After another year of living in an Edinburgh increasingly devoid of opera in the period between Festivals (and on this year’s showing not much improvement during Festivals) it seemed clear that a visit to a more adventurous location was required. Where’s Runnicles therefore brings you the following exclusive (and somewhat belated) report from the Munich Opera Festival.
The first thing to be said is that the images presented on the Bayerische Staatsoper’s website indicating the view from particular seats are wholly misleading. That is they give the impression that if you sit in the cheap seats in the centre it is the chandelier which may obstruct your view. In fact the problem in the front row of the Gods is the large safety bar, and the problem in the back two rows is that the seats are, in fact, bar-stool height benches – although, interestingly, the view is rather better from there than in the front row, and the price of the seat rather cheaper.
Moving on to the substance of events on stage. Being a completionist we crammed four operas into six days. We began with the odd double bill of Wolfgang Rihm’s Das Gehige (a festival world premiere) and Strauss’s Salome. The Rihm lasted an interminable half hour. It seemed, so far as I could tell, to be about a somewhat distraught woman arriving at the local zoo after closing time, removing most of her clothes, releasing an eagle (a dancer) from its cage (a lot of not very effective wires strung between two pillars and removed by cutting them with a pair of scissors the “heroine” happened to be carrying), having sexual intercourse with the eagle, killing the bird, and sloping off home. Frankly all very odd. The lady in question’s voice seemed to be strained in the part, and despite the best endeavours of soloist and orchestra I found the music repetitive and not particularly engaging (and before I am accused of not liking any modern opera I should perhaps add that I recently saw The Tempest and loved it, and I really wish some enterprising company would revive Stephen Oliver’s wonderful Timon of Athens).
Following the interval though, things improved enormously, with a fabulous performance of the Strauss. The production was on a grand scale. Columned floors and walls moved about with a technical wizardry I cannot imagine being achieved on a British stage. When Jokaanan was released from his grotto, this enormous rock with Alan Titus attached to it, rose up from the depths. The supporting roles, often problematic in Strauss, were all well taken, including a fine Narraboth, Herod and Herodias. The great comic moment where the Jews dispute as to whether the Messiah is coming or not was clearly sung and consequently funny. Above all, the title role received a magnificent all round performance from Angela Denoke. She made the Dance of the Seven Veils enticing and sexy, a feat productions often struggle to achieve, and even though she was somewhat hampered by the reappearance of the bird previously killed by the rampaging lover in the first piece. (In fairness to the director there is a reference in the libretto to the bird of death hanging over the palace but it is quite unnecessary to take this literally – in this case it was in danger of detracting from an otherwise powerful staging). Denoke also made utterly compelling the final sequence where she communes with the head of Jokanaan. If Alan Titus no longer quite has the vocal power to really bring off the part he was still perfectly acceptable. It was a highly auspicious start.
Unfortunately things rather deteriorated from then on. Our second opera was the other Festival World Premiere, Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland. It may give some idea of the problems of this piece if I say that those responsible succeeded in making this wonderful story boring. The first problem was the production. The director placed all the principals, except Sally Matthews (Alice) in a trench at the front of the stage, so that only their upper bodies and heads were visible. Any possibility of meaningful interaction between the characters was destroyed. We then had a sloped stage upon which hung nine dancers, “performing” the various characters in the different scenes. Mostly they signified their character by donning a mask, and as the character kept shifting to different dancers it further destroyed any possibility of narrative coherence. At first, I was impressed by the sheer ingenuity of the creation, but the novelty swiftly wore off and the whole thing just became irritating.
Now, the usual solution to this sort of production is to close one’s eyes and enjoy the music. The trouble is, as with Rihm’s piece, that Chin’s music was undistinguished. Her librettist had essentially furnished her with a text drawn almost verbatim from the book, and Chin seemed to have very little idea what to do with much of it. Many lines were simply declaimed by the singers in a variety of bizarre accents which to this native English speaker tended to sound artificial – further damaging any attempt to make the characters or story engaging or believable. Where Chin had ventured to compose some music it was decidedly episodic in nature. As other critics have noted these episodes included a Gershwin influenced clarinet solo to represent the caterpillar and a baroque style mad hatter’s tea party. The music as a whole lacked a sense of cohesion, of drive from point a to point b, and many of these episodes had simply been done better by the previous owners.
Of the singers, Sally Matthews gave the stand out performance, and I should like to hear her again in more distinguished repertoire. It was amusing to note that Gwyneth Jones’s diction has got no better since I last glimpsed here in a completely incomprehensible performance of Rule Britannia at the Proms.
A friend had informed me that the essential theatre to visit in Munich was the baroque Princeregent Theatre rather than the Nationaltheatre in which most of this festival takes place. So our third opera was Handel’s Alcina. After sitting through the appalling production of Orlando at the ROH earlier this season, I am getting a bit tired of modern versions of Handel operas. Such a directorial choice seems especially perverse when the piece is actually to be performed in a theatre of the period. But so it was. The set was a large cube, gradually dismantled as the opera proceeded and, as with Alice the director seemed incapable of crafting a real sense of interaction between his singers (although sending the remaining wall crashing to the ground in the third act was an impressive coup). Put simply I did not believe in the relationships being created, or rather not created by the singers on stage. In addition there was a troop of rather sloppy dancers to do various bits of modern choreography in the ballet sequences. Sometimes this can work well in such modern stagings, on this occasion it was ineffective (although they did produce a nice bit of military silliness in the last act reminiscent of the Glyndebourne Julius Caesar. The solution, as always in these situations was to close my eyes. Anja Harteros as Alcina sang everybody else off the stage. The supporting roles were much less successful, in particular Vessalina Kasarova as Ruggiero. I found her voice quite infuriating – it was as if the volume control was being persistently turned up and down. She received rapturous applause from everybody else. Otherwise the standout performance was that of Sergio Foresti in the minor role of Bradamante's loyal companion, who was about the only member of the company who really seemed to enjoy himself on stage.
Finally, on our last night, we saw Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina which was the show that originally led me to want to go to Munich. The only other time I saw this staged was one of those overwhelming evenings at the opera. It was done by ENO when they were still a really great company theatre. The cast included Willard White as Ivan Khovansky, Paul Whelan as Shaklovity and the incomparable Gwynne Howell as Dosifey. It was conducted by Sian Edwards, and the ending where the ENO chorus as the Old Believers basically formed a human wall across the full height of the Coliseum stage and were electrocuted was a stunning coup de theatre. I really wanted to be similarly carried away a second time, and, perhaps inevitably, it didn’t quite happen. The staging, as in Salome was very impressive, but on this occasion smacked too much of director’s opera. For most of the opera what one saw were five distinct rooms set into a granite like stone façade, with projections indicating the identities of their occupants (presumably on the assumption the audience was too stupid otherwise to understand the plot). Two of these rooms were occupied throughout by Tsar Peter and Tsarevitch Sophia. Now this was quite effective, though it went completely against the text where neither are visible because this was illegal at the time. The problem in staging really arose in the handling of the chorus. At ENO they were colour coded, the Strelsy were red, the Old Believers I think in grey and the mass of the people in some other colour – the point being it was quite clear who everybody was. Here, while the Strelsy were all in black leather, they and the rest of the chorus lacked the same sense of a collection of individuals that the ENO chorus in those days could create. As the show went on directorial follies became more marked. The slave girls dance for Ivan became extremely sordid, culminating in Khovansky firing off his revolver in a manner reminiscent of shots of Palestinians firing their guns in the air in celebration. Several of the slave girls fell down dead, and one of the survivors then proceeds to assassinate Khovansky. He was portrayed as so dissipated that you lost the crucial sense that he has the potential to really destabilise the throne. In addition, he then blew his dying self up with a grenade which also seemed to eliminate Shaklovity (the symbol of Peter) which is totally contrary to the text. This was followed by the mass execution of the Strelsy instead of their being pardoned. This, I subsequently discovered from reading the entry in Kobbe, is what is actually supposed to happen historically but it didn’t seem to add much to the drama of the story. However, there followed a real coup in staging, even more impressive than the wall crashing to the ground in Alcina. As a black cloth dropped over the façade, the entire construction slid back the whole length of the stage. Silently. Then out into this vast empty space came what must have been about a 150 strong chorus for the final scene. If they had been able to avoid fidgeting it might have been alright, as they couldn’t it lacked the punch of the ENO finish.
Musically the results were equally mixed. I have never heard the bells at the end of Act 1 sound the same (either live or on a recording) as they did in the Coliseum. Anybody wanting to put on this show should get in touch with Sian Edwards to find out how she did it. Similarly I remember the mass suicide being musically tumultuous at ENO and not on the Kirov recording or here. I think Edwards used an orchestration other than the Stravinsky one. Again, she should be consulted (ideally of course she should have made a recording, but the record companies never think of sensible things like that). [Subsequent investigation reveals that Edwards used a revised version of the Shostakovich orchestration – this is definitely to be preferred to the Stravinsky]. Those two moments therefore did not quite work. Elsewhere there was some very good singing from among the principals, especially Doris Soffel as Marfa, but Nagano’s conducting failed to drive everything along with the requisite punch. I felt in the end rather indifferent, quite the opposite to the effect of his Salome.
Where does all this leave the Festival? The sheer scale of it (some 18 or so operas) is far beyond anything we can boast of in the UK. Granted most of those are repeats of productions already premiered during the main season but that does not detract from the overall quality. The very existence of such a Festival, with such lavish production values (even when the productions themselves do not quite come off) puts the whole British opera establishment and its funders to shame. Munich is clear evidence that we can and should do better. Technically, too, the Munich theatre surpasses its British counterparts. I cannot imagine productions as complex, and on such a scale, being done in a British house. Again, it puts us to shame. And finally the musical standards. Yes, I carped quite a bit in my comments, but in general (with the exception of some of the singers in Alcina) there was no singer who was not serviceable, pleasant to listen to. Even at the Royal Opera this is often not the case; and at Scottish Opera one has in recent times been lucky to have one good voice in the entire cast. Munich then is evidence that in Europe they still do opera on a grand scale, and it is perhaps worth remembering that Munich is not a capital city. Compare it with the UK where Scottish Opera is presenting a measly four operas next season, and ENO which is reduced to buying in a Rosenkavalier originally premiered about four years ago in Scotland. It seems a shame that we can't do better, and with the Olympics apparently sucking up all the Arts budget and then some, it seems unlikely that we will, at least for the forseeable future.