Fischesser, Christof


LabyrinthPeter von Winter - Das Labyrinth

Residenzhof, Salzburg, 2012 | Ivor Bolton, Alexandra Liedtke, Christof Fischesser, Julia Novikova, Malin Hartelius, Michael Schade, Thomas Tatzl, Regula Mühlemann, Anton Scharinger, Ute Gfrerer, Nina Bernsteiner, Christina Daletska, Monika Bohinec, Klaus Kuttler, Clemens Unterreiner | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Such is the supremacy and brilliance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that it’s tempting to think of Peter von Winter’s sequel as something of a novelty. Written in 1798, only seven years after the original, both librettos were however the work of the same man, Emanuel Schikaneder, so in reality there’s no reason why Das Labyrinth shouldn’t be seen as a legitimate work on its own terms. Rossini’s Barber of Seville after all is a worthy prequel to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro since both works are drawn from the same source in the plays of Beaumarchais. De Winter’s opera is no novelty, but rather a fascinating work that has languished in obscurity for far too long. It’s still nowhere near on a par with The Magic Flute, but then what is?

Well, it has to be said that unfortunately Das Labyrinth does indeed try too hard to be The Magic Flute, and on that level it can’t help but struggle. Schikaneder’s approach to writing a sequel for an immensely popular success is much the same as the one usually employed by movie studios today. He and de Winter simply repeat the formula of the original with emphasis on the bits that the audience enjoyed the most. As an entertainment this is a foolproof method and there is consequently much to enjoy in seeing these wonderful characters revived and put through new situations. On the other hand, without Mozart to bring his unique vision to the work and dignify the libretto with some internal musical consistency and his deep humanism, the plot of Das Labyrinth more often feels like a lot of random incidents haphazardly strung together with little in the way of originality.

Certainly, the central element that drives the plot doesn’t initially appear to differ greatly from the original. Picking up straight after the events in The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night - who is apparently called Luna, we discover here - is plotting to get her daughter back. You didn’t think she would give up that easily, did you? With the help of the Three Ladies and Monostatos, who evidently holds a grudge against Sarastro for his treatment in the earlier work, the forces of darkness intend to disrupt the wedding of Tamino and Pamina, wrest the young woman away and marry her instead to the despicable Tipheus, King of Paphos. For some not entirely explained reason, Sarastro also requires Tamino and Pamina to undergo a further trial and find their way through the labyrinth. It’s there that Tipheus and his men, the Three Ladies having failed in their previous attempt to carry out the abduction, capture Pamina and take her to the Queen’s hideaway on the Moon.

In addition to the main plot, there are evidently other random exploits for Papageno and Papagena, whose marriage is also put on hold until Pamina is recovered and their relationship is likewise challenged. This involves many of the same kind of “trials” that were in The Magic Flute, with the Three Ladies appealing to Papageno’s baser instincts and Monostatos also getting in on the act to lead him astray. He disguises himself as Papageno and his blackamoor origins played upon in a way that makes him the butt of some dubious jokes. To get her own back on Papageno however for flirting with ladies of darker skin colour, Papagena runs away with Monostatos. This means that Papageno must be involved in the rescue of Pamina if he wants to ensure his own happiness is restored.

There are just as many musical references to match the familiar plot elements, with plenty of glockenspiel playing, Papageno bird whistles and acres of pseudo-Mozart arrangements. The music is consequently often quite light and charming, even if has none of the memorable melodies of Mozart and little of the composer’s carefree imagination, grace and dignity to elevate the pomposity and the silliness of much of the plot. Ivor Bolton however conducts this work with just as much respect, affording Von Winter’s compositions the same loving care and attention that he would Die Zauberflöte. This certainly contributes towards making Das Labyrinth feel truly Mozartian and consequently a more interesting work than it might otherwise have been. At the very least it makes this a delightful curiosity that’s hard to resist.

The production at the Salzburg Festival isn’t quite so compelling. The costumes are lovely, but the sets are not the most suitable for the work. These are limited to some extent by the venue, which is the open-air courtyard of the Residenzhof, meaning that there is only room for a few narrow platforms and an all-purpose backdrop. The backdrop consists in the main of a wall of lights, which is nonetheless versatile enough to represent the canopy of stars of the domain of Königin der Nacht, flicker with storm effects, and break up into columns to represent the labyrinth. It comes into play more as the evening darkens, and there are a few nice additional mechanical effects such as Pamino seated on a crescent moon, but it is otherwise quite limiting.

Christof Fischesser is a wonderful Sarastro, his warm and comforting tones assuring you that this is a character who is powerful and can be trusted. Michael Schade’s lovely lyrical tenor similarly presents a warmer and more sympathetic Tamino than is often found in the Magic Flute, and that’s all to the benefit of Das Labyrinth. Julia Novikova cuts a suitably impressive figure as Luna, Queen of the Night, but she struggles a little with the challenging coloratura that has been written for the character’s extended role in this work. As Pamina, Malin Hartelius often finds that the tessitura of the role is beyond her comfort zone and the timbre of her voice isn’t always the most pleasant at those heights. She seems to gain in confidence in Act II however and handles her individual arias quite well. Thomas Tatzl is an excellent Papageno and Regula Mühlemann a charming Papagena.

The Blu-ray release of Das Labyrinth is region-free with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean. The filming isn’t as polished as it might be, but undoubtedly there are difficulties presented by the unconventional location. The video looks reasonably good even though it only uses a BD25 disc. The audio tracks however are excellent, with good wide use of the surrounds on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix.

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Sir Mark Elder, Robert Carsen, Christof Fischesser, Christopher Ventris, Stéphane Degout, Stanislas De Barbeyrac, Tomasz Konieczny, Eric Huchet, Wojtek Smilek, Nina Stemme, Sophie Koch | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 17th October 2011

As one might expect from Robert Carsen – or indeed any modern director really who is confronted with the challenge of updating Richard Wagner’s grand subjects into a meaningful setting – the stage director has little time for the trappings of Tannhäuser’s ancient Teutonic mythology. He determines – quite correctly – that Tannhäuser is all about the struggle of the artist to find new challenges and inspiration and not rest on the laurels of acclaim and easy public acceptance (a subject no doubt close to the heart of the composer himself). Accordingly, there are no dramatic classical vistas of Venusberg with nymphs, fauns and satyrs all skipping around in his production for the Paris Opera, but rather, right from the outset of the wonderful overture to this opera, Carsen strips back everything to the essence of an artist driven but tormented in his attempts to paint the naked Venus, his inspiration, his obsession, his aphrodisiac – the urges all intertwined into everything that makes him an artist.

Tannhauser

The stage, still during the overture, consequently becomes filled with this obsession, the artist appearing in multiple forms, producing fevered canvasses – the paintings, the artists, the stage itself, all smeared and dripping with red paint, their own lifeblood. It’s a dark obsession, and the dark stage, stripped down, filled with frenzied activity, perfectly choreographed and atmospherically lit, captures everything that is there in the overture and expanded upon in the first Act. With great simplicity of design and movement, the nature of Tannhäuser’s predicament is fully achieved by making him a painter, his necessity to look elsewhere and start anew reflected in the blank canvasses that form a backdrop to the contest at Wartburg in Act II.

If there are any doubts about the approach to take with regard to the opera’s themes, one need only listen to the music itself. Tannhäuser was composed in 1849, when Wagner was still searching for a new form of expression for German art, leading towards the music-drama, yet had not yet totally escaped the conventions of the traditional form of Grand Opera. The need to confront the conflict between physical and spiritual urges, the imperfections that arise out of this, and the necessity for those imperfections in order to create a dialogue or dialectic, are there within Tannhäuser itself. Heinrich seeks to and needs to push the boundaries of convention and challenge the public and risk offending their delicate sensibilities, ultimately to serve God or a higher purpose. It’s what Wagner does also, and it’s what Carson, in a way, does in turn when he extends the scope of the stage in Act II by having characters walk down the aisles, as if the Paris audience were stepping onto the stage. That’s an old trick of course, but it’s meaningful here, since it directly addresses the question of public perception of art, and even the notorious response to the opera when it was first performed in Paris.

Tannhauser

Such an approach doesn’t always fully cover the complexities of Wagner’s vision and imagination – Tannhäuser to my mind is almost as esoteric, indefinable and personal to Wagner as Parsifal – and I’m not sure how any stage production could be, but the direct focus on the theme of art at least allows attention to be focussed on the characters, and here at the Bastille, the performances were extraordinarily good. Christopher Ventris handled the most demanding role of Tannhäuser terrifically. He has a beautifully toned voice and sung the role well, embodying the enthusiasm and the conflict of the struggling artist with every gesture and vocal expression. Nina Stemme’s Elisabeth also lived up to the high expectations that were placed on her, but the most pleasant surprises were Sophie Koch’s commanding and clarion-voiced Venus, and Stéphane Degout’s well-rounded baritone was consistently impressive as the conflicted Wolfram. The quality of the lower end of the vocal register is just as important to sustaining the whole scope of the opera’s musical and artistic themes, and we certainly got that here.

On that front also, the Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris was in magnificent voice (and isn’t Tannhäuser a glorious opera for Wagnerian choruses?) both off-stage and on-stage as sirens and pilgrims. With Sir Mark Elder conducting the orchestra wonderfully through the score, this was – as you would hope for considering the themes of the opera itself – an evening of supreme artistic effort.

TristanRichard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Opéra de Lyon | Kirill Petrenko, Àlex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus, Clifton Forbis, Ann Petersen, Christof Fischesser, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Nabil Suliman, Stella Grigorian, Viktor Antipenko, Laurent Labardesque | Lyon, France - June 22, 2011

As someone who is not entirely convinced by the opera productions of the experimental Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus – which in my experience tend to strive towards spectacle and concept (usually a rather ridiculous one) over fittingness, let alone fidelity, to an opera – I was a little concerned that Àlex Ollé’s talk of taking a symbolic view of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for this new production at the Opéra de Lyon since “a descriptive or figurative staging would make no sense”.  It’s true that the themes of the opera are internalised and conceptual in nature, but the idea of two of opera’s most famous lovers hanging suspended from wires -as is often the case in La Fura dels Baus productions - floating above the mundane reality below, was a worrying prospect. Surprisingly then, particularly since the rather minimalist stage directions for Tristan und Isolde allows for some extreme interpretations, it turned out this particular production is surprisingly restrained and almost traditional, saving its spectacle effectively for those moments where the romantic nature of the opera really merits those special effects.

Tristan und Isolde is indeed rather straightforward and single minded in the purity of its romantic notion of love, but that doesn’t mean that the opera is in any way rational or easily defined. It’s littered with a richness of symbolism, conceptual imagery and contradictory elements relating to day and night, light and dark, to questions of time and distance, to life and death, all of which simultaneously define the nature of love while at the same time acknowledging its contradictions, its indefinability and its irrationality. Any attempt to take in all these allusions would result in a cluttered concept (it’s to Wagner’s credit and genius that this isn’t the case with the opera itself, propelled as it is by its own inner musical force and coherence), and, in my experience, it wouldn’t be beyond La Fura to attempt to do just that, and add a few of their own half-baked concepts as well. Instead, and to my pleasant surprise, Àlex Ollé focusses, as you must, on one aspect of the opera and builts the concept around that. In this case, it is the romantic tug and persuasion of the moon, whose gravitational force affects not only the tides, but is believed by many to affect human moods, behaviours and irrationality in people, as well as hold an irresistible romantic presence.

Tristan

Act 1 then makes use of a basic platform to represent the deck of the ship which is transporting Isolde from Ireland to Cornwall where she will be married to King Marke, with computer generated projections of the rolling sea on a screen behind. The platform revolves 360°, very slowly in one turn over the course of the First Act, while the moon appears as a blurred but bright sphere that solidifies in clarity as the nature of the relationship between Isolde and Tristan itself becomes clear. Superbly realised by the mood, the staging and the lighting, the emotional turmoil that each of them go through up to the moment of this realisation is reflected also in the motion of the waves, stormy at first, crashing against each other, until the moment of utter calm and abandonment arrives when they give themselves up to an expected death that does not come, but instead frees them of their inhibitions.

The moon becomes a concave sphere in Act 2 that stands for King Marke’s Cornwall, within which Tristan and Isolde’s love is trapped, as if within its own bubble. The contrast of darkness and light – the omnipresent imagery within the libretto for the Second Act – is reflected in the lighting and shifting shadows of trees that weave complex forms, building up to the moment when the burning desire within the protagonists explodes, and is expressed through a magnificent ring of fire effect. The illusory nature of their protective bubble collapses again through some fine projections that show the spherical edifice crumbling around them, as King Marke and his men discover the infidelity of his wife and his most trusted companion. For Act 3, this sphere is reversed, becomes convex, suggesting Tristan’s expulsion from the protective curve of Isolde and King Marke’s land, the desolation of the moon projected upon it evoking Tristan’s mood and state of mind, up until the moment that an extraordinarily effective glow of golden light is beamed through it at the consummation of their life in the death at the ‘Liebestod‘.

The singing was wonderful, particularly from Ann Petersen, who has all the necessary strength in her voice, but also a wonderful creamy tone that is deeply attractive, particularly for this role. (She will be singing Isolde for the Welsh National Opera at Cardiff in 2012, so look out for that). Clifton Forbis also has an attractive tone to his tenor voice, and although not always up to the level of Petersen, has all the necessary conviction where it counts. The two worked well together in this respect, and Forbis certainly made Tristan’s torment in Act 3 real and fully felt. The overall strength of the opera was rounded out by solid performances from Stella Grigorian’s Bragäne, Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Kurwenal and Christof Fischesser’s King Marke, the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon conducted well by Kirill Petrenko. Although solid and impressive on all fronts, in the performance and in the appropriate tone found throughout in the staging, ultimately for me however the production didn’t quite have the full emotional force or find that spark of magic that lies at the heart of Tristan und Isolde. A wonderful production nonetheless, visually imaginative and deeply involving in a way that certainly held the audience in its thrall.