Wernicke, Herbert

MontezumaCarl Heinrich Graun - Montezuma

Deutsche Oper, Markgräfflichen Opernhaus, Bayreuth 1982 | Hans Hilsdorf, Herbert Wernicke, Alexandra Papadjiakou, Sophie Boulin, Gudrun Sieber, Catherine Gayer, Barbara Vogel, Walton Grönroos, Karl-Ernst Mercker | Arthaus

Released as part of the Deutsche Oper Archive series, this 1982 recording of Carl Heinrich Graun’s Montezuma may not be the most authentic representation of a rare work of Baroque opera seria or the best quality in terms of video presentation, but it’s a performance that is well worth preserving for a number of reasons. Although there are have been some revivals and discoveries of the operas of J.A. Hasse and J.C. Bach in recent years, there are very few recordings available of any of Graun’s work, despite the fact that he was an important figure in German opera composition of the period, working as Kapellmeister to King Friedrich II of Prussia, Frederick the Great. It’s his relationship with the latter which is the most notable aspect of this particular work, Montezuma (1755) - aside from the fine musical qualities of the work itself - with the King himself even providing the libretto for the opera, and it’s this aspect that is considered in the actual production, recorded in the suitably regal venue of the Markgräfflichen Opernhaus at Bayreuth.

It’s not difficult to see what would have attracted Frederick the Great to the subject of Montezuma, as not only is the subject that considers the duty of a great ruler towards his people a popular subject for opera seria - they were written for royal courts - particularly compositions written or following the Metastasian model, but it’s one that evidently has political relevance here for the librettist himself. Montezuma accordingly is characterised as a benevolent ruler, who sees his duty to resolve human misery, not to rule over his subjects by force. Mexico under the Aztec ruler therefore is a kind of a Golden Age, the people happy and contented, secure in their love for their ruler and the peace his great reign promises against the threat of weaker neighbours. Convention would insist on a romantic aspect to the opera, and here, happiness eludes Montezuma until he finds someone worthy to share his throne with him. That person is Eupaforice, the Queen of Tlascála, who will also ally him with another empire and strengthen his position and the security of his people.

It’s a fairly conventional opera seria then in this respect. Montezuma sings of length of his devotion to his people and his duty, and of striving for personal happiness. The plot ties both aspects together rather well with the arrival of the Spanish, Montezuma’s general Plipatoè warning him that Cortes poses a serious threat, while Eupaforice intimates that she has premonitions of doom. In his goodness and with faith in human nature, Montezuma however invites Cortes and Narvès to his wedding, only to be betrayed. If the relevance to Friedrich II’s time isn’t obvious - the Seven Years’ War would commence a year later in 1756, plunging Prussia into conflict with Austria and then Sweden the year after that - the relevance of the work when viewed in the light of historical events is made apparent in the staging of this production by Herbert Wernicke. Clearly not set in any exotic location, but rather in a more European palatial setting and gardens, the Aztecs moreover wear the period costume of the courts of the 18th century with powdered wigs, ball gowns and military greatcoats. The production would also seem to end with a reading of Frederick the Great’s actual declaration of war, as if the preceding opera has just been a warning that kindness and wisdom in a ruler is admirable, but sometimes he needs to be wise enough to chose when to fight for those freedoms.

If there are some minor liberties taken with the setting to put the work into context (and considering the writer of the libretto, it’s certainly a valid approach), the approach taken with the actual performance would be less justifiable today than they were perhaps when this production was recorded back in 1982. The first clue is that the work only runs to 2 hours and 20 minutes in length, when you could expect an opera seria of this period to be between three to four hours long. Considerable cuts have been applied therefore, and - considering that most of the expository recitative would appear to have been left intact to carry the plot, much of those cuts would have been applied to the long repetitions of the aria da capo with some perhaps excised altogether. That’s understandable for a performance of a very rare Baroque opera, when the performance of any Baroque opera at all - even Handel - would have been very rare indeed. To make it a little easier on the audience, Montezuma is also sung here in German, rather than the original Italian (it was probably written in French by Friedrich II before being translated to the common Italian for opera seria). Although inauthentic, this however works in favour of the production’s parallel to the historical Prussian Empire.

Thirty years ago, part of the reason why Baroque opera was so rarely performed was that there simply weren’t musicians trained to play the period instruments. Accordingly, other than the use of the harpsichord, the music has been arranged to fit modern orchestra instruments, but the whole pace and rhythm of the performance nonetheless feels absolutely right. Back in 1982, there weren’t any countertenors who could specialise in taking on the castrato roles of the work, so they are taken up here by female sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, which actually has the impact of making all the Aztecs in this production of Montezuma female and the Spanish male. If the work is mostly fairly conventional and not terribly dramatic, with stately marching rhythms and expressions of noble sentiments, there are nonetheless some lovely arias and one particularly fine duet between Montezuma and Eupaforice in Act III (’Ach, nur für Dich’ in German). The singing is also exceptionally good, particularly mezzo-soprano Alexandra Papadjiakou as Montezuma, and the performance of the Deutsche orchestra is also strong, performed with an elegant brio.

Released on DVD only, the video quality isn’t up to the standards you would expect today, but certainly acceptable and even very good despite the limitations of the source material. Clearly shot on video 4:3 for television broadcast, there’s a certain amount of noise and shimmer in the background, a level of graininess, and chroma noise, but it has nonetheless clearly been fully restored, the colours well-defined, strongly contrasted and a surprising level of sharpness and detail evident. The transfer is also very stable, with no flicker or wobble. The audio track is PCM stereo only and it’s also fine, with decent clarity to the orchestration and singing, holding relatively firm on the sustained higher notes. There are no extra features, but there is an informative essay and a synopsis included in the DVD’s booklet. The dual layer DVD is region free, NTSC, with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian.

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.


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.

ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra

Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, 2010 | Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, Herbert Wernicke, Linda Watson, Jane Henshel, Manuela Uhl, René Kollo, Albert Dohmen | Opus Arte

The concept behind the presentation of this 2010 Baden-Baden Festspielhaus production of Elektra is immediately apparent and impactful – it’s a stark and brutal representation of Richard Strauss’ dark, brooding and bloody retelling of the Sophocles’ classic mythological drama. As if to reflect the powerful emotions of despair and sentiments of revenge that dominate the tone of the opera, the staging, the lighting, the choreography – more like a concert performance than a dramatically staged opera – all seek to emphasise the loss and isolation of the principal characters.

The Baden-Baden Festspielhaus is a huge stage, and stage director Herbert Wernicke takes full advantage of it, with stark lighting, and minimal use of backgrounds, props or movement, isolating the characters who are all entirely wrapped up in their own grief and torments. The vast stage is however amply filled by the formidable presence of Linda Watson and Jane Henschel as Electra and Clytemnestra, with their small but imposing stature and powerful singing. The charge that they bring to the complex relationship between the mythological mother and daughter – one that of course has become archetypal – is remarkable. Strauss’ chilling, sinister score is equally effective in filling the void that exists between them, not so much underscoring every jibe, cutting remark, underlying threat and menacing gesture, as much as dissecting it in a manner that the listener can physically feel every nuance of an emotional soundscape that is bristling with murderous intent.

Much like Salome that preceded it, with the imagery of doom and bloodletting even more pronounced here, Elektra is consequently a draining experience, even for its relative shortness, which is precisely how it is meant to feel. Conductor Christian Thielemann brings that out with delicacy and without any blood and thunder – or at least not too much – allowing the Munich Philharmonic to blend with the outstanding singing performances in a manner that allows the piece to resonate with almost unbearable sustained tension and menace. There Karl Böhm Elektra would appear to be the best DVD of this opera to date and the one that this attempts to better, but while I haven’t seen that version and can’t compare relative merits, this is nonetheless a strong and faithful production on its own terms.

The starkness of the staging doesn’t really allow the HD presentation on the Blu-ray to shine, finding it difficult to display the huge blocks of black backgrounds, which consequently look quite grainy. The stark white spotlights and the deep reds however are impressively rendered. The sound balance appears to have been carefully mixed in both the PCM Stereo and the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks to allow both singing and orchestration plenty of room to breathe, with deep reverberation on those lower register chords. Other than Cast information, the only extra feature on the disc is a 15-minute Making of Elektra which is an interesting and sufficiently in-depth look at the background of the production.