick Symon when he enthuses over Poland’s cause. He is in fact a Polish Duke – a freedom fighter for Poland’s independence from Saxon occupation. And with Symon’s help, he escapes to join the uprising.
The denouement is spectacular. In the March for the Fatherland (Marsch für’s Vaterland) , the stage is dominated by the national symbol of Poland in gold, suspended against a red , then blue backdrop, with cannon effects proclaiming the success of the uprising. This being a comedy, the two pairs of lovers are re-united, Laura declares she loves for Symon whoever he may be, and the stage is packed for the Finale, the patriotic chorus Befreit das Land! The lavish costumes attest to a class production. In Millöcker’s best known masterpiece Der Bettelstudent there is so much to discover, and this Vienna Volksoper production is something of a revelation. P.R. 2017
Photos: Lucian Krasznec (Symon Rymanowicz), Elizabeth Flechl (Countess Nowalski), and Martin Winkler (Governor Ollendorf); Boris Eder (Enterich); Martin Winkler (Ollendorf), Lucian Krasznec (Symon),Alexander Pinderak (Jan Janicki)
(c) Barbara Palffy / Volksoper Wien
Unfortunately photos for all the May 2017 cast were not available.

Wagner’s Siegfried at Vienna State Opera

06_Siegfried_98566_LANG_VINKEVienna’s Siegfried, in Sven-Eric Bechtholf’s Wagner Ring cycle, has a minimalist staging. Rolf Glittenberg’s sets are imaginative, functional, and unobjectionable. The subterranean workshop, where Siegfried’s sword is being forged, like an alchemist’s factory, has 1930’s Flash Gordon Expressionist feel, with orderly workbenches and ventilators like clock-faces. Mime, who’s brought up the orphaned Siegfried- left only the fragments of a sword by his mother Sieglinde- hopes to use Siegfried to refashion ‘Notung‘, the magic sword, to obtain the Nibelung ring.
Stephan Vinke’s Siegfried has close-cropped hair, like a skinhead; rather brutal. He sings contemptuously of washing and scraping: he hates his ‘father’. A juvenile delinquent figure, he runs into the forest to escape from his master: and, strangely, communes with nature, his secret, poetic side. He cannot abide Mime, (the unfortunately-named tenor Wolfang Ablinger-Sperrhacke.) But why does he always return, mocks Mime: the young long for their parents. Then why do the young leave their nests, questions Siegfried. So far Vinke’s tenor is accomplished, not yet exceptional; but Vinke develops into the role, and after his exploits, growing into manhood, by the end of Act II ready to confront the world, in Act III, in the scenes with Brünnhilde, he’s sensational.
But Siegfried and the first Acts, are not to everyone’s taste, and can be interminable; as relentless as the persistent hammering, climaxing Act I, as the sword is unsheathed. Ablinger’s Mime is rather eccentric, not the malevolent dwarf as described . Vinke, in a black nylon smock- rather thuggish- is not at all god-like. And unfortunately, Ablinger’s is not a distinctive tenor.
04_Siegfried_98626_KONIECZNY At last a voice of real distinction. A black-hooded figure – silhouetted in the doorway backstage, the Wanderer (Thomasz Konieczny): Is a guest allowed to enter? Konieczny’s immense bass-baritone – regularly cast here as Wotan – is to be-wonder. Only the evil fear misfortune, he sings. Konieczny, like the great Finnish basses, has an other-worldly quality both man and god. Now tell me what race Geschlecht rules on high? The gods of Valhalla, spirits of light; Wotan, god of light, rules over them. Konieczny’s Wotan as Wanderer aria is for Wagner a narrative recap of the story so far. Guardianship of the world rests with he who has the spear, he sings, referring to Notung the magic sword, and his chosen successor Siegfried.
In the action packed 2nd Act, Mime’s brother Alberich (Jochen Schmeckenbecher), is exceptional in his confrontation with the Wanderer; then later in conspiring to get the dragon Fafner (Sorin Coliban) to hand over the ring. Siegfied’s slaying of the dragon, represented by a huge eye backstage, Coliban spookily on stilts- is surprisingly chilling.
The highlight is Wagner’s sublime Siegfried motif: Siegfried’s magical power to understand birdsong. The woodbird (the ethereal soprano Hila Fatima) sings to Siegfried of the ring and the treasure. In his aria, contemplating his loneliness, Vinke looks like a bovver boy, sings like an angel. Outwardly, he’s course, blunt, but rather endearing. He’s an ingénue, a noble savage, trying to discover the secrets of his birth: enchanted and inspired by the wonders of the natural world.08_Siegfried_98591_VINKE But ruthless, in an elemental sense, killing Mime without compunction in self-defence.
In the Prelude Vienna State Opera Orchestra excelled, the orchestral colours, especially horns and woodwind, absolutely sensational. Peter Schneider regularly conducts The Ring at Vienna State Opera; the huge applause was deserved.
After the claustrophobic gloom of Acts I and II and the battles against evil and its dragons, Act III come as spiritual relief. Maybe it’s the feminine influence: man’s misguided valour and machismo, tempered by the wisdom of the maternal , mother earth itself.
Wotan (Konieczny) wakes Erda, Ewigesweiss the eternal woman, from her sinnliche sleep. Okka von der Damerau, blonde, shrouded in white sheets, emerges from her sleep of knowledge. Wotan, the Wanderer, for all his power, angst-ridden, wants to know the hidden depths: none wiser than she. How to stop a rolling wheel, (the decline of Valhalla’s gods). Why didn’t he ask Wotan’s child , the brave Valkyrie Brünnhilde. (Presumed against Wotan, punished, under a spell, surrounded by a ring of fire.) She, Erda, is confused: the world’s path is awry. (We know!) Does he who taught defiance, now punish it? Does the defender of justice (Wotan) and guardian of oaths now shun justice? She wants out: back to her sleep. How does a god overcome anxiety? She puts him down, ‘You stubborn wild man’: You are not that what you think yourself. Why did he disturb her. Konieczny’s Wotan sings he’s leaving everything to Siegfried, who knows no fear. The god yields to the ever-young hero.
There he is, (Vinke’s) Siegfried, with his back-pack. – Which way, youth, does his path lead?- Siegfried treats ‘the Wanderer’ with the same contempt as he treated Mime. Inquisitive old man . He’s blocking his way.- If old, he retorts, then maybe he should treat him with some respect.- All his life an old man in his way! Siegfried mocks him: why is he one-eyed, and wearing a large hat?
Konieczny cuts a rather sad figure, hat knocked off, humiliated by the young stripling: he who is so dear to him. Vinke’s Siegfried pulls him by the hood (while Konieczny tries to persuade him from taking that path, to Brünnhilde, rasendes Kind.) Vinke lays him low with his sword. Zieh hin!, Vinke’s golden heroic tenor is resplendent. Wotan can’t stop him.
Grey cliffs like concrete slabs, rocks strewn to the side, a red glow lights up the backstage. A figure lies huddled in a cocoon. This inexperienced youth is helpless: he’s got that sinking feeling. How does he wake her. He goes weak at the sight of a woman lying asleep.
And all I want to know is whether Petra Lang can possibly substitute for the divine Nina Stemme, in the Brünnhilde role, Stemme the voluptuous, incandescent Nordic beauty- the soprano to beat all comers.
05_Siegfried_98610_LANGBreaking out of a tangle of white cloth strips, emerging in a grey silk dress, Petra Lang, mousey-haired, holding her eyes as if blinded by the sun. Heil die Sonne!. Lang war mein Schlaf. Who is the hero? He walked through the fire screen? –Siegfried bin ich.- Greetings gods! Greetings world! Lang. Not the maternal figure, more the maiden. But what an exquisite voice! And their interaction is superb. She beholds him: holds her hands up in awe, girlish, shy. O, Siegfried, heiliger Held! Lang is a slight figure against other strapping Wagnerian sopranos.
But she is too young. There should be a hint of taboo in Siegfried’s being wooed by an older woman. (A Mrs Robinson?) Complex, interesting, and technically competent though Lang’s soprano is, hers is not yet the power of Wagner’s she-goddesses. You name them: Birgit Nilsson et al. It’s ‘Hello Young Lovers’, rather than the verboten, the pleausures of the boudoir, being seduced by the femme fatale.
Lang’s body language is that of the virgin. (He sings one blessed selige has stopped his heart.) Without the shield he’s cut away, she’s defenceless; a weak woman. His blood boils in passion. Oh, woman, quench the fire.
She protests, no god has come close to her: the heroes respected her virginity.(She was chaste when she left Valhalla.) What shame and humiliation: she covers herself with her arms. (Yet we know, in Wagner’s Ring narrative, she’s old enough to be his mother.) She sings, she was always concerned for his welfare (like his mother.) Oh, Siegfried , laughing hero, leave her be. Siegfried, radiant youth, Liebe dich und lasse dich.
Bu she is outstretched on the stage, singing O Siegfried , I have always been yours. -Then be mine now. Auge in Auge , mund in Mund, he sings passionately. Now divine peace overpowers her. Her eyes devour him. Is he not afraid of the wild passionate woman? He’s quite forgotten his fear. (Wagner’s Siegfried leitmotiv soars) Let us laugh and love. Leuchtende Liebe, Lachender Tod. Radiant love, laughing death. They rush into each other’s arms.
It was, especially Act III, a triumph, moreso for being unexpected. Vinke , a fresh, youthful, unconventional Siegfried, Lang quite enchanting. And Konieczny, in Vienna, claiming the role of Wanderer as his own. P.R. 6.5.2017
Photos: Featured image, Stefan Vinke; Petra Lang (Brünnhilde) and Stephan Vinke (Siegfried) ; Thomas Konieczny (the Wanderer), Stephan Vinke (Siegfried); Petra Lang
(c) Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Wagner’s Parsifal in Vienna

26_Parsifal_97100 In Vienna State Opera’s new production, director Alvis Hermanis sets Wagner’s Parsifal in pre-World War Vienna; the stage design cites the Viennese architecture of Otto Wagner, his hospital complex in Steinhof and the Wagner Church. For Hermanis, the search for the Grail is also a pursuit of spiritual enlightenment; and Gurmaniz and Klingsor are two doctors, in a polarisation of good and evil, fighting for control of their patients’ soul.
It opens in a hospital ward with rows of white beds; on the lower stage, ‘the Doctor’ Gurmenanz (René Pape) at his desk, behind him a glass bookcase. The Wagner Spital , a progressive psychiatric institution outside Vienna, was spectacularly beautiful in the jugendstil (art nouveau), as recreated in Hermanis’s set. The backdrop is an arched stained-glass window of the chapel; and elaborate jugendstil motifs embellish the walls.
In the introduction, the awakening patients in white cross themselves before four statues of saints, while ornate screens slide across the stage separating the ‘wards’. This is the backdrop to Richard Wagner’s sublime Prelude: what we hear is profoundly moving, Vienna State Opera Orchestra (Chorus and extra Choruses) conducted by inspirational Semyon Bychkov.
Nina Stemme’s Kundry, the archetypal transgressive woman in Wagner’s scheme – she wanders restlessly from age to age, once ‘laughed at Jesus on the cross’- is dragged in like a mad woman, attended by nurses with syringes . Amfortas, (the King of the Grail wounded by the holy spear Klingsor stole), is wheeled in on a bed brought front of stage. He looks grey and dying. But his voice, Gerald Finley’s rich baritone, is very much alive.
06_Parsifal_97148_STEMME Kundry is kept in a cage (representing an isolation ward?), under the doctor’s observation. She alone is dressed in black against the predominant white of other patients in night gowns (sitting in group therapy.) We see her having a fit in her cage: is this a new diva thing?
In the plot Parsifal appears in the Grail’s domain, a sacred area where only the chosen are allowed. Gurmenanz, a comrade of Titorel, the first King of the Grail (Jongmin Park’s resonant bass), leads ‘the young Parsifal’ to Amfortas’s castle . Christopher Ventris, an always competent but unexceptional tenor, appears as the archetypal 19th century romantic hero in a rustic forest green outfit , but with a gold waistcoat (or is it brass armour?) Parsifal’s entrance is preceded by the discovery of a dead swan, connecting with Wagner’s Lohengrin narrative (where Lohengrin finds the Holy Grail.) Pepe’s Gurmenanz dominates the first Act, and has the longest solo as he takes Ventris’ Parsifal under his wings, believing he has found the proverbial ‘Pure Fool.’
The set is a white marble effect, with Hapsburg imperial-green panelling . Very effective are the decorative panels which slide open, as a multitude enter for the Order’s religious ceremony: including a bearded, balding character uncannily reminiscent of Gustav Klimt. A glow envelopes the stage as the Grail’s golden dome, suspended, is lowered. Intricately embossed, it is both suggestive of religious sacraments, also quintessentially ‘jugendstil’ (modelled on the Altar dome of the Otto Wagner church.)
Parsifal looks on as Amfortas (Finley) pleads to be relieved of his duty uncovering the Grail. But obliged to submit, Amfortas is led on, supported on each side. Verdammt zu sein , Finley’s wonderful baritone is both powerful and plaintive, Park’s (Titurel) incredible bass reverberates.
Backstage the warm gold light illuminates the stained glass windows (of the chapel at the rear) , depicting the Order’s coat of arms, elaborately-feathered bird of prey. The nurses distribute bread to the inmates; later sacrificial wine. The concept seems so right, be it a 19th century hospital, workhouse, asylum: and here a ‘Christian’ order, the bread and wine as sacraments. They drink as bells ring against Wagner’s orchestration. The sliding doors close off the stage as Parsifal , seemingly impervious to Amfortas’s suffering, exasperates Gurmenanz his mentor with his silence, as he disappears off stage.
04_Parsifal_97576_SCHMECKENBECHER It all started so well. But Act 2 goes too far; it opens in an operating theatre, table centre-stage, where Kundry is receiving electric shock therapy (not in 1900, surely?) and wakes up screaming . Die Zeit ist da (now is the time), sings magnificent tenor Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Klingsor.
Nina Stemme is on a luxurious red-Persian patterned couch, with presumably her psychoanalyst hovering over her. Schmeckenbecher, facing her on the opposite stage, handles a giant model of a brain. She wanders through beds of sheet-covered corpses, presumably his experiments: pretty nasty connotations, anticipating Nazi (Mengeles’) brain research on disabled and psychiatric patients.‘Eine Wunde trägt jede nach Heim, cites a caption projected back of stage. Klingsor’s white surgeon’s coat is blood-stained!
Parsifal has somehow entered Klingsor’s domain- the ward. The stage is invaded by countless look-alikes (the flower girls), all with long, white gowns, their hair, like Stemme’s, an auburn red. Wagner’s ‘sirens’ are enchanting, beguiling. Sensational effect, as they freeze in their movements.
Stemme’s Kundry, in a shimmering gold dress, her long trestles trailing, wearing a gold broach, earrings the size of headphones. A jugendstil goddess out of a Klimt painting. An oasis of beauty against the horrid, clinical, white-walled operating theatre. She’s resplendent on that oriental couch. And, really, Stemme’s soprano oozes sensuousness. She’s holding a white bundle, as if representing the child Parsifal she’d brought up instead of his mother.
Now it’s Ventris reclining, then perched on a hospital trolley. Gold spangles in her hair, gold art nouveau earrings, who could resist this Eve’s temptations? 08_Parsifal_97211_VENTRIS_STEMME She cups his head, and kisses him passionately, he laid out on the trolley. He jumps up startled, as if bitten by a snake. Wunder.. The gold dome of the Grail has been lowered. Ventris stretches out his arms as if to embrace it. Stemme is again lounging on her couch. The dome withdraws upwards.
More captions of the plot (from Wagner’s original score?) are projected back-screen. An iconic Jesus figure (juxtaposed against the script), a reproduction of Non me tangere– Jesus holding off Mary Magdalene- comments on Parsifal’s rejection of the seductress Kundry.
Stemme, with her long brown curls, looking like some she-wolf predator, takes Ventris’s head in her arms. He holds up his hands to stop up his ears. She’s now standing, as if to fly off her trolley- commanding her magic powers, Stemme, her hands raised like a queen of the night. Ventris holds the magic spear, like a golden sword, and exits through a side door.
In Act III, Im Gebiet des Grales, we revert to the Wagner Hospital , the patients in their ward behind one of the jugendstil screens. But to spoil it there’s that grotesque brain – now even bigger- as if it’s going to take over like in a horror movie. Front of stage Stemme’s Kundry is in bed, under bedclothes. Still there, Gurmenanz shouts at Kundry. Get up! He thought she was dead. She is one apart from the others. Oh, day of mercy, Heil, du mein Gast, sings Pape movingly.
01_Parsifal_97525_VENTRISOn walks a warrior figure, in gold armour, carrying a golden spear and shield, and antique helmet, reminiscent of knights of old. Seated on her bed, Kundry now calm, beckons to him. (Inmates stare through the partition.) Do you still recognise me, He, verändert durch alles , underwent a transition to find the path to holiness. Oh, Mercy! Pape holds up the sacred spear. Stemme sits by Ventriss’s side. She pulls off his leggings, and leads him centre stage where he sits enthroned. She washes his feet (another Magdalene reference.)
Wagner’s sublime Good Friday Music. Mein erstes Akt verricht ich so, sings Pape. Patients are sitting still, observing in wonderment. Bells ring. They gather round the brain of white matter pushed centre-stage. The panels withdraw, revealing the arch backstage, (reminiscent of the Otto Wagner Pavilion), inscribed beneath, Die Zeit. In walk the Knights of the Holy Grail radiant in gold; the Grail’s dome descends. Amfortas rises from his bed, in such pain. Oh welches Wunder, welches Glück, wonderfully sung by Finley. Stemme’s Kundry tends the Holy Grail like a priestess. The suspended Grail is now placed onto the giant brain. Strange, rather grotesque. So it’s a ‘humanist’ ending glorifying the human mind and science.
But Hermanis has taken an inspired idea, using the Wagner Hospital, to crass extremes; yet the jugendstil-inspired sets have a timeless appeal, as with the Pre-Raphaelites, revering the medieval, the very mythology behind Parsifal. Musically, with Bychkov conducting Vienna forces, and a cast headed by Finlay, Pape, and Stemme, there can be no quibbles.© P.R. 30.3.2013
Photos: Nina Stemme as Kundry; Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Klingsor ; Christopher Ventris as Parsifal and Nina Stemme, Kundry; Christopher Ventris, Parsifal
© Wiener Staatsoper/ Michael Pöhn

Gounod’s Faust

01_Faust_96954_BORRAS_HARTIG Gounod’s opera Faust spends less time with Faust’s struggle with his conscience and the Devil, than with his love affair with Marguerite. The real conflict is that of Marguerite , who fights in the central Acts right to the end against her love for Faust and for her religious faith. (Fortunately, with Anita Hartig we cannot get enough of Marguerite.) Gounod makes of Goethe’s tragedy an opera in the French 19th century Romantic tradition: And that (for us) Victorian era was obsessed with (Christian) religion and ‘Christian’ values and ceremony, as in Gounod. Tough for us non-believers , but Gounod is full of good tunes, spectacle, and romantic drama. Vienna State Opera’s Nicholas Joel production, a minimalist staging (Andreas Reinhardt) with mainly grey panels, is functional, the overall scheme grey/black /white inoffensive, and sensibly the costumes are period late 19th century.
Rien; nothing to live for. Jean-François Borras’ Faust, white-bearded, in a dark coat and skull cap, is an old man huddled side of stage. Borras’ lyrical tenor is rich and sensuous, sung with fervour. He curses everything, yearning for death: about to take poison, but distracted by the sound of birdsong and children praying. Again he curses human life that deceives with false hope. And in despair calls on Satan. Oh, dear! Mephistopheles (Méphistophélès) immediately takes the call.
02_Faust_96956_PISARONI Luca Pisaroni appears in a slick top hat and tails, and cloaked. The tall Chilean, he looked pretty good to me! Pisaroni has a deep bass, but he’s not too serious, rather mischievous. What can you do for me? Everything. But what do you want? Not fame. Youth, the treasure that encompasses all . Mephistopheles entraps Faust, conjuring up a vision of Marguerite. Faust signs the pact, Pisaroni triumphantly waving the paper: down there he will be mine. Borras is transformed , dressed now in white, his long hair lustrous and black, but still rather corpulent.
The struggle is over in one Act, all too quickly. In Marlow, Dr. Faustus seeks the secrets of the universe, as does Goethe’s academic: both in torment with their conscience. But Gounod’s Faust is a blank, (a hermit, tramp-like figure in this production): uncharacterised, we know nothing about him, just that he’s let himself go.
Act 2, by contrast, is all spectacle, excellently staged, barrels lined up outside a brewery, a 19th century street scene, men in suits in a tug of war, symbolising the struggle between good and evil; soldiers going to war, Valentin (Orhan Yildiz) leaving his sister Marguerite unprotected. Mephistopheles rabble-rouses the crowd with a song (Le Veau d’or) about the golden calf and extolling the power of money. And Satan leads the dance! He’s abusive to Siebel, Marguerite’s suitor (Rachel Frenkel in a trouser role); and challenges Valentin (Yildiz) , let’s see if the cross can save you from hell! There’s a waltz set piece, and altogether a tableau of conventional bourgeois (second Empire) French life.
Faust, waiting tentatively outside Marguerite’s idyllic cottage, is as if captivated by the pastoral scene, his voice ringing with purity, in a God-like ecstasy, while Pisaroni waits in the wings. What trepidation siezes him, but what angelic splendour, Salut, demeure chaste et pure, sings Borras; nature, which gives shelter to his suffering soul, has transformed this woman into an angel. Borras’ tenor has tremendous power in the climaxes, although (my Viennese neighbour noted) he was twice shaky in his high notes.
Anita Hartig is ideally cast as Marguerite, her classically pure, yet powerful soprano stripped of any artifice. She sings a tale of a goblet, and of two people in love. Despite herself, she can’t help falling for Faust. It makes her glad to see him, she sings, gliding to her top notes.
But she’s manipulated by the ubiquitous Mephistopheles, who leaves a casket of jewellery to tempt her. So their next meeting takes place in Marguerite’s garden, allowing Faust to walk with her, while Pisaroni distracts her neighbour, the chaperone, Pisaroni so charming, his baritone is almost too unctuous.
Hartig’s Marguerite sings about her mother: if heaven made her like you, then she would have been an angel, sings Borras. (In spite of his tailored tunic jacket, his long hair makes him look like an oaf: not at all professorial, more like a student.)
In their duet, Marguerite, affected by Faust’s declaration, at first turns down his offer to spend the night with her. She pleads with him not to break her heart. If he loves her, he will go. In their duet, he embraces her, Laisse-moi contempler ton visage. Accepting that he loves her, her heart is in turmoil. But she tenderly calls him back.
In the plot, Marguerite has given birth to Faust’s child, and is ostracised. In Act 4, where Marguerite is in a cloister praying, we see the pipes of an organ, but beneath a red glow, like an infernal oven. As she kneels to God, Mephistopheles, aside, sings ominously, you shall not pray. Pisaroni is now in a red silk shirt, and black leather coat, blocking her access. You sing chaste prayers in a childish voice, your remorse unending. 08_Faust_96964_HARTIG She asks, who is the voice threatening her. He, no God any longer has need of you. There’s no hope. The conflicting voices chillingly encapsulate the struggle of faith against darker forces. Pisaroni kneels mimicking her prayers. He then stands behind her like a fearsome spectre. The organ fades. Very effective.

Gounod’s jaunty Soldier’s Chorus, as soldiers line the front of stage – trumpets, the brass blazing , tubas belching. Valentin prays for his sister. The slightly- built Yildiz is no match against the towering Pisaroni in his diabolical red and black outfit. A pretty nasty killing, Pisaroni, as if he’s wielding a sword, using his dark arts.
A drum roll, a fanfare of trumpets, trombones – at last, red-blooded Gounod. The devil has all the best tunes, they say. A cage, a metal grill with a figure in white tied up like some dog. Do not delay: they’re building the scaffold. Her despair (Marguerite’s) has robbed her of her senses, Chorus sing. His, Borras’ call, revives her heart, Hartig’s resuscitation quite convincing. Now chains will not hold him back. Viens! But she won’t go with him. She recognises the devil in the shadows. There’s a tug of war- in Joel’s production symbolising the pull between good and evil- with Hartig’s Marguerite left, Borras center, then Pisaroni’s devil. But she puts her faith in the God of justice. The hour has stricken. Why are his hands so bloodless?! Hartig is centre stage -radiant with a religious vision: Anges pur! Anges radieux! The stage is alight. Christ has risen, she sings.
Thus Gounod (and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré) have shifted the focus onto Marguerite, and her affirmation of faith. And Faust is side-lined in promoting the Christian message over man’s angst-ridden existential crisis.
Borras, a little disappointing after hearing Piotr Beczala as Faust here in 2009; Hartig was peerless; Pisaroni not quite evil enough. Simone Young, conducting Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Chorus and extra choirs, was the other heroine of the evening.© P.R. 25.3.2017
Photos: Jean-François Borras (Faust) and Anita Hartig (Marguerite); Luca Pisaroni (Méphistophélès); Anita Hartig (Marguerite)
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Rossini’s Elizabeth Queen of England

Elisabetta1340907 Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina D’Inghilterra (1815) was one of the first historical romantic operas. It hinges on Elizabeth I’s amorous attachment to her general (Duke of) Leicester, returned in glory from the Scottish campaign, but secretly married. And, in Rossini (libretto Giovanni Schmidt), to Matilde, the daughter of arch-enemy Mary Queen of Scots, Matilde disguised amongst the Scottish hostages…
But how can a modern director present this historical narrative convincingly- historical fiction maybe, but composed and written with authenticity in mind- without period costumes, and quasi-historical sets? Whereas directors have a free hand rejigging opera’s classics for a 21st century audience, with ‘historical ‘ operas there has to be a line drawn for the sake of credibility, if not good taste.
In spite of ‘borrowings’ from his previous operas, Elisabetta is a major example of Rossini’s ‘reform’ operas; the first with vocal ornamentation strictly defined to prevent ‘rushes of virtuosity’, the excesses of star performers. Elisabetta is serious drama (Dramma per musica) and not to be trivialised by a vain director’s concept.
Which is what I expected from Theater an der Wien’s new production, directed by Amélie Niermeyer. But I was wrong, although it is a ‘modern dress’ production, it is intelligent, tasteful, and highly effective. And appropriately Theater an der Wien is where Elisabetta premiered (1818) in Vienna.
To the strains of the overture, (reworked for the Barber of Seville), with vigorous, stylish playing from Ensemble Matheus’s original instruments, conducted by Jean-Christophe Spinosi, a headless gown- a tailor’s dummy- is wheeled on stage. Elisabetta (Alexandra Deshorties) is power-dressed in a black trouser suit, white blouse- like a managing director. The men, her courtiers, are all in sharply cut black suits and white shirts, some in patent leather shoes; ladies in black tailored outfits like sales executives, or caterers.
Chorus (Arnold Schoenberg Choir) sing extolling the lustre of power, as golden as the sun: the war is finally over. Yet for the Duke of Norfolc, (tenor Barry Banks), his power rages. No peace for him, his bid for Elisabetta now eclipsed by Leicester. Norfolc, Banks small but pugnacious, wearing a camel coat a cut above the others, is the arch conspirator.
ElisabettaL1350739The Queen announced, Deshorties’ movements are graceful, magisterial; she’s accompanied by her closest advisor Guglielmo (Erik Arman), in a grey mohair suit and spectacles, like an accountant. On is wheeled the bust of the royal gown of state. Now Elisabetta enters it; occupies it; assumes the role of Queen. Now Deshorties has an auburn wig. It’s all about her queenship as an act of theatre. (Yet this was a century before Louis XIV’s Versailles.) Elizabeth I, a great self-publicist, cultivated an aura of power: she embodied the realm. Later, the pursuit of suitors exhausted, she was the Virgin Queen with ‘the heart and stomach of a King.’
Niermeyer’s production uses these magnificent gowns -constantly floating around on their wheelbases- to symbolise royal power, as the crown jewels’ supernatural powers are passed on to their bearer. Yet, in this often moving production, Deshorties’ Elisabetta is seen as a vulnerable woman beneath the crushing weight and responsibility of royal power. And in the context of Rossini’s opera, the passionate woman in love, plotted against in court intrigues.
All of you about me, be joyous! Now she can breathe: even happier seeing Leicester again. Deshorties, now in that gown, her soprano is expressive, its power controlled, but capable of terrific high-notes when required. Her heart beats with joy: she will see him again. Lords of England! she sings of the most beautiful day of her life. Elisabetta mit Arnold Schoenberg Chor
Leicester, (Norman Reinhardt, an accomplished tenor), is in a long over-checked coat, bearded of course, his smile exuding arrogance and insolence. He takes her hand. She’s beaming all over her face. Queen, we English fight with your name on our lips. She, to Leicester, extols what he has done for England, he must receive her personal thanks.
One of the captured Scottish noblemen turns out to be Matilde (disguised in a man’s suit), the woman Leicester had secretly married. Leicester is horrified and reproaches her for her recklessness: she and her brother Enrico were forbidden to leave Scotland. But Matilde, the outstanding soprano Ilse Eerens, sings of hearing rumours of Elisabetta’s love for Leicester. Her fear over the deception can she bear no more. Their duet is a tremendous dramatic creation: their hearts will endure their suffering.
Leicester reminds her, doesn’t she realise (as Mary Queen of Scots’ daughter), she’s Elisabetta’s sworn enemy? In her aria, Eerens a star performer, Matilde sings of an inner voice telling her she is born to suffer. Exquisite, with clarinet accompaniment, almost Mozartian in its intensity of feeling, plaintive , spiritual. She hopes for a moment without fear when her heart would jump for joy.
Norfolc wheels a gown past, eavesdropping on the clandestine lovers: he will betray them to the Queen. He will, he sings, make Elisabettas’s day, exposing Matilde and Enrico her brother.
The scene in which Elisabetta takes revenge on Leicester and Matilde is a dramatic highlight. Norfolc’s revelation of the secret marriage hits her unawares ‘like a sling’. She’s resolved the traitor must die. Her aria anticipates Verdi’s on a king’s private suffering (Philip II’s in Don Carlo). What should she do, the Queen cruelly deceived. Why should she, who has triumphed in Scotland, now be so unhappy?
In an imposing black and gold gown, surrounded by lady courtiers in billowing black skirts, Elisabetta sings she will get her revenge; but oh, so painfully. She announces, she will marry Leicester and as a reward and make him king. Leicester, dumbfounded, tries to decline her offer.
She explodes, Deshorties’ powerful soprano hitting the roof, cannot stand the deception any longer. Their secret is out! Matilde’s suit is stripped off, Eerens is debagged , revealed in her white slip, shamed. Now the crescendo , familiar from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but what a different context! Leicester, Matilde, and Enrico , accused of high treason, are incarcerated. But Elisabetta is distraught, Deshorties’ face anguished, tearful.
The highlight of Act II is Elisabetta’s summoning of Matilde. Deshortie is now in white , Eerens kneels before her in her undergarment. They must be sentenced to death; pardoned only if Matilde writes that she renounces Leicester. She refuses, enraged: take only my life, keep your mercy, Eerens heart-rending. Their duet, interweaving their laments – Matilde’s heart drowning in tears, Elisabetta bewailing Oh, my God , my man! – sung to woodwind accompaniment, reminds of Bellini’s Norma (with Adalgisa) . But Matilde submits – Cruel Fate, how dearly we pay for life! – echoed by Elisabetta, appealing woman to vulnerable woman.
Reinhardt impressed in Leicester’s aria, he the victim of blind Fate. (He refuses to sign, sacrifice his love to save his life.) His exhausted body- Reinhardt’s white shirt dishevelled – demands peace; he collapses. ElisabettaL1350966Then he calls on heaven to free him from his suffering. Reinhardt’s is a beautifully lyrical tenor; he enacted the part, as indeed all the roles are well cast.
In the denouement, Leicester refuses Norfolc’s supporters freeing him by force. He will not rebel against the throne. In a powerful scene, the Queen herself visits him, not as Queen but as Elisabetta. He’s guilty of love; her rescue is his only hope. In a dramatic ‘Italianisation’, Norfolc enters with a knife, like a terrorist, but disarmed by Leicester. In a poignant aria, Elisabetta sings, let them embrace, these pure souls. Be free and happy for ever. And she holds Matilde to her bosom. Chorus sing, true love is not to be punished.
Now Gugliemo holds the Queen’s burgundy gown of state ready for her. Deshorties’ face, contorted with anguish, reveals the private suffering that goes with the role of sovereign. Earlier we see how conspirators dress up in three of the Queen’s gowns – a subversive act, also hinting perhaps at the Queen’s rumoured androgyny. But it is Norfolc who pulls apart the Queen’s gown revealing the steel hoops, fortelling an act of treason, the gowns as if imbued with the royal personage. A triumph of stagecraft! © PR 21.03.2017

Photos: Alexandre Deshorties (Elisabetta); Erik Arman (Guglielmo) and Alexandre Deshorties; Alexandre Deshorties and Arnold Schoenberg Choir : Norman Reinhardt (Leicester) and Alexandre Deshorties (Elisabetta); featured image Alexandre Deshorties
Photos © Herwig Prammer