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Estival Festivals: I. The Munich Opera Festival

The Munich Opera Festival, which opened last week, didn't use to be seen as a proper festival at all. It's a compendium of the season's highlights, including some repertory operas; the only difference between it and the regular season, people used to say, was higher ticket prices. However, it's managed to prevail, in part because the Bavarian State Opera has remained one of the more financially stable theaters in post-reunification Germany, with a consistently high level of casting and, for better or worse, frequently provocative stage direction. And it's convenient to have opera available at a time when many foreigners have leisure time to travel to it, and many big international opera houses are closed.

Artistically, the biggest question these days concerns the company's music director since 2006, Kent Nagano: how is he doing? Nagano's arrival in Munich raised the question of whether he actually has the chops to conduct the big standard repertory, which he's certainly been tackling gamely: "Salome," "Ariadne auf Naxos," "Idomeneo." Understandably, he's also playing to his strengths, like "Dialogues of the Carmelites," coming in March 2010, which put him on the map when he was music director in Lyon back in the 1990s.
(read more after the jump)

I loved Nagano's "Saint-Francois d'Assise" in Salzburg in 1998 (he recently did it in concert with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, where he is also music director). But overall, his weakness, in other things I've heard, has been a lack of emotional center, a certain literal-minded heaviness of approach that can yield a cold, porridgey stodginess. However I haven't heard him live for a couple of years, and I'm very curious to get a chance to hear him in action in Munich. (I haven't yet gotten his new CD of the Bruckner 4th, but am awaiting it with impatience.)

The festival opened on June 30 with the company's latest production, Verdi's "Aida" by Christoph Nel, which gained attention long before its June 8 premiere when the soprano Barbara Frittoli pulled out of the title role months beforehand, on the grounds that she couldn't stand the production. Helmut Mauro, critic of the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," found the production actually rather tame at its reiteration at the Opera Festival, but pretty well sung by a "robust" Kristin Lewis, Frittoli's replacement, and the mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova. He was ambivalent about Salvatore Licitra as Radames, though the tenor had "some nice passages." Here's a review in English of the June 8 performance, though I strongly disagree with Jens F. Laurson's allegation that this score "is a harsh throwback to the trivialities of Nabucco."

But the real buzz was around the festival's new production, a "Lohengrin" by Richard Jones, with Jonas Kaufmann taking on the title role (originally slated to be sung by Rolando Villazon) for the first time. The general tenor of the reviews was that the cast was good (though the Elsa, Anja Harteros, outshone Kaufmann) and the production was awful (though one critic felt that Nagano's hasty conducting was perfectly matched to the stage direction.) Kaufmann is being touted as an up-and-coming Heldentenor, though the reviewer from the Neue Zuercher Zeitung worries that he's losing the lyric elements of his voice as he turns up the volume (his newest recording, not yet released in the States, runs the gamut from Tamino to Siegmund).

You could say it's all downhill from here. Other festival offerings include "Lucrezia Borgia" and "Norma" with Edita Gruberova (getting on in years, but still worshiped slavishly in the German-speaking world). "Ariadne" with Adrienne Pieczonka and Diana Damrau, Johan Botha as Verdi's "Otello," Pfitzner's "Palestrina," conducted by Simone Young (who seems to be leading the Hamburg opera with a firm hand), "Werther," "Jenufa," and others. The festival has abandoned its former custom of closing every July 31 with "Meistersinger;" this year's conclusion is "Falstaff."

By Anne Midgette  |  July 10, 2009; 6:44 AM ET
Categories:  festivals , international , opera  
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Dear Ms Midgette,

>> ??????? Excuse me... Lohengrin was never on Villazon's plans, it was the Werther he was scheduled to sing in Munich and he was replaced by the very apt Beczala. Who could hardly be called "downhill"... same goes for Gruberova. Amazingly indeed for her age, her singing is still better, smoother and altogether more enjoyable than many peers ( of whom none actually sing the Lucrezia). I say let's enjoy her while we still can.

As to the Lohengrin, of the numerous critics why single out the one who has doubts about Kaufmann's lyricism in the high notes? As he is the only one with that particular doubt, doesn't strike me as representative... I'll refrain from posting 30 links of German reviews which appeared in the papers these days, easy to google. But here is an English one from a colleague, who has apprently been there:

And while we are at it, speaking of that new CD here is the site, which offers plenty of preview material (including audio, where one can make up their own mind about lyricism in this singer's voice):

Kind regards,


Posted by: Hariclea | July 10, 2009 8:17 AM | Report abuse

Kudos to Barbara Frittoli; if more singers would do the same, we would have less Eurotrash.

My problem with Nagano's recording of "Saint-Francois d'Assise" is that it does not sound French. Indeed, I had to look in the text to realize that the first words in the opera, sung by poor Urban Malmberg, were "j'ai peur"; the rest of his pronounciation is equally awful - and that's only one example...

Unfortunately Ozawa's Paris recording of the premiere is out of print and only available at ridiculously expensive prices...

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | July 11, 2009 12:40 AM | Report abuse

I too have not heard Kent Nagano live in a few years, the last times being John Adams’s 'El Nino' in Berlin in 2002 and Brahms’s 'A German Requiem' combined with Wolfgang Rihm’s 'Reading the Scripts' with the National Symphony Orchestra five years ago (with Heidi Murphy and Matthias Goerne and the Washington Chorus). Both of those performances, and an earlier concert opera performance in California of Busoni’s 'Arlecchino', were memorable.

Why would Kent Nagano, who has championed 20th century and contemporary work, not have the chops to develop rich interpretations of the great pre-twentieth century opera literature? Many great conductors have started with the operatic music of the present and then expanded backwards as they have aged. (Lorin Maazel conducted the world premiere of Luigi Dallapiccola’s 'Ulisse', in Berlin, just over 40 years ago, for example).

I find the assumption almost racist.

(Perhaps too we should define 'big standard repertory' in the 21st century. It is no longer as 18th and 19th century weighted, as it has not been for quite some time, especially in Europe.)

Based upon Kent Nagano’s fine work bringing Paul Hindemith’s 'Cardillac' to large-scale life (as directed by Andre Engel) with the Paris Opera in 2005, with Alan Held, Angela Denoke, Christopher Ventris, and Hannah Esther Minutillo, as well as a very recent production of Mozart’s 'Idomeneo', I think that Munich will continue to flourish. I am less sure now whether the recently created Washington National Opera, under the once more progressive but now musically conservative and aging Hans Fricke, will flourish in a similar way.

By the way, the Nagano/Engel/Held Cardillac reminded me that the National Galleries of both Munich and Washington, D.C. have outstanding late epic canvasses by Paul Hindemith’s artistic colleague Max Beckmann. Washington, D.C. is indeed a leading world center when it comes to visual culture (and theater), if not musical culture. (Beckmann’s widow gave at least one of the two masterpieces to our National Gallery.)

And here is link to Washington musicologist Wayne Shirley’s note on Dallapicolla’s Ulisse:

Posted by: snaketime1 | July 13, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

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