The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Monday, May 25, 2009

ROH Metzmacher Tote Stadt - sunk under its own weight

Think back to Salzburg Festivals under Herbert von Karajan in the late 1970's, 1980's, and the elephantosis that took place with a variety of repertoire, whether Aida, Carmen, Rosenkavalier, etc. The exception here, what follows, is that it is mostly compositional. Try to ignore who it is who wrote what review follows here; you should not be alone in your disbelief as to who did so. I immediately join you. I had high expectations. According to the press I read, this was to be a revelation.

Die Tote Stadt manages to commit as much excess as Frau ohne schatten, if not a little more (or as Egyptian Helen), but in the space, in abridgment applied by Willi Decker, of just two hours, as opposed to 200 minutes for the Strauss. Let’s not even mention the reminders of Ketelbey and Palm Court. Come to think of it, perhaps Metzmacher should follow up ‘Who’s Afraid of 20th Century Music’ with 1930’s-40’s-50’s Light Classics, etc. Anyone for some Metzmacher Leroy Anderson, Victory at Sea, Cole Porter arrangements or of course still better yet singles from him such as Down Peacock Alley, The Picnic Party, In A Chinese Temple Garden, Roses of Picardy? I should prefer to settle for some Edith Piaf.

Until listening to this broadcast, I have always considered Christian Thielemann the less subtle between Metzmacher and himself, but Thielemann's Frau ohne schatten from the Met (2002) was a paragon of subtlety compared with this. Korngold did not want to miss a beat, as there are a number of places he almost slavishly lifts from Frau ohne schatten and more shamelessly a couple of times the closing dance from Elektra – what is Strauss’s operatic masterpiece. Strauss spoke of Korngold as being a most promising young genius, right after Violanta, that Korngold wrote at age of eighteen. I am no advocate for appealing to measure of youth as any yardstick. One has to wonder how flattered Strauss must have felt, from hearing this (later than he had praised Korngold so) for being so emulated.

At any rate, in all its incipient tendencies, the music of Die Tote Stadt needs no help, but Korngold picked up an advocate in Ingo Metzmacher to make sure it gets the help it does not need anyway. There are subtleties here, an engagement with color, fine playing much of the way through by the Royal Opera orchestra - that is when Ingo Metzmacher held back from getting too enthusiastic about what is here. And yet he started clipping and doing weird things I am not accustomed to hearing him do on better repertoire - such as the other day, live from Berlin by DSO, Symphonic Prologue to Tragedy by Reger and Berceuse elegaique (Busoni).

I have two questions. If Korngold's Die Tote Stadt is such a great masterpiece, why do Royal Opera and Ingo Metzmacher not do it unabridged instead of doing the Willi Decker endorsed cuts, as also followed by Donald Runnicles (as heard from Salzburg)? As the music of Act 3 continues, I really begin to believe that someone is trying to pull my leg. Now let's overdo the Emperor-scene references from Frau, if the last act confessional moments with orchestral interludes to follow for Marie are not almost shameless enough.

The second question is more a rhetorical one. It is an obvious given that Korngold was a man of the theater. Is it for reasons that Metzmacher really trusts that Korngold's music can stand on its own (considering that Nadja Michael and Stephen Gould have limited acting talent) that Willi Decker for this revival (one among many of this production thus far) might have sent an assistant in his stead? However, if this is such a great masterpiece, why did not Ingo Metzmacher insist that Decker show up himself? There are complex variables, from especially the story line, that Decker (of whom I am no fan) can bring out and that actually enhance the music. On the other hand, if the music is so great that it can stand entirely on its own, why not do it in concert version? The entirety of this is only about 140 minutes; there could only be weak excuse to take so many cuts as advocates Willi Decker.

Metzmacher gets to underlining things so with Korngold's score at times, I begin to think that he might assume that it is Turangalila Symphony in front of him, except that the Messiaen, though it almost sounds equally Hollywood in the wrong hands (Previn, Rattle, also Chailly) is genius when led by the right people (Nagano, Chung, Rosbaud, presumably Metzmacher and Ozawa as well). Die Tote Stadt is, beyond a most qualified sense most certainly not however, regardless what flashes of genius strewn about here and there do occur within.

Donald Runnicles, at Salzburg, is on disc about everything that Metzmacher was not earlier this year in London. Runnicles is only similar to Metzmacher in pretty much taking the same cuts. His conducting of it, while being perfectly clear with the orchestral parts, has it played as just contributing to the entire theatrical experience; it succeeds at this by virtue of understatement. All the Elektra, Frau and even what could be construed as Keltelbey references manage not to stick out at you; the lyrical places in it do not get saccharinized to death either. The otherwise highly estimable Hermann Prey, of all people, as Fritz on the Leinsdorf recording, moons so over Fritz's lush solo during Act Two that it made me come relatively close to gagging on it.

What of this cast? Gerald Finley sang his Decker-ized double role of Frank and Fritz very responsibly, if with a slight want for better legato, and a tendency to croon just a bit at the start of his big moment as Fritz in Act Two. Kathleen Wilkinson, (Brigitta), singing well except for weak low notes, made conscientious enough effort. Bernard Richter, as Victorien/Gastone, sang adequately, but phrased and acted stiffly - seemingly well in accordance with just about how all this revival was led. Ji-Min Park, as fellow masquerader Graf Albert, sounded most genuine and even mildly besotted and happy, carefree that way, instead of singing oratorio (what sounded more authorized the entire broadcast through, as I found Finley and Richter doing, than any other way).

Nadja Michael took much time to warm up into acting the part of Marie/Marietta. Except for her fine lyrical singing of Marietta's Lied, a couple of other places plus a few acuti she nailed and phrases ascending to them, she tended to be unsteady, on especially anything approaching the break, and above. She may have helped Metzmacher in pushing advocacy for what modernism is in the score; what came out more times than I could count was however not quite what Korngold had written. Thinking back to listening to a disc of Phyillis Bryn-Julson (conducted very well by Simon Rattle) do Erwartung by Schoenberg the other day, Bryn-Julson might as well have been singing Schubert’s Hirt auf den Felsen, compared to what resulted from Michael here. The atonality was very interesting, but again, it was not Korngold.

Angela Denoke, heard in Erwartung with Metzmacher last Tuesday live was the Marie and Marietta for Runnicles. She also had pitch problems, and a somewhat constricted top, but one can always hear at least the pitch she is aiming for. With what went on during that run, her psychological identification with Marie/Marietta is complete; for that, it makes her intonation problems just quite easy to overlook. Denoke reveals herself taped live not to be the type to glibly toss off the passionate entreaties to Paul toward the end of Act 2, yet Michael did just that.

At the Straussian awkwardly cruel tenor role of Paul, Stephen Gould succeeded little. When not singing softly, his tone - much as with two tenors before him on disc as Paul - tightened considerably. Certainly neither he nor the score benefited from all the choppy italicization going on from the pit, so much so at times I might have guessed, if I had not been so informed, that perhaps it was Jansons instead.

Perhaps it is wise epiphany to me that Ingo Metzmacher is not King Midas, in his Indiana Jones style vigor and thrust found here to make something out of this. I have never listened to Fricsay's recording of Dantons Tod and do not plan on it. (Has anyone ever investigated whether or not Klemperer was really ill or instead had just simply had a look at that score?). The only way Metzmacher should be allowed near Die Tote Stadt again is as aggressively produced by Peter Konwitschny. Someone has suggested that Metzmacher be invited back to Royal Opera for one of Franz Schreker’s operas. Such an idea seems far less prudent than others - not forgetting that Metzmacher's operatic conducting debut was for Der Ferne Klang at Brussels.

Donald Runnicles attempts no alchemy on Korngold at all. The music may even still fart at you a few times; there still results no ethanol. He gets the little he needs out of the Vienna Philharmonic and wisely leaves it at that. At the end of the first two acts, you need not count the carbohydrates. He allows this piece to simply be what it is, and feeds off best he can some apparently very astute things transpiring on stage. Even so, Korngold, its more venal aspects, fully catches up with him well before end of Act 3.

Here is an aside – lavish onanism uttered by BBC’s Eric Levy (almost worse devil’s advocate than on Meg and Ira show from the Met) in reference to Schreker (not an entirely bad composer) as the most important Austro-German composer of opera since Richard Strauss of their generation. Far better case can be made for Eroberung von Mexiko by Rihm being the supreme operatic masterpiece of the past sixty years than what I heard on BBC said for Franz Schreker. Again, let it be said, if I have not forcefully enough already – even Fricsay did not quite have the power to make shoe polish out of fertilizers.

Neither would Ingo Metzmacher.


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