Posts Tagged ‘Rowan Hellier’

Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

Experimental Regie, free from the scrutiny of finicky patrons on the German opera scene, can in the best case scenario serve to illuminate hidden meanings of a score. In the worst case, it can drown out or obscure musical considerations. The Staatsoper Berlin’s Werkstatt (‘workshop’), a wing of the company’s temporary residence in the Schiller Theater dedicated to new music theater (the literal translation of Musiktheater, which in effect places music and theater on equal turf), is currently showing Salvatore Sciarrino’s Vanitas (1981), designated by the composer as a ‘still life in one act.’ A trio for soprano, cello and piano, the work—seen at its second run on March 19—comes closest to a mini cantata with its intricate exchanges. A winding, descending melody provides a Leitmotif of angst and emptiness for the soprano, echoed by the ghostly cello, while the piano interjects with a bed of shifting harmonies. The text, woven together from fragments by German, Italian and other poets, lingers existentially over a wilting rose—an image hovering on the boundary between life and death.

In a new staging by Götz Friedrich protégé Beate Baron, the notion of a still life is taken literally when an elderly couple (Hans Hirschmüller and Friederike Frerichs) stands motionless before the audience, the sequins on their aristocratic clothes sparkling as they exude an admonishing stare. The soprano (Rowan Hellier) is trapped in her own surreal world—hair pinned up above doll-like make-up when she emerges from a corridor drowned in white light. As the drama escalates with frenetic passages in the piano (Jenny Kim), scrims descend to provide close-ups of the elderly couple—larger than life yet a bold distraction from the searching emptiness of the music. The actors, still onstage, resemble negligent, upper crust parents as they observe Hellier writhe on the floor in a moment of insanity. Her agility was impressive, but certain positions naturally compromised vocal production. I found myself drawn to the skilful playing of cellist Gregor Fuhrmann as his bow hovered with eerie tones above the bridge. Grating and creaking accompanied Hellier’s silent scream as the lights faded to darkness—a moment which allowed for full immersion in the music.

Ultimately, one was left wanting more. Perhaps it would have made sense to juxtapose the work with another one-acter—maybe even a world premiere culled from the extensive pool of Berlin-based composers—and pare back the staging? Two seasons ago, the company mounted Sciarrino’s Infinito Nero (1998) alongside Peter Maxwell Davies’ Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot (1974). Davies received an installation with live video that culminated in attempted suicide and a still birth, but in this case the protagonist is an abandoned bride who, according to the 19th-century story, actually does go insane. For Sciarrino’s ‘ecstasy in one act’ evoking the mystical experiences of Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, the soprano Sarah Maria Sun was duct-taped to a cross that was hung from the ceiling. The concept was at first captivating—not to mention a technical feat—but quickly lost traction when extras crawled around with dildos stuck in their flies and splattered Sun with blue paint. The score’s hollow, breathing winds and haunted outbursts were reduced to spiritual relics—which is ironic given the Werkstatt’s focus on new music. The institution deserves credit for its sense of adventure, but the future of Musiktheater may depend on an awareness that theater must serve the interests of music—not the other way around.

‘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.