Wednesday, June 29, 2011


"Have I just dreamed all this" wonders the fool in Act 2 of Parsifal. I know how he feels. Whisked out of Zurich by train early the next morning into a Paris crippled by 37 degree heat, flown through the night into the next day, I'm now on the other side of the world perched high above Tokyo (also melting and with powers restrictions - business required to reduce consumption by 20%, households by 15%).

Parsifal, Zurich, June 26, tram 4 through the hot afternoon for a 5 o'clock curtain, row 11 stalls, which might sound close to the front but is nearly the back in the lovely little theatre, a production by Claus Guth, and someone who can put the helden back into tenor.

I'm pinching myself ...

There's this thing with Parsifal, the thing that it's his last work, it holds the key, you get it or you don't, it is revelatory when you are ready to receive its message, and if you don't you're a fool, innocent be damned. It's easy - sacrifice, salvation, denial, institution, brotherhood, compassion, innocence, sin, guilt, reincarnation, self-gratification, denial, christ, religion, jews, buddhism, sex, renunciation, love, joining, healing, body, mind, saviour, journey, create, destroy, spear, blood, chalice, death, rebirth, ritual, communion - for starters. It's like searching for the string theory for everything, except whenever I found a bit of a string, and tried to follow it, it lead to ... another string. Frankly, I was starting to wonder if Mr Wagner was none to able to unravel it himself (unlike the Ring, where his clear message is one of the greatest), and so I'm thankful to Mr Guth, profoundly thankful, for some insights beyond the obvious. "Oh, he's good" said someone in Sydney before I left when I mentioned the name. Good! - that's an understatement.

It is a beautiful production (Christian Schmidt, frequent collaborator with Guth) to look at - a two level revolve of faded glory, a decaying villa, upstairs and downstairs, sometimes one room, then two or part thereof, sometimes the garden, and a staircase with all its implications - up and down, above and below, dominance and submission, ascent descent and all the metaphors, crowding and clusters, watchers and watched, instability and insecurity. The lighting is wonderful, highlighting the beyond as much as the present, the other room, through the many doors, passages, to the other place and time, where we've been, where we're going. There is an inevitability in the changes, the relentless movement, the journey, infused with a pervading sense of doom. You are gripped and carried along, unable to get off.

Breadth and breath are the call. The opening prelude was very slow, with the silences between the expanding motif taking us beyond time and place so long as to risk disconnection, nearly. It was opening night and if trying it on was the order, so be it. The general sound of the theatre was loud and, surprisingly, tending to dry (very clean). The brass especially sounded good, thankfully. And Daniele Gatti played it loud, while all the time considerate of his singers, as formidable a team as ever. In the most thrilling moment of the night, as Parsifal two thirds way up the stairs and pinned to the back wall by transcendent light, triumphs over Klingsor above, Gatti let all stops out. Stepping up to the redeemer's mark, Stuart Skelton in radiant voice, poured forth such that if I die not hearing anything like that again, I'm happy, the little theatre full to overflowing with Wagner at its very best.

It is between Wars (are we always between wars?). Two production points, the beginning and the end, will give enough to join the dots. Spoiler warning. Towards to end of the prelude the curtain rises on a two level set. Above - the spear and grail each in its own museum-style show case, trophies. Below - Titurel and two sons, brothers, twins, the other side of the self, one about to be favoured (Amfortas) the other rejected (Klingsor). The journey of separateness had begun. In a stunning inversion, yes, a reconciliation was to come at the closing moments, but hardly that expected. Parsifal, having claimed the crown, the kingship, the power, is immediately corrupted as power can and must.

The assumption of superiority, difference, is the antithesis of the belief in equality and oneness. As the once innocent healer stands on high morphing into a grotesque military despot with obvious references, below the two separated souls reach out to each other in understanding. One cycle is closing, another beginning. You don't need me to tell you what's happening musically - its just the the 'holy spirit doves' are not where you expect. All healing, regardless of external forces, guides, redeemers, is from within and not without. Holiness lies in not what you do but why you do it.

Matti Salminen was the wise frustrated chaplain Germemanz in the sanitarium for the physically and mentally wounded. He has lost a good deal of weight, and I thought maybe some resonance in the voice (though there were plenty of reserves) but it could have been the acoustics. Thomas Hampson's incredibly sympathetic Amfortas was everything I had hoped, a lesson in perseverance through agony to ultimate resolution. And well matched was his nearly identical darker voiced twin, Egils Silins' Klingsor.

Yvonne Naef's wild Kundry (if an example of alter egos as a principle was needed to justify what Guth was getting at then Kundry is it) had more than enough fire and Lauren Bacall sensuality to undo just about anyone, except you know who, and a few wild notes to boot.

Then there was Stuart Skelton, of seeming unlimited voice, his handsome masculine tenor perhaps less brassy but now with even more lovely colours, tender and warm, strong and radiant, he's got it all. Go Stuart.

I forgot to remind myself what a great choral work this is, and needless to say, the chorus was excellent, with female voices from high in the upper circle risking cliche but achieving a wonderful surround sound angelic effect.

Gatti was heavily booed by some somewhere, countered by others and none less than Thomas Hampson during curtain calls. There was some lesser boos for the production team, but generally enormous and enthusiastic support.

Since I started this, a few days have slipped by, and I've been locked out of blogger. Luckily. From Opera Zurich this has now been uploaded. Much has been written and said in German and Swiss about this fabulous production. I'm afraid I know little more than 'two beers' (or not two beers). Over to the ones who really know - I feel terribly inadequate in the face of such people and watching this now I just wish I could get back on the plane and fly back.

Addit: Here's a review in English (Financial Times).

Saturday, June 25, 2011


We've been on the road, and I need to backtrack to Cologne, but that may take a day or two. Meanwhile, there's swans galore here.

Not that Swan Lake, this one - we're in Zurich.

And none dead - yet.

Friday, June 24, 2011


200o years old - Colonia Claudia Ara Aggripinensium (now shortened a bit).

There wasn't much left after 1945, except the staggeringly high cathedral. Top selling postcards seem to be the black and white aerial photos of the bombed city.

It's all a bit of a mess around the centre - they are building a light rail service, partly underground where a huge collapse of ancient artifacts into the excavations saw the mayor resign.

There's even some Roman sewer remains directly opposite our hotel front entrance.

And the entrance to the Philharmonie is a bit disrupted:

So, here's the concert hall and associated in a more flattering aspect - well above ground level:

That cathedral is never too far away.

And there's some interesting redevelopment down south on the river (to where the new rail will connect) - would that Barangaroo could achieve either (transport and something remotely interesting).

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Driving east from Leipzig is a drive through the 'green' - 'intellectual' - 'enlightened' heart of Germany, the Thuringian Forest. The trees whisper Bach, Luther, Goethe, Schiller, Lizt, Nietzsche, Bauhaus (and speaking of houses - the House of Windsor, exceptions make the rule) and on and on.

Off we went with Weimar, Erfurt and The Wartburg circled on the map. Actually, TomTom is running this trip from my iPhone, and just as well - the alternative (a navigator and just an old fashioned piece of paper) would by now have become unpleasant. How does this little tiny thing sitting on the dashboard know every address in Europe, every little laneway, every speed limit, some of the speed cameras (though not the one entering Leipzig, ooops), and now, everywhere we've been.

Weimar - a dalliance with democracy and the home of arguably the greatest renaissance man of them all - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is the most beautifully presented of any of the small towns we visited. Almost surreal. Spotless, soft pastels shining in luke warm sun after a morning rain shower, leafy, quiet, and only a smattering of tourists.

Those handsome fellows above should need no introduction, not to anyone visiting here, where they lived and died.

Goethe's house in the orange one in the middle, now of course a museum with all the trappings

and sitting opposite Schiller's yellow house (below), eating waffles with forest berries, thinking how civilised the whole comfortable scene appeared, it was uncomfortably easy to forget that Buchenwald was just a few kilometres away.

Next stop Erfurt, little river town, centre and capital of Thuringia, born of St Boniface, in whose Augustinian monastery Luther studied, and host to a thriving university campus. Whatever we expected of this medieval town, it wasn't a New Orleans style jazz festival, a far cry from Weimar, with streets thronging with crowds, jostling, trams gently gliding through, and locals doing what locals do - sitting on benches drinking beer listening to music.

With Cologne still some hours away, this time The Wartburg was to remain a tower on a hill just outside Eisenach (J C Bach's birthplace) as we flew by on the autobahn.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


This had been big on my list of expectations - I didn't care so much about who sang and how, within the usual parameters, but it was all about the Gewandhausorchester playing Strauss, playing Elecktra, in the soviet style Leipzig opera house opposite their own contemporary recital hall with Ulf Schirmer conducting.

Klytemnestra Doris Soffel
Elektra Janice Baird
Chrysothemis Gun-Brit Barkim
Aegisth Viktor Sawaley
Orest Toumas Pursio

Director Peter Konwitschny (Leipzig's 'resident' producer)
(This Elektra is from the mid2000's, seen in Copenhagen, Stuttgart...)

Sitting a few rows back in the stalls, this is what we first saw:

The mirror 'curtain' is reflecting the house, not too long before the start, and its not anywhere near full, reaching at a guess 60% capacity. Next, see the ancient bath centre stage - that's where the young Argamenon is playing with his three children, they in swimmers with floaties, rubber duckies, water pistols, learning to swim, survive, playing shootings and scaring one and other playing dead.

After the conductor enters (silently) and the orchestra (huge, maybe not the 111 scored, but maybe yes) warm up stops and the auditorium falls silent, two doors open in the mirrors, and out stride Klytemnestra and her lover. Screaming children, blood squirting high, dead daddy in the bath.

Just as the murderers retreat and the doors close, the shattering Argamenon motif explodes from the pit as the mirrored front splits into two to become the sides of the set. Pretty good start as far as I was concerned. The production style from now on is not so hard to predict - Argamenon and bath (and metaphor) always present, variably moved around by Elektra, even ghosting himself out as a quasi-pacificist trying to stop Orest's capitulation. The style is contemporary, slick white leather minimalist sitting room, reflecting walls (looking at self, nothing outside, only the within). The lesbian element is particularly strong - Klytemnesta's attendants are tough chick security guards, and the Elektra Chrysothemis mental seduction about as physical as it could get - sitting astride with forced (and rejected) kissing. This even extended to Chrysothemis pouring forth (some of the best singing of the night) her fabulous 'I wanna be me' aria evoking pregnancy with Elektra's frock coat cardigan stuffed up her dress.

That the axe (nor the hatchet) was never buried mattered little, in fact was the point, though that it was a bit obviously a silly rubber one, and later to become bullets started to stretch things. But even so, it was well in the spirit of the piece. The great finale, and here's the spoiler, is complete mayhem. The Queen and consort are shot in full view, as is everybody else in the world, dysfunctional family included. I like the concept - revenge, murder, any attack, is self-perpetuating, it never stops. It begets. And killing anyone or anything is killing everyone and everything - all things are joined.

But it did serve to reduce focus on the descent of Elektra into death, from within rather than from without, although I wont dispute that there is no difference there either; there is no without, only the without that is the projection of the within.

My major production quibble really is the time clock rear projection - the sort of concept that is a bit tired as soon as its been thought of, let alone some six years later. Anyway, it was easy to switch off from it, and also fun to think - 12:42 till she cops it!

The musical values were stunning. Beyond expectations. And the final bars were quite overwhelming and the only real time I teared up (though the initial 'I love you father' motif gets me every time). Doris Soffel completely dominated the stage when she was on, totally and always in character, a powerful yet degraded and degrading creature. She was mesmerising. And I loved Gun-Brit Barkim's lost sister, innocence trapped. The voice is big, she soared over the dense orchestration, with a round oaky timbre, an older sound than the girl as presented but of no matter, she is the more mature, the only mature character in the family, completely understandably unable to extricate herself from the madness.

Which leaves Janice Baird's Elektra. Now I don't imagine anyone should criticise anyone who can actually sing Elektra, and Baird can sure sing it. She cuts and stabs, seduces, and embraces the final oblivion with all stops out. But - I never once believed in her. She was, frankly, just not psycho enough. This woman is seriously deranged. She should be snorting on the glass table top, or sniffing gas (David Lynch where are you) not sipping a whisky with mother. She's hallucinating, she's out of time and place. Baird, in jeans and black tee shirt (you know that look), looked (though didn't sound, not for a minute) as if this was just another run through.

Never mind. A great night, a great work, and as fabulous a sound as I'm ever likely to hear. Here's a curtain call shot

and a preview is here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Or should that read Bach's Leipzig?

Leipzig's initial charms may be more elusive than Dresden's, but its musical roots are as deep and its history needs no more (though there is much much more) than its most famous resident cantor - J S Bach, born in Eisenach to the West, into a family of unparalleled musical pedigree, who would for 27 years shape the city's musical history and compose the majority of his works.

We arrived in Leipzig plop in the middle of a 19 day Bach Festival. That we found accommodation anywhere, let alone perfectly placed, was just another miracle. That we survived the autobahn in our little blue Peugeot, survivors of some thrill-seeking in the fast lane, was the first. Leipzig and Dresden are a mere one hours drive away (closer than Parramatta and Sydney you could say) and a good deal safer to commute. These Germans know about cars and roads. And about Bach, and Strauss.

Needless to say, the place is crawling with Bach groupies (and take that as JS, though JC is getting some gigs as well). On day one of our stay, in the street near the hotel, I'd bumped into an old friend, a colleague's widow (he died in his pool) - and would do it again two days later in the Bach Museum. Better buy a lottery ticket Mum would have said.

So Bach we went to, and both times it was organ recitals in Leipzig's most revered 'recital halls' - Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche. It was Thomas Church where Bach was cantor, directing choir rehearsals, giving keyboard lessons, accompanist at wedding and funerals, engager of musicians, preparer of librettos, and composer of the order of one Cantata a week. Oh, and supervising the boarding school one week a month, running a small business selling sheet music and books, hiring out and maintaining instruments. And fathering quite his fair share of offspring (20 from 2 wives, though survival rates were poor).

Thomaskirche ~

Just being there was enough, but hearing what he wrote as he heard, from up high in the second gallery was pretty moving. We were literally swallowed up by a Bach Cantata, a Max Reger improvisation, a Lizt variation on a theme, a David Timm (the organist) improvisation, and as if someone knew the missing link, we did get Siegfried;s Funeral March after all. Hearing that on this organ in this church needs no further words. If I'm seeming a bit vague, it is because we had no programme notes - they had run out by the time we arrived, not that the church was full. Interestingly, because they had no more programmes, admission was now free.

It seems a feature of the Germans (unlike the southerners who they are in the process of bailing out) that they are refreshingly honest and the default position in the event of any discrepancy about costs or quotes is that they always take the rap. For instance, once we were late into Munich by train from Budapest (the train from Budapest always runs late) and missed the night train to Paris (which usually waits but this time it was just too much). Now none of this had anything to do with the Germans, who graciously accommodated and fed us overnight. And while I don't make a habit of challenging prices, there have been a few instances this trip where their generosity of spirit and fact have been repeatedly evident.

Nikolaikirche ~

The similarities are self evident.

The organist here was Nikolaikantor Jurgen Wolf but the show stealer for me was Tamamo Saito, the gorgeous little Japanese violinist in the white organza dress who played a dazzling Lizt Fantasia from the body of the church near the main altar.

Monday, June 20, 2011


(that's looking back to Altstadt and the semperopera, above stage fly area)

Across the Elbe, on the other side of its wide sandy banks, beyond the grand boulevard of Albertstrasse, past the fountains of Albertplatz, is Neustadt (New Town).

(albertplatz fountain)

A far cry from the gravitas and gothic grandeur of Altstadt (Old Town) it is actually an older part of Dresden and survived the shock and awe bombing more intact. (It's worth noting that there has been an exchange of relics between the Catherdrals of Dresden and Conventry in a gesture of reconciliation.)

Altstadt is grand urban planning and spacious thoroughfares of the restoration (and where the busking is serious cello, bassoon and oboe, violin, with Ave Maria top of the charts, or penny spinners). Neustadt is intertwining and criss-crossing residential streets with bars, restaurants, clubs, and counterculture. Beyond on slightly higher ground are some quite grand bourgeois villas. On a Saturday, we wandered through carried along by the sounds of street music, the smell of food stalls, and especially the vibrancy of the street life - young families, teenagers, groupies, punks, gays, and not a policeman in sight, and nothing but a sense of mutual respect and tolerance.

The scale back there is big; the scale here is human.

This is a intoxicating bipolar place.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


There I was - seat 22 front row. And all because a nudge came (thank you nudger), an on-line check just happened to have one ticket available, and I was up close and personal with a fabulous orchestra and a very classic production of a totally sold out oldie but a goodie.

And I was inside the Semperoper (that link provides a list of operas premiered there) thinking about Dutchman, Tannhauser, Salome, Elektra, Arabella.....

I was so overcome with the sound (an ongoing story with this trip I suspect) sitting three seats to the left of the rather handsome, in a bald kind of way, conductor, so immersed in the overture and how good it was, that I completely missed the curtain going up and suddenly I was in some palace where people in the most outrageous costumes, my god this is camp I thought, we're embarking on a dance-a-thon, anything you can dance I can dance better, till the two guys left standing had a final dance off, and I'm not sure who won, or whether it was the dancing that did it, or their other attributes, which were not insignificant, but they had a bit of a tussle then decided to go on a hunt together. Haven't they seen the movie? Don't they know what going hunting together means, especially with those kind of attributes. Anyway, one of them shot the swan which is not good. It seems when you shoot a swan you have to end up marrying it, which puts an end to hunting trips and things.

The swan as a lovely Japanese ballerina who cleverly morphed out a bright light where the 3D video swan landed. She was always the Japanese dancer dancing the swan for me, not really becoming a swan. My Swan Lakes are few and far between these days, but they do go back to Marilyns (Jones, Rowe) and even Kathleens (Gorham) and their swans had arms without elbows, wonderful fluid wing like arms and big strong partners to fly them through the air. The baddie with the black cape was big and strong and the Japanese dancer dancing the swan really got fired up with him, and started smiling a lot (I think I know why, he had very good attributes) but in the end, after heaps of more dance-a-thons, including Russian and Spanish ones, you know that don't you, Team White eventually beat Team Black.

The best bit was the (nearly cliched) four white swan routine which the drag queens do, crossed arms holding, legs doing what legs were never designed to do at great speed. It was fantastic. Seriously, this was extremely good, traditional, and extremely German I felt, based on the highest of musical values, and they've been doing it like this for a long long time. The trumpets were having a great night, and percussion, and string, and woods. It was great music making.

Somewhere it suddenly dawned on me why the music was so good. No one sings. Of course. The orchestra can let rip, nothing to hold back for, and no lousy singing to wreck it all.

Here's the nasty black cape guy with tangled long red curls dashing off after a curtain call. See, I really was in the front.