May Madness Mix 3: La forza del destino (Munich, 7 May 2015)
As one advances on their opera journey new objects of adoration spring up. Works, composers, singers but also places. In my case Bayerische Staatsoper has slowly morphed into a mythical temple of music. I know, I know, corny – but, alas, too true. Proof that free video streaming does bring in new audiences. Dirt cheap tickets help too. When the occasion presented to finally see something there – even Verdi – I was filled with trepidation.
More madness was coming as we made our way that morning from Basel to Zürich and from there to Munich. As I had been too excited to sleep the night before, I thought I might catch a few zzzzs on the bus. Not so fast, tiger! A couple right across from us did not stop chatting through the trip. At some point the conversation turned to Cecilia Bartoli’s Cenerentola. We finally made it to Munich where I sort of caught a few zzzzs until 5:30pm when a terrible realisation came over us: tube strike! = one train an hour. On the platform we ran into this local who had already seen the show (Forza) twice and was going again that coming Sunday (his wife really liked JK 😉 ).
Life is full of coincidences: last year around this time I had a bit of stress going to see another Verdi opera, also due to a tube strike (that time in London). What with being on local turf last year I made it on time. This year the Cerbers at Bayerische held us back until the start of Act II (for being about 10min late). But dashing from the Marienplatz tube station through the back streets and up the opera house stairs is perhaps one of the most fabulous entrances one can make into their temple of music 😉
Il Marchese di Calatrava: Vitalij Kowaljow
Donna Leonora: Anja Harteros
Don Alvaro: Jonas Kaufmann
Preziosilla: Nadia Krasteva
Padre Guardiano: Vitalij Kowaljow
Fra Melitone: Ambrogio Maestri
Curra: Heike Grötzinger
Un alcade: Christian Rieger
Mastro Trabuco: Francesco Petrozzi
Un chirurgo: Leonard Bernad
Don Carlo di Vargas: Simone Piazzola
Conductor: Asher Fisch | Bayerisches Staatsorchester | Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Director: Martin Kušej
I found the acoustics of the house very interesting. Now I know memory is a tricky thing and seating should be taken into consideration as well as composers’ orchestration style etc., but I was glad to have a stab at ROH only two days later, so that I could try and compare the two anyway. I’d say the sound at Bayerische is warmer and more intimate, whereas at ROH it’s more in-your-face loud. The way the houses are designed might support this feeling1 – ROH with less rows of balconies and upper slips going further back could possibly allow for the quicker circulation of raw sound, whereas Bayerische’s steep horseshoe wall might cocoon the sound in the centre with gentler dispersion.
I’ve already expressed my contempt for the libretto but it’s never too late for another go: I fail to get how some can find anything deeper in honour killings in this day and age but hey. Presented with dumb characters that do not evolve I focused on beauty of sound. There was plenty of that, starting with the outstanding orchestra. Apparently it did not go so smooth back during its first run but I thought Fisch did a very good job with his orchestra this time around, bringing out all sorts of textures (listening to Verdi makes me constantly think about how much he learned from Bellini, though I know he liked to trash Bellini’s poor attempts at orchestration; this performance did emphasize his richness of orchestral ideas but I feel the soul of the music is Bellinian nonetheless; perhaps that’s what they call Italian). The balance of soft/loud was engaging and there were many moments through the night when solo instruments ( ❤ the clarinet) rivaled the singers in expressiveness; especially in the
interminable various back and forths between Alvaro and Carlo, when you want to shake the librettist and say shit or get off the pot!
Fisch could have kept a tighter leash on Pace, pace, dio mio, which seemed shorter than usual. After listening to a few different versions including Harteros’ from the original run, I came to the conclusion that his conducting was rather unfocused here. However as far as Harteros’ tone throughout the show and in the maledizione specifically2 I have no complaints: as beautiful as one can hope for, full, sizable, smooth and secure. As I was saying to thadieu, I’d like more abandon in Verdi than her reserved/introverted singing allows but it’s gorgeous nonetheless. Poor Leonora, a proper powerless 19th century female character. In other words, quite a bore. Makes sense that Kušej buries her under a pile of crosses.
Speaking of amico Kušej, it’s no secret that I’m a fan of his work and I once again admired his elegantly ugly tableaux but hell if I could follow the deeper meaning in this production. Given the cross overload I take it religion is bad, which is fair enough. I suppose the crosses could also stand in for tradition – Leonora has no escape, tradition is larger than life.
At the beginning of Pace, pace dio mio she’s sitting among the crosses then as the aria progresses she gets out to break some bread (weak attempt at rebelling against religion/tradition?) and finally she re-inserts herself among the crosses, much like Lucy Westenra does when Van Helsing repels her with a cross back to her coffin. Vampire Leonora could have been a nice touch, eh.
A central view does not do justice to the top tableau. It was a lot more fun seeing it from an angle. Kudos to the actors who had to hold their uncomfortable positions legs up for quite some time. The mysterious character who gets out of a coffin (? vampire hint again!) then slowly climbs up the wall and projects a very long dark shadow was another visually interesting touch. What does it all mean? Alvaro doesn’t fit in this world? He’s doomed? He should skiddadle pronto? I know I could check what he’s singing for clues…
This was also my first time seeing (in the flesh!!! like omg!!!) god’s most generous contemporary gift to female opera fans, Jonas Kaufmann. He was slimmer and sprightlier than I thought; visually he made a credible Alvaro (ok, he’s white but one imagines Alvaro as some sort of dreamboat regardless of ethnic background). On the other hand he spectacularly failed to engage me. I know I have a tendency to poke fun at him for being such a smooth chap, but I did expect a bit more spark in a live setting. As chief expressive tool he employed his tremolo which I think sets bosoms mightily atremble and which is as close as he gets to sounding Italianate. As far as I’m concerned it was efficient but nothing more. Also I thought he’d be louder though I’m glad that wasn’t the case.
Even after seeing it three times (twice on video recordings) I was still confused who the hell was who in the middle bit. In fact I don’t get what is the use of the middle bit. We’ve got this story where Good Girl is in love with Exotic Boy who is discriminated against by her family and kills her Stern Father in self defence. Pretty good start. All of a sudden another storyline is introduced for no discernible reason. Ok, let’s say they really needed to make Exotic Boy save Traditionalist Brother’s life to show us the misguided values held by traditionalists. Or something. I suppose this story makes a better novel than play/opera.
Perhaps hiring I-love-to-complicate-things Kušej for a strictly for Verdi hard core fans opera where characters are prone to disguising themselves was a bad idea.
My main frustration with not knowing who the hell was who and why they were there was because someone had really good comic timing (you got it, there’s a funny bit in the middle!), was ace in the recits and sounded very Italianate. Melitone, perhaps? Whoever it was, excellent job. Those recits flowed like mountain springs 😉 Though later he made less of an impression, I thought Piazzola as Carlo (thadieu saw it twice and swears it was him!) pulled some very touching pianissime around the time he was interacting with Preziosilla. Which brings us to the mezzo role in this brew. Verdi, Verdi, you’re shit at mezzo roles. How bloody annoying is that Rataplan aria? Good grief. At least Kušej made a proper mess of (what is here) the orgy scene and gave her a dominatrix outfit which she almost rocked. Singing-wise I thought she was pretty good, at least of large enough voice to hold her own. Honestly I can’t remember anything specific about Kowaljow, except I didn’t mind the Padre Guardiano’s part.
For me this was a quaint introduction to Bayerische Staatsoper but life is odd like that and I was in too good a mood and in too much awe of being there to be bothered. I guess it’s proof that even a strong cast can’t help a not very good opera. However it was sold out and so was I due Foscari at ROH so the pull of big names is great indeed. You know what’s funny? Bieito is directing it for ENO in November/December! The Verdi leprechun is so laughing at me:
An action-packed drama of passion, war, honour and vengeance
A confusing mess of two good tunes and common-sense lacking characters in endless disguises
By the end of the opera I was finally starting to flag and the both of us were famished, so we made our way to the sausage place down the street where we inhaled that weird German white pizza thing that’s basically onion on thin dough, plus some wurst. Then I slept like a log for the first time in months.