Serse: Stefan Herheim goes for baroque

Like every utterance of “Frau Blücher!” in Young Frankenstein makes a distant horse neigh, the pastoral piping of recorders in Stefan Herheim’s Serse has the power to summon animals, in this case a small and jolly herd of dancing sheep. Elsewhere we get slightly creaky stage machinery, big shiny costumes, and some jokes that can only be described as corny (or, um, German). It’s good fun, and for what you expect out of this director and this opera house, mild-mannered madness indeed.

Handel, Serse. Komische Oper Berlin, 6/15/2012. German translation by Eberhard Schmidt adapted by Stefan Herheim. New production directed by Stefan Herheim, sets by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Vollm, lights by Franck Even. Conducted by Konrad Junghaenel with Stella Doufexis (Serse/Xerxes), Karolina Gumos (Arsamenes), Brigitte Geller (Romilda), Julia Giebel (Atalanta), Dimitry Ivanshchenko (Ariodates), Hagen Matzeit (Elviro).

See more photos at the end of this post.
Maybe Stefan Herheim is the opposite of Robert Lepage.
Lepage limits himself to literal representation; Herheim dissolves the work as
we know it into a sea of symbolism, references and shifting time frames and
perspectives. While this dreaminess comes naturally to Parsifal and Rusalka,
Herheim obviously recognizes that Handelian opera rests on the firmer ground of
dramatic formula. The fantasies of our collective unconscious are replaced by
the more readily explained magic of stage illusion.
This is yet another metatheatrical, theater-in-a-theater
production, a device that has been done to death over the past few years. The
setting is an eighteenth-century theater populated by a troupe of opera singers
very like those of Handel’s premiere. As in David McVicar’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the miniature
theater onstage rotates to reveal itself in profile and the backstage action in
the rear. Some of the opera’s action takes place onstage and some off.  The stage features the expected
period-appropriate flat scenery of trees and columns, stormy painted waves,
drops, and a beautiful perspective view of a London street. The libretto never
puts us in London, of course, but here the boundaries between life and art are porous.
Herheim wisely does not attempt to establish two separate sets of
characters, and the drama flits on and offstage freely. Serse is a divo,
Romilda the diva, Atalanta her jealous rival attempting to usurp her position,
and so on. (Romilda and Atalanta appear as doubles and for a shorter period
Arsamene and Serse, which is quite confusing. The point is that in the plot’s love triangles they want to take each others’
places.) That the singers’ onstage personae are the same as their offstage ones
is the entire point: the hoary mechanics and outsized passions of the plot find
their analogue in the machinery and colorful personalities of the world of the
theater. The opera is determined by the social environment that produced it. (This is what Herheim meant by describing the opera as a Muppet show–everyone has their particular role to fulfill onstage and off.)
It’s a great point.
What annoys me about these lampshade-hanging stagings (most egregiously Mary
Zimmerman’s Met Sonnambula ) is their pointed
winking that indicates the drama is so ridiculous it can only be portrayed as
something self-consciously fake, that the revelation of the illusion is an
apology for its implausibility. Herheim instead shows why we love opera: it’s
our life, only with fancy costumes and music. Dressing up is awesome (also sometimes tacky, ridiculous, and immobilizing, but don’t we love the shiny crap anyway), but the
emotional situations are real, and our own.
Handel never tries to create a “Persian” (the opera’s
nominal setting) tone, and for all his exploitation of ornate
eighteenth-century gesture and image (also switching between German and Italian–Italian taking place only “onstage” in the loftiest of the music) Herheim is also decidedly
twenty-first-century. Just as the characters never leave their
eighteenth-century selves, the singers never leave their present-day ones either,
as Herheim somewhat heavy-handedly reveals at the production’s conclusion by
revealing the chorus in contemporary dress.
There are some spectacular aria stagings that are both
inventive and revealing of eighteenth-century culture: I particularly liked the
succession of weaponry brought by Atalanta to Serse as he proclaims his hatred
of Romilda (a knife, a gun, a poisonous snake, a teeny tiny cannon that hilariously breaks the backdrop, and finally
a crossbow that even more hilariously downs a small plaster cherub from the rafters). In one of the big “I want it” arias, Serse’s name gets
spelled out in lights and then reversed into, yes, the German is Xerxes so figure out what that is backwards for yourself. Only at one point does the production hint at a darker
side, when Atalanta’s adoring fans begin to get a bit too close for comfort. It’s
not quite historical—the more spectacular visuals are far more Versailles than
London—but I think the homework has been done. Amastre may be the least
convincing cross-dresser ever, but even if Herheim doesn’t actually have any
castrati the gender bending of this era is never far from his mind (Elviro’s
flower-seller getup is apparently a My
Fair Lady
tribute). The fourth wall is broken and the orchestra gets to
join in on the action. Sometimes the singers address the audience with a disarmingly
self-conscious directness. Winton Dean would entreat us to remember that Serse is a sophisticated comedy and not
a low farce, but I laughed at Serse humping his favorite tree and Dean can stuff
it, opera has far too much good taste going around as it is. (If you whine that
present-day opera is as a rule not classy enough, I suggest you take up
collecting stamps.)
But switching between offstage and on requires some
compromises. The drama feels episodic from one big set piece aria to the next, the
stakes are never high and the dramatic arc is, well, lacking. The main plot
line is shifted into the background, so how valuable is that which displaces
it? Herheim has something to say about baroque opera, but he doesn’t have much
particular to Serse, and this staging
with small alterations could be applied to basically any moderately comic
eighteenth-century opera. I know that’s kind of the point but I have to wonder
if it’s one that lasts for three and a quarter hours of performance. (Herheim not dense enough? I cannot believe I am typing this. Really, this was very uncharacteristic work.)
If Herheim is always asking us to take another step back and
question our perspectives and motivations, that’s what I’m going to do with his
production. I like his message, but the performance of eighteenth-century
formulas in quotation marks has become a cliché in itself. As Herheim insists,
these conventions might work again and again, but I’m not sure if their modern unmasking
via self-conscious imitation maintains the same novelty value when repeated ad
infinitum. If you have any familiarity with the playbook of, say, the early
work of Peter Sellars, Nicholas Hytner’s Serse,
David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare (and Adriana, I suppose, whose setting is baroque)
and even the dread Enchanted Island, you’ve
seen a lot of this before. The rhythmic shaking on the coloratura, the chorus
of sea creatures, the cutout ships, the self-conscious gesture, none of this is
new. For all Herheim’s spirit and joy—for execution  I would rank this production at the very highest
level, it’s only that Herheim sets very high standards with regard to Konzept— and always exceptional musicality,
I have to say I would prefer Herheim to go nuts and expected something a little more fresh. Can we stop
the theater in theater thing now, please?
As usual with Herheim, the cast is dynamic and fully present
at every moment. Stella Doufexis’s Serse is hilarious, toothily and awkwardly
grinning at every opportunity and, for all the bluster not in command of
anything impressive. Her clarinet-toned mezzo sounded a little windy in “Ombra
mai fu” (way to open with the opera’s greatest hit), but warmed up to sound
clear and precise on each note, though she was drowned out a few times during “Crude
furie.” Karolina Gumos as Arsamenes commanded a warmer, rounder sound, probably
my favorite of the cast, and her “Si, la voglio” (sorry, not sure what the
German incipit was) showed excellent coloratura. Brigitte Geller was sweet and
lyric as Romilda though a little brittle at the top of her range. Julia Giebel
was the first Atalanta I didn’t find insufferably annoying, which is something,
and sounded good too. Katarina Bradic as Amastre couldn’t really boom at the
bottom of her range, but she has a lovely mahogany tone and musicality. Hagen
Matzeit as Elviro was announced as ill, which is why I suppose we were deprived
of his Bacchus aria, a pity, otherwise Sprechstimme was fine for this comic role.
Dimitry Ivashchenko was an exemplary Ariodates.
The orchestra was modern but the continuo period and
conductor Konrad Junghaenel had clearly coaxed some period practice into the
modern players. The playing was crisp and precise but light and didn’t use too
much vibrato. Ensemble was excellent both within the orchestra and through the
playful interchange between orchestra and players, and the continuo included a
theorbo and a baroque harp. Eberhard Schmidt’s German translation had been
given an “Einrichtung” by Herheim and was so clear and straightforward that
even I could understand almost all of it, though sometimes it put a few too
many syllables in where the Italian had required far fewer.
It’s a totally fun evening out, but maybe not quite what you
expect from Herheim, perhaps bearing a hint of baroque dilettantism (it is, in
fact, his first second? baroque opera). But if more baroque productions, and more of
these metathetrical things, had this kind of loving spirit, I’d be happy. (I
might be even happier if there weren’t so many metatheatrical things, though?)
Photos copyright Komische Oper.

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  1. thanks for the correction, I changed it above–my impression was from the interview in the program, where he made it sound like a very new thing to him.