A charming Don Giovanni in Budapest

I’m mostly in Munich this year for the Bayerische Staatsoper. And I chose it intentionally, knowing that the Staatsoper meant household-name soloists and crazy Regietheater in addition to a stellar ensemble (not to mention the playing and conducting). But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that there’s more to opera than fame and concepts. There’s singing and there’s acting, and beyond that, very little matters. All of this is by way of saying that the Don Giovanni I saw at the Erkel Theater in Budapest on March 26th was not flashy. The talent was mostly home-grown. The sets and costumes were simple and in time period. Nothing unexpected happened (well, except for the surprise inclusion of the Zerlina/Leporello duet). And it was all wonderfully charming.

This production seems to take much of its inspiration from Tirso de Molina’s original play El burlador de Sevilla. Don Juan is sleeping his way around the 14th century (um, give or take one hundred years? I get fuzzy on costume time period identification pre-1600s). We first see him appear masked, all in black, which is not specified in Tirso’s script, but is definitely a cliche of the genre. The constraints of “period costuming” are loosened enought to give Don Giovanni and Leporello swashbuckling tri-cornered hats—a liberty I definitely approve of! The set shows some carved stone doorways that remain onstage throughout. Various items in the background (differently colored flats, a balcony, a villa, or the statue of the Commendatore) mark the opera’s different locations and serve the action well. We’re not seeing millions of dollars onstage like we might at the Met or the Bayerische Staatsoper, and that’s actually rather refreshing.

All photos taken from the Hungarian State Opera website
All photos taken from the Hungarian State Opera website

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: nothing else matters much if the acting and singing are good. Here, they are. I want to start by saying something good about Cseh Antal’s dopey, well-sung Masetto, because further mentions of him are about to vanish in my rapt adoration of the utterly fabulous Szemere Zita. If I hadn’t seen it here, I wouldn’t believe it was possible to steal the show as Zerlina. But she does. She’s a competent actress, winsome with some sass and spine, but it’s her voice that really stuns. During “Batti, batti,” she took her top note higher (as a cadenza), floating it pianissimo, crescendoing to a ringing forte, and bringing it back down to the original volume and texture. All perfectly smoothly. It was a lesson in vocal control. I thought her flashier cadenza in “Vedrai, carino” was actually a tad tasteless, but my fellow operagoer disagreed. (“If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” was her sentiment, and Szemere certainly has it.) It was also really exciting to see Zerlina’s usually cut scene with Leporello. (She ties him up while threatening him; he tries to flatter his way out of the situation but fails.) Even though it does nothing to advance the plot, it’s good fun, especially with this cast! Continue reading A charming Don Giovanni in Budapest

Rounding out a Ring

My second full, live Ring cycle has come to an end! Götterdämmerung was better than the rest of the cycle led me to expect, which was a very pleasant surprise. As a singer and actress myself, I usually focus on the cast and staging, but Kirill Petrenko has been such a fabulous conductor this whole cycle that some of my highest words of praise were reserved for him. My full review is here on Bachtrack.

Torquato Tasso, paranoid poetess

At the moment, I happen to be revising a paper about Torquato Tasso. In it, I compare his play Aminta with Isabella Andreini’s La Mirtilla. I examine how Andreini drew on her experience as a commedia dell’arte actor and a woman in Renaissance Italy when she wrote her play. It never really dawned on me that Tasso could also be a woman and an actor (because it’s a matter of historical fact that he wasn’t). But in Philipp Preuss’s version of Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, he (she?) is.

Let’s start with the “actor” bit. It would actually be more accurate to say that the line between writer and actor has been blurred, as has the line between the play Tasso is living and the poem he is writing. Tasso begins by offering us his work, admitting that it is unfinished but saying that he must present it as-is. This work is supposed to be Jerusalem Delivered, but here it seems like it’s Torquato Tasso proper. (The play, though nominally finished, ends oddly and suddenly, so that line certainly fits.) He speaks other characters’ lines as they lip-synch for a while, until they slowly take over. But he is insecure. A few lines in, he starts over from his opening monologue. And then a few lines into that run, he starts over again. He tries to start over a third time, but the other characters overrule him because they have a party to throw.

Norman Hacker (Antonio Montecatino), Sibylle Canonica (Leonore von Este), Nora Buzalka (Leonore Sanvitale), Valery Tscheplanowa (Torquato Tasso). Photo: Matthias Horn
Norman Hacker (Antonio Montecatino), Sibylle Canonica (Leonore von Este), Nora Buzalka (Leonore Sanvitale), Valery Tscheplanowa (Torquato Tasso). Photo: Matthias Horn

You see, they’re in a theater—our theater, the Residenztheater—with a balcony and fire exit signs above the doors and red velvet and all the other trappings. It’s almost as though someone put a mirror on the stage (doubly so when project a live feed of the audience). The two Leonores—a Princess and a Countess—are hosting an awards ceremony for Tasso, where they shower him with confetti and crown him with a laurel wreath and smile awkwardly at the TV cameras. (One of these three things is in the Goethe text.) Continue reading Torquato Tasso, paranoid poetess

Fulbright Berlin Seminar, part three: tourism

This is part of my trilogy of posts about the Fulbright Berlin Seminar. See the first post for an introduction. This post is about being a tourist.

Let me get this out of the way: I found Berlin to be a very ugly city. It felt sprawling, dirty, and architecturally unappealing. That said, it has some beautiful monuments and churches and tons of interesting museums, so it wasn’t a bad place to be for a conference. I used every spare moment to visit things in the city. While I certainly didn’t see it all (I most notably omitted the Reichstag, but I really could have used a few more days for museums, too), I think I did a pretty good job of sightseeing given the time I had!


Berlin is full of historical monuments and memorials, some dating back to the Prussian years and others commemorating the Cold War and the city’s divisions.

Continue reading Fulbright Berlin Seminar, part three: tourism

Fulbright Berlin Seminar, part two: networking

This is part of my trilogy of posts about the Fulbright Berlin Seminar. See the first post for an introduction. This post is about the conference itself, including the socializing that happened around it.

After we arrived and checked into our hotels on Sunday, the conference offered us tours of Berlin. I chose one that focused on immigration and Islam. We visited the gorgeous Sehitlik Mosque, where a Muslim guide pointed out the architectural highlights and answered our questions about both the building and the religion. It was fascinating not only to hear her talk about Islam in Germany today, but also to see the wide range of my peers’ levels of knowledge about Islam. I was not very knowledgable, and I learned about core tenets of the religion and also about cool features of mosques. (I was especially intrigued by the niche that reflects sound back to the congregation so that the imam can face Mecca when he prays and still be heard by the people behind him.)

After a welcome dinner with far too much food and wine, we woke up on Monday morning for topic-based discussion panels. I was tasked with moderating the performing arts panel, where scholars who were researching (or simply attending a lot of) theater, opera, music, and dance shared their views. We talked about direction, funding, the experience of being a performer, the past and future of various media, and much more. The conversation was a bit all over the place (my fault, I suppose, given that I was supposed to be moderating), but often intriguing. One Italian scholar lives with an experimental theater company that brings art into public and private spaces as intimate as donated rooms in people’s homes!

As a thank-you for moderating, I was presented with the following mug. Look closely—you’ll spot a funny Germanism.

IMG_1797 Continue reading Fulbright Berlin Seminar, part two: networking

Fulbright Berlin Seminar, part one: Judaism

At approximately the middle of the grant period, all of the Fulbright students in Germany are invited to the Berlin Seminar. This is an annual meeting focused on sharing experiences and discussing important issues in Europe. The German grantees (including students, professors, teaching assistants, performers, and journalists) are joined by Fulbrighters from other countries (I noticed strong presences from Scandanavia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Italy) as well as German grantees who will soon leave for the States. We meet for seminars, discussion panels, and lots of eating and drinking.

The four-day seminar was very full, so I’m going to split my experiences into three blog posts: one focused on Judaism-related excursions, one focused on “networking” (the conference itself and the socializing surrounding it), and one focused on general tourism. This is the Judaism post.

On our second day in Berlin, we had the afternoon free. Some friends and I grabbed tickets for a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, and one place we stopped was the memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust. It’s a strange monument—unmarked stone rectangles (which look rather like tombs) rise from the ground, increasing in height. They’re slightly angled, and walking among them is intentionally disorienting.

The following day, we visited the old Jewish district. This is full of Stolpersteine—brass “stumbling stones” marking where Jews who were killed in the Holocaust used to live. Many Germany cities have them, but not Munich. (A member of my synagogue is actually currently working to bring them to Munich.) They’re supposed to serve as a memorial to the dead and a reminder to the living, but I didn’t see that last part working: except for a few tourists, everyone I observed simply walked over them.

Continue reading Fulbright Berlin Seminar, part one: Judaism

La Rondine: good singers, shame about the opera

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am definitely not a Puccini fan, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I haven’t seen his infrequently performed opera La Rondine. That is, not from start to finish. I’m an opera fan in the era of the internet, so clips come my way pretty often. And because my young, American, opera fan friends have interesting taste, those clips usually come from Marta Domingo’s production, famous for using the opera’s alternate ending and for including lots of usually omitted material from Puccini’s own revisions.

What I saw at the Deutsche Oper tonight—the short “standard version”—is hardly the same opera. It’s frothy and insipid, less substantial than any Strauss operetta and without the catchy tunes to compensate. Puccini’s usual over-the-top music serves a plot that can’t support it and characters without depth or development.

© 2015, Bettina Stöß

Rolando Villazon’s production doesn’t help. (Yes, you read that name correctly. The star tenor is ramping up his directing career.) The opera’s glitzy 1850s setting has been updated to the even glitzier 1920s. (This is presumably solely for the purpose of putting Alexandra Hutton (Lisette) in devastatingly handsome tails—in which case I entirely approve.) A giant nude serves as a backdrop and Prunier plays women as instruments, just in case the message of decadence isn’t clear enough. It seems it all couldn’t possibly get kitschier, but it does! For the final act, Magda and Ruggero retreat to a picture-perfect beach with a little overturned boat. A strange cut-out floats in an overly blue sky behind them. (I spent a while staring at it, convinced that it was the silhouette of a deformed man, but my companions assured me that it was simply an unfortunate rendering of the nude from the first act.) Continue reading La Rondine: good singers, shame about the opera

Live fast, die young

Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy is very much a product of its (turn-of-the-century) times. Its teen protagonists are uninformed and terrified by their first experiences of sexuality, and the adults in their community—the ones who refused to teach them in the first place—blame them for the consequences. It’s a riveting story that, after many initial run-ins with censorship, has achieved lasting success as both a play and a Broadway musical.

But this is Spring Awakening: Live Fast, Die Young. The teenagers in Nuran David Calis’ re-write live here and now, but they are still doomed. Even without a puritanical society condemning them, they are torn apart by the conflict between their dreams, their emotions, social taboos, and their parents’ expectations. Melchior (Paul Langemann) discomfits Moritz (Emil Borgeest) not by showing him diagrams of the reproductive system, but by stripping. Moritz is writing an opera about America, which he desperately wants to visit, but his classmates deride his efforts and his parents disapprove of his artistic, impractical ambitions. Wendla (Florence Dejardin) becomes preganant through rebellion rather than naivete. Ilse (Naime Laube) struts as the most confident and sexually experienced girl, and Moritz is a bit in love with her. But the one time she responds to him, she reaches inside his pants rather than listening to his words.


The play was directed by Anja Sczilinski and acted by the Residenztheater’s youth ensemble. It’s an impressive group of talented young actors. Emil Borgeest gave Moritz the perfect blend of awkwardness and hidden passion. His calm suicide—stripping and walking toward light, out a door—was quietly affecting. Sonja Viegener (Martha) delivered a fabulous monologue mixing her anger with the present and her dreams for the future. Paul Langemann and Florence Dejardin were heartbreakingly confused as Melchior and Wendla. Wendla’s self-performed abortion with a broken bottle was almost impossible to watch (in the best way). The drama didn’t always reach the fever pitch I’d expect from such a melodramatic script—Melchior’s final scene, for instance, was oddly short on despair, given that he needed to be dissuaded from suicide. But on the whole, the cast achieved a balance of naturalness and heightened emotion that fit the piece well.

I made the mistake of going to a schools matinee. The drama was not helped by the audience’s giggles and whistles every time a piece of clothing was removed or characters got intimate. Regardless, I walked away both moved and impressed. If these teens are the future ensemble members of Germany’s theaters, then German theater will be going strong for many years to come.

Exodus: apes and abortion

I just left what might have been the most boring show I have ever seen.

Romeo Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses is supposed to be an exploration of the many complications and significances of the Biblical character Moses. Good thing the website told me that, or I never would have known.

It starts with a bunch of people in vaguely ’30s or ’40s attire examining things: each other, the walls, the floor, and so on. There’s lots of wordless measuring. It goes on for far too long.

Photo: Guido Mencari
Photo: Guido Mencari

A giant and deafening lathe comes in and snatches wigs, spinning them around dangerously—society’s effect on women, presumably. Continue reading Exodus: apes and abortion

Liaisons, what’s happened to them?

The question is from an entirely different show (A Little Night Music), but it has a relevant answer: In Munich, they’re going strong. The Cuivillestheater is playing not one but two adaptations of Laclos’ classic novel Dangerous Liaisons. I was gutted not to be able to get tickets to the musical (which had a very short run), but perhaps everything worked out for the best. I can’t imagine it would have been better than last night’s play.

I want to give credit where it’s due, but I’m not even sure where to begin. Should I commend Christopher Hampton for turning a long and complicated novel into a suspenseful and witty script? Maja Ravn for the production’s utterly brilliant set—a towering pile of mattresses that provided infinite entrance and exit possibilities and effectively represented a wide range of locations? Or director Katrine Wiedemann for a strong, consistent style and a perfect sense of pacing?

Eva Schmidt (Madame de Rosemonde), Friederike Ott (Cécile de Volanges), Genija Rykova (Präsidentin de Tourvel), Ulrike Willenbacher (Madame de Volanges), Philip Dechamps (Chevalier Danceny) vorne Mitte Michele Cuciuffo (Vicomte de Valmont), Michaela Steiger (Marquise de Merteuil). Photo: Tanja Dorendorf
Eva Schmidt (Madame de Rosemonde), Friederike Ott (Cécile de Volanges), Genija Rykova (Präsidentin de Tourvel), Ulrike Willenbacher (Madame de Volanges), Philip Dechamps (Chevalier Danceny) vorne Mitte Michele Cuciuffo (Vicomte de Valmont), Michaela Steiger (Marquise de Merteuil). Photo: Tanja Dorendorf

Continue reading Liaisons, what’s happened to them?