Cher Public

Devil may not care

The subject of timidity has been in my thoughts in these waning days of February 2017. One would almost think there had been some big announcement recently, preceded by a series of smaller ones, to turn a U.S.-based opera fan’s thoughts in this direction. 

The grass is always greener, as they say, and Nikolaus Bachler’s Bavarian State Opera, so prominent on the international scene with streaming broadcasts and DVD/Blu-ray releases, has been nothing if not bold in this decade. I have followed from afar the work done in Munich by some of the world’s best singers and conductors, working with the art form’s celebrated, often controversial directors. The results are not invariably successful (more on that in a moment), but they usually are lively and compelling, rarely forgettable.

Herr Bachler assumed his post as intendant in 2008, and in an interview the following year he laid out his philosophy: “You might say that public taste is always behind its time. […] Whenever someone talks about being true to the time or to the composer, they mean the interpretive style from 20 and 30 years ago […] To go on stage means to interpret. To do nothing–even to be reactionary–is inevitably an interpretation.” Clearly, this was a man who would not be guided by “should” and “supposed to” in what he programmed–or, rather, he would be guided by different shoulds and supposed-tos from the ones expressed in certain internet forums.

I suppose we all think of ourselves as discerning, so “the discerning opera fan” is a meaningless term. However, comments I have read over the years suggest that the readership of parterre box is largely (not exclusively) composed of a particular kind of discerning opera fan, one in line with the views of Herr Bachler and interested in the directors of his tenure (including Alden, Bieito, Carsen, Castellucci, Neuenfels, Tcherniakov, Warlikowski). It is easy for these fans to be so worn down by the lazy and the obvious that they reflexively approve of something just because it confounds expectations, because no one has done something quite this way yet.

“Discernment within discernment” is something to hold tight to. Ambition is commendable, but it only gets the rocket in the air. The rocket has to stay aloft and to land, preferably in one piece.

New to DVD, a 2015 Bavarian State Opera production of Mefistofele by director Roland Schwab (b. 1969) was said to be Munich’s first staging of Boito’s opera. Mefistofele was the only operatic score the great librettist (and much more) saw to completion, and it followed a tortuous path beginning in the 1860s, with composition, a disastrous premiere, considerable cutting and recomposition, a more successful premiere, and further revisions before the composer arrived at his final thoughts in 1881.

Even in the definitive form in which it is best known, Mefistofele is an uneven work, with powerful and novel musical passages sitting alongside banal and superficial ones. One suspects even the banal parts did not come easily to Boito. Words, not music, were his métier. An admirer of Mefistofele focuses on the good and passes lightly over what remains.

One would have to do the same to admire Schwab’s production. Mefistofele was this Ruth Berghaus pupil’s Bavarian State Opera debut, and I was unfamiliar with his work before watching the DVD. The effort does suggest talent and smarts, but to my mind he has tried to “help” Mefistofele in ways that blunt and mute the opera’s impact.

The beginning is promising. Boito’s Prologue in Heaven is an alertly directed Prologue in Hell. Well, why not? Everything, even hell, is a part of creation, and thus “in heaven,” if one goes along with the doctrine. The cluttered setting looks like the aftermath of a rave, with curved metal scaffolding on either side forming a tunnel upstage. Mefistofele is outfitted like an aging early-’80s New Romantic, and his many supernumerary companions resemble nightlife denizens from perhaps half a generation later. Mefistofele is clearly master of this domain, and his young subjects dote on him, but there is an air of lassitude and tedium about it all; the thrill is gone.

A shellac disc plays on Mefistofele’s gramophone, and the music of the prologue alternates distant, tinny fanfares (with popping record sound effects) with the full wallop of the Bavarian State Opera’s impressive orchestra. Mefistofele gestures and a movie screen rises, debris tumbling off it. The group sits with backs to the audience and watches film images cryptically strung together. The images convey wonder and foreboding: the cosmos, a plane in flight, clouds, the face of John Lennon (they wouldn’t give peace a chance; that was just a dream some of us had), the New York skyline at dawn, the plane again in freeze-frame. The morning of 9/11?

As Mefistofele challenges God, the images on the movie screen become shaky views of the orchestra and audience in the opera house. When Mefistofele sings of the “puny ruler,” the young maestro’s image is displayed. Faust makes a mute early appearance in the prologue, as Mefistofele’s minions prepare him for controlled experiment or sacrifice.

Unfortunately, after this intriguing beginning, the air begins to leak out of the balloon. Piero Vinciguerra‘s unit set with its curved metal is dressed up with whatever is needed for the four acts and the epilogue: an Oktoberfest carousel, a table for the lovers’ dinner, memorial flowers and a teddy bear for Margherita’s murdered baby (“Warum?” reads the inscription). The scenic economy allows Schwab to string some scenes together into suites (such as the garden, Witches’ Sabbath and prison scenes), but some elaborate unit sets grow tiresome to look at as the hours pass, and I fear Vinciguerra’s is one of these.

Mute characters clutter up almost every scene. Several of the supernumeraries have good stage presence, but the overpopulation hurts Boito’s built-in contrast between crowded scenes and more intimate encounters. At least we can always pick out the principal singers: they are the ones rooted in a spot while everyone else is skittering and writhing. This Faust is not visibly aged when he meets Mefistofele, and gets no younger in their bargain, but he does end in a geriatric care center. Faust’s zombie-like unscripted appearance in the prologue had suggested he was either summoned or conjured for this wager, but nothing in the later scenes clarifies this.

Schwab tried, arguably too hard, to achieve something here that was both spectacular for the eye and stimulating for the mind. There are striking visual effects (the lovers’ dinner table bursts into flame; rows of Sabbath revelers rise and descend in waves via hydraulic lifts), and there is commentary informed by Schwab’s (our) era, but the whole is fussy rather than elucidating and enlightening. Even some sure-fire moments are misjudged: Wagner and Faust observe and talk about the grey friar whom Wagner finds innocuous and Faust finds frightening, and Mefistofele is lurking and hovering behind them, making penny-dreadful gestures.

There is something undeniably touching about the way it all works out, with Faust surrounded by demented old folks. Elena and Pantalis, kindly nurses or aides, play catch with the residents. In the epilogue, Faust renounces Mefistofele, and the defeated devil removes his record from the turntable and breaks it. The experiment ran as long as it took to listen to a classic set of Mefistofele, I suppose. Faust/Schwab finds something noble in the state in which many of us will go out: diminished, senescent, forgetting and perhaps forgotten, but true to the natural order of things, and precious for having lived, grown, survived.

I wish I could make a case that what we see between the prologue and the epilogue shows the rigorous work of shaping a production with continuity and momentum, and the good judgment of knowing when to quit, or at least to do less. Much of the middle seems to me erratic and unfocused. The kindness I can pay before moving on is that I would be curious to see a second example of this director’s work.

Efficiency all by itself goes some way in Mefistofele, with its large orchestral and choral forces, and Omer Meir Wellber gives a respectable accounting of himself. Only a few great conductors of my experience have persuaded me for the duration that Boito’s score is cohesive, but Wellber keeps a good grip on proceedings and accompanies singers well in softer sections. He can overwhelm elsewhere, but this could be a recording balance issue.

The Bavarian State Opera tends to fill supporting roles with good value. Karine Babajanyan, the Elena, battles the orchestra and does not always win, but brings warmth and poignancy to her scene; she is the more appealing of Faust’s loves here. Mezzo Heike Grötzinger, always a welcome presence, has some fun with a Marta who eagerly embraces corruption and has against-the-wall sex with Mefistofele. I am unsure if Marta in this staging is what she usually is (Margherita’s minder) or one of the several minions following Mefistofele around. Perhaps she begins as one thing and becomes the other.

Considering that the three headliners are names familiar to anyone who follows opera singing today, it is surprising this is not more of a singers’ show. One expects, in Mefistofele, the singing to make more of an impact. Two of the three famous leads bring a measure of disappointment.

Kristine Opolais does not convincingly suggest Margherita’s shyness and ingenuous nature in the garden, which I believe but am not sure was the goal (a theme has emerged, you see), but her “L’atra notte in fondo al mare” is impressive for intensity and dramatic intention, a well-worked-out bit of stage acting. The sound from the Latvian’s throat, unfortunately, limits her effectiveness: dry, limited in dynamics from mezzo-forte to screamed, bespeaking tension and perhaps overwork.

René Pape‘s Mefistofele is hampered by a puzzling lack of presence, both dramatic and vocal. In some roles, a case can be made that what he is doing is dignified or elegantly restrained. It often reads to me, rather, as lack of engagement, but I will admit of a defense in his kingly/priestly German characters. For the Boito devil, one expects either malevolent wit and relish or something interesting in its place. The production may have been tailored for the low-key, cynical take Pape could be expected to provide (the characterization he gave the Gounod devil in New York, 2011), but it plays as a walk-through.

Some attractive sounds in the middle voice alternate with patchy tone and a top that is not as freely accessed as in this singer’s best showings. “Son lo spirit,” which takes Pape’s relatively high bass lower than where it most happily sits, is just a good vocal technician managing, making the notes.

The DVD does record one great thing, and a very great thing it is: Joseph Calleja‘s Faust. Here are ease, shimmer, beautifully sculpted phrasing, all in the service of expression and meaning. The acting could still improve, but when the singing is on this level, it matters less.

I note the date, and I suppose it is not a reach that Calleja’s mind was occupied with things this opera and this production touch upon: youth and age, lessons and wisdom, brotherhood and love. Earlier in the year, his countryman and only teacher, the fine mid-20th-century Maltese tenor Paul Asciak, had died at 92. Calleja and Asciak had been student and mentor from the time Calleja was 15. Even in advanced age, Asciak would travel far to see his star pupil and friend whenever he could, as the younger tenor established an international career.

In 2012, Asciak wrote, “I join the proud people of my native island home, which has already produced other internationally recognized singers, in the hope of the fulfillment of the dream of one day having one of the world’s leading tenors hailing from our land. From the quality of Calleja’s singing in [the Decca album Be My Love] it seems we are not far from achieving this.” Calleja’s Faust has the quality of a promise remembered and kept, the voice glowing and flickering like an eternal flame lovingly tended. Asciak would again have had reason to be very proud.

The productions Herr Bachler’s house presents, at their best, are reasons to keep going to the opera. Performances such as Calleja’s Faust count for even more. They are reasons to keep going.

  • simonelvladtepes

    Thank you, a superlative, detailed review. I love honest reviews, they are so rare. I also learned quite a lot from reading it.

  • grimoaldo2

    Very thought provoking review, thank you.
    “Mefistofele” is an opera I have enormously enjoyed on audio and video recordings but never had a chance to see it live so far. Toscanini used to perform the magnificent choral prologue, which is quite self-contained, by itself.
    Interesting comments about the lead singers, it is sad what seems to be happening to Opolais’ voice.
    Pape, yes, when I have seen him he just sort of stands there and sings, quite nicely, to good effect in “kingly” parts like Phillip II which I enjoyed him as.
    Calleja is a wonderful singer.
    The thing about BSO to me is that they have great casts, splendid orchestra and chorus and very high musical standards, The “cutting edge” productions often have a mix of silliness with effectiveness, to me.
    I was there last summer to see La Juive in a production by Calixto Bieto, which I went to to hear the music live with Alagna, I had prepared myself for an outrageous and offensive production, but it wasn’t a bit, very respectful to the work and moving.
    The opera house itself is of jaw-dropping classical grandeur and beauty, it is a little odd to see very modern productions in such a setting of old world splendour.
    A mouth-watering schedule for the Munich Opera Festival this year:
    I would love to be able to go to the festival again this year for Hoffmann with Kurzak as all the heroines and Michael Spyres as Hoffmann and Andrea Chenier with Kaufmann and Harteros, but I don’t think it will be possible.
    They are very generous with sharing their wonderful events with the world in their free livestreams, very much appreciated.

    • It really is a shame it’s such a rarity. It isn’t as if it’s hard to listen to!

  • chicagoing

    Joseph Calleja was my first Alfredo, Rodolfo (opposite Anna Netrebko), and Romeo -- all at LOC. I also had the pleasure of hearing him earlier this month as Don Jose. Not too shabby for a house that is sometimes dismissed as rather weak. I do not know when they last staged Mefistofele but who knows…?

    • Porgy Amor

      I believe December 1998, with Ramey, Dessì, and Margison in the venerable (and widely traveled) Robert Carsen production.

    • Camille

      There is a recording available (and I’m thinking it is on Youtube, too) of a sixties era Chicago Mefistofele with Alfredo Kraus, Renata Tebaldi and Elena Suliotis as Elena! and now I’ve forgotten which basso—Ghiaurov? I’ve long intended to give it a listen and haven’t and would guess it has a lot to offer.

      Well YAAAS!!! It is in youtube and it was Ghiaurov. May as well post it here as I’ll bookmark it and finally get around to listening:

      • chicagoing

        Mefistofele is apparently one of those operas that come around here once every thirty years. We should be due sometime in the next decade then.

  • Ivy Lin

    Interesting informative review! Thanks Porgy. About Pape, his vocal consistency is one of his glories. When I heard his King Marke in September this past year it occurred to me that this was basically the exact same voice I heard in 2003 as King Marke. He’s preserved his voice like amber despite what’s rumored to be a very hard-drinking/partying lifestyle. At the same time there was no deepening of interpretation. Whatever he was like 10 or 15 years ago is where he is now. The secret to his vocal youth is like what someone once said about Adelina Patti: “She never ever acted, she never ever felt.”

    • Porgy Amor

      This is something I did not want to put in the review, but I was thinking while watching this about what an impression he made in the first things I heard, roles such as Marke, Rocco, Pogner. And then I thought — that those are still so much in my mind, almost 20 years on, when the singer has sung Boris, Filippo, Wotan, the two big operatic devils…maybe that’s not such a good sign. He has a divo’s career, but I get the least from him when he has to carry the most of the load.

      • Ivy Lin

        Well the upside is that Rene Pape’s repertoire is pretty small and contained for a major international singing divo. So he often shows up as luxury casting. For instance a few years ago he was real luxury casting as Banquo. You don’t expect a Banquo to blow everyone else out of the water in terms of volume and beauty of voice. But his voice/interpretations really are, for better or worse, preserved in amber.

        Another thing about Pape is that he prizes vocal beauty and consistency above all else, so he’s really a stand-and-deliver singer. This works fine for most of the roles he sings. But his Mefistofeles really isn’t going to chew the scenery because that’s just not his style.

      • Thank you as always, Porgy, so intelligent and balanced! I also appreciated your kindness to Ms. Hassan who may have been ill advised (the Dear knows I have been) but who didn’t deserve to be treated with contempt by nonentities. In addition to your other qualities you are clearly a fine human being too.

        • Armerjacquino

          I agree about Porgy’s kindness and consideration. I hope I didn’t come across as one of the contemptuous ones- I was initially amused at the pronoun slip which replaced third with first person, but I dropped out when things got nasty.

      • Armerjacquino

        Having not seen him on stage but heard him be excellent on record, I was surprised when I saw him in the Theorin/Westbroek/Meier ELEKTRA- he seemed totally uninvolved and a bit preening, which I don’t *think* was a production decision. My apologies to him if it was.

        • I think the story has always been the same with Pape, Amerjacquino. He was a Met discovery and I saw him often in the early years of his international career. He had a glorious voice. But that was it.

          He was well coached and looked good but there never was any depth or emotional commitment and he was perfectly capable of just walking through. It doesn’t surprise me that the “seen it once, know it all” crowd are impressed. If you’ve never seen someone who entirely understood Gurnemanz and meant every word, or who identified totally with Boris, or who understood and conveyed King Philip’s terrible internal suffering as well as his cruelty, then Pape’s “just know the part superficially and don’t look silly” seems impressive. I thought he gave a cynical performance as Banquo and although not alone, was a terrible Escamillio.

          I talked to him way back about his desire to do Mefistofile. I asked him since he had read the score if he had listened to Nazzareno de Angelis, the most astounding singer of the role on a complete performance, or Siepi. “I don’t need them, I am enough”, he said.

          I thought he was dumb as a rock, though sly and competent. Yes there were booze and ladies, but that’s not a surprise. Siepi who was a great artist had listened to everybody who sang his roles including people singing them when he was, “you never know when you can learn something,” he said. Hotter was an expert on records by basses and had much the same attitude. They weren’t listening to learn, they had learned their music backwards and forwards (and the music of all the other characters in the opera) but then listened — very critically.

          Pape was lucky and lazy.

          • Camille

            “I don’t need them, I am enough.”

            I find this astoundingly dumb and am sad to read it.

            By sheer and utter accident, I ran into a famous conductor recently--I won’t say whom or what I heard him in--BUT in response to my enquiries about the choices he made in his performance he said he’d consulted Maestro X and Y’s scores to see what and how they’d conducted the work. AND he also said this

            “In music, we all stand on the shoulders of those who come before us.”

            This really surprised me. For someone as famous and as lauded as he is, it came as a very nice surprise as it is the truth, which he only too happily, readily, and humbly asserted. Even if I don’t agree with all his musical choices I surely do think much, much more highly of him now.

          • fletcher

            SF Opera made a big fuss about Pape as Philip last summer, but I got lucky and caught Furlanetto -- even now, absolutely masterful singing and a profound grasp of the tragedy in the role.

      • Camille

        This made me curious as there have been
        many, many Pape performances on my dance card but could not recall exactly when I first heard him--I thought it was in Lohengrin, close but no cigar--it was actually in Samson et Dalila, as le Vieux Hebreu on the 30th anniversary of The Eternal Baritenor.

        THAT performance I’ll never forget, as The Tenor was presented with a plaque and honors and speeches, ALL after Samson cracked the most terrifyingly huge B flat in all the history of singing. I’ll never forget it as I’ve never heard anything sounding
        like an earthquake on the stage before or since!! Or like a ruptured spleen. It was awful.

        Anyway, I didn’t make note of him that night but a few days later, he was excellent as King Heinrich in Lohengrin and I recall the rolling sort of sound he unfurled! And he was the saving grace, it’s well-known, of that fraught Tristan und Isolde, starting in 1999 et seq., thank god for that, not to mention his Gurnemanz in the earlier Parsifal, in 2003. And a couple Fidelio and Zauberflöte. For all of these I’m truly grateful. I then saw him in what? Let me go check——well, no Faust, Don Carlo, nor Boris Godunov, but once again in Parsifal and Tristan, and very interesting that take on King Marke as he finally seemed the right age for the role.

        I’m almost always happy to hear him, in whatever he does. It doesn’t have to all be perfect. No one is, but he has got my eternal gratitude for making that long-winded Gurnemanz easy to take. Didn’t anyone hear him sing it in 2003? It was great then. I heard so many marvelling at his singing of the same ten years later—he’d been just as marvelous before but guess it wasn’t noticed? Similarly, the feat of actual being MORE interesting as party-pooping King Marke in 1999 than the actual LiebesNacht LiebesPaar, was a staggering achievement for which I’ll
        not ever forget him.

      • Great review, Porgy. I feel similarly about Pape. His early role assumptions are the ones that I remember most. I’ve heard some of his Wotan, and while he doesn’t embarrass himself, heldenbaritone territory seems a bit too high for him. On the other hand, Italian bass cantate roles should have fit him like a glove and he has sung them, but I’ve never heard any raves about him in those roles. He has the vocal goods to be the great Fillipo of his time and that does not seem to have panned out.

    • southerndoc1

      For a different opinion, Verdi on Patti:

      “when I heard her for the first time in London I was astounded not only by the marvelous performance but also by a great number of stage traits that revealed her great acting talent”

      • Camille

        With him commenting in particular on how she sang and illustrated just ONE WORD “sempre” in response to Rigoletto’s query as to whether she still loved the Duke in the last act.

        Also noted, by another writer whom I do not recall at the moment, was her extremely regimented and disciplined life. Everything was just so.

        • southerndoc1

          Apparently, Adelina was the great-great aunt of her namesake Ms. Lupone.

          • Cameron Kelsall

            Yes, she’s named after Adelina, who was the sister of her great-grandmother.

  • simonelvladtepes

    I’m checking MET ticket availability for several productions and some are 50% unsold! Check Werther! Check Idomeneo! I’ve never seen anything like it.

  • Camille

    Jim Svejda, the highly astute and endlessly informed commentator and moderator of his own radio program on KUSCdotOrg in Los Angeles, once began his program by playing the “Ave, Signor!” chorus from this opera and telling us (and I paraphrase so, perdonatemi) that had the rest of the opera been as triumphantly and musically splendiferous, well then, Sig.r Verdi would have had a serious run for his money. Instead, he ended up in a bad love affair with Eleonora Duse and handing Verdi libretti, albeit mighty fine ones and ones I’m most grateful for,
    especially the Otello.

    What would be REALLY interesting to me would be a Regie Rehaul of the First Night Ever of this opera, complete with police sirens! Now THAT I’d pay for, gladly.

    Sig.r. Porgy must have a prominent Libra planet or two in his horoscope as his judicious equanimity is second to few. I, too, watched this webcast, or sort of, as I remember being partly bored and walking in and out of it. Sometimes, less is more.
    I DID find it very interesting to have Elena characterized as she was--the great beauty which launched a thousand ships all an illusion in the raving, wavering mind of the ancient and infirmed Faust.

    As an afterthought: it’s great as a document of Mr. Calleja’s singing, no doubt, and I wish he would show up at the MET more often. He might sing the role of Rodolfo in next season’s Luisa Miller very well indeed, not that I am unhappy with Beczala, quite the contrary.

    • Porgy Amor

      Sig.r. Porgy must have a prominent Libra planet or two in his horoscope as his judicious equanimity is second to few.

      Good sleuthing there, Camille. Porgy is a Pisces with Libra Rising.

      • Camille

        Oh, that’s funny! Not sleuthing, woman’s intuition.

        It’s only that you display a sort of textbook example of Libran fairplay and just judgment going on. I find that so critical in a serious review, or a review to be taken seriously — the ability to adjudicate above and beyond one’s own personal predilections, prejudices, and experiences, and to take many diverse elements to form a bigger picture, is hardly to be encountered, so, I do rejoice when I do manage to find some of it. That’s probably why I read a lot of criticism with a big grain of salt: it sounds too personal. It’s not about YOU: you are the camera lens taking a snapshot for us all.

        One of the reasons I gave up wearily on Martin Bernheimer in the ’70’s was because it was too personal, not to mention, caustic. Since, however, he is a very smart critic with a musical education, (I have read), I started to read him again about ten years ago and find most of his take really on the nose, much as I once found Peter G. Davis’s columns, whom I miss still.

        Besides all of the above and on top of all that, the ability to convey one’s take on the subject credibly and convincingly to all those little people out there in the darkness, as it were, is yet another tricky element. One may have great ideas but expressing them clearly, concisely, and driving the point home, without driving away the audience by too much insistence and frothing at the mouth, well, that’s HARD, Teacher!

        Porgy Amor for Supreme Court!

      • It must be why Porgy gets along so well with this Libra. :)