Monday, 22 January 2018

Komische Oper Berlin: Don Giovanni

19 January 2018

Just a week after catching up with Claus Guth’s staging at the Staatsoper, I managed see the other staging of the work currently to be seen off Unter den Linden in Berlin. The contrast could hardly be greater: if Guth’s might be described as hyper-realist, Herbert Fritsch’s at the Komische Oper is, well, maybe hyper-unrealist—it’s certainly hyper something.

Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni in Herbert Fritsch's Komische Oper production (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

The director, long a member a of Frank Castorf’s ensemble at the Volksbühne, offers up a show that is undeniably stunning in its execution, a gleeful mixture of the exaggerated and the anarchic, brilliantly realised by an ensemble cast.

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In an elliptical interview in the programme, he offers what feels like a preemptory rebuke to anyone trying to define—or judge—what he’s doing within traditional parameters. He talks of ‘freedom in art’ not necessarily meaning that, to quote his own unstinting language, ‘I can defecate here [on stage], or get undressed or masturbate there.’ 

Rather, he says, ‘freedom in art means also the free appreciation of art.’ The audience should be allowed this freedom too, he adds, ‘and therefore there’s no way that I’m going to tell you what I’m planning or am going to do with my Don Giovanni production.’

It’s not easy to explain what he has done either, especially for someone only very sketchily versed in the specific local theatrical traditions that he calls on. In terms of the production as we see it, though, the first shock comes in the apparent lack of the overture, displaced, it later becomes clear, to burst onto the scene between the exit of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio and the arrival of Donna Elvira.

At that point, too, the open space of the stage—empty but for a bar heater—fills with lacy flats that bob gently about for most of the rest of the evening; there are barely any props otherwise. Victoria Behr’s costumes suggest Spain and the broader Spanish-speaking world, offering up a fair amount of lurid, kitschy colours.

Günter Papendell as Don Giovani (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
Act 1’s stage musicians appear in full Mariachi gear (they return in incongruous white tie in Act 2). The chorus shuffle around in their own colourful, over-the-top costumes with a mixture of skip and tiptoe. Lea-ann Dunbar’s terrific Donna Anna, perhaps not entirely inappropriately, presents us with parody of stock opera seria gestures. 

Masetto, Don Giovanni and Zerlina
(Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
Rarely has the ineffectiveness of Don Ottavio (the sweet-voiced Stefan Cifolelli) been more cruelly underlined, even if the character here is given a strangely endearing semi-earnest foppishness. 

Donna Elvira (an impressive Karolina Gumos) is all fierce frilly frock and flounce. A special mention, too, for Önay Köse’s sonorous Commendatore, presented here as yet another ineffectual flounderer.

At the centre of it all there are unflinchingly concentrated performances from Günter Papendell as Giovanni and Evan Hughes as Leporello: the former played, together with grotesque make-up, smiles and grimaces, and straggly blond wig à la Heath Ledger as the Batman Joker; the later as capaciously pantalooned semi-clown.

The energy they communicate together is irresistible: faces in constant movement, their relationship with one another and the audience in constant flux, recits (we heard Sabrina Zwach’s smart German translation) delivered with sped-up objectivity one moment, leaden deliberateness the next. Without such commitment and energy from the performers it would fall flat; here, though, it was impossible not to be drawn in and dragged along with it.

Inevitably, however, this sort of approach reveals only one facet of the opera, and arguably only a small part of that facet. Caring about any of these characters goes out of the window, while things become increasingly problematic the further we get into the second act: this Giovanni’s damnation—sinking into a hole in the stage beneath an illuminated pointy hand—inevitably counts for very little.

I was also surprised that, like Guth’s production, Fritsch had done away with the final sextet, which surely would have fitted, even helped, his approach—although I fully concede that I might not have fully understand the underlying aims of that approach. 

I’d also have thought, especially given the production’s fast-and-loose way with the score (several numbers get stuttering false starts, for example, to underline the various characters’ ineffectiveness), that the director would have opted for the concision of the Prague version. we instead got what was essentially the standard Prague-Vienna mix, conducted with verve by Anthony Bramall, in what can hardly be a straightforward assignment for a conductor.

This certainly isn’t one for purists, then, and clearly a one-dimensional view of this multi-dimensional masterpiece. But in some ways a staging every bit as compelling as Guth’s. They complement each other fascinatingly. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Staatsoper Hannover: Die Zauberflöte

16 January 2018

The idea that Die Zauberflöte is a ‘children’s opera’ is of course a ridiculous one, even if, in many respects, it ends up being about children (an idea that was picked up and developed in Goethe’s aborted attempt at a zweiter Teil). Nonetheless it seems—in Germany especially—often to be the first opera children get to see, and it was certainly encouraging to hear the lobbies of  Staatsoper Hannover resound to the pitter-patter of teeny feet as local children flooded the place for this second performance of Frank Hilbrich’s new production.

Die Zauberflöte at the Staatsoper Hannover (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)

Things didn’t get off to a good start when a technical problem delayed the start by 20 minutes, but the centrality of children in the production was immediately emphasised during the overture. 

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Staged overtures usually, of course, inspire a fair amount of eye-rolling. Here it proves joyous and difficult to resist, however, as a group of garishly attired kids on a revolve enthusiastically mime scraping and huffing and puffing their way through the piece on a variety of instruments.

Before that, we had seen Tamino clamber into a bed far downstage left. He then wakes up in his opening aria to grapple with a cuddly snake subsequent torn to pieces by the three ladies. I wondered whether the whole thing was being staged as his dream (the first subheading in a vaguely updated synopsis in the programme suggested that might have been the case) but if it was, it was hardly a fact that was made obvious beyond that opening gambit.

There is consistency, however, in the way the central role of the children is further underlined when the troupe of kids return to the stage each time the Three Boys (here three girls) appear. At the end we even see Sarastro and his entourage—in stiff plastic wigs and grey Bond-villain smocks—musicked into submission by them. This brotherhood clearly prefers a Land ohne Musik; in the Act 1 finale they dump instrument cases into a hole in the stage. 

Ania Vegry (Pamina) and Pawel Brozek (Monostatos)
(Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
In an interview in the programme, Hilbrich (if I understand him correctly) places music into a broader historical and societal context when he argues that opera itself played a similar role for Germany, especially during the country’s development during the 19th century, as music does for the characters in Die Zauberflöte.

And these ideas by themselves are far from bad. The problem is that the staging itself is messy and extremely poorly focused, throwing in far too many further ideas that one struggles to keep track of, let alone unravel, interpret and make any sense of. 

Stefan Heyne’s set features a pointy-textured gold  back wall and a central revolve with a cylinder that can be raised or lowered; Julia Müer’s costumes mix austere greys with the garish and ghastly. 

The whole thing is as ugly as it sounds. The production’s tone, too, is unpredictable, its occasional attempts to impose a dramatic realism distinctly jarring: a self-harming (I think) Queen of the Night, a particularly handsy Monastatos and charred corpses revealed unzipped from body bags for the trial by fire mingle uneasily with the celebration of joyful, exuberant youth we get elsewhere. 

There wasn’t much good news musically either at this performance, a fact clearly not helped by the (unannounced) replacement of the first night’s Tamino and Papageno. Martin Homrich took over as Tamino and sang with an impressive heroic voice which, though far from ideally controlled for Mozart, could well be one to watch as it develops in bigger repertoire. Byung Kweon Jun made an eminently likeable Papageno, but both he and Homrich required a fair bit of help from an audible prompter.

Matthias Winckhler & Simon Bode, the first-night Papageno & Tamino (left & centre), with Tobias Schabel (right, Sarastro) (Photo © Jörg Landsberg)
Ania Vegry made a fine, moving Pamina, her performance blossoming into an outstanding ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’. Dorothea Maria Marx offered a very respectable Queen of the Night, able to negotiate the role’s stratospheric demands cleanly. Tobias Schabel’s Sarastro (at one point removing his smock to reveal Amfortas-like bandages) lacked vocal authority, but there was a reassuringly sparky Papagena from Yiva Stenberg.

Her duet with Jun, though, was just one of several occasions where pit and stage threatened to part ways. The conductor Valtteri Rauhalammi did a good job of rectifying those errors, and there was certainly pleasure to be derived from the playing of the orchestra, but such synchronisation issues and scrappiness should never really have been happening in the first place.  

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Staatsoper Berlin: Don Giovanni

Staatsoper unter den Linden, 13 January 2018

It’s sobering to think that Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni is now a decade old. It was first unveiled in Salzburg in 2008, made it to the Staatsoper (im Schiller Theater) in Berlin in 2012 and has now made it to the Staatsoper (unter den Linden) as one of a first clutch of revivals in the renovated house.

Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)

This was the first time I’d seen the production in the flesh. It had bowled me over on Blu-ray (filmed at Salzburg), but critical reaction to it in the theatre had seemed a little more muted.

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Perhaps the staging’s cinematic nature—shades of Shallow Grave, Blood Simple and any number of films I dimly remember featuring holes dug in woods by the light of headlamps—made it especially effective on the screen, where the detail of the acting of Christopher Maltman’s Giovanni and, in particular, Erwin Schrott’s tic-addled, jittery Leporello could be shown in compelling close-up.

It seems the intensity and detail of the production has meant several principals have stuck with their roles over the years (in contrast to conveyor-belt one has seen in Covent Garden’s recent productions, for example), and it certainly feels unusual to find three veterans from Salzburg in the cast here.

Maltman’s Giovanni remains a dangerously compelling presence. He’s still in good shape, and the voice, which has tackled several larger roles in the interim, was probably the most authoritative and imposing on the stage.

It’s an impressive characterisation, even if he didn’t here quite manage the same hushed interiority he brought earlier to the Serenade, memorably staged as a touching reminiscence of earlier happiness—an idea pinched in at least one subsequent production that I’ve seen.

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Dorothea Röschmann, another Salzburg veteran, sings with her usual intensity and commitment as a Donna Elvira irresistible as characterisation if not as a character. Her state, very much as woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, is cleverly underlined throughout, not least when she first appears, impatiently checking a bus timetable, desperate to get on with a journey heading, one suspects, nowhere in particular. 

This Donna Elvira reflects the production itself brilliantly: everyone is stuck in the spinning forest of Christian Schmidt’s set, a space from which there’s no escape (and which would incidentally do excellent service in an especially nightmarish production of Hänsel und Gretel).

Anna Prohaska (Zerlina), Dorothea Röschmann (Donna Elvira) and Maria Bengtsson (Donna Anna)
(Photo © Monika Rittershaus) 
Some of the rest of the casting was a little less persuasive. Maria Bengtsson was stretched as Donna Anna, and though Mikhail Petrenko does a very good job as Leporello, he can’t quite match Schrott’s charisma in a characterisation tailored to the Uruguayan bass’s talents. Petrenko’s voice, moreover, is short on the buffo fruitiness and basic volume that the role requires. Jan Martiník’s gentle bass, similarly, is not ideally suited to the Commendatore’s granitic pronouncements.

I’ve admired Paolo Fanale in Mozart before—particularly in the Deutsche Oper’s Così fan Tutte last season—but he was also stretched here as Don Ottavio, the lovely openness of the voice often turning to rawness. Grigory Shkarupa unveiled a healthy bass voice as Masetto, while it was a luxury to have a Anna Prohaska bringing intelligence, subtlety and sparkle to Zerlina (she was the third of the Salzburg veterans).

Don Giovanni at the Staatsoper (Photo © Monika Rittershaus)
She was not the only one, however, who seemed to be held back by Alessandro De Marchi’s conducting, which favoured lucidity above weight and drive, drawing playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin that was often short on dramatic thrust and fire—until the Supper Scene, at least. And in this production, of course, the Supper Scene is also the Final Scene, with the concluding sextet apparently deemed incompatible with Guth’s fiercely concentrated vision.

It’s a decision that raises all sorts of questions: a return to a 19th-century tradition that itself feels incompatible with certain aspects of the production—the lack of any visual response to the famous chords that announce the Commendatore’s arrival, for example—as well as the conducting, which certainly short-changed us here on big-r Romanticism. I’d not been too bothered by the omission on the small-screen, where the drama on the whole had felt more intense; here I was left feeling a great deal more unsatisfied.

Inevitably, too, the production itself has lost some of its striking contemporariness, as well as some of its sharpness, over the years. It remains in many ways, though, an exciting and superbly executed piece of theatre.