Henschel, Jane


MahagonnyKurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Teatro Real Madrid, 2010 | Pablo Heras Casado, Alex Ollé, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Jane Henschel, Donald Kaasch, Willard White, Measha Brueggergosman, Michael König, John Easterlin, Otto Katzameier, Steven Humes | Bel Air Media

When it was originally composed in 1930, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht intended Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) to be as much a satire of opera and a reaction to the state of the Weimar Republic. Now, when taken alongside such like-minded work contemporary works by Hindemith and Berg, it just sounds like great opera – but it still functions as a scathing satire on all the subjects it deals with, particularly the nature of capitalism, on which it still has very relevant points to make.

You can call it music theatre if you like, but Weill’s score for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is considerably more sophisticated than that, working in a variety of styles to create a deliberate alienating effect, drawing on specific references, creating dissonance and unsettling arrangements, using unexpected plot points to keep the listener engaged and keep them from complacently and unquestioningly accepting operatic conventions. It does all that and it has great tunes as well, the most notable of which, Alabama Song, sung by down-and-out prostitute Jenny Smith (”Oh, show me the way to the next Whisky Bar“), is almost like the flip-side of the Libiamo sung in celebration at the party of La Traviata’s courtesan, Violetta Valéry.

If you need any convincing that Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny can aspire to great opera however, this 2010 production at the Teatro Real in Madrid, directed by La Fura dels Baus might be just the ticket. I’m not the biggest fan of La Fura – I’ve seen several of their productions fall well short of the mark – but when they get it right and are working with the right kind of material, they can succeed in a spectacular fashion. Their unconventional approach to opera staging, which could even be considered anti-theatre, certainly has a Brechtian influence, so it’s no surprise to find that that the Catalan group are absolutely perfect for this particular work.

Mahagonny

Directed by Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa, there are no projections this time – other than the titles of each of the sections (in Spanish here, not translated on the screen) – no elaborate designs, no wire acrobatics or off-the-wall concepts. Everything is tailored directly towards the expression of the ideas in the work, finding the most imaginative and impactful way of putting it across, without relying on stagy conventions. The decision then to have the the trio of Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses arrive as if dumped from a refuge collection and set about founding the City of Mahagonny on the edge of a rubbish dump is perfect for the nature of their intentions to make as much money as cheaply as possible by appealing to the lowest nature of their visitors, offering them booze, girls and boxing.

It’s important to get the basic concept in place, but the directors find the right tone for each scene, with many wonderful little touches – from Jimmy’s imagined return sea journey to Alaska with the raised legs of the hookers forming the waves, to his trial taking place in a circus ring – all of which give an additional satirical edge that not works along with the material, showing an understanding of its nature, its playfulness and its bitterness, without feeling the need to over-emphasise or add on any additional commentary. The opera is satirical of all these subjects – from the expectations of the individual to the concept of justice – all within the umbrella of the capitalist system, and it doesn’t need any specific or easy-target anti-American agenda attached for the concept to stand on its own and be applied by the listener to their own experience of the system.

Mahagonny

I’m not sure why it was chosen to use the US revision of the original opera, singing it in English and changing Jimmy Mahoney to Jimmy MacIntyre, particularly as there are a few native German speakers in the cast here and others, like Henschel, have a strong footing in German opera. If it’s another attempt at alienation effect to keep the audience guessing, then it works here. Most importantly however, the casting and singing is superb. Jane Henschel is superbly capable in the whole range from singspiel-like dialogue to more conventional opera singing, as well as being a fine actress in the role of Widow Begbick. Jenny Smith is an important piece of casting, and Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman makes an incredible impression, oozing sensuality and absolutely electric in her scenes with Michael König’s fine Jimmy MacIntyre. The balance right across the board in the other roles seems perfect, consistently hitting the right note, as do the Chorus of the Teatro Real, who give their all in the scantiest of costumes and in the most… well… indelicate situations. One can’t fault the commitment either of the Madrid orchestra under Pablo Heras Casado.

I don’t know if it’s to do with the encoding, but Bel Air releases often look a little juddery in motion on both my Blu-ray set-ups (most evident here when the Spanish captions move across the screen), and can lack definition in the darker scenes. I haven’t heard anyone else mention any issues with previous releases, so perhaps it’s specific to one’s set-up. Generally however, the image is fine, and even if movements aren’t smooth, I didn’t find it too distracting. The audio tracks, in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, are both fine, but there’s not much to choose between them. I found the PCM worked better using headphones to keep the sound focussed, and it’s very impressive this way. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a synopsis in the booklet.

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.

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.