Wagner

Richard Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer: the beginning of Marek Janowski’s Historic Series of Concert Performances of the Ten Mature Operas and Music Dramas

Since his renowned 1980-83 recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Dresdener Staatskapelle, Marek Janowski has acquired a cult following, especially in Wagner, not unlike Jascha Horenstein or Reginald Goodall. His steady, active tempi and decisive phrasing evoke an older performance style which goes back, it is thought, to the days of Richter, Seidl, and Mottl. Janowski, when asked if he studied historical performances of Wagner expressed his devotion to Wilhelm Furtwängler and an admiration for the Bayreuth performances of Hans Knappertsbusch, which, he points out, are not at all as slow as is generally thought. Janowski’s own mentor in conducting was Wolfgang Sawallisch, who left an easily noticeable mark on Janowski’s mature style as a conductor, with his restraint and and constant vigilance over orchestral balances, as well as the balance of dramatic flow and structure. In fact, there is a good deal in common that one can hear in the performance under consideration and Sawallisch’s 1961 Bayreuth performance. “Ein guter Meister…”



Eve Queler talks to Michael Miller about her upcoming performance of Wagner’s Rienzi with the Opera Orchestra of New York, Jan. 29, 2012, at Avery Fisher Hall

For the fourth time now, Eve Queler, Conducter Laureate of the Opera Orchestra of New York, will bring Richard Wagner’s third opera, Rienzi, to life. That is the only word for it, because her 1980, 1982, and 1992 performances of the rarely-performed opera were terrific hits among critics and audiences. Curiously for concert performances they had the impact of great spectacles, with choirs marching through the aisles and trumpets spread about the hall. Although, as always, Ms. Queler’s focus was always on the music, she captured some of the spectacle of the first performances.



Richard Wagner, The Valkyrie, Virginia Opera Center Stage, Richmond

Virginia Opera has built a reputation for solid productions of opera, featuring young voices under the baton of distinguished conductors like Joseph Rescigno. Its new production of The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner is no exception to that rule. Rescigno, who studied under Erich Leinsdorf, has a strong affinity for the sound and architecture of Wagnerian motifs and produced remarkably fine tones and ensemble playing from the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. The orchestral component became increasingly dominant for Wagner in the Ring and Parsifal, and it was good to have such a fine standard of strings in this production. The singers, too, gave vocal performances of a uniformly high quality in a production by Lillian Groag that did not impose too much of a “thesis” on Wagner’s mythopeic creation, allowing visual tableaux and lighting to point the story. The Richmond venue was the old Carpenter Theatre, a 1920s, Alhambra-style cinematic confection; wide and shallow, it conveyed a sense of intimacy despite its 1800-seat capacity. The production was a fast-paced event, which at three hours (including a 25-minute intermission) was shorter than Gone with the Wind! And what could be wrong with that? My only caveat is that this was not Wagner’s Die Walküre, which unfolds leisurely over more than four hours, but rather a radically reduced fumet of the original. While that may be a plus for many modern opera-goers, it is manifestly not what the composer intended.



Richard Wagner, Parsifal, directed by Stefan Herheim and conducted by Daniele Gatti, Bayreuther Festspiele (2010 Performance Reviewed)

Henry Brant

Ritual is everywhere in Wagner’s operas and music dramas. He even has his way of transforming crucial events in his stories into quasi-rituals through symbolism. Ritual is even more pervasive in his final work, his Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, which is in itself a ritual. The highly ritualized routines of the Grail knights connect their lives and the events of the drama with the continuum of the Grail’s history, back to the Last Supper. Their actions are highly deliberate, replete with the significance of faith and tradition. This creates a quasi-monastic environment in which life unfolds slowly, largely ceremonially, on the structure of a time-honored schedule, in which history and precedent are always present. The narrative unfolds with notable simplicity in terms of what occurs on stage, while beneath it, the backstory related in monologues seethes with incident, conflict, and misfortune. In addition to this dramatic foreground purified of trivialities, there is the pure transparency of Wagner’s score, consisting of simple thematic material set with surpassing clarity, delicacy, and harmonic subtlety. In this way Parsifal lives up to what we have been conditioned to expect from the late work of a great artist, and this is what we see and hear on the stage, if Wagner’s stage directions are observed.



Neuenfels’ Lohengrin at Bayreuth – 2010 / 2011: a (P)review

I was no less fascinated than any writer by the troops of rats Hans Neuenfels mustered for his production of Lohengrin, which premiered last year (2010). It isn’t fair or even intelligent to focus on the most obvious twist in his Neuenfels’ vision of Wagner’s first grail opera, but Neuenfels turned the rodents loose on us as bait, and in the world of theater, it is only right to jump on it with all the alacrity of one of the rats, when he or she sniffs some appetizingly ripe garbage—or bacon, as Herr Neuenfels has said. And I don’t mention this to demean the rats, Neuenfels clearly did not intend them as red herrings, but as an intellectually nutritious and tasty Vorspeise.



The San Francisco Ring, 2011 – Donald Runnicles, Conductor, Francesca Zambello, Stage Director

When any object is taken apart and reformed, does its substance remain what it was in the beginning? Nothung, Siegmund and Siegfried’s magical sword, proves stronger for having been shattered and forged anew. Does the Rhinegold itself acquire new properties through being the fatal, world-dominating ring, or when the Rhinemaidens receive it at the end of Götterdämmerung, has it the same intrinsic properties it did when Alberich stole it “twenty hours ago,” as Anna Russell clocked it?

Director Francesca Zambello, in her Americanized Ring Cycle, three-quarters of which were co-produced by Washington Opera, forged something new and wondrous from Wagner’s tremendous and often toxic masterwork. Not every bit of Wagner’s original symbolism reintegrates seamlessly into the newly fashioned work, and occasional cognitive dissonance results. Frankly, Wagner’s own sprawling cosmology—one part German myth, one part creative genius, one part tortured personal psychology—leaves many questions unanswered and any number of unresolved contradictions and loose ends. In San Francisco, the director and her designer colleagues shaped a remarkable production that transcended its occasional awkward moments and that touched the heart in ways I’ve never known this uniquely ambitious epic work to do before. The striking and varied stage pictures are the work of Michael Yeargan, the always illuminating costumes are by Catherine Zuber, the colorful, refreshing, and often exquisite lighting is by Mark McCullough. The many projections, used as backdrops and show curtain, were created by Jan Hartley. I didn’t find every element equally successful, but I left the theatre believing that this production had the mystical power to make the world a better place. The staging is that good.



The Barenboim/Cassiers Production of Die Walküre at La Scala

It is a curiosity of our times that I write this review of La Scala’s sixth and last performance of their new production of Die Walküre several weeks after audiences around the world have seen high definition video projections of earlier performances of the same production. A friend of mine residing in the Midwest has already seen it twice, but questions remain: seeing a broadcast through the eyes of video cameras is not the same as sitting in the house, with the interventions of the television director and the videographers standing between the audience and the event at La Scala. I haven’t seen a La Scala broadcast, and I have no idea of their particular style, which is hopefully more straightforward than the extremely mannered — no, gimmicky — Met broadcasts.



Lohengrin Revived at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Totem poles in Lohengrin. Photo Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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.



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