Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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All The Mod Cons

July 07, 2009

Edita Gruberova and Pavol Breslik in Lucrezia Borgia
Photo: Wilfried Hösl/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009

I must admit that Munich is one of my favorite opera towns. Especially during their festival month in July when you get to revisit the past season’s biggest hits anew, often in the same week or so. Plus it’s a beautiful town and still oh so less expensive than London. And opera-wise it’s a dream come true. You never know what to expect on stage – these are the folks that brought you the Planet of the Apes Rigoletto and the Brokeback Mountain Eugene Onegin, so things are almost guaranteed to be interesting. There are stars galore from everywhere onstage, but best of all are the Munich stable of stars who appear here frequently, including Vesselina Kassarova. Anja Harteros, and, of course, Edita Gruberova.

Gruberova has become a genre all her own in recent years here with one new bel canto production after another at a point in her career where many others are slowing down. Like Mr. Domingo, she keeps going and going with Norma, Roberto Devereux and, this year, Lucrezia Borgia, which she appeared in on Monday. She’s quite fun to watch. An excellent actress who maintains a large part of her vocal skills. She handles the trills and flourishes with ease, though she did have some trouble reaching for the lowest notes in the part. I’ll admit she seemed a little shakier to me than in recent outings. Still, it’s a turn one could easily hold up to Renée Flemings’ portrayal in her prior outings in this material. Fleming may have the warmth, but Gruberova can still manage the coloratura passages.

Even though it was clearly Gruberova’s show, there was plenty else going on. Pavol Breslik was Gennaro and came off as very commanding. Vocally he was strong except for the very top and with all of the shirtless hijinks called for here he does an admirable job. My favorite, though, was Alice Coote as Maffio Orsini. She was probably the most vocally controlled and on target throughout the whole evening and is a master of the pants role. I should also give a big shout out to fellow blogger Christian Van Horn who sounded great as Astolfo. He’s running the gamut in Munich these days so you’re likely to catch him in any of a number of things. Bertrand de Billy was in the pit for what seemed a bit of a lazy run through. Maybe it was just Monday, but I could have used a little more oomph from the orchestra myself.

I should also note this was a new production from director, and Munich favorite, Christoph Loy. So while it didn’t have a movie theme, it was about as far from traditional as you could get. It was unusually minimal, even by Loy’s standards, with nothing more than a large black sloped riser, and a gray wall behind with giant light box letters spelling out Lucrezia Borgia. (The "B" gets ripped off the wall and smashed to the floor when Gennaro goes to deface the family crest in Act I.) The wall slowly moves off stage right little by little over the next three hours until it is gone. The cast is dressed in upscale school boy outfits for most of the show with Gruberova appearing in a number of vamped up outfits from something you might expect Borgia to wear, to a men's suit complete with Marilyn Monroe wig. In the final act, she appears in a gothic dress and long blond fright wig which she removes once she realizes that she has (again) poisoned her son. It’s a gesture similar to the one Loy employed with Gruberova in Roberto Devereux, although I think the effect is somewhat different here. And while there are a number of visually interesting images that come out of this evening, I’ll admit that it isn’t quite as engaging as some of Loy’s other work. It’s a little too reliant on boys behaving badly for the course of its action. But you’ll be able to judge for yourself considering the performance was one of several being filmed for an upcoming DVD release.

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