Posts Tagged ‘stefan herheim’

Expunged ‘Tannhäuser’ opens Debate on Artistic Freedom

Friday, May 17th, 2013

By Rebecca Schmid

The tolerance of German audiences for extreme stage productions is a source of national pride and the envy of many abroad. But a production of Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein which had to be stripped down to concert performance last week has set off a national debate about the sanctity of a director’s artistic freedom. Two seasons ago, the Bayreuth Festival mounted the same opera in a new production by Sebastian Baumgartner which places the heroine, Elisabeth, in a “biogas” chamber. It caused a moral outcry in the press, but the notion of her being “recycled” rather than outright gassed appears to have kept the staging in repertoire. In Düsseldorf, at the Oper am Rhein, the director Burkhard C. Kosminski went a step too far. Naked extras were already being gassed during the overture. An entire family was shot after its members had their heads shaven by soldiers. Venus was dressed in an SS uniform; Elisabeth was raped and burned. The boos in the small city of Düsseldorf started 30 minutes into the production, according to Der Spiegel, and some audience members were so traumatized that they needed medical attention. Criticism from the Jewish community was just the icing on the cake. But Kosminski refused to modify his vision, for fear of betraying his artistic principles. Less than a week after its premiere on May 4, the opera was reduced to a concert version.

The obvious issue, which audience members were quick to point out, is that Nazis and persecuted Jews have nothing to do with Tannhäuser. The opera is about a pilgrim who leaves Venus’ world of love-making, enters a song competition on the Wartburg, and finds redemption in the saintly Elisabeth. An editorial in the German magazine Cicero , dedicated to the intersection of arts and politics, observes that a director turns to Nazis when he has no good ideas of own. The author continues to criticize Germany’s lavish public funding for theater, calling Hitler its “patron saint.” It may be worth noting that the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, a shared entity of the nearby cities of Düssseldorf and Duisburg, nearly entered financial meltdown last season. Was the production a desperate attempt to lend the company a cutting-edge status capable of competing with the many other opera houses in West Germany (let’s not forget that the reunited country possesses altogether one-seventh of the world’s companies)?

In an interview with Der Spiegel this week, Kosminski states the “real scandal” at hand is “censorship in the arts.” He insists that the production intended to mourn, not ridicule, the victims of World War Two, describing himself as “terrified” by criticism from the Jewish community. Just yesterday, he won the support of the president of the Akademie der Künste, Klaus Staeck, who has written a letter demanding that the production be reinstated. “Art—regardless of its quality!—is not a superfluous luxury,” he argues. Is it then justified to use art as a vehicle for emotional torture? And is quality not an important criterium when good tax money is being invested? From a purely literary point of view, there is little to no basis for casting Tannhäuser as a war criminal who is forced into the SS guard. Surely Greek myth is more important to understanding the opera than Wagner’s indirect connection to the Holocaust as a role model of Hitler.

Although the opera derives its plot in part from Thuringian legend, there is little in the way of nationalist undertones compared to later works such as Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal and, to some extent, the Ring cycle. Patrice Chéreau caused a scandal upon the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 by setting the cycle at the time of early German industrialization. This is a loaded topic, given the industrial killings that followed during World War Two, but the production opened the door to historical allegory on the Festspielhaus stage. Stefan Herheim’s 2008 production of Parsifal, which opens in the Villa Wahnfried in the 1880s and ends in the Federal Republic of Bonn, plumbs the possibilities even further. The appearance of swastika flags and black-and-white footage from the Second World War remains controversial, but Herheim caused the audience to think critically about the inextricability of Wagner’s works from his time and the institution of Bayreuth itself.

Kosminski, through his graphic depictions of the violence and genocide, crossed a threshold that was already at breaking point. Although I didn’t see the production first-hand, the audience’s reaction would indicate that he lacked the sophistication of a director such as Chéreau or Herheim. The exploitation of World War Two—not just to artistic ends but in the media and in academia—has reached a point of saturation in Germany that, thanks to the reaction at the Oper am Rhein, should finally be considered cause for concern. Artistic freedom does not license a director to indulge his darkest fantasies or work out psychological issues at the expense of an opera. Do we go to the theater to be provoked, reviled and confused, or enlightened and transported by an interpretation that allows us to penetrate a given work with more understanding and appreciation? Wagner may remain a thorn in the cultural consciousness, but it is not paying respect to anyone—neither the composer, the German people, nor the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust—to use his stage works as vehicles for cheap, shock tactics under the pretence of creating socially relevant art. As austerity plagues Europe, it is even more shameful to invest in stage productions that ruin rather than illuminate an opera.

In Bayreuth, Persisting with the New

Friday, August 31st, 2012

By Rebecca Schmid

„Kinder, schaff Neues,“ (Children, create something new) Wagner wrote in an adage frequently quoted by stage directors in Germany. In Bayreuth, 136 years after the founding of his festival, the spirit is alive and well. Provocatively-minded Regietheater, for lack of a better blanket term, has come to stamp the recently installed administration on the Green Hill, which despite widespread criticism to the contrary sees itself as simply carrying on a long-standing tradition. “The artistic point of view is not much different,” said Co-Intendant Katharina Wagner in interview with reference to the previous administration under her father, Wolfgang. “It´s the continuity of the festival and just trying to get interesting interpretations here. That´s also what our father did and tried to do. But of course if you see the Chéreau Ring now, it´s not as strong as it was, and that´s the point.” She went on to compare its power to that of last year´s new Tannhäuser in a contemporary context.

Sebastian Baumgarten´s staging certainly reaffirms the notion of Bayreuth as a Werkstatt, a place where new ideas can be test-driven to give operatic works fresh relevance. The stage director attempts to transcend the dichotomy between the divine Venusberg and the mortal realm of the Wartburg by confining the action to an industrial plant that is meant to represent a self-contained community founded on ecological awareness, indirectly echoing Wagner´s Artwork of the Future in which he envisioned a society liberated from capitalist values where the Gesamtkunstwerk could thrive. Probing as the concept may be, it has no direct connection to the opera at hand, nor does an installation by Dutch artist Josep van Lieshout that doubles as a set design have any aesthetic or philosophical value. In what may be intended as a humoristic touch, alcohol abounds but is recycled daily in an “Alkoholator,” while a biogas tank will ultimately become Elisabeth´s death chamber (something which did not go down well in the German press last year given the notorious sensitivity to such direct World War Two references). A pregnant Venus cavorts freely onstage, at one point dancing with Wolfram von Eschenbach, after her mountain—caged in metal bars—descends into the basement. The audience members sitting on the sides of the stage in Brechtian fashion did little to compensate for the lack of dramaturgical arc.

Program notes by Edward. A Bortnichak argue that Baumgarten integrates Wagner´s “criticism of the natural sciences, technology and medical research of the 19th century,” an over-intellectualized idea which, even if it made itself at all apparent, would do nothing to tell the story of Tannhäuser´s renunciation of the pleasures of the flesh for redemptive love in Elisabeth. The production effectively creates total ambiguity when the goddess gives birth to what is presumably the title character´s baby at the end of the opera. Sperm-like amoebas also crawl around intermittently, but most tasteless is video art by Christopher Kondek. The x-rayed vision of a man drinking milk (oh, right! Venus is pregnant) nearly ruined Wagner´s sublime ouverture, performed exquisitely under the baton of Christian Thielemann. This year´s audience may be lucky that the production has caused such a scandal. Thomas Hengelbrock refused to conduct this season after complaining that he had to constantly rehearse with a different set of orchestra players, and word has it that the cast is a notch up from the premiere.

I have never heard a German opera in which diction was so clear throughout. Torsten Kerl maintains a healthy voice despite having sung all of Wagner´s roles for tenor and consistently demonstrated clear dramatic purpose. Camilla Nylund was a lovely Elisabeth, with a creamy tone whose occasionally squally high notes were easily forgiven. Michelle Breedt was a rich voiced Venus, and the Hungarian baritone Michael Nagy demonstrated impeccable dynamic shading in the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Günther Groissböck brought a powerful bass to the role of Hermann, the Thuringian Landgrave. The remainder of the supporting cast and choruses left little to be desired. If only the staging hadn´t reprocessed the archetypal underpinnings of Wagner´s opera to such crass effect.

Christian Marthaler´s Tristan und Isolde, a 2009 production, represents a more understated approach that nevertheless falls just as flat. Any eroticism is stripped bare, much in keeping with drab sets by Anna Viebrock that appear to reference a 1920s luxury ship. This year´s revival, presided over by German director Anna-Sophie Mahler (rumor has it that Marthaler refused to return because of limited rehearsal time), apparently added a bit more physical contact between the ill-fated couple, but the love potion still seemed to have more of a disenchanting than aphrodisiac effect. The duet “O Sinke Liebe Nacht” featured Tristan and Isolde sitting side by side like retirees in front of a television. Fluorescent lighting is assigned special prominence to illuminate the night and day theme so central to the clandestine romance, yet it hardly took on enough symbolic meaning to animate the action. Marthaler saves some interesting moments for the last act when Kurnewal waves his arms as if trying to swim out of the nothingness, and all the characters except for the dying couple end up facing the walls of the ship´s barracks. Isolde covers herself with a sheet on the same bed where Tristan lay dying from Melot´s wound, a demystifying touch.

If it weren´t for conducting by Wagner veteran Peter Schneider, returning to the festival for the twentieth time, one might have secretly wished for the production to have ended sooner. Schneider´s taut, restrained reading was much in keeping with the vision onstage despite his swift pace. The level of technical perfection and power he cultivated from the orchestra often put the singers to shame, with a transcendent Liebestod that compensated for the magic lacking onstage. To be sure, uninspired as Marthaler´s production is, a more polished cast might have better risen above the odds. In this case, Robert Dean Smith was staid and underpowered as Tristan, while Irène Theorin—one of today´s best Wagnerian sopranos—was not in her best voice, nor did she make the text understandable. She still produced some touching piannissimi in the final scene and ripped through the score´s charged moments. Breedt did not disappoint as Brangäne, Isolde´s maid, but it was Jukka Rasilainen who commanded consistent attention with his smooth bass in the role of Kurwenal, Tristan´s servant. Kwangchul Youn was a powerful King Mark, and Ralf Lukas a vengeful Melot.

The finest production this season is hands down Stefan Herheim´s Parsifal, the only opera on the roster commissioned by Wolfgang Wagner. Herheim´s breathtaking allegorical vision begins at the Villa Wahnfried in the 1880s and ends at parliament in the Federal Republic of Bonn a century later. The story integrates elements from a medieval saga by Wolfram von Eschenbach that served as a source for Wagner´s libretto, inserting a silent actress as Parsifal´s mother, Herzeleide. Most likely with reference to Cosima Wagner, she lies in bed at the center of the Villa´s living room, copulating with her son in dream-like visions (namely when Amfortas holds up a glowing grail) and giving birth to a baby which then appears to be circumcised. Such moments were perplexing and somewhat gratuitous, but Herheim´s keen attention to the dramatic structure of Wagner´s score and the impeccable handwork of his team (sets by Heike Scheele and costumes by Gesine Völlm) redeems even what bordered on the offensive. The walls of Wahnfried were recreated verbatim yet haunted in a surrealist vision of black-winged beings and Parsifal as a young boy, only morphing slightly with hospital beds and mirrored walls for Klingsor´s magic castle, a brothel for the wounded.

Herheim is mostly a genius of subversion, effectively sublimating Christian and inherently anti-Semitic references into a commentary on German politics, such as when a chorus of World War One soldiers passes around bread in the Knight´s chorus, “Nehmet vom Brod/wandelt es kühn,” of the first act or when Amfortas, his head still crowned in thorns, takes the podium in the final tableau and utters “Wehe” to a room of bureaucrats while Kundry and Gurnemanz stand outside a proscenium reproducing the pillars lining the stage of the Festspielhaus—a re-consecration of the stage. Despite the politicization of the opera, a film interlude imitating the credits of the black and white era (video by Momme Hinrichs and Torge Moller) asks audience members to refrain from political debate, quoting the Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner adage “Hier gilt`s der Kunst” (Art reigns here)—a value which helped restore the festival to family hands following the American occupation. This will be the last revival of the 2008 production, but much like Chéreau´s Ring, one imagines that subsequent directors will have a very hard time overcoming its legacy—although Jonathan Meese is likely to stir up his own (succéss de) scandale with his 2016 rendition of Parsifal.

Musically, Herheim had a solid cast with Burkhard Fritz as Parsifal, whose reliable Heldentenor and portly presence were well suited to the role within this artistic vision. The dramatic demands were even higher on Susan Maclean as Kundry as she magically changed forms, and although her voice revealed some strain, her keen expressive powers served to pull off the role effectively. Kwangchul Youn was the vocal stand-out of the evening as the veteran knight Gurmemanz, anchoring the production with his mellifluous bass, while the vocal weaknesses of Detlef Roth only made him a more vulnerable, pious Amfortas. Thomas Jesatko brought crisp singing to the role of the magician Klingsor, promiscuously appearing in pantyhose and a tuxedo shirt, and Diogenes Randes rounded out the cast well as Titurel. The Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan, in his Bayreuth premiere, lived up to the family name (his father, Armin, being a well-known champion of the opera at hand) with an account of Wagner´s score as elegant and sensuous as one might dream, transparent, mysterious, and enchanting. Orchestra playing like this deserves a staging as aesthetically ravishing and intellectually challenging as Herheim´s, reminding us that the creation of something new is not enough: great art has always had the power to move not only its contemporaries but generations centuries later.

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.

Water works

Friday, April 6th, 2012

By James Jorden

Most arts-related technology is at least slightly Jekyll-and-Hyde in its implementation, no matter how optimistic the intentions of its creator. For an example of the phenomenon, you need look no farther thafn Robert Lepage‘s Ring, clanking its way back to the stage of the Met this week. Amazing tech, that: all those motion-controlled computer animations and theoretically an almost infinite variety of stage configurations. Of course, the down side is, it often doesn’t work, and it’s not exactly singer-friendly. (more…)

Ring Recycle

Friday, November 18th, 2011

By James Jorden

Now that it has become apparent that Robert Lepage’s production of the Ring at the Met is a fiasco (too soon? Nah.)… well, anyway, since arguably the production is a dreary, unworkable, overpriced mess whose primary (perhaps only) virtue is that it actually hasn’t killed anyone yet, and since, let’s face it, the Machinecentric show turned out to be so mind-bogglingly expensive (all those Sunday tech rehearsals with stagehands being paid, no doubt, in solid platinum ingots!), something has to be done. In this article, I intend to propose that “something.”  (more…)

She sees dead people

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

It’s fortunate that Lulu at Den Norske Opera was the last stop on the “Regietournee,” because honestly anything after that would have amounted to an anticlimax. If there is a more brilliant director working in opera today than Stefan Herheim, well, maybe I shouldn’t see any of his work, because it might be too much for the human brain to absorb. (more…)