Monday, November 5, 2012

Premiere on Sunday, November 4, 2012

Conductor - Friedemann Layer
Director - Claus Guth
Set and costumes - Christian Schmidt
Lighting - Olaf Winter
Dramaturg - Norbert Abels
Chorus - Felix Lemke

Arkel, King of Allemonde - Alfred Reiter
Pelléas - Christian Gerhaher
Mélisande - Christiane Karg
Golaud, Arkel's grandson - Paul Gay
Geneviève - Hilary Summers
Yniold, Golaud's son from his first marriage - David Jakob Schläger
A doctor - Sungkon Kim
Frankfurt Opera chorus
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester

   Everyone has their ghosts.
   But there seems to be more than a fair share of them in Claus Guth's terrifying new reading of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, which opened at the Frankfurt Opera on Sunday.
   "Je suis malade ici, je ne suis pas heureuse ici..." Mélisande repeatedly complains. She's not the only one.
   Nearly 10 years after peering deep into the abyss of sexual abuse in Der Fliegende Holländer in Bayreuth, Guth takes us on another dark and disturbing journey into the depths of the human psyche here.
   Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolistic play, which serves as Debussy's libretto, is fleetingly elliptical, a retelling of the fairy story of Rapunzel in colours by Edvard Munch.
   But Guth isn't afraid to grab the story's subject matter by the lapels and call it what it is.
   Mélisande is no ephemeral, golden-haired wisp of a nymph. When Golaud finds her -- he is alerted to her presence not by her sobs, as the libretto suggests, but by her coughs -- she has clearly suffered some terrible physical trauma. She is disorientated, her clothes and hair are dishevelled.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus
   We can only imagine the horror of what she has gone through as she tries, with shaking hands, to light a cigarette and pleas for Golaud not to touch her ("Ne me touchez pas!"). And when he asks who has hurt her ("Qui est-ce qui vous a fait du mal?"), her reply, "Tous! Tous!", could not be more chilling.
   Unfortunately, Golaud's home of Allemonde, to which he takes her, offers no refuge for the traumatised Mélisande. The abuse, both physical and emotional, continues.
   Golaud, who suspects Mélisande of being in love with his much younger half-brother Pelléas, torments not only himself and her with his jealousy, but also his small son by his first marriage, Yniold, by forcing him to spy on the suspected lovers.
   The brothers' grandfather and king of Allemonde, Arkel, also crosses a line when Mélisande turns to him for comfort.
   And even Pelléas, in whom Mélisande desperately hopes to have found her rescuer, humiliates her by tying her up in some sort of sublimated sexual game and leaves her there for Golaud to find her.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus
   Not that the men are merely perpetrators. They, too, all seem haunted and tormented by their own inner ghosts, victims of some past deep traumas of their own, while the brothers' mother Geneviève cannot or refuses to see and acknowledge what is going on.
   The air, sings Pelléas, is "heavy and dank like a noisome mist of lead, and there's a darkness so thick that it lies in dense and poisoned masses" ("Il y a là un air humide et lourd come une rosée de plomb, et des ténèbres épaisses comme une pâte empoisonée.")
   Everyone is trapped in this stifling and claustrophobic world, which is inhabited by eerie shadows and ghosts and which we can occasionally just about make out in the all-enveloping gloom.
   The ingenious set, by Guth's long-standing collaborator Christian Schmidt, is designed as a giant doll's house, allowing us to watch the goings-on in the different rooms of Allemonde simultaneously.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus

   Even if Guth's thought-provoking new reading were not so cogently and intelligently wrought, this new staging would be worth seeing for the cast alone, with Christian Gerhaher and Christiane Karg making their debuts in the title roles.
   The role of Pelléas is tricky because it is considered to be too high for a baritone and too low for a tenor.
   Pierre Boulez, for example, who conducted Peter Stein's seminal staging of the work for Welsh National Opera in the early 90s, insists the role should be taken by a tenor. This is backed up in the score where Debussy notates Pelléas's part in the treble clef.
   But baritone Gerhaher, one of the most consistently intelligent and thoughtful Lied singers around today, has no trouble with the high tessitura.
   He is utterly believeable in the role, too, twitching with suppressed sexual feeling, but with ripples of ambiguous menace showing through the surface at times, too.
   Mélisande can also be sung by either a soprano or a mezzo since it only occasionally strays above the stave to A flat.
   Natalie Dessay took on the role a few years ago in Vienna, while Anne Sofie von Otter has sung it too.
   Frankfurt Opera's own Christiane Karg has a limpid, well-focused lyric soprano, but her Mélisande, while scarred and fragile, is never timid or fey.
   Paul Gay is gripping as Golaud, no outright villain, but a man at sea emotionally who ends up hurting everyone around him and murdering Pelléas. He vainly tries to convince himself that the love between Pelléas and Mélisande is innocent, but continues to torment Mélisande even when she is dying.
   The role of Geneviève is somewhat thankless. She isn't called on to do much after her big scene early in Act 1. Nevertheless, the normally excellent Hilary Summers sounded occasionally underpowered, as if she might have been somewhat indisposed.
   Frankfurt Opera's own Alfred Reiter was well suited to the role of Arkel and David Jakob Schläger was enchanting as Yniold, looking and sounding like Little Lord Fauntleroy.
   The only slight drawback of the evening was conductor Friedemann Layer, whose slow and leaden tempi occasionally weighed down much of Debussy's miraculous score. But that is a perhaps a minor quibble which will hopefully be ironed out in subsequent performances.
   The production runs until early December. It may not be one for the faint-hearted. But if you like your opera to be challenging and unsettling, this is definitely one for you.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Grand opening concert: ECB's European Cultural Days 2012

Alte Oper, Frankfurt
Grosser Saal
Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Les Talens Lyriques
Christophe Rousset
Gaëlle Arquez, soprano
Aimery Lefèvre, bass-baritone

"Passions à la française"

Overtures, Arias and Duets from
"Roland" - Jean-Baptiste Lully
"Medée" -  Marc-Antoine Charpentier
"Tancrède"- André Campra
"Castor et Pollux", "Zoroastre" - Jean-Philippe Rameau

It's not a central bank's job to organise concerts.
But the opening night of this year's European Cultural Days by the European Central Bank was a bit of a botch-up.
Every year, the month-long festival showcases the culture of a different European country. And this year it is France's turn.
But the "Grand opening concert" in Frankfurt's Alte Oper on Wednesday was -- from a purely artistic point of view -- a total mismatch between programme, venue and audience.
Promising "a selection of the best French baroque music composed between 1680 and 1750," the organisers, the French central bank or Banque de France, had invited Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques to do the honours.
But this is the land of Bach and Händel. And even in the small but thriving area of historically informed performance, the works of Lully and Rameau remain relatively unchartered territory and are regarded as very much an acquired taste.
So quite what Rousset was thinking in serving up a random selection of little-known arias and duets from even lesser-known operas -- such as Lully's "Roland" or Rameau's "Zoroastre" -- to a largely uninitiated audience is anyone's guess.
Surely a concert such as this should pull in the crowds and whet their appetites for a four-week extravaganza celebrating the very best in arts a country can offer.
If the opening event really had to be an evening of French baroque, where were the more palatable crowd-pleasers such as the catchy, foot-stomping march from "Le bourgeois gentilhomme" or one of the well-known set pieces from "Les indes galantes"?
Only the most widely-read and erudite listener could find things to relish and savour in this wilfully esoteric and po-faced choice of works.
It's equally puzzling why the Alte Oper should be the chosen venue, too.
The acoustics of its cavernous 2,500-seater main auditorium are problematic, to put it mildly.
They certainly do not do justice to the delicate timbres of a small period-instrument ensemble such as Les Talens Lyriques, who numbered all of 25 on this particular evening.
Perplexingly, Frankfurt's mayor Peter Feldmann described the Alte Oper as Frankfurt's "loveliest" concert hall.
To be honest, there aren't many to chose from in this city of steel and concrete skycrapers. But the Alte Oper has all the charm of a shoe-box.
In the selection of operatic overtures -- Lully's "Roland", Charpentier's "Medée", Campra's "Tancrède" and Rameau's "Castor et Pollux" -- the acoustics robbed the sound of Rousset's players of any body, rendering it thin and scrawny. And with only two oboes and bassoons to augment strings and continuo, there was little variety in texture or orchestration.
Most of the audience were totally out of their depth, too.
Apparently, there were 2,400 invited guests, including president Mario Draghi himself, Banque de France governor Christian Noyer and Frankfurt's mayor Feldmann.
But there was many an empty seat at the start of the evening and a great many more after the interval.
In fact, most of the audience seemed to be ECB staff press-ganged into attending. And many of them looked like as if it was their first-ever classical music concert.
Clearly bored, they leafed distractedly through the programme, chatted to their neighbours or looked repeatedly at their watches.
The two young soloists, Gaëlle Arquez and Aimery Lefèvre, were overtaxed most of the time.
Arquez's light soprano, touching in what was perhaps the best-known aria of the evening, "Tristes apprêts" from "Castor et Pollux", lacked the power and heft for the more dramatic "Quel prix de mon amour" from "Medée".
Lefèvre, stepping in at short notice to replace the indisposed Edwin Crossley-Mercer, was only marginally less one-dimensional and his slender bass-baritone showed a slight tendency to strain higher up in different arias from "Roland", "Tancrède" and "Zoroastre".
At times of crisis such as these, central bank chiefs Draghi and Noyer are busy men, so it may not be surprising that they made a dash for it at the interval.
But the overriding impression was that their hearts were simply not behind the venture anyway.
I similarly recall Draghi leaving early at last year's opening concert when Claudio Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart represented Italy.
Surely it would be more satisfying for everyone involved for the organisation of such an event to be handed over to experienced professionals who can bring together the right ensemble with the right programme for the right audience.
It would certainly leave a less sour taste in the mouth than this evening did.

One can only hope that the rest of the 2012 Cultural Days festival is better thought out.