Operas Old and New
Saturday afternoons can be either marvelous or tedious affairs, depending on the season or the weather. For the past few weekends, however, yours truly has been thrilled to hear some fine performances at the Metropolitan Opera House via their perennial radio broadcasts. This gives me the opportunity to discuss these fine works at length.
The last three transmissions featured a panorama of German masterpieces, all of them classics of the genre: Mozart’s The Magic Flute was heard on December 28,2019, while Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (“The Knight of the Rose”) and Berg’s Wozzeck vied for equal time on January 4 and 11, 2020, respectively.
The Mozart opus, a 2004 production credited to Julie Taymor, was given a truncated English-language adaptation (courtesy of the late J. D. McClatchy). Robert Carsen’s stylish Der Rosenkavalier was a revival of a production from 2017. However, the harrowing Wozzeck, directed by acclaimed visual artist William Kentridge, whose 2010 presentation of Shostakovich’s satirical The Nose marked the company debut of Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot, was hailed as a feather in the Met’s Tyrolian cap.
But before we begin, I might as well get this off my chest: Strauss simply adored Mozart. So much so that he modeled two of his grandest operas, Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”) from 1919, after the sublime Austrian master.
We say “Austrian,” which is the somewhat imprecise English translation of Österreich, or “Eastern Empire.” However one interprets it, the citizens of Austria do speak German, which some might call a “dialect.” Indeed, the Austrian dialect resembles a kind of slangy, quirky Dutch. Not to offend anybody, but the sound of native Austrian mimics the slurred speech of someone who’s had too little sleep. You’ll know what I mean whenever you witness a European production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. Ach, du Lieber Gott! It’s similar in some respects to Cockney English, but I do digress.
Nevertheless, American English was the choice for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Still, why would composer Richard Strauss (no relation to the Johanns, father and son) pattern one of his operas after Mozart’s seriocomic Singspiel? Not only that, but Der Rosenkavalier shares an obvious affinity to The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte, Wolfie’s first and third collaboration with poet and jack-of-all-trades Lorenzo da Ponte.
The Magic of Mozart’s ‘Flute’
Speaking of which, the Met’s presentation of The Magic Flute was aired in one long, solitary act (to be precise, 100 minutes by the clock). Now, it’s been my experience that if you take young people to the opera, especially kids of a certain age group, they’re bound to get fidgety after a while. Having a break between acts is preferable and downright mandatory. Why the company continues to play this piece straight through is beyond me.
In the first place, it’s long enough at one act and twelve scenes to warrant an intermission. In the second, that’s a hell of a lot to absorb in one sitting. Giving kids and their parents a break, along with sufficient time to exchange ideas and ask questions during the interval, is ideal for enhancing their appreciation for Mozart and his music. For example, they can discuss the staging, the characters, the settings and costumes, the byplay between Papageno and Pamina, or the Three Ladies vs. the Three Spirits (in reality, three boy sopranos). How about asking them what they think will happen next? Make a game out it!
I’m especially dismayed (and have been, for a while now) over the gratuitous cuts to the spoken dialogue and especially to Mozart’s music. (Dude, where’s the overture?) And you thought Strauss was longwinded! Some of this expository discourse can be trimmed to acceptable lengths. What would be deemed acceptable? That all depends on the audience’s age. Add a few words here, cut a few words there — basically, keep things moving and within the limits of normal conversation. At least, make it long enough to get a feel for the plot and short enough for an understanding of the protagonists and their motivations.
About that story line, The Magic Flute was originally divided into two acts. The first act introduces the basic premise: that of a noble prince accompanied by a comical sidekick (the bird-catcher), who are both enlisted by a powerful queen to bring her kidnapped daughter back to her mother’s arms. The second act reveals that those who we thought were on the side of good turn out to be bad; and those who we thought were bad are indeed good.
Papageno is everybody’s favorite, an Everyman for every occasion. His only thoughts are to have a good time and find himself a Papagena to love and hold (“a sweetheart,” in his words). Prince Tamino, the fellow who stumbles onto the scene, is given a magic flute to aid him in his quest. The Queen of the Night, a relatively minor figure, has two fiendishly difficult airs (one slow that ends fast, and one that takes her to stratospheric heights).
Tamino’s counterpart is Pamina, the queen’s daughter. She, too, has some lovely solos and duets, albeit less showy than her mother’s. There’s the villainous Monostatos, who has (ahem) evil designs on the girl, along with those of his minions. On the opposing side, Sarastro the High Priest is an honorable sort, although he’s not painted as such at the outset. His music is of the solemn kind, which tends to ennoble his character. The Speaker is another upstanding citizen of the realm, with fairly judicious turns of his own in his encounter with Tamino.
Have I confused you even more? Fear not! All will be well, thanks to Mozart’s sublime score and those wonderful characterizations that the composer’s old friend — producer, actor, librettist, some-time promoter, and all-around Freemason Emanuel Schikaneder — concocted for less discriminating Viennese audiences. And as if you didn’t know it, the telltale signs of Freemasonry are everywhere in this piece.
Too, the scenic elements in Julie Taymor and George Tsypin’s colorful displays are wondrous to behold. Taymor herself, in an interview with soprano Deborah Voigt, pointed out the airiness of the production as a whole. She stressed the kite-like weightlessness of the puppets (i.e., birds, animals, random flying objects, and such). I, myself, have noticed her production’s kinship to Japanese theater — that is, in the inspired Kabuki-esque costume designs and effects, and the intricate, geometrically shaped sets.
With so many positives going for it, why am I disappointed in this Magic Flute? Mostly because of the feeling that audiences are not getting their full money’s worth. Listening to the separate arias, duets, and ensembles; marveling at Mozart’s spare accompaniments, offset by the loveliness of his melodies, I continue to be impressed by the sheer ingenuity he demonstrated in conveying the heightened emotions of his characters — all by the simplest of means.
For the past several seasons, the Met Opera has been giving this work in its present abridged form (at least, as a holiday radio broadcast). My suggestion would be to restore it to full splendor. Once and for all, let’s hear the magic in Mozart’s Flute as Mozart intended.
Cast-wise, all the performers contributed vitally to the proceedings, such as they were. As Tamino, tenor David Portillo (heard previously in supporting roles) did an outstanding job of managing the high tessitura of his part. His partner in “crime,” baritone Joshua Hopkins, was a spry, comically engaging Papageno who relished the bird-catcher’s every syllable. His Papagena was a spunky soprano named Ashley Emerson. The Three Ladies were taken by Gabriella Reyes, Megan Esther Grey and Renée Tatum, and coloratura Kathryn Lewek exuded fire and brimstone as a malevolent Queen of the Night.
In contrast, soprano Ying Fang was a lyrically affecting, melancholy Pamina. Her chief tormentor, the blackamoor Monostatos, was sung by tenor Rodell Rosell. He was particularly amusing in his snarky asides to various characters. Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi sang a characteristically model Speaker, as did bass Solomon Howard whose low tones and sumptuous speaking voice were most impressive. The two priests were Christopher Job and Scott Scully, and the two guards (who get to sing a proto-Bach chorale!) were portrayed by Arseny Yakovlev and Richard Bernstein.
Holding it all together and doing what he could with the leftovers, conductor Lothar Koenigs contributed to this festive occasion, helped immeasurably by the superb Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus. As in years past, this revival was supervised by executive stage director David Kneuss.
The Moment the Heart Speaks
After his two one-act shockers Salome and Elektra had made their ignominious debuts (to highly negative reaction), Strauss turned to the renowned poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and charged him to come up with a lavish, mid-eighteenth century entertainment that incorporated the decadent spirit, if not the letter, of Empress Maria Theresa’s Old World Vienna.
What Hofmannsthal delivered was a sentimental bedroom farce laced with sharp, critical observations of the aristocracy at play — more specifically, in the boorish behavior of the Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau. A randy, lecherous old fogey, Ochs (German for “ox”) plans an arranged marriage to the teenaged Sophie von Faninal, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant.
To seal the deal, he asks his highborn cousin, the middle-aged Marschallin, to appoint someone as his go-between, preferably a young knight who can deliver the traditional silver rose to Ochs’ betrothed as a prenuptial gift. The Marschallin suggests the young Count Octavian Rofrano (a “trouser” role for mezzo-soprano) as the gift bearer.
Unbeknownst to the Baron, Octavian happens to be the Marschallin’s lover of the moment, an impetuous youth with a noble bearing and hair-trigger temperament. The Marschallin herself is trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man, the never seen Field Marshall (a recurring theme in several of Strauss’s work, for instance, in the characters of Agamemnon in Elektra and the Spirit God Keikobad from Die Frau ohne Schatten).
The plot, as the old saying goes, soon thickens with the sumptuous Act II “Presentation of the Rose” sequence. To evocative musical themes of champagne-sparkling delight, Octavian is received with much pomp and circumstance. As you might suspect, the flirtatious Sophie is in awe of the charming young nobleman. Octavian, on his best behavior, engages the girl in polite conversation. Little by little, the two young people fall in love — an awkward state of affairs, considering what comes next.
The lovebirds are interrupted by the arrival of Baron Ochs and Sophie’s father, Herr von Faninal. Ochs looks over the blushing bride as if she were a filly at a horse auction. Sophie is mortified, to say the least. Octavian is deeply angered, but composes himself enough to let this insult pass. Temporarily left on their own, the young couple swear to each other that Sophie will never marry the loutish Ochs.
They are caught in the act by the arrival of two so-called “spies,” the Italian intriguers Annina and Valzacchi — two remnants of commedia dell’arte in disguise. The spies blab what transpired to the Baron, who confronts the couple just as Octavian challenges him to a duel. A coward in real life, Ochs fakes being wounded by Octavian’s sword. His loud and over-exaggerated cries of “Murder!” bring von Faninal and his retainers to the rescue. Told to leave at once, Octavian exits in a huff, followed by the weeping bride-to-be. Despite her entreaties, Sophie’s father refuses to cancel the wedding.
This leaves the aching Baron (his arm wrapped in an improvised sling) to rest his weary frame in a huge armchair. Now comes the part that every Strauss lover longs for, i.e., the scene of an intoxicated Ochs waltzing about the room in time to the composer’s lilting, anachronistic score. Along with the trio and duet that conclude the opera (as well as the Italian Singer’s nonsensical song in Act I, a favorite of tenors from Pavarotti to Polenzani), this catchy theme in three-quarter time has attracted star performers from time immemorial.
So what’s the motive behind the Baron’s miraculous recovery? He’s just received a note from the mysterious chamber maid “Mariandel” (in truth, Octavian in womanly disguise) inviting him to a secret rendezvous at an inn. That’s enough to cure any man’s ills! Hopping with joy about the stage, the Baron ends his revelry with a long-held low D (“Keine Nacht dir zu lang”), to much applause from the expectant audience.
In Act III, the characters’ world has turned upside-down. At the inn, Ochs meets the amorous “Mariandel,” who comes on to him just a little too strongly. But after innumerable interruptions and the last-minute appearance of Annina in disguise, accompanied by the Baron’s flock of “illegitimate children” shouting “Papa, Papa!” the situation gets out of control. It seems that Valzacchi and Annina have been working for Octavian on the side (it’s a matter of money, you see — or the lack of it). This, and other impediments, make for a longwinded winding-down of the over-complicated plot.
Once the wild, free-for-all shenanigans are over and done with — many of which will remind listeners of the goings-on in the Almaviva household in The Marriage of Figaro — matters start to settle down by themselves.
The ending, much favored by audiences and critics alike, involves the Marschallin’s acceptance of change in the face of advanced age and decorum. She realizes that her time has come, that she must give way to youth — more for her sake, if not for that of the young people in love. Her noble sacrifice is carried out to music of incredible depth and beauty. The contrast between the amorous Octavian and Sophie, billing and cooing on the sidelines, and the sacrifice of a mature Marschallin, will bring a tear to the eye and a lump to every audience member’s throat.
Cast Your Fate to the Winds
The Met’s lineup featured artists both new to their roles and those with experienced hands. As the brash knight Octavian, Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená handled the high tessitura handily, although her costume was ill-fitting and unflattering. Her stage deportment was anything but noble-born, however she brought liveliness and spirit to her portrayal, as well as a velvety mid-range and potent top.
As the spunky Sophie, South African soprano Golda Schultz (who’ll partake of the Met’s February 1st broadcast of Porgy and Bess) displayed copious charm and cheery temperament, along with melting pianissimos in Act II. Both Schultz and Kožená made beautiful music together (excuse the cliché!), which is what counts in a post-romantic work of this kind.
As the aging Marschallin, debuting Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund carried herself with dignity throughout (the Marschallin is missing in action during Act II). Her basically lyric tone tended to stridency toward the very top of her range; however, at full voice, she embodied wounded pride and womanly grace in her Act I scena. She easily rode over the heavy orchestration in Act III, bringing the crucial trio to an emotional and fitting climax.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, German basso Günther Groissböck, who made quite a splash in the company’s Ring cycle revival (as Fasolt and Hunding), repeated his slovenly portrayal of the boorish Baron Ochs. In this production, Ochs is depicted as a younger man, full of cheek and bravado, and full-on male privilege (the opera is set before the First World War). He hit all his marks and remembered every word of his part, a major accomplishment in itself (my goodness, there are SO MANY words…). He did lack power in the lowest notes, but, then again, who today could cope with the Baron’s tessitura?
Tenor Matthew Polenzani took the cameo role of the Italian Singer. Intriguingly, he was made up to resemble the great Enrico Caruso, which fit the time period in question to a “T.” Barring a bit of strain at the top of his range, Polenzani relished this brief but telling assignment.
Another debutant, German baritone Markus Eiche, was a full-toned, vigorously imposing von Faninal. As the Italian spies Valzacchi and Annina, tenor Thomas Ebenstein and mezzo Katherine Goeldner acquitted themselves ably, each establishing an individualized portrait amid the chaos surrounding them. Soprano Alexandra LoBianco excelled in the role of Marianne, Sophie’s duenna, and veteran bass-baritone James Courtney celebrated his 40th anniversary season with the company with his argumentative Notary.
Sir Simon Rattle, an infrequent visitor to the Met (we last heard him in the 2017 revival of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) set the pace. I noted that the playing was considerably looser than it had been under James Levine’s leadership. Rattle, unlike Leonard Bernstein’s mannered way with this score, kept the orchestral line flowing, which was all to the good. In sum, he knows his way around this piece, and the Met players delivered for him in spades.
Strauss was never again to attain such heights as an opera composer. Although, in this author’s view, his other Mozartian homage, the gargantuan Die Frau ohne Schatten, is more befitting of the honor of being his best work, Der Rosenkavalier has never lost its popularity with the public.
My only problem with the opera is its length. As I wrote in prior entries about the composer’s annoying habit of setting every word of Hofmannsthal’s text to music (including, according to operatic lore, the stage directions!), this unwieldy opus is talky, talky, talky. Mind you, there’s a fine line between talky and worthwhile. Even Herr Mozart knew this. Yet, Strauss crosses that line repeatedly and at every opportunity, which bogs this work down when you want it to soar.
Listen to the Noise
The highly touted new production of Berg’s Wozzeck was given a first-class reading in the orchestra pit by Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. For the history and background of this modern-day opus, see the following links: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/06/28/werther-and-wozzeck-the-poet-and-the-peasant-two-big-ws-at-the-met/) and https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/werther-and-wozzeck-the-poet-and-the-peasant-two-big-ws-at-the-met-conclusion/).
South African artist and film director William Kentridge set the story of the feeble-minded soldier Wozzeck in the same World War I period as Robert Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier production. This made for a striking disparity between these two pieces.
The post-romantic Rosenkavalier, which premiered before the outbreak of war, emphasized nostalgia for the past and a yearning for the way things were. In contrast, Wozzeck recounted the tragic outcome of that conflict, which left a war-torn European continent in ruins. The shattered lives it left behind and the psychological damage that war inflicted on its survivors were of prime concern to a weary veteran named Alban Berg. His opera’s 1925 premiere in Berlin took place only six years after the First World War’s end, and 14 years after Der Rosenkavalier’s unveiling.
Before Wozzeck started to wind its way into the standard repertoire, critics and operagoers were aghast at its jangled scoring and unlikable characters. Not that artists such as Igor Stravinsky or Richard Strauss himself hadn’t startled European audiences with their audacious sounds. In Stravinsky’s case, he rattled everyone’ cages with the highly propulsive The Rite of Spring (1913). Seven years earlier, Strauss, too, turned many heads with the boldness of his heretical Salome (1906) — a work the young Berg praised to high heaven.
Today, our more (shall we say) “enlightened” ears, attuned after five or more decades to countless movie and television scores from the likes of Hans Zimmer, Ramin Djawadi, Jóhan Jóhannsson, Mac Quayle, and a host of others, can fully appreciate Berg’s dissonant efforts in ways the Austrian-born composer could never have imagined.
Kentridge’s production, which resembled his previous work for the Met stage (in particular, Dimitri Shostakovich’s The Nose and his 2015 staging of Berg’s last opera Lulu), emphasized clutter over clarity. Pen-and-ink drawings, illustrations, film animation, moving props, staircases and catwalks in odd places, people wearing gas masks, and, the worst offense of all, substituting a bunraku puppet for Marie’s child, did little to clarify the opera’s underlying themes of emotional isolation and dehumanization.
An Expressionistic nightmare, Mr. Kentridge might have sent a more meaningful message if he had placed the story, say, at a military base in Iraq, or dealt with the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder run rampant among returning GI’s.
Fortunately, a first-rate cast helped to enliven the drama, which, on the radio, was all that mattered. Swedish baritone Peter Mattei shined as the titular protagonist. His complete disintegration into a ranting, hysterical beast convinced listeners that a human wrecking ball could engage their sympathies. He maintained a smooth vocal line throughout the ordeal.
Mattei was effectively partnered by South African soprano Elza van den Heever as his slatternly spouse Marie. Her tone was less pleasing to the ear than prior singers in this part (there’s a great deal of “song speech” in addition to outright “singing”), but her acting flair dominated the action. Van den Heever’s poignant Bible-reading to her puppet offspring, while tenderly uttered, missed that all-important connection due to the lack of a real-life child to play off of.
As the reproachful Captain, veteran tenor Gerhard Siegel was overpowering in voice and presence. His years of warbling Wagner’s Mime in Siegfried helped tremendously in creating a vile yet recognizably human antagonist. The mellow-voiced bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, last year’s Devil in Boito’s Mefistofele, while slightly underpowered compared to his colleague Siegel, held his own as the malevolent Doctor.
British heroic tenor Christopher Ventris proved his worth as Wozzeck’s oppressor, the prancing Drum Major, whose illicit affair with the accommodating Marie leads to Wozzeck’s unraveling. And debuting tenor Andrew Staples drew a supportive portrait of Andres, Wozzeck’s barracks mate.
Others in the cast were mezzo Tamara Mumford as Margret, bass David Crawford and tenor Myles Mykkanen as Apprentices, Brenton Ryan as a Fool, Daniel Clark Smith as a Soldier, and Gregory Warren as a Townsman.
As indicated above, Maestro Nézet-Séguin was the driving force behind this new production. His virtuosity was unquestioned, and the Met musicians responded in kind. That’s saying a lot for a noisy, purportedly unlistenable work.
It’s taken almost a century for audiences to finally listen to Wozzeck. Better late than never!
Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes