Back in July last year I visited what used to be called West Germany (thus balancing a 2009 trip to ex-East Germany) with two basic purposes: primarily visiting the admirable museums and cathedrals, but also hoping to find some attractive operatic fare. In 2009 I was at Berlin and Dresden late in September, when the season had just begun; this time I stopped in Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich at the very end of it.
In fact, I visited 22 cities in 25 days, always driving, but in smaller opera houses the season had ended; so I was in such cities as Ulm or Aachen (curiously, both gave their start to Herbert Von Karajan) absorbing their wonderful monuments...but no opera.
However, the three cities mentioned above were still active, for they are in the select group of most important German opera houses.
As we now have a unified Germany, I will include the ex-Eastern in this ranking. Undoubtedly the foremost ones are two of the three in Berlin (Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper) and the Munich Bavarian Opera. Just one step below you have Dresden, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (Düsseldorf-Duisburg). And then you have meritorious houses such as Hannover, Köln, Freiburg, Leipzig. And there are smaller outfits such as Koblenz among many others.
They form the largest quantity of opera houses of any country in the world and they all work within the repertoire system. As here in BA we follow the Italian "stagione" scheme, it´s worth defining briefly these two contrasting ways of organising an opera house. The Colón offers a restricted number of operas that generally change from year to year and are presented during short periods; a vast gap in time, and then we have another.
The big houses in Germany offer no less than 25 operas a year, though they can get as high as 40 (Vienna is Austrian and follows the same system). Some operas are a yearly staple, others change. They can stage as much as five different operas in a week, which means that both the orchestra and chorus carry a heavy burden of rehearsals and performances. Furthermore, this constant turnover demands a well-oiled productive team able to put on consecutive nights extremely difficult works that go without a hitch. I often dislike the production concepts but the execution is often amazingly close to perfection. Night after night... For this you need German or Anglo-Saxon discipline (it also works at the the New York Met).
The Frankfurt Opera is a big outfit in Germany´s financial city. The Alte Oper was used as main opera house from 1880 to 1962, when the new house was opened; the Alte is still used but for concerts. An ample modern house, the hall consists of stalls ("Parkett") and three floors ("Rang I, II, III"). The access is comfortable and there´s a restaurant. Prices for individual performances go from 15 to 165 E. There´s an associated experimental building for modern operas, the Bockenheimer Depot (all stalls). I was stunned to find, in the excellent yearly booklet, that there´s a total integrated staff of no less than 774 people, plus 105 guest artists, in a season that goes from late September to early July.
Apart from opera and an occasional operetta, they do Lieder and symphonic concerts. No ballet, however. The two top people are the Generalmusikdirektor Sebastian Weigle and the Intendant (General Administrator) Bernd Loebe. As happens in all German opera houses, they have a permanent group of vocal soloists (in this case, 40), logical enough given the vast repertoire they have to cover. A final astonishing fact: there are 25 operatic subscription series!
I have fond memories of my distant earlier visits to the Frankfurt Oper: a nice "Marriage of Figaro" in German in 1964, and in 1969 a quite good "Magic Flute" and a marvelous "Angel of Fire" (Prokofiev) with an inspired Anja Silja and her conductor husband, Christoph Von Dohnányi. This time, bingo! an almost unique opportunity to see an opera dear to my heart but rarely performed: Frederick Delius´ lovely and warm Romantic-Impressionistic "A Village Romeo and Juliet", on a Nineteenth-Century tale by Gottfried Keller. I have long cherished the Meredith Davies recording, and I recently saw the excellent film Peter Weigl made on the Mackerras CD. The live experience was
very moving, even if I disagreed with several aspects of Eva-Maria Höckmayr´s production.
Frankfurt Opera decided two positive things: it was sung in English, as it should; and the conductor of the splendid orchestra was a talented specialist, Paul Daniel, erstwhile Principal Conductor of the English National Opera. The two protagonists are called Sali and Vreli in this Swiss version of the young lovers, and they were beautifully sung and acted by handsome young artists, tenor Jussi Myllys and soprano Amanda Majeski. The fascinating part of the Dark Fiddler was admirably taken by baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle. First-rate choral work, too.
The technical feats of stage designer Christian Schmidt are described thus by colleague Matthew Rye: "an almost constantly mobile trio of three-dimensional structures that must have required some nifty computer-aided mechanics". Yes, but... 1) what is basically an outdoors opera was converted into an interior-dominated one. 2) Höckmeyr botches two essential points: a) the lovely interlude "The Walk to the Paradise Garden" (a tavern) is taken literally as Paradise, with the protagonists as stark-naked Adam and Eve (frontal, to boot), b) the poetic ending with the suicide in a small boat that sinks is trivialized as the two adolescents in their house take enough barbiturics to die. But the crowd scenes were fine and the idea of putting Doppelgängers of Sali and Vreli in another part of the stage whilst they were singing was intriguing and enriching. And the two warring farmers were convincing. My wish: please do this opera in BA!
One final fact: the Frankfurt Opera stresses variety and novelties from any century in their programming. If you go there in the next months you will find such fare as Martinu´s spellbinding "Julietta", the early Baroque "L´Orontea" (Cesti), Weber´s important "Euryanthe" or Britten´s "Owen Wingrave": none has ever being staged in BA.
For Buenos Aires Herald