Nina Stemme

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Love of a ‘Good’ Woman (Conclusion)

Posted on Updated on

Love-Death and Transfiguration

A soldierly Tristan (Stuart Skelton) woes the bewitching Isolde (Nina Stemme) at the Met Opera (Photo: New York Times)

The Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Tristan und Isolde on April 8, 2017 (the original program was shown as part of its Live in HD series on October 8, 2016) paired Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Isolde with Australian dramatic tenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan. Others in the cast included Moscow-born mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Isolde’s companion Brangäne, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Tristan’s aide Kurwenal, and German bass-baritone René Pape as Tristan’s foster father King Marke. Tony Stevenson sang the part of the Sailor in Act I, with Neal Cooper as Melot in Act II, and Alex Richardson as the Shepherd in Act III. The work was conducted by renowned British maestro Sir Simon Rattle.

This was a new production, credited to the controversial Polish-born director Mariusz Treliński, whose previous assignment at the Met included the double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The sets were designed by Boris Kudlička, with costumes by Marek Adamski, lighting design by Marc Heinz, and choreography by Tomasz Wygoda. The Met’s chorus master, Donald Palumbo, did an outstanding job with the forces at his command.

Unlike past performances (over a quarter of a century, in fact) where former Met music director James Levine presided over an uncut reading, this version featured a nine-minute trim of the long second act duet for the title characters. Whether you’re a confirmed “completist” as I tend to be, or whether you take your Wagner in shorter doses, the result was pretty much the same. Maybe Wagner’s music is overdue for a judicious paring — who am I to argue over his long-windedness, principally if this was going to be a late-night affair?

Having studied Wagner for years — and having owned numerous complete recordings and/or DVDs of all his major works — I uncovered boat-loads of reasons why he had his protagonists expound at length. Often, the characters felt the need to justify their past or present actions in some explanatory form or other. These expansive “speeches” were also used to recap prior happenings, or, just as often, they were employed to foretell future events (most notably in the Ring).

With Tristan und Isolde, Wagner divided the couple’s story into three distinct sections: Act I is taken up with Isolde’s dilemma and subsequent impasse over the effects of the love potion; Act II brings the two lovers together via their nocturnal yearnings; while Act III is devoted to Tristan’s delirium and Isolde’s love-death.

Tristan (Stuart Skelton) in Trelinski’s steam-punk production of Tristan und Isolde (Photo: Met Opera)

Simply stated, the plot involves the noble Tristan having killed the intended spouse (i.e., Morold) of the fiery Celtic princess Isolde. Seriously wounded in the battle, Tristan lies exposed as Isolde plans to seek vengeance for the slaying of her betrothed. However, once their eyes have met Isolde is unable to carry out her task. Later, Tristan is entrusted by King Marke (Tristan’s uncle, but in this production, his foster father) to bring Isolde back as Marke’s bride. All of this takes place prior to the curtain’s rise.

Moving on to the first act, Isolde relates the background (Isolde’s Narration and Curse) of what has transpired to this point. It becomes obvious that Isolde is passionately in love with Tristan, and vice versa. Because of stubborn pride and mutual bitterness over their recent state of affairs — for example, the humiliation that Isolde senses at being held captive by her “abductor,” Tristan — they adamantly refuse to acknowledge their feelings for one another. It also pains Tristan to have fallen hard for his uncle’s bride, with pangs of guilt preventing him from acting as Isolde thinks he should. Faced with a loveless marriage to a much older man, Isolde calls for a death potion to bring an end to their suffering. Brangäne, her companion (or maid in some versions), prepares the deadly concoction, only to substitute a love potion at the last minute.

In Act II, the lovers have been meeting in secret at night, the only time of the day allotted to them. Both are convinced of the inevitability of their love. Unable to consummate their relationship to the fullest, they resolve to end it in death — thus realizing Isolde’s original intention of having Tristan pay for killing Morold (which, by now, is the farthest thing from her mind). The problem, though, is that Marke, and his hunting party, discover the affair after the lovers’ ecstatic night of bliss. The King expresses his innermost torment for Tristan’s “betrayal” in a long, emotionally draining monologue. Ashamed of his conduct but resolved to take charge of the situation, Tristan invites Isolde to flee into the night (metaphorically speaking). In this production, he stabs himself, while in others the tattle-tale Melot (an interesting variant on Morold) seriously wounds Tristan as he deliberately lets down his guard.

Tristan (Skelton) and Isolde Stemme), together at last (Photo: Met Opera)

Act III takes place in Cornwall, Tristan’s ancestral home. Here we find him wailing and gnashing his teeth in agony and misery. Kurwenal, his aide and retainer, is nursing his master’s wound. He is unable to keep the knight quiet and calm, while Tristan’s only desire is to expire in Isolde’s arms. Hearing that she is about to return and that Isolde has explained the situation to Marke (who is ready to forgive the despairing knight his sins) Tristan is beside himself with a mixture of joy and grief. In his final moments, Tristan tears away his bandages and bleeds to death, just as Isolde rushes in. Isolde then launches into her ecstatic Liebestod, which concludes the opera.

With such a tragedy unfolding before the viewer’s eyes, it’s no wonder the most compelling aspect of this opera is its music: lush, propulsive, and chromatic to an unbearable degree. The world-famous Prelude sets the tone from the get-go, what with its enigmatic, unresolved opening notes. Know, too, that Wagner did not invent harmonics or chromaticism as it was employed here, nor did he discover “modern music” by chance. As musicologist and music historian Richard Taruskin has pointed out, in the Oxford History of Western Music, Wagner’s father-in-law, the concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt, was one of the earliest Western artists to utilize the diatonic scale, specifically what came to be known as the “Tristan chord.”

Taruskin goes on to say (in Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays), that Wagner, referring to the Prelude, “leaves it for our inner ear to supply [the ultimate repose], so that the actual sounding music retains a restless harmonic tension at all times, virtually until the end of the opera, when all the accumulated pressure is at last discharged in Isolde’s Verklärung (“Transfiguration”), popularly known as the Liebestod, the death-by-love or, in plainer language, the orgasm.” Gasp!

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

It’s a well-known truism that Tristan und Isolde has been labeled a conductor’s opera. And one might be tempted to quibble over minor details here and there. Still, Sir Simon’s approach to Tristan was leaner in shape and conception than many of his predecessor’s. It made its points clearly and succinctly, without sacrificing lushness or the orchestral sheen surrounding the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Daniel Barenboim, who made his Met debut conducting Tristan in November 2008, set the standard, as far as I’m concerned, for how this work should be played in a large auditorium. Not to take away any of James Levine’s accomplishments, Barenboim made the case for a more leisurely elucidation, bringing out added resonance in the string section, as well as the ethereal essence in the final chords as Isolde expires over the dead body of her lover.

Rattle, for his part, succeeded in forging a viable (and valuable) interpretation of his own, with carefully controlled dynamics and an overwhelmingly positive energy flow (especially in Act I), in addition to a strong, emotional undercurrent in Act III, where Stuart Skelton, a supremely gifted Tristan in both physical size and specificity, scaled the heights in his powerful monologue.

Stuart Skelton in Tristan’s delirium, Act III (Photo: New York Times)

Skelton stretched his imposing instrument almost to the breaking point, in what became one of the most moving deliriums this listener has heard in many years of broadcast listening. The last time I was privy to such a marvelous take on the grueling part was Robert Dean Smith’s last minute substitution back in 2008. You can also pencil in Ben Heppner’s assumption of the part, another masterly effort.

It’s Always Darkest before the Dawn

Like most Tristans, Skelton made his mark in Act I, dueling with the skittish yet histrionically infuriated Isolde of Nina Stemme. Stemme, whose chief competitor in this repertoire today may be the memory of her Swedish compatriot, the late Birgit Nilsson (dubbed by yours truly as “Queen of the High Cs”), brought the Celtic princess to vibrant life. Certainly the Met’s Nordic contingent, which also included Kirsten Flagstad and Astrid Varnay, was well represented in Ms. Stemme.

In her recent Met assignments, Stemme conveyed hitherto untold nuances as Puccini’s Turandot; she was also an elemental force of nature in Strauss’ Elektra. As Isolde, her innate femininity and command of the many declamatory passages Wagner provided throughout gave Stemme ample opportunity for expressive singing of the highest order. This was as solidly delivered a performance of the part as any in the last decade, upstaging previous Met Opera exponents such as Deborah Voigt, Katarina Dalayman, and Jane Eaglen.

Both Gubanova and Nikitin held up their end, with Gubanova especially effective in her Act II warning. The lone standout, however, was basso René Pape’s exceptionally fine-grained Marke. I recall the myriad times this key role was entrusted to the likes of Giorgio Tozzi, John Macurdy (a workmanlike bass in his day), Karl Ridderbusch, and the cavernous Martti Talvela and Kurt Moll. All were effective in their individual methodologies. Along with an adroit vocal production, Pape contributed a high degree of involvement and dignity to the part — not an easy task when faced with such past competition.

Regarding the production itself, what can one say about a staging that both begins and ends shrouded in total darkness? “It was passionless,” went one reviewer. Another critic hated, hated, HATED the presentation. “It’s a steam-punk Tristan!” one exploded online. And still another was getting sick of this Euro trash, while some were enthralled by Stemme’s womanly allure. There was very little brightness to offset the sheer gloom. It reminded me of Herbert von Karajan’s Ring cycle at Salzburg in the late 1960s, which was later given at the Met. As we learned from that effort, you can’t have darkness without the light.

Nina Stemme as Isolde intones her Liebestod in Act III (Photo: Met Opera)

The Seven-Year Itch

Wagner’s earliest triumph, Der fliegende Holländer, more commonly known as The Flying Dutchman (named after the doomed hero Vanderdecken’s ship), has not had a frequently recurring history at the opera house of late. In fact, and true to the title character’s own predicament, the work was last staged at the Metropolitan about seven seasons ago. My, how time flies!

Nevertheless, this latest revival of August Everding’s 1989 production (the fellow who supervised the Karajan Ring mentioned above), with sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Lore Haas, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and conducted by the young musical prodigy Yannick Nézet-Séguin, drew mostly mild to favorable reviews, except in the case of powerhouse American soprano Amber Wagner as Senta.

Amber, if I may call her by her first name, provided vocal amplitude and startlingly expressive thrust to the role of the “good woman” that Wagner always envisioned for Senta. She is the one person who will redeem the Dutchman from his curse after centuries of wandering the earth’s oceans. The Metropolitan Opera Guild’s magazine, Opera News, in its July 2017 review of the production, noted that “[t]here was a considerable shift in scale in Act II with the arrival of Amber Wagner.” They weren’t joking!

The Dutchman (Michael Volle) with Senta (Amber Wagner) in The Flying Dutchman (Photo: Richard Termine)

After a briskly paced run-through that maestro Yannick gave the thrice-familiar Overture, the wonderful men’s chorus burst out in mellow song with some hearty “Ho-heys!” and “Hoyohos!” Here was top-notch, full-throated singing for once. Things moved along at a swift enough speed, with Daland, Senta’s father (German bass Franz-Josef Selig), shouting orders to the obedient if sleepy-eyed Steersman (sung by tenor Ben Bliss), until the mysterious Phantom made his entrance (descending a rickety ladder?).

The Dutchman’s lengthy exposition (here we go again!), whereby, in the manner of Isolde’s Narration, he describes his situation to the audience, needed more thrust and a heftier ring to its pronouncements. Past interpreters such as the Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam, the indelible George London, Hermann Udhe (who brought a haunted quality to the part) or Hans Hotter in his heyday, not to mention Thomas Stewart, Theo Adam, and (at New York City Opera) Guillermo Sarabia, all boasted an individuality and/or personalization to the ominous discourses of this Wagnerian antihero.

Try as he might, German baritone Michael Volle’s Dutchman’s displayed more modest means than the above artists. While they made their points — thanks largely to his splendid diction — they lacked that heavy layer of tragic inevitability. The basic theme of this work, i.e., redemption, is always within reach but never attained. The Dutchman’s curse follows him wherever he goes. It darkens his footsteps, it permeates his soul. And in his monologue, “Die Frist ist um!” (“The time is up!”), he expresses all his loathing and hate, as well as his persistent hope for release. Volle’s previous assignment as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger made one sit up and take notice. In this instance, I would have preferred that he had rocked the boat some more. That could have animated his going about his duties somewhat.

The Dutchman (Volle) descends the steps from his ship to the shore (Photo: Richard Termine)

Things picked up considerably in Act II (as noted above), with Amber Wagner’s intensely concentrated performance of Senta’s Ballad. When she joined in unison with Volle for their soul-searching duet; then, in the trio with Selig, Volle and herself, Wagner outshone (and out-sang) them both. Brava! Another robust voice — that of veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick as Mary — came through loud-and-clear over the airwaves. It’s a shame the part is a short one. I imagine that, at this stage in her career, Zajick would still make a supremely malevolent Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin.

American tenor AJ Glueckert (taking over for the previously announced Jay Hunter Morris) made his Met broadcast debut as Senta’s betrothed Erik. He has a warm, mellow tone which brought youthful impetuosity to the part. Not surprisingly, Morris’ withdrawal from this assignment cleared the way for Glueckert’s success. We hope to hear more of this fine young singer in days to come.

In seasons long past, the Met used to perform The Flying Dutchman in three acts, with two intermissions. Wagner sanctioned this edition, and made some judicious compromises where smaller theaters were concerned (but not always, as we witnessed with Tannhäuser in Paris). For presenting the opera in one continuous act, I’m grateful to the Met. I am not so satisfied that the company has never given a thought to producing Wagner’s ORIGINAL version of this opera, with its reduced orchestration and the elimination of the redemption theme altogether.

THAT version exists only on DVD and CDs. The live presentation from the 1985 Bayreuth Festival, for instance, by legendary director Harry Kupfer of this early edition is a one-of-a-kind experience. It turns the story on its head by having Senta constantly on stage from beginning to end. There is no “redemption theme,” either in the Overture or at the conclusion. The opera simply ends, with the Norwegian villagers shutting their windows on Senta as she awakes from her reverie.

Senta is obsessed with the Dutchman’s portrait right from the start (an important plot point that appears only in Act II). Clutching the portrait for dear life, she takes it with her wherever she goes (clearly, she’s as determined to get her way as the Dutchman was). This version, known simply as “Senta’s Dream,” is well within the composer’s scope for director Kupfer to have focused on her as the central participant in the drama.

Scene from Harry Kupfer’s 1985 revival of The Flying Dutchman at Bayreuth

Danish soprano Lisbeth Balslev sang the neurotically enraptured Senta, along with the fabulous Dutchman of African American bass-baritone Simon Estes, who with his soulful core and rock-solid vocal output gave the performance of a lifetime. In this edition, the Dutchman is strapped to his ship’s mast in a Christ-like pose. The ship’s prow is shaped like two giant praying hands that open up to reveal its ghostly contents. Shudder….!

The production premiered at Bayreuth in 1978 and is considered one of the finest, most original stage treatments of the Dutchman’s tale, alongside the now-classic Patrice Chereau/Pierre Boulez 1976 centennial Ring cycle (also at Bayreuth). They had the requisite passion that the Met’s tired old 1989 production so sorely lacked.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes    


Dysfunctional Family Values: ‘Elektra’ and ‘Salome’ at the Met (Part One)

Posted on Updated on

Nina Stemme as Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Elektra (Metropolitan Opera)

It’s Greek to Me!

Every generation feels it has the answers to life’s problems — and ours is no exception. When I was growing up in the Sixties, it was easy to blame the prior generation for the many ills we saw around us; to hold those in high office accountable for the endless, unresolved conflicts strewn about the land.

It’s during those trying times that many find comfort in family and friends. While some leave home and hearth to set off on their own volition, others stay put so as to deal with or fend off the difficulties as best they can.

The effect of unending conflicts, with frazzled nerves constantly on the edge of collapse, can only lead to all-out tragedy. And who better to depict those tragedies than the ancient Greeks — or, in their stead, the generation that gave rise to the First World War (or the Great War, as it was once known).

German composer Richard Strauss and his favorite poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were part of that generation. In fact, their supreme collaboration, vide the opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow”), paid supportive deference to the family unit as the central focus of a happy home life. In contrast, however, their preceding work, Der Rosenkavalier (or “The Cavalier of the Rose”), seemed to mock those sentiments entirely, with humorous jabs at familial relations (for example, the boorish cousin Baron Ochs) amid the amorous exploits and extramarital trysts of the petulant Octavian and the Field Marshal’s wife.

Richard Strauss (ca. 1910) posing for photographer E.O. Hoppe (Photo courtesy Getty Images)
Richard Strauss (ca. 1910) posing for photographer E.O. Hoppe (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

While that may well be, most historians and musicologists would argue that the team’s most forceful achievement in the operatic realm were its two earlier efforts: the one-acters Salome (1905), adapted by Strauss from Oscar Wilde’s scandalous 1893 play Salomé; and Elektra (1909), based on Hofmannsthal’s drama of the same name and on the original treatment given by Greek playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus.

In an unusual juxtaposition of musical events, the Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcast of Elektra came on April 30, 2016, near the tail end of the 2015-2016 radio season; while the later transmission of Salome occurred on December 17, 2016, at the start of the 2016-2017 season.

Both operas featured all-star casts, among them Nina Stemme, Adrianne Pieczonka, Susan Neves, Roberta Alexander, Waltraud Meier, Eric Owens, James Courtney, Burkhard Ulrich, and Kevin Short in Elektra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; and Patricia Racette substituting for the previously announced Catherine Naglestad, Željko Lučić, Gerhard Siegel, Kang Wang, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, and Carolyn Sproule for Salome, presided over by Johannes Debus.

At their respective premieres, both Strauss works came in for heavy criticism for their brutally raw sexuality and exceedingly perverse characterizations (in the Princess Salome and Queen Klytämnestra) as well as the matricidal tendencies of that deadly brother-sister combo of Orest and Elektra.

Greek legends being what they are, the story of Elektra, derived from classical mythology and known as the Mycenaen saga (or Oresteia), was not the first treatment of this daring subject. Gluck’s two back-to-back works in this vein, Iphigénie en Aulis (1774) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), both predate and elaborate upon the circumstances involving King Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, his murder by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, and Orestes’ slaying of the treacherous pair and subsequent imprisonment. His sister Electra is only mentioned by name.

Mozart's Idomeneo, as staged by the Met Opera
Mozart’s Idomeneo, as staged by the Met Opera

Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo, which premiered in Strauss’ hometown of Munich in 1791, included the antagonist Elettra (in the original Italian libretto). As the revenge-filled daughter of Agamemnon, who was the same fellow who fought in the Trojan Wars, Elettra was performed by a coloratura soprano. She is one of the earliest surviving embodiments of this character to appear in a standard repertory piece. Prophetically, Strauss rearranged and re-orchestrated Idomeneo (along with introducing newly composed music of his own) for a 1931 Vienna State Opera production.

Strauss’ lifetime fascination with Greek myth pervaded his musical compositions from their earliest days. We need only mention such examples as the pastiche Ariadne auf Naxos (1912; revised 1916) and its wittily realized clash between the modern and ancient worlds; the dreamlike Die ägyptische Helena (“The Egyptian Helen,” 1928), based on a conceit that the fabled Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked away to the Land of the Pharaohs; and the operas Daphne (1938) and Der Liebe der Danae (“The Loves of Danae,” 1944), both depicting mythological figures Apollo, Jupiter, Mercury, Midas, and others.

As a representative of the German bourgeoisie, whose smug contentment with the status quo oftentimes clashed with the harsh realities of pre- and post-World War I existence, Strauss realized themes in his two-hour, powered-packed oeuvre Salome and Elektra that would, in due course, lay the groundwork for the coming decadence of Nazism. The deterioration of morals so outlandishly brought to the fore by Herod’s court and in the Princess Salome’s sultry Dance of the Seven Veils, not to mention her erotic attraction to Jokanaan’s severed head, were but harbingers of the horrors to come.

Topping even this, the depravity that poisoned the atmosphere that Elektra and her sister, Chrysothemis, were forced to survive in — while begging for scraps from the servants and bearing witness to the treachery that led to Agamemnon’s brutal slaying at their own mother’s hand — accurately, if not presciently, conveyed the notion that corruption and wickedness began in the home.

The Jagged Edge

The late Patrice Chereau (1944-2013) directing From the House of the Dead in 2009
The late Patrice Chereau (1944-2013) directing From the House of the Dead in 2009

The late and much lamented French director Patrice Chéreau, whose 1976 Bayreuth centennial production of Wagner’s Ring has achieved an almost legendary standing, unveiled his vision for Elektra back in 2013 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. Reviewed in Opera News and in other similarly themed publications, this production made its initial Met Opera impact in April of 2016, a few short years after the director’s untimely passing from lung cancer. It won overwhelmingly positive notices for its emotional content and psychological insight into the souls of its protagonists.

Celebrated for his outstanding work with singers and for his theatrical finesse and acumen, Chéreau was feted for another depiction of tortured, imprisoned souls in the Met’s premier presentation of Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, in November 2009.  Using the same creative team that he did for Elektra (set designer Richard Peduzzi, who worked with the director on the Ring cycle, and costume designer Caroline de Vivaise), Chéreau set the opera in a “bleak, monumental palace” courtyard — similar in shape and scope to the single set found in From the House of the Dead (with that evocative title seeming to cast a subliminal pall over the machinations of the lead characters’ plight).

The opera was staged in New York by Vincent Huguet, Chéreau’s assistant at Aix-en-Provence. Meticulous attention to detail and to the interpersonal dynamic between characters were the most obvious signs of a well-planned and well-executed affair. Strauss provided this intensely mesmerizing work with music of elemental force. Gripping dissonance and raucous cacophony, from the lowest bass notes to the highest cries in the strings, were the norm. But there are also melodies of such overpowering tenderness that to hear them, as played by the excellent Met Opera Orchestra under the impeccable maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen, was absolutely startling.

Richard Peduzzi's set for the Met's Elektra
Richard Peduzzi’s set for the Met’s Elektra (first staged at Aix-en-Provence)

Beginning with the opening chords, the full orchestra blasts forth the name of Agamemnon to wild abandon (a trick Strauss used again at the start of Die Frau ohne Schatten, with the Spirit King Keikobad), then dies down to a barely audible rumble in the Wagner tubas and bass clarinet. Jagged leaps up and down the scale, two and three octave jumps, sliding trombones, violins screeching and whining like the howling of the wind, bold bursts of sound coming from the brass section: all these, and singing, too! The opera ends as it began, with a repeat of the D minor intonation of Agamemnon’s name, followed by deathly silence.

It took the Metropolitan an entire generation to present this piece. At the time, Elektra’s so-called immorality and overt hints of incestuous bisexuality were deemed “too sensational” for Met audiences. The opera’s debut finally came in 1932, with Artur Bodanzky conducting and Gertrude Kappel in the title role. Fritz Reiner led the Swedish-born Astrid Varnay in the 1950s, while Inge Borkh essayed the part in the early 1960s. Hailed as a conductor’s showpiece, the opera has been presided over by the likes of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Arthur Rodzinsky, Thomas Beecham, Eugen Jochum, Karl Böhm, Erich Leinsdorf, Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Georg Solti, and James Levine.

Singers’ Roundtable

Elektra is also one of the most demanding roles in all opera, with a range of two octaves (and then some) going from middle C to high C. And few singers could match the high-voltage decibel levels of the inimitable Birgit Nilsson, although German soprano Hildegard Behrens’ dramatic sensibilities were not lost on Met Opera audiences. Other great interpreters of the part included sopranos Rose Pauly, Erna Schlüter, Anny Konetzni, Gwyneth Jones, and now Nina Stemme.

Initially, director Chéreau had chosen Evelyn Herlitzius as his Elektra at Aix. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka repeated her assignment as Chrysothemis at both Aix and the Met. As mentioned above, the spacious setting was more in line with that of a madhouse than a royal palace at Mycenae. The curtain rises before any music is heard. Serving women come out on stage and begin their daily tasks. It’s only at this point that Elektra is let out from her cell that the opera proper begins. She has the wild look of a caged animal, of someone who has spent her formative years in solitary confinement.

Thr sisters Elektra (Nina Stemme) & Chrysothemis (Adrianne Cieczonka) werestling with their problems
The sisters Elektra (Stemme) & Chrysothemis (Adrianne Cieczonka) wrestle with their problems (Photo: Sara Krulwich / New York Times)

Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme, with her large, soul-searching eyes and searing intensity, penetrated the massive orchestration with an emotionally charged, devastatingly credible interpretation of Elektra. From the big moments in her opening monologue, “Allein! Weh, ganz allein!” to her frozen, immobile form at the opera’s conclusion, Stemme conveyed the character’s inability to act out her revenge with a wrenching poignancy only a handful of artists could begin to suggest. In this, and in many other senses, Elektra is Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the vengeance ploy is itself the very be-all and end-all of both tales. And Stemme was the right singer in the right spot to do full justice to the role.

As Chrysothemis (the sisters’ other sibling, Iphigenia, you’ll recall, was sacrificed to the gods in order that their father Agamemnon’s ships could have favorable wind in their sails), Pieczonka exemplified the caring yet pleading aspects of a family member who knows that Elektra needs much more aid and comfort (and a large dollop of TLC) than she alone can provide. Their scenes of sisterly “affection,” for lack of a better term, were sung with a clear line and easily distinguishable timbre by the two female leads. Desperation kicked in as Chrysothemis was loath to assist her sister in carrying out their mother’s murder.

Waltraud Meier as Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss's Elektra. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
Klytämnestra (Waltraud Meier) ponders her fate in Elektra (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

Speaking of which, the one inventive element of this production was the manner in which Klytämnestra was portrayed. Normally, one would expect a cackling, over-stimulated, hysterical harpy, an individual wracked with pain and guilt and overburdened with having to deal with the intractable Elektra. Heck, this is one dysfunctional family member! Mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, who in the past has undertaken such varied assignments as Wagner’s Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Kundry, Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck, as well as Verdi’s Princess Eboli in Don Carlo, was definitely NOT your grandfather’s Klytämnestra. Hers was a more (how shall one put it?) “humane” reading of this ignoble creature, and a valid one to say the least.

Past adherents of the part — I’m thinking of Met stalwart Regina Resnik, a superb singing actress and fellow James Monroe High School alumnus, along with Martha Mödl, another valuable exponent of Brünnhilde and Isolde who turned to mezzo roles late in her career — have uniformly depicted Elektra’s mom as an incorrigible virago. What Meier provided was meltingly beautiful tone and an unmistakable air of murky eventuality, along with justification for her and her paramour’s violent actions against the paterfamilias.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens as the avenging Orest (the German form of Orestes), whose own distinctive timbre and careful enunciation of the text (via permanently clenched teeth) has made him a frequently called-upon Alberich and Porgy, gave a more subdued portrait. Again, in Chéreau’s carefully wrought analysis, Orest is an even more reluctant participant than the norm. Don’t forget: his principle modus operandi is to seek retribution for his mother’s heinous act. Owens’ silence and stillness, in this instance, spoke wordless volumes.

Nina Stemme in the title role and Eric Owens as Orest in Richard Strauss's "Elektra". Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
Elektra (Nina Stemme) embraces her brother Orest (Eric Owens) in Strauss’s Elektra (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

The drama’s apex occurs past the midway point, in the duly famous “Recognition Scene,” where, moments before, Klytämnestra is told that a messenger has arrived bearing news of Orest’s death. That “messenger” is Orest in disguise. In this production, the Old Servant (wonderfully enacted by veteran James Courtney) and Orest’s guardian (bass Kevin Short) are given added prominence. Just as Elektra has realized that the stranger before her is indeed her beloved Brüder (with a brilliant shout of “Orest!” above another of those thunderous orchestral interludes), the two men come together in a warm embrace. Interestingly, at the Aix-en-Provence performance, these minor characters were enacted by Donald McIntyre and Franz Mazura, two war-weary veterans of Chéreau’s Bayreuth Ring — a delightful happenstance.

We must put in a plug as well for another veteran artist, soprano Roberta Alexander, as the Fifth Maidservant, whose lustrous vocal display at the beginning of the piece was praised and commented upon in both the Aix-en-Provence and Met Opera productions.

On an historical side note, the monumental irony of Strauss’ later years has been documented in Alex Ross’ richly researched tome, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Ross relates how the once renowned composer, who publicly supported Hitler and his Nazi Party, yet privately railed against them, was found by occupation forces at his villa in Garmisch; how a sign just outside the entranceway pointing to the house where the famous composer Richard Strauss lived, had declared it to be “Off Limits”; how, like Orest, Strauss’ visage was almost unrecognizable, until a music-loving American officer was able to vouch for the composer and rescue him from possible imprisonment (or worse).

A punishment for past misdeeds? Divine intervention? A Greek tragedy come to life? Who can say? Strauss had managed to stay in Germany when all the signs pointed to his getting out. In Ross’ factual account, “if he had left by himself, his extended family [and his Jewish daughter-in-law] would presumably have been sent to the concentration camps. Strauss had little choice but to undergo a humiliating process of self-rehabilitation” (Ross, p. 325).

If only others had been as fortunate!

(End of Part One)

To be continued…

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Sprinkle a Little ‘Turandot,’ Seasoned with a Dash of ‘Cav’ and ‘Pag’ (Part Two): Cast Reshuffling and Dueling High Notes

Posted on Updated on

Marco Berti as Calaf & Nina Stemme as Turandot in the Finale to Act III (Met Opera)
Marco Berti & Nina Stemme in the Finale to Act III of Turandot (Met Opera)

Two for the Price of One

The January 30, 2016 broadcast of Puccini’s Turandot featured Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in the stratospheric title part, Italian tenor Marco Berti as the Unknown Prince Calaf, Romanian soprano Anita Hartig as the slave girl Liu, and Ukrainian bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk as Timur. The ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong were taken, respectively, by baritone Dwayne Croft, and tenors Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes, with a third tenor, Ronald Naldi, as the aged Emperor Altoum. Baritone David Crawford sang the minor role of the Mandarin. The conductor for this Saturday afternoon performance was Paolo Carignani, with chorus master David Palumbo leading the forces of the mighty Met Opera Chorus.

This revival of Franco Zeffirelli’s lavishly conceived and cumbersomely executed production (Zeffirelli also served as set designer) was supervised by David Kneuss, with choreography by Chiang Ching. Due to German tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s cancellation as the Chevalier des Grieux in the new Richard Eyre production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, the originally scheduled Roberto Alagna, who was to have sung Canio in the revival of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, stepped in at the eleventh hour to take over for the ailing Mr. Kaufmann. In the spirit of a late-inning pinch hitter, Signor Berti offered to sing Canio as well as Calaf — that’s two C’s for the price of one — so that Monsieur Alagna could continue to add luster to the program (and save the Met’s heavily advertised Manon Lescaut from box-office oblivion).

The Pagliacci performance in question was heard, along with its companion piece, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, in the following week’s transmission of February 6. The cast for Cav included Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana as Santuzza, Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee as Turiddu, Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri as Alfio, American mezzo-soprano Jane Bunnell as Mamma Lucia, and Italian-American mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson as Lola. For Pag, we had Marco Berti as Canio, Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as Nedda, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Tonio, Russian baritone Alexey Lavrov as Silvio, and Greenville, South Carolina native Tony Stevenson as Beppe. Fabio Luisi, the Met’s outgoing principal conductor, was in command of the orchestra.

Hearing Berti in two back-to-back broadcasts, and in two of the cornerstones of the Italian spinto repertoire, was revelatory in that one could gauge where he felt most comfortable, and where he still needed work. Without batting an eye, it was obvious from the start that Signor Berti fit in better with the more realistic Pagliacci milieu than in Turandot’s patently fairy-tale realm. We’ll discuss his efforts as they arrive. Right now, however, let’s get a few words in about the supporting players in each work.

"Nessun dorma," sung by Marco Berti as Calaf
“Nessun dorma,” sung by Marco Berti as Calaf in Act III of Turandot

Conductor Paolo Carignani took a faster than usual pace with Turandot, which moved the opera along at a nice, even clip. It made for a perfunctory reading at times, but taken as a whole the feeling was one of suppressed emotion, which was only let lose at the proper moment. Puccini was a master of such musical phrasing, in fact the shorter the better. To wit, he gave the chorus his most elaborately drawn, most soaring music, backed by full orchestra with organ, which gave each of the opera’s three brisk acts a deeply sonorous quality.

In many respects, the chorus is the most prominent element in the work. The crowd (la folla in Italian) with its mob mentality is what drives the bulk of the action. They comment on the course of the drama; they voice their concerns and cry out in rage, in pain, and in excitation as the situation arises. It would be fair, then, to compare their part to that of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, where the chorus represents, and are superbly characterized as, the oppressed Russian people.

As expected, Donald Palumbo’s Met Chorus unleashed a torrent of sound throughout, earning justifiable applause from every corner of the house for the thrilling volume they emitted. At the start, David Crawford’s steely Mandarin made one sit up and take notice, which is the whole purpose of having a lustrous-voiced singer in the part. The Mandarin serves a similar purpose as the Herald in Wagner’s Lohengrin: dramatically inert, but vocally imperative. He must snap the audience to attention from the first brass notes in the orchestra and to the eerie accompaniment of the xylophone.

Anita Hartig performed well as Liu. She had a nice, quick vibrato sound, which she skillfully employed throughout the afternoon. Her softly nuanced high notes in the two scenes in Act I made the most impact: “Perchè un di … nella reggia, mi hai sorriso” (“Because one day … at court, you smiled at me”) is Liu’s explanation to the Unknown Prince (Calaf in disguise) as to why she suffered exile and agony in caring for his father, the deposed Tatar king, Timur.

“Signore ascolta” (“Listen, sir”) was also deeply felt, a plea for understanding in her attempt to dissuade the enamored Unknown Prince from his reckless pursuit of the Princess Turandot. Taking deep breaths to convey Liu’s anguish was a big factor in Hartig’s success in this piece. Signor Berti’s response, “Non piangere Liu” (“Liu, don’t weep”), was restrained in its first half, if inelegantly conveyed. A native Italian and one overly familiar with the words, Berti was capable of expressing a good deal of meaning through the text, if a shade or two loudly over the airwaves. I sensed a bit of fumbling around with the balances on the radio station I was listening to. Sorry, folks, but the guy does have a huge voice — and he knew how to use it, too!

Ms. Hartig’s death scene in Act III (“Tu che di gel sei cinta” – “You who are made of ice”) was movingly uttered, her acting gaining strength and force prior to her plunging the dagger into her breast. Liu’s self-sacrifice is what melts the ice-cold princess’ heart, which gives way to love in the opera’s finale. Alexander Tsymbalyuk, too, had a quick vibrato, with a voice resembling that of the Greek basso Nicola Zaccaria, who appeared with and recorded alongside the legendary Maria Callas. He was most effectual in the brief arioso after Liu’s suicide, where the blind monarch stumbles along next to her lifeless body (much like Shakespeare’s King Lear, it must be noted), guiding her spirit on to the next world. Both he and Hartig gave sincere performances that earned the audience’s approval come curtain time.

Calaf (Berti), Timur (Alexander Tsymbalyuk) & Liu (Anita Hartig) in Act I
Calaf (Berti), Timur (Alexander Tsymbalyuk) & Liu (Anita Hartig) in Act I

In the Act II Trio of the Masks, Dwayne Croft as Ping ran aground on the high tessitura of his part, but his supple singing with Tony Stevenson (Pang) and Eduardo Valdes (Pong) was most pleasurable to the ear at the phrase “Tutto cinto di bambù” (“All covered with bamboo”). During the intermission, it was mentioned that it takes singing this trio over 21 times together before the artists involved can get it under their belt. Incidentally, this scene, coming as it does before the Riddle episode, is one of Puccini’s richest and most melodious creations — unfortunately, standard cuts were applied, much to my chagrin.

I’ve mentioned this issue before. Why the Met continues to slice this diverting sequence is beyond reason. The cuts hardly amount to a few extra minutes of musical continuity, so excising them seems pointless. General Manager Peter Gelb, please consider reinstating them the next time Turandot is presented (hopefully, in a newer and fuller production, which incorporates Alfano’s original ending). How many more pleas will it take to get through to the Met’s management? Ira Siff, the broadcast’s co-host and commentator, agrees this is his favorite part of the opera (mine, too). Well, then, what are we waiting for? Most, if not all, of the modern recordings feature these extended lines, so why not hear them in a live performance? It’s one of those unsolved riddles associated with this piece.

Losing Your Head Over Turandot

And speaking of big, strong voices, Nina Stemme’s Turandot stressed more than overt vocalism. Following in the illustrious footsteps of fellow Swede, the iron-lunged Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson, in one of her specialty roles can be an intimidating proposition for any singer. Be that as it may, Ms. Stemme, who we’ll be reviewing in the coming months as Strauss’ Elektra, gave the title role her considerable all. Taking the approach that a little less can mean a lot more in terms of character development, Stemme portrayed a more vulnerable, even womanly principessa than the norm for this monumental assignment.

Beginning demurely with her Act II narration, “In questa reggia” (“In this kingdom”) where she relates the rape and murder of her ancestor, Princess Lo-u-Ling, Stemme expanded the vocal line and range of her voice as necessitated by the dictates of the plot. She made explicit points in the text, stressing the words “Un uomo come te, come te: straniero” (“A man such as you, such as you: stranger” – note: straniero can also mean “foreigner”) with specificity and purpose, placing the blame on men such as he, who come into her kingdom seeking love and passion, yet end up raping and pillaging. This is the raison d’être for her being, the sole purpose of all the beheadings after each pretender to her throne fails to answer her riddles. Oh joy!

Stemme joined voices with Berti in the climax, “Gli enigmi sono tre, l’una è la vita!” (“The riddles are three, one of them is life!”). Singing a tad sharp, Berti got to pull out his high C, as did Stemme, but did not prolong it (a dramatic choice on his part). An otherwise excellent Altoum by Ronald Naldi added spice to the proceedings. As for Berti, he took the optional C in alt on the phrase “Ti volgio tutto ardente d’amor” (“I’ll take you in ardent love!”), which, regrettably, was none too convincing. One can compare its execution to having been hit on the head with a trowel, which destroyed any romantic illusions the line was meant to convey. The succeeding portion, “Il mio nome non sai; dimmi il mio nome” (“My name you do not know; then tell me my name”), came off better, in the best Pavarotti-like tradition, to cite a much lamented singer who knew how to deliver the goods but within his own strictly lyrical means.

Turandot (Nina Stemme) & Calaf (Marco Berti) try to top one another in the Riddle Scene
Turandot (Stemme) & Calaf (Berti) try to top one another in the Riddle Scene

There has only been one other artist whose traversal of the killer role of Turandot has moved me as much as Stemme did here: the late Joan Sutherland in the classic Decca/London recording from 1972, with Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Zubin Mehta conducting. Her understated way with the text and the manner in which Sutherland held her voice back until coaxed into action by the thrilling sound of the young Pavarotti, along with his melting of her heart in the penultimate scene, were re-captured (for the most part) in Nina’s potent re-enactment. It’s a minor quibble to complain about her less-than-perfect Italian (a lot better than mine, I assure you), but Madame Stemme came through covered in glory. She may not have dislodged Nilsson from Turandot’s throne, but she came awfully close.

As formidable a challenge as the part may have seemed, in reality it’s a relatively short one. Turandot puts in a visual appearance in Act I (normally done by a stand-in), and is only heard during the latter half of Act II, scene ii, in the so-termed Riddle Scene. She does not make her presence felt again until after Calaf has delivered “Nessun dorma” in Act III; and after the three ministers’ failed attempt to pry the secret of his name from the uncooperative Unknown Prince. Turandot falls silent during Liu’s torture and subsequent death; and she nary makes a sound until the crowd has completely left the stage, which leaves Calaf to face and berate her as the “princess of death,” and (horror of horrors!) threaten to place his “throbbing mouth on hers.” Whew, wipe my sweaty brow with a mop!

What some singers wouldn’t do to deliver on a line like that! Still, of all Puccini’s love duets between tenor and soprano, this was the only one the composer did not have a personal hand in. In truth, he hardly wrote a note of this sequence. As we know from previous posts, the job of completing the unfinished Turandot was given to a minor verismo composer named Franco Alfano, with much of this final “clash of the titans,” as well as the last choral episode, reworked, recut, and reshuffled by Toscanini, who conducted the premiere.

There will always be controversy surrounding this final sequence. For instance, was it Calaf’s impassioned kiss that awakens the princess from her “slumber,” or was it Liu’s untimely death and Timur’s lament for her passing that convinces Turandot to treat her suitors (and the “Popolo di Pekino,” or “People of Peking”) more humanely? Probably a bit of both: if the Liu in question happens to be Ms. Hartig, or the creamy-voiced Madame Caballé, whose slave girl is one of the loveliest on records, then our vote goes to her.

Laugh, Clowns, Laugh!

Marco Berti as Canio
Marco Berti as Canio

It helps, of course, if the Unknown Prince puts on a show of his own. Of all the lead parts in the Puccini canon for tenor, this one has the possibility of taking the cake every time — that is, if the artist is fully up to the task. In my day, such talents as Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Plácido Domingo, James McCracken, José Carreras, Giuseppe Giacomini, Ermanno Mauro, Vladimir Popov, Nicola Martinucci, and others carried the day with comparable ease.

A large voice and clarion delivery can also stir audiences like nothing else. But that’s only the start of it. Tenors with less substantial vocal equipment — I’m thinking of Jussi Bjoerling in the RCA Victor version with Nilsson and Renata Tebaldi — can persuade listeners with their ardent timbre alone.

In the past, Berti’s thick, beefy tone has been an asset in such serviceable assignments as Manrico in Il Trovatore, Radames in Aida, or Cavaradossi in Tosca. Here, he dived headlong into the meatier aspects of Calaf’s musings. This was straightforward, dramatic singing where Berti’s stentorian voice was hurled into the Met’s auditorium for all to hear. I must admit this was an exciting, even thrilling sound, one not heard at the Met since the halcyon days of Del Monaco, Corelli, and Tucker (for background information on these fabulous singers, see the following link:

For all its volume and heft, however, I missed the Unknown Prince’s more reflective side in Berti’s assumption of this role. In Act III, for instance, he could have opted to caress the opening lines of “Nessun dorma” (“No one sleeps”) in generous proportion to his voice. Berti handled the middle portion well enough, though not as musically sound as, say, tenor Mario Filippeschi did in his recording of the piece. Filippeschi, who had much better technical skills all around, easily encompassed the heroic aspects, along with the tricky tessitura and its emphasis on the passaggio (similar, in many respects, to Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” and the earlier “Recondita armonia,” from Tosca).

Surprisingly, for all the sound and fury hinted at earlier on, Berti’s B flat — the one with the infamous fermata on the word vincerò (“I will win”), allowing the tenor to hold on to the note for dear life — was cut short for some reason. And try as he might, Berti simply could not replicate the sweetness and lyricism that either Bjoerling or Pavarotti could bring to the number. Consequently, tenorial warmth was lacking here.

As the broadcast Canio in Pagliacci, Berti pulverized the listener into submission. To be honest, his was an unsubtle performance, but a highly effective one. Despite the deficit noted above, the important thing was that it moved me, mostly at “Ridi, Pagliaccio” and the stirring finale. Comparing Berti to the previously mentioned Filippeschi, one must admit to a preference for the latter singer. Filippeschi had a solidity and security on top, along with a fullness and steadiness of tone, blended with remarkable breath control, musicianship, a rock-solid technique, and a caressing line that betrayed little effort.

Tenor Marco Berti
Tenor Marco Berti

The part of Canio does not reach up to high C, but is somewhere in the middle A and B departments. Sustaining the vocal line, using the voice as the instrument of the clown’s despair, acting with the voice, expressing sorrow through the words, and emphasizing the poetry inherent in Leoncavallo’s text (which he himself wrote)— all of these are what make Canio stand out from the rest of the characters, and what can distinguish a great artist from the merely adequate. Berti is on the right path, but more guidance and thought is required at this point. Sheer volume is fine for what it’s worth, but more is demanded in this quintessential verismo role.

As Tonio, George Gagnidze was a rough and tumble antagonist, and indicative of director David McVicar’s conception of the part as a vaudeville standup comic. His Prologue was a blowout, bludgeoning the beauty of the text except where Gagnidze’s expansive final phrase of “E voi, piuttosto” was spun. He went all the way up to the unwritten A-flat, and ended on a final G. My thought was: wow, he made it this far, but nothing more after that.

Barbara Frittoli’s La Strada-esque Nedda (a Fellini heroine in every way), along with Sergey Lavrov’s suavely interpolated Silvio, made the best impression with their long, languorous love duet. Tony Stevenson was a smoothly voiced Beppe, while Berti earned kudos from the audience for his altogether mesmerizing play-within-the-play singing and acting, the verisimilitude of which leads Canio to murder his wife and her lover for real.

In Cavalleria, none of the singers were especially outstanding, however tenor Yonghoon Lee continues to impress with his suavely enunciated, essentially committed Turiddu. The large, economy-sized Ambrogio Maestri was wasted in the brief part of the teamster Alfio. His Italian diction and snappy delivery of the text, though, were beautifully pronounced and a continuing joy to listen to, even in this minor assignment. That is about the best I can say for his contribution.

What I can say about the performance overall is that maestro Fabio Luisi continues to outdo his own excellent contribution by shaping both Cav and Pag in as gorgeous a fashion as I’ve ever heard. Rarely have the strings and woodwinds sounded so wonderfully well together: they sang, they soared, they did everything but weep (and for a moment, I thought they did THAT, too, during the lovely Intermezzo in Cavalleria). I have raved about his conducting when this production was new (and especially in Berlioz’s Les Troyens a few years ago). Ergo, I will continue to praise his efforts to the four winds as long as is he with us.

It’s a shame that maestro Luisi was passed over for the recently vacated position of Met musical director. Now that James Levine’s successor has been named (the winner was French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a wise choice), Luisi felt that his services would be better appreciated elsewhere, possibly at the Zurich Opera.

The news is he will be leaving his post as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as of the 2016-2017 Season.

We wish him buona fortuna and Godspeed.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes