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."
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