Friday, February 15, 2019

Wagner in Abu Dhabi

So, here’s a thing that happened the other weekend: the august Bayreuth festival followed other marquee western institutions like NYU, the Louvre, and Shake Shack to the United Arab Emirates, offering two concert presentations of Die Walkure in Abu Dhabi. Living in India at the moment I don’t get a lot of live opera opportunities, so a quick popover seemed justified, no?Abu Dhabi is Dubai’s sleepier sibling. The downtown looks sort of like 80s Phoenix punctuated by gigantic futuristic statement skyscrapers. Endless malls have every Western store one could dream but don’t seem nearly well-attended enough to break even. Most of the conversations I had in my 36 hrs on the ground were about where someone was from in India. It’s a funny place (and by funny I mean sometimes very disturbing).

The venue was the auditorium of the fancy Emirates Palace hotel, famous for its several billion dollar construction cost and general gildedness. Perhaps more of the local set went to the first show, because for this second installment the audience was perhaps 85 percent Europeans and Americans. Bonus points for the Bavaria-themed intermission refreshments including Weissbier on tap and pretzels.

But anyhow, the show. In the absence of a staged production or specific cast presented in Bayreuth, I suppose a more accurate descriptor for this presentation might be “The Bayreuth Festival presents…” Given that the festival musicians are drawn from orchestras around Germany and are probably otherwise occupied in February, I suspect this may have been more of an extended pick up band than, like, the exact group in the pit last August? Also, the forces for this tour were somewhat truncated (only 2 harps!) for concert purposes. Leading the band was conductor Markus Poschner, who directs the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, though not sure how he relates to the festival outside of this tour. That said the cast certainly included a number of bona fide Bayreuthers, with Catherine Foster and Stephen Gould headlining.

Because concert presentations can’t just leave well enough alone, the show was accompanied by a full length film dramatization. This was ostensibly directed by Katharina Wagner herself, though this was less Katharina Wagner, radical provocateur, and more “Ach this middle east thing is coming up and they gave us all this cash...quick get a camera, take some actors into the woods this weekend, and get them to do meaningful looks in slo-mo.” Not poorly done as far as low-budget opera dramatizations go, I suppose--if this was backing up a Buffalo Symphony “Wagner in Concert” show you would probably be impressed that they really went all out this year. But kinda chintzy for the Bayreuth brand. More annoying is that, despite investing a bunch in this video, they couldn’t deign to offer supertitles, an especially egregious omission in a cross-cultural concert. On the other hand, the actor they had playing Brunnhilde was serving like a Carrie Mulligan/Brownstein forest pixie vibe that was really working for me and it’s possible I am now going to think of her face during all future Walkure sittings.

I got to spend a while with Catherine Foster’s Brunnhilde during the Washington National Opera Ring a few years back, and was very pleased to hear it again. Now, sometimes when I try to think of what to say about Foster it sounds like a backhanded compliment, e.g. “Bayreuth sure is lucky to have her, when you think about the string of problematic Brunnhildes that came before!” Or: “Wow, she sounds just so accurate in this part. Really great stuff.” The thing is, I really do think she sounds lovely--it’s a warm, full sound that blazes into a clarion, unforced top (barring the occasionally muffed Hojotoho). Perhaps it’s because she clearly has the goods that I’m more aware of what’s missing, i.e. that last mile of dramatic engagement both in the vocal line and general stage presence. Which is certainly not to say she brings nothing to the role, the Act III monologue from “War es so schmahlich...” in Abu Dhabi was especially compelling and finely felt. Still, the odd square phrase or slack climax is enough to pull one out of the moment and reinforce that for all the considerable achievement of her Brunnhilde there is another layer missing. But I’m not complaining, I swear.

Daniela Kohler, an upcoming Sieglinde at Bayreuth, proved a nice vocal complement for Stephen Gould’s seasoned Siegmund. Gould’s earthy tenor was in fine form, delivering an ur-example of the robust Siegmund type, capped with one of those never ending Waaaaaalse’s that is all the more exciting for being just a tad unwieldy. Kohler matched him with a womanly Sieglinde distinguished by an urgent attractive, middle--not an effortless sound but that is part of the appeal. That effort got the better of her at the top of her range however, where the voice tended to thin out rather than bloom.

Egils Silins offered a solid if a bit of an anonymous Wotan, though I’ll admit I find it tough to assess the subtler virtues of a Wotan portrayal without being able to follow the text for the Act II material. The Fricka scene popped though, thanks to his chemistry with partner Christa Mayer’s gloriously haughty goddess. It looks like her Ring work has been mostly Erda focused but Fricka should clearly be on the agenda.

Conductor Markus Poschner had perhaps a challenging assignment here. There was an uncanny alignment between the dramatization video and big entrances/motif statements in the score, which seemed to suggest there was some deliberate attempt to time the music to the video? That’s cool, I guess, though probably not a best practice for getting to good, organic sounding Wagner. Whether it was that or just playing it safe under tour conditions, pokey, aimless tempi were a problem in some of the longer scenes. Things perked up in the climaxes, which were genuinely thrilling and showcased gorgeous sound from the orchestra. The Act III finale foundered, however, as Poschner kept trying to do these huge ritards right before the big climaxes, a cheap substitute for building real tension over time.

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