Friday 21 June 2013
Birthplace of the rose-bearer
Strictly speaking, it should have been to salute Wagner's Dresden era in his anniversary year that I returned to the Semperoper (pictured above) after 23 years; I last saw Joachim Herz's so-so production of The Love for Three Oranges here, and still have one of the foam oranges chucked at the audience to prove it. That was a bonus to a recording-session visit for Gramophone; the occasion was Haitink's EMI recording of Der Rosenkavalier in the Lukaskirche, with Kiri te Kanawa and Anne Sofie von Otter (the highlight for me was getting to talk to the Staatskapelle Dresden's then first horn, Peter Damm, whose Kempe recording of the Strauss concertos I'd long adored). Subject for another entry must be the transformation of this once-beleaguered city that's taken place in the interim.
My Strauss Leibsoper - or is that Ariadne auf Naxos or Intermezzo or Daphne, I can't decide - had its first performance here in 1911, and this time we had a chance to catch it at home. Below, Robert Sterl's painting of Ernst von Schuch conducting at the opening run.
The prompt was our good friend Peter Rose, giving his latest showing of the role which has truly become his own, Baron Ochs; but he'd have to have paid my air fare and hotel to see him, say, with Simone Young conducting - as she so often seems to be, and I'm truly sorry not to think more highly of one of the few maestras on the scene - or a less than diamond cast. But the Marschallin was the glorious Anne Schwanewilms, her Octavian Elina Garanča (whom I also saw in Vienna years ago when Peter should also have been singing, but had to pull out). Thielemann was conducting, too, and he knows the score inside out.
So what could go wrong? Well, truth to tell, not enough to matter to the essentials, but all-round perfection, alas, it was not. By no means the biggest drawback was that the sets had got stuck in the floods and for some reason I didn't understand never made it even for the second performance. Elbe waters were still high after the heroic salvation of the city the previous week by sandbagging Dresdeners, but all else seemed back to normal and the locals were breathing huge sighs of relief by drinking and/or picnicking on the riverbanks during two perfect summer evenings.
I don't think we missed a great deal, having seen Uwe Eric Laufenberg's underanimated production WITH the sets on DVD; the 1950s costumes are the thing, and everyone wears them with style. Only occasionally was the perfunctory back wall, globe lamps above and shabby doors beneath, a liability. In the first act it helped throw the action forward, giving three fine singer-actors space to operate and impress. Photographer Klaus Gigga's images for the Semperoper often capture that superbly.
Garanča is such a hyper-feminine mezzo that she seemed more in her element as 'Mariandel' than Octavian, though always singing with that unique and connected upper-range fullness that makes her one of the world's top opera stars (and, for me, THE best Carmen). Peter has enlarged his repertoire of grins and tricks, making Ochs a more than usually lovable country cousin in his rustic get-up while singing the parlando with incredible elegance and beauty of tone when the opportunity arose. He told us he'd added some business with the naughty pugs in the levee scene mainly for our benefit, and sure enough I laughed so loud that the dowdy Dresden bourgeoisie around us cast disapproving looks. Below: cutting short the Italian tenor (Bryan Hymel, not visible here but excellent, though having to be followed by the orchestral players rather than following them) with 'Als Morgengabe!'
I complimented Peter first on the apparent rapport with Thielemann, but he told me they'd got by on just one rehearsal. Can you imagine? The conductor's one of the very best, but collegiality would not seem to be a forte; he barely acknowledges his singers offstage and sometimes trips them up with the marvellous but seemingly capricious flexibility for which he's famous (this information not from Peter, by the way, who got the thumbs up from the pit on more than one occasion). It's standard for continental repertory opera - not so the EXTRA rehearsal with the orchestra alone - but contrasts markedly with the Glyndebourne Ariadne, for which Jurowski was present from the first at the seven week of rehearsals.
Schwanewilms, anyway, was beyond sublime in the Marschallin's Monologue - phrases so delicately inflected that you strained to catch them - drawing an audience in is always a much greater art than reaching out - and such pointing of the German text that I never expect to hear it bettered. She certainly brought on the heartbreak and the tears in her changed-mood misalliance with her uncomprehending Quinquin.
Well, what can I say? Wanderer (see previous blog entry; and see now - 22/6 - his own take on the evening, capturing far more eloquently than mine the essence of heavenly Anne, which I should have highlighted more) and I couldn't stop blubbing in the interval. It's singing-acting on a level very few achieve. And throughout the interval we had the balmy Dresden evening to enhance the bittersweetness, not to mention the astonishing view across the Theatrerplatz to Augustus the Fat's Hofkirche - an unpopular Catholic riposte to the citizens' Frauenkirche, about which more anon - the Residenzschloss and the Hausmann Tower, a great ensemble complemented by the Zwinger Palace out of sight to the right.
The location gave as much to gawp at as the crowds (though I have to say I've never encountered a more frigid audience, which seemed more local than international. They did, it's true, give a standing ovation at the end).
Oh, we were so anticipating the Presentation of the Rose, but from the minute the Sophie opened her mouth I knew we had a liability on our hands. Ungainly of phrase, lacking charm in sound and appearance, useful only for her top notes, Daniela Fally was not on the level of her colleagues. And frankly, you do need a bit of scenic glitz - even if it's nouveau-riche Faninal bling - for the famous Hofmannsthal-concocted ritual. At least the splendid Irmgard Vilsmaier, whose Hänsel Mother had made such an impact at Glyndebourne and who is also a Brünnhilde as you could tell, made some amends as a full-voiced Marianne Leitmetzerin (pictured on the right here).
Bit parts were a mixed blessing. Apparently Thielemann had sacked some of the house singers on a single hearing, putting the Dresden admin in a funk to find international replacements double-quick. For every plus there was a minus: vivacious Helene Schneiderman as a stylish Annina was let down by her unfunny, self-conducting Valzacchi (no name needed). The Faninal (also nnn) was a cipher; the Police Commissar in Act Three, house bass Peter Lobert, more than stood up to Peter vocally and demonstrated how threatening this usually saggy bit of the drama could be if it were moved back from Laufenberg's setting to the 1940s. Excellent pint-sized tavern owner from Dan Karlström; the footmen at the end of Act 1 the usual gabbled mess. The extras in the Lerchenau retinue wambled around grotesquely and without discipline.
But the main thing is that without a sympathetic Sophie, in effect the Marschallin's younger self who escapes the older woman's fate of a loveless arranged marriage, you do miss the senior soprano for an act and a half. Her comeback in Act Three was, naturally, highly emotional, and Peter made the most of Ochs's dashed hopes in that fascinating disentanglement before his waltz-exit: his 'mit dieser Stund' vorbei' gave the final threesome's entanglement a run for its money.
Trio? To be fair, Fally sang well enough and was even rather touching as a forlorn schoolgirl standing apart; Schwanewilms crowned it with hyper-pathos and Garanca provided lustre, though I inwardly groaned when she missed a big phrase - Thielemann-anxiety, perhaps? - and the magic took a while to return. Again, I just don't think this sort of thing would happen given Glyndebourne or even Covent Garden preparation time. You have to hand it to these international singers, exposing their reputations to an audience who knows nothing of the rollercoaster circumstances. Although Thielemann still gets results, and no-one does late-romantic rubato quite as easily as he does, the collegial way is surely better.
Anyway, we filed out with hearts tugged at, though not so much as in Act One, and wafted past the 19th century homages to Roman grottesco style in the foyers
down the stairs to the bust of Wagner (I wanted to find another to Strauss, but the attendants denied knowledge of one),
out into the fragrant Dresden summer night
and on to a meal with Peter and co. Our Dresden experience had only just begun - I have much more to write about the bewildering treasures we saw the next day - but our reason for being there was already fully vindicated.
In the meantime, my very long eulogy on Richard Jones's Royal Opera staging of Britten's Gloriana yesterday evening - a well-nigh perfect entertainment from first to last - is up on The Arts Desk. Shame I didn't make it to Aldeburgh for an against-the-odds amazing Peter Grimes beach show on Monday, but a migraine peaked at just the wrong time, and it was a fair old trek to north London for the press bus - shudder - and back in the wee small hours.