Koch, Sophie


MignonAmbroise Thomas - Mignon

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2012 | Frédéric Chaslin, Jean-Louis Benoît, Sophie Koch, Paolo Fanale, Diana Damrau, Nicolas Courjal, Carine Séchaye, Emilio Pons, Frédéric Goncalves, Laurent Delvert | Geneva, 16 May 2012

There seems to have been some initial confusion over whether Mignon was destined to be a grand opera or an opéra comique. The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré was first offered to Meyerbeer, who refused it, then Gounod, before being taken on by Ambroise Thomas now in his 50s at the time of writing in 1866, as a commission for the Opéra Comique in Paris. Based on Goethe’s famous Bildungsroman, ‘The Apprentice Years of Wilhelm Meister’ (1795), there were however certain changes that required that altered the original intentions of the work, such as expanding the role of Philine for a lyric soprano and rewriting the ending from the tragic conclusion of the original. Whatever the intentions of the original librettists, Thomas found a perfect expression for the work in the lighter of the two opera styles, composing with pleasant melodies as well as with delicacy for the emotional content and Mignon was a great success, the greatest of his career thus far (two years before his next success in Hamlet), the work even surviving past the fire that destroyed the Salle Favart in 1887 to run beyond a 1000 performances in Paris.

Those qualities in Thomas’s writing, particularly in the characterisation assigned to each of the main roles, was certainly evident in the 2012 revival production of the opera at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, which benefitted moreover from the outstanding casting of the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch in the title role of Mignon. A young innocent of indeterminate gender who has been brought up by gypsies, Mignon has been forced to perform what seems to be a rather humiliating egg dance for the public, finally refusing to continue any longer at a show in the courtyard of a country inn where Wilhelm Meister is present. Taking pity on her predicament and attracted to the ambiguous nature of this strange creature dressed in boyish clothes, Wilhelm buys her freedom from Jarno, the leader of the gypsies. To protect her from the attentions of a crazed troubadour, Lothario, mad from the loss of his daughter, Wilhelm allows Mignon to accompany him as his page.

Mignon

References to such figures, many derived from Goethe’s Mignon, are common in literature in figures such as Lolita as well as in the cinema - Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada, for example - but some such as Lulu have also travelled through to opera and continue to exercise the same strange fascination. In some respects, the Mignon figure, looking for a father-figure, a lover, a husband, contains a purity which can inspire the artist (who can forget the poetic raptures of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita?), but the same figure can also reflect darker and more ambiguous impulses that are protective and dangerously possessive. It’s perfect material for musical and poetical expression, but while there is a great deal of such qualities in Thomas’s writing, his opera Mignon perhaps doesn’t always reflect both sides of the coin with equal success. It’s a lovely little opera to listen to, but perhaps a little old-fashioned and restricted in this respect by the conventions of the opéra comique style.

It could be enlivened certainly through inventive stage direction and perhaps an updating of the settings, but there was nothing like that in Jean-Louis Benoît’s production for Geneva. If the props however were reduced to a bare minimum on the stage, it was to leave all the more room for it to be filled with singers and chorus, all dressed in fine, period costumes. A little character was introduced with a humorous setting up of chairs which became a game of skittles every time someone made a rushed entrance to the stage through them, and there was a minor skit involving the flames that destroy Baron Rosemburg’s castle at the end of the second act, but little else of note to suggest a theme or concept being explored. Even so, with the fine costume designs and the actual stage direction - Diana Damrau in particular being a swirling, sparkling presence as Philine - the production looked well and was never less than effective for the purposes of a traditional, theatrical presentation.

It was left to the singers to bring whatever they could to the roles through the performances. Sophie Koch brought a fabulous air of wistful melancholy to the famous aria ‘Connais-tu le pays où fleurent l’oranger?/Le pays des fruits d’or et les roses vermeilles?’ (“Do you know the land where orange flowers bloom?/A land of golden fruit and crimson roses?”), which along with her boyish appearance, lent some interesting ambiguity to the androgynous character and how she is perceived by both Wilhelm and Lothario. There was a hint here of other depths that could be explored, but neither Thomas’s music not the direction seemed capable of drawing anything more out of this as the performance progressed. Koch however was fabulous in the role, singing a choice mezzo-soprano role wonderfully. Taking on a broad range of roles that stretch from this light lyrical opéra comique to heavier Wagner roles, there really doesn’t seem to be anything she isn’t capable of, and she sounds more and more impressive each time I hear her.

Mignon

It was a double luxury then to also have Diana Damrau as Philine in this production. She played a crucial part in the success of the production, and her role is also crucial to making the opera work so well. Her flowing coloratura in the soprano range certainly adds considerable colour to the range of voices as well as some well-needed sparkle to a story that lacks the depth that it might have acquired in a tragic grand opera style, but there’s much more to her character than that and the role serves a vital dramatic function. Philine, along with sidekick Laërte as the leaders of a bohemian troupe of actors, is the catalyst that brings Wilhelm Meister and Mignon together, but Philine also has other outgoing feminine qualities and her flirting introduces the necessary element of conflict that pushes the romantic element to the fore. Her extravagant character and the extravagant singing that goes along with it were well-served here by Diana Damrau. Her ‘Je suis Titania la blonde’ polonaise, given after a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the baron’s castle, was every bit as rivetting and magnetic as it ought to be.

The two exceptionally talented leading ladies were well supported by an excellent Paolo Fanale as Wilhelm Meister, by Nicholas Courjal’s beautifully lucid baritone Lothario, and by Emilio Pons as Laërte. All of them sang very well, but none were really able to make much more of the parts beyond the limitations of the original characterisation and within the constraints of the unexceptional stage direction. A good energetic and entertaining performance from Carine Séchaye in the trouser-role of Frédéric also added to the overall quality and dynamic of the singing. Frédéric Chaslin conducted the orchestra of the Suisse Romande delightfully through Thomas’s lovely score, the production using the original version of the opera with spoken dialogue (only a few short passages) rather than the later revised German version with recitative that, like Thomas’s similar rearrangement of Hamlet, attempted to come closer to the tragic ending for an audience more familiar with the original work. The happy ending however seemed very much in line with the lightness and delicacy of touch that characterised the whole production here in Geneva.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2012 | Philip Arlaud, Christian Thielemann, Eike Wilm Schulte, Sophie Koch, Renée Fleming, Robert Dean Smith, Jane Archibald, Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners, Christian Baumgärtel, Roman Grübner, David Jerusalem, Michael Ventow, Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel, Lenneke Ruiten, René Kollo | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 12 February 2012

Much as I love the operas of Richard Strauss, I have conflicted feelings about Ariadne auf Naxos. I’m broadly with the composer on this one, agreeing with his initial reaction to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s proposal to basically structure the work as an opera within and opera (within an opera) as being much too confusing for an audience. And not just confusing, but worse, dramatically uninvolving. Combining an opera seria with an opera buffa sounds brilliantly clever on the page, setting the old against the new and allowing the difference of style and tone of the forms to work off each other (it worked so well in Der Rosenkavalier), with a clever construct in the Prologue (added after the original version failed) that accounts for this idea, but the work offers still little in conventional dramatic terms. How then do we account for the enduring popularity of Ariadne auf Naxos?

Ariadne auf Naxos is also a witty satire of opera patrons, opera composers, opera performers and even opera audiences, but I suspect its in-jokes appeal more to those putting on the work than those in the audience watching it, but even that doesn’t entirely account for the opera being one of Strauss’s most performed works. The musical qualities cannot be denied, even if there is a sense that it’s also one of those works which offers more to the diva who wants to demonstrate her range and sense of fun. If that were the only reason for putting on the work, drawing performers like the exceptional cast gathered for this 2012 production at Baden-Baden, then that’s perhaps justification alone for putting on the work, but there are evidently other aspects that make the work so attractive to international audiences, and that’s the fact that, as clever sounding as the concept is, the originality of Hofmannstahl’s libretto clearly inspired Strauss to write some of his most beautiful arrangements and inventive melodies that do ultimately touch on deeper truths relating to human nature and emotions.

Ariadne

Ariadne auf Naxos doesn’t function terrifically well then as a stage drama and it’s much too self-referential (I’d still happily dispense with the Prologue from the revised/definitive second version of the opera myself), offering little scope for a modern stage director who wants to impose his own personal vision on the concept. It’s also limiting to the performer who may find that the conventions of the opera seria and opera buffa elements are somewhat restrictive, particularly within this framework. What makes the work special however is the fact that it does come from the creative and fertile minds of Strauss and Hofmannstahl in their prime. Following on from such important works as Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier and already working on the magnum opus that would be Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne auf Naxos may suffer from the same pretensions as those other works – even to a greater degree – but that doesn’t mean that it is really any less brilliant either. It may be clever-clever, but there is a complete sincerity in the musical, emotional and dramatic content of their work together as well as the belief that the unique construct and artifice of opera can raise those qualities to greater heights. The challenge for anyone putting on the work then is in actually getting this across.

Trying to be too clever with works that are already clever enough is always a potential pitfall with Strauss and Hofmannstahl. Claus Guth had a go at it, setting the Zurich production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a famous Swiss hotel without managing to bring anything particularly new or revelatory out of the work. The Baden-Baden production is more traditional in its setting. The stage is like… well… a stage – a Broadway musical arrangement, with a sweeping staircase behind on which the assembled well-off guests at the host’s party sit dressed in their finery (1920s style formal dress), watching the entertainment put on for them by “the richest man in Vienna”. If there doesn’t appear then to be a great deal that director Philip Arlaud brings to the table here – the separate buffa and seria elements are clearly divided and played out in a fairly straightforward manner according to their conventions – there is nonetheless a considerable challenge in actually making the opera’s difficult construct work as well as making it interesting and comprehensible to an audience, and that’s actually achieved exceptionally well here.

Ariadne

Simplicity is the key to making Strauss and Hofmannstahl work, even if that’s not as simple as it appears. Christof Loy’s 2011 Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, for example, would appear to be trying to be overly clever with its concept (setting the fairytale in a post-WWII Viennese concert hall), but by stripping the work back of its trappings and allowing the music and the words to speak for themselves, the full power of the work is nonetheless made apparent. It’s the director’s job to give the work and the performers that necessary space to get that across, and that’s done here too. To a large extent then the weight of interpretation, of letting the piece speak for itself, should lie with the conductor and the singers and, as with the Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, we have one of the most attentive and sympathetic of Strauss conductors here in Christian Thielemann.

In the same way that there is a magic created between Strauss and Hofmannstahl, between the composer and the music, between the conflicting elements of Ariadne auf Naxos (and yes, I have to admit, even with its Prologue), there is also the magic (acknowledged in Strauss’s final opera Capriccio) that is created between the performer and the listener. The combination of Strauss, Thielemann and Renée Fleming and their relationship with the audience is one of the great musical wonders of our age, and that magic is abundantly in evidence here. As Ariadne – surprisingly her first time singing this role – Fleming’s line is beautiful, her legato smooth, with that famous richness of tone in a role and with a composer and a conductor who shows off her qualities to their best, while also bringing out the ecstatic beauty of the music in the opera itself.

Ariadne

It’s a recognition of this chemistry, already seen in Baden-Baden’s successful 2009 production of Der Rosenkavalier that in some way accounts for the commission of this new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Reunited also from that earlier Strauss production is Sophie Koch as the Composer, wearing a Leo Sayer wig, singing the role wonderfully and bringing a nice note of commitment and sincere naivety to the role that belies the parody within it. That’s the case elsewhere in this production, which never plays it as a farce for the fiasco that arises from the central idea of pushing together two different operas in time for a fireworks display. Playing it perfectly seriously – like all good commercial productions, as the Broadway musical setting suggests, the show must always go on – Robert Dean Smith brought his slightly strained heldentenor to the role of Bacchus with similar commitment, and Jane Archibald took on the coloratura fireworks role of Zerbinetta reasonably well, but without ever making much of an impression. All of this contributes to a fine production, even if nothing threatens to overshadow Fleming’s Prima Donna/Ariadne. If I remain unconvinced that Ariadne auf Naxos works conceptually or dramatically, respectively lacking the beautiful concision of Capriccio and the musical cohesion of Der Rosenkavalier, the beauty of the piece and the inventiveness of Strauss and Hofmannstahl that accounts for its popularity was nonetheless wonderfully evident in the fine staging and singing of this production.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.

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.

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.