Monday, 20 February 2017

Landestheater Coburg: Fidelio & The Cunning Little Vixen

Last week I took a little trip to Franconia. I was there to see the opera company of Landestheater Coburg perform two of its new productions under its dynamic music director Roland Kluttig. Having made his name primarily as a new music specialist, Kluttig was appointed Generalmusikdirektor at the start of the 2010/11 and is clearly bringing a new sense of ambition to this company across the repertoire.

Interior of the Markgrafentheater in Erlangen
First stop was Erlangen, where the Coburg company was performing their Fidelio at the town’s beautiful Markgrafentheater, the oldest functioning Baroque theatre in South Germany, Wikipedia tells me, but one that in the 300 years since it was built has undergone quite a few facelifts. The exterior is modern, and inside the boxes have been knocked through (if that's the term) and a fair amount of detailing has been smoothed over.

Still it’s a lovely little place, as is the town itself, centred around an elegant 18th-century university complex and a famous botanical garden (maintained by the university, but inevitably looking a little triste in mid February). 

The theatre produces its own plays, in the main building and couple of other venues in the town, as well as hosting concerts and Gastspiele from the Coburg—a 50-mile whizz up the autobahn. For me on this occasion it was Fidelio, in a production (new in the autumn) by Rudolf Frey, whose work in the UK has included a not-much-loved Maria Stuarda at Welsh National Opera in 2013.

There were a few textual novelties: the apparently ever-problematic dialogue was replaced by texts from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte; and, unusually, we had Leonore III as the overture (performed with real vigour by Kluttig and the orchestra in the theatre’s tiny pit), chosen possibly in part so that its greater length could provide more scope for the dumb-show Prologue it accompanied.

This Prologue, as I read only afterwards (having assumed no need to revisit the opera’s synopsis), set up the premise for the production. Florestan is a journalist who has discovered some nasty secrets about his old friend, the prison governor Pizarro. Leonore passes the material to the Pizarro unawares, and he then locks Florestan up. Time passes, until Leonore, denied the opportunity to visit him in prison, discovers that Florestan has died. She ‘sinks down in shock and mourning,’ we are told, and ‘before her inner eye unravels the following story: …’.

Landestheater Coburg
I’m reviewing the production in opera so will essentially leave it there, only to add that it seems that Fidelio remains as tricky as ever, and this framing device, though freeing the production from certain burdens and responsibilities, also seemed to relieve it from the necessity to make a great deal of sense on its own terms—or, at least, to feel responsible for conveying that sense to those watching. I was left scratching my head much of the time.

The next evening’s Vixen (directed by Alexandra Szemerèdy and Magdolna Parditka, and sung in German) was a great deal more persuasive. It was a fiercely uncompromising reinterpretation that imagined the work as a dark, entirely unredemptive tale of human trafficking and prostitution, and which ends in multiple deaths at the hands of the Game Keeper. It paid little attention to Janáček’s score, admittedly, but had at least an impressive conviction and internal coherence. (Again, I'll be reviewing this in operaso will leave it there.)

Alexandra Szemerédy and Magdolna Parditka's Cunning Little Vixen at Landestheater Coburg
(Photo © Henning Rosenbusch)
Sitting across the Theaterplatz from the imposing and beautifully preserved Schloss Ehrenburg (whose 1810s façade was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel), the Coburg theatre is delightful. A 550-seat gem of sober classical lines, it opened in 1840 and built up a reputation as a Wagner theatre throughout the second half of the 19th-century; its resident set-painter Max Brückner was recruited, along with his brother Gotthold, by Wagner for Bayreuth, not far down the road.

Landestheater Coburg
Recently it has started to re-establish its Wagner repertory, having had something of a hit, it seems, with its 2014 Lohengrin—Kluttig told me that Wagner outsells everything in the theatre, opera, plays or musicals; he is constantly getting stopped in the street, on the other hand, by people asking for more Brahms in the concert series he runs with the theatre’s orchestra. 

After other successes with Der Rosenkavalier and, particularly, Pelléas et Mélisande, the decision was made to stage Parsifal too, which will therefore be seen there in April.

Later this season the theatre also stages a double bill of the first German performance of Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven and Poulenc’s La Voix humaine. That, the productions I saw, and the fact that the beginning of the season they revived another double bill, this time of Dido and Aeneas and Riders to the Sea, give an idea of quite how adventurous this operatic arm of the theatre is.

I hope to return soon, not least to see the wonderful town in slightly less wintry conditions.

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