Opera in Munich

Performance reviews:
Il barbiere di Siviglia (2000), Don Giovanni (2000), Nabucco (1998)

Il barbiere di Siviglia
Nationaltheater, 3 April 2000

This was another exciting performance in Munich. May I suggest that David Gockley comes here to learn something? The production (Ferruccio Soleri), the sets (Carlo Tommasi), and costumes (Ute Frühling) were all outstanding and in style with the work. Surtitles were banned that evening thank God. The production was full of amusing gags. In short, the evening was over too quickly. It was refreshing to witness a performance where you can actually see the proper sets and costumes and recognize that it was Il barbiere di Siviglia being played that evening and not some strange work set in a strange place. There was no attempt to rethink the work. Robert Saccà, Almaviva, displayed a fine voice, a strong presence, agility, and acting talent. It was too bad that his last act aria was cut. Enric Serra (Bartolo) displayed also a strong presence, fine comic abilities and a good voice. Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Basilio) was in much better vocal shape than the previous evening, displaying a strong firm tone and acting ability. Dmitri Hvorostovsky showed a strong presence, fine acting abilities and a powerful voice. Julie Kaufman was a pert Rosina with a strong even voice with no thinning at the top, excellent coloratura, and good acting capabilities. The veterans Ferry Gruber (Ambrogio) and Hans Wilbrink (Fiorello) provided an excellent vignette portrayal of the servant for Gruber and a strong vocal portrayal of this normally weakly cast role for Wilbrink, who is after all a Kammersänger. Ralf Weikert competently led the orchestra. A fine evening altogether.

Don Giovanni
Nationaltheater, 2 April 2000

Finally after all those dispiriting performances in Houston, this performance of Don Giovanni was very enjoyable. The production by Nicholas Hytner was straightforward and mostly not disturbing in any way as it should be. Why Hytner introduced four children, carrying a cross after the death of the Commendatore and appearing from time to time during the performance and for the last time during the descent into hell of Don Giovanni, remains a mystery. Bob Crowley designed both the costumes and sets. While the costumes were excellent, in style with the work and not Martian outfits of some kind, the sets were very simple, not in style with the work, mostly red, monotonous and ugly. The opening set was a simple red drop curtain with a small yellow window in the upper left corner. Don Giovanni appears with Donna Anna crashing through the drop curtain. During all evening, the basic red set remained in place. From time to time, other things appeared in the middle of the set, such a line of arcades when Donna Elvira appears for the first time, or a castle (Don Giovanni's, I presume) during Là ci darem la mano, or ugly green plants when Masetto and Zerlina appear, etc. A curiosity is the fact that the (almost) final supper is taken on the floor as no table has been provided. Crowley seems to have a hand fetish as a large hand was displayed preeminently in the middle of the set during some scenes for no clear reason. The fact that Peter Jonas allowed surtitles for this production is another unnecessary English influence, and really completely unnecessary in Munich. We are not in London. However, a great tradition still remains in Munich: curtain calls. It is very snobbish and elitist not to have any.

All the singers displayed great theatrical abilities. The vocal performance was on a high level, with the men coming on top. William Shimell (Don Giovanni) displayed great dramatic intensity and vocal power. Manfred Hemm was a first rate Leporello, strong in voice and humor. Rainer Trost (a new face & voice to me) was outstanding as Ottavio. Too bad the version played was the Prague version. This version does not contain the first aria of Ottavio, and it was a pity. The Masetto of Maurizio Muraro was very strong vocally. Muraro has Leporello in his repertory at other houses and it shows. Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Commendatore) seems to have lost some of his vocal bloom. He was adequate but not very menacing. The three ladies Hillevi Martinpelto (Anna), Amanda Roocroft (Elvira) and Alison Hagley (Zerlina) proved to be a very homogenous and reliable trio but without great vocal distinction. Martinpelto had the best voice of the trio, but needs to use it to better dramatic effect. The two English ladies were very musical and adequate to the task. Ivor Bolton conducted a strong, dramatic and exciting performance.

Nationaltheater, 26 April 1998

Exactly two weeks after Tokyo, I was in Munich and decided to hear Nabucco. It was the first time that I visited the Nationaltheater after an absence of six years. If I thought that the production of Nitzan in Tokyo was quite strange, I was in for a shock with the production, costume and set design by Pet Halmen, dating from 1990. I am not surprised, as Pet Halmen is a mental case. He produces regularly thrash in the different opera houses around the world and is getting away with it thanks to the morons that are nowadays managing opera houses. In Munich's case, it is Peter Jonas, the ex ENO director.
John Fiore, the conductor, entered the pit and conducted a lackluster overture. The orchestra sounded dimmed and undernourished during act 1. The set of act 1 was particularly noteworthy as there was practically no set at all, just four transparent drop clothes and something that came down the ceiling with an Hebrew inscription which I supposed represented Jerusalem. The Jews were all clad in black and wearing top hats, not very probable during that time period. The Babylonians soldiers looked like 19th century policemen, while others wore some ridiculous looking headgear and protective armors. Fenena was wearing an evening dress.
When John Fiore came out to conduct act 2, he was booed and things started to improve in the pit, but Fiore was not equal to Daniel Oren in Tokyo. In this act, Halmen made an effort, there was a set, a huge Babel tower tilted all the way back to the end of the stage. From the uncomfortable spot at the top of the tower, the Grand Priest had to sing. Halmen made sure we could not hear him. Abdallo was wearing a fez, an historical impossibility.
The set in act 3 was again non-existent, four drop clothes while Abigaille and Babylonian ladies wore modern evening dresses. There were also dead horses either hanging from the ceiling or laying on the stage. The symbol of the Babylonian power was an erected phallic symbol.
When the gods are destroyed in act 4, the symbol breaks in two, quite a ridiculous effect. The set in act 4 was made of very dim arcades that represented nothing implied in the libretto.
On the singing side, the Nabucco of Paolo Gavanelli was slow to warm up. In act 1, he was made to enter on a carriage pulled by four horses trampling over dead Jews and wearing a most ridiculous crown. He could not move very well, seemed and sounded ill at ease. In act 2, he had to stand midway on the tower, and he was again ill at ease. However in act 3, he was better. In act 4, Gavanelli produced a lot of piano head tone, his specialty. In his aria, Gavanelli was distracted by the the efforts of Halmen to have the audience entertained by unrelated actions going on while he is singing. Four men, in G-string and tied to ropes, were lowered on the stage, where they crawled away into the wings. If it was not enough, Halmen had Fenena raped during the later part of the aria. As Zaccaria, Roberto Scandiuzzi sounded like a competent utility bass, reliable and dull. He was no match for Furlanetto in Tokyo. It must be noted that he was acclaimed during his curtain call. The Abigaille was Susan Neves, described in the program as having had a triumph as Aida at the Met. She was a reliable singer, more a hausfrau than an Abigaille. She was competent, but did not generate the excitement provided by Guleghina in Tokyo. José Azocar did what he could with the impossible role of Ismaele. I heard Azocar in Lucia di Lammermoor on live tapes from Chile recorded approximately 10 years ago. He made an excellent impression that needs to be reconfirmed by hearing him live in a real tenor role. There were excellent singing and characterization by Robynne Redmon (Fenena), Kevin Conners (Abdallo) and Jennifer Trost (Anna). The Gran Sacerdote was Harry Dworchak. He was described in the program as having made his European debut in 1990, a false statement as I heard him in 1986 in Paris in La donna del lago with Merritt and Blake. Dworchak did not make any impression. Apparently his repertory includes Scarpia, Wotan and Holländer, it is quite difficult to imagine him singing those roles.

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