Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Bayerische Staatsoper: Orfeo

[From OPERA, October 2014, pp. 1268-70]

For the second new production of the Munich Opera Festival, the Bayerische Staatsoper installed itself in Max Littman’s 1901 Prinzregententheater, loosely modelled (in terms of its 1,000-seat auditorium, at least) on Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus and plonked on its own Green Hill in the smart, villa-filled Bogenhausen district of the city across the Isar.

The work was Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the Orfeo Christian Gerhaher, adding another operatic role to his modest tally. David Bösch, a Lübeck-born theatre director increasingly active in opera (recent stagings include Simon Boccanegra in Lyon, as well as Munich’s L’elisir and Frankfurt’s Königskinder), was in charge of a production that showed a mixture of theatrical virtuosity, poetic feeling and the sort of light touch that made a potentially unpromising initial premise—the setting was updated to a loosely-defined hippy community in the 1970s—highly effective, and, in harmony with Monteverdi’s supremely beautiful score, extremely moving.

Much of the production’s trippy, seductive beauty came from Patrick Bannwart’s set, in which long-stemmed, oversize flowers grew swiftly up from the stage during the Prologue, wilting and losing their petals as tragedy struck. In a smart and chilling counterpoint, grotesque cloth-sack figures dangled down like elongated roots into the Underworld, their blank faces brought spookily to life by Falko Herold’s video projections. Otherwise the scenery was minimal but highly effective: the obligatory camper van, a modest chariot (pulled by masked minions) for Caronte. After Euridice’s death, there was a soil-filled rectangle in the centre, representing her grave, of course, but also imbued with much further meaning besides—nothing here felt didactic or literal. 

The straightforward joys of the opening act were conveyed charmingly by the mainly young cast, and even if Gerhaher’s older Orfeo already seemed a little worn by experience compared to his colleagues, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the revels—Elvis moves, singing into a microphone and all. As the drama progressed, though, he was simply superb, acting with moving sincerity and using his voice—so beautifully, delicately projected and impeccably produced—to heart-wrenching effect.

He was surrounded by vivid characterizations from Andrea Mastroni (Caronte), Anna Bonitatibus (Messaggiera and Proserpina), Andrew Harris (Plutone), Lucy Knight (Ninfa) and Mauro Peter’s Vietnam-veteran Apollo. Anna Virovlansky was the personification of innocence as Euridice; Mathias Vidal stood out as an especially vital and engaging Shepherd and Spirit, but his colleagues (Jeroen de Vaal, Gabriel Jublin and Thomas Faulkner) were no less fine.

Yet it was Angela Brower as La Musica and Speranza—in the same grungy, winged costume for both, but full of wide-eyed joy as the former and childlike despair as the latter—who perhaps more than anyone embodied the production’s powerful sense of tragedy impinging so brutally on happiness and innocence. Ivor Bolton, conducting members of the Bayerisches Staats-orchester and the Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble, was unafraid to explore the emotional extremes at both ends of the spectrum, and there were vivid contributions from the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, whose members played various important dramatic roles, too.

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