Grundheber, Franz


LuluAlban Berg - Lulu

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Michael Schønwandt, Willy Decker, Laura Aikin, Jennifer Larmore, Andrea Hill, Marlin Miller, Wolfgang Schöne, Kurt Streit, Scott Wilde, Franz Grundheber, Robert Wörle, Victor Von Halem, Julie Mathevet, Marie-Thérèse Keller, Marianne Crebassa, Damien Pass, Ugo Rabec | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 18th October 2011

I know it’s considered one of the major works of 20th century opera, and it’s certainly one of the most important and influential works advocating the twelve-tone system – but I still find Lulu a difficult opera to love. Surprisingly, it’s less to do with the complexities of the musical arrangements, which actually feel perfectly fitting for the nature of the opera’s subject – with the use, abuse, decline and horrible murder of a woman at its core, it’s not supposed to be pretty – as much as failing to find a strong dramatic thread or conventional character development to grasp onto. But then, Alban Berg was presumably challenging these traditional concepts also.

It’s questionable then whether an opera that is built upon the deaths of many of Lulu’s lovers and which ends with her own murder as a prostitute at the hands of no less than Jack the Ripper, should be “prettified” by the impressive set designs and eye-catching choreography of Willy Decker’s production. Brightly lit with clean lines, Decker’s production has a sense of design and colour that makes it look like a Pet Shop Boys concert set in an IKEA store. Whether it looked appropriate or not, it at least felt right and, most importantly, it worked on a conceptual level, proposing an interesting new way of looking at Lulu.

Central to the opera and the image of Lulu is a portrait painted of her in the first scene of Act 1 – a critical scene that sets the tone for what is to follow. Interestingly, in Decker’s vision, the painting is made up of several canvasses that isolate and fetishise each part of her naked body like an exquisite corpse. An exquisite corpse – now that’s a great central concept and image for Lulu, for the objectification of the young woman under the gaze of countless men, each projecting their own lusts and desires upon a figure who is a composite of so many female and feminist archetypes.

Lulu

That of course is the strength of the opera itself, but it’s also the aspect that is equally difficult to pin down dramatically or in any sense of characterisation, so Decker’s staging makes that a little more meaningful. Decker’s arrangements, placing the action within an arena for this combat of the sexes that ensues, the whole colourful cabaret watched over by a chorus of dark-suited anonymous figures in hats, all work towards this vision, even taking into consideration (definitely a part of the intention of Berg’s opera itself), the audience itself voyeuristically being a part of this woman’s abasement and destruction, all for their entertainment.

I still didn’t feel that I gained any greater understanding of the complicated parade of characters that flit through Lulu’s life (which may be a good thing), but every expression of lust, jealousy, joy, anguish, anger and violence was certainly fully felt and brought out in the production, in the singing and in the incredible performance of the Paris Orchestra. As compelling as events were on the stage, my attention was constantly drawn to Michael Schønwandt conducting the infinitesimally detailed score, drawing it all together remarkably. Lulu is one of Laura Aikin’s signature roles – I’ve seen her sing it before on DVD in a fine performance in Zurich under Franz Welser-Möst – but she still looks and sounds terrific. Utterly commanding in the role, she is riveting to watch. There were however no weak elements whatsoever in this production for the Paris Opéra, with Jennifer Larmore a wonderful Count Geschwitz, and Kurt Streit notable in the role of Alwa.

The production used the now common 1979 version of the opera, with the third act, left unfinished after Berg’s death in 1937, completed by Friedrich Cerha. The performance of the score by the Paris orchestra, as mentioned above, was something of a revelation – or perhaps, since this was the first time I had been to a live performance of Lulu, it just needs to be experienced in the theatre with a truly world class orchestra. That’s what we were treated to here, with the addition of great singing and a visually impressive but thoughtful stage production.

RosenkavalierRichard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, 2009 | Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, Herbert Wernicke, Renée Fleming, Sophie Koch, Diana Damrau, Franz Hawlata, Franz Grundheber, Jonas Kaufmann, Jane Henschel | Decca

The staging for this Festspiele Baden-Baden production, directed by Herbert Wernicke and conducted by Christian Thielemann, is as sumptuous as Richard Strauss’s score and, surrounded by mirrors that amplify the stage, it’s as languidly self-reflective as Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s original libretto. The choice not to stage it as strictly period in the setting of Marie-Therese’s Vienna around 1740 is somewhat contrary to the composers’ desire to recreate a sense of the light indulgence of the period (and in the process break away from the dark dissonance of Strauss’s previous operas Salome and Elektra), but the libretto and score are, in most sections, strong enough on their own, and so well thematically constructed that Der Rosenkavalier can stand up to a modern, or, in this case, an almost fairy-tale pantomime-like setting.

There is a richness of means by which to enjoy Strauss’s most popular opera, which flits from moment to moment, slipping from happiness into despair, from love into comedy, but principally, it is indeed about being in the moment, living in the moment, but that even within the moment, there are many contradictory thoughts and emotions pulling at one. All this is contained within the playful storyline and within the music that underscores it. Like all Strauss’s work, Der Rosenkavalier takes the language of post-Wagner late-Romanticism opera another stage further into modernity, not just accompanying the voice, not just heightening the emotional tone of the drama or just using leitmotifs to form a musical coherency and symbolism, but presenting the phrasing with an infinite number of meanings and inflections, hinting at deeper underlying psychology and richness of character, living in the moment and crystallising it in melody, but with a deeper consideration for the personality of the characters and particularly in the intricate web that is created through human interaction.

In Act One of the opera, the Feldmarshallin, Princess Marie-Therese, is living in the moment of bliss in her boudoir with her young 17 year-old lover Octavian, heedless of the clamour outside, but dealing in her own time with the levee visitors, including Ochs, the Baron von Lerchenau, who is looking for a relative to deliver a traditional Silver Rose to his young 15 year-old fiancée Sophie. Over the course of the morning, the Marschallin comes to a recognition that she will get old and that Octavian will also move on in time and become like the boorish woman-chasing Baron himself. All these thoughts crowd into the moment at the end of the first Act, leaving her melancholic and reflective, the whole morning flowing to this point and then unstoppably beyond, aided by the lush, evocative scoring by Strauss that draws on a wealth of references and motifs.

Rosenkavalier

In Act Two Sophie is also living in the moment as a young bride-to-be, but when the rose is delivered by Octavian the two young people fall in love with each other, the two of them also caught up in the moment, living for the wonder of the sensation, Octavian begging of Sophie to “remain as you are”. As Octavian plans to rescue Sophie from the clutches of the decrepit Baron, donning his disguise from Act 1’s bedroom farce as the Marschallin’s maid Mariandel for Act 3’s comedy situations, Der Rosenkavalier becomes – for me personally – rather less compelling, at least up until the reappearance of the Marschallin (which here has the additional benefit of some exceptional singing and subtle acting from the ever-wonderful, self-possessed and appropriately regal Renée Fleming), ending with a set of the most exquisite duets and the opera’s incredible trio. In between however, as the characters self-reflexively note, it’s “a farce and nothing more”, “a Viennese masquerade and nothing more”.

Well, it is and it isn’t – nothing is so straightforward in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss is fully aware of the buffa conventions he is playing with, all of which are complementary to the period in opera terms – not least in the Cherubino-style cross-dressing of a female singer playing a male character who dresses up as a female – and he approaches the scoring of the farce with no less detail and underlying thoughtfulness than anywhere else, knowing that – as Ariadne auf Naxos made explicit – that the strength of the work is in how the diparate elements work off each other. Personally, I feel that it’s often rather too clever for its own good however and, like much of Strauss’s work, it’s rather distanced, controlled and too precise, allowing in little real human feeling or ambiguity, creating a perfect semblance of life like the crystallised silver rose that this production rather ambitiously replaces with a real one at the end.

I’m not entirely convinced by Herbert Wernicke’s production, created for Salzburg and played here at the Festspiele Baden-Baden in 2009 with the Munich Philharmonic under Thielemann, but it does at least create a productive environment for the singers. The 1962 film version starring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf casts a long shadow over the work, but no opera work should ever be considered definitive, and every one of the main performers here – an exceptional cast that includes Renée Fleming, Sophie Koch, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann – brings something interesting to their characters, with fine performances in both singing and acting terms, as does the ever interesting Thielemann when interpreting Strauss. The Blu-ray edition from Decca/Unitel Classica looks and sounds marvellous, the performance directed for the screen by the ever reliable Brian Large. Audio tracks are the usual LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Subtitles are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese. The Blu-ray also contains a 32 minute look at the opera from the perspective of the conductor and the main singers, who all provide interesting views on the piece, and a booklet with synopsis and a superb essay on the opera by Bryan Gilmore.