Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Staatsoper Hannover: Der junge Lord; Der fliegende Holländer

19 October; 20 October

The Staatsoper in Hannover has, over the past few seasons, presented several of Hans Werner Henze’s stage works. Last season it was Die Englische Katze; this season it’s another opera with an English element, his sharp comedy Der Junge Lord, premiered up the road at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper in 1965 and set to a clear-sighted and quick-witted libretto by Ingeborg Bachmann—based on a parable taken from an 1827 collection of stories by Wilhlem Hauff.

Henze's Der junge Lord at the Staatsoper Hannover (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
In brief: an English nobleman, Sir Edgar, wows then increasingly insults the inhabitants of the small German town of Hülsdorf-Gotha, before presenting them with  nephew’, Lord Barrat. This young lord impresses them with his refreshingly direct and unorthodox manners, even setting the local beautys heart a-flutter, before, as his behaviour gets increasingly wild, being exposed as an ape Sir Edgar has procured from a visiting circus. As a tale of hypocrisy, suggestibility and gullibility, it is surely as relevant as ever. 

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Half a century on, Henze’s score retains remarkable sense of freshness, at least as conducted here by Mark Rohde, whose incisive work was matched by precision and virtuosity by the orchestra. Ostensibly inspired primarily by bel canto—and benefitting from that genre’s clarity of texture as well as some relatively grateful vocal writing—it’s a work that throws in a variety of other influences, too, all bound together expertly. 

The director here, Bernd Mottl, offers up a staging that is every bit as sharp. Hülsdorf-Gotha and its inhabitants are in stylised, exaggerated black and white (costumes by Alfred Mayerhofer). In Friedrich Eggert’s designs, the stage floor is chequered squares, the action contained and variously focused within a series of black, frilly-edged panels.

Colour is reserved for the English interlopers, led by the threateningly mute Sir Edgar, here given real menace by Franz Mazura. The contrast is further underlined through the uptight, preening manner of the Hülsdorf-Gotha residents and the louche way of the visitors, epitomised of course by the young lord Barrat himself, played here as rubber-limbed, gold lamé-suited Michael Jackson, c. 1985.

Hannover’s large ensemble cast was impressive, with outstanding performances in particular from Stefan Adam, focused and authoritative as Sir Edgar’s Secretary, and Sung-Keun Park, fearless both physically and vocally as Lord Barrat. Rebecca Davis unveiled plenty of secure, beautiful tone as Luise and Simon Bode sang mellifluously as her (moderately interesting) initial love interest. Tichina Vaughn gave her all as the Jamaican cook Begonia—a broad caricature that perhaps dates the work more than any other element.

Franz Mazura (Lord Edgar), Sung-Keun Park (Lord Baratt), Rebecca Davis (Luise) in Der junge Lord (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
The Romantic subplot arguably adds little to the drama, too, though it does offer Henze the opportunity for some seductive harp and celesta writing (a subconscious nod to Der Rosenkavalier?). But Luisa’s aria, the only freestanding number of the work, is less memorable than it should be—hovering uncertainly between sincerity and irony.

The piece’s undeniable freshness and wit also has to be pitted against the sense one has that it’s just a little bit longer than it needs to be, the premise that little bit too slight for its two hour-long acts. Nevertheless, given a staging as witty and sharp as this, one is in no doubt as to Der junge Lord’s theatrical viability and, one hopes, continued longevity.

Der fliegende Holländer at Staatsoper Hannover (Photo © Thomas M. Jauk) 
One would never have guessed that Hannover’s current production of Der fliegende Holländer, new last season, had come from the same director. A ruined shopping mall is not a natural choice as setting for the work, to put it mildly, and Mottl’s production never really managed to persuade me that it was a good choice, either—or to offer any reason why the Dutchman should have ended up there.

The Spinning Chorus became a jolly routine for a female chorus kitted out in fur coats, blond wigs and sunglasses, with Senta, it seemed, a goth rebelling against commercialism and occasionally seeking solace in the piles of dirt that surrounded the set.

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Mareike Moor’s Mary is kitted out in something like simple 19th-century garb; the Dutchman wears black leather; Erik, dressed in some sort of camouflage with crop-sprayer’s backpack, seems to work in pest control. The Steuermann (a clean-toned Edward Mout), sings his early song to a mannequin. Senta joins the object of her obsession at the close in a fire that gets ignited during the big Act 3 party—turned into a big nautical-themed song-and-dancein the shopping centre’s lower level.

Happily, at least the musical performance was on a very high level. Ivan Repušić conducted an account of Wagner’s score that felt all the more powerful for being a little reined-in and controlled. Gale force was unleashed only at key moments, and the work’s sheer musical craftsmanship was underlined throughout. The playing of the orchestra was very fine, too, mixing impressive clarity with dramatic punch.

Krszysztof Szumanski stepped in as a late replacement as the Dutchmann, singing with a pleasingly relaxed, expansive timbre, and with none of the hectoring that one often hears in the role. Kelly God made a terrific Senta, utterly secure and excitingly fearless, and Shavelg Armasi, though vocally on the smaller end of the spectrum, brought plenty of character to her father, who might or might not have been the owner of the mall itself. A special mention should be made, too, of Robert Künzli who, though announced as indisposed, still sang Erik with a reliability that can’t always be taken for granted in this tricky role.

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