|Martern aller Arten|
I had a few extra days in Europe, so I decided to hop over to Berlin for Calixto Bieito’s production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which I’ve wanted to see for ages. If your reaction to this decision is not along the lines of “well, of course,” then continue reading with some caution.
For staging fundamentalists, this production and its supposed desecration of Mozartian purity have become a synecdoche for all of Regietheater. This is basically dumb: you can’t reduce so much diverse work by so many people to one production, and while I haven’t actually seen Calixto Bieito’s do-do list I doubt that “despoil our sacred cultural heritage” is the first thing on it. So I want to talk about this production, not its reputation. But before seeing it I assumed that none of its critics had actually seen the thing, since their litanies of complaints have the snapshot quality of description obtained through photos and others’ reviews rather than seeing an actual performance. But after seeing it myself, I’m not sure this is necessarily correct.
Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Komische Oper Berlin, 5/23/13. Production by Calixto Bieito (revival), conducted by Kristiina Poska with Claudia Boyle (Konstanze), Adrian Strooper (Belmonte), Jens Larsen (Osmin), Guntbert Warns (Selim), Louise Fribo (Blonde), Tansel Akzeybek (Pedrillo)
This is because it actually is really shocking, and disjunctive, and explicit! Like, pretty much all of it. Some of the photos below aren’t exactly safe for work but you shouldn’t need that warning. When you describe it with sentences like “and then during the introduction to ‘Marten aller Arten’ you see all the rooms of the bordello in business simultaneously,” you are just telling the truth and not really misrepresenting. And actually that’s just about the mildest way possible I could have phrased this because my mom reads my blog, just saying. When it comes to stage productions I’m usually the too cool for school type who refuses to be phased by anything but I found that ten minutes into this I was crossing my arms very tightly across my chest and basically couldn’t relax until the end. There’s no intermission, by the way, and it’s around two hours and fifteen minutes long.
During the overture, we watch a beautiful, athletic woman do an acrobatic trapeze routine, but this is a feint: she’s only representing the false glitter of show business, and none of the female characters have this kind of strength or control. The setting eliminates the Turkish culture clash element, making everyone European (the alla turca remains in the music, and Bieito makes a lot of its gaudiness and maniacal repetitive energy). The setting is a bordello, of which Selim is the boss, Osmin the other employee, and Pedrillo the janitor–and Selim and Osmin also seem to be the main customers. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a world outside this brothel, and I suspect it’s supposed to represent society at large.
Most of the action consists of Osmin and Selim alternately abusing and hanging out with the various prostitutes of the bordello. Constanze is being held as a prisoner in a literal cage, and (as in the original libretto) refuses to cede any emotional connection with Selim. Belmonte is someone with no real sense of self except a misbegotten sense of romanticism (which prefers Costanze to be an idea than an actual person), and goes into very unconvincing drag to attempt to reach Constanze. When he gets into the bordello, that’s when things really start to get interesting.
The quartet plays out as a very problematic reunion: the men are genuinely suspicious of the women’s fidelity, and the women aren’t sure they even want these men back. As it turns out, they don’t. In a wild twist ending, the men shoot up the bordello indiscriminately, including most of the women, leaving the entire stage splattered with blood. Selim’s act of generosity is not killing Constanze, and she does eventually shoot him. But when it turns out that Belmonte’s rescue mission has not saved Constanze but merely installed him in Selim’s place, and despite Selim’s murder the only thing everyone can do is exalt his generosity. Constanze closes the opera by shooting herself.
The point seems to be that life for these women is enslavement either way—Belmonte isn’t much more than Selim with a few love letters, whose effect quickly wear off. There’s no escape for either Constanze or Blonde, which makes the ending fairly inevitable. It’s bleak, and depressing, but it’s also quite subtle. The portrayal of the relationship between Constanze and Selim in particular takes many unexpected turns, from loathing to a weird sort of attraction right back to hatred.
I’ve left out a lot of brutal detail, much of which is described in this review on Parterre. But for all these changes of setting and character, the majority of the spoken dialogue is, I believe, the original (unlike Stefan Herheim’s very different Entführung). Mozart’s music fits Bieito’s concept quite well: Constanze’s flights up into her extreme high register and her edgy coloratura are aptly tied to extreme psychological states, Osmin’s jumps around a wide range are played for physical effect. The only character whose music really doesn’t seem to work—though her text does—is Blonde (who is actually a brunette sometimes wearing a blonde wig), whose gentle and sweet arias are only worked into the concept with difficulty.
|actually last week’s Spiegel|
But that’s really the exception. Most of it is pretty damn faithful to the situation Mozart was portraying, stripped of the distancing effects of exoticism and a historical setting. The words about torture that fly by on digital signs are mostly from the actual libretto. Sure, the relationships onstage are more complex and less idealized than those of the libretto, but the music is, for the most part (pace most of Blonde), far more complex and multifaceted than that, and this is a production that gives that complexity dramatic purpose. It also asks why we–from the libretto’s original ending to every “traditional” staging today–are so so dedicated to sugar-coating this story (making it, effectively, the woman on the trapeze from the opening). Bieito seems to posit that any world where this story can happen is, for Constanze, not worth living in. (For critics this seems to slip into Bieito saying that Mozart’s Singspiel is not worth producing, which is not the same thing at all.)
Like La Cieca above, I feel like including a rundown of the singers is an awkward non sequitur, because this is a production that seems to subsume everyone into it. (Note: these photos show an earlier cast.) But, on the other hand, it wouldn’t have happened without them. The tempos sometimes pushed their technique beyond its limits. The strain didn’t superhuman transcendence recorded by others at this production (OQ subscribers only, sorry) but the frantic effort expended seemed quite appropriate for this production. Overall this cast was somewhat less inspired and demented that the average Bieito gang–but it is the nth revival of a no longer new production, and I can’t imagine they rehearsed too much and, I strongly doubt they worked with Bieito himself.
But I’m sorry to start with so many qualifications, because I think overall it was a very good performance. Claudia Boyle has the slim, clear timbre for Constanze, as well as the stamina and exceptional intensity, and her high register is reliable and on pitch. Adrian Strooper’s tenor is a bit dry but he navigated the music smoothly and easily. Tansel Akzeybek was a solid Pedrillo, and Louise Fribo fine as Blonde. Jens Larsen and Guntbert Warns, as Osmin and Selim respectively, bore the brunt of the stage action and were the most committed members of the cast, and Larsen is an excellent singer as well, with the vast range demanded by this role. Kristiina Poska’s conducting was good if sometimes a bit caffeinated, and I thought it was actually very poignant that a woman should conduct this production, for obvious reasons.
I can’t say this is going to go on my list of best performances very quickly. It’s more than a little brutal to watch, both because of the bleakness and the violence, and I did not find it in the least bit cathartic. (I don’t think it’s intended to be.) I looked around a bit at what other people have written about this production, and I was interested to see that with the exception of the inimitable Heather MacDonald I couldn’t find any women writing about this subject at all. Given the demographics of music writing this is not surprising, but I’m still curious if it makes a difference.
For the author linked above watching “Martern aller arten” was about observation and gaze, about creating a relationship between stage and audience. Bu I ended up putting myself Constanze’s subject position at least some of the time. She is, after all, a woman having an extreme reaction to a violent act that she is witnessing. I don’t think he ever takes this step of identification. For me the mirror aspect made it unavoidable, and actually the production’s equal (if not greater) weight on the women’s perspectives is one of its most remarkable aspects. It resists and questions the relationship established by the spectatorship which seems to linger in the subtext of that particular description.
And that identification aspect is what makes this staging such strong stuff, I think. It’s shocking and awful, but is all too obviously both portraying the modern world and closely aligned with the original text. And if you are going to deny that I have to ask why.
Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus
Video (WARNING NSFW):