Wozzeck as puppet theatre

Wozzeck is a tricky piece for a director.  There seem to be two possible approaches.  One can find a character for Wozzeck himself that resonates with contemporary audiences and treat the piece more or less realistically.  That’s the approach taken by both Bieito and Tcherniakov.  Alternatively one can run with the overtly expressionist aspects of the piece and present it in a more abstract way as Peter Mussbach did.  Andreas Homoki’s 2015 Zürich production takes the second route.  The piece is presented as if the characters are puppets in a puppet theatre in a sort of ultra-grim version of Punch and Judy.  It’s visually quite arresting and there are some very well composed scenes.  To give just one example, immediately after Wozzeck has decapitated Marie the chorus appear as nightmarish Maries while Wozzeck sits nursing the severed head.  That said, the concept does pall and maybe hasn’t really got the legs, absent any other real directorial ideas, to carry the piece for two hours.

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Now includes dwarf tossing

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is opera on a grand scale.  Only a really big company like the Met could possibly afford to stage it.  Yesterday’s performance used a chorus of 110, a larger orchestra, at least twelve soloists and a bunch of dancers.  It also lasted 5 1/2 hours including the intervals.  Was it worth it?  For the most part I’d say yes.

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Una opera in maschera

I despair.  I really do.  Yesterday’s MetHD broadcast of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera had so much going for it.  The singing was brilliant and David Alden’s production seemed to have plenty of interesting ideas.  I say “seemed” because we only got the briefest of brief glimpses of it in between the succession of close ups served up by video director Matthew Diamond.  On the odd occasions we got to see more than a head or a body it was usually from a weird angle.  It’s particularly irritating because the two elements of the production that seemed to be most important were the ones most ruthlessly undermined.  Alden’s movement of chorus, supers and dancers and the contrast between what they do and what the principals do seems to be important but who knows?  Similarly his use of contrasting spaces, especially in Act 3, is obviously important but when the viewer gets only a couple of seconds to establish the context before the camera moves in and loses it the effect is fatally weakened.

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They shoot horses don’t they?

Just back from the HD broadcast of the Met’s Götterdãmmerung.

Musically, I was really quite impressed. I thought Luisi’s take on the score was original, valid and enjoyable. His tempi were generally quite quick and there was a taut, sinewy quality to the strings that really brought out the shape of the music. No romantic wallowing here! I really liked the Gibichungs; Wendy Bryn Harmer as Gutrune, Iain Paterson’s Gunther and, especially, Hans-Peter König’s Hagen. All were well sung and characterful. Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried and Deb Voigt as Brünnhilde were really exciting in the Act 1 love duet and Deb nailed the Immolation scene, almost managing to overcome the staging. So much for the music, what about the production?

I went in not expecting much from the production given the caning it had been getting from just about everybody I knew who had seen it. I wasn’t too surprised then when the video director for the broadcast, Gary Halvorson, showed us as little of it as humanly possible. The use of super close-ups was extreme even by MetHD standards and there were some really weird camera angles. Sometimes we were shown a close up from below and to the side of five or six “planks” from the machine. He must have been absolutely desperate. I can see why. There did seem to be an endless procession of scenes where either flowing water or tree like objects were projected onto a basically plain back drop. The one place where I thought the machine worked was in the scenes in the Gibichung Hall where it seemed to reconfigure quite nicely. On the other hand there were a couple of real horrors. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey included a cheesy hollow horse on an all too literal raft floating lamely on an all too literal Rhine. It got worse when the horse reappeared in the crucial Immolation scene. What should be one of the most breathtaking moments in all of opera was reduced to sheer bathos. Deb Voigt was singing her heart out on this horse thing that looked more like it should have been sitting outside a supermarket and which might have been a bit more animated if she had remembered to put a quarter in it. It trundled off into a funeral pyre that looked more like an ad for fake electric log fires before all was obscured by the Machine, covered with the by now all too familiar flame projections. A few cheap looking statues above the Machine crumbled unconvincingly before we reverted to another flat Machine screen things with wavy bits on for the last few bars. There certainly wasn’t a bang and I, for one, was whimpering.

I think I’ve learned one thing from Lepage’s production. Even if it had succeeded on its own terms, and I don’t think it did, the production would have been weak. I don’t think it’s possible, in 2012, to do an essentially naturalistic ring with no Konzept. But that’s material for another post.

Siegfried ex Machina

I had very mixed feelings about today’s HD broadcast of Siegfried from the Metropolitan Opera. Early reviews and comments by friends had been largely negative about the staging and there was a widespread view that “the machine” was intrusively noisy. As it turned out I was pleasantly surprised. For once Gary Halvorson’s relentless close ups were a boon. From what little we could see of them, the first and second act sets were both uninteresting and gimmicky. The 3D leaf scattering, the crudely pixellated woodbird and the laughable Wurm were just among the sillier features. To be fair , the beginning of the third act made effective use of the set but that was the only place that it did work well. So focussing on the singers made a lot of sense.

Fortunately musical values were such that it was pretty much possible to ignore the staging. Singing across the board was excellent with both Bryn Terfel as Wanderer and Jay Hunter-Morris in the title being very effective. I didn’t detect any insecurity or lack of power in Deb Voigt’s Brünnhilde. Of course it’s quite possible that the sound team balanced the singers well forward in the broadcast to disguise a lack of power but that’s not something the audience needed to worry about. Actually I don’t think that’s what happened. I suspect the singing was more lyrical and less heavy than some Wagner productions but it was matched by some superbly transparent work from the orchestra so I imagine it sounded fine in the house too. In fact Fabio Luisi’s handling of the orchestral texture and the relationship between orchestra and singers was very good indeed. It was Wagner as I’m not accustomed to hearing it but I was instantly converted. The only place where it all seemed to get a bit congested again was in the final duet but that could as easily have been fatigue on my part as anything else. Certainly the sound in the cinema for me was much better reproduced than has often been the case for these broadcasts with very little THD even in very loud passages.

All in all, much better than Anna Bolena or Don Giovanni.

Don Giovanni by numbers

Perhaps the best bit of today’s Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of Don Giovanni was Renée Fleming’s interval interview with Mariusz Kwiecien.  As best I recall it went:

RF: What do you like best about this production?

MK: There’s nothing new in it so we get to do what we always do.

And that is very much the truth.  British Wunderkind Michael Grandage gave us a production that I thought  averagely dull for the Met until the interval and  worse afterwards.  The set consists basically of an “advent calendar” (I owe this brilliant terminology to Zerbinetta at Likely Impossibilities) of shuttered cells in “collapsed barn” brown and grey.  For once I was grateful for a virtually continuous sequence of close ups which meant I didn’t need to look at the set.  Costumes are traditional and blocking is pretty ordinary.  The only point where there seems to be much of a directorial idea is in the final scene where Grandage goes McVicar on us.  Don Giovanni is carousing with about ten cheap prostitutes though, it being the Met, they keep more of their clothes on than the average whore.  It makes no sense.  He’s an indiscriminate womaniser but there’s no suggestion that he has to buy his pleasures.  We also get the advent calendar populated by statues of monks and some pretty ordinary pyrotechnics.  It doesn’t work.

The production is a shame because the singing is consistently good and some of the acting is very decent.  The star is Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello.  He’s excellent all round. I also like Mojca Erdmann’s Zerlina which, I think is a bit less sappy than some I’ve seen.  She definitely tops from the bottom in Batti, batti.  Joshua Bloom’s Masetto is pretty good too helped by the fact that he isn’t twice as big as Kwiecien as so many Masettos seem to be.

No complaints about the conducting (Fabio Luisi) or orchestral playing though it’s a heavier sound than I prefer for Mozart but that’s what you get in a big house.

Ho hum.