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.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Operatic Alternatives in Berlin: Puccini's Toaster and Crowe's Bacon

Puccini's Toaster: Winterreise – Ehemaliges Stummfilmkino Delphi, 17 December 2017
Puccini's Toaster: The Old Maid and the Thief etc. – Tangoloft, Berlin, 22 November 2017
Stephen Crowe: Francis Bacon Opera – Acker Stadt Palast, 27 October 2017

The ‘official’ operatic offering is so rich in Berlin that I’ve found myself slow to explore the city’s alternative scene. But it’s got to the stage in the year when I compile lists of New Year’s Resolutions, and one of them for 2018 will be to explore more of what the German capital has to offer beyond its three main opera houses. I might even be a resolution I’ll be able—and want—to keep to. As a first step, I thought I’d share some thoughts on three ‘alternative’ operatic events I’ve been to over the last couple of months.

I start with the most recent, the latest venture by the enterprising Puccini’s Toaster, an event that was perhaps not strictly operatic, but which was, as far as anyone seems to know, a first: a performance of Schubert’s Winterreise that featured a different singer for each song. Twenty-four singers; 24 songs. Wisely, the presentation was also strictly non-operatic, as straightforward as possible: chairs for the singers were arrayed in a semi-circle around the piano, each singer simply stepping up in turn—no acknowledging each other or the audience.

It was certainly felt like the best way to go about it, and to instil such discipline on two-dozen singers—shades of herding cats, one imagines—certainly speaks volumes for Puccini’s Toaster’s resident director, Caroline Staunton, and music director, Rebecca Lang. The whole event, meanwhile, spoke volumes about how well connected the company is, as well as about its attitude to the sort of logistical challenges lesser outfits might dismiss as insuperable.

It also reflects the sheer pool of talent that can be called upon in the German capital, with those who turned up to play their part, however small, ranging from Deutsche Oper stalwarts to younger singers just starting out. Inevitably standards varied, both in terms of the voices the interpretations, and the event served to highlight in many ways what an exacting medium song is—some songs certainly were given something more akin to operatic treatment, for example.

One constant, though, was Jean-Paul Pruna’s alert piano playing, managing to create a sense of continuity as all around him changed. The whole performance also served as a challenge to those listeners and performers who tend to view song cycles—and this one in particular—as music drama manqué, allowing us to appreciate every song with fresh individuality.

Swedish baritone Joa Helgesson deserves special praise in the tricky opening spot for presenting a sensitive ‘Gute Nacht’, and likewise Jason Steigerwalt for wrapping things up with a movingly understated—and beautifully sung—‘Der Leiermann’.

In fact, excellent baritones seemed to dominate the evening (a fact that had not escaped the attention of the Barihunks blog). Allen Boxer was especially impressive in ‘Der Wegweiser’, and Markus Brück, last seen by me as Rigoletto at the Deutsche Oper, offered a consummate ‘Das Wirtshaus'. There were seriously impressive voices on display from, among others, Julian Arsenault (‘Frühlingstraum’), Marlon Da Silva Maia (‘Der greise Kopf’) and Seth Carico (‘Im Dorfe’), even if we occasionally could have done with a little more intimacy in approach.

Tenors were represented by two Deutsche Oper ensemble members: Robert Watson (who sings Cavaradossi there, no less, in February) unleashed an impressive ‘Stürmische Morgen’ and Matthew Newlin offered a beautifully controlled and concentrated ‘Wasserflut’.

There was a fine selection of mezzos and sopranos, too. The former included the rich-voiced trio of Sarah Ring (also the company’s Intendant) in ‘Irrlicht’, Laura Atkinson in ‘Einsamkeit’ and Sylvia Bronk in ‘Die Krähe’ (although her colourful outfit, I couldn’t help thinking, was more reminiscent of a bumble-bee). At the other end of the spectrum were the tidy sopranos of Joanna Foot (‘Rückblick’), Jana Miller (‘Täuschung’) and Marie-Audrey Schatz, whose focus and delicate vibrato brought out the best in the ‘wein, wein’s of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’.

I made special note, too, of Rachel Fenlon’s considered and refined account of ‘Der Lindenbaum’, Sally Drutman’s characterful ‘Mut!’ and Mary Osborne rich, determined ‘Die Nebensonnen’. But everyone—including some, I apologise, I haven’t mentioned—added to a unique and thought-provoking event.

A special word, too, for the venue, the remarkable Ehemaliges Stummfilmkino Delphi, on the Prenzlauer Berg/Pankow border in East Berlin. It’s a grand and evocative 1920s former cinema, with a modest stage contained within elegantly curved proscenium, and outstandingly clear and direct acoustics.

It was dusted off and reopened only in 2012 after more than half a century of, as its website poetically puts it, ‘Dornröschenschlaf’. But this event was part of a fundraising effort that was needed after the place was stripped of all its technical equipment (worth tens of thousands of euros) in a robbery earlier in the year. It played host to Puccini’s Toaster’s La bohème this time last year, too, and the company returns there for La traviata in April. Let’s hope it continues to thrive.


I’d also seen Puccini’s Toaster’s previous show in November, at a different venue a bit further round to the North West in Wedding: Tangoloft, Berlin. A joint venture with MOOD Opera of Detroit, it juxtaposed a staging of Gian Carlo Menotti’s bizarre (and not a little misogynistic) 1939 radio opera The Old Maid and the Thief against a relaxed second-half cabaret of songs by Eisler, Weill and contemporaries.

The venue’s airless acoustic took a little adjusting to, but Staunton did an excellent job of staging a work whose pacing is clearly designed for the different demands of radio opera—although admittedly I’m not entirely clear what those might be. A framing device helped both to tie the swift scenes together and slightly distance us from the piece’s less-than-flattering take on women, depicted as going weak at the knees (and in the head) at the arrival of a mysterious and handsome stranger (the excellent Reuben Walker, the deliverer also of a fine ‘Die Post’ in the Winterreise), mistakenly believed to be a dangerous thief.

 Puccini's Toaster's The Old Maid and the Thief at the TangoLoft, Berlin,
with (l. to. r) Reuben Walker (Bob), Danielle Wright (Miss Todd) and Sarah Ring (Laetitia)
Philipp Lang and Brigitt Bayer were excellent as Mr and Mrs Pinkerton (the Madame Butterfly reference, if indeed there was one, was lost on me), and Ring was brilliantly scheming and seductive as Laetitia, the young maid who is instrumental leading the titular Old Maid, Miss Todd, astray. And in that role Danielle Wright was powerfully committed, her big mezzo used to fill out what became an increasingly rich and tragic character.

Rebecca Lang conducted a small chamber ensemble in her own ingenious reduction of the score, which would be good to have a chance to hear within a more sympathetic acoustic. She was also on hand as one of the accompanists (the other was Kunal Lahiry) who made the most of a rickety piano in the songs of the second half.


Finally, and going yet further back in time as well as heading south from the Tangoloft to the Acker Stadt Palast in Mitte, a few thoughts on Stephen Crowe’s Francis Bacon Opera, which I caught in late October. This had already been seen at the Tête à tête festival in London (the video below has extracts from that incarnation) and was being unleashed on unsuspecting Berliners here for the first time—the composer’s previous opera, Pterodactyls of Ptexas, was seen here last year, though alas not by me.

Stephen Crowe's The Francis Bacon Opera at the Acker Stadtpalast
This new work struck me as a little gem, though, with Crowe achieving remarkable results from limited resources: two tenors; a pianist on an old upright; a simple set consisting of cloths variously stripped away, hung up or laid down, with projections of skeletal versions of famous Bacon canvases.

The libretto, if that’s not too conventional a term, consists of a word-by-word transcript of Melvyn Bragg’s 1985 South Bank Show interview with Francis Bacon, which famously saw the pair get increasingly sozzled in a variety of locales.

The comedy is inherent, of course, and Crowe certainly doesn’t underplay this, demanding plenty of jazzy flourishes and outrageous Gerald Barry-esque distortion and elongation from his singers, accompanied by spidery tinkles, splashes and bashes on the piano. But there’s another important side to the work, too. The composer produces some music of disarming, unexpected delicacy and loveliness as he searches for the weird beauty of these encounters: of the burgeoning inebromance between Bacon and Bragg, of the strange revelations that come as befuddled questions stumble past woozy answers and logic and language start to sway on their axes.

The performances from Christopher Killerby (Bacon) and Oliver Brignall (Bragg) were terrific, and necessarily fearless and committed, right up to the final knocking back of mini bottles of spirits—they were handed out to the audience too, but I chickened out and left mine under my seat. Joseph Houston was heroic in the kaleidoscopic demands of the piano part, and Tone Aminda Gøytil Lund had done an ingenious job conjuring up so much from so little with her set and costume designs.

Christopher Killerby (l, as Francis Bacon) and Oliver Brignall (Melvyn Bragg)
The piece itself was especially welcome for being ideally paced (at a short, sharp 50 minutes), and for avoiding the double pitfalls of pretentiousness and wilfully abstruse vocal writing—it was certainly demanding, but never, it seemed, simply for its own sake.

It was an arresting, funny and engrossing show, but a beguiling and strangely affectionate one too.

  • Puccini’s Toaster present La traviata at the Ehemaliges Stummfilmkino Delphi on 20 & 22 April 2018. 
  • Stephen Crowe’s next project is a song cycle for mezzo and chorus based on the texts of Sappho. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: L'incoronazione di Poppea

Staatsoper unter den Linden, 13 December 2017

The small matter of renovating its Unter den Linden home has meant that the Staatsoper in Berlin, by necessity, has come rather late to the Monteverdi anniversary party. Nevertheless, its new production of L'incoronazione di Poppea opened at the weekend hot on the heels of its new Hänsel und Gretel. By this third performance, it had moved on to its second scheduled Poppea in the shape of Roberta Mameli – Anna Prohaska had been the first.

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Staatsoper Berlin: Hänsel und Gretel

Staatsoper unter den Linden, 8 December 2017

So staggered and diluted has the process of the Staatsoper’s reopening been that this first night of its new Hänsel und Gretel hardly felt like an event at all. The great and the good had been assembled for the previous evening’s 275th anniversary concert, but for the first operatic performance in reopened house – I’m inclined not to count the ill-advised and ill-executed staging of Schumann’s Faust-Szenen in October – a few balloons on the building’s scrubbed-up façade was about it...

[Read the full review at Bachtrack]

Monday, 4 December 2017

Berliner Philharmoniker/Haitink

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Philharmonie, Berlin, 2 December 2017

Mahler’s final completed symphony has been something of a favourite for recent music directors of the Berlin Philharmonic, although the orchestra clearly likes to ration its performances. Simon Rattle conducted the last one here six years ago, but with the conductor and orchestra having just returned from a long tour in the Far East – and having given a guest appearance last week at the newly sort-of reopened Staatsoper unter den Linden – the baton was passed to Bernard Haitink.

[Read the full review at Backtrack]