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Iconic British Wagnerians revisit Bayreuth legend

5 November 2014, London, UK

Anne Evans and John Tomlinson in Bayreuth's legendary 1988 'Ring' cycle
Anne Evans and John Tomlinson in Bayreuth's legendary 1988 'Ring' cycle

‘It was the highlight of my working life.’ That, simply put, was how Sir John Tomlinson described his experience of singing Wotan in a production of Wagner’s Ring that has become an operatic legend.

Sir John was speaking at ‘Bayreuth Revisited’ presented by the International Opera Awards at the Royal Society of Chemistry in London on Wednesday night (4 November). He was joined by Dame Anne Evans who sang Brünnhilde in the same production.  Sunday Times opera critic Hugh Canning chaired the after-dinner conversation, as two of Britain’s most distinguished operatic luminaries reminisced about their experience of working in Bayreuth.

In 1988, East German director Harry Kupfer launched a new cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festival. Its stark sets pierced by laser beams, depicting a road stretching away into an endless horizon, together with the unprecedented energy of the music and drama, marked this Ring as a landmark event that received the highest critical praise. The production was filmed over two seasons in 1991 and 1992 and was among the first operas to be captured in High Definition on video.

‘The timing and political backdrop made Kupfer’s Ring especially significant,’ said Dame Anne. Its ideas came together just as Europe emerged from the Cold War on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘It was a time of incredible change and uncertainty, a mixture of hope and anxiety, which had a huge impact on Kupfer as an East German.’

Sir John recalled that Kupfer had a surprising take on the role of Wotan, king of the gods. ‘I was used to thinking of him as a noble figure, rather solid and venerable; but Kupfer had quite another view of him. This Wotan was a bundle of energy, athletic, youthful and roguish, which made his scenes with Brünnhilde especially urgent and exciting.’

The early 1990s film footage accompanied the discussion, so that the audience could get a sense of the white-hot excitement of the production for themselves, with Wotan and Brünnhilde, each with a shock of unruly red hair, locked in the father-daughter struggle that drives Die Walküre. The magnificent acting and singing of Tomlinson and Evans was underpinned by the whirlwind dynamism of Daniel Barenboim’s conducting.

Hugh Canning pointed out that Kupfer’s was probably the last great and enduring production of the Ring to be staged in Bayreuth. Recent productions have proved far less successful, and last year’s Wagner anniversary staging by the controversial Rank Castorf was widely judged to be a fiasco.

Kupfer’s production, Dame Anne recalled, was dubbed the ‘English Ring’ in Germany. She explained that Britain was able to field so many great Wagnerians because of the extraordinary influence of the English conductor Sir Reginald Goodall, who had nurtured the art of great Wagnerian singing among a generation of British singers. Sir John added that the Germans were, to start with, suspicious of what appeared to be a British invasion of Bayreuth. ‘As soon as they saw the quality of what we could do, they were won over,’ he said.

‘Bayreuth Revisited’ was presented by the International Opera Awards as part of their ongoing bid to raise awareness of opera and promote excellence in the field. This was a fundraising event where proceeds were given to the Opera Awards Foundation which nurtures great talent for the future.

The 2015 International Opera Awards will take place at the Savoy Theatre & Hotel on 26 April next year. For details and reservations visit www.operaawards.org

Subscribe to Opera Now as a print or digital edition now for more news, features and information. Single issues are also available in print and digital from just £2.49

Virginia Opera’s 40th anniversary season opens with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd

29 September 2014, Norfolk, US

Stephen Powell (Sweeney Todd) and Phyllis Pancella (Nellie Lovett)
Stephen Powell (Sweeney Todd) and Phyllis Pancella (Nellie Lovett)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

The Virginia Opera has chosen an eclectic programme to celebrate its 40th anniversary season: Sondheim’s chilling thriller Sweeney Todd and Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, highlighting the company’s strong commitment to musical theatre, plus Salome and La traviata.
Director Ron Daniels’ production of Sweeney Todd showed the tragic results of all-consuming revenge. Set in gritty 19th-century London, Todd had just returned from a penal colony in Australia, where he had been interred on fabricated charges by Judge Turpin. To add insult to injury, Turpin lusted after and abducted Todd’s beautiful wife Lucy and their young daughter Johanna. Obsessed with revenge for this injustice, Todd became a serial killer, murdering almost everyone who visited his barber shop for a shave, in addition to his planned killings of those who wronged him. Whomever sat in his elaborately set-up barber’s chair, efficiently arranged to dispose of the victims whose throats he proficiently slit, were then shoved into an oven (reminiscent of those used in the Nazi concentration camps), and subsequently used as ingredients in pies sold in a shop upstairs.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set designs featured a dark, minimalistic backdrop of what looked like soot-covered corrugated aluminum and a translucent blood-spattered curtain, which intermittently bisected the stage giving characters behind it a ghostly appearance. This dramatic and macabre setting, bathed in blood-red light, proved an ideal platform for the work. Its essence and message came across through good singing and acting, especially by Stephen Powell and Phyllis Pancella whose nuanced portrayals of Sweeney Todd and Nellie Lovett captured both the darkness and humour of their characters.

Other standout portrayals included Andre Chiang whose lustrous voice combined with innocent simplicity created an ideal Anthony Hope; Amanda Opuszynskui who assayed Johanna with sweet innocence; Jake Gardner who made an evil and sexually obsessed Judge Turpin; and Diana DiMarzio as the Beggar women (in reality Todd’s demented wife) whose state and tragic murder vividly demonstrated the heartbreaking consequences of unbridled hate. Maestro Adam Turner, despite occasionally covering the singers, did a commendable job with the Virginia Opera Orchestra.

Subscribe to Opera Now as a print or digital edition now for more news, features and information. Single issues are also available in print and digital from just £2.49

Welser-Möst quits as music director of the Vienna State Opera

8 September 2014, Vienna, Austria

Franz Welser-Möst
Franz Welser-Möst(Photo: Roger Mastroianni)

Report by George Jahn

Simmering differences between Franz Welser-Möst and Dominique Meyer over the artistic direction of the Vienna State Opera have led to what those who know the scene say was inevitable – the resignation of Welser-Möst as music director.

Meyer sought to keep the dispute private, saying little after issuing a general statement. The Vienna State Opera general director said Welser-Möst’s departure was ‘a huge loss’, adding that he greatly valued him as an artist and conductor.

But Welser-Möst’s comments hinted at the breadth of their disagreements. ‘It has to do with singers and directors; it has to do with the entire domain that determines the artistic direction of the house,’ he said. ‘Believe me: this is a very painful decision for me.’

The break was announced on 5 September but had apparently been long in coming. From the start of his tenure two years ago, Welser-Möst sought to have a greater voice in determining the repertoire, the performers and the presentation of one of the world’s greatest opera houses.

As the conflict festered, leading Austrian cultural figures were called in to mediate, with the latest session taking place last week – in vain.

Welser-Möst’s decision hit like a bombshell, leaving Meyer scrambling to find conductors for 34 performances this season, including two opera premieres: Verdi’s Rigoletto and Elektra by Strauss.

It is nonetheless in keeping with the outwardly quiet 54-year-old Austrian music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Unspectacular when not conducting, Welser-Möst is known for putting his foot down rather than consent to painful compromise.

He stepped back two years ago from Così fan tutte at the Salzburg Festival rather than accepting what he said was insufficient rehearsal time. He also criticised Salzburg director Alexander Pereira’s 2012 opera picks – including Carmen, La bohème and Die Zauberflöte – as too tame for the sophisticated Salzburg audience.

With his contract scheduled to run until 2018, Welser-Möst’s departure adds to the reputation of the Vienna house as teeming with intrigue, with a notoriously high turnover of music directors as a result.

Welser-Möst is in good company. Those forced out or quitting before their terms ended include Gustav Mahler, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan and Lorin Maazel.

World Premiere | Trans Mahgreb at Bregenz Festival

1 September 2014, Bregenz, Austria

Organised confusion: 'Trans Mahgreb' at Bregenz Festival
Organised confusion: 'Trans Mahgreb' at Bregenz Festival

The nightmare unfolds in 'Trans Mahgreb'
The nightmare unfolds in 'Trans Mahgreb'

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Outside the theatre, before Trans Maghreb, the audience was ‘transported’ to Libya in rebellion, where this Austrian-Arabic chamber music theatre piece took place, with a recreation of the sights, sounds, and smells of the country. The audience became part of the action, herded around the stage, intermingling with the performers. (I was given a bullet-proof vest marked ‘Press’ to wear.) Unfolding in a black-box space amidst real sand evoking the endless Libyan desert and wall projections of Gaddafi encircled with fire (symbolically evoking his demise), the work became a terrifying experience of what it would be like as a Westerner caught up in the middle of the Arab Spring uprising.

Based on the same-named novella by Hans Platzgumer, who also wrote the libretto, it told the story of an Austrian engineer and his workers who, while building a rail project in the Libyan desert, were locked up by rebels fighting against Gaddafi’s dictatorship. Their only hope was their Austrian supervisor Anton Corwald, who cared more about money than his workers, and escaped leaving them die.

Spoken and sung in a mixture of German, Arabic, Turkish, French and English, the piece alternated post-modern minimalism, improvised jazz and what could only be categorized as noise. Interspersed were arias and spoken dialogue. The music lacked unity and continuity with jarring results. Radically different sounds accompanied the separate actions, changing according to the events and psychological aspects, more akin to a movie soundtrack than music theatre. The audience was herded to and fro like cattle to bear witness to the different events and horrors unfolding around them.

Trans Maghreb was commissioned as part of the ‘Kunst aus der Zeit’ (Art of our Times) series at Bregenz Festival. Director Ran Braun conceived the work as organised confusion, resulting in controlled chaos that immerses the audience. The overall effect was powerful and moving, and demonstrated how diverse the concept of ‘opera’ has become.

19th-century Polish opera in rare London staging

6 August 2014

A costume design for 'Halka' by Mike Leopold
A costume design for 'Halka' by Mike Leopold

Stanislaw Moniuzko’s opera Halka gets a rare London performance on 4 and 5 October at POSK, the Polish Social and Cultural Association in Hammersmith, commissioned as part of the centre’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Hailed by critics of its day as one of the greatest Polish operas, Halka was premiered in a two act version in 1848, then revised in four acts for its premiere at the Warsaw State Opera in 1857. Despite its success, and lushly romantic score, it is hardly ever performed outside Poland.

The London production brings together a cast of very talented young Polish singers. Monika Swiostek, who has sung the role in Poland, appears as Halka, Marcin Janusz as her fickle aristocratic lover Janusz. Rafal Bartminski sings the role of the faithful Jontek, while Piotr Lempa and Marcin Gesla alternate the roles of Stolnik and Dziemba. Violetta Gawara sings Zosia and the opera is being sung in Polish with English surtitles.

Halka is being directed by Opera Now correspondent Richard Fawkes and conducted by Stephen Ellery, who is also arranging the score for a chamber group. The set is designed by Mike Leopold, a recent graduate from Wimbledon College of Art.

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