With the extraordinarily high standards of conservatory graduates today, performances of Wagner’s music dramas have fled beyond the precinct of the very largest opera houses, and we may well forget how difficult it was only a couple of generations ago to cast and stage Tristan und Isolde at, say, the Metropolitan Opera, which once had to cast one Tristan per act, when the billed tenor was indisposed, and the two available replacements were also under the weather. Already by then the aging devotees of Flagstad and Melchior grumbled about just how far their standards would have to sink, before they stopped going to hear Wagner in New York. I still hear that today from long-time Wagnerians.
This is, I think, the third alert of this sort I have sent out in my thirteen years of arts journalism. I have just come from one of the most extraordinary evenings I have experienced in many years of opera, and there is only one more chance to attend it, Sunday morning, August 26th, at 10 am at the Latchis Theater, 48 Main Street in Brattleboro, Vermont. Even if you have something important scheduled, change it and be there!
When I interviewed Francesca Zambello in 2011 she had just been named General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival. Under her predecessor’s tenure, each opera season had a unifying “theme.” Ms. Zambello quickly swore off such yearly festival themes as trite convention. Yet, in 2012, as reported in this journal, one clearly felt the bristling fervency of social activism in every aspect of production. That season was topped off with a provocative interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg to a packed audience in her thrall at the Otesaga Hotel. There were probably more law professors there that day than music lovers. Her special appearance and the ethical themes woven into each opera production, made for a startling and refreshing season. Aida, Music Man, Armide and most memorably, Lost in the Stars, were narratives, each quite unique, on the ethics of outworn societal patterns in the face of political, moral or economic change.
Le but principal de cet article et de louer jusqu’au cieux une représentation tout à fait remarquable—inoubliable, dirais-je—du premier oeuvre canonique de Wagner, mais c’est bien une mise-en-scène contemporaine—une mise-en-scène laquelle rend justice aussi bien à la problématique sociale de 1840 qu’a celle de nos jours—surtout à propos de la rôle des femmes dans la famille, le mariage, les moeurs bourgeois, et l’argent. Dans ce contexte le problème qui me frappe d’abord est celui de la mort de Senta, parce qu’il semble que les metteurs en scène de nos jours se sentent fort mal à leur aise avec sa mort telle que Wagner l’avait conçue, où elle se jette dans les flots tourbillants nordiques. S’agit-il de la vraisemblance, du goût, ou bien des frais toujours montants de l’assurance qui découragent la saute d’une soprano importante même d’une distance de deux mètres? Voyons.
I should most likely not distract you from giving a subscription to The Berkshire Review as a holiday gift. We need subscriptions to carry on our work, but there are a few items that have come in for review that I can warmly suggest as excellent gifts. These are not systematic, and they are not always serious, but we do recommend them. Some of them will be reviewed in detail over the following weeks.
The Metropolitan Opera has released the following announcement, which comes as no surprise. What struck me above all is that Fabio Luisi was not able to conduct the last two performances of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung on May 9 and May 12 matinee. I very much hope that the responsible parties will consider Jonas Alber for these dates. Former Music Director of the Braunschweig Orchestra, he filled in for Mr. Luisi when he withdrew from his commitment, as Music Director of the Dresden Staatskapelle, to conduct theRing at the Semperoper in Dresden. I had the good fortune to attend Mr. Albers’ second performance of Das Rheingold and this only performance of Götterdämmerung. This he conducted without rehearsal, and it was nonetheless superb. The Rheingold was the most compelling I have heard in live performance. He was in fact invited to conduct these performances at the behest of the members of the Staatskapelle, who were delighted with his work in their first Rheingold. Albers’ approach to Wagner is grounded in his enthusiasm for 20th century and contemporary music. Textures were transparent and full of finely-wrought detail. See my review of the Dresden Ring for more. I know Mr. Alber is interested in conducting in the U. S., and American audiences should have the opportunity to hear the work of this extraordinary conductor.
The Chicago Lyric Opera’s Lohengrin is a testament to the major problem of many American opera productions today. On the one hand, conductor Sir Andrew Davis’ formidable interpretation rivalled the greatest in Wagnerian history, but on the other hand, director Elijah Moshinsky’s lackluster staging rivalled your average high-school production. The irony of hearing some of the world’s greatest Wagnerian voices while seeing some of its most awkward blocking is nothing new to regular attendees of the American Wagner scene. That said, the Lyric might have done well to present the evening in concert form.
This year’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin was only the second mounted by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in its history. The Ring, Tristan, and Parsifal have been seen multiple times on Wacker Drive since the 1950’s, but what is usually thought to be Wagner’s most accessible opera was not performed until 1980, a pedestrian premiere memorable only for Eva Marton in her prime as Elsa. The psychological complexities of the later works have generally commanded more attention in the post-war musical world, and the fairy-tale Lohengrin inevitably began to seem old-fashioned, a victim of jokes about Slezak and Melchior hauled upstream by swan boats. But Wagner achieved in Lohengrin a purity of lyric expression, both tender and ardent, not found in any of his other compositions, and always a pleasure to encounter again. Perhaps rightly, it was the Italianate Lohengrin of Plácido Domingo in 1984 that drew the serious attention of New York audiences back to the piece, and then Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt in the controversial 1998 production conceived by Robert Wilson. That staging cut through accumulated theatrical tradition by adopting a highly stylized Kabuki-like form, both in the sets and the singers’ movements. (Ben Heppner has claimed that his vocal problems began with this production and the unnatural singing positions he was forced into.) What Lyric Opera audiences saw in February and March was, as is usual in Chicago, hardly so challenging.