She sings for herself


On Friday, Boston beheld the East Coast debut of Calixto Bieito, and Boston giggled nervously.

That’s right, the Boston Lyric Opera held an opening night gala marking the company’s return to the Boston Opera House, featuring Skandalregisseur Calixto Bieito’s modernized, de-romanticized, decidedly un-gala-like production of Carmen, and the evening dress audience somehow survived to tell the tale, albeit with an enormous amount of awkward tittering at one-liners like “Your mother is dying!” As Bieito goes, it’s pretty mild stuff. With listless conducting and some subpar singing, this evening was more tepid than shocking. The performance was not, however, without its moments.

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Regie Update

Herheim Meistersinger

Peter Gelb is in Salzburg and dropping big hints about the Met’s future, which include importing Stefan Herheim’s new production of Meistersinger, an unnamed production by Calixto Bieito, and producing Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel, he tells Gert Korentschnig in the Vienna paper Kurier. (Something may have been lost in translation here, since he says that Bieito will direct at the Met again, which is impossible since he hasn’t yet.) While all of this rates highly on the awesome-o-meter, he also says that Robert Lepage will be back again (urg).

Why didn’t he give this interview to the Times‘s Anthony Tommasini, who is also in Salzburg; or the New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, who is as well? This is quite rude to loyal Met audience members who care about these things. Some of them will be hostile to this development, but many would welcome it, and it seems bad form to talk about it behind New York’s back.

(While Tommasini did mention the Herheim Meistersinger news, I believe the rest is new. Of course it’s possible Gelb told Tommasini and the Times just didn’t run it. And Alex Ross pointed out to me that he generally doesn’t cover this kind of news. Which reminds us how few options there are for music coverage in New York, alas.)

Thanks to Intermezzo for picking this up. Also, take it all with a grain of salt. Some previous rumored adventures in Met Regie have fallen through.

If you aren’t in Salzburg–as I, sadly, am still not–there’s still plenty to watch on the internet:

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Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or, Men Who Hate Women

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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.

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Calixto Bieito’s surprising Dialogues of the Carmelites

Calixto Bieito’s new production of Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Komische Oper Berlin begins as the audience takes their seats. A disheveled, nearly naked woman is wildly wandering around the maze of the set waving an incense censer. I took this as a hint that this staging may not harbor warm feelings towards organized religion.

This, it turns out, was not quite true. It was more Bieito being Bieito–giving us a shocking image. The rest of the staging is less characteristic, which is to say more restrained. It’s a similar but clearer take on many of same themes as his Fidelio–alienation, mental illness, and social chaos. In a nasty, violent world, where are guidance, virtue and truth?

Poulenc, Dialogues des Carmélites (Gespräche der Karmelitinnen). Komische Oper Berlin, 7/9/2011. New production directed by Calixto Bieito, set design by Rebecca Ringst and costumes by Ingo Krügler. Conducted by Stefan Blunier with Maureen McKay (Blanche de la Force), Irmgard Vilsmaier (Mère Marie), Ingrid Froseth (Soeur Constance), Christiane Oertel (Madame de Croissy), Erika Roos (Madame Lidoine), Joska Lehtinen (Chevalier de la Force), Claudio Otelli (Marquis de la Force).

With modern dress and more than a few small cuts to the score, Bieito has replaced the specifics of the French Revolution with vague contemporary chaos. The Marquis de la Force is a violent character whose sympathy for Blanche is complicated by reading her diary and threatening his son. But as soon as he shows the mercy of allowing Blanche to enter the “convent,” some revolutionaries slit his throat. Random act or consequence? Doesn’t matter, really.

Robert Carsen’s Dialogues des Carmélites
Theater an der Wien, 4/21/2011
 Bieto’s Fidelio
Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/5/2011
Bieto’s Aida
Theater Basel, 10/9/2010

The trembling, terrified Blanche wants to escape this world from the start, and the convent is closer to a mental institution than a house of prayer (the nuns wear dowdy institutional clothes, not habits). But it’s also a last outpost for social order and decent humanity. The nuns pray staring straight out into the nothingness of the theater; their faith seems most powerful for its ability to bind them together against the horrors of the outside world. Looming over all of this are steel rows of multilevel bunks, a harsh portrayal of their regimented lives. (It is similar to Ringst’s design for Fidelio but thankfully much quieter.)

The lack of habits makes the characters more easily individualized than usual (I appreciated this), including pregnant and delusional Constance, disciplinarian Mère Marie to well-intentioned earth mother Madame Lidoine. And yes, the naked woman from the opening is wandering around too. No bodily fluids are spared during the Old Prioress’s death, and a long, silent washing of her body is one of the production’s more touching moments, and one of several where Bieito stops the music for long stretches of stage action.

But mostly this is amazingly conventional, with flowers where we expect flowers and, unlike Fidelio, an iron where we expect an iron. The direction is tight and intense, though a few scenes are static in a way that turns more empty than transfixing. And, as is common in these things, the ending is messy. The community of the convent breaks down with the incursion of the outside world, the execution is proclaimed via megaphone from the second ring of the theater (+5 Brecht Points, we the audience are of the revolutionaries, not the nuns). Not enough is made of Blanche’s flight and return, though her run through the scary moving colossus of the set is amazing. At the very end, in a more expected Bietian register, the nuns forced to wear signs reading “HURE GOTTES” (God’s Whore), but the final chorus is robbed of some of its horror with a less than musical staging for this very dramatic music.

One of the most rewarding things about Bieito productions is the intensity and consistency of the performances, and this showing from the Komische Oper’s ensemble was no exception. Particular standouts were Maureen McKay was a vivid, possessed Blanche, sung with a strong, bright middle voice and somewhat shrill higher notes; Irmgard Vilsmeier’s emphatic, dramatic Mère Marie; and Erika Roos’s clarion, heartfelt Madame Lidoine. Ingrid Froseth sounded wispy but sweet as Constance and was convincingly unhinged (I was waiting for her to give birth the entire time). Stefan Blunier led the good house orchestra in an understated but clean and clear account of the score.

The German translation is by Peter Funk and Wolfgang Binal, and seemed singable, mostly accurate, and, thanks to excellent diction from most of the cast, comprehensible.

I still have lukewarm feelings about this opera, but this production made me believe in it more than ever before. It is certainly one to catch if you are in Berlin. One performance remains, on July 16, and it will be back next season.


Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus

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Fidelio in Munich: Led to freedom

Of all composers, it’s Beethoven who we think we understand. The greatest achievement of Calixto Bieito and Daniele Gatti’s strange Bayerische Staatsoper Fidelio is how it disrupts our expectations and banishes calcified certainty and cliché. The prison exists only in the minds of the alienated characters, and Leonore finds that freeing her husband isn’t quite as simple as finding him and dressing him in a suit. The production’s fragmented dreaminess and vaguely unfinished quality can be frustrating, but its handful of revelatory moments and wonderful performances add up to a powerful experience.

Beethoven, Fidelio. Bayerische Staatsoper, 1/5/2010. New production by Calixto Bieito, sets by Rebecca Ringst, costumes by Ingo Krügler, lights by Reinhard Traub. Conducted by Daniele Gatti with Anja Kampe (Leonore), Jonas Kaufmann (Florestan), Franz-Josef Selig (Rocco), Wolfgang Koch (Don Pizarro), Laura Tatulescu (Marzelline), Jussi Myllys (Jaquino), LazArt Quartett.

Sit back, guys, this one is going to take a good amount of space. Also, I again had a restricted-view seat, and the chance I missed something important is pretty good, alas.

This production does not take place in a literal prison. The set is a shifting maze of glass and metal, in the first act a vertical structure of floors and ladders and, in Florestan’s cell, a horizontal one of hallways. Each character is a captive of this strikingly beautiful Borgesian labyrinth, each inside their own private mental prisons, alienated by the proverbial Modern Condition. Each has an obsession that prevents them from reaching the labyrinth’s center and the freedom found there. It’s a Bildungsroman for the Cormac McCarthy set.

Before the overture, Leonore opens the opera by reciting a Jorge Luis Borges poem. Here it is in English (it’s from In Praise of Darkness).  Maybe the labyrinth doesn’t have a center at all; whether there is any escape is a key issue of the production:

There’ll never be a door. You’re inside
and the keep encompasses the world
and has neither obverse nor reverse
nor circling wall nor secret center.
Hope not that the straightness of your path
that stubbornly branches off in two,
that stubbornly branches off in two,
will have an end. Your fate is ironbound,
as is your judge. Forget the onslaught
of the bull that is a man and whose
strange and plural form haunts the tangle
of unending interwoven stone.
He does not exist. In the black dusk,
hope not even for the savage beast.

The overture that follows is not the Fidelio but full-blown Leonore No. 3, here given a schizophrenically dissociated performance by Gatti, moving between Zen-like waves of crescendos and decrescendos and frantically fast sections. Onstage, Leonore takes off her shirt and binds her breasts. This is important: it is the denial of her sexuality and single-minded need to find Florestan that prevents her from escaping the labyrinth, not the lack of Florestan himself. (Giving the woman her own purpose in life, what a concept!)

Bieito has eliminated the spoken text almost entirely and inserted short quotations from Borges and McCarthy in its place. But they do not serve remotely the same function; most are some variation on “I am trapped in the labyrinth,” offering a few moments of spoken interlude between the musical numbers. The series of musical numbers does not present us with the plot but the various characters’ more or less independent psychological prisons, all products of the constraints of modern society. Rocco wants money. Marzelline wants sex, and Jaquino is, as could be expected, a rapist. Don Pizarro wants power. Leonore, determined and capable but denied a full life, struggles with literal ropes attached to the labyrinth in “Komm, Hoffnung.” In the Prisoners’ Chorus she puts pictures of Florestan’s face on the scattered prisoners, as if that would transform these momentarily free men into her husband and thus free herself. When some bits of the plot intrude into the sung texts it is as if they are fragments from some other world.

The first act exists entirely in this kind of timeless abstraction; in the second the labyrinth is lowered to a horizontal position and we disconcertingly enter the world of characters and events (we also acquire a number of hanging acrobats who descend from the flies, symbolizing floating freedom and such). What exactly is wrong with Florestan is unclear (perhaps mental illness, perhaps resigned into an exceptionally bad case of modernist alienation), but despite his vision of Leonore and attempts to climb out of the labyrinth, he is mentally elsewhere and scared of anyone who comes near him. Leonore dispatches Pizarro with both a bottle of water smashed over the head and acid thrown in his eyes.

The marital reunion begins euphorically, and Leonore ditches her man clothes for a dress and Florestan his asylum-like pajamas for a suit, but after “O namenlose Freude” they draw away from each other, Florestan unsure of leaving and Leonore not sure who this is that she has finally found. Then, where Mahler and Bernstein put Leonore No. 3, a string quartet descends from above and plays an excerpt from the slow movement of the Op. 132 string quartet, the Heiliger Dankgesang (only the molto adagio, not the “feeling new strength“ section). It’s a moment of perfect peace and stillness, and the hanging musicians seem to represent the consolatory, freeing, yet abstract power of art (cue Beethoven biography reference, and the program includes the text of the Heiligenstadt Testament). And yet it is only a momentary respite.

The finale confused me a bit. Don Fernando arrives in the personage of the Joker from The Dark Knight (some other parts of this production kind of recall Inception–I suspect that Bieito is a big Christopher Nolan fan), a deus ex machina who enters from the audience. He proceeds to shoot Florestan. While he does not remain dead onstage, I think he actually does die. Because the utopia of the finale is a freedom that can’t exist (especially when you’re in a Calixto Bieito production), and considering Florestan’s mental state, he isn’t going to be able to piece his life together again in this world, wife or no wife. The only release for him is death. The rejoicing of the reunion continues in some other space. But what does this mean for Leonore?

This is my biggest problem with the production: the characters exist in such isolation from each other. I think it may be too abstract for me; I miss having a plot and real characters instead of symbols of a vague existential struggle, and it was only during the more concrete action of the second act where I was fascinated (as evidenced by my descriptions–I really thought the treatment of the reunion was brilliant). The first half of Fidelio is inevitably a dramaturgical challenge, but this solution seems weirdly lacking in ideas, almost incomplete. And I missed the good old struggle for justice, however naive it might be. I guess I’m sentimental.

But the best thing about this production is how unnaive and unsentimental it is, how it expresses the power and desire of Beethoven’s score without lapsing into cliché. As intendant Nikolaus Bachler said at the post-show discussion, “The curtain goes up and there’s ironing! Always ironing!” But beyond avoiding ritual staging, Bieito expresses the central theme of freedom while pretty much destroying any comfortable historicist paean. He avoids the ideological truisms of black and white truth and Western idealism that are attached to Beethoven and this work in favor of something more unique and intensely personal. (My problem with most Beethoven presentations is encapsulated in the subtitle of Edmund Morgan’s Beethoven biography, The Universal Composer, a phrase that presents so many cultural problems that I don’t even know where to start.  Bieito is an antidote to this.) It might be neither fuzzily inspirational nor coherent, but it has many other virtues, and its freshness and complexity are definitely some of them.

Musically, Daniele Gatti seemed like almost the right conductor for this production. He is willfully strange, with weirdly slow tempos and unexpected shifts, sometimes overwhelming the singers and sometimes lacking in coordination and rhythmic crispness (from the stage, this could have had to do with the production). But the static quality and unexpected twists seemed to fit with a production this unconventional, and his strange waves of music certainly sounded alien. The orchestra, particularly the strings, sounded very good, though occasionally a little bewildered.

Anja Kampe made a tremendously badass Leonore. Her large, rich voice sometimes struggled through Beethoven’s murderous vocal writing and Gatti’s slow tempo in the first half of her aria. But her singing was expressive and heroic throughout, and her giant high Bs ideal for this role. She acted with remarkable sincerity through the considerable demands of the production, and her naturalness and honesty provided most of its soul. Jonas Kaufmann navigated the terrors of the aria with great dramatic eloquence, including a daring crescendo at the beginning and a trumpeting ending with strong high notes. And his vaguely autistic, tic-ridden Florestan was a formidable piece of acting. But after the aria he sounded under the weather, and sometimes was drowned out in the ensembles. (This was his return to the production after several illness-related cancelations, and he coughed several times mid-aria. Hilariously, half the audience immediately broke out in sympathy coughs.) Laura Tatulescu and Jussi Mylls were animated as Marzelline and Jaquino, both singing with clarity through their considerable acrobatics. Wolfgang Koch made an oddly soft-grained Pizarro. Franz-Josef Selig was an excellently sung Rocco with robust, round tone. As usual in a Bieito production, the acting and commitment from the cast was across-the-board great.

I found parts of this production massively frustrating, but there is more of it that will stick with me.  And, as you can see by the amount of words it took me to explain my thoughts about it, it certainly gave me something to think about.  As much as I love the triumph of justice, it’s going to be a little tricky to go innocently back to the ironing after this.

All photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.
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