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Posts Tagged ‘Komische Oper Berlin’

Every time I have to write about Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, I wonder what editorial choices might have escaped me. Without my books and writing from an iPhone do not help either. Anyway, the Komische Oper explains that this is the Kaye/Keck edition. But not so fast – Frantz’s Jour et nuit is inexplicably inserted in the Giulietta scene, to start with.

As performed this evening, all dialogues and/or recitatives were replaced by a patchwork of texts by E.T.A. Hoffmann read in German by an actor playing the role of “old Hoffmann”. The effect was mostly confusing and failed to provide the audience with the necessary information to understand what would come next. The prologue missed the glouglou chorus but featured almost a page of the overture of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Nicklausse retained all his arias, but suffered cuts in recitatives in the prologue and never transformed into the muse in the epilogue. The Olympia act seemed practically “normal”, but Antonia died without trilling over recapitulation of previously sung material. The Giulietta act retains the barcarolle, but looses Scintille, Diamant and ends in the ensemble in which Hoffmann is laughed at for having lost his mirror reflection. The epilogue has more Mozart than anything else.

Have I forgotten to mention that the prologue and act I have been done in the “baritone version “? As a result, Hoffmann is “upgraded” to the tenor range after the intermission (the final Hoffmann count is three performers: one actor and two singers).

As we can see, most choices have been made rather to accommodate the production than for any musical reasons. That could have been relevant if this production turned around musical values. As it is, this performance is about the staging, and conductor Stefan Blunier is there to perform the traffic cop duties. His concerns are about tempo in the sense of keeping up with the stage action: clarity, tonal coloring, structural understanding are matters of no consequence. If the director requires unwritten pauses, voice overs, you name it, no problem. The poor Barcarolle has to do without soloists, invisibly singing somewhere in Poland, I can only guess.

Nicole Chevalier’s acting abilities are praiseworthy; she is utterly convincing as every one of Hoffmann’s love interests. Vocally, it is a different story. Her high soprano tackles Olympia high tessitura effortlessly, but the coloratura has its blurred moments. Antonia brought about a nasal, grainy and unattractive middle register. Here we have the coloratura Giulietta, and a brighter and better focused sound made her more appealing than in the previous act. The fioriture in her big aria was more hinted at than truly articulated. Alexandra Cadurina, whom I saw as Dorabella at the Bolshoi last year, is a fruity, clean Nicklausse who was not always true in intonation, certainly vivacious and charming.

The choice of a baritone and a tenor Hoffmanns would have made more sense with a darker-toned baritone and brighter-toned tenor. Dominik Köninger was a faceless Guglielmo in Tokyo, but has developed a warmer sound since then. The baritone version makes Hoffmann more introvert and elegant – the Kleinzach aria gains a lot in dignity (I invariably find it vulgar and boring) without effortful acuti. Although Mr. Köninger miscalculated some high notes, he sang with sense of style and good French. The choice of Edgaras Montvidas for the remaining acts puzzles me – it is a voice essentially throaty and lacking projection, foreign to the peculiarities of French opera. Although Dimitry Ivashchenko was not in his best voice as the four villains, his is always a commanding voice spacious up to his top notes and down into his low register. He still needs to be better acquainted with the language of Racine and Molière, though.

Barrie Kosky says he finds Offenbach a genius, but curiously tampers with his music whenever it does not suit his purposes. In any case, his is an aesthetically attractive production, focused on the actors and intelligently conceived in terms of staging (all scenic elements cleverly taken profit of), but curiously short in insight, finally more entertaining than enlightening.

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I reckon that anyone involved with a staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel must spend a great deal of time wondering where the hell they can start with – Valery Bryusov’s story is both fascinating and puzzling, Prokofiev has composed music that makes the audience feel as if they had been swept by a tsunami and all roles are challenging to sing and to act, let alone sing and act at the same time. The Komische Oper has decided that the only way to face a task like that is without  a safety net. Berlin’s “third” opera house has a tradition of presenting the entire repertoire in translation, but opted instead for the original Russian libretto this time. Then Australian enfant-terrible theatre director Benedict Andrews has been invited to direct it. Fortune favors the bold – this 2014 production was very well received by critics and has been drawing audiences to the opera house in Behrenstraße ever since.

This is actually the first time I’ve seen this opera. Until yesterday, I had only known it through Neeme Järvi recording with Nadine Secunde and Siegfried Lorenz. While listening to it, I had curiously never “staged” it in my mind, but what I’ve just seen makes me feel it could not have been done otherwise. Although Mr. Andrews quotes David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as an influence (surprisingly apt), the staging never fails to convince because it has been able to be: a) faithful to the libretto without being overwhelmed by it; b) adventurous without exaggeration – the plot as it is has impact to spare; c) universal by going beyond the immediate symbology and yet very Russian in its aesthetic and its very particular large dramatic gestures (and even a hint of comedy). In this staging, Renata is a victim of child abuse who acts out by creating a scenario in which she was instead “visited by an angel”. The problem is: when she becomes aware of her own sexuality and tries to sexually relate to “the angel”, she is no longer a victim, she is the perpetrator. She chastises herself and is tormented by demons. Ruprecht is another outsider who develops some sort of folie à deux with the beautiful and provocative young woman who demands everything from him… but sex. If I have to be picky, the final scene in the convent would ideally require an approach less taken at face value to be fully coherent with the overall concept. In any case, it does not spoil the fun at all: the production is always visually catching, imaginative and interesting.

Svetlana Sozdateleva denies her Renata nothing – she plunges into the role without thinking twice. Her voice is not typically shrill or wobbly, but rather warm enough as the part requires, but it is a bit unfocused, especially in the middle register. She makes for it in stamina and clarity of articulation. Evez Abdulla’s baritone has a tenor-ish edge and a keenness on cantabile even in the most declamatory passages that makes his Ruprecht particularly congenial. Jens Larssen was a particularly firm-toned and powerful Inquisitor, the only member in the cast who could actually preside over an invariably loud orchestra. I wouldn’t blame veteran conductor Vassily Sinaisky for that, though: the performance ran with absolute clarity and unfailing rhythmic propulsion. Even tested by the heavy demands, the house orchestra acquitted itself commendably.

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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.

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The fact that the Komische Oper has the whole repertoire sung in German often makes it overlooked in comparison with the other two famous opera houses in Berlin, where one is treated to international casts, famous conductors and world-class orchestras. But when it comes to Der Rosenkavalier, I am afraid that the house at the Behrenstraße gets pride of place. Andreas Homoki’s production is the opposite of a revelation, but proves to be far more consistent and incredibly better directed than what remains from Götz Friedrich’s for the Deutsche Oper and from Nicolas Brieger’s for the Staatsoper.

When it comes to casting, of course, the Komische Oper cannot feature blockbuster names, but the ensemble has solid singers – in the case of Jens Larsen, I would say that top-class ones. He must be one these happy few people with very little ambition, for his Ochs is better than some seen and heard in many a big opera house. Even the occasional rough patch makes sense in a truly funny characterization, in which voice (big basso profondo notes involved) and acting are perfectly united. The lovely Stella Doufexis has everything to be an exemplary Octavian but scale – hers is a small voice for the ensembles and her Rosenkavalier sounds a bit too elegant and feminine for the circumstances. Nevertheless, she is such a classy singer and such a convincing actress that one tends to take her side, even when things are not really easy for her. I have the impression that Brigitte Geller has already grown away from the role of Sophie. Two years ago, she seemed a bit unenthusiastic about it. Now she seems almost bureaucratic. She is a very musicianly singer, with touching turns of phrase, but the high mezza voce comes now a bit more difficultly and there are many moments just off-focus – not only vocally. The small roles are predictably tentative – for the exception of two very good tenors, Christoph Späth, an alert, bright-toned Valzacchi, and Timothy Richards, an extraordinarily heroic Italian tenor with easy high notes.

It is difficult to believe that these performances in Berlin are Geraldine McGreevy’s debut in the role of the Marschallin, for only a slight hesitation when mezza voce is involved and one or two false entries expose a certain inexperience in it.  Her soprano is ideally creamy, a solid middle and low register particularly helpful in this part; her diction is perfect, she phrases with utmost sensitivity and purpose and, best of all, the feeling is genuine. There were moments in which the emotions were so palpable that I feared she would just cry on stage. Well, in the audience, many of us have. She is too a competent actress and, even if there are more alluring Marschallins around, she can be very convincingly aristocratic. A beautiful performance.

The house orchestra lack a certain refulgence in the string section, but Patrick Lange could nonetheless produce a very intense yet clear view of the score, sometimes too hard-pressed and slightly superficial in its bright colors. In all key moments, when a little bit more patience would have allowed him to build up the atmosphere (especially in the final trio), things escalated too fast and the result was sometimes noisy and unhelpful for his cast. I have to grant him something, the violins in the end of act I (a favorite passage of mine) were marvelous, exactly as I would wish for. This alone was worth the ticket price.

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Calixto Bieito’s 2004 infamous production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail for the Komische Oper is sometimes referred to as “the-naked-Osmin-Entführung” and my only surprise, if we have in mind the Catalan director’s reputation, is that the bass was actually the only naked singer on stage (don’t worry – there are plenty of other naked people on stage, only they do not sing). Considering that the show is forbidden for those younger than 18, I wonder who Bieito wanted to shock. I suppose adults (and unfortunately sometimes children) in the XXIth century just have to turn the TV on to see everything Bieito wanted to share with us in his staging of Mozart’s Turkish Singspiel. Ah, my mistake!, the concept is “no Turkey for you!”. In the performance booklet, Bieito explains that the whole East/West thing is secondary to the fact that this is a work about the war between sexes. He adds that in Spain 20 (twenty) women die every year in crimes of passion. Considering that the 2004 Madrid train bombings alone killed 191 and wounded 1,800, I guess that the real naive person here is Bieito himself.  Although Mozart himself found the libretto poorly written, he seemed to have taken a fancy to a story in which the conflicts between Christians and Muslims is solved by a precedent of good behavior, a lesson which we could certainly still use today – and we can say that because he composed a great deal of noble music for his serious character and inserts a particularly touching note in his formulaic Vaudeville in the end of the opera. The fact that Bieito has entirely let this go to make way for his private fancies is the main reason why his staging is ultimately a failure. That said, there are things to cherish there too. For example, the edge.

Although Die Entführung aus dem Serail is often staged as a cute fairy-tale, this is a story of violence, kidnapping, imprisonment and discrimination. In this sense, Bieito’s setting the story in a brothel is far from a misfire. That this brothel has an Almodovarian atmosphere is actually a good idea too – it is a pity that he has not learnt from Almodovar his trademark blended of tragedy and comedy, for this is a Singspiel and semiserio conventions cannot simply be overlooked to make for a contrived scandal-news ending. Although the production is six-years-old, the new cast acts convincingly in a coherent way and, if I have to retain something positive, is that for once the threatening atmosphere does come through in a vivid way. When Konstanze sings Traurigkeit, her words do not sound like cheap sentimentalism, but really like lamenting happiness and freedom hopelessly lost. It is indeed a pity that all that has been used to convey Bieito’s own agenda rather than Mozart’s.

Conductor Simon Hewett has a good grasp of Mozartian style, but his approach is too soft-centered for this staging. Harnoncourt, Minkowski – even the late Georg Solti – could dig up the dark sides of the score in a more effective way. With two notable exceptions, the cast is below standard. Many an important opera house waits to gather a team of truly technically fluent singers to stage this opera – the Komische Oper should do the same. Announcements of indisposition have become current these days and the audience is often puzzled trying to figure if the “indisposed” singer actually had some sort of illness. Unfortunately, that was not the case with Agneta Eichenholz, who evidently had a bad cold which tampered with her in alts in Ach, ich liebte and posed extra difficulty in some key moments. Other than this, she does not really have a true Konstanze voice – I would rather say a perfect Blondchen for a big theatre. But real Konstanzes are a rare breed and, among many sopranos not naturally cut for the role (Diana Damrau included, I am afraid), Eichenholz is probably one of the best I have ever seen. Her high-lying soprano is extremely pleasing in its creaminess and floating quality, her coloratura is fluent, her mezza voce is delicate and natural and she phrases knowingly. In spite of her illness, Martern aller arten was quite accomplished, if we overlook a non projecting low register and some extra breath pauses. Although Jens Larsen is always mentioned for his full-monty exposure, the real interest about his Osmin should be his true basso profondo and declamatory skills, even in difficult patter passages. If he had a little bit more discipline to produce more homogeneous Mozartian phrasing, he could be a reference for this role.

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If we bear in mind that the Komische Oper is something like the temple of Regietheater, Andreas Homoki’s 2006 production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier would be something like Otto Schenk’s compared to the other stagings shown in that adventurous opera house. Although the director does interfere with the libretto, I would say that the layman could still follow the plot. As it is, Homoki considers that the story’s main element is the passing of time in the sense of transition of epochs. Thus, both the Feldmarschallin and the Baron Ochs would represent the old generation and its relationship with making way for a new generation represented by Octavian and Sophie – a situation Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal would themselves experience as late Romantics in the eve of a world profoundly transformed by WWI and WWII. In act I, the rococo atmosphere shows the Marschallin in wig, corset, panniers etc, but Octavian’s clothes makes us think rather of the early XXth century, a hint of what is going to happen on act II – Faninal’s house is shown in what seems to be the 30’s. Act III’s Wirthaus is replaced by the upside-down version of act I and act II’s sets and the tricks played on Ochs become air raids. In the meanwhile, the Marschallin and Ochs retain their XVIIIth century-style outfit to the end. Homoki’s ideas are generally sensible and proper to a small stage such as the Komische Oper’s, what makes it more upsetting when silliness creeps in – Sophie strips to her underwear in act II and presents herself at the Wirthaus in act III in her robe-de-chambre. Why?

Although I can remember more flawless Marschallins than Solveig Kringelborn, her performance is still extraordinarily touching. To start with, she has something like the voix-du-rôle. Her lyric soprano is still attractive in its creamy floating mezza voce, but it does no longer sound “young” and, whether it is art or nature I don’t know, but her not entirely ingratiating break into chest voice always go with the situations when the Marschallin should sound less charming. It is also refreshing to hear a singer who has evidently tried not to copy some success formulas and is very much trying to be herself in this role. Her Marie-Thérèse is more “carnal” than most, evidently an experienced woman who has seen it all and her appeal has a touch of lecherousness behind the chic. Brigitte Geller’s Sophie comes close to fulfill all the requirements – her voice is extremely pretty and, as with almost all the great exponents of this role, tends more to the lyric than to the soubrettish. However, there is still something missing – she has been in this production for so long that a great deal of the enthusiasm that lies in the core of what Sophie is about is long gone. Also, her voice is sometimes off focus, too often in the key moments for comfort. That is a problem not shared by Elisabeth Starzinger, whose tightly focused high mezzo is otherwise too light for Octavian. It seems she still has to mature in the role – sometimes I had the impression she was a last-minute replacement. No offense to her personal charm, but she looks convincingly boyish and is a supple, congenial actress. Last but not least, Jens Larsen was a most satisfying Ochs – he has the right voice for the role and is also a naturally funny fellow who does not need to overdo anything in order to extract laughs from the audience.

Although the house orchestra is perfectly acceptable, it is not truly world-class. Nonetheless, Friedemann Layer proved that a gifted conductor proves his talents when he is not conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. The maestro knows the art of finding the right tempo in which the minimal level of polish is achieved with no sacrifice to forward movement and theatrical expression, took profit of the less than exuberant string section to produce an entirely transparent sound picture in which the complex polyphonic writing could be understood without effort and never let anyone down in key moments. As a matter of fact, his final trio was exquisitely built, with fine contributions from every singer.

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