Sunday, 19 April 2015

Baden-Baden bei Wien

Unless you're familiar with both places, the title may need some explanation. Baden-Baden, Dostoyevsky's 'Roulettenburg' and I guess not awfully changed since then (more on that in the next post), nestles in a valley on the fringes of the Black Forest. Baden bei Wien is a rather sweeter, resolutely old fashioned spa town a tram ride from Vienna. And Vienna, of course, is the location for Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier, not that you'd really have known it from Brigitte Fassbaender's production at Baden-Baden Festspielhaus. Erich Wonder's first backdrop, which I thought might be showing Dubai without the sea from a luxury penthouse, apparently references a view you can get from a high-rise hotel some way from Vienna's inner Ring.

We based a whole Easter jaunt to Germany around Freund Peter Rose's invitation - there he is above the morning after the show we saw at an outside table of Baden-Baden's Cafe König - to go and see his Ochs for the umpteenth time (always welcome, since he is now - fairly unarguably, I'd have thought - the world's best). With Anja Harteros and Anna Prohaska in the cast more of an enticement than Sir Simon Rattle, his Lady - Magdalena Kožená, improbably cast as Octavian - and the Berlin Phil, it sounded like a good opportunity. The idea was to continue with walking expeditions in the Black Forest, but an invitation from the Thuringia Bach Festival changed all that and turned it all into a very wonderful busman's holiday (fortunately the indulgent diplo-mate found it so too, despite initial misgivings).

Not that this Rosenkavalier, for all its many passing pleasures, was the highlight (Strauss yields to Bach done at the highest level). For a start, the Festspielhaus is a bit of a monster. Sure, Baden-Baden's main theatre, originally a thousand-seater with a too-small orchestra pit as Berlioz found when he inaugurated it conducting his specially-commissioned Béatrice et Bénédict in 1862 - would now be inadequate for many of the operas put on by the Festival (the theatre company was performing a version of Berlin Alexanderplatz there which I'd love to have seen had there been more time). But it's a much more attractive option.

The Festspielhaus, a 2500 seater swaggering as the biggest in Germany, opened in 1998 and funded by a club of 300 of Germany's richest citizens, has the facade of Baden-Baden's grand old station (the present one is way to the north). Sure, the station building itself is handsome and the ticket hall now functions with the same guichets that used to sell railways tickets.

But once you get into the theatre, you feel a million miles away from the action, and the singers, too, are dwarfed by the sheer height of the interior (second only to the ghastly Bastille home of the Paris Opera). We were in row 12 of the Parterre, with tons of leg room - always welcome - but felt detached from the action the minute the curtain rose. Even the Berlin Phil, which started with a horn blooper and ended Act One with a flat high note from the solo violin, didn't exactly sound opulent, though there was a certain fullness and the action music of Act Two seemed to come off best: Rattle's attention to detail paid off there. But the orchestra hasn't played this score since Karajan's time - which means most of them haven't played it at all before - and clearly needed more time on it. First of the production photos below shows the orchestra on stage. They're all, I think, by Monika Rittershaus, seemingly the official photographer; I applied to the press office for images but never heard back.

As in the last Royal Opera production, only the Ochs and the Sophie passed their tests with flying colours. Peter's characterisation, always beautifully sung especially in the upper register, has relaxed so much over the years, and casual dress seemed to put him even more at his ease. Anna Prohaska is another stage animal, proving - as have Marie Arnet, Lucy Crowe and Lisa Milne before her - that Sophie is no generic pushover. Here she is with Kožená in the duet following the trio.

I thought Harteros would be another great Marschallin of our times to set alongside Martina Serafin in Vienna and the most gracious lady of them all, Anne Schwanewilms, whom we saw in Dresden, also courtesy of Peter, and will never forget (can't bear Fleming's over-larded interpretation, never could; though it now sounds like I should see the wonderful Krasimira Stoyanova in the role - the DVD of Harry Kupfer's Salzburg production is now out).

Yet Harteros didn't seem to know what tone to adopt. Way too much hair-fiddling in the opening scene, nothing inward about the first monologue (apparently it was her idea to have the Notary with her for the start, since she thought she had to address 'Da geht er hin' to someone onstage). A gorgeous physical presence, of course, and how she opened up to golden tone, especially in the Trio - but then I (and J too) kind of wished we were hearing her Verdi again. This is possibly the only time I've not been remotely touched by the closing scene of Act One.

The other blames lie there with Rattle's uncertain tempo relations and above all with Kožená's young blade. Not nearly as grim as I was expecting, and her dreadful habit of throwing her head back for top notes that don't really come out very fully could be ascribed to the impetuousness and exaggeration of the young man. Yet it was so apparent that this is a voice not in the same league as those of Harteros, Prohaska and Rose, and the 'take my wife' thing has never seemed quite right to me*. Quality there undoubtedly was from Irmgard Vilsmaier's ever-striking Duenna, an unusually strapping Faninal in Clemens Unterreiner and of course from Laurence Brownlee's Italian tenor.

Excellent Valzacchi and Annina, too, from Stefan Margita (I thought he was more a Helden- than a light tenor) and Carole Wilson. Their visual gags were the funniest, among several which had to do more with the  wacky costume designer, Dietrich von Grebmer, than with Fassbaender, who claimed she had no concept at the start, and it showed: plenty of interesting ideas, but none of them properly followed through. Our intriguers started as cross dressers. Then for the 'Ecco!' scene they had swapped striped suit and old-lady pink, only to both appear as 'ladeez' for the Letter Scene. I did find that funny. And I loved the Leopold, Ochs's illegitimate son, as a teenager on rollerblades (again, von Grebmer's idea and again, he could have been developed by Fassbaender as far more of a character, though the gag of Ochs sending him off for takeaway pizza when our Baron rejected the inn's expensive fare was a good one).

The photos actually make it all look rather handsome; in the theatre, it seemed cheap and nasty. One spent far too much time working out what Wonder's projections were supposed to be or to mean, and the idea of people doing long entrances back and forth at the back messed up the privacies of Act One.

The Presentation of the Rose was blown by having us see Octavian raised on a pedestal before he makes his entrance among people who've been working on sewing-machines (Faninal wouldn't mess up business with show). Pointless business, too, with producing the silver rose from a bunch of real flowers.

In Act Three, quite apart from the fact that there were way too many people piling on stage (the chorus need be no more than a dozen), Peter was left repeating business to fill gaps where Fassbaender hadn't really thought of anything. And the stupid thing is that Hofmannsthal hands it to the director on a plate. If you throw most of his stage directions out, you have to find stuff that's equally convincing, as did Richard Jones at Glyndebourne. Above all, I kept wishing this was a Glyndebourne-sized experience instead of vacuity in a barn. Won't be going back to this Festspielhaus again, however extraordinary the cast. But still, we had a fun time in Baden-Baden the day after the show, cafe-hopping with Peter and Martin Snell (the Notary, interesting chap who lives in Lucerne).

It's been a driven week since our return, with way too much of me on The Arts Desk starting with the Bach festival writeup, hitting a dud of supposedly radical music-theatre on Tuesday and then soaring with Gypsy (the unsurpassable Imelda Staunton in one of Johan Persson's production shots above), Cheek by Jowl's harrowing Measure for Measure and Sasha Regan's hysterically funny but also very disciplined all-male The Pirates of Penzance (group shot below by Kay Young). And then yesterday we caught the tail-end of dearly beloved old rock and roller Paul Beecham's 70th birthday party, with the master at the turntable and many of his old cronies reunited.

Anyway, the London summer season is on a real roll now, with too many good things to resist. Back to school tomorrow with the first Opera in Depth class of the summer term, on Guillaume Tell. I've just read the Schiller play and it's a masterpiece - way better than the libretto for Rossini's opera. But that will furnish plenty of musical riches.

*Worse - she's going to sing the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius at the Proms, with Sir Si conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. How could he, when he's worked with Dame Janet? One to miss. 


Susan Scheid said...

Well, in this case, you write of an opera I have seen, and have even seen more than once. Thanks to you, we made sure to go again to the Met production with Peter Rose, and he definitely stole the show--even from Serafin, as the Marschallin, though she was quite fine, too. Your comment on the size of the Festspielhaus, "you feel a million miles away from the action, and the singers, too, are dwarfed by the sheer height of the interior" reminds me you'd noted you've never been to the Met. Seating there is 3,800, and I'm suspecting the effect might be that of the Festspielhaus cubed. When I attend, my seats are in the balcony, to maintain some semblance of affordability, and I definitely feel miles away. (I suspect this is partly what drives a number of people toward the HD presentations.) It does seem as if you had a wonderful time away, though no rest for the weary on your return. But, as you note, some fine things are coming up and, as always, I look forward to your reports!

David said...

Yes - we had chats about the Met in comparison and how certain singers shouldn't even think of performing there. Mozart must be dreadful in that space, and yet some Mozart productions there come over quite well on DVD. I notice there's always a dead patch stage left, however they try to mike it.

The Edinburgh Playhouse was always the worst when Scottish Opera used to go there in pre Festival Theatre days (and that's not small either). Then it was the largest theatre in Europe. And one could never get away from the two orange-lit clocks either side of the proscenium arch.

Gypsy is especially treasurable in the bijou Savoy. And then we have our Donmar, Menier Chocolate Factory, Union - in the case of the first two, very difficult to get tickets.

David Damant said...

In Baden Baden baden Baden Baden baden Madchen mit

Catriona said...

Haven't been to the Festspeilhaus, so can't comment, but the Playhouse is never as bad as the Bastille - there are more intimate hangars out at Heathrow for the 747s. The Playhouse is a fabulous space when it is full, even up in the cheap seats of the gods. I've been there for film, rock concert, Moscow State Circus (! - in Frank Dunlop's time), ballet, opera and musical.
But it is never half-full, always half-empty, and then all the energy of the performers and performance gets to the edge of the stage and drips down into the pit to soak away into the drains. I have seen a touring production of West Side Story stick firmly on the stage side of the footlights, with the singers and dancers virtually killing themselves to push it out into the auditorium, and just because the theatre had a few - not many - empty seats. Some theatres are like that - selfish and unco-operative.

David said...

Actually, Catriona, you set me thinking and while nearly all the Scottish Opera performances I saw there were less than full, I do remember the buzz of the place during festival time for Nureyev (albeit dancing a cameo role in Le bourgeois gentilhomme) and for Nixon in China. I just wish they'd been able to turn the lights off the clocks.

Maybe the Festspielhaus is better for The Rocky Horror Show, which is on there now.

Catriona said...

Did you see the Jonathan Miller Magic Flute in the Playhouse? The buzzyest Scottish Opera production I ever saw there was Die Meistersanger, when we didn't quite know whether the threatened strike would take place half-way through. I can't remember whether it was the orchestra or the chorus. They didn't, of course, but there was a distinct shiver of anticipation when the audience returned to seats after the interval.

David said...

Yes - but that was the dullest staging of it I've ever seen (and I've seen multiple misfires with the Trials of Fire and Water; this one was just a stroll around the libray).

You're right about Meistersinger, but I was very keyed up for that one, and it was even more amazing than I'd hoped, with Our Norm. On the night I went, the strike wasn't I think in the offing, but it affected the subsequent performances (and didn't at least one end at Act Two?)

Catriona said...

It did - and that was why there was the nervousness at the performance I attended, which didn't.
I agree about the Miller Flute - that was the first time I had seen it staged and, frankly, I couldn't understand why people made such a fuss about it as an opera. Yawn!
Happily, it was not the last production I ever saw - I was brave enough to risk boredom a second time. Goes to show that a production can make a great deal of difference in one's perception even of greatness.