Rather than brave the boos and the first reprise of Frank Castorf’s half-hearted Ring at Bayreuth, I decided to pay a visit to Munich and catch the last two days of its annual opera festival. Less of a festival, as one usually understands the term, than a ramping-up of activity in the final month or so of its regular season, it mixes new stagings with starrily cast revivals. I caught one of each: a new production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, with Christian Gerhaher in the title role, and a revival of La forza del destino that was rendered a little less starry by the last-minute illness of Jonas Kaufmann — that’s destino for you, I suppose.
There was a touch of Bayreuth nevertheless with L’Orfeo, which was performed away from the Staatsoper’s main house, the Nationaltheater, in the Prinzregententheater, a 1,000-seat Jugendstil space modelled on Wagner’s Festspielhaus. David Bösch’s production located the action in a dreamy, trippy hippie commune in the 1970s. This might not sound promising, but it was done with such lightness of touch, imagination and economy of means that it was utterly beguiling — and wonderfully well attuned to the supreme beauties of Monteverdi’s music.
The main features of Patrick Bannwart’s set were long-stemmed, oversize flowers that grew swiftly up from the stage during the prologue and, in smart and chilling counterpoint, grotesque cloth-sack figures that dangled down like elongated roots into the underworld, their blank faces brought spookily to life by Falko Herold’s video projections. Props included a flower-powery camper van, a modest chariot (pulled by masked minions) for Caronte; for much of the time Euridice’s simple grave lay open centre stage.
The straightforward joys of the opening act were conveyed charmingly by the mainly young cast, even if Gerhaher’s Orfeo — older and already looking a little haunted from the start — didn’t seem quite at home joining in their revels and Elvis-like strutting. Otherwise, though, he was simply superb, acting with moving sincerity and using his voice — so beautifully, delicately projected and impeccably produced — to heart-wrenching effect.
He was surrounded by vivid characterisations from Andrea Mastroni (Caronte), Anna Bonitatibus (Messagiera and Proserpina), Andrew Harris (Plutone) and Mauro Peter’s Vietnam veteran Apollo. Anna Virovlansky was the personification of innocence as Euridice; Mathias Vidal stood out for his vitality as one of the shepherds. But it was Angela Brower as Musica and Speranza — in the same grungy winged costume for both, but full of wide-eyed joy as the former and childlike despair as the latter — who perhaps more than anyone embodied the production’s powerful sense of happiness torn apart by tragedy, a sense also captured by Ivor Bolton, whose conducting was unafraid to push at the emotional extremes.
After Monteverdi’s clarity of utterance, Verdi’s work felt even more convoluted. A masterpiece firmly in the sprawling category, La forza del destino contains plenty of glorious music, albeit in a strange mishmash of mood and tone — contrast Leonora’s nobility with Preziosilla’s unashamedly and irresistibly silly ‘Rataplan’, or the piece’s two men of God, the earnest Padre Guardiano and the mischievous, semi-comic Fra Melitone. Its plot is set in train by an unlikely accidental death, and features plenty of disguises being donned and uncovered. I don’t envy anyone trying to direct it.
Most opera house bosses must, however, envy Munich’s ability to assemble the cast it had. The Munich audience is lucky, too, that Anja Harteros — unlikely, after numerous no-shows, ever to return to Covent Garden — has made the city her professional base. Her Leonora presented Verdi singing of breathtaking quality and control, soaring power and delicacy, the exquisite phrasing allied to silky but strongly projected tone. She acted with nobility, too, helped by the fact that Martin Kušej’s production (new last autumn) preserved her dignity much better than it did that of the other principals. Most of her scenes took place in a smart, stylish chapel, whereas the rest of the production was a muddle of references ranging from 9/11 to, I think, Abu Ghraib.
The Dons at the opera’s heart — Alvaro, Leonora’s lover, and Carlo, Leonora’s brother, bent on vengeance — fared less well, playing out their feud against this ever-shifting background. The French baritone Ludovic Tézier was a fabulous Carlo, however, bringing style and easy amplitude to the character’s wonderful music. The replacement Alvaro, Zoran Todorovich, sang robustly — if, alas, consistently flat. Nadia Krasteva was a sexy, sultry Preziosilla, Vitalij Kowaljow a noble Padre Guardiano and Renato Girolami a vivid Fra Melitone.
The score was terrifically well played under conductor Asher Fisch, and came across excitingly in the airy, natural acoustic of the Nationaltheater. No Kaufmann, perhaps, and a mess of a production, but there was no mistaking the high level that this opera house works at.
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