Wozzeck? Woyzeck? Both? Neither?

The Kammerspiele’s strange mash-up of Buchner’s play Woyzeck with Berg’s opera Wozzeck (an adaptation of Buchner’s play) begins at the end. Or rather, it begins with a narration of the end. We never see the conclusion of the play, but we are reminded of it every moment by the set—a pool of water that spans nearly the entire stage. Characters splash through their scenes, and in fact these splashes are perhaps the set’s biggest contribution. While it’s fun to see actors flop around in the pool, the combination of the constantly sloshing water and Berg’s unsettling tone rows sets nerves on edge. (In this play, that’s a good thing.)

Photo: Julian Röder
Photo: Julian Röder

Continue reading Wozzeck? Woyzeck? Both? Neither?

Munich Christmas markets

Germany has a tradition (imitated worldwide) of Christmas markets. Every December, pretty much every “platz” in the city turns into a sea of wooden huts selling mulled wine, candles, scarves, jewelry, sweets, or other trinkets. Needless to say, my fellow Fulbrighters and I have been making a tour of the markets, large and small.

The woman without a shadow

Everyone keeps telling me that if I’m going to fall in love with Strauss, it will be at Salome or Rosenkavalier. Of course, I keep ending up at Ariadne and Schweigsame Frau and Frau ohne Schatten instead. The last one (translatable as “the woman without a shadow”) is what I saw for this first time (barring studying a recording) on Saturday. My review is here. (It even includes a plot summary, if you’re wondering about the opera’s strange name.) I’m not in love with Strauss yet, but I was still thoroughly impressed by the singers, conductor, and instrumentalists.

Happy Hannukah from Munich!

Today was a holiday-themed day. After singing a Christmas lessons and carols service with my choir in the morning, I browsed in Christmas markets with a friend before heading to Temple Beth Shalom’s Hannukah party. There, I sang songs, listened to stories about Chelm, and ate enough latkes and jelly donuts to last for eight days. (After all, this is the only Hannukah party I get this year!) After the food, the Hannukah party turned into a dance party, and I learned that my friend Jesse (also American, studying abroad in Munich) knows how to Lindy Hop. I’m a bit rusty (it’s been a year and a half), but we still managed to impress our fellow party-goers.

Lots of pretty lights
There were lots of pretty lights at Temple Beth Shalom tonight

Madame Bovary on a merry-go-round

Despite my engineering background, when watching shows, I usually focus more on the acting than the tech. But after my first outing to the Residenztheater’s Marstall space, I’m suffering from tech envy. Their black box theatre is cooler than most main stages. This production of Madame Bovary has a (partially) rotating stage. In a black box space. No fair.

The rotating stage
The rotating stage. Photo: Thomas Dashuber

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem right for the play. The actors always seem awkward when entering and exiting (from/to underneath the stage)—which is sometimes used to great effect (as when Charles Bovary totters as the platform spins faster and faster, finally falling off the edge), but is usually just distracting. The platform also literally keeps the audience at a distance, as it prevents us from sitting closer to what ought to be an intimate show. Finally, it seems to sap characters’ motivation. When the stage moves for the characters, the characters are more stationary. We can interpret that as a message about inevitability, but, on a more practical level, it simply makes the show less interesting. Continue reading Madame Bovary on a merry-go-round

Reason is dead; long live Peer Gynt!

A five-act epic play in rhyming verse that spans continents and features trolls, madmen, and the devil? What more could a German director want? At the Residenztheater, David Bösch has tackled the challenges of Ibsen’s poem with unusual restraint, directing a show that is beautiful, thought-provoking, and surprisingly faithful to the script (condensed though it is). Much credit is surely due to the translator Angelika Gundlach, who excels at both pithy prose and clever rhymed verse.

Shenja Lacher (Peer Gynt) and Andrea Wenzl (Solveig). Photo: Thomas Dashuber
Shenja Lacher (Peer Gynt) and Andrea Wenzl (Solveig). Photo: Thomas Dashuber

That’s not to say that this is a historical period piece. On the contrary, Peer inhabits the modern world, living in a trailer with his mother and fantasizing about shaking hands with contemporary celebrities. And what a character he is! I almost suspect Shenja Lacher of witchcraft—he must have been alive and known to Ibsen in 1876, because this part was written for him. He’s irresponsible, irrepressible, funny, and impossibly charismatic. Peer must embody the contradiction of having enough personality to drive a global epic and so little essence that his soul is (almost) not worth preserving. Mr. Lacher manages: everything he does is small, but he does it with such grandiosity that you can’t look away. Even during the “Buckride” monologue, when I had trouble understanding the words (my ear was still getting used to the German rhymed verse), I was captivated by Mr. Lacher’s gestures, pauses, and inflections. Continue reading Reason is dead; long live Peer Gynt!

The Magic Flute, a century ago

The Magic Flute was the first opera I ever saw—the opera that began it all. So I have a certain fondness for it despite its many flaws, and I was pretty excited to snag a student ticket to the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production last night. As it turns out, my excitement was misplaced.

This was The Magic Flute, circa 1914. If you’re a wealthy opera patron who wants to see your ticket or donation money onstage, this is the production for you. Elaborately painted backdrops whiz by at the speed of about five an hour. Water and fire effects abound, as do moving set pieces and trap doors. The Queen of the Night seems to have been sponsored by Swarovski. (A tip for anyone trying to subtly sneak into Masonic temples under the cover of night: wearing the world’s sparkliest bodice and crown is a bad plan.) None of those things are inherently bad, although they also don’t actually contribute much to the show. (Exceptions: the snake-monster spitting fire gives some excuse for Tamino’s wimpy behavior, and Papageno being separated from Papagena by having a trap-door suddenly open under his feet is pretty funny.)

But there are some really bad things about century-ago-style opera. For one, Monostatos and his group of choristers and supers are all made up in blackface. Both their appearances (makeup, clothing, hairstyles) and behaviors (gleeful cruelty, overdrawn bumbling stupidity) reinforce the worst racial stereotypes of the past. Who thought this was an okay staging choice? Can that person please be fired, right now? This is the 21st century, for goodness’ sake! For another, the acting standards were a lot lower in 1914, and that seems to have been upheld here. The Staatsoper has cast singers with fabulous voices (special props to the amazing three ladies and the adorable three boys) whom I have seen before and know can act circles around most opera singers. And they played caricatures, with not a single interesting character arc or unexpected acting choice in the whole show. I suspect the director (August Everding) is to blame.

Oh, Germany. How can crazy, subversive, modern productions that U.S. audiences would reject as too avant garde and progressive co-exist with this—the worst of old-fashioned, racist, boring opera? What a waste of a talent and money.

An excellent first Figaro

I have an embarrassing confession to make: until two days ago, I hadn’t seen The Marriage of Figaro live. I’d seen plenty of filmed versions. I’d listened to it all multiple times. I’d sung Cherubino’s arias until I was thoroughly sick of them. But in six years of avid opera-going, I’d never managed to catch Figaro, despite it being one of the most-performed works in the repertoire. That’s all resolved now, though, because I saw a lovely production at the Bayerische Staatsoper on Monday. My review for Bachtrack is here.

Manon Lescaut, again

Before I secured reviewer tickets to Manon Lescaut with the one and only Jonas Kaufmann, I was worried that I might not get to see it. After all, I am not always granted tickets to everything I want to review. After I tweeted desperately about my predicament, a Twitter acquaintance (the wonderful @sasherka) offered me a spare ticket in the gallery for the December 7 performance. So I returned to Manon Lescaut yesterday for closing night, and all I can say is, “wow.” If that had been the opening night, I’d have given it five stars. Six, if that were a thing. Kaufmann and Opolais were so much more intense than back in November, and the whole opera was more emotionally affecting.

There were two other benefits of seeing Manon Lescaut again. One: lots of Twitter people were there last night, ranging in age from 20s to 50s and in countries of origin from the U.S. to Germany, Switzerland, England, and Russia! We swapped impressions and complaints at intermission, and some kind members of the flock sneaked me into a better standing room place for the second half. We also shared tales from the opera-going trenches over food and drink afterwards. Two: I met Jonas Kaufmann! I didn’t faint! (I did blush furiously.) It was only a quick meeting (there was a long queue at the stage door), but he signed my program book (as did Opolais) and assured me that he received the gummy bears I sent backstage on opening night. He laughed about how many I sent (two kilos). I didn’t get a picture with him because of the queue (sigh—someday!), but here’s my signed program!

Der Jonas has to sign so many things, he just writes "JK."
Der Jonas has to sign so many things, he just writes “JK.”

The Shrew’s Taming

I’m pretty sure German directors all have a deck of improv-game-type prompts, which they use to pick the settings for their shows. This deck includes cards like “an abusive father’s basement,” “an American slum,” “a hunting party,” and “outer space.” Director Tina Lanik picked the “hunting party” card for this Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung (literally, The Shrew’s Taming), and then added rain because, why not? If you can make it rain onstage as well as the Residenztheater can, do it. Put it in all the shows.

Andrea Wenzl (Kat) and Shenja Lacher (Petruchio). In the rain. Photo: Thomas Dashuber
Andrea Wenzl (Kat) and Shenja Lacher (Petruchio). In the rain. Photo: Thomas Dashuber

Continue reading The Shrew’s Taming