Posts Tagged ‘barrie kosky’

The Return of the Opéra Comique

Saturday, October 8th, 2016

By: Frank Cadenhead

The September 15 press conference was unusually packed for the season announcement of Opéra Comique. After being closed for 18 months and under new management, the interest in the future of this iconic Parisian institution was high. The new director, Olivier Mantei, was the only speaker and occupied the stage for about 50 minutes with details of the season and his approach to what will be on the stage at the Comique. Dramatic and innovative are two words to describe his vision.

Mantei describes a season, unusually a calendar year, with eight production, seven of which are new, from February to December of 2017. The only revival in the group will launch the season. From 12 to 27 February, Fantasio of Jacques Offenbach, staged by young director Thomas Jolly, will be hosted by the Théâtre du Châtelet, apparently while finishing touches of the Salle Favart are completed.

“When the Salle Favart burned for the second time, 150 years ago, the Opéra Comique company migrated to the Théâtre du Châtelet,” commented Mantei and that welcome mat was still around. Châtelet is itself closing for many months of interior restoration and their abbreviated season had space. The extra seats at Châtelet will allow Mantei to offer a thousand seats at 25 Euros for the under 25 set and additional thousand for 35 Euros to those under 35.

With the fully restored hall, the season will be 10 months instead of the recent 7 or 8 and the budget will be €20 million, up from 16. How this can be sustained is in the details. There will be 50% more performances in a season, producing a hoped-for increase in ticket sales. The other noticeable thing in the season brochure is the number of co-productions of each offering. Some will see their first performance in other houses but all will circulate. Mantei had the time to plan with other theaters in Europe and that sharing will ease the dizzy cost of presenting opera.

The second production of the season, La Princesse légère, a world premiere of an opera for young people by Violeta Cruz, will allow all to experience the “new” Salle Favart in March. The next month Alcione by Marin Marais is on the schedule with Jordi Savall and the chorus and orchestra of La Concert des Nations. While this composer’s name became famous with the French film Tout les matins de monde, his works are rare on stage.

Six June performances of Le timbre d’argent (The silver stamp), a forgotten opera of Camille Saint-Saëns, are much anticipated. One of his 13 operas, subsequent performances did not go well and it was shelved despite positive notice from Bizet and Massenet. The libretto is by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré who wrote librettos for Faust and Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

At the end of September, a lyric creation, Miranda, features music of Purcell woven into a story of memories and emotions inspired by the death of the title character. After their acclaimed collaboration with Bach cantatas, the expectations are high for Katie Mitchell and the young conductor Raphaël Pichon and his orchestra and chorus, Ensemble Pygmalion. In October, a new opera, Kein Licht, by the French composer Philippe Manoury, will see its French debut. A commission of the Opéra Comique, it will have first performances at the RuhrTriennale in August with subsequent performances in Luxembourg, Zagreb, Strasbourg and Munich. The Magic Flute in November originates from the Komische Oper Berlin with a production directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky (who also serves as intendant there). The season closes in December with Rossini’s Le Comte Ory with Louis Langrée conducting the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées and a new staging by Denis Podalydès.

It is obvious that Olivier Mantei has no interest in spoon-feeding his audience the standard repertory. The season booklet is filled with new initiatives which points to a clear intent to be an incubator for creativity. He has transformed the “Academie” – a collection of resident and associated singers, some at the top of their careers, some at the beginning – into the Troupe Favart, a collection that replicates a group that principally work with one company. The icing on the cake for this new season is that the Opéra Comique will launch a new pastry, the “Favart,” a nod to its chief competition, Opéra.

The Opéra Comique season:


More Random Thoughts on Bayreuth

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

By: Frank Cadenhead

The Austrian newspaper, Der Kurier, let drop a great deal of information about what to expect in the future for the Bayreuth Festival. The new Ring in 2020, to the surprise of many, will not be conducted by the new Music Director of the festival, Christian Thielemann, but rather the Boston Symphony’s Andris Nelsons with American soprano Christine Goerke chalked in to sing Brunnhilde. She will be singing the complete Ring when the Robert Lepage production returns to the state at the Metropolitan Opera, it has been announced. Hints are that Dimitri Tcherniakov will be creating the new Bayreuth production.

The 2016 Parsifal will also feature Andris Nelsons and will be staged by Uwe Eric Laufenberg with Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. The 2017 performances will star Andreas Schager. That same year, Die Meistersinger will return with a new production by Barrie Kosky with Vogt as Stolzing and Michael Volle as Sachs. The 2018 Lohengrin will be conducted by Thielemann and staged by Alvis Hermanis with Roberto Alagna in the title role and Anna Netrebko as Else. There will be a new Tannhäuser staged by Tobias Kratzer in 2019. In addition to Goerke for the Ring in 2020, Andreas Schager will be the Siegfried. With time, however, things happen and with the last minute changes in this year’s casting it is way too early to carve these names in stone.

I find the lack of surtitles in Bayreuth to be a symbol of arrogant old thinking that should change. The lack of such an amenity, now literally everywhere in the opera world, is hard to explain in rational terms. If they think all of the audience has memorized the entire dialogue of the always prolix Richard Wagner they simply have never considered the question. With new technology, seat-back additions, like at the Met, would not be expensive and the one percent who have actually memorized every word can turn them off. Frank Castorf’s very detailed Ring dramatics must have left the majority of the audience in various stage of incomprehension a good part of the time.

My impression is that formal wear is now worn by the minority toward the end of the festival run. I can’t speak about opening night but you could see jeans and sport shirts at the last Ring cycle in August. The fact that there is no air conditioning at the Festspielhaus for the August festival is an added encouragement to forget the bow tie and layers.

At the end of the Castorf ring, the larger implications for Wagner’s shrine are being examined whether the regulars like it or not. My first time there, in 1963, Bayreuth and the festival reminded me of a temple of worship and the stiff, well-aged and very formal audiences were acolytes at a ceremony. Significantly, the Wieland Wagner staging of Tannhäuser (with Grace Bumbry as the Black Venus) stirred rage among the traditionalists by abstracting the stage direction. The overt sexuality of the ballet for the Venusberg music was, for me, assuringly apt but provoked the regulars. Aside from the rather more mixed audiences – more varied ages and social levels – a half-century later the Castorf staging still had the traditionalists in a lather. But, at the end of the run, I noted little of this heat. Clearly the staging was intended to puncture some balloons. This lèse-majesté began to be understood better, as with the Chereau Ring, after some time.

The festival Ring program was quite specific about what a dangerous revolutionary Wagner was. While many are aware of his anti-Semitism and assumed he grew socially conservative, Wagner advocated radical social movements all his life. Siegfried’s “Mount Rushmore” with Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao was no accident and his depiction of the lust for wealth and control, here “black gold,” provided a logical background for the drama.

Something that was little discussed among this year’s festival news was a fundamental change in the structure and soul of the festival that will certainly have major long term consequences. My guess is that the change, announced a few days before the start of the festival, will have a ultimate negative impact. The appointment of Christian Thielemann as “music director” of the festival first became public when the new sign for his parking place, with his new title, was widely tweeted. Some days later a press conference gave the official declaration.

Since the beginning, the festival never has had a music director. The structure formally was to hire the conductor and director for a particular opera and wait for the results. Casting was the prerogative of the conductor. Now this is not certain and Kirill Petrenko, the new designated successor to Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic, had his tenor changed just weeks before opening night and it was likely that Thielemann had something to do with that. It resulted in an uncharacteristic public statement critical of the meddling from the notoriously media-shy conductor. I would imagine this will not be the last scandal involving Thielemann who has a long history of arch-conservative remarks and trouble with management and musicians. Clearly there would be conductors and stage directors who would not consider Bayreuth while he is “music director.” My view is that this appointment, approved by the festival’s board of directors, will likely be regretted in the future.

New works at the Jewish Museum; Rameau’s “Castor et Pollux”

Friday, May 16th, 2014

blick_glashof_wBy Rebecca Schmid

Classical music historiography of the 20th century tends to create neatly delineated periods, with World War Two creating a kind of indelible caesura in all things aesthetic and philosophical. This is particularly true in Germany, where the Nachkriegszeit (post-war period) is defined as a veritable epoch: a time in which the country rebuilt itself as a reaction to the horrors of National Socialism, both in politics and art.

A concert at the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, which explored both the centenary of World War One and Richard Strauss’ 150th anniversary this year, managed to throw this construction into question. The program on May 10 at Berlin’s Jewish Museum opened with a new work by David Robert Coleman, a German-British composer who blends serialist rigor with free-formed contemporary timbres and structures.

His Three pieces for Clarinet and Piano creates a whimsical dialogue between the two instruments which builds from emotional disjoint into an intense exchange culminating in banging piano chords. The clarinet, meanwhile, reveals how the soft-spoken can hold the upper ground, ending the piece with quiet trills, like a wife trying to placate her angry husband.

Berlin Philharmonic Principal Clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer showed off his slick virtuosity in the more playful, fast inner piece, with a Klezmer-inspired cadenza that yielded to a complex interlocking with the piano, performed by Coleman himself. The third piece had a more post-Romantic feel demanding tremendous breath support from Ottensamer in the serenade-like melodies that yielded to desperate pleas.

Aribert Reimann’s Ollea (2006), an a capella setting of poems by Heinrich Heine, was another testament to the continuity between pre-war serialism and atonal melodic writing in Germany today. Soprano Mojca Erdmann, for whom the piece was written, demonstrated frightening technical assurance, from the wide leaps that open “Sehnsuchtelei” to the melisma that climbs to stratospheric heights at the outset of “Helena.”

Her dramatic poise and sharp musicianship were also on display for two Anton Webern song cycles, even if she was at times a bit too precious. The craggy melodies of “Nachts” from op.14 seemed to descend from a quicksilver tap while Coleman led the five-piece chamber ensemble in a precise reading. Such fine musicianship could have benefitted more intimate acoustics than the museum’s covered courtyard.

The two Romantic works on the program emerged as a kind of lament for European civilization in its civilized, tonal splendour. Violinist Guy Braunstein’s emotional intensity was not always a clear match for the more understated playing of cello doyen Frans Helmerson in Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s D-minor Piano Trio, although they often created a moving blend, such as in the inner Andante. Jonathan Gilad, stepping in for Andras Schiff, understandably had to warm up to the piano part’s undulating fingerwork but gave an impressive performance under the circumstances.

Richard Strauss’ neo-baroque incidental music to the Molière play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, in a new arrangement for chamber ensemble by Braunstein, was an interesting choice to close the program. The Lully-inspired melody of “Cleonte’s Entry” was weighed down in nostalgia as it gravitated to horn (Cenk Sahin) and bassoon (Mor Biron). Braunstein led the numbers with the authority of a musician who had assimilated every melody while also integrating his rich tone. Flutist Gili Schwarzman stood out for her elegant grasp of the dance tunes.

Castor et Pollux

The weekend continued in a French baroque vein at the Komische Oper with Rameau’s drama Castor et Pollux. Intendant Barrie Kosky’s production, which premiered at the English National Opera three years ago, opts for the composer’s 1754 revised version which, eliminating the characters of Venus and Mars, depicts Castor’s murder by Lyncée’s troups before launching into Pollux’s supplication of Jupiter to restore his twin but mortal brother back to life.

Seen at its Berlin premiere on May 11, Kosky foregrounds the human violence of the first act with cinematic-like kicks and groans. The mundane aspect is driven home through an aesthetic of bare wooden walls and bourgeois modern dress (sets and costumes by Katrin Lea Tag), with a pile of dirt to represent Hades. In the absence of any choreography whatsoever, Kosky fills dance numbers with actions such as a view of the chorus’ feet in a jamming free-for-all.

During the chorus “Que tout gémisse,” the abandoned Télaïre slaps the bloody hands of the murdered Castor against her bare thighs. And when she realizes that both he and Pollux have left her behind on earth in the final scene, she runs up against the walls like a schizophrenic in an insane asylum. The scene finally gained an ethereal quality in keeping with the tension between gods and men with streams of glitter that poured onto the empty shoes of the brothers.

Kosky’s direction aside, a Rameau opera demands from its cast fastidious attention to ornamentation, beautiful diction and phrasing that creates an inextricable synthesis between text and internal drama. Allan Clayton possesses a powerful, attractive tenor, and warmed up to give a moving performance of his final aria “Qu’il est doux de porter vos chaines,” but, alas, is no early music singer. As Télaïre, soprano Nicole Chevalier similarly made no doubt of her fine instrument but did limited justice to the score’s finer nuances.

Meanwhile, it was the tenor Aco Aleksander Bišćević, in the small role of Mercury, who demonstrated enormous vocal agility. Scottish conductor Christian Curnyn also proved a redeeming factor as he led an ensemble of the Komische Oper Orchestra in a clean, vigorous performance that, although a bit square, revealed painstaking attention to detail.

For more by Rebecca Schmid, visit

Catching up on the opera scene…

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

The Deutsche Oper’s Tischlerei, a new wing for alternative music theater, hosted the results of Neue Szenen—a competition for composition launched by the Hans Eisler Conservatory—on April 8. Three young composers, Evan Gardner, Stefan Johannes Hanke and Leah Muir, emerged from a pool of 52 applicants with their musical settings of a monologue about the Russian journalist Anna Politkowskaja, who was held hostage in 2002 while reporting about the war in Chechnya and murdered outside her Moscow apartment four years later. The topic seems slightly less hackneyed following the bombings in Boston (maybe Sarah Palin should have to sit through all three versions so that she doesn’t confuse the republic with former Czechoslovakia). Each composer was allotted five voices, a maximum of 18 instruments, and their own stage director—yielding scene changes that lasted as long as 20 minutes. It might have made sense to limit directors to a single, mutable set design; surely it wasn’t necessary to dismantle a proscenium that in fact masked acoustics in the first scene (Gardner’s Die Unterhändlerin ‘The Negotiator’) to set up a mess of chairs for Hanke’s It will be rain tonight.

Gardner took the most literal approach with a text that included three other contributors (not including the monologue’s author Christoph Nußbaumeder). A black-masked terrorist (countertenor Georg Bochow) patronized Politkowskaja (mezzo Zoe Kissa), who declared at gunpoint that she “belongs on the side of the oppressed.” The eerie textures of Gardner, an American composer who has lived in Berlin since 2006, underscored the ominous drama but threatened to grow static. It didn’t help that the Echo Ensemble, resident at the Hans Eisler Conservatory, struggled to cleanly execute advanced string techniques under the baton of Manuel Nawri. One of the most effective moments emerged when a frightened character named Masha (Katharina Thomas) panted through a megaphone against ricocheting motives. Gardner’s ensemble writing also revealed great potential.

Hanke took a more poetic approach, with atmospheric winds and more conventional but sophisticated orchestration that illustrated the emotional world of Politkowskaja. The music might have been even more moving without the pseudo-Brechtian staging (Tamara Heimbrock). Muir, another American native, working with highly subtle textures such as wilting slides and sustained, post-Feldman dissonances, suffered most from the Regie (Michael Höppner), set in a dystopically bureaucratic office (presumably that of a newspaper) where an actor, at a climactic moment with fake blood dripping down his legs, reminisces about a lost cat. All considerations aside, Neue Szenen deserves credit for affording emerging composers the opportunity to stage their works at a major venue.

Le Grand Macabre

The Komische Oper has revived Intendant Barrie Kosky’s 2003 staging of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, referenced earlier this season by Robert Carsen with an apocalyptic toilet bowl in Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges at the Deutsche Oper. To be sure, the gesture is distasteful in both instances. Kosky uses the porcelain bowl as a throne for Nekrotzar (the Grand Macabre, or a personification of death), which overflows with excrement when he declares the end of the world; Carsen, with his tongue in cheek, has the cook of Creonte’s palace retrieve the magic oranges from his own latrine. But Kosky redeems moments of senseless vulgarity by recreating the opera’s surreal reflection upon life and death with the right blend of dark humor, eroticism and biting social criticism (as seen May 5). The sight of Nekrotzar (Claudio Otelli) chewing on organs in the opening cemetery tableau, his face smeared in fake blood, might have been too much for this viewer, but Ligeti’s musical landscape pulses with death and violence. Kosky brings the characters to life with great dramatic clarity—the gravedigger Piet (Chris Meritt) bumbles around and laughs with morbid naivety; Prince Go-Go (Andrew Watts) is a sex-obsessed, spoiled brat. The director even manages to pull off a threesome with the two ministers (Tansel Akzeybek and Carsten Sabrowski) without it seeming purely for the sake of provocation.

In an amusing touch, the police chief Gepopo (Eir Inderhaug) sticks her head out from the hot pink bed of the prince (sets and costumes by Peter Corrigan) to announce the impending arrival of Nekrotzar, armless beneath her blazer as she bounces up and down in a state of orgiastic mania. The final tableau, in which the characters are trapped somewhere between life and death, evoked so vividly with Ligeti’s shimmering, microtonal textures, emerged in mesmerizing strokes as mermen slithered onstage beneath a heavenly city that descended on a self-consciously artificial cloud. It was certainly over-the-top—and disruptive to the opera’s dramatic flow—when the prince suddenly belted out the 1980s hit The Loco-Motion from his porcelain throne after the departure of the ruffians (here a priest, a rabbi and an Imam), but with the return of the lovers Amando and Amanda (Annelie Sophie Müller, Julia Giebel), and their sensuous, interlocking intervals, Ligeti’s score came to an absorbing close. Despite intermittent gimmicks, the cast was strong throughout, both musically and dramatically, and the house orchestra delivered a fine performance under Baldur Brönimann.

‘Lulu’ as post-racial Manifesto

Friday, October 12th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

The socially aware agenda of the Komische Oper’s new Intendant Barrie Kosky has been ruffling the feathers of Berliners months before he officially took over this season, not least with the decision to end the house tradition of performing operas exclusively in the German language. His emphasis on cultural pluralism aside, the program so far should assuage any fears that the native Australian will create a rupture with the opera’s hallowed emphasis on reinventing opera for contemporary audiences. Following a 12-hour Monteverdi trilogy as rescored by Elena Kats-Chernin and staged by Kosky, the intendant has unveiled the world premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s American Lulu, a shortened, updated version of Berg’s incompleted last opera.

It is either ironic or a sign of historic progress that Berlin, where Nazi politics once thwarted a full staging of the work, has mounted the second new Lulu in less than a year. The Staatsoper presented the work with a recomposed third act by David Robert Coleman last spring when a new production by Andrea Breth made it legally impossible to use the standard reconstruction by Friedrich Cerha. Almost foreshadowing Neuwirth, Coleman drew upon the jazz band of the First Act for his orchestration, thinning out textures to a chamber ensemble including marimba, steel drums cowbells, and banjo.

American Lulu (seen Oct.6) takes the thematicization of jazz a step further, setting out to reference Afro-American culture in everything from a steam blown organ ballad to a trumpet which emerges as a symbol for the blues singer, Eleanor (a curly haired, less feudal characterisation of Countess Geschwitz). Neuwirth resets passages of Berg’s original music to the first two acts for brass, woodwinds, a small set of strings, and percussion as well as electronic guitar and piano, in some places adding contours to Berg’s expressionist lines with the deeper timbres and expanding the sonic space with recorded sound. By contrast, her entirely original third act emerges as an unsure blend of quasi-minimalist textures, jazz-band brass, spectralist fades and raw, avant-garde string textures.

The English-language libretto is redevised in a similarly awkward fashion. The story begins and ends in an upscale New York apartment, traveling through New Orleans, where Lulu is living with the painter—here a photographer. Dr. Schön is instead Dr. Bloom, who kills Lulu’s lover by throwing ice at him. She flees with Bloom’s son, Jimmy (a stand-in for Alwa), becoming a high-class whore to a white banker and rebuffing the advances of Eleanor without remorse until she is killed by a stranger. Neuwirth also inserts an unidentifiable, pimp-like character named Clarence, who upbraids Lulu for being so “damn insatiable.” Recitations about black rights and other poetic musings emerge perplexingly through the speakers between acts.

The racially conscious goals of the production mostly came across as clichéd, but it had to its credit Marisol Montalvo in the role of Lulu, able to nail her high notes and move seamlessly into Sprechgesang as she cavorted in everything from lingerie to Brazilian tassels. Despite the high dose of eroticism, her dramatic portrayal did little to convey the danger of a femme fatale, which can also be attributed to the limited scope of her character in Neuwirth’s libretto and stilted direction by Kirill Serebrennikov. In the role of Eleanor, Della Miles performed with saucy poise, coaxing the orchestra of the Komische Oper into her R&B inflected grooves. The male roles were well-cast but not outstanding. Jacques-Greg Belobo gave a smooth-voiced delivery of Clarence, and Austrian baritone Claudio Otelli was an imposing Dr. Bloom. The bass Philipp Meierhöfer was in fine form as the Athlete, and Rolf Romei made for an earnest Jimmy, including when he cracked into the higher range.

German conductor Johannes Kalitzke balanced the score’s wide-ranging demands with a steady hand. Sets and costumes by Serebrennikov provided a stark backdrop for Neuwirth’s modern fantasy but ended tastelessly with a bloodied picture of a murdered Lulu. Conventional black-and-white video projections by Gonduras Jitomirksky similarly did little for a production whose progressive aspirations fail to match up with its artistic standards. Perhaps Lulu was never meant to be a vehicle for racial mobility after all.

The Elixir fails to work its Magic at Lincoln Center; Efterklang with the Wordless Music Orchestra

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid
Many American opera-goers, including New Yorkers, look across the ocean and wish that their home institutions would afford themselves the same liberties of programming. Back in Berlin, the Deutsche Oper kicked off its season with a Lachenmann opera, Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, while the Komische Oper launched a Monteverdi trilogy including themed culinary experiences during intermission, devised by the new Intendant Barrie Kosky. Anyone steeped in bel canto might be secretly happy to spend his or her time otherwise, melody being as foreign to Lachenmann as plot is to the tradition of Regietheater. But the opening production of the Metropolitan Opera this season, L’Elisir d’Amore (seen September 27), sadly reaffirms the stereotype that even this country’s leading companies are often content to rehash well-known repertory in not so inspired packages.

The director Bartlett Sher, who recently presided over Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters at English National Opera, attempts to go against the grain by positing Donizetti’s opera as an allegory for the Risorgimento. Sergeant Belcore and his soldiers represent the Austrians, while the peasant Nemorino and the beautiful landowner Adina must hold to their Italian territory. This is at least what the program notes tell us, all the more convincing given that the love potion which Nemorino falsely believes has allowed him to win over the heart of Adina is nothing more than a bottle of red wine. Yet the production concept fails to materialize with depth and stalls an inherently humorous, light hearted opera.

The star of the production is of course not Sher but Anna Netrebko, the Met’s official poster child who opened last season in another Donizetti opera, Anna Bolena. Her reappearance this year in a top hat failed to distract from the fact that bel canto operas are not an ideal vehicle for her vocal skills. The Russian soprano’s timbre has only become rounder and richer in recent years, and her personality naturally lends itself to the role of the flirty Adina, yet her Italian diction is largely incomprehensible and her mastery of coloratura still subpar. It was refreshing to see the American tenor Matthew Polenzani in the spotlight as Nemorino, albeit in a more earnest than buffo portrayal. He briefly stopped the show in a soulful account his romanza “Una furtiva lagrima,” demonstrating fine use of messa di voce.

Mariusz Kwiecien possesses a tough, gallant baritone that suited Sher’s vision of Belcore, yet it was Ambrogio Maestri who brought the heaviest of dose of authenticity—and humor—in the role of Doctor Dulcamara, distributor of the love potion. One of the most memorable moments in the opera occurs in his barcarolle with Adina at the start of the second act, in which Dulcamara portrays a rich senator. The contrast of Maestri’s old school inflections with Netrebko’s hammed up acting was especially prominent here, although they both appeared to be having a good time onstage. Rounding out the cast in the role of the peasant girl Gianetta was the lyric soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, whose nasal timbre and studied acting did little to enhance what was largely an under inspired evening.

The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera performed with natural verve and flexible phrasing under Maurizio Benini, although the Italian conductor was a bit too eager to keep the energy high with fleet tempi. The Met’s chorus did not deviate from its high standards as the peasants surrounding Adina and Belcore’s platoon. Naturalist sets by Michael Yeargan aimed for a larger-than-life, rustic charm that gained aesthetic appeal in the pastel buildings of the village square scene in the first act, while the painted haystacks lining Adina’s farmhouse in the second act indicated a bland attempt to reinvent this familiar opera in bold, accessible strokes. Costumes by Catherine Zuber, ranging from frilly peasant dresses to Austrian soldiers’ uniforms, were well-crafted but not particularly memorable. Top hats for Adina and Dulcamara added perplexing, out of place flash. While there is no doubt that Lincoln Center remains a center of world-class opera, even with the remains of New York City Opera roaming the streets, it may not be enough to ride on big names and crowd pleasers if the Met is to live up to its name as an unrivalled bastion of quality.

Wordless Music

A visit to New York would of course not be complete without a venture into the thriving homegrown culture of indie classical. The Wordless Music Orchestra, founded in 2006 by Ronen Givony, has won attention for bringing together musicians who specialize in contemporary repertoire with rock artists such as Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead and the Japanese band MONO. On September 22, the Met Museum presented the orchestra in arrangements of songs by the Danish trio Efterklang, whose new album Piramida was released three days later. The concert boasted a strong representation of what a friend was quick to identify as hipsters, i.e. younger listeners who would most likely not venture outside their borough for a formal event at Lincoln Center. Orchestration by Karsten Fundal and Missy Mazzoli added ethereal textures to the cool vocals and ambient electronica of Efterklang, described by NPR as lying “somewhere between the cooing gloom of Bon Iver…and the soaring grandiosity of Coldplay.” A trio of female vocalists, led by Katinka Fogh Vindelev, added another layer of atmospherics, while lead singer Casper Clausen brought a friendly, casual presence to the stage.

The atmosphere took a decidedly more pop-rock direction when Clausen asked the audience to stand up for the last two numbers. Among the encores was a reprisal of “The Ghost,” a rhythmically catchy number to which Mazzoli added inventive, rubbery textures in the strings. Fundal had arranged the bulk of the songs, with a range of success. Tremoli in the slow medley “Sedna” met powerfully with vocal wailing and live electronica, while the scurrying violins were drowned out by the drums and electronica toward the end of “Between the Walls.” Despite such moments, Efterklang’s meditative, rock-inflected vibes were only enhanced in the collaboration with classical musicians. The flutes in “Told to be fine,” also entrusted to Fundal, added a heavenly sheen. The result may lack the mental rigor classical listeners associate with everyone from Bach to Lachenmann, but if blending popular and classical idioms can be such good listening, why spend one’s time otherwise?

Winds of Change at the Komische Oper: ‘Xerxes’ and ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

The Komische Oper champions a populist approach through German-language productions and contemporary stage concepts that for some opera goers is synonymous with the most vexing of Regietheater. While the emphasis of the company’s founder Walter Felsenstein on living theater above musical purity remains a locally prized virtue, the house’s attendance rate sank from an already low 61% to 59% last year while that of the Deutsche Oper increased by 11%. The critical reception to recent premieres such as Calixto Bieto’s “16 and older” Der Freischütz and Thilo Reinhardt’s phallus-ridden Salome has also been mostly unfavorable.

Yet as the adventurous tenure of Intendant Andreas Homoki draws to a close, the house may be headed in a new direction. The incoming Barrie Kosky, an Australian native who recently won England’s Laurence Olivier prize, has not only set out to change the ‘German-only’ policy starting next season but evoke the East Berlin house’s roots in operetta and the legacy of 1920s liberal culture, taking his own ethnic identity and sexual orientation as a case in point (“Will the ostentatious denotation ‘I’m Australian, Jewish and gay’ suffice as the motto for an Intendant?” quipped Manuel Brug in Die Welt).

As fate would have it, the last premiere of the Homoki regime leaves Kosky with fertile ground to usher in a new ethos. Handel’s Xerxes, staged by the coveted Norwegian director Stefan Herheim in his Komische Oper debut, has won understandably glowing reviews across the board. Herheim’s production, seem May 19, takes a deceptively historical approach by setting the opera in its 1738 premiere at the Kings Theater, but the action jumps back and forth between painted naturalist sets  (Heike Scheele) and an 18th-century backstage by virtue of a revolving platform, dissolving any sense of convention. The director calls the concept a “baroque Muppet show” in the program notes, playing with the existential levels of theater within theater and theater within life. At the end of the opera, the platform revolves fully to reveal the towering black walls of the Komische Oper’s actual backstage, with the chorus having shed their elaborate period costumes (Gesine Völlm) for their daily dress.

A baroque feast of sets and costumes in Herheim’s ‘Xerxes’ @Forster/Komische Oper

Xerxes is a court intrigue set in 5th-century Persia about a rivalry between King Xerxes and his brother Arsamene for the hand of Romilda, daughter of the prince Ariodate. Meanwhile, Romilda’s sister Atlanta vies for Arsamene. Handel’s version is based on an anonymous revision of a libretto by Silvio Stampiglia. The original cast included the castrato Caffarelli in the title role and other stars of the day such as the soprano Elisabeth du Parc, known as ‘La Francescina,’ in the role of Romilda. Disguised ruses and falsely assigned love letters provide for some chaotic buffo moments, while the opera explores the more serious themes of true love, jealousy and fate. In this sense, as the program notes point out, the opera can be considered a kind of dramma giocoso—a genre which Mozart and Da Ponte would ultimately make immortal—although officially it is still opera seria.

Herheim takes a strictly comic approach, poking fun at the singular arrogance of the title character in both his role as a narcissistic king and as a castrato. Xerxes (Stella Doufexis) sings the opening aria “Ombra mai fu” and parts of other numbers in Italian while the rest of the opera, with the exception of one aria by Arsamene, is sung in German. When the king spits out “Perfido!” (Traitor!) to Prince Ariodate upon learning that he has married Romilda to Arsamene, the production effectively mocks the passionate drama of Italian opera. Xerxes not only calls the shots onstage but within the Komische Oper itself, descending into the pit with the crucial line “what you consider love is often only deception and appearance,” holding up a hand to stop the conductor (Konrad Jünghanel) before bringing the house to darkness with a snap.

Stella Doufexis entertaining the audience as Xerxes @Forster/Komische Oper

Other gestures are just for the sake of having some laughs. During Xerxes’ aria’ “Più che penso alle fiamme del core,” the set is dismantled to reveal cabaret-style lights reading “Xerxes” which are then rearranged to read “Sex Rex.” Doufexis points to the first word as she sings of her passionate flames, an adolescent touch that nevertheless seemed to delight the audience. The third scene features oversized dancing sheep who, while amusing at first, grow wearing as they began to interrupt the music with their ‘baas.’ Still, Völlm’s costumes are so authentic and well crafted—from these creatures to the gilded suits and towering plumed caps of Xerxes and his army to the chorus’ Rafael-like cherub fare—that it was easy to forgive the occasional relapse into directorial indulgence.

The cast was generally strong throughout, delivering punch lines with persuasive comic timing while maintaining high musical standards. Doufexis anchored the production with a velvety timbre, skillful dynamic nuance and a keen sense of Herheim’s highly complex stage concept. When she stepped toward the audience at the end of the opera, eyes widened as if emerging from a time machine, it was hard to suspend one’s disbelief. The mezzo Karolina Gumos was a charismatic, rich-voiced Arsamene, nailing her coloratura in the aria “Amor, tiranno Amor” in which she begs Xerxes to soften. The Swiss soprano Brigitte Geller brought the right touch of beguiling charm to the role of Romilda with a ripe lyric timbre, and Julia Giebel wielded her slightly underpowered soubrette to satisfactory effect as the pesky Atlanta. Katarina Bradic made for an even-voiced, desperate Amastre, and Dimitry Ivashchenko brought a resonant bass to the role of Ariodate. As the servant Elviro, the bass Hagen Matzeit made a stand-out performance in falsetto voice as a disguised flower vendor. Junghänel, an early music specialist, led the orchestra of the Komische Oper in an incisive but muscular account whose charged baroque expression at times compromised a sense of flowing legato, instead underscoring the sharp accents of the German language.

The Seven Deadly Sins

Kosky could hardly have chosen a stronger statement of his vision for the Komische Oper than with his new production of Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins, which premiered February 12 and returned this month. To be sure, his 2011 production of Rusalka featured gutted sea creatures and a German libretto that was too much to stomach for this reader, who once learned Czech and trekked all the way to Prague to hear Dvorak in its authentic setting (call me a purist). But with his latest undertaking, seen May 20, Kosky reveals an aesthetic restraint that is the antithesis of the slap-happy stagings which dominate the Berlin house. Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins was conceived with Bertold Brecht for Balanchine’s Paris company ‘Les Ballets 1933’ as a ballet chanté for the composer’s two-time wife Lotte Lenya and the dancer wife of the British impresario Edward James. The score seamlessly weaves together popular song, cantata, and dance music, while the text refers to a single protagonist, Anna, who has been sent on a voyage throughout the U.S. to earn money for a small house her family is building in Louisiana. She is accompanied by a hedonistic alter ego whom she refers to as her sister—also named Anna—as she dances and turns tricks along the way, learning the consequences of pride, lust, avarice and other sins. The work conveys an even more direct critique of capitalism than The Three Penny Opera, with a prescient understanding of the difficulties that the writers would face upon their imminent exile from Germany.

As a prelude to the work, Kosky inserts a selection of seven Weill songs ranging from Berlin im Licht (1938) to Wie lange noch? (1944). Dagmar Manzel, a well-known German actress, emerges slowly from behind closed curtains to join her pianist (Frank Schulte) in a straight cabaret delivery in which she is lit by a single spotlight. As if to foreshadow the desperation Kosky creates in Seven Deadly Sins, Manzel desperately tugs at the curtains during Youkali, a tango that describes a fictitious utopia, only to pull them back entirely to reveal the orchestra for the central work. As Manzel recounts her travels from Memphis to San Francisco with mounting hysteria, occasionally breaking out into deliberately ungraceful ballet, the male quartet representing Anna’s family sings from darkened balcony boxes above the stage. The most powerful tableau emerges in Los Angeles, where Manzel flap dances with a frozen expression of agony. While guilt-ridden allusions to the horrors of World War Two have become standard fare in Germany, Kosky’s understated, expressionist touch was shockingly relevant in the city whose avant-garde culture once helped breed one of the most powerful artistic collaborations in history.

Dagmar Manzel in Weill's 'Seven Deadly Sins' @Monika Rittershaus/Komische Oper

Kosky does go a bit over the top when Anna shrieks hysterically above her family’s moralist incantations, and the invented a capella epilogue about a drowned woman was far too morbid for the spirit of this resigned yet hopeful satire, not to mention that Manzel’s voice was audibly spent by this point. The singer otherwise gave a gripping performance with her smoky voice, generous presence and dry dramatic detachment. That she may be considered slightly too old for the role is justified by Kosky’s concept which casts the entire journey as a memory; in the end Manzel pinches the flesh on her arms as if unaware of how she had aged. The male quartet formed a musically solid ensemble, and Joska Lehtinen brought a ringing, slightly scolding tenor to the father’s aria about Anna’s greed. The orchestra provided fine accompaniment under Kristiina Poska, its Germanic sound culture providing weight to Weill’s forward-looking yet rigorous harmonic development and wistful melodies.

Berlin Diary

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

By James Jorden

I apologize for long period (two months!) of radio silence: it’s been a very busy spring season in New York, broken up by a two week vacation my traveling companion and I called the “Regietournee,” a sampling of some of the opera direction going on in Germany (and other northern European theaters.) First up was a three-day, three-performance stopover in Berlin. (more…)