Tag: Richard Strauss

Strauss: Elektra / Met Opera 4-23-16


I have been to not one but two live performances of Strauss’s Elektra in the past six months or so. Each time, I come out of it feeling stunned and unable to articulate any particular opinion about the performance. But stunned is good. And sometimes the opinions trickle in later on. (I think part of it might be Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s fault – I find that operas for which he has written the libretto take me a while to absorb, because I keep getting distracted by the quality of the text and occasionally miss music that I have to catch the next time around.)

When I glanced at the program last night, I was startled – the casting for this was pretty much incredible: Nina Stemme (Elektra), Adrienne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis), Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra) and Eric Owens (Orestes). I bought the ticket to hear Stemme, who I’d never heard live before, but this is one of quadruple-bonus type evenings that you sometimes get in large cities with big opera houses.

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Karita Mattila / Alice Tully Hall 3-10-16

This was the best concert I have been to in months – exciting, beautifully rendered, balls-to-the-wall Lieder singing from the very first song. I had never heard Mattila live before, and I now wish I had more opportunities to do so – her voice is stunning. It’s bigger than I expected from recordings; part of me wished I had been able to sit closer to as to see more of her acting up close (I was in the back row of the balcony) but I think that aurally back center of the hall was perfect.

And it was so nice to go to a concert that does not consist of songs I have heard a thousand times before! Familiar material, but not too much so. The first set was Brahms’s Ziguenerlieder (Gypsy Songs). Mattila threw herself into these both vocally and physically; I realized when I opened my eyes somewhere around ‘Wißt ihr, wann mein Kindchen” that by not watching I was missing out.

I have heard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder a few times before, but I never listened to them with the same attention as I did last night. Among the high points here was the final song, “Träume,” (“Dreams”) which was spellbinding, from the moment the vocal line steps quietly out of the piano part until it sinks away again at the final lines of the text. Afterwards, I kept trying to put into words the feeling of when a song performance really clicks. I have a sense of being able to follow what is being expressed, even if it is in a language I don’t know, or don’t know well enough to understand every word; I also get an impression of the song, or at least the vocal line, holding itself together – there’s a feeling of wholeness. Whatever it was, and however you want to describe it, there was plenty of it in this concert.

After intermission, Mattila sang Berg’s Four Songs, Op. 2. The more I hear live performances of Berg’s songs, the more I like them. Here, with the first one, “Dem Schmerz sein Recht,” every note seemed to fall perfectly into place (I have in my notes “this just gets better and better”); the entire set was over far too quickly, and when we’d moved on to Strauss I wished for a moment that we could stay in Berg world for a while more.

Mattila’s stage presence is lively, funny and extremely energetic, and she certainly knows how to butter up her audience. She introduced her encore, a jazz (I think?) song called “Eine kleine Sehnsucht” with the observation that she had learned a new English word recently, “yearning,” and that this song perfectly expressed her yearning to come to New York again – “but in German, of course.” She delivered the song with the sort of style and sparkle that in retrospect I think Renée Fleming was going for in her similarly jazzy encore the other night, but didn’t (by comparison) quite nail. Mattila nailed it.

Wednesday Evening Miscellany with Bonus Unrelated Photo of Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma Banging a Gong


I stepped out of my usual rut last night, in the sense that instead of German art songs, I went to a recital of (mostly) Russian art songs by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I am pleased to report that I can now reliably repeat his last name, because I took care to look at the program so as not to be caught out on such an elementary item – earlier, even having heard him once at the Met before, I would have been able to say it started with H, ended with -sky and that there was Russian in the middle, but that would have been about the limit. So. Hvorostovsky.

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Strauss – Daphne / Lincoln Center Festival 7-18-15

I went to see a concert performance of Strauss’s one-act opera Daphne last night, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, directed by Franz Welser-Möst, and a series of soloists. I’d never seen – or, to be honest, ever even heard of this opera before, but what the hell, right?

This is one of those “Apollo and Dionysos”-themed things that writers and artists in the late 19th and early twentieth century were so fond of writing about – basically, if my memory of that college Literature and Arts B survey from 1999 is correct, there is a conflict and a balance between the Apollonian (the beauty of order and reason) and the Dionysian (wildness, irrationality, wine, love and so on). They are as distinct and mutually dependent as day and night. The plot of this opera is built around this idea, and around that story we all know about the young woman Daphne who is pursued by Apollo and gets turned into a laurel tree.

The story here is a little different than the tale as told by Ovid. (There are quite a few versions of the story; the librettist, Joseph Gregor, did not come up with what follows on his own.) Daphne is still woodsy and doesn’t want a boyfriend, but here she has a recorder-playing childhood buddy named Leukippos who has fallen in love with her and Apollo does not pursue her because he has been clipped by the arrow of a miffed Eros. He just sort of shows up for some reason and decides that he and Daphne would be great together, because they like some of the same things, like sunshine.

It’s the evening of the festival of Dionysos, and Daphne does not want to go. She has rejected both the disguised Apollo and the earnest Leukippos, but during the festival Leukippos, now also in disguise, gives her a sip of wine. Apollo flips his shit, he and Leukippos get into a fight, with the young man claiming that drinking wine at the festival has turned him into Dionysos himself, and Apollo loses his temper and zaps the poor kid with a lightening bolt.

Daphne performs her final aria in what one can only assume is a sort of smoking blast crater, in which she explains that she realizes this was all her fault (because of course it is, what with her being in charge of and responsible for other people’s behav– oh, wait, no it isn’t) and she is very sorry. And then Apollo turns her into a laurel tree.

The singing was generally strong. Nancy Maultsby as Daphne’s mother Gaea, started out wobbly in what is an alarmingly low alto part; Andreas Schager was a dramatic and passionate Apollo – he was was one of the highlights for me. Daphne was sung by soprano Regine Hangler, who sounded appropriately girlish, but not small. Her voice had a powerful bright edge; most of the time, when soaring above the orchestra was called for, she soared. The last bit of the opera, where Daphne is turning into a tree (and the libretto has her keep talking long after she should stop, what with having ceased to be a person – I mean, explaining that you are now a symbol is probably not strictly necessary, especially when you’re a tree, and also, opera audiences know about symbols) contains a lot of high floaty business, and she sounded a little pinched now and then, but on the whole I was impressed.

Strauss being Strauss, the orchestral music alone is worth the price of admission – nice touches included the metallic-sounding violin representation of Daphne’s leaves at the end when she has turned into a tree, and a section earlier on where a solo violin is interacting with the soprano part. I wouldn’t mind hearing more concert performances of Strauss.

Finally, the middle name of one of the singers portraying shepherds is “Speedo.” I tried several times to find a way to work this detail into the above discussion, but I couldn’t. So there it is at the end.

Dorothea Röschmann / Portraits

Dorothea_Ro_schmann_Portraits_Sony_Strauss_Schubert_Wolf_Cover_ArtHearing this recording was a little anti-climactic, in that with the exception of Schumann’s Op. 135 Mary Queen of Scots songs, I already had a sense of how Röschmann interprets this material. The recital moves forward through time, beginning with Schubert songs, then the Schumann, and Strauss and Wolf at the end. I was struck by the same things that I have been in the past with her performances – the way the mood shifts between sets of songs, as well as within songs themselves, and how every phrase has an interpretive role to play. Mary Stuart has a different quality of character than Gretchen or Mignon; and Röschmann gives the Strauss songs, especially “Die Nacht,” a kind of shimmering quality that is distinct from the other selections. I also found myself appreciating Malcolm Martineau’s piano playing, especially in Strauss’s “Schlechtes Wetter” and Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” where he does those repeating patterns in a more prickly sort of way than I often hear; throughout that song, his playing gives me that feeling of the piano part conversing with the vocal line: or maybe not conversing, exactly, but articulating parts of Gretchen’s character and what she is thinking that aren’t in the vocal part alone.

After I listened to this, I thought about the first recording of Röschmann’s I encountered, the Handel Nine German Arias one, and how at the time since I was expecting a more “early music” sound with less vibrato, I didn’t like it – but I realized years later that despite not having a reaction of immediate and overwhelming enthusiasm, I had unwittingly managed basically to memorize the thing, I had listened to it that often. Her voice has changed since then – high notes take more effort, and her intonation can be iffy up there (e.g. in live versions of “Schlechtes Wetter,” though not on this recording as far as I can tell) and I think the sound doesn’t have quite the same gloss as it did ten years ago, but that said, I can and do listen to her sing pretty much anything over and over. Not just the sound of her voice itself (she can still lay out those ringing, bell-like high notes, like in “Die Nacht” when she feels like it; and as I remember feeling when I heard her as the Countess that one time in L.A., there is a quality to the voice in general that just gets me every time) but all the little details of the interpretation too. I said once after hearing “Der König in Thule” in a recital that I wished I could ask her to do it again, because I was fairly sure there were bits of detail that I had missed – and hey, here it is! to repeat and absorb at leisure.

If I was in the business of making requests, I would ask her to do a CD just of Hugo Wolf songs – just for fun, you know?

Bavarian Radio Symphony / Carnegie Hall 5-16-14

No Strauss in Chicago for me today or tomorrow (get well soon, Frau R!) but thanks to the generous Dr. T, who gave me some Carnegie Hall tickets she couldn’t use, I did hear some music this evening. Also, I apologize in advance: if this account of this concert seems somewhat disjointed, it is because as I write this, there are three moderately sloshed biologists painting 3-D models of molecules in my apartment and talking about things that do not have to do with orchestras, like getting fished out of the Gorge at Cornell in one’s underwear. This is not an excuse; it is merely an explanation.

One thing about that big auditorium – what a racket you can make in there! Many varieties of racket. I still have very fond memories of hearing Joyce DiDonato there in 2012, who created a delightful baroque racket that still makes me smile whenever I recall it (not to mention more recent baroque rackets). But tonight’s racket was of the Romantic variety. I sometimes complain about the nineteenth century and its many egregious lapses of taste, but they did invent two very good things: trains, and ginormous modern symphony orchestras.

The program was essentially Three Very Loud Pieces for Large Orchestra, in reverse chronological order. The first was John Adams’s “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” of which I retain no clear memory other than that there was a massive amount of sound. I have not heard a real live full on balls-to-the-wall symphony orchestra in some time, and this involved not only normal instruments, but also three xylophone players, four xylophones, a piano, and an electric keyboard. It was DELIGHTFUL.

Next was Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, and after the intermission Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. In both cases, I particularly enjoyed the solo woodwinds, but most of all the thrill lay in the sheer volume and complexity of sound produced. In the Berlioz, when the theme representing the elusive beloved woman first appears in the woodwinds, I was startled by how loud the accompanying strings were. There are aspects of this piece that I had completely forgotten about because I haven’t heard it live in like forever. By the end, my impressions had degenerated mainly into 1. This is fun! 2. God damn, this is loud! It was great.


Sunday Bootleg: Strauss Edition

Remember there was that concert from Italy last fall of Röschmann singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs? It was broadcast over the radio, but the stream did not work very well and I didn’t get to hear it properly then. Bits of the concert turned up on YouTube, recorded with someone’s phone, but it seems they had their phone on “add unpleasant metallic edge to all human voice sounds” setting, so that was a disappointment.

This version, not recorded with a phone, sounds substantially better.

Not quite a review / Die Frau ohne Schatten – Metropolitan Opera 11-23-13

I had a chance to go to the Met’s highly reflective production of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten on Saturday afternoon.* I’m not sure going to see a massive Strauss opera with a headcold and sitting in the back row of the Family Circle is necessarily a winning combination. Due most likely to a combination of the size of the orchestra and the amount of fluid in my ears, the sound – by the time it reached the inside of my head, at least – was tilted heavily towards the orchestra rather than the singers. I could hear them just fine most of the time, but I had moments where I started to panic and wonder if I hadn’t ruptured an eardrum or something. (But then again, if that were the case, I wouldn’t be able to hear the orchestra or the singers, would I. Certainly there is nothing on the internet about eardrum ruptures about operatic sound balance. And my other half who went with me and is in perfect health noticed the same thing. Possibly this is some sort of Tylenol-induced paranoia.)

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Strauss – Salome / Met Opera 2008 (2)

(Previous section here.

vlcsnap-2013-09-22-10h53m17s66Everyone in this production (with the exception of Jochanaan, who is probably a teetotaler and an utter bore at parties) is more than a little drunk most of the time. There is plenty of wine in the libretto to begin with and the stage direction keeps the champagne flowing. Everyone wanders about with glasses and bottles in their hands, including Salome; the production suggests that she insists on the head at least in part because she’s drunk – the silly kid is allowed to booze it up with the adults, and this is part of the whole awful tawdry chain of events.

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Strauss – Salome / Met Opera 2008 (1)

Whenever I watch Salome on DVD I always end up looking away during the climactic moments. Not because I don’t want to see what is happening, but because I do want to hear, in detail, what is happening, and this is easier to do if you’re staring off into space rather than trying to also process visual information. Or at least it’s easier for me.

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Strauss – Salome / Deutsche Oper Berlin 1990 (2)

(Previous section here.)

When Herod tells Salome that she can have whatever she wants if she will dance, we see the moment at which the ghastly idea occurs to her and she pounces on it: she is profoundly uninterested in Herod other than as a way to get her revenge on Jochanaan. The little orientalist flourish in the orchestra at the start of Salome’s dance (the bit with the drums and the little ‘middle eastern’ figures in the woodwinds) which seems to imply that what will follow will be a kind of seduction dance is both undercut and upheld by what follows.

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Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier / Metropolitan Opera, 1982 (3)

(Previous section here.)

Or I guess it is a discussion of one’s relationship with the past, kind of. It occurred to me as I was watching this that Ochs has in a sense what the Marschallin claims at one point to want – he lacks awareness of growing old, or at least he lacks awareness that his escapades are crass and ridiculous. Damn Hofmannsthal and his subtle libretto.

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Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier / Metropolitan Opera, 1982 (2)

(Previous section here.)

Seeing older performances of this opera make me appreciate some of the others I’ve seen all the more (e.g. that one from Zurich in 2004 with Kasarova, Stemme and Hartelius). And the other way around too, I guess. One of the things that struck me about this version from the Met is that while it’s very big and visually detailed, it’s not a production that seems to be interested in making any use of all that detail.

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Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier / Metropolitan Opera, 1982 (1)

Did you know that they borrowed the silver rose used in this production from Covent Garden? I didn’t know this until just now – I was looking through the booklet because I was curious to see whether the video direction was by the ubiquitous Brian Large, who I am at this point convinced is not one man but rather a sinister collective of some kind. The fine print at the back of the booklet indicates the provenance of the rose, but Large is nowhere to be found. This is like one of those things in a Haruki Murakami novel, where some small and yet significant detail indicates that the world has been subtly shifted in some new direction. Whether the detail is Large’s absence, or whether the detail would have been his presence is difficult to determine. If I were a character in a Murakami novel what I’d probably do now is prepare a simple meal out of a very specific list of ingredients and eat it while listening to one of Vivaldi’s chamber pieces on the radio and drinking a cold beer, but since I’m not a character in a Murakami novel, I will be eating leftover black bean chili and writing about a Strauss opera.

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Strauss: Capriccio / Fleming, von Otter, Trost et al. / Paris, 2004 (3)

(Previous section here.)

While I was writing about this, I stopped to consider whether I should label it as regietheater. I didn’t in the end, because it’s not, but the reason I wondered about it is that it has all the earmarks — the at times bare stage, for example, or the constant references to the fact that what is being performed is a performance.

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