Posts Tagged ‘Roman Trekel’

Opera on the Gendarmenmarkt: Iván Fischer’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

The season is already underway in flying colors at the Konzerthaus Berlin. Iván Fischer, following an enthusiastically received appearance at the Mostly Mozart Festival, unveiled his concert staging of Le Nozze di Figaro yesterday featuring much of the same cast alongside the Konzerthausorchester. It was a pleasure to see the concert house’s neo-classical interior—an opulent post-war refurbishment—brought into my relief by Fischer’s concept. Rococo-dressed mannequins and wire-framed costumes (designs by György Kertész) were suspended from the gilded ceiling on metal grids, descending as the disguises which drive the opera’s class- and gender-bending comedy of errors. Figaro seizes the head of a model representing the count in his aria “Se vuol ballar,” only to dress him down to boxers; and the page Cherubino slips full of desire into the arms of a costume representing Susanna—externalizing the double-illusion of a woman playing a boy.

Fischer—who has sought to widen the house’s reach through new formats such as Espresso Concerts, public rehearsals and online video since becoming music director last season–stood casually upstage before the performance began, chatting with passers-by before raising his baton toward the back of the hall and launching into the overture. He conducted most of the performance seated to the edge of the second violins, with the orchestra arranged in a semi-circle around two platforms that served as focal points for the action. The singers, however, wove freely in and out of the orchestra from doors placed on either side of the stage. Eighteenth-century wigs were tossed around playfully, integrating Fischer and the musicians into the drama. The aesthetic risked on camp, however, and the exposed transition into the fourth act was more irritating than charming as stagehands fastened karabiners onto mannequins that would allow the Countess and Susanna to switch places and trick the Count. “It will only last another two or three minutes,” Fischer told the audience.

One forgave the setback once the music resumed. The orchestra has made tremendous strides under Fischer, now playing with renewed warmth and energy in the strings. His intuitive connection to Mozart’s emotional world emerged in graceful but playful phrasing, although there was an unfortunate tendency to rush into attacks. The cast displayed delightful emerging singers in roles which, as it happens, are best depicted by youthful performers. As the cunning servant Susanna, Laura Tatulescu anchored the evening with lush, expressive tone. She also conveyed the character’s feminine wiles with admirable comic timing. Hanno Müller-Brachmann, with a precocious, unforced bass-baritone and boyish charm, proved a fine partner as Figaro, although he is even stronger in German repertoire. The detailed characterization and well-sculpted tone of Rachel Frenkel in the role of Cherubino made for another stand-out. The seasoned mezzo Ann Murray and bass Andrew Shore were a memorable pair as Marcellina and Bartolo, Figaro’s long-lost parents, although Murray’s thespian approach seemed more tailored to a full staging. Roman Trekel brought subtle comedy to his portrayal of the Count, and Miah Persson—returning to an opera she has sung many times—inhabited the role of the Countess with natural aristocratic restraint. Norma Nahoun was a charming as Barbarina, the daughter of the gardener Antonio, here in a strong performance by Matteo Peirone.

The acoustics of the stage formation required some getting used to—inner voices at times jumped out unexpectedly, and the singers had to cut through an orchestra that surrounded them on all sides—but Fischer guided the musicians with unimposed authority. His fluid integration of scenic elements and flair for comedy remain a triumph. He managed to flesh out the characters of Mozart and Da Ponte in great detail, unencumbered by the gags that often drown out the action on opera stages. With three full-time houses, Berlin is of course not in need of more opera—and just across town, the Berlin Philharmonic can boast a far more entrenched tradition, a house with far superior acoustics, not to mention a level of international fame with which only one or two other orchestras on the planet can compete. But Fischer has succeeded in revitalizing the Konzerthaus with a fresh, organic—albeit quirky—creative impulse that remains blissfully impervious to outside influence.

‘The Magic Flute’ regains its Classical Garb

Friday, November 16th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

As Regietheater becomes the norm on opera stages in Germany, it is a pleasant, if not shocking, surprise to see a production of Die Zauberflöte that looks like a throwback to the time of its world premiere. The Staatsoper Berlin has revived a 1994 staging modelled after designs by the nineteenth-century Prussian architect and landscape painter Karl Friedrich Schinkel, primarily remembered for his Royal Theater (now rebuilt as the Konzerthaus) on Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt. Schinkel’s sets were commissioned to commemorate the crowning of Friedrich Wilhelm I on January 18, 1816, 115 years after the inauguration of Friedrich Wilhelm I. In contrast to the production’s huge success with the audience, the prince was reportedly not pleased with the results of this investment of royal funds. “In the future I won’t mix my opinion into administration affairs,” he wrote to the General Intendant of the Royal Theater.

While stage director August Everding and his team emphasize in program notes that it would be impossible to recreate Schinkel’s vision, as we cannot travel back in time to witness certain conventions in mimic and gesture, they hope to have shed new light on Mozart’s opera in the very city that is home to Schinkel’s neo-Classical creations. The Staatsoper’s current home in the Schiller does not benefit from the 18th-century splendour of the company’s headquarters on the Boulevard unter den Linden, which are currently under renovation, but painted sets by Fred Berndt and costumes by Dorothée Uhrmacher (seen November 9) immerse the audience in an aesthetic that faithfully evoke the mythic realms of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro.

The Queen descends for her first aria on a crescent moon against a starry sky while sets representing the rocky terrain on which Prince Tamino arrives part seamlessly to the side. Sarastro’s priestdom emerges with trompe l’oeil paintings of the Egyptian-inspired architecture indicated by Mozart’s librettist, Emmanuel Schikaneder, with expert lighting by Franz Peter David to give the sets depth. In what could easily offend modern viewers, Monostatos and his gang are represented with blackface as a group of violent thugs, while the three boys first emerge with a unicorn. Surreal animals ushered in by the magic flute bring a further touch of childish charm. The feathered Papageno and the family he joins at the end of the opera also made for humorous moments, even when the libretto was doctored with contemporary gags, such as the bird catcher’s response to Tamino that they are in the Schiller Theater.

In a strange twist to the usual constellation, the evening was not as even musically as it was theatrically. The conductor Julien Salemkour, an assistant to Music Director Daniel Barenboim, gave a somewhat perfunctory performance with the Staatskapelle, often hammering out notes without enough dynamic nuance and rushing the ends of phrases. On a few occasions he also did not coordinate smoothly with the singers. The performance gained intensity and authenticity starting with the more subdued, neo-Bachian passages that usher in Tamino and Pamina’s trials through fire and water toward the end of the second act, but could have used more elasticity in the final chorus “Heil sie euch Geweihten.” Having heard the orchestra in Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro under Barenboim last season, I know the musicians are capable of better.

The visceral, legato singing of René Pape in the role of Sarastro only emphasized how much more attention to line this deceptively simple score deserves, particularly in his aria “In diesen heiligen Hallen.” Pape is surely one of the best Sarastros of his generation, if not the past century, grounding the role with solemn spirituality. The Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik also gave a beautifully sung performance in the role of Tamino. The streetwise mannerisms of Adriane Queiroz may not have always evoked the innocence of Princess Pamina, but her lush soprano colored ensemble numbers with reliable warmth. She was also affecting in the scene in which Sarastro forbids her from taking the vengeful orders of her mother. As the Queen, Anna Siminska reliably hit the stratospheric staccato notes of her arias but struggled with intonation as she prepared for the climax of “Der Hölle Rache” and did not capture the character’s menacing seduction.

Roman Trekel animated the show with well-sculpted tones as Papageno and a keen sense of comic timing. He found a fine match in his Papagena, Narine Yeghiyan. In the role of Monostatos, Michael Smallwood was equally convincing with a clear, high lying tenor and humorous presence. The Three Women (Carola Höhn, Rowan Hellier and Anna Lapkovskaja) formed a compelling ensemble, as did the Three Boys (of the Aurelius Sängerknaben) despite difficulty following the conductor in their last scene. The guards of the pyramid (Kyungho Kim and Alina Anca) stood out among the male comprimario roles of the priestdom, and the chorus provided well-balanced singing, particularly in the second act. As mythical animals waved at the audience during the final bars, one had the feeling that Mozart and Schikaneder might approve of a production so respectful of the artistic principles that have proved their popularity with audiences time and again.

Infektion! ‘Europeras 3&4’ and Rihm’s ‘Dionysus’ at the Staatsoper

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

Infektion!, the name of the Staatsoper’s annual Festival for New Music Theater could easily extend to describe the presence of John Cage in Germany this year. No other country outside the U.S. has planned as many events for his centenary of his birth, and Berlin is in some people’s minds already ‘Caged out.’ The Akademie der Künste has been holding a multi-disciplinary, year-long retrospective since last fall; the annual new music festival MärzMusik dedicated itself to Cage and Consequences, flying in Joan La Barbara and the entire Sonic Arts Lounge. Cage’s works will take center stage next week in Darmstadt, where his 1958 visit “swept across the European avant-garde like a natural disaster,” in the words of German musicologist Carl Darlhaus. His Europeras 1&2, which premiered in Frankfurt in 1987 and received their last U.S. performance at the MOMA in 1992 (the year of Cage’s death), will be revived next month at the Ruhrtriennale. Meanwhile, at the Berliner Staatsoper, Die Musik ist los—100 Jahre John Cage (July 1-15) features six-hour evenings of Cage in ad hoc programming that includes his Europeras 3&4. The German premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysus, a Salzburg Festival commission from 2010; a revival of the Staatsoper production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress; and a recital with Ian Bostridge are also officially part of the festival, just founded last year.

Cage’s Europeras, of which he wrote five altogether, are intended as a negation of opera, particularly in its synthesis of the arts into a Gesamtkunstwerk. “For 200 years the Europeans have sent us their operas,” the composer reportedly commented. “Now I am returning them all to them.” The first two include ten and nine singers, respectively, in extracts from over 60 operas, with sets and costumes that are meant coexist independently like objets trouvés. The third and fourth, which premiered in London in 1990, are more modest in scale: Europera 3 features six singers in a capella arias of his or her own choice, two pianists in excerpts from Liszt’s Opera Phantasien and 12 record-players, while Europera 4 dwindles to two singers, a wind-up gramophone, and a pianist. A ticking digital clock substitutes for a conductor to synchronize the Happenings, which overlap comically and sometimes irritatingly into a non-linear plot of sorts that is left to the viewer’s imagination.

Seen July 11 in the Werkstatt of the Schiller Theater, a small wing which the Staatsoper uses to stage new music theater, the singers walked onto strategically numbered platforms that also served as seats for the audience (most moved around at will). Unfinished excerpts of Liszt’s at times schmaltzy transcriptions yielded to the entrance of well-known arias, which were sometimes sung over more than one album of opera music. The cacophony built into a messy  tapestry of sound that must be a challenge for even the best-trained singer; all were equipped with pitch forks, while the most prominent figure onstage, the soprano Esther Lee, in a tutu and giant plaster mask, had her iPhone (replete with a bunny-eared case) in hand for assistance. Singing one cameo aria after another, from “Dove Sono” to “Sempre Libera,” Lee eventually dropped dead, while a Papageno in leather pants (Roman Trekel) stepped over her in insouciance. This being anti-opera, the female heroine eventually rose for more drama (stage direction by Sophia Simitzis), although her booming timbre became increasingly metallic. Alfredo Daza assumed a kind of Don Giovanni figure as he cavorted around in a robe. He also broke out into the aria antica “O mio dolce ardor” so well-known to voice students, blocking his ear from the waves of Liszt emanating from the piano. Blaring record players intermittently asserted their dominance. Just toward the end of the 110 minutes, the theme from Die Walkyrie charged in unopposed, a satisfying close to an otherwise frustrating musical experience.

Esther Lee drops dead from singing too many arias (c) Staatsoper Berlin

Europera 4 proved more redeeming in its simplicity (and brevity, clocking in at 30:00). The presence of René Pape was overwhelmingly powerful as he sang Sarastro’s arias from Die Zauberflöte, opening the production with “O Isis und Osiris” offstage. As he stood just inches away from the audience in a black cape at the center of the room, the immediacy of his rich, visceral tone, crisp diction, and emotional calm left this listener nearly speechless. The effect turned comic as he put on sunglasses and addressed Trekel with “In diesen heiligen Hallen” (stage direction by Isabel Ostermann). Trekel, emerging in an acid washed suit, had the audience in stiches as he sang through “Ra la la la, ra la la la, heisse Mutter, ich bin da.” The wind-up gramophone had its own comic appeal as old recordings interrupted wiltingly through the cylinder, while Pape continued to amuse as he sat at a baby grand to play air piano (a friend noted that everyone stopped paying attention to the actual pianist, Günther Albers, across the room). “Bella Figlia dell’Amore” was the last artifact to emerge from the gramophone before the lights fell.

René Pape in 'Europeras 4' (c) Staatsoper Berlin

The program continued unexpectedly with a Qi Gong session on the small lawn in front of the Schiller Theater, just in time for those emerging from the intermission of Dionysus to watch us in bewilderment. The non-hierarchical nature of the Happening, which transforms audience members into their own kind of spectacle, also fulfills the increasing demands on arts institutions for interactive audience participation. Despite some shades of absurdity, the fluid movement, stretching, and deep breathing (even if many weren’t wearing the right clothing) was in fact an ideal precursor to a performance of Nicholas Isherwood’s attempt at Japanese throat singing with a meditation bowl, echoed by another singer at the back of the Werkstatt theater space. One can only imagine how happy Cage would be to know that eastern forms of recreation are slowly finding common ground with European tradition, even if westerners continue to pose with their pretensions to worldly virtue, and that Berlin’s leading opera house indulges in such radical programming. The evening opened on a more clichéd note with a performance of 4’33’’ on a tiny toy piano outside the theater. Robert Farkas sat cross-legged playing silently as cars rumbled past, the original idea of mocking concert hall convention evolving into a more abstract, Cagean concept.


Wolfgang Rihm has become a familiar presence in the concert hall this season, starting with the Musikfest last fall and continuing with MärzMusik, which took his 60th birthday as an opportunity to posit his neo-Romantic idiom as an opposite ‘pole’ to Cage’s anarchic experimentalism—a perplexing bit of programming that nevertheless emphasizes both composers’ reactionary position with regard to the Darmstadt School. In contrast to Cage, who turned increasingly to chance operations and non-musical material in his last years, Rihm only seems to become more Romantic with age. His most recent stage work, the ‘fantasy opera’ Dionysus, takes Nietzsche’s Dionysus Dithrambs as well as the poem Klage der Ariadne as the basis for a self-devised libretto that explores the quest of N. (a character embodying both Nietzsche and Dionysus) for truth and in and out of his conflicted and, in this case, thoroughly nebulous relationship with Ariadne, whom according to Greek myth the god of wine and fertility seduced and deified. The opera, seen at the German premiere on July 8, opens to a sea where N. is taunted by nymphs, travels through Hades and ends on “A plaza. The horse. The skin.”—referencing Nietzsche’s exposure to the flogging of a horse that is said to have precipitated his mental breakdown. Apollo “a guest” accompanies N. only to taunt him: “I am also your labyrinth,” he tells Ariadne in the opening scene, while ensembles of sirens continue to reappear with teasing allure.

References to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte appear in both the libretto and score, with a flute emerging prominently throughout the opera. The Wagnerian undertones also assert themselves from the opening scene (Rhine maidens) as well as in primordial, brooding harmonies, while Ariadne directly quotes Richard Strauss in the opening tableau. The opera’s quasi-philosophical precepts range from gripping to confounding. It is a journey through the mind of Nietzsche, his struggle to reconcile the destructive powers of an infinite quest for knowledge—“Selbsthenker (my own executioner)” N. repeats in the second tableau, while the ‘The Guest’ counters with “Selbstkenner (your own connoisseur)— yet Rihm also attempts to embed the highly erotic story of Dionysus and Ariadne into this dialectic, making the plot more labyrinthine than many viewers could handle. The music follows this pattern naturally, morphing freely from lush tonality into unsettling dissonance, such as in the female chorus “Tag meines Lebens” which suddenly transforms into a group of anti-sirens. The music in Hades teeters on the edge of insanity, yielding to a raw percussion interlude. As the conductor Ingo Metzmacher states in the program notes, no one knows his craft better than Rihm. The laughing staccato of nymphs in the opening tableau and sinister eroticism that emerges through his orchestration may place Dionysus firmly in the German Romantic tradition, and yet the score lacks the clear deliberation and cohesiveness of earlier stage works such as Proserpina , and even this score had a tendency to wind too freely through the rivers of Hades.

Sets by Jonathan Meese evoke a dark, expressionist fantasy world, drawing carefully upon the symbolism in Rihm’s text while bringing a provocative touch one would only expect from the German ‘enfant terrible.’ While the sloppy black and white drawings assigned to the Dionysian chorus and the “Total Horsebee” at the end are irritatingly tongue-in-cheek, the opening cliff on which N. rows to no avail and the giant bottle and beach balls in the brothel of the third tableau are deliciously imaginative despite the kitsch factor. Meese’s aesthetic was well-matched by Pierre Audi’s direction, who counters Rihm’s intellectual weight with subtly subversive humor. While the contrast was at times jarring and threatened to oversimplify the opera’s internal quest, Audi brought a fresh contemporary approach to a stage work that would have dragged its feet insufferably with a more cerebral approach. Costumes by Jorge Jara were at their height in the bulging female costumes of Hades; lighting by Jean Kalman created artful shadows and further propelled the opera into the realms of the unconscious.

'Magic Flute' references in 'Dionysus' (c) Ruth Walz

Mojca Erdmann, in the role of Ariadne, proved why Rihm has found inspiration in her stratospheric if somewhat soubrette-like soprano, razor-sharp musicality and dramatic flexibility. A sprite seductress throughout, she inhabited the opera’s mercurial terrain with poise. Replacing Georg Nigl as N., James Cleverton, who also sang at the Salzburg premiere, convincingly conveyed the character’s emotional frustration vocally and dramatically. The tenor Matthias Klink was an effectively jeering Apollo despite some strain in the upper range. And yet the female voices ultimately sang the men offshore, with Canadian soprano Elin Rombo bringing smooth, full-bodied tones to the stage, complimented gloriously by mezzo Virpi Raisanen and alto Julia Faylenbogen in ensemble numbers. The Staatskapelle performed incisively yet with calm expressivity under Metzmacher, Germany’s leading conductor for new music, also testifying to the quality that Daniel Barenboim has cultivated as music director of this orchestra. The musicians brought velvety phrasing to Straussian turns while following Metzmacher’s precise conducting through the unpredictable contours of Rihm’s score, which expired into dust after failing to help N. find his way.

Sets by performance artist Jonathan Meese (c) Ruth Walz