Soprano's Bare Breasts Fail to Save Friedkin's Munich `Salome'
By Shirley Apthorp
From Bloomberg.com - Oct. 30, 2006
By the time her stepfather Herodes starts sucking Salome's naked breasts, it is clear that nothing will save William Friedkin's Munich staging of the 1905 Richard Strauss opera about the petulant veiled princess.
Director Friedkin, better known in cinema circles ('The Exorcist', '12 Angry Men') than in the opera world, piled on obscenity and indecency to depressing effect in his production of 'Salome'. Friedkin's second-ever opera staging read like a dreary catalog of beginner's errors, the most blatant being the assumption that nudity on the opera stage is the same thing as eroticism.
This was a big event for the Bavarian State Opera. ``Salome'' formed the second half of a double bill, preceded by the world premiere of Wolfgang Rihm's ``Das Gehege'' (``The Enclosure''). Yet even the birth of a brand new opera by a doyen of German composition took second place to the real event: Kent Nagano's arrival at the helm of the Bavarian State Opera.
The Californian star conductor, whose trademarks are a flick of his well-conditioned mane of hair and a gift for glassily transparent orchestral sound, succeeds Zubin Mehta and his clever offsider, Peter Jonas. He has a lot to live up to. Mehta produced plush Wagnerian sounds from the orchestra, while Jonas packed houses with slick productions. Nagano has chosen to fly the flag of hip modernity, and this was his mission statement. It is a pity that his team could think of nothing newer than nudity.
In fact, ``Das Gehege'' is not a bad piece. At just over 30 minutes, it is the perfect length for a contemporary opera. Rihm has set a scene from German intellectual Botho Strauss's 1991 play ``Final Chorus,'' a deconstructive work about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The scene is a hysterical monologue for a frustrated woman who frees an eagle in order to kill it. Strauss had the German heraldic bird in mind, but Rihm's setting opens it to wider associations. Both text and score enter erotic and psychological territory. This could be the perfect companion piece to Schoenberg's ``Erwartung'' or Sciarrino's ``Lohengrin.'' There is a constant sense of underlying horror.
Rihm has woven a complex, beautiful score, firmly rooted in German tradition, full of allusions and onomatopoeic effects. You hear flapping wings, shrill bird calls, pounding heartbeats, the memory of a dance. Gabriele Schnaut sings the work's single role with violent dramatic commitment. The results are loud and not at all seductive.
Hans Schavernoch's single monumental set of refrigerator- white arches serves both productions. Petra Reinhardt dresses Schnaut like a governess with a side job in lingerie, and an actor playing the eagle in a silent role wears a Halloween bird suit. Friedkin lets Schnaut sing most of the part perched near the front of the stage, staring at Nagano.
Popular though it has become to hire film directors for the opera stage, enough failed experiments have proved that the two genres have little in common. Singers stand rigid and helpless in the footlights, falling back on a narrow repertoire of stock gestures, and age-old cliches are unwittingly regurgitated.
This was nowhere more apparent than in Friedkin's inept and ugly ``Salome'' production. This time, Reinhardt's costumes blended Nativity play with cheap fashion catalogue, and Friedkin let the singers stare so fixedly at Nagano that they seemed to fear he might disappear if they looked anywhere else for longer than three seconds. Wilde's tale of the disturbed, spoiled princess and her fatal demand for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter was presented like a college musical.
Unable to create any plausible erotic tension between Alan Titus's musty, uncharismatic Jochanaan and Angela Denoke's neurotic Salome, Friedkin had his soprano simply strip. She danced her own Dance of the Seven Veils, just as embarrassingly as any less slender and lissome singer might have done, and then let Herodes (sung like a Disney caricature by Wolfgang Schmidt) tear off her top and lick her nipples.
Denoke overacts as if her life depends on it, and after a certain point it's impossible to watch. Listening is also hard. The role is too big for her, and the strain tells as the evening wears on. She swoops up to her high notes and hoots when the going gets tough. The range of expressive color is narrow, and the basic sound is unlovely.
Nagano conducts ``Salome'' as though it were ``Der Rosenkavalier,'' all delicacy and sweet clarity. That has a charm of its own, though it isn't enough to give this work the garish, twisted horror it needs. Nagano generates tension through a sense of inexorable forward motion, yet studiously eschews the grotesque. It is hard to get excited about what he does, though the opening-night audience gave all participants warm applause.
Critics hail inauguration of Nagano era in Munich
By Arthur Kaptainis
From The Gazette - Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Many of the reviews are in, and most of them are very good. Kent Nagano, known in eastern standard time as the music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, has been warmly (if in a few cases cautiously) welcomed as the music director of the Bavarian State Opera, by far the largest house in Germany and one of the major temples of the operatic world.
Authorities swarmed in from all over the unified nation and beyond to witness the Friday night inauguration of the Nagano era, a double bill of Richard Strauss's pulse-quickening Salome and the world premiere of Wolfgang Rihm's intensely symbolic one-act opera, Das Gehege (The Enclosure).
Nagano shone confidence under the spotlight Friday, and when the house lights went up, he basked in a steady stream of applause from the audience, satisfied with what they had heard.
Nor did they object to what they had seen. The performance will go down in the annals of opera as one of the few recent productions in Germany not to be vociferously booed.
"There are always protests, normally against the director," Ulrike Hessler, the marketing director of the company, conceded on Saturday. "But yesterday, nothing. It was all positive."
But the bulk of the scribblers, based on a sampling of reviews yesterday, were underwhelmed by the stagecraft of William Friedkin, the ex-wunderkind U.S. filmmaker best remembered for The French Connection and The Exorcist - even though Salome (Angela Denoke was the statuesque soprano) ends up topless at the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils and endures a nipple nibble from Herod (the tenor was Wolfgang Schmidt). Of greater interest to the critics was Nagano's work in the pit.
"The state orchestra sounds totally different," wrote Markus Thiel yesterday in the popular-press broadsheet the Munchner Merkur. "It's more open, more agile, quicker in reacting, more discreet in sound groups, more like a bright, silver ray."
Reinhard Brembeck of the classier Suddeutsche Zeitung made similar observations in a review headlined Pathos-free zone, a complimentary turn of phrase that, like many in German music criticism, turns a little sour in translation.
"After these years, this orchestra suddenly sounds interesting to the last detail."
Like most critics, Thiel and Brembeck contrasted the ana-lytic Nagano style with the more robust approach of his predecessor, Zubin Mehta. (It is an interesting if not widely acknowledged fact that a former MSO music director in Munich is being replaced by the current MSO music director.)
"He stresses the modernity of the score," Brembeck wrote, referring to Nagano's take on Strauss's Salome. "Which leaves behind the romantic."
Still, both writers wondered whether something in dramatic thrust had been sacrificed at the altar of clarity.
Julia Spinola of the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was ambivalent, recognizing the "debussynah" (near-to-Debussy) sound Nagano wished to cultivate but arguing that the Bavarian State Orchestra (which accompanies the opera company and competes in Munich with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic) hadn't quite achieved the desired transparency.
Peter Uehling, however, threw caution to the wind in the Berliner Zeitung. "We were not happy that he went, and we know why," he began, referring to Nagano's decision to give up the Berlin-based Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester in favour of double duty in Montreal and Munich.
The critic was impressed by Nagano's bold decision to couple Salome with Das Gehege, which asks a solo soprano (the full-bodied Gabriele Schnaut) to cavort with, then devour, a skull-headed eagle (comparisons with the relationship of the former west and east Germanys are not discouraged).
Uehling commended the "great agility" of the orchestra and the precision of Nagano's approach to Strauss's score. Heavens, this conductor even understands that "fragmentation" is sometimes necessary to maintain "balance in the whole structure."
He concludes: "In a musical way, the Bavarian State Opera is in store for great new times."
And in a dramatic way? Peter Hagmann, in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung, a respected Zurich daily, spoke for many when he dismissed the "embarrassing realism" of the staging. Like many of his colleagues, this critic used Nagano as a stick to beat Mehta and praised the musical presentation.
"It is clear in what direction musical theatre in Munich will go," he wrote, perhaps expressing hope that with Peter Jonas, a British provocateur, no longer in Munich as intendant (managing director), Nagano will shift the emphasis back to music from the sensational postmodern stagings that characterized the Jonas-Mehta era.
"The majority of the audience will hope for that and expect that from him," Sibylle Seyser, a longtime Munich opera enthusiast, said of Nagano. "In one review, I read that he was in the middle between being modern and traditional.
"And that is a good thing."
Nagano and a new era for Bavarian opera
By Alan Riding
From the International Herald Tribune/The New York Times - October 31, 2006
This city's love affair with opera, now more than 350 years old, has survived the fires that regularly razed 18th- and 19th- century theaters as well as regime changes, revolutions, two world wars and, most recently, the reduction of crucial subsidies from Bavaria's regional government. In that context a change of command at the Bavarian State Opera can hardly be deemed traumatic.
Yet over the last 13 years Munich's opera house has enjoyed such prestige under Peter Jonas's leadership that his retirement as general manager has inevitably raised questions about the future. Further, coinciding with Jonas's departure this summer, Zubin Mehta wrapped up eight years as general music director and passed the baton to the American conductor Kent Nagano, most recently music director at the Los Angeles Opera.
The opening of the 2006-7 opera season here on Friday, then, was also the beginning of a new era, if one not yet clearly defined.
Famously possessive of their opera house, this city's music lovers turned out in force for their first taste of things to come. To judge by their enthusiastic response, they left reassured.
For his first performance as music director Nagano turned to friends for support. He invited the American filmmaker William Friedkin, with whom he had worked in Los Angeles, to direct a new production of Richard Strauss's Salome'. And to open the evening he asked the German composer Wolfgang Rihm, whose orchestral work he has performed, to create a one-act opera, which Friedkin also directed.
The idea behind Rihm's 35-minute work, 'Das Gehege' (The Enclosure), was to evoke the spirit of "Salomé," and he did so with a story adapted from a play by Botho Strauss that does just that.
A woman, sung by the soprano Gabriele Schnaut, discovers a caged eagle, danced by Todd Ford. Infatuated with its beauty, she releases it and begins to taunt it. When the eagle turns on her, she kills it.
As the curtain falls, she stands alone, covered in blood.
"Salomé" of course ends no less violently. Salomé, sung by Angela Denoke, is driven to erotic distraction when she is rejected by the imprisoned Jochanaan, or John the Baptist, sung by Alan Titus.
Wolfgang Schmidt's Herod promises her the world if she will perform the dance of seven veils for him. She does so (ending up topless here), then demands Jochanaan's head. Disgusted by the sight of Salomé kissing the dead prophet's bloody lips, Herod orders her death, and in this production she too is beheaded.
Both productions and all the singers, with Denoke singled out, were warmly received, but the welcome given to Nagano was perhaps most significant. The audience here consists of regular operagoers - 30 percent attend more than 20 performances a year - with strong views and no reluctance to make them known. They also know that Nagano will influence what they hear in the coming years, and for the moment they appear to have given him a vote of confidence.
This season Nagano will also conduct a revival of Britten's "Billy Budd" and a new production of Mussorgsky's "Khovanshchina," as well as a new opera, "Alice in Wonderland," written by the Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin. And like "Das Gehege," this new commission came about at Nagano's initiative: Chin was resident composer at the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra in Berlin, where Nagano was also music director until recently.
For Nagano, a 55-year-old Californian of Japanese extraction who first made his name in Europe at the Lyon National Opera in France, this year has brought two critical career moves: he has not only swapped the Los Angeles Opera for the Bavarian State Opera but also left the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra to become music director of the Montreal Symphony.
"For me the idea of holding two posts in Germany did not seem like the right thing to do," he said in a recent interview. "I couldn't see how one could avoid a conflict of interest. If you secure a sponsorship, to whom does it go? If you secure a recording agreement, to whom do the recordings go? It seemed to me that this situation was very open to misunderstandings."
That said, the attraction of the Bavarian State Opera was not hard to see. With 2,100 seats, its home, the early- 19th-century National Theater, is Germany's largest opera house. The company also boasts Germany's biggest opera audience (580,000 last season), the most productions (40) and performances (350) per year, and the richest budget ($100 million). The opera company or its orchestra also performs in the Prince Regent Theater and the Cuvillies Theater, although the latter is currently closed for renovation.
No less important are the kudos won by the opera house during the Jonas years. Jonas, who formerly ran the English National Opera, made his mark both by encouraging directors to take daringly fresh looks at opera evergreens and by introducing composers who had been neglected (Handel and Monteverdi) or had never been much performed here (Britten and Janacek).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, choosing his successor proved complicated.
Around the time Nagano was appointed in late 2003, Christoph Albrecht, former head of the Dresden Opera, was chosen to take over from Jonas this year. But in 2005 his contract was abruptly rescinded - reportedly because of differences with Nagano and opera house executives - and Klaus Bachler, director of the Burg Theater in Vienna, was named in his place. Bachler takes over in 2008.
For the moment Nagano and three other executives are temporarily running the company. And through 2008 Nagano plans to work intensively with the Bavarian State Orchestra, which also performs independently of the opera house. He has already created a new October festival that focuses on symphonic and nonoperatic choral work.
More daringly, he also expects stage directors to conform to his philosophy that, as he puts it, "opera is musical theater and not the other way round." And he added, "It begins with a score written by a composer."
Thus, under Nagano, Jonas's view of opera as a "director's theater" may well lose ground to that of a "composer's theater." But once Bachler takes over, power will shift to him. Only then will the opera house's post-Jonas profile be firmly shaped.
By Tim Ashley
From the Guardian - Friday November 3, 2006
William Friedkin is so closely associated with film that we tend to forget he has also been directing opera for nearly a decade. His latest production is a double bill for the Bavarian Staatsoper, which juxtaposes Strauss's Salome with Das Gehege (The Enclosure), a disturbing new monodrama by Wolfgang Rihm.
Both works examine themes of sexual rapacity that find inevitable parallels in Friedkin's films The Exorcist, Cruising and Jade, while Das Gehege replicates Salome's emotional trajectory. Setting a bizarre fable by Botho Strauss, it depicts a woman's obsession with an eagle, which she releases from its cage in a zoo, only to taunt and eviscerate it when it fails to respond to her deranged longings for companionship. Their relationship examines Germany's attitude to its catastrophic 20th-century past, though Friedkin plays down the political resonances in favour of how predator and prey become psychologically indistinguishable. As the Woman, Gabriele Schnaut emits sounds of feral stridency over the savagely beautiful eruptions that conductor Kent Nagano draws from the orchestra
The Eagle, played by an actor, later becomes the Angel of Death, who stalks Herod's imagination before shredding Salome's clothes during her dance, and presiding over Jochanaan's execution. Though astonishing, the production of Salome is essentially cinematic - Friedkin seemingly distrusts theatrical stillness. The moving pillars of Hans Schavernoch's set function like tracking shots that take us through the rooms in Herod's palace and down into the cistern, where Jochanaan (Alan Titus), is tied to a rocky outcrop. Angela Denoke's Salome is an iconic blond; singing like a goddess, she lives out the role with uninhibited veracity. The final scene, in which she slobbers blood down her half-naked body, is very Friedkin - but unerringly right, and absolutely unforgettable.