Dirt on my shoes, moss on my dreams

Note: all these photos show an earlier cast (different Tatiana and Onegin)

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (AKA Евге́ний Оне́гин, Yevgeny Onegin, Evgeny Onegin, Yevgeniy Onegin, Jewgeni Onegin, etc.) is subtitled “lyric scenes.” Barrie Kosky’s striking Komische Oper production is similarly modest, ambiguous of time and place. It revolves around a few striking images and keeps the focus, for better or worse, on the characters.

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Fear the singing undead


What happens when you combine Little Shop of Horrors and German romantic opera? Something like the Komische Oper’s production of Der Vampyr, maybe, an unusual concoction of Grand Guignol and postmodern metatheater. Granted, this might not be quite what one would expect from Marschner, a German Romantic active a little after Weber. (Today Marschner is today probably best known for the prominent appearance of his Hans Heiling in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus.) But hey, why not?

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A fine bromance

castor edited2




That’s the sound of someone running directly into a wall in Barrie Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin production of Castor et Pollux. It seems to be their response to any kind of frustration, tragedy, or annoyance. Frustrated in love? Thunk! Brother dead? Thwack! Phébé thought of going to Hades first? Thump!

This is a very serious production, and as usual the KOB ensemble runs into those walls with impressive conviction. But after a while the effect begins to wear off.

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Cendrillon Goes Center Stage


cendrillon1 edited

Damiano Michieletto’s new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Komische Oper appears gentle and heartfelt, but underneath lies something tough. Set in a snake pit disguised as a fairy tale wonderland—that is, a ballet school—it’s a very clever concept that mostly works, and benefits from a winning cast.

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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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Die Zauberflöte at the Komische Oper

I went to see Die Zauberflöte at the Komische Oper Berlin as directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Die Zauberflöte is a work whose
outward simplicity masks internal complexity and even contradictions.
Mozart’s music is childishly tuneful and yet reaches for the classically
sublime; Emmanuel Schikaneder’s libretto alternates a magical quest
story out of a German storybook with Masonic claptrap and secondhand
Voltaire. For a children’s opera, its message occasionally goes off the
rails; for Enlightenment philosophy it seems silly (and its treatment of
race and gender hardly progressive). Contemporary stage directors
approaching this piece have many options, as well as challenges.

You can read the whole thing here. It’s a delightful production, colorful enough for kids and sophisticated enough for adults. This is the second Weimar cinema-inspired production I’ve seen, the first being the more chronologically appropriate Cardillac at the Wiener Staatsoper. This Zauberflöte was less literal and far prettier.

I don’t know how the video and musical sides were coordinated or cued. The situation varies here–the Met made a big deal about how the videos of their Damnation de Faust responded to the music rather than the other way around, while I saw a L’enfant et les sortilèges in Munich with some severe coordination problems. In Berlin, everything seemed to function smoothly, but I don’t know to what extent the timing of the video was fixed and to what extent it was being triggered on the spot. It’s amazing to think of how far this technology has advanced in just a few years.

I’ve heard better singing at the Komische Oper, but everyone was perfectly competent. Highly recommended if you’re in Berlin.

More photos below.

All photos copyright Iko Fresse / drama-berlin.de

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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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Gone fishing: Rusalka at the Komische Oper

Fairy tales are rich material for Regietheater stage directors, with their opportunities for symbolism, psychological exploration, nostalgia-busting, and social criticism. What is the significance of the powerless, lovelorn mermaid who just wants to be human? Barry Koskie’s Komische Oper production filters the story through the severe dresses and manners of late-Victorian mores.

This was in fact my fourth Regie Rusalka this season (it’s popular, and I really love this opera) and I have to say it was a little underwhelming compared to both Stefan Herheim and Martin Kusej’s productions (two of the best performances I have seen this season), but it is worthy staging with a unique perspective. Musically, things were a little more mixed.

And three out of four Regietheater directors agree: staging Act 3 of Rusalka is difficult.

Dvořák, Rusalka. Komische Oper Berlin, 7/14/2011. New production by Barrie Kosky conducted by Patrick Lange with Asmik Grigorian (Rusalka), Timothy Richards (Prince), Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (Foreign Princess), Agnes Zwierka (Jezibaba), Dmitry Ivanshchenko (Water Gnome).

The setting is mythic and abstract, but not at all folkloric. The bare set is a proscenium arch decorated in a Baroque kind of art deco that echoes the architecture of the rest of the theater (built in 1892), and the time of the opera’s composition (1901). Rusalka actually has a mermaid’s tail for once, emerging from a trapdoor underneath the set’s one piece of furniture (a bench), and pulling herself around by her arms. In the absence of water, the physical constrictions of mermaid-dom couldn’t be any more clear. She is like the hooked fish the nymphs use to tease the Water Gnome in the introduction.

Rusalka in Dresden
dir. Stefan Herheim
 Rusalka in Munich
dir. Martin Kusej
Rusalka at the Wiener Volksoper
dir. Barbe/Doucet

The theater-within-a-theater (a trope I am tiring of) implies that all Rusalka wants to do is sing and dance in freedom. After a understatedly scary Jezibaba pulls a fish skeleton out of her back (in true Regietheater fashion, Jezibaba provides Rusalka with legs but neglects to give her a pair of pants), the Water Gnome delivers his bürgerlich warning from the second ring of the theater, the same place from which the nuns were condemned from in Dialogues of the Carmelites the other night. Then she encounters the Prince. Unsubtly, he literally enters with blood on his hands, and I mean that “literally” in the literal sense, as in he enters and smears the blood on the white walls with his hands.

But thanks to Jezibaba’s conditions, Rusalka can no longer sing, and during the wedding chorus (the ballet is cut), she finds dancing with the Prince to be a physical impossibility. The Prince dresses her up in a beautiful gown, a copy of this one by Charles Worth, but she provides little competition to the literal dragon lady of the pipe-smoking Foreign Princess. I mean this “literally” in the literal sense too, she’s got a dragon on her dress. This staging might not be the subtlest thing ever.

Rusalka is then thrown into a limbo populated by Victorian death kitsch of skulls and black robes, tormented by mysterious figures. The room seems to melt (thanks to swimming projections outlining the edges of the set). and finally giving her Prince the expected death kiss. The staging loses some momentum at this point, like several of the other Rusalkas I’ve seen recently. Dramatically, just not very much happens.

This is not a staging that aspires to grand conceptual coherence, and I’ve left a lot out–like the gruesome wiggling fish of the Act 2 opening (remote-controlled fakes, I hope, but I’m not entirely sure) and Jezibaba’s twitchy assistant. But it the Personenregie is tight and detailed and as a whole the production is overall quite effective, and I like the general tactic of maintaining the fairy tale elements but imagining them through the worldview of the opera’s own era.

It helped that Asmik Grigorian was a very strong presence in the title role (the pictures here, however, show alternate cast soprano Ina Kringelborn). Her clear but somewhat dry soprano lacks a certain melting lyricism and otherworldliness that is ideal for the title role, but she sang with endless ardor and power, and was a wonderful actress, capturing Rusalka’s desperation in a way that was deeply sympathetic and never clichéd. As the Prince, Timothy Richards acted strongly enough, but sounded cloudy and musically his stolid, legato-free declamation of the text seemed completely at odds with Dvořák’s arching phrases.

As the Foreign Princess, the imposingly-named Ursula Hesse von den Steinen (you think she’s got a castle somewhere?) was as over-the-top as the staging demanded, and sang forcefully, as did Agnes Zwierko as a very loud, intimidating Jezibaba. Dmitry Ivashchenko was an excellent Water Gnome, not given much of a profile by the staging but sung with generous, warm tone.

The biggest disappointment was the scrappy playing of the orchestra, particularly the many wrong notes and entrances by the brass section. Patrick Lange conducted with rather slow tempos at some key points (both the Song to the Moon and the Water Gnome’s aria were leisurely), and the orchestra was sometimes too loud. This was a one-off performance as part of the end-of-season Festival, and it perhaps did not receive the rehearsal it required.

I’m going on opera break for a little while now, because I have rashly planned to see two big Strauss operas and two big Wagner operas in the space of about a week and a half, and I want to rest up my attention span. See you later, from Bavaria.


Photos copyright Monika Rittershaus

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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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