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November 2002
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February 2003

Tausendundeine Nacht, aber nicht.

BsoentfuehrungDie Entführung aus dem Serail is one of my favorite operas, though in truth, this is more due to my familiarity with the music than anything else. Not to say that Mozart is not incredible, but it just happens that I have seen this opera more than any other, and knowing it this well only increases my enjoyment of it. This latest Bavarian State Opera production of Die Entführung was my fifth time seeing the opera, so I had quite a lot of prejudices going in, especially since the production team was the same as the one that was responsible for that hideous staging of Xerxes earlier this month.

Of the production, I can only say that Martin Duncan, the staging producer, and Ultz, the director, either did not understand the strength of Die Entführung's plot or didn’t care because they were too worried about their own “art” and cleverness that is so essential in our postmodern world. Die Entführung is a Singspiel, and includes speaking parts to move the drama along, most notably, Pasha Selim does not sing at all. This production took out these parts by use of a narrator, Fatma Genç, a Turkish German actress. By taking away the characters interaction with words, the drama is seriously compromised, the parts are merely arias and such strung along, sung by puppets. Most absurd was the part of Pasha Selim, naturally, since taking away the speaking parts renders him utterly silent. Worse yet, since the staging was done almost exclusively on six couches that moved back and for on stage, the choreography was not such that the characters could develop in a human way on stage, not even visually.

Just to give an idea of what proceeded, we began with our beloved group of ten men, dressed again in white tee-shirts and grey trousers. They put newspapers on the ground, and carefully placed bowls on stands so they hung off the edge of the stage. They undressed, revealing their diapers underneath, and carefully grabbed the sponges dipped in red paint in the bowls, then violently smeared their diaper covered crotches in red, indicating that they were eunuchs. For the rest of the production they went around placing newspapers on the floor when it would be mussed up by objects being thrown, taking various things off stage, and being moving tables covered with piles of fruit.

There were also soccer fans dressed in Turkish jerseys that wandered across the stage at various points.

As mentioned before, most of the action occurs on six couches that move to and fro across the stage, each a different color of the rainbow, not including indigo. There were dancers on the couches dressed in harem pants, fez-like hats, and bead necklaces that matched their respective couches and cholis that were a peach color. They danced while sitting on the couches during the overture, and the choreography was quite wanting, it looked like they were doing yoga at a frenetic pace and it didn’t at all go with the music. However, the dancers were fairly synchronized, and when they danced on the stage in the finale, they weren’t so bad.

In general, the choreography was extremely childish, in keeping with the rest of the production. The chorus bounced up and down during Singt dem großen Bassa Lieder that greets Pasha Selim during Act I, their hands balled up in little excited fists as well. This choreography, coupled with the lurid and unflattering costumes in orientalist style, made one think of high school musicals. In particular, something must needs be done about the hairstyles, why go through all of the trouble of dressing one’s characters in orientalist regalia, and just leave the hair looking straight out of the 80s? (I would say, straight off the street, but it seems that a certain percentage of German hairstyles are still from 20 years ago.) The costume department needs to use wigs.

Daniel Harding did a fine job with conducting rather passionately. The orchestra sounded just about perfect from what I could tell.

On the other hand, the singing was uneven. Ingrid Kaiserfeld was fairly good as Contanze, her voice sufficiently loud, her control imperfect, but the part is exceedingly difficult. Julia Rempe as Blonde was simply embarrassing. Her voice was tiny, one could barely hear her in that hall, if she were at San Francisco, which is much larger and has bad acoustics, she would have been silent. Sometimes Ms. Rempe got that high A, and one felt happy for her. She also was even quieter when sitting than standing, so the staging compromised her voice. Roberto Saccà was a good Belmonte, but I think the part just cannot be as difficult, since everyone I’ve heard as Belmonte has seemed quite good. Or else I’ve just had luck with tenors in this opera. Kevin Conners was excellent as Pedrillo, his Romance in Act III was beautiful, and one felt he was competing with a lot since there were five glittery fish hanging from the couch he was singing from, and a eunuch was rolling along on his back blowing bubbles, and to top it all off, two acrobats, representing Contanze and Blonde, flung themselves down by ribbons. Paata Burchuladze as Osmin was wanting in diction, but not in range. His endurance was not the best though, the earlier arias of his in Act I were noticeably better than his later ones. The chorus was grand, and the full effect of the loveliness of the choral music was realized in this production.

After the Act I someone screamed “Diese Entführung ist vertreibt!” or something like this. This Abduction has run off? I don’t know what it means exactly, but I believe the person left and was disgruntled.

Very Strangely

In the last 36 or so hours I've had about 2.5 hours of sleep. This doesn’t sound so bad, I suppose, but I spend a good deal of my time asleep, otherwise I’m rather nonfunctional.

The way one goes about getting opera tickets at the Bavarian State Opera is much different than in San Francisco as far as I can tell. My second day here involved a trip to the box office to see what information was available. There were two main pamphlets, one schedule for January through March 2003 and one schedule for the Münchner Opern-Festspiele, which occurs in the last month of their opera season, July. After careful deliberation, operas were selected by composers and performers, but most of January did not have a good selection of seats, since written orders are filled 2 months in advance to a given performance, and other orders are only filled 1 month prior, and since the main venue only holds 450 people (150 of these are standing room places), the middle-range tickets sell out rather quickly.

After figuring out the ways of regular ticket sales, I went over the Festspiele pamphlet thoughtfully, noting that advanced booking started on January 18th at 10 am until 4 pm, and continued the next day, even though it is a Sunday, from 10 am to 4 pm as well. After that, postal bookings start being processed on February 1st, so I thought it would be a good idea to go about all this in person. I looked at the directions in German, then in English, noting the German was more elaborate, that "Advanced Booking" was called "Erstverkauf" in the German version, which isn't exactly the same thing. "Erstverkauf" means "first sales," and "advanced sales" is more like "Vorverkauf," which is a word they did use for information elsewhere.

At any rate, I decided I would go to the opera box office on the morning of the 18th, and dutifully wrote this in on my calendar. Little did I know, the process for this Erstverkauf was much more arcane than even I could have imagined. The directions for the Festspiele stated nothing of what ensued.

So the Friday before the 18th, I thought I would get to the opera box office a bit before opening to feel out how the large the lines were on a typical day, this, and I could pay for some tickets I had reserved by post. I arrived at 9:30 am and the line was about 30 people, most of whom wanted to see a particular ballet as far as I could gather. I picked up my tickets from a very nice lady, and asked her how the Festspiele sales operated, since I had noticed something on the door about an "Anstehliste für die Opernfestspiele" listing a number of times for "Appelle." She explained that I had to go to a particular location on the other side of the building for a number. I examined the sign on the opera house door again, noted the location which was apparently on Marstallplatz across from some construction, and near a fountain. There were also many numbers listed, but I had no idea what they could mean, I thought they were room or address numbers, and regrettably, I had no pen. So I wandered to the disclosed location, which happened to be right next to the Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish cultural center, always something that makes me pleased. I looked at the fountain, and there was a small car, with a sign that said something about the "Anstehnummern." Incredulously, I went up to the car and asked the kindly man inside where I was to get a number, and he explained that he could give me one, and asked for my name. This, of course, made me horribly nervous, since my last name, in particular, does not look like a word, much less a name, in any Indo-European language. Too many vowels. So I spelt it out, but I always forget how the name of the letter "i" is pronounced in German, and stuttered and was basically quite silly. Then the kindly man gave me a paper with a list of times and told me to come back at each of the times, which seemed rather odd, and I was terribly confused. So another man, who was in line, explained in English that I had to check-in with the person in the car at all of these listed times, and that my number was rather high, and that I might not be able to buy tickets until Sunday. I stared dumbfounded at this list of times: 11 am, 2 pm, 4 pm, 6 pm, 11 pm, 1 am, 5 am, 7 am, and 9 am. I walked home, had lunch, walked back for my 2pm check-in, noting as the person went through the list, that people had been doing this since Wednesday, checking-in every 2 or so hours to keep their place in line. On the one hand, it made me a little nervous that I would not be able to get good tickets for the Festspiele, and on the other, I was a little relived I didn't know that I could have gotten in this surrealistic line some 48 hours earlier, because I fear I would have, out of sheer prideful idiocy.

So, I wandered around the opera house all of yesterday and today, except for the 2.5 hours that I slept from 1:30 am to 3:30 am this morning and from 12:00 to 12:30 pm after lunch. It was a little too cold to just sit and read when the sun was down, so I walked and stared at buildings and trees. The moon was quite full.

At 8:30 am, a man with a clipboard and the list called out numbers and had us all line up, something like 200 or so folks, mostly Germans. Then we waited and we got an "official number" after which most of the people dispersed. I went into the opera house to warm up and watched as the people with low numbers line up, by 10:40 they had gotten through number 15, so I decided to go home for lunch, since my number was 139. I returned at 1:30 pm and tried to discern what number they were at, it seemed like 96 or so. I tried to look for the person before me and the one after me, but I didn’t see either of them. But by 2:15 they were there and I quietly found my way between them, and I was lead to a lady downstairs by 2:30 pm. To my relief, I was able to get tickets for the nine performances I decided on early in the month, and I also bought tickets for a young lady whose number was above 300, since one is allowed 4 tickets per performance.

The opera people gave out jelly donuts to the people waiting. I had one with an apricot jelly filling.

Die Fledermaus

BsofledermausJohann Strauß’s Die Fledermaus has quite a lot of charming music and something of a convoluted plot. When I first saw it in Vienna I didn’t quite know what was going on, but had a lovely time anyway. Last Friday I attended a performance of this opera at the Bavarian State Opera, this time having read a synopsis in English beforehand, but not the libretto since my copy is either somewhere between Santa Cruz and Avignon or Emeryville and Garching, depending on which box it was placed.

This celebratory production included many streamers of various colors. It was a happy bordering on mad, Christopher Robson, the countertenor who was in Xerxes, was particularly nutty as Prince Orlofsky, and they had him sing in his higher range for some of this part.

Gabriella Fontana as Rosalinda was fairly good, her voice was a bit quiet though. Thomas Allen was well suited for the part of Gabriel von Eisenstein, his voice was adequate, his movements and acting were good. Margarita De Arellano was adorable as the maid Adele, hough her voice is shrill in the upper range. As Adele’s sister Ida was Beate Vollack, who must be the skinniest principal in an opera anywhere. Unsurprisingly, she is a ballet dancer, though she did sing a little. Her dancing wasn’t bad. My favorite singer of the evening was fellow Angeleno Eduardo Villa as Alfred, he had a beautiful tenor voice. They had him sing various snippets of Puccini and Verdi arias, which was quite funny.

The favorite of the evening was undoubtedly Jörg Hube as Frosch, who naturally doesn’t sing at all, but as the addled drunk jailer, his part is rather comedic.

The sets were well-designed and quiet, particularly impressive was the transition between Acts I and II when the room of von Eisenstein’s house was simply pushed off by servants dressed in a Rococo manner, only to reveal Prince Orlofsky’s party. Most of the set had a Art Nouveau aesthetic, though Orlofsky was floated in on a leopard print couch, wearing a magenta suit with silver spangles.

It was nice to see Jun Märkl conducting again, he had his San Francisco Opera debut in Ariadne auf Naxos last Fall.

Fidelio in a Small Electronic Box

So in the last week of December, I finally watched a television program in its entirety for the first time in seven years. It was a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Fidelio. I suspect that part of the reason I do not watch television is because I have no idea what is on and at what time. Some solicitor for the Met called me on a rare day where I actually answered the phone and asked for a donation for the television broadcast, and I was, of course, compelled to actually send them money. But I decided that it might be nice to see this program, if I could figure out the channel and time. After much deliberation, it was possible.

Leonora was sung by Karita Mattila, who I saw recently as the lead in Kat'a Kabanova. Her voice is beautiful, and it had a damp sweetness in Janacek, but it is surprisingly strong, and she was able to sing Beethoven well also. Florestan was sung by Ben Heppner, who is supposed to be one of the greatest tenors at the moment, and he was quite good, a nice rich voice, but I would like to hear him in person. Jennifer Welch-Babidge as Marzelline was still birdlike sweet, and her acting is not bad and her German diction is pretty good. René Pape was good as Rocco, I had heard him before as an Old Hebrew in Samson et Dalila, but he didn’t make much of an impression then, since Olga Borodina was so incredible as Dalila. Falk Struckmann was an adequately evil Pizarro.

The production had its good points, the choreography was pretty good, though I was disoriented with how the camera moved around, as it was a television broadcast, so I’m not sure I could experience the staging exactly properly. As an aside, I found it strange to be looking at James Levine conducting from what would be an orchestra member's point of view. The set was ugly, very modern, but convincing.

The music was wonderful, and I must remember to look for a good recording of it.

Serse at Bayerische Staatsoper

Duncanserse1The production of Serse at the Bavarian State Opera was hideous. When one is staging an opera, which does, in fact, involve music, and thus, sound, perhaps one should think about how the sounds that various parts of the production may distract from the music at hand. All sorts of supernumeraries stomped here and there on stage, and there was also Atalanta and her dancers wearing dresses that had extremely noisy plastic beads. The choreography was poor, especially in the case of Atalanta and her dancers who were dressed with a nod toward cabaret styled belly dance costumes. No one quite owned the movements, as it were.

Speaking of which, the costumes were garish in general, lots of sequins, it looked like some sort of cheap 80s prom dress nightmare. Though the supernumeraries were dressed in white t-shirts and gray trousers as they moved various parts of the stage to and fro. There was also a part of Act II in which a gaggle of supernumeraries, both male and female, wearing black gowns with a cut outs for prosthetic breasts to jut out of. Thankfully, they also had modest head scarves in place as well.

Among the various atrocities in the set were huge frames that were hoisted by supernumeraries on stage, complete with obnoxious comments in German on them; various flashing lights onstage; Arsamene undressing onstage, always a crowd-pleaser, even if he wore a body stocking; persons being hoisted on swings while discussing diplomacy; and persons being carried about in boats with bubbles encased in plastic in the background. Mind you, this is what I could see from my standing area that had an obscured view. I cannot detail for you a complete list, unfortunately. But I'm rather glad I did not pay the 97 Euros for a seat with a view of the stage, which was all that was left.

Mezzo-soprano Ann Murray as the Persian prince Serse was a bit uneven. Her voice was nice in her middle range, but her intonation was off in her higher register. Her voice in the lower range did not always carry, even though the acoustics in the Nationaltheater are quite good. In her mid-range I preferred her voice to Christopher Robson's countertenor (Arsamene), although his is like a muffled bell, very pretty. The best of the lot was Susan Gritton, the soprano who sang the part of Romilda. Her voice was damp and sweet, if a bit thin. Veronica Cangemi as Atalanta had a raw edge, a little lack of control, but not bad. Nathalie Stutzmann as scorned Amastris also lacked a bit of control of her upper range, her intonation was flat.