Monday, 10 October 2016

Komische Oper Berlin: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; Il barbiere di Siviglia

Tómas Tómasson (Sachs) & Tom Erik Lie (Beckmesser)
Photo (c) Monika Rittershaus
In some ways it’s difficult to explain what made Andreas Homoki’s Meistersinger so beautiful and moving. On paper, it would seem primarily to be defined by what it omits. There’s very little sense of Nuremberg itself, with the set, as such, consisting of just a dozen bits of grey building-shaped lumps of scenery on casters (designs by Frank Philipp Schlößmann). There’s no hint, either, of the ‘darker side’, which I admit I’d come to believe was essential in any staging of this work. In fact, there’s no real Konzept at play – another cardinal sin according some vague version of directorial dogma I’d found myself subscribing to.

The production’s great achievement is that all this omission, though clearly down to some degree to budget restrictions, becomes such a virtue, so creatively and imaginatively used. The empty stage – naked, with all the back-stage bits and bob exposed – itself becomes a leitmotif: it’s what we’re presented with on our arrival, while the scenery is swiftly whipped out of sight for the quintet, or to leave Sachs momentarily abandoned at the close – an effect made so breathtaking, moving and magical by its simplicity. At other times, the blocks of scenery take on a life of their own, almost as an extension to Wagner’s orchestra – bearing down on Walther as he remembers the Masters, adding to Beckmesser’s unease and confusion, toppling over at the climax of the riot, returning in different colours for the Festwiese.    

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Against this backdrop, Homoki is able to work hard at creating believable and likeable characters, brought to life not through McVicar-style microdirection, but simply and naturally. Tómas Tómasson’s Sachs, young and full of life (if dressed to resemble slightly a melancholy Super Mario), was a case in point. His love for Johanni van Oostrum’s Eva (and hers for him) was painfully clear to see, and cleverly amplified by a couple of well-judged directorial touches. Even Tom Erik Lie’s Beckmesser – a gangly throwback to an earlier period, in his renaissance pudding-bowl hair and pointy tailcoats, and very well sung – was so much more than a caricature, disliked personally by Sachs rather than generally despised. Homoki’s direction of the chorus was outstanding, too: here they became a playful, mischievous collection of individuals rather than an unquestioning mob – which is perhaps why Sachs’s final address came across as so straightforwardly inspiring.

Musically, too, things were excellent. Tómasson’s bass baritone, which has felt a little stiff and inflexible when I’ve heard him before, was impressive in this smaller house, despite running out of puff a little. Erin Caves, though he tired a little in the middle of Act 3, sang with a clear, ardent and evenly produced tone as Walther. Van Oostrum was a little underwhelming at first as Eva, but came into her own in Act 3. In fact, the whole thing came together in the final act: the production, which had felt a little grey in the first two, fully revealed its magic; and Constantin Trinks’s conducting – authoritative, flowing but big-hearted – matched it brilliantly. The Komische Oper orchestra played extremely well, too.

The 'Festwiese' – Photo (c) Monika Rittershaus

A friend after the show wondered why Bayreuth – or any larger house – couldn’t stage a production like this. I fear its apparent simplicity would be deemed inadequate and insufficient for such a stage – a cop out, even. Here, though, it let the work speak for itself with powerful eloquence. It was funny, too, but in a way that grew out of the words and music and never undercut the work’s essential seriousness. It was something of a revelation, and I left convinced that Meistersinger was Wagner’s masterpiece.


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Things could hardly have been more different the following evening, the first night of the house’s new Barbiere di Siviglia (I’m reviewing it elsewhere, so will only offer a few more informal thoughts here). The director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a name new to me but an important figure in the theatre scene in his native Russia, apparently, and someone turning increasingly to opera. Perusing the interview with him in the booklet before the start, I came across signs that were both positive and slightly less encouraging. 

In the former category were the observation that Barbiere is a dark comedy (thoughts echoed by the production’s conductor, Antonella Manacorda), and an expression of the desire to explore the small-scale tragedy of Bartolo’s unrequited love for Rosina – taking that into account ‘makes the comedy a little less superficial,’ Serebrennikov suggests. 

By contrast, though, he then tells us: ‘Almaviva’s world is the exact opposite from Bartolo’s – totally contemporary, totally bloodless [‘blutleer’], totally fleshless [‘fleischlos’ – excuse the literal translation]. He and Rosina live entirely virtual lives. It’s about nothing but electronic toys, communication, social media etc.’

It’s a bold gambit to declare these two characters essentially uninteresting and unsympathetic, not least since most of Barbiere revolves around them. Serebrennikov sticks to his guns, though: he removes the drama’s heart and fills the void with a procession of visual gags, many of them revolving around projections (by Ilya Shagalov) of Almaviva and Rosina’s social-media interactions. This starts during the overture, in which Fiorello, promoted to Leporello-style assistant to his master, mucks around with Manacorda. The stage is extended out beyond and round the orchestra pit (into which the orchestra sinks after the overture, before rising up again for the Act 2 finale), and the director makes constant use of this extra space – indeed, the stage area itself isn’t revealed until we meet Bartolo and his world (some sort of antique shop).

(l. to r.) Tansel Aksybek (Almaviva), Dominik Köninger (Figaro),
Nicole Chevalier (Rosina) – photo (c) Monika Rittershaus
There’s no faulting the cast, and there are some good ideas among the dozens Serebrennikov lobs into the mix. Almaviva dressing up as a Muslim refugee rather than a soldier is not quite as crass as it might sound, for example, offering a Biedermann and the Arsonists style critique of Bartolo’s bourgeois politesse – even if it raises a lot of other questions, more dramaturgical than anything else. His return dressed as Conchita Wurst for the music lesson was more in keeping with the rest of the production: it elicited plenty of laughs and oh-no-he-hasn’t! gasps, but didn't make much sense beyond itself. 

We only really got any sort of exploration of Bartolo’s situation during the Act 2 tempesta, where he dressed Rosina in an old-fashioned wedding dress. It was a brief moment of seriousness, too little too late, before the finale brought an apotheosis of Serebrennikov’s dispiriting vision of selfie-obsessed modern life. He’s got a point, I suppose, but it’s never really that clear why it’s a point to be made in this opera. One could just as easily apply it, say, to Meistersinger. Call me grumpy, call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I for one am glad at least that he didn’t get that opportunity.    

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