Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Komische Oper: Petrushka / L'Enfant et les sortilèges

19 February 2017

I should admit that I went to the Komische Oper’s new Stravinsky-Ravel double bill in the strange position of not having seen 1927’s earlier widely-travelled Zauberflöte—entirely my own fault, since it’s been around this season already, plus has a couple of further performances scheduled.

In a programme interview, though, Suzanne Andrade, one of the group’s masterminds, says that the Mozart took them back to an earlier stage in their development, while this new staging of Petrushka and L’Enfant et les sortilèges is rather closer to what they’ve been doing more recently.

Petrushka and Ptitschka in 1927's Stravinsky-Ravel double bill at the Komische Oper (photo © Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de)

Among that recent work was The Golem, which I did see at the Old Vic in London. Certainly much of what we saw here was reminiscent of that show: the wit, the imagination, the sheer theatrical spark and fizz, animations with a sort of Heath Robinson/Terry Gilliam sense of the absurd mixing cleverly with real-life action.

The big splash of colour and character conjured up at the start of Stravinsky’s Shrovetide Fair, with a heavy dash of Russian constructivism, was dazzling. The magician was represented throughout by large animated hand, prodding and poking the action as required.

Petrushka, played with puckish mischief by Tiago Alexandre Fonseca, becomes a clown. The original ballerina becomes the acrobat Ptitschka (Pauliina Räsänen), while the Moor is recast as Patap the muscleman (Slava Volkov).

It’s less a ballet per se, then, than a mixture of mime and acrobatics, engaging and entertaining, but also ultimately, I felt, a little inexpressive and, ironically for this work, lacking in humanity. Petrushka’s heartbreak and death counting for little among the visual razzle dazzle.

The Ravel struck me as a great deal more successful, not least because there we still had the expressive potential of the singing more or less intact, even if a number of the roles were delivered invisibly from offstage. Indeed, the Child begins life in animated form before, as the magic kicks off, appearing in the form of both the mezzo Ruzan Mantashyan (on mellifluous, stylish form) and a double, Martina Borroni: both are dressed in identical padded-out cub-scout uniform and swap over at various stages to keep the action fluid and the eye alert.

The other people, creatures and objects appeared variously as singers on stage, animations with voices heard off-stage or, as in the case of the brilliantly shrill Ivan Turšić’s M. Mathe, a mixture of both. The animation, meanwhile, allowed for the surreal action of Colette’s libretto—so brilliantly matched by Ravel’s witty and urbane score—to unravel with a trippy and enchanting unpredictability and humour.

A certain ambiguity, especially regarding the role of the Mother (the classy Ezgi Kutlu), was a result of the group's professed aim to underline the closeness between Petrushka's nearly omnipresent father figure (the Magician) and L'Enfant's nearly omni-absent Mother. This was compounded by a slight ambivalence when it came to whether or not the Child in the end really learnt from his escapades. 

The Child encounters M. Mathe in L'Enfant et les sortilèges (photo © Iko Freese/drama-berlin.de)

The extended cast, in a true virtuoso ensemble effort, was outstanding, and the Komische Oper’s orchestra played both scores with lucid flexibility for Markus Poschner. I’ll have to catch the Zauberflöte, but also am intrigued as to how 1927 might develop their aesthetic further to bring yet more to whatever operatic work they tackle next, and whether they can create something more substantial beneath the always glittering surface of their theatre. 

The Golem had had me wondering about what lay beneath, as here did PetrushkaL'Enfant, though, provided something more rewarding and spiritually nourishing. 

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