Saturday, 13 December 2014

Falstaff and Turandot at the Deutsche Oper

I'm currently on a quick research trip in Berlin, during which time I've taken the opportunity to pay a first visit -- or, rather, two -- to the Deutsche Oper. The repertoire I sampled was central; the productions were more left-field. With the Falstaff it was good to be reminded that Christof Loy can do comedy; there won't be much of that when I catch up next week with his Royal Opera Tristan. (He's a director whose work I have generally not greatly enjoyed: after a first encounter with the Royal Opera Ariadne, I really didn't like the Tristan first time round, missed the Lulu, but really took against his cop-out 2011 Salzburg Frau, which, along with his po-faced and drearily ernst Barcelona Entführung, I have seen only on DVD.)

Christof Loy's 'Falstaff' at the Deutsche Oper (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

Anyway, his Falstaff, new last November, makes a fascinating comparison to Damiano Michielletto's production from the 2013 Salzburg Festival. Both take the same starting point, with a reference to the Casa di Riposo in Milan that Verdi set up for retired singers and musicians. Michielletto's production deals unimaginatively with this idea, letting it -- and a fixed single set -- constrain the drama. (There's a disapproving review from me in a forthcoming Gramophone -- I can't say I thought much of it), Loy lets the action run riot on an open stage. Bits of minimal scenery come and go, the exception being a large, grand wall that appears (then is whisked up) at the start of Act 3, separating a disconsolate Falstaff, left nursing his wounds in a suitcase-strewn wasteland at the very front of the stage, from the rest of the 'cast', dressed up and clinking glasses in the bright, clean space on the other side.

Production details
I put 'cast' in inverted commas, because it's a production that constantly suggests multiple levels of performance. It also seems to pick away at its own central concept, questioning and even undercutting it. The evening starts with from a witty film (accompanied by Victor Maurel's 1907 recording of 'Quand'ero paggio') in grainy black and white, which dissolves leaving Kiril Manolov's lank-haired Falstaff singing the same arietta at the piano before the opera proper kicks off.  The singers are at first dressed up to look like Casa di Riposo residents, then remove wigs and fusty outfits to show their more youthful selves beneath. The action is presented as part performed, part lived, the line between the two entirely porous. During the final ensemble, everyone -- chorus included -- finds wigs, slacks and cardis in the suitcases that have been lying about. By the final curtain, as a Verdi portrait is brought on (much as it had been, if memory serves, in Michielletto's staging), everyone's back to being 'old' again.

I'd admit I'm not entirely sure what Loy's point is, and it was inevitable that, in the context, the magic of Herne's Oak was somewhat lost, but I'd much rather this looser approach to a concept that Michielletto's straitjacketed one: the fluidity, the unpredictability and, even, the slightly chaotic bafflingness of it all appealed to me. Here's a trailer to give an idea:

It helped, of course, to have a good musical performance. Stefan Solyom conducted a straightforward account of the score -- slightly tentative tempos in the zippier ensembles was perhaps due to a lack of rehearsal time in the house's busy repertoire system. As London heard in Salome at this year's Proms, the orchestra is a very classy band, producing a rich sound but capable of necessary agility and lightness of touch.

There was a fine cast, with Manolov (a name new to me) combining a big, leonine baritone and larger-than-life, bear-like physical presence -- only a hint of old-world charm was lacking. Elena Tsallagova was a charming, slightly geeky Nannetta, well matched by Alvaro Zambrano's Fenton. Maria Pia Piscitella's rich soprano made her a fine Alice, and Dana Beth Miller was an impressively fruity Mrs Quickly. John Chest's Ford was well focused, if a probably a size or two too small, and Marko Mimica's resonant, powerfully-sung Pistola stood out among some fine performances from the rest of the cast (click the thumbnail right for a full list).

Turandot at the Deutsche Oper (photo © Bettina Stöß)
Another name new to me was that of Lorenzo Fioroni, a protégé of Ruth Berghaus and Götz Friedrich, who provided the production of Turandot, dating originally from 2008. His view is a brutal and cruel one, in which much of the action seems choreographed by the aged, almost benign Altoum (Peter Maus, dressed in the grey suit favoured by some dictators). He appears, along with a handful of other doddery dignitaries to watch from a rectangular viewing gallery set into a wall. In front, the oppressed, cowering 'Popolo di Pekino' sing his praises -- at one powerful moment, one woman stood defiantly looking the opposite way, only to be beaten into submission as the paean recommenced.

Turandot becomes a slightly petulant princess, her riddling with Calaf played out down stage as a face-off (shades of Minnie vs Rance, without the poker) over a small table. Once she finally succumbs to love, she murders her father; Calaf, in turn, dispatches poor old Timur. It's all pretty heartless in the final act, where the scope for mischievous humour seems to be exhausted -- much of it stemming from Ping, Pang and Pong, here (in a touch coincidentally reminiscent of Loy's Falstaff) repeatedly dressing up to play their roles in the 'entertainment'. Again, I'm not sure it amounted to anything terribly coherent, but it certainly had its compelling moments.

Musically speaking, the greatest pleasure probably came from the magnificent Deutsche Oper chorus, and there singing was matched by fine playing once more from the orchestra -- even if Ivan Repušić's conducting was pretty broad-brush and four-square. Kamen Chanev was a stentorian Calaf, the voice impressively ringing and trumpety, although lacking in much Italianate honey; a certain unflinching machismo in his stage manner was not unsuited to Fioroni's conception.

Catherine Foster, Bayreuth's current Brünnhilde and a British singer who's carved out an impressive career in Germany, had quite a lot of dodgy moments intonation-wise as Turandot, and the voice seems to take some time to warm up -- both during the course of an evening and, strangely enough, during the course of some notes. In full flight, though, it's an impressive sound, and the lack of steely edge is in some way made up by a softness in the timbre that suggests this Turandot's heart has gone some way to thawing from the start. Heidi Stober brought a highly attractive, gently lyrical voice to her sympathetic Liù, and Simon Lim an impressive, powerful if also rather soft-grained bass to Timur.

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