A musical adventure in Germany

With over 50 opera companies to choose from, a harmonious vacation from Leipzig to Berlin creates many memorable moments.

(photo credit: TOM SCHULZE)
 We recently undertook a musical tour in Germany, visiting Leipzig, Dresden and Hamburg, finally ending up in Berlin.
Leipzig has a rich music tradition, and its Gewandhaus Orchestra is one of the oldest in the world; it counts Felix Mendelssohn among the roster of its illustrious directors. Their technical proficiency was readily evident in a dazzling account of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony, followed by his Symphonic Dances. Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy successfully brought out all the rhythmic tensions and sweep of both works.
The Gewandhaus is also the resident orchestra of the Leipzig Opera. Under Anthony Bramall, they provided persuasive accompaniment to a delightful performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, which traces the progressive downhill spiral of the protagonist Tom Rakewell.
Directed by Damiano Michieletto, Act 1 featured a rustic setting together with barbecue, reclining deck chairs and a 1950 model car in Anne Trulove’s home. She is to be married to Tom. Suddenly, the sinister Nick Shadow appears and makes a Mephistophelean pact with Tom. The two of them immediately depart for London.
Michieletto ingeniously sets much of the remainder of the opera in a large swimming pool decorated with neon lighting, which initially functions as a brothel. Despite Anne’s entreaties, there is no halt to Tom’s inexorable degradation. A tragic and brutal atmosphere pervades, and Tom eventually ends up in a madhouse.
Overall, the singing was of a high standard; especially noteworthy was Norman Reinhardt as Tom and Marika Schonberg in the role of Anne. Bass-baritone Tuomas Pursio succeeded in bringing out all the malevolence of Nick.
The Hamburg State Opera gave an inspiring account of Richard Strauss’s Salome.
The bleak but effective production by Willy Decker featured an empty stage in different shades of gray. Highlights of the cast included soprano Nadja Michael as Salome.
Appearing in white with a shaved head, she gave a powerful and fiery account of the role. She not only excelled vocally but proved to be a compelling actress, especially in the way she manipulated the weak Herod. As an act of defiance after her rejection by Jochanaan, Salome enveloped herself in his coat that she seductively removed in the Dance of the Seven Veils.
The other real vocal standout was sonorous baritone Sebastian Holenek as Jochanaan.
His voice projected well and he certainly captured the essence of the role.
Sebastian Weigle conducting the State Opera Orchestra brought out the brilliant orchestration of Strauss’s masterly score, affording ample support for the singers.
The Semper Opera House in Dresden has been beautifully restored to its prewar splendor and is one of the crown jewels of the city. It was refreshing to see so many young faces in the audience. Israeli conductor Omer Wellber led the resident Dresden State Opera and choir in a performance of Cosi fan tutte, possibly Mozart’s greatest operatic masterpiece. He began the overture at a slow, measured pace, but the tempo gradually picked up – although the orchestral playing was somewhat erratic.
Harald Thor’s sets featured a sloping, revolving stage. It was initially festooned with white drapes suspended from the ceiling; in the second act, the walls were a deep red, reminiscent of blood, as Don Alfonso’s plan to prove the inconsistency of the lovers takes shape. At the opera’s end, the complicated situation between the two pairs of lovers appears resolved at a superficial level. We are left to ponder on the longterm consequences.
Carolina Ullrich was a delightful Despina, the maid Don Alfonso entices to help him execute his plans. She and baritone Zachary Nelson as Guglielmo, who was engaged to be married to one of the two sisters, provided the best singing, performing their roles with confidence and assurance.
BERLIN IS probably the only city to boast three world-class opera houses. Daniel Barenboim’s spring festival in Berlin’s State Opera featured a new production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The plot revolves round the minstrel Tannhäuser and his dual loyalties, which vacillate between the sensual love of Venus and the pure love of Elisabeth, the niece of the landgrave (count).
Sasha Waltz directed and choreographed this production. Her inventiveness was immediately evident in the opening erotic Venusberg Bacchanale. The staging featured a funnel suspended in midair, through which Waltz’s semi-clad erotic dancers emerged. The funnel could also be conceived as a pupil of the eye, as though the unfolding proceedings were part of a dream.
Peter Seiffert as Tannhäuser gave a flawless, dramatic and convincing account of the role. Marina Prudenskaya’s Venus was very effective in the tender intimate moments but when roused to anger in her fortissimo passages, some stridency crept in.
After Tannhauser uttered the name of the Virgin Mary, Venusberg disappeared and made way for the entourage of the Landgrave sung by the incomparable sonorous bass, Rene Pape. Waltz’s staging here featured dancing of the young people accompanying the Landgrave. This was somewhat overdone and added little to the otherwise inventive staging.
Act 2’s song competition featured golden poles suspended from the ceiling; the orchestra’s horn section marching across the stage added a nice touch. Ann Petersen’s portrayal of Elizabeth was outstanding.
This highly communicative soprano possessed the necessary power for the high fortissimo passages ,without displaying any vocal distortion. Most noteworthy was her passionate duet with Seiffert, where they both unleashed their powerful voices but were in perfect synchrony.
Another notable standout was baritone Peter Mattei as Wolfram, one of the Landgrave’s knights. His “Song to the Evening Star” was one of the unquestionable pinnacles of the performance.
Barenboim’s other operatic contribution featured a revival of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.
Maurizio Balo’s rather sparse and dark staging is in keeping with the gloomy plot.
Any visual shortcoming was more than compensated for by the great singing.
Pride of place goes to the 73-year-old marvel Placido Domingo. He has graced operatic stages for over 50 years, with a repertoire encompassing almost 150 roles. Since his transition from tenor to baritone, he has made Simon Boccanegra, the Doge of Genoa, one of his signature roles. With his rich burnished voice and its varying colorings, he was the most commanding presence on stage.
The young Italian soprano, Maria Agresta, gave a flawless account of the role of Amelia Grimaldi. With her gleaming, soaring high notes she produced a ravishing sound displaying impeccable vocal technique. An undisputed high point of the performance was Amelia’s initial encounter with Boccanegra, when it transpires that she is in fact Maria, his long-lost daughter.
Gabriele Adorno, Maria’s lover as well as enemy but subsequent supporter of the doomed Boccanegra, was sung by Fabio Sartori. He displayed a bright, ringing, Italianate tenor quality to his voice. Also very touching was the poignant confrontation of the dying Boccanegra with Fiesco, his longtime nemesis, when the Doge reveals that Maria is Fiesco’s granddaughter.
In both Tannhäuser and Simon Boccanegra, Barenboim galvanized the orchestra of the State Opera Berlin and propelled the proceedings with masterly accompaniment.
He gave a bold and spellbinding account of both scores; equally impressive was the magnificent choir.
Barenboim together with Martha Argerich gave a once-in-a-lifetime joint recital comprising sonatas by Mozart and Schubert. These two septuagenarian, Argentinean-born pianists concluded their recital with an absolutely incandescent account of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
Without a doubt, Barenboim’s short annual spring festival deserves full accolades for its extraordinary artistic standards.
BERLIN’S DEUTSCHES Opera premiered a new production of Donizetti’s enduring comedy L’Elisir d’amore, directed by Irina Brook. To buy Adina’s affection, the simple yet lovable Nemorino purchases a love potion or elixir of love sold by the quack doctor Dulcamara, which in reality is a cheap bottle of Bordeaux. In Romani’s libretto, Adina is portrayed as a wealthy landowner. In this production, she is the leader of the traveling theater company.
Noëlle Ginefri’s sets consisted of three caravans with a stage set up as Teatro Adina.
The cast was attired in contemporary clothing including jeans and shorts. As Adina, the shapely soprano Heidi Stober was most effective in the tender moments, especially when she expressed her love for Nemorino.
Her constant changing of costumes in the first act was distracting, however.
The best singing came from Adina’s recently arrived soldier lover Belcore, sung by Simon Pauly and Nicola Alaimo, who gave a sound and authoritative account of Dulcamara. Dimitri Pittas took the challenging role of Nemorino, singing with much commitment, but his key aria, “Una furtive lagrima” (A single secret tear) fell a little flat.
Roberto Rizzi Brignoli directing the orchestra of the Deutsche Opera supported the soloists with a lively performance. The competent choir contributed much to the success of this delightful evening of fun.
BERLIN’S KOMISCHE OPERA mounted a revival of their stunning production of Mozart’s endearing Magic Flute, directed by Barrie Kosky and the British avant-garde theater company 1927, led by Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt.
This highly innovative production featured video images with brilliant multimedia animation. Kosky incorporated the often long-winded spoken dialogue of Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, into short sentences projected onto the screen, reminiscent of those in 1920s-era silent movies. To maintain dramatic continuity, the orchestra played excerpts of other compositions by Mozart during these projections.
The set consisted of a flat backdrop and the singers appeared in small niches set at various levels, interacting with the animations.
The Queen of the Night was associated with a huge spider which could ensnare all adversaries. Papageno was accompanied by a cat and Monostatos, Sarastro’s servant who has designs on Pamina, with wolves. Moments of love between the characters were illustrated with moving hearts. After Papageno finally met up with his love, Papagena, the animations revealed pollinating bees and their future home with many rooms filled with even more children.
At the concluding aria, animations ceased and all principals and the choir appeared on stage in front of the drawn curtains. Most noteworthy among the singers was bass Dimitry Ivashchenko as Sarastro. Conductor Kristiina Poska led a lively, enjoyable performance, providing excellent support for the singers.
THE CROWN JEWEL in my musical sojourn was a performance by the incomparable Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra of Manon Lescaut. Puccini’s opera traces the decline and death of the pleasure-loving Manon, just as she finds her true love with the student Des Grieux.
The orchestra had just returned from Baden-Baden, where they performed a fully staged version; in Berlin this was a concert performance. Simon Rattle brilliantly captured all the subtle details and nuances of Puccini’s score and the orchestra gave an exquisite, riveting and unforgettable performance. Particularly beautifully executed was the intermezzo which ushers in Act 3.
Rattle positioned the soloists behind the orchestra in front of the choir. Despite the great acoustics of the Philharmonie, the orchestra’s concert hall, soloists often had to struggle and compete with the massive orchestral forces. This did not affect powerhouse Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as the hapless Manon, or tenor Massimo Giordano as a fervent Des Grieux who both sang with ardor and sensitivity.
Indeed, Westbroek’s mesmerizing beauty of tone and timber was evident throughout.
The two principals beautifully complemented each other and gave masterful authoritative performances.
Manon’s brother Lescaut was sung by baritone Lester Lynch and bass Liang Li took the role of the malevolent Geronte, her wealthy patron. They were both up to the task but on occasion were not clearly heard above the orchestra.
All told, this was a shattering performance and a fitting end to my sojourn in Germany.
In retrospect, the most memorable moment of this musical adventure was a performance in St. Thomas Church in Leipzig of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata, “Behold, let us go up to Jerusalem,” BWV 159, by the Gewandhaus Orchestra and St.
Thomas Choir. This was the very church where Bach served as cantor for 28 years, and where he is buried.
The lingering beauty of the solo bass together with oboe and string accompaniment will remain forever indelibly etched in my mind.
The writer, an emeritus professor of medicine, writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel (www.irvingspitz.com). He was recently recognized with the Sidney Ingbar Distinguished Service Award by the Endocrine Society for his contributions to the field. He may be contacted at [email protected]