Bayerische Staatsoper’s The Turning Point: in Munich is it the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?

GermanyGermany Munich Opera Festival 2021 – The Turning Point: A Final Evening of Endings and Beginnings: Soloists, Nikolaus Bachler (recitation), Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Ivor Bolton, Asher Fisch, Kent Nagano, Kirill Petrenko (conductors). Performance of 30.7.2021 at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper and streamed (directed by Christoph Engel) from 3.8. to 10.8.2021. (JPr)

Ivor Bolton conducts Christian Gerhaher singing ‘Possente spirto’ 

This was a gala occasion and the title ‘The Turning Point; A Final Evening of Endings and Beginnings’ can be interpreted in a number of ways. It certainly concluded this year’s Munich Opera Festival, but it is also the end of an era at the Bavarian State Opera both for their general music director Kirill Petrenko who has been there since 2013 and artistic director Nikolaus Bachler who took up the post in 2008. Also, there is the small matter of the pandemic and although Germany has been slow in vaccinating its people it is surely time they – like the UK – begin to live with coronavirus. This should be another ‘turning point’ and yet whilst everyone on stage was unmasked – and so too was a very full orchestra pit – the audience however was still socially distanced and had face coverings. There was an eclectic selection of music (full programme below) that I understand might reflect some of the works Bachler has had staged in Munich during his tenure. He occasionally interspersed these with some readings from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus; with the title to the evening Der wendende Punkt (The turning point) coming from one of the verses.

Andreas Weirich was responsible for the staging of this concert and there was a good use of projections at the rear of the stage to create some atmosphere for individual extracts, as well as some video – from Christoph Brech and Hubert Sedlatschek – at the beginning (activity backstage) and at the end (which I could not see so well). Generally, the men looked dressed for a rehearsal in open-necked black shirts and dark suits, though the women were more glammed up, whilst others we saw had taken the opportunity to find a suitable costume or brought their own. The music was shared between four conductors: Ivor Bolton, Asher Fisch, Petrenko and another former music director Kent Nagano (2006-2013). However, if you catch this stream before it disappears then – however well the Bayerisches Staatsorchester play throughout this very special evening – they sound even better playing for Petrenko.

There was an admirable attempt from Weinrich to move smoothly from one performance to another though there were occasionally small pauses. It all began with the beginning of all beginnings and the from the first barely audible E♭ major chord of the prelude to Das Rheingold in the double basses there was a sense of rebirth from Nagano and his orchestra. On stage sitting on boxes were a several of those we would hear singing during the concert and Anne Schwanewilms emerged from amongst them to sing Madame Lidoine’s Act III aria ‘Mes filles, voilà que s’achève’ and she was suitably stoic and prayerful if we remember what her fate – and that of her fellow nuns – is in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. With all this goodwill onstage I shouldn’t too critical, though it would be unfair to suggest everything was perfect and Schwanewilms sounded rather strained. The monologue ‘Wie schön ist doch die Musik’ from the end of Richard Strauss’s Die schweigsame Frau seems to be Georg Zeppenfeld’s current party piece. What I wrote when I recently heard him sing it in a stream from Munich is just as appropriate now: ‘The opening line is “How nice the music is, but how nice only when it’s over!”. Through to the concluding deeply affecting last words “Nur Ruhe! Aaah, Aaah, Aaah!” it was something of a paean to the effects of the pandemic.’ The stage had cleared as Zeppenfeld – in resonant voice as ever with his characteristic cavernous bass notes – removed his jacket and lay on the stage with his head on it. A small ensemble of musicians then glided to the middle of the stage playing period instruments under Bolton (preeminent in the baroque repertoire) and supporting Christian Gerhaher singing Orfeo’s Act III aria ‘Possente spirto’ from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Orfeo is attempting to persuade Charon with song to cross the Styx, it is florid and was sung with utmost sincerity by Gerhaher who was a revelation to me as I have not really enjoyed much of what I have seen him do in the past.

Some Mozart next with Diana Damrau in silvery voice singing an affecting, teary ‘Porgi Amor’ from Le nozze di Figaro as the Countess laments her husband’s infidelity. Following this was a Mozart song new to me Abendempfindung (Evening sensation) from Anne Sofie von Otter with characterful piano accompaniment from Constantinos Carydis. There was introspection, some radiance and more tears as it concluded: ‘Consecrate a tear for me, and ah! do not be ashamed to cry. Those tears will be in my diadem then: the fairest pearls!’. Next there were two arias from Dvorák’s Rusalka: first the Prince’s ‘Vidino divna, presladka’ and then the Water Goblin’s ‘Beda! Beda!’ both sung to a large water tank with a white gown floating in it. The prince had caught sight of Rusalka, a water nymph, for the first time and Pavol Breslik was impassioned with an extravagantly held final high note. Günther Groissböck had recently cased some turmoil at Bayreuth by stepping away from singing Wotan, but all seemed well with his voice during his aria ‘Beda! Beda!’, a plaintive, deeply melancholic and anguished two-verse aria as the Water Goblin bemoans how futile Rusalka’s desire to be human will be.

Ermonela Jaho sang Suor Angelica’s aria ‘Senza mamma’ in a white nightdress and with a small cross round her neck. Jaho embodied her character’s religious ecstasy as Suor Angelica believes her dead son is calling her to meet him in paradise. She drinks poison but realises it is a mortal sin and she will be eternally damned. Suor Angelica appeals to the Virgin Mary and, as she dies, sees a miracle as she appears to her along with her son. Jaho pulled at the heartstrings, and she ended holding up her trembling hands and (again!) with tears in her eyes. She stayed in character and was dreamily listening as three cages lowered from above and So-Young Kim and Martin Klepper (violins), Tilo Widenmeyer (viola) and Benedict Don Strohmeier (cello) played some elegiac Beethoven. I wondered whether Jonas Kaufmann brought his own costume to appear under a large chandelier as the poet and revolutionary Andrea Chénier singing the poem he has come up with on the spot (‘Un dì all’azzurro spazio’). Kaufmann was at his burnished, ardent best though I again thought I detected a slight ‘catch’ in his voice at one point.

The second half began with Leporello’s very familiar Catalogue Aria (‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’) from Don Giovanni. Alex Esposito is a very charismatic artist and he moved effortlessly though the gamut of admiration, insouciance and touch of distain. Behind him and his suitcases were images of – I suspect – a preening Don Giovanni but it didn’t come across well in the stream. Donizetti’s La Favorite has a typically convoluted plot and Fernand leaves a monastery because he is in love with Léonor who will later persuade him to accept a commission in army where he proves his bravery resulting in the king wanting to reward him. Fernand would like to marry Léonor who is now the king’s mistress, and she confesses all to Fernand in her aria ‘O mon Fernand!’. In a black ostrich-featured concoction Elīna Garanča’s sultry, rich mezzo brought the house down with her evident fervour and poignant, slightly seething rendition against a huge projected cross.

Elīna Garanča

This would actually prove to be ‘The Turning Point’ to this concert as nothing surpassed it in what was left to be seen and heard. Obviously, Munich is a preeminent opera house for Wagner but the stellar names who sang some of the famous highlights from his operas did little but confirm tempus fugit for even the finest voices. Anja Kampe brought some passion to Sieglinde’s ‘Der Männer Sippe’ (Die Walküre) but it lacked radiance and I audibly thought she was tiring towards its end. Sir Simon Keenlyside addressed Wolfram’s ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’ to a fire bowl and while he impressively internalised his character’s deep sadness about his beloved Elisabeth, it was all slightly effortful. So too was Nina Stemme’s ‘Mild und leise’ (Isolde’s Verklärung or Liebestod) and I am sorry that she has never impressed me in this role. She sang it earnestly enough, but her obvious vibrato cannot be ignored and she made too little of her final word ‘Lust!’.

All this Wagner was idiomatically conducted by Asher Fisch and as virtuosic as the orchestra had been to this point, Kirill Petrenko raised the bar as he raised his baton. He created a meditative miasma on threads of sound for the prelude to the third act of Die Meistersinger before we heard Hans Sachs’s ‘Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!’ when I would have liked it to continue without the singing. In front of a battered mobile shoe repair van Wolfgang Koch made hard work of this monologue about midsummer madness and his voice is more suited now to Alberich or Klingsor than Sachs. Anyway, the ending was totally spoilt by Koch banging on the side of the van and arousing Marlis Petersen’s Salome from her slumbers and presenting her with a model of his own decapitated head! Oddly, Petersen then cast this aside and directed her Schlussgesang (‘Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen’) to a bloodied shroud in a grey (wooden?) box numbered 237890 for some reason. Okay in some ways it was a tour de force from Petersen’s but that was because of her frenzied acting, whilst her subdued singing never convinced me she was a genuine Salome. The orchestra would have been wonderful to listen to on its own once again, though it was noticeable how Petrenko took care not to swamp his singer before letting his musicians – viscerally – off their leash at the end.

I have seen Korngold’s Die tote Stadt once and have no desire to see it again, it has another difficult-to-follow plot and at the end the central character Paul vows to escape his life in Bruges leaving behind the memories of his dead wife. I thought this was a very odd inclusion and Kaufmann (burning old photos in a small brazier) did little with it and it was only the lush romantic orchestral accompaniment that stopped my mind from wandering. Some lilting Richard Strauss music from Der Rosenkavalier saw Petrenko – who is usually quite impassive – almost smiling as he conducted it. In front of a large pendulum clock and suitably costumed as the Marschallin, Adrianne Pieczonka poignantly mused on the passing of time and was quite superb. Glorious music once again with the sounds of a ticking clock and a marvellously wistful violin solo from concertmaster David Schultheiss.

A final farewell was led by Gerhaher singing Schubert’s reflective Abscheid accompanied by Gerold Huber at the piano and they both brought to it a great depth of feeling. Gerhaher is not the easiest singer to watch but it was a delight to wallow in the sheer beauty of his voice.

Jim Pritchard


Wagner – Das Rheingold, Prelude (Nagano, conductor)

Poulenc – Dialogues des Carmélites: Aria by Madame Lidoine from Act III: ‘Mes filles, voilà que s’achève’ (Anne Schwanewilms / Nagano, conductor)

Richard Strauss – Die schweigsame Frau: Monologue by Sir Morosus at the end of Act III: ‘Wie schön ist doch die Musik’ (Georg Zeppenfeld / Nagano, conductor)

Monteverdi – L’Orfeo: Orfeo’s Act III aria ‘Possente spirto’ (Christian Gerhaher / Ivor Bolton, conductor)

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro: Countess’s Act II cavatina ‘Porgi, amor’ (Diana Damrau / Bolton, conductor)

Mozart – Abendempfindung (Evening sensation) K.523 (Anne Sofie von Otter / Constantinos Carydis, piano)

Dvorák – Rusalka:  Prince’s Act II aria ‘Vidino divna, presladka’ (Pavol Breslik); The Water Goblin’s Act II aria ‘Beda! Beda!’ (Günther Groissböck / Ivor Bolton, conductor)

Puccini – Suor Angelica: Suor Angelica’s aria ‘Senza mamma’ (Ermonela Jaho / Asher Fisch, conductor)

Beethoven – String Quartet No.15 in A minor, Op.132, 3rd movement (excerpt)

Giordano – Andrea Chénier: Andrea Chénier’s Act I aria ‘Un dì all’azzurro spazio’ (Jonas Kaufmann / Fisch, conductor)

Mozart – Don Giovanni: Leporello Act I aria ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ (Alex Esposito / Bolton, conductor)

Donizetti – La Favorite: Léonor’s Act III aria ‘O mon Fernand!’ (Elīna Garanča / Fisch, conductor)

Wagner – Die Walküre: Sieglinde’s Act I ‘Der Männer Sippe’ (Anja Kampe / Fisch, conductor)

Wagner – Tannhäuser: Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Act III ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’ (Simon Keenlyside / Fisch, conductor)

Wagner – Tristan and Isolde: Isolde’s Act III ‘Mild und leise’ (Nina Stemme / Fisch, conductor)

Wagner – Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act III and Hans Sachs’s Act III ‘Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!’ (Wolfgang Koch / Kirill Petrenko, conductor)

Richard Strauss – Salome: Salome’s Schlussgesang from the end of Scene 4 ‘Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen’ (Marlis Petersen / Petrenko, conductor)

Korngold – Die tote Stadt: Paul’s Schlussgesang from the end of Act III ‘O Freund, ich werde sie nicht wiedersehn’ (Jonas Kaufmann / Petrenko, conductor)

Richard Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier: The Marschallin’s Act I Time Monologue ‘Da geht er hin, der aufgeblas’ne, schlechte Kerl’ (Adrianne Pieczonka / Petrenko, conductor)

Schubert – Abscheid D.475 (Christian Gerhaher / Gerold Huber, piano)

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