Kent Nagano

Don Giovanni at Bayerische Staatsoper

Don-giovanni-bso2009 Our correspondent in Germany, Opernphrenologe, was recently in Munich. What follows is a lightly edited review of the new Don Giovanni production that recently opened at Bayerische Staatsoper.

   * Notes *
The premiere of Don Giovanni, directed by Stephan Kimmig, in München started out badly enough. The curtain opened to reveal a naked old man with saggy boobs, shivering. From that point on, the production continued to get steadily worse. Behind him were a bunch of shipping containers that moved around and opened throughout the opera. One of the worst scenes was the wedding party, which was a rave with two 3-foot high penguin statues that people danced with. The masks were snorkeling masks, and there were half-naked lesbian snow bunnies humping each other here and there. Even worse was the send-Giovanni-to-Hell scene. Heaven was a shipping container, this time filled with people dressed like priests and army soldiers. Giovanni was cooking dinner in his modern kitchen (located in a shipping container that also contained around 20 mannequins), and he was sent to Hell by shaking hands with a chain of hand-holding army dudes and priests. When they let go, Giovanni fell to the ground next to his modern food processor. Profound. There was also a film screen that added absolutely nothing to the production, except to perhaps make it worse, as if it needed help in that department. At the end, everyone danced around, and old-naked-man came out again with his old-man-boobs to blow on some pinwheels.

Mariusz Kwiecien (Don Giovanni) did not sing as well as I remember him singing before. He sounded like he was mumbling and there was not much dynamic range in his voice. Perhaps he had a cold? Then again, he was definitely slimy, and an especially bad moment was when he pretended to give a doll a horseback ride on his knee. Maija Kovalevska (Donna Elvira) was a hippy backpacker chick in this particular production. Her voice was sweet and lovely, and she was incredibly fit. She must work out a lot. My favorite singer was Pavol Breslik (Don Ottavio), and I guess others agreed since he received loud applause at the end. His interpretation of the music was wonderful, with lots of dynamics and a sugary tone. However, even he could not make up for the flat, off-tune, and downright ugly singing of Ellie Dehn (Donna Anna). Her famous aria was like nails on a chalkboard. Fortunately for her, most people do not have perfect pitch and she received lukewarm applause at the end (with only a few buh's). The orchestra was also lightly buh'd. It is true that they were a bit sloppy, but they were not bad. They were like a player piano that had played the same tune one too many times. Some of the horn section looked angry when they were buh'd, which I suppose is understandable. After all, it is the conductor's (in this case, Kent Nagano's) job to interpret the music and not allow them to be sloppy.

The producers were heartily buh'd at the end. Some people responded to the buh'ing with loud applause, as if they somehow "got" the profundity of the production while the buh'ers did not. Or perhaps they just found the old-man-boobs incredibly sexy. I might guess the latter.

* Tattling * 
We did not have tickets for this production, since it sold out and I tried to buy tickets too late. Instead, we bought tickets from vicious female ticket scalpers who fought amongst themselves to unload their overpriced tickets on us. It was fearsome to watch them in action, and we both needed to tipple afterwards. My companion was an Opera Virgin, and we acquired her ticket from the only nice scalper in the bunch. I suspect that my companion will never willingly attend opera again -- the production was that bad. The audience was unusually engaged compared to the average performance (but perhaps not for a premiere). They seemed extremely pleased with themselves during the hearty buh'ing at the end.

Nagano conducts Berkeley Akademie

Kent-nagano * Notes * 
The Berkeley Akademie Ensemble gave a concert of Bach, Ives, and Beethoven last Sunday at the First Congregational Church. The evening began with a rather strange version of Bach's Concerto in the Italian style for solo harpsichord in F Major, BMV 971 arranged for chamber orchestra by Joachim F. W. Schneider. The first movement sounded crisp except for the bassoon. The horns also had some intonation issues, but the focus of the whole group was quite strong for the Presto. This was followed by the third symphony from Ives, "The Camp Meeting." The tempi were restrained but the playing was fiery. The violin solo in the first movement was particularly plaintive.

After the intermission we heard Beethoven's Septet in E-flat Major. The violinist tossed off notes with great ease in the Allegro con brio part of the first movement, but sounded more strident and brittle in the fourth movement. The horn was less than accurate at times, but had good moments in the second and fifth movements.

* Tattling * 
The bassist was enthusiastic, his movements were comical, and one must to take care not to look at him, lest an inappropriate giggle-fit should strike.

The audience was packed for Kent Nagano's last performance as conductor and artistic director of Berkeley Symphony. I was surrounded by very nice folks who offered me binoculars to view the performers up close, since we were in the last row.

Nagano did not conduct the last piece, and simply listened from the mezzanine. He thanked the audience at the end, and seemed rather humbled by the standing ovation.

Hugh Wolff at Berkeley Symphony

Hughwolff* Notes *
Kent Nagano's 30th season as music director of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra will be his last, and the search for his replacement is on. Over this season and the next there will be a total of six guest conductors, one of which may emerge as the next music director. The first of these conductors is Hugh Wolff, who presented a program of Kernis' Overture of Feet and Meters, Osvaldo Golijov's Night of the Flying Horses, Shostakovich's From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92.

The Kernis work is influenced by Baroque dance suites, we were told the wry title refers to "dancing feet and shifting meters." Perhaps this is why the piece sounds a little like Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, both new and old at the same time. It had a cinematic feel, sometimes sweeping and other times very busy. I felt as if I should be seeing something with the music but wasn't.

Of the first half, I was most moved by Golijov. The soloist, Heidi Melton, sang well, she was not shrill and had seems to have gained more control of her voice. There was not a trace of strain or roughness, as when she sang Diane last summer at San Francisco Opera. The orchestra sounded lovely as well, the interplay of violas, second violins, celli, and winds was particularly beautiful.

Shostakovich's songs were presented in Yiddish rather than Russian, and this seemed to work just fine. Again, Melton sang well, though at times she overpowered Katharine Tier and Thomas Glenn. Tier's voice has a certain delicacy, she had one breath in the second song that was a bit too audible, but otherwise was good. I could hear Glenn much better in this than when I heard him last as Robert Wilson at Lyric Opera, but he was occasionally masked by the orchestra. He also seemed to be rushing during his first two songs, the fourth and sixth in the cycle. He does have a sweet voice, and sounded better for the rest of the performance.

The evening ended with a playful rendition of Beethoven's 7th, starting off with a rather stately slowness and finishing at a breakneck speed. The musicians played with suitable crispness, striking nice a balance in articulation.

This performance will be broadcast by KALW 91.7 FM on Sunday, April 27th at 4pm. Wolff will be conducting new music this Sunday evening at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley.

* Tattling *
Hugh Wolff broke his left leg and is still in a cast, so his antics getting around the stage were pretty entertaining. The pre-concert interview revealed that he is an affable and funny person. Apparently he does not compose, despite studying under Messiaen.

A trio of women behind me must have included some singers, for their speaking voices carried well. One told a hilarious story about Stephanie Blythe singing Messiah at NY Philharmonic last December. When she finished singing the B section of "He was despised," and went back to the A section, a man in the front row muttered "Jesus Christ" out of exasperation.

A couple brought their grade school child to the symphony, and he was not enjoying himself, he fidgeted constantly, and quietly whispered to his mum more than once. He was not distracting me, but he kicked the person in front of many times. Finally this person got fed up and angry admonished him during the fifth song of the Shostakovich.

Parsifal at Bayerische Staatsoper

Parsifal* Notes *
Paper was the main motif in Peter Konwitschny's production of Parsifal currently at Bayerische Staatsoper. The set was first hidden by a scrim covered with pieces of paper reading, in various languages, "Erlösung dem Erlöser," the last line of the opera. Act I featured a stage littered with white sheets of paper, a papier-mâché ramp with branches, and a red piece of paper hanging from the ceiling. Act II had many saffron colored pieces of paper hanging from the ceiling, along with the same white sheets still strewn across the floor. Act III had an enormous black sheet hanging at center stage, in addition to black sheets scattered around, and a medium-sized sheet covering the corpse of Titurel. Even the prompt box was covered with paper, at first matching the scrim and at the end black.

The set and costumes, both by Johannes Leiacker, seemed somewhat incongruous. The knights wore long grey coats, Parsifal fleecy lederhosen without a shirt, and both Klingsor and Amfortas wore black robes over their bloody loincloths. At first Kundry had on inexplicable flowered pants, a short wrap dress, and a black blazer with one patched elbow, but changed into a black and red evening gown in her siren guise. The set moved in a clever manner so that changes of scene were unproblematic. The ramp that Kundry rode her toy wood horse down for her entrance lifted up to become a tree that holds the grail. Parts of the stage could be raised and lowered, quite handy for bringing in the choruses of knights or flower maidens.

The production did make me laugh, especially when Parsifal made his entrance by attacking the red sheet of paper as he swung from a rope. Naturally he wore an Indian head dress and carried a stick bow. Another choice part was when Parsifal threw a tantrum at the end of Act II, breaking a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary so that her head fell off. When Kundry started menacing poor Parsifal with the Mary head, I thought I would lose my composure completely.

Perhaps Kent Nagano is still easing in to his position as the Generalmusikdirector, as his tenure began last September. There were moments when the orchestra was not together. The chorus also had a few problems of this sort, especially at the end of Act I.

As Amfortas, Martin Gantner found a certain balance that the others lacked. The baritone acted well and had good volume and control, and his only weakness was a brightness that is not best suited for someone long-suffering. It was rather shocking to see Gantner in little more than diapers, his legs are very skinny. Bass John Tomlinson looked like a proper Gurnemanz, his voice was shaky and gravelly, which is fairly apropos. Luana DeVol was piercing as Kundry, she had a frightening amount of vibrato, especially when she sang "Parsifal! Bleibe!" in Act II. Nikolai Schukoff was a convincing youthful Parsifal, his voice is also rather bright and young, without much heft. He did strain somewhat, and gasped here and there. He saved himself for the last act, his last notes in the opera were beautiful.

* Tattling *
The audience was well-behaved, as it is only a certain type that will go hear Wagner in Germany. There was no late seating, no ringing of mobile phones, no watch beeping, and no speaking aloud. Thankfully for you, gentle reader, there were certainly transgressions nonetheless. Some young men in the standing area of the Second Tier Left Row 1, Places 1 and 3 waited for the very last moment go to their spots. This was in hopes of nabbing some seats, but there were very few left, and none together. They pushed their way behind the three others in this standing section and then one sat up on one of the barrier walls (his head practically touched the ceiling) and the other had himself perched on the railing. The seats in the Nationaltheater are small and creak a great deal, plus the shape of the theater is such that it is difficult to see all of the stage from the sides. Audience members on the sides would sometimes just stand up so that they could see what was happening. There were isolated cases of whispering, mostly in the first act. A woman in Row 1 Seat 17 unwrapped a candy.

The Münchner have a peculiar habit of trying to find the best possible place in spite of whatever ticket they may hold. The person next to me in Place 15 found a seat in Row 3, and no one was on either side of me for the first act. In Act II, the woman who had Place 17 on the other side of the aisle decided that 15 was better, and stood next to me. She took off her shoes and kept ducking so that she could see the supertitles, then she finally sat in the aisle. During Act III two other women surrounded me, for I moved to Place 11 to get away from the aisle woman. I noticed that the latter fell asleep at one point, as she rested her head on the railing.

Der Reine Tor

WilsondonutA new production of Parsifal opened at Los Angeles Opera on Saturday, directed and designed by Robert Wilson of The Black Rider fame. The production itself is awful in every sense, being no less than pretentious, cold, and boring. The choreography involves a lot of lying on the ground, random angular arm movements that relate neither to the text nor the music, slow walking, and having the characters ignore each other. The highlights of Stephanie Engeln's set include an enormous swan wing falling slowly in the background, a lighted giant bagel-half that descends from above, a bunch of small white birds of paradise sculptures that move across the stage, and a large version of one bird of paradise that takes the same path of the wing from Act I. The Frida Parmeggiani costumes have an Egyptian flair, dresses for everyone, in black or white, save Kundry's plum-colored outfit. A.J. Weissbard's lighting does not seem entirely polished, at several points the lights wavered and did not follow the characters.

Plácido Domingo sings Parsifal well enough, the tenor strains a great deal and the apparent lack of affect that characterizes the production did not make him very convincing as a young man. Bass Matti Salminen also sings beautifully as Gurnemanz. Linda Watson's Kundry is not wild in the least, her high notes may be clear and brilliant, but her low notes are weak. Kent Nagano certainly tosses his hair a great deal, at least he conducts with some passion, perhaps the only sign of life to be seen all evening.