A baroque Muppet Show, that is how Stefan Herheim defines his production of Handel’s Serse for Berlin’s Komische Oper. It does sound self-indulgent, I know, but it is actually a very precise definition. First of all, differently from most modern stagings of baroque operas, it is indeed baroque – the aesthetics, the approach, the acting style, the scenery, costumes, all these elements borrowed from their original XVIIIth century contest and reshuffled by a contemporary hand, which does not mock them, but rather shows them under a light in which meaning, rather than fidelity takes pride of place. Theater is the most baroque of arts – the one in which the idea of simulacrum is more evident, in which everything is fake and yet real, in which gods spring from hard-to-disguise machinery, in which fantasy and real world are separated by a mere convention called “fourth wall”. And Herheim gave this paradox pride of place in his production. As always, there is a revolving stage in which you can alternately see stage and backstage – and characters move between these two worlds without barriers. The curtains open to Serse singing his Ombra mai fu in Italian language to a cardboard tree – but the set revolves and Atalanta, Arsamene and Elviro jump from backstage singing a German text (one must remember that Serse was first shown to an audience who most certainly couldn’t understand the Italian text). Characters begin their scenes in a XVIIIthe century dressing room just to make their appearances in full theatrical-contraption glory. This stage/backstage shift is real in this staging – the play is the only reality in this play. The final chorus is sang by choristers wearing their own clothes, to the puzzlement of Serse and co.
Of course, the plot of Serse has to do with “play within the play” – Amastre pretends to be a man, Elviro pretends to be a woman, Atalanta acts as if Arsamene loved her… and Serse is all about show business. Herheim takes advantage of this mise-en-abîme to give some characters a more dense profile. For instance, Atalanta is usually shown as either crazy or stupid – here her obsession for Arsamene is rather an obsession about her own sister – she loves herself when she is a copycatting Romilda and hates herself when the imitation is exposed. There is always a small content of silliness in every Herheim production, and I find the fact that she is gang-raped by the end of Un cenno leggiadretto a misfire (it is not shocking, it is not funny and it does not really build into anything – yes, it is another example of how reality and fantasy intertwine, but…). I was rather intrigued by the fact that the director did not really try to do anything with the role of Arsamene – I confess I’ve found it difficult to take account of how many arias have been deleted because of the German version, but I have the impression that Arsamene has the record in it. As much as Amastre is always swearing that she’ll get revenge, Arsamene is always whining. But, whereas the role of Amastre had been cut to concentrate on her virago-profile, Arsamene was more or less denied the right to be the whiny fellow he is (what is probably what makes him attractive to both sopranos in the plot).
The Komische Oper is an ensemble company that rarely has famous guest singers… or guest singers tout court, and Handel is not really this house’s repertoire. Its raison d’être in Berlin is being the opera house in which theatre has pride of place, in which directors are free to experiment and, therefore, in which singers are expected to be good actors in the first place. This evening was only an evidence of that – every singer in this cast leaves nothing to be desired in the acting department – especially those in the roles of Serse, Atalanta and Elviro.
What I very ungraciously am trying to say is that the musical side of this performance was far less ambitious and accomplished than the theatrical side of it. Maestro Konrad Junghänel knows his Handel and likes it fast and exciting, but his orchestra was rather coping with it than shining in exuberance, as one is used to hear with famous baroque ensembles who have tackle this piece. The house orchestra is, of course, no baroque ensemble – and it sounded a bit uncomfortable trying to emulate one. This tends to be the case with opera house orchestras in this repertoire – but some conductors prefer to find a compromise in which the orchestra can still “be itself” in the context. In a staging about taking baroque concepts not at face value, but as their real meaning for modern audiences, this could have been an issue. Similarly, the singers here gathered are not baroque specialists, what is – for a non-radical followed of HIP-practices – irrelevant, if the non-specialist cast goes beyond that (William Christie’s cast for Alcina in Paris could be an example). But here I had the impression that these singers went somehow astray midway.
Although Brigitte Geller (Romilda) is no newcomer to baroque music (she has at least recorded Bach with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists), she – at least at this point in her career – makes do in what regards Handelian style. She can produces some stunning mezza voce effects, but is mostly unfocused and rarely finds some meaning in her coloratura (as a true Handelian is supposed to do). At some points, she is expected to go for dramatic effects – and she has stamina for that – but it can sound really coarse. Julia Giebel (Atalanta) has a more appropriate voice for this repertoire and can sing with purity of line, but not as often as she should. She is not the first Atalanta who lacks presence in her middle and low registers, but her upwards excursions sound sometimes blowsy. Stella Doufexis (Serse) has a clear, flexible and firm voice that works very well for baroque music, but it is entirely unheroic for a primo uomo role and she sometimes looses steam and sounds edgy. It must be said that she was the member of this cast who made more of the German text (and the occasional Italian lines), singing with crystalline diction, intelligent inflection and spontaneity. Karolina Gumos (Arsamene) has the most interesting among the “high” voices here – her fruity, supple mezzo projects very naturally in the hall. Katarina Bradic (Amastre)’s contralto has a very pleasant color, but it is very recessed in sound, surprisingly even in its low register. Hagen Matzeit was a very interesting Elviro, very fluent both in his natural voice and in falsetto – a praiseworthy performance – and Dimitry Ivaschenko (Ariodate) tackles his divisions most adeptly.