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Opera critiques by Dr John L DiGaetani

Meistersinger von Nürnberg
The Metropolitan Opera, Fall 2014 season.

Reviewed by John L. DiGaetani

The Met revived Otto Schenk’s lovingly realistic (but not kitschy) production of Meistersinger von Nürnberg for the fall/winter season of 2014. Though this production is over twenty years old now, its realism and lack of any directorial concept make it seem wonderful. The performances were amazingly well cast too. This Meistersinger was actually based on Wagner’s stage directions—an anomaly these days—with a realist St. Katherine’s church for Act I, the town of Nuremberg for Act II, and the meadow outside the town on a sunny day for Act III. The production moves from a dark church (Act I) to a town at night (Act II) to the bright lights of the sunny meadow on Johannistag for the final scene. The audience cheered happily at the end and gave the cast a standing ovation.

The Hans Sachs was especially a wonder. Though James Morris is 68 years old now, he gave a very moving performance. While his voice lacks the ease, technical control, and beauty of tone it once had, his compelling acting made Hans Sachs become a really sympathetic character who dominated all the acts, especially the final scene in the final act. Michael Volle sang two performances as Hans Sachs, and though he is a much younger man with a gorgeous, youthful voice, his acting was not as moving as Morris’. Rumor has it that Volle will be the Wotan when the Met revives its Ring cycle in three years, and he should be a fascinating and mellifluous Wotan.

Annette Dasch’s voice as Eva Pogner is not quite big enough for this enormous theater, and some of her low notes were lost, but her sympathetic acting made her still impressive. Her Eva remained flirtatious but still child-like as she struggles with all the problems she has with men—Beckmesser, her father Veit Pogner, Sachs, and Walter. She seemed to be honestly wavering between the last two men for most of the opera.

Johan Botha’s Walter become the most vocally satisfying performance—his large, gorgeous tenor sound did not peter out and he was still appeared to be singing effortlessly by the last act. While his acting was not totally compelling, his vocal splendor made him always impressive and captivating for the audience.

The Pogner, Hans-Peter König, remained always audible and sounding very good –the sympathetic father here but also a bit of a tyrant who is determined that his daughter marry a mastersinger. Karen Cargill’s Magdalene impressed as well for her large mezzo-soprano voice, always audible and rock solid accurate. She became a loving mother-figure to the youthful David, sung by Paul Appleby with boyish, impulsive energy.

Johannes Martin Kränzle sang the comic role of Sixtus Beckmesser with a lovely tone, not trying to nasalize his voice to make the character more comic and grotesque. But as a gray-haired old man pursuing a very young and flirtatious Eva, he did create comedy but was never a buffoon. Ironically enough, Wagner himself was living with a woman young enough to be his daughter (Cosima Liszt von Bulow) when he wrote this music. The real Hans Sachs also married a much younger woman in his old age, and fathered some children with her.

The chorus, directed by Donald Palumbo, became one of the stars of the show here. They could hold together, sing loudly, sing softly, and sing beautifully. The chorus certainly added to the enjoyment of this wonderful performance. James Levine, though conducting from a wheel chair, brought orchestral excitement and subtlety to this performance. He is sounding more and more like the elderly Herbert van Karajan these days with lots of quiet, slow tempi and moving orchestral passages which gave the score more meaning and did not drown out the singers.

While Meistersinger has not been one of my favorite Wagner operas—primarily because no one dies—this performance made me move up my evaluation of this wonderful comedy with so many lawyers of meaning: a love story, a story about Nuremberg in the l6th century, a story about the guild system in 16th century Nuremberg, a story about the development and rehearsal of a song, and a story about how art is created through the dreaming mind of the artist-- which reflects what the world would eventually call Surrealism, though written fifty years before this art movement began in Paris after World War I. Meistersinger also ends on Midsummer Day, the longest day of the year, and celebrates light over darkness and life over death.

This fall the Met also staged The Death of Klinghofer by John Adams with great success and receiving rave reviews and full houses. All the performances were picketed by Zionists who argued that the opera defended terrorism and that Palestinians were terrorists, but the Zionists don’t want the world to know about Zionist terrorism and racism—most recently in the summer of 2014 when thousands of Palestinians, including over 500 children—were massacred by Israel as these people tried to break out of their concentration camps in Gaza. The head of the UN, Ban-Ki-Moon, reported that seven UN school were bombed, killing over 500 children and 12 teachers. He accused Israel of the genocide of the Palestinian people, but according to the Zionist picketers all Palestinians are terrorists—a racism reflecting (ironically enough) what the Nazis said about the Jewish people. One would think great moral leaders like Dr. Elie Wiesel would talk about what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians, especially since he has repeatedly said we have a moral obligation to point out immoral behavior, but he has never criticized Israel and its massacres. He only wants to talk about the Jewish Holocaust and never the current Palestinian Holocaust.



Vienna Ring # 2—June, 2014

Reviewed by John Louis DiGaetani

The Vienna State Opera’s Ring cycle # 2 in June of 2014 was a successful cycle but plagued by cancellations. The cycle was supposed to be conducted by Jeffrey Tate, who cancelled at the last minute. The Siegmund was supposed to be Lance Ryan, but he cancelled too, which added to the problems of the Opera Company, but things worked out well by and large.

Adam Fischer conducted the first, third, and fourth operas, and Cornelius Meister conducted the second opera, where problems did occur. Certainly it is better to have one conductor’s vision control an entire Ring, but human beings do get sick and both conductors did fine work with this wonderful orchestra.

Adam Fischer’s Das Rheingold impressed for its slow, understated, and gorgeous approach to the score. The Vienna Philharmonic has got to be the greatest opera orchestra in the world, and the sound of this orchestra became one of the great delights of all four performances, with Fischer clearly glorying in the power and finesse of this orchestra, though sometimes drowning out his singers in the process.

The Wotan, the Polish singer Tomasz Konieczny, created an exciting but often tormented god. Konieczny has a large, gorgeous voice, though some of his lowest notes disappointed and his German diction remained sometimes unclear. This youthful, athletic singer created a lively, forceful, but guilt ridden Wotan.

Fricka was sung by Elisabeth Kulman, who presented a youthful, glamorous goddess, but clearly tormented by her husband’s infidelities and indecisions, though she still loved him. Her singing was always audible and with a gorgeous tone, though she could also sound playful or angry with her Wotan.

The Loge, Norbert Ernst, became a comic scoundrel who was obviously gay and in love with Wotan, who wanted to use him to get out of his bargain with the giants but did not want to have sex with him but was willing to tease him. Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Alberich was not costumed as a grotesque dwarf but as a lonely man tormented by the comic but mean-spirited Rhine maidens. Alberich’s curse in the final scene of the opera reflected not only anger but also the pain of repeated rejections.

Cornelius Meister conducted Die Walküre with verve and style, though before the performance began there was an announcement that the Siegmund, Peter Seiffert, was ill and asked for the audience’s indulgence. But poor Peter Seiffert, who is usually a marvelous Heldentenor, sounded awful (usually hoarse and flat) for the entire first act and the audience suffered and feared for his voice. In the second act, the announcer said that Seiffert could no longer sing but would mime in the second act, with Herbert Lippert singing this act with a score from the side of the stage. This tenor had never sung the role before but would save the performance—which he did and sang the part well, with Seiffert miming the part. This was not a happy situation but did save the show. Lippert happened to be available since he was singing the role of Bacchus for the company’s current revival of Ariadne auf Naxos, which I was able to hear earlier in the week. Lippert sounded very good as the main tenor in both operas.

The Sieglinde, Ms. Gun-Brit Barkmin, sounded very vocally secure and girlish and got a big ovation at the end, though she was clearly challenged by having to play the part in this weird situation of two Siegmunds being onstage at the same time. But she sounded impressive vocally and acted well and became a believable and sweet-sounding Sieglinde.

The second act brought on the Brünnhilde of Nina Stemme, who has become the greatest Brünnhilde around these days. She sounded wonderful throughout—a strong dramatic soprano sound but always warm and accurate, plus she acts well too, especially in her final confrontation with the angry Wotan in Act III. These two got the biggest ovations at the end of the opera—deservedly so since they generated many tears in the audience by the end of the performance.

The Siegfried in the next opera was Stephen Gould, who sung this role at the Met two years ago. He has improved both vocally and in terms of his acting, and the audience certainly indicated its approval at the end. Here Gould had youthful innocence and energy and he still sounded very good in his duet with Brünnhilde in the final scene of Siegfried.

The Götterdämmerung did not have any cancellations either and things went very well. Stemme and Gould impressed throughout as Brünnhilde and Siegfried. The Hagen, Attila Jun, did not quite have a big enough voice and was not menacing enough, but he sang with power, accuracy, and dramatic conviction. The Gutrune, Caroline Wenborne, succeeded as well with a girlish tone and her love of her two brothers. By the end of Götterdämmerung, the orchestral sound once again made the last act of the Ring an enchanting and moving experience. But the singers helped as well, especially Gould dying monologue and Stemme’s towering Immolation scene.

Kurt Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production, luckily, was not Euro trash and actually followed Wagner’s stage direction. Rolf Glittenberg’s sets were modern and minimalist, and served the drama well, Marianne Glittenberg’s costumes looked modern and minimalist as well, with a lovely overall vision for this Ring production. Not all the scenes were visually exciting but they made dramatic sense, and the last ten minutes of the last opera succeeded visually thanks to moveable sets and films which created a wonderful final scene of fire and swirling waters and Wotan dying but humanity surviving—with Wagner’s hope that humanity can do better running the world without the gods.

Musically and dramatically, the Vienna Opera’s Ring cycle # 2 succeed and deserved the standing ovation and 15 curtains calls it got despite the last minute cancellations.



Seattle Opera’s Ring: August, 2013

Reviewed by John L. DiGaetani

Seattle Opera staged a very successful Ring in August of 2013. I was at the third of their three complete Ring cycles and enjoyed it very much. Stephen Wadsworth’s realistic but not kitschy production was revived and improved. Some of the scenes were re-blocked and some of the lighting was changed so that the images were more impressive and dramatic. The ending of the final opera was also redesigned and looked more convincing. It was wonderful to see a Ring which actually followed Wagner’s stage directions and was not based on some director’s “concept”—as at Bayreuth.

Asher Fisch conducted with a real sense of the drama in the music, though he sometimes drowned out the singers, and some of his brass players hit some wrong notes. His Das Rheingold lacked enough excitement, but overall, this was a dramatic, exciting Ring that got better and better as it progressed.

Greer Grimsley remained captivating as Wotan. Though he is not the most mellifluous of bass-baritones, his dramatic and athletic presentation of Wotan made him a human and sympathetic figure who could endure vocally throughout the entire cycle. The three Rhine maidens—Jennifer Zetlan, Cecelia Hall, and Renee Tatum—consistently impressed throughout this cycle, both for their singing and their gymnastic abilities on their wires. They really seemed to be swimming around their gold in the vastness of the Rhine.

Alwyn Mellors, a new Brünnhilde for Seattle, impressed as well, though her low notes were not always audible. But she clearly has a real Wagnerian soprano voice and her acting remained riveting. She was especially moving in Götterdämmerung, and her Immolation scene contained her best singing.

In Rheingold, Stephanie Blythe consistently wowed the audience as Fricka—she also sang Waltraute and Second Norn in this cycle. Every note was audible and sounded wonderful and dramatic when Stephanie was singing. Mark Schowalter succeeded as Loge, emphasizing the playful quality of this character. As Alberich, Richard Paul Fink had a rather small voice, though his acting compensated for this. Lucille Beer provided a mellifluous Erda, though I wish her voice had been bigger and more domineering.

Die Walküre, Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund sounded forceful, accurate, and always audible—an impressive presence as the doomed Wälsung. Margaret Jane Wray remained his equal as Sieglinde, always audible and her limpid tone added a sympathetic quality to this pair of incestuous lovers. Andrea Silvestrelli’s Hunding was menacing but sometimes sounded wooly rather than clear enough.

In Siegfried, Siegfried was sung by the new German Heldentenor Stefan Vinke and the audience soon loved him. He had a real Heldentenor ping to his voice, his acting remained convincing, and he did not sound worn out in the final duet with Brünnhilde. Dennis Petersen’s Mime remained comic, but I wish he had been more malicious and less funny. The final duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde certainly ended this opera on a glorious high note, though Brünnhilde did not sing accurately her final high-C.

Götterdämmerung was the most satisfying of the four operas, thanks in part to its wonderful third act—with the comic Rhine maidens, the tragic funeral music for Siegfried, and a glorious Immolation Scene. Mellor’s Brünnhilde sang an impressive Immolation and the music ended with its usually glorious and loving final measures. Wagner always rewards you for your patience by putting his most fabulous music in his final act. To have all four operas performed so well and in such a satisfying production left the audience on its feet and roaring its approval for a very magical Ring—something the composer would actually recognize. I hope the Seattle Opera will do this lovely production again within the next few years.



The Bavarian State Opera’s Tristan and the Ring — Summer, 2013

Reviewed by John L. DiGaetani

Munich’s summer opera festival of 2013 mounted some impressive and insightful productions of Wagner for his bicentennial year.

The new Tristan became especially haunting, designed by Harald Thor in the style of Joan Miro. The sets presented a surreal dream reflecting the director’s vision of the Schopenhauerian philosophy of this opera—a concept of alternative realities and an existence after death. Peter Konwitschy (son of the conductor) directed this other- worldly vision of the opera.

Peter Seiffert and Rene Pape were the stars here. Seiffert’s strong, limpid Heldentenor voice handled easily the challenges of the role of Tristan and made it sound effortless, and he still sounded fresh at the very end. Rene Pape’s King Marke created a devastating portrait of a man who kept trying to help but instead only caused death all around him. The utterly irrational nature of love is the reason and the lovers’ total abandon to their fatalistic but erotic attraction to each other.

The first act began comically with Tristan trying to finish his morning shave but constantly being interrupted by Brangäne and Isolde. But things became serious once the two lovers drank the love potion. When the opera ends, after the Liebestod, the two lovers walk off together, and King Marke and Brangäne are seen praying before the coffins of Tristan and Isolde. One dreams of a future life for these doomed lovers and here they actually get one!

Peter Seiffert’s wife, Petra-Maria Schnitzer, sang a fine Isolde, though one remembers more her acting, as in her rage in the first act and the sincerity of her Liebestod in the last act. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Brangäne was moving as well, especially her horror in the first act when she realizes that Isolde is ordering her to poison both of the lovers. Markus Eiche’s Kurvenal was comic and mocking in the first act, but his fine baritone voice portrayed his sympathy with the lovers and his efforts to save them in the last act. This Tristan clearly provided a provocative but still believable vision of this opera, implying that the opera is ultimately a comedy since the lovers survive.

Andreas Kriegenburg’s Ring mostly impressed as well, though not always. He viewed the Ring as occurring during a time of warfare and with large groups of people onstage. Clearly, this was a Ring set in a society in crisis, and was not just about the soloists, but also about the rest of humanity. The large groups of dancers onstage sometimes added to the stage picture but sometimes distracted. In the beginning of the third act of Die Walküre, the dancers appeared and pounded their feet on stage, this seemed silly; but when the dancers were making undulating water movements for the opening of the Ring, this added to the magic of the production. All in all, this Ring was worth seeing, was not Euro trash, and Kriegenburg’s concepts kept the audience interested.

The characters were mostly in contemporary dress, connecting the constant warfare of our own time with Wagner’s Ring.

Kent Nagano’s conducting added to the effectiveness onstage, and he got a long round of loud applause from the audience after each opera. His was a low-keyed, mellifluous, non-bombastic approach, and he kept the details of the score always audible while still maintaining the flow of the score. Except for some messy sounds from the brass, the orchestra sounded good. He was also sensitive to the singers’ needs and did not drown them out. There were three Wotans and three Brünnhildes, but the rest of the cast was consistent.

Johann Reuter sang Wotan in Das Rheingold, and his acting impressed for his dramatic presence and desire to dominate the action onstage. All the gods are here presented as gray-haired people who are clearly near the end of their lives. Their scramble for Walhalla is seen as their last gasp at survival. Stefan Margita played Loge as a cynical gay man in a red suit—effeminate, comic, not connected with any other character, and knowing how to please the people with power, especially Wotan. Loge’s giggles are often heard in this opera as Wotan and the rest of the gods struggle to survive through criminal activity.

The Alberich, Tomasz Konieczny, was mostly impressive vocally and dramatically. He dominated the stage forcefully, except for his final curse of the ring in the final scene of Rheingold, and here, alas, his voice failed him and he screamed his way through his most important moment. But his reappearances in the Ring sounded solid vocally. Sophie Koch’s Fricka impressed as well because of her haughty acting as a society hostess caught in a desperate situation. In all, this was a successful Rheingold which received loud applause.

But Walküre was even better, primarily because of the Wotan of Bryn Terfel, whose suave acting and large, gorgeous bass-baritone voice enthralled the audience. His Brünnhilde, Katarina Dalayman, had the vocal ease which makes her always popular with audiences though she often fails to ignite enough drama and excitement. But her vocal beauty, security, and reliability win her fans. Hans-Peter König’s Hunding got an ovation as well because of his large bass voice and forceful acting. Hunding was not presented as sympathetic but clearly as a bully who intimidated everyone else on stage.

Petra Lang’s Sieglinde became a frightened, desperate woman trapped in a loveless marriage. While she normally sings mezzo-soprano roles, her singing did not sound stressed in this low-soprano role. Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund did sound stressed toward the end, but for most of this role he sounded forceful and effective. Sophie Koch’s Fricka appeared older and more domineering here, and her voice added to her effectiveness and her power over Wotan, especially in the second act when she gets what she wants.

In Siegfried, Stephen Gould sang the title part and sounded terrific, singing with apparent effortlessness and he sounded good even in his final duet with Brünnhilde. Catherine Naglestad, a new American soprano, looked like Marilyn Monroe as Brünnhilde; her singing indicated a large voice with some uneven patches in her register—but she is clearly a singer who can develop into a great Wagnerian. Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer –different from the other two Wotans in this Ring—emphasized the god’s desire to possess the ring and a new fatalism as he makes way for the new hero, Siegfried.

In Götterdämmerung, Stephen Gould once again sang a strong, secure Siegfried, and his final music as the wounded, doomed hero became his final tribune to his true love, Brünnhilde. Nina Stemme, the final Brünnhilde, clearly became the most popular of the three sopranos, and her singing of the Immolation Scene—with such security, dramatic conviction, and beauty of tone—made a case for her as one of the greatest Brünnhildes singing the role now.

This Ring ended with a standing ovation and cheers for all the singers. Kriegenburg’s production had some pros and cons but made a strong case for his vision of humanity stressed by all the warfare but somehow managing to survive a holocaust despite the end of the gods and the heroes.



Met Ring 2013, Reviewed by Dr. John L. DiGaetani

Lepage’s Machine worked much better this year—at least during Ring cycle 3 in the first week in May. I liked Robert Lepage’s production even more this time since it moved with fewer groans and creaks.   Some of the scenes were re-blocked and re-lit so that much of the action onstage became more effective and the entire cast seemed more comfortable on this complex, undulating set.   Fabio Luisi got the biggest ovation at the end because of his dramatic conducting, which moved all four operas along and kept the tempi brisk rather than endless and labored.   The excessively slow tempi of Levine’s Ring added some grandeur but also some longeurs to the four operas.

The new Wotan for Cycle #3 was Greer Grimsley, who created a vigorous, athletic Wotan who could easily navigate the undulating parts of the set and clearly pleased the audience.   His phrasing and intonation were both accurate and beautiful, and he dramatized the differences between the young, arrogant god and the suicidal, resigned, defeated god by the end of the cycle.  

In Rheingold Fricka was well sung by Elizabeth Bishop, replacing Stephanie Blythe, who was sick.  Richard Paul Fink made Alberich a hurt but still malicious dwarf who was determined to get his revenge on both his brother and the world in general.   Wendy Bryn Harmer’s Freia emphasized the beauty of her tone, her duties to the other gods, and her vulnerability in the hands of the Giants.  Hans-Peter König’s Fafner impressed especially for his large, lovely, forceful basso voice.  

Stefan Margita’s Loge succeeded for the cynical comedy of this character as well as his seemingly guileless suggestions to Wotan and the other characters.    The Machine worked well at the end, and the entry of the gods into Valhalla proceeded perfectly and impressively.

In Die Walküre, Deborah Voigt sang Brünnhilde during this cycle, and while she is not as accurate as before, she was still dramatic with wonderful high notes, though her low notes were sometimes inaudible. Her acting improved here as well since she seemed more secure on this difficult set.

The Siegmund and Sieglinde were also impressive.   Martina Serafin made a wonderful debut as Sieglinde with a warm, lovely voice, though sometimes her highest notes were squally and out of control. Simon O’Neill sang Siegmund, and he sounded rested and forceful with no strain in his voice and his acting helped to create this doomed and hunted character that only in death finally sees his father, Wotan

Fricka was sung by Stephanie Blythe, who sounded wonderful despite the use of a cane.   She has become the best Fricka in the world because of her large, gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice and impressive acting.   Hans-Peter König’s Hunding became a forceful and sympathetic presence, and one sensed his increasing anger as he sees his wife fall in love with his enemy with his own eyes and in his own house.

In Siegfried, Lars Cleveman made his debut in Wagner’s most difficult tenor role, Siegfried.  This title role demands a large, bright, Heldentenor sound and the endurance to sing this long role, and Cleveman occasionally sounded tired but was pacing himself; he sounded fresh and strong during the most difficult and beautiful parts of the role: the forging music, the forest murmurs music, and the love music in the final act.   His energetic acting also conveyed the youthful impatience and loneliness of Wagner’s Siegfried.

Robert Brubaker’s Mime added much comedy and vocal beauty to the opera.   Mime did not sound so nasally and nasty here, though his malice still came through.   This funny dwarf clearly wanted to cut off Siegfried’s head.  Meredith Arwady succeeded as the new Erda, and her low notes especially resounded through the house with real presence and forcefulness.

Hans-Peter König’s Fafner became a truly sympathetic figure in his death scene in Act II, and Lisette Oropesa’s Forest Bird had all the high notes and airy flexibility for this role.   Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich became more malicious in this opera, especially around his brother Mime.

Götterdämmerung suitably concluded the Met’s wonderful Ring cycle, with Deborah Voigt as a betrayed Brünnhilde, angry in Act II but singing a glorious Immolation scene at the end of the opera.  Lars Cleveman’s Siegfried continued in vocal strength and effective acting.  Iain’s Paterson’s Gunther improved from last year; here he sounded more secure and acted with greater abandon.   Hans-Peter König’s Hagen became a very ominous and domineering presence with a resounding voice and a malicious temperament.Wendy Bryn Harmer portrayed a sympathetic Gutrune, the not totally innocent victim of her two deceitful brothers.  Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich became most desperate and most vengeful here, in his final attempt to possess the ring.

All in all, this was a much improved Ring from last year with Lepage’s Machine working better onstage and the singers, many of whom were the same as last year, clearly more secure acting and singing on this difficult set, especially the back with its undulating planks.   But those planks did some amazing acrobatics and created some arresting images! The Met ended the Wagner bicentennial year with a wonderful final Ring cycle.