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.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

HGO Lohengrin - a vague, intellectualizing experiment - Summers debut conducting Wagner

Patrick Summers, in conducting his first Wagner opera anywhere in the world had sufficient craft to get through Lohengrin without it collapsing at any point, such as happened under Christoph Eschenbach for Lohengrin here in 1992. At the same time, that this is Houston and Houston Grand Opera, is that for all this alone, we owe some great debt of gratitude that we can only achieve Wagner this well under our music director here for already ten years. In fifty-four year history of HGO, this is their only second Lohengrin therein.

We have in this a Lohengrin and Elsa near top echelon in the international circuit for singing these parts, yet it sounded as though the world sure must suffer from a real dearth as to casting Wagner anymore. I can though think of several names with which perhaps with which we could do better than the two people we enlisted for this, but it may be difficult to book them here.

Houston Grand Opera has borrowed a production from Geneva by Daniel Slater, who has some experience at both second-tier British houses and Glyndebourne in mostly comic opera. Regardless, he could have given us a better Elisir d’amore, for likely it being less pretentious in addition to not glibly unaware of the score or of the music as the Arden production of that last week. Lohengrin here looked inoffensively generic, other than incidentally archetypal of anonymous modern totalitarian state, with armbands on some of Lohengrin’s coterie, followers to perhaps indicate outsider status of sorts.

Mystifying most of all was the Lohengrin - other than his having emerged from shadowy silhouette with his successor at stage rear during the prelude. Instead the whole evening of there being some form of mystical ‘other,’ he appeared most of the way through this as just some ordinary guy one might meet, let's say, in downtown Leipzig. There was some kind of swan insignia to apparently follow him around, as became evident during ceremonies closing Act Two. Other than that, it was hard to tell it was Lohengrin.

The sets were an overall drab brown and grey and for Elsa’s entrance in Act 2 through a wall up close to front of the stage, with several panel frames through which heads could stick out, butt-ugly. For the scene that preceded all this, there was little purpose for the wall other than against which could ping the voices of Ortrud and Telramund. Lighting, except for some incidental glaring effects, was good. Friedrich’s seemingly murderous subduing of a refugee - one out of group huddled about - and dragging his corpse across front of stage, to Elsa’s music closing her scene with Ortrud, looked merely awkward.

The stage two-thirds through Act Two then opened out for a great hall, with desks for office files to stage left, lit by conches, and two floors of library shelves at rear, from which emerged a small group of maidens in flamingo pink, to herald Elsa’s bridal train. They then distributed flowers amongst gathered crowd - small wreath of which to indicate villainy Ortrud then trampled under foot. Light then on purpose, became unremittingly harsh for opening of large door for bridal procession to pass through it. The famous bridal chorus was sung with chorus standing lined up in rows at stage front, with rectangular box glaringly lit right behind.- new light caramel colored boudoir (Bold and the Beautiful or Lohengrin?) for bridal pair. Elsa toward end of this scene pulled back the sheets – with things getting somewhat past hope of anything happening - as hope offered momentarily of things getting going pretty quick. It almost gave too underlined a new meaning to ‘anonymous sex.’

For downright silly, nothing could quite top the outcome of the death of Telramund, who with large gash in his side perhaps as mortally wounded precursor to Amfortas. There he was bleeding to death on the bed, staining badly bridal sheets for unconsummated newlyweds. The opening out of the rear of the stage for final entrance of Gottfried was nice, but the presentation to this short fair-haired brown-shirt youth of a gigantic sword verged on insipid. Apart from that, Slater settled for much simple blocking of his forces, Ortrud appearing to be some kind of apparatchik secretary, lurking about through most of Act One. If Slater was going to be revisionist, it would seem he might have come up with something interesting for March of the Vassals, as opposed to for moment it is over a brief show of army slowly parading back and forth.

Ryan McKinny (Herald) and Gunter Groissbock (King Heinrich) vocally started off the evening well, but McKinny, when push would come to shove, would stray quite a ways off pitch. The best vocal performance of the evening was the HGO debut of Groissbock, who sang with secure line, good legato, and firmly resonant voice, and brought measure of all-purpose dignity to his part, except while crudely rushed through invocations for Elsa’s knight to appear. The dignity here was all-purpose, since on the surface of things the King seemed to be one of the good guys, but at the end of the day here, toward benevolent or malevolent purposes, it was hard to say.

Richard Paul Fink repeated his (by now well known) Telramund from under Eschenbach seventeen years ago here. At that time, as heard over the air, the voice was one he was trying to push into being something larger than it actually could ever be, as encouraged no doubt by Eschenbach. This time around, his experience as Alberich at a number of major houses, and experience overall factored in, fortunately at the end of the evening to more advantage than not. The voice tends now to hollow out considerably at midrange however, and with the heavy miking and wall right behind him for opening scene of Act Two, it was hard to deduce how much volume was really his he could produce. The intrusion of now a Bayreuth bark, during which the voice can emerge more spoken than sung, thus often vague in intonation, still cut through a bit here, yet for finale to Act Two he achieved practically firm legato and rhythmically secure line to rival Groissbock.

Christine Goerke sang Ortrud with somewhat firm grasp of line, but at times extremely vague in pitch, with chin somewhat down, grabbing at notes alternatively from above and below, and cutting what amounted vocally most of all as little more than a generically menacing figure on stage. She was exposed more than was Fink by the removal of the wall, to show fatigue from the slightly extended stretch Wagnerputs Ortrud through for opening scenes of the act. A somewhat hard, vaguely quacky sound then emerged, but then for her brief moment of monologue up until two minutes before end of evening, Goerke changed placement effectively to lyric dramatic soprano from mezzo and finally really incisively got whatever the point might be across. Eschenbach, after rehearsal skirmish with his Ortrud (Dunja Vejzovic), did his level best to drown his Ortrud out for this same passage.

Simon O’Neill, by so frequently sounding strained in both dramatic profile and vocal character, thus did not abet matters in any attempt to identify what became basically as unidentifiable to us as to any Elsa. The voice is a pleasant lyric, as evident by being able to start some phrases with a decent mezza voce. However, it gets squeezed very quickly when pushed into singing what might carry any dramatic potential. Without choral forces being light and gratuitous miking, it is hard to tell how much better than not he would have fared. This was a Lohengrin that frequently sounded, came across anti-heroic.

One reads of Adrianne Pieczonka being the toast of Vienna, Salzburg, Bayreuth, but after hearing her Elsa, I must ask as I have in the past why. The instrument, especially if unencumbered by any real vocal challenge is lovely, as is her stage appearance, apart from being cool and glib at times, but pitch can be uneven, negotiation of the break is just noticeably unstable, and legato all patchwork. Whatever sense of wonder “Einsam in truben Tagen” and “Euch luften” (the latter cruelly undercut by bad staging) should have was lost. Apart from considering that the Bridal Chamber scene went well for her, there is hardly any accounting for a certain laziness that takes over of arbitrarily taking breaths every three or four notes that so arbitrarily break up legato (as in brief duet with Ortrud) Elsa this way becomes little more than a wallflower, a cipher. This was though a fine piece of work compared to literally the painful screaming Tina Kiberg gave us last time during the bridal chamber scene (paired with then fine lyric Wagner tenor in ascendancy as such - Goesta Winbergh)

Patrick Summers, though efficiently being able to get through Lohengrin without any embarrassing episodes, such as happened here before with previous total novice at it, gave at best approximate understanding of what Wagner and his Lohengrin are about. Thanks to slightly rushed tempos, making little of relationships between different passages in this score and of transitions between them, this performance of Lohengrin hung fire all too often. There were those places, especially in finding diaphanous sonorities for lyrical pages, and in firm enough grasp of rhythms in almost equally sporadic passages elsewhere that gave tentative hope of something emerging of halfway the real thing in terms of a Wagner podium here. What did not help however were several things – the frequently to almost constantly randy, out of tune brass playing, as crudely encouraged more by Summers from how things started once halfway into Act Two and beyond. The thin string tone and chamber sized choral forces, when especially working at pianissimo sounded more appropriate for Finzi or Brahms chamber choral music than for Wagner. With what forces were there and as miked, choral preparation by Richard Bado was convincingly very fine.

Violins sounded thin, precariously out of tune to open the Prelude to Act One, a bit ragged at opening of the Third Act Prelude - strings overall a bit skittish during March of the Vassals under blaring brass (though better that than the invasion of locusts that it sounded like invaded the still relatively new Wortham Center for this seventeen years ago). Double basses as led by Dennis Whitaker were firmer than one could ever hope for the past thirty years to draw out of the Houston Symphony. The Symphony played Lohengrin in 1992; this year was the HGO Orchestra’s debut at playing it. Trumpets, led by Jim Vassallo, were frequently out of tune and the principal clarinet made next to nothing out of the melancholic closing reminiscence of the opening of the Bridal Chamber Scene. Music for offstage winds and brass right after the start of Act Two - diegetic music for festivities in progress off-stage- got played very loud, it seemed, coming from the orchestra pit.

Frequent rushing through numerous passages also became annoying. The herald’s antiphonal trumpets were underlined for a more pedantic start to this scene than usual; all the rest of the scene then got merely rushed through, making the choruses, miked, sound like cross between Slavic and Savoyard. The overtly de-Teutonicized feeling, for whatever interests to which Summers might feel beholden to whle conducting Wagner, not to leave things a little more identifiable as Wagner, was clearly insipid – almost as though second-rate Weber, or at times, Dvorak. Could have Ortrud been our premature encounter with the Foreign Princess from Rusalka? There was little (more than approximately utilitarian) feeling here for idiom or sentiment at hand. It was not that tempos were often so fast, as the music that they serve came across - through so many dotted rhythm passages for example in Act One - as rhythmically flaccid. Sag in the line for the Act 1 Prelude and choral passages welcoming first appearance of swan knight - without swan – indicated much the same.

Arms frequently held high in the air fed unwelcome notion that Summers presumed having achieved something more aloft than he actually had - with quasi-academic half pseudo-intellectualizing of his own in play here. He certainly has people both in offices downtown and elsewhere here to reassure him. As for competence at conducting this type of repertoire, such may come with time, emerge eventually. Any real internally driving passion for conducting this music though is still unclear, very unclear. Choral forces being slim, the rushing through good portions of this, and secondarily, the herding of audience through first intermission all resembled what might pass for a half successful Indiana University Lohengrin. This made - streets noisy outside the Wortham right afterwards - for a tedious, nondescript, mostly unenviable way to spend a crisp autumn Friday evening in Houston.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

free counters