A weekend in Berlin and two operas, both exhibiting similar highlights and flaws: the Komische Oper’s Der Freischütz and the Deutsche Oper’s Tristan und Isolde. In common, they were musically strong. Equally, their Regietheater tendencies both misfired at crucial moments. What follows may come across as a reactionary opposition to Regietheater but in fact it is more a reaction to it being done badly and inconsistently. Overall, both performances were thoroughly enjoyable with much to think about.
For the Komische Oper, Weber’s 1821 pseudo-fairytale was in the hands of the (yawn!) oh-so-shocking Calixto Bieito. There had been advanced publicity: there was to be (shock!) nudity in the performance, as well as an operatic version of ‘smellyvision’ with an odour pumped into the auditorium to get us in the mood. In a programme note, Bieito tells us that he sees Freischütz as less fairytale than thriller. And so, the society that is so in love with its marksman rituals is going to be the scene of a shooting atrocity.
The first two scenes established the setting well and, indeed, by the interval I was metaphorically ‘eating my words’, my expectations of Bieito’s mangling of the story having been confounded. It was a remarkably coherent presentation of a dark, damaged society riddled with antisocial violence. Ännchen and Agathe were in drunken post-hen-party spirit as they stumbled into the woods. The Wolf’s Glen scene was every bit of grand guignol that its original creator must have intended: a modern take on gothic horror that would once have been in the Sir Walter Scott style. The magic bullets were cast using the vaginal (virginal?) blood of a murdered bride, dragged to the forest by Kaspar along with her bound and gagged bridegroom, who watched the murder from the corner of the stage, awaiting his inevitable ultimate fate delivered by Max as the last major step on his descent into lunacy. That descent was pretty much underway from the beginning. The relentless mocking of the cold and aggressive villagers had clearly been eroding Max’s grasp on reality for some time.
Happily, by the final curtain, my initial expectations had been confirmed and so all was right with the certainties of the world. After the interval, the Marksman comprehensively and consistently misfired. The story that had been provided by Weber rather inconveniently didn’t support Bieito’s interpretation through to the last bar. Allow me to quote from the synopsis in the Harnoncourt CD set, from the point at which the shooting trial has happened, Kaspar has been wounded and Agathe has fainted:
…Max is forced to admit to having cast the magic bullets. The Prince banishes him, but the Hermit intervenes, recommending that the custom of the trial shot be abandoned and that Max’s sentence be commuted: instead of being banished, he should be given a year in which to prove himself. If he succeeds in doing so, he will receive Agathe’s hand in marriage at the end of that period.
Now allow me to quote from the Komische Oper’s helpfully-provided English programme note:
When Max rushes in and shoots, Kaspar and Agathe fall to the found covered in blood. Duke Ottakar orders that Max be punished. The hermit, a man from the forest, arrives and demands mercy and a break with outmoded traditions, but nobody takes him seriously. Agathe dies.
Yep, the end became almost farcical as events on stage contradicted the words, not to mention the music. Despite protesting that she only fainted, Agathe had been shot. And just when it looked like she was going to recover, the assembled company shot her again. And they shot the hermit. There is no happy ending in Bieito; indeed, he is quoted in the programme book saying that, effectively, no-one believes happy endings any more. Well, that may be the case, but sometimes – just sometimes – we go to the theatre to try and believe in those happy endings. And when we are happy to do without happy endings, we tend not to go to naïve pieces like Der Freischütz. It was a profoundly unsatisfying ending, having initially promised something quite interesting. Is that not always the way with Regietheater? The pay-off never quite lives up to the build-up. Skip over to Intermezzo for a good round-up of photos.
Dmitry Golovnin’s Max kept his pants on, unlike his predecessor in the run, Vincent Wolfsteiner, but that’s not as anti-climactic as it sounds. He sang strongly and threw himself convincingly into Bieito’s ‘particular’ take on the opera. As his Agathe, Bettina Jensen was a little less successful, with a matronly mezzo-soprano which fared better in dramatic moments than in the more lyrical moments of Leise, leise, fromme Weise and the cabaletta was a bit of a trial. Still, it must be hard work singing Agathe when your Max keeps pushing you over and you have to keep climbing over a disintegrating forest in a wedding dress. Jens Larsen was a big-voiced, dangerous Kaspar – evil in a very modern style – and Ariana Strahl was an Ännchen from the Papagena school of ditzy antics, but bright-voiced and clear. Other parts were well taken and the chorus was in impressive, lusty form. The overture was obscured by the audience tittering at the arrival of a real pig on stage, snuffling around in the omnipresent leaves. I think the pig provided the ‘smellyvision’ as well, though how the smell of a farmyard helps us into the world of Der Freischütz I’m not sure. It was one of many questions Bieito raised but didn’t answer. Patrick Lange kept things moving with dramatic fervour and the orchestra delivered an exciting, vivid sound.
A note about the Komische Oper: comfortable seats, even on the front of the second level where we were, though I’m not sure about the raking, so that the sightlines on seats further back may not have been so great. Seat-back subtitles are provided in English, German, French and Turkish. The theatre is a nice size – not too big at all – and its structure is interesting: an old (late 19th century) theatre core built (or rebuilt?) within a modern exterior building, with huge mirrored walls in the bar area at second level and lots of space to move about.
Tristan und Isolde
Over at the Deutsche Oper, it was Graham Vick’s turn to pull some directorial tricks out of the standard-issue Regie bag. We had Wagner’s great romantic meditation set in a sort of trendy modernist house, furnished not from Ikea this time (that was the Hamburg Götterdämmerung) but seemingly from a Habitat closing-down sale. Various people wandered about, and you could see through some patio doors to a space beyond which, by the end, contained a bed with a pile of earth on it. There was a coffin: in the living room area in Act 1, propped up against the kitchen wall in Act 2, and over to the side in Act 3. A naked woman wandered on a couple of times. A naked man was digging a hole in the living room in Act 2, one assumes a grave but it wasn’t clear. A giant light hung from the flies like an inverted mushroom and moved about during the action, raising and lowering, illuminating selected parts of the stage but simultaneously illuminating nothing. The production couldn’t be further from Vick’s naturalistic-cartoon ROH Meistersinger if it tried. Intermezzo has the pictures again, from last March (in which I discover the interesting information that Schnitzer and Seiffert are married), and there are a some pictures, via the curtain calls, of this performance over on Opera Cake.
Happily, with all this going on, some of the big moments were left space to flourish, and musical values were certainly high. Donald Runnicles led a red-blooded performance, with skilful pacing, especially through the Act 2 love duet: a fantastic passage which will long live in memory. The orchestra met his demands, barring a couple of very audible horn slips. In the lead roles, Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer were wonderful. Her voice was slightly lighter than might be expected for an Isolde, and if her volume occasionally dipped out in the lower-lying parts, her voice had a fantastic glint in the important moments. Her Liebestod was sure and steady, and she achieved a unearthly stillness to accompany the swelling orchestral tumult. Seiffert delivered something different, his still-attractive tone in the earlier parts of the work giving way, by Act 3, to some astonishingly fearless vocal attack – to the point where he was nearly hoarse. This matched the characterisation tremendously, but gained an ‘edge’ as the disintegration of the character took on a very real vocal quality. One assumes it’s not something he will be able to keep on doing, but after a long career perhaps it is something he is willing to draw on as risk-taking becomes less of an issue?
One of the production’s successful moments was the portrayal of the Tristan of Act 3 as being in ageing decline, with suggestions of dementia. Less successful was Kurwenal as his companion, bored to be hearing about the umpteenth retelling of the Isolde story and too infirm himself to rush about heroically, so that the fight with Melot at the end became again farcical and, anyway, what boat were they all looking for, given the complete absence of the nautical? The love draught was injected heroin – which I find slightly tedious, even if it is an obvious development of Wagner’s dramatic and musical symbolism – and Tristan very obviously pulls himself onto Melot’s sword at the end of the Act 2, which again I find an overused tic in Tristan productions. The love duet began (in that fantastic build-up that presages Tristan’s arrival) with Isolde having a last minute rush around the house, checking the cushions, straightening the chairs and completely ignoring the fact that a naked lad was digging a grave in her living room floor. When the duet got underway, it was sung from the sofa where the lovers were curled up, again carving out a lovely serene stillness for O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe (and the gravedigger had clocked off at this point). They adopted a more conventional park-and-bark stance for the climax of the duet (having negotiated their way around the floaty-light thing and the grave) and the shattering interruption didn’t quite work, although the long run-up to it was very special indeed.
Jane Irwin’s Brangäne was also excellent, her plangent Habet acht! sending shivers during the duet, and her angst palpable as she prepared the potion (or, rather, filled the syringes). Liang Li was a rich-voiced Marke, bitterly conveying his disillusion, with Boaz Daniel’s staunch Kurwenal similarly effective.
Having carped about elements of the production, I do think this was one of the best Tristans I’ve seen in a very long time, and will certainly take some bettering, mostly due to the two leads and the drive and excitement of Runnicles’ contribution. If Bieito’s directorial problem was consistency, here Vick (for me) came a cropper on an excess of ideas, symbols and fussy business. The basic recasting of the story – the ageing degeneration especially – was a reasonable direction to take. Adding in heroin addiction, coffins, naked ‘walking symbols’, not to mention the persistently irritating floaty light thing, added little or nothing other than providing a pleasing distraction in unfamiliar passages when I was unable to follow the German surtitles.
And a note about the Deutsche Oper: comfortable again, with a large stalls area in an auditorium reminiscent of the Coliseum in its basic shape, so sightlines generally good. We were side stalls, just over mid-way back, which actually felt further than it should have done, with a slightly dry sound. Translations are projected above the stage, not unreasonably in German only. Audience behaviour was truly appalling. Who talks through the prelude to Act 1 of Tristan und Isolde? The pair in front of us seemed bored in the first two minutes – surely they knew they were in for a five-hour epic? Couples canoodled, audibly and visibly (both distracting) throughout Act 1 and, thankfully, those in front of us didn’t return for Act 2. Bizarre. The overall opera house suffers from an excess of functionality over grace, with harsh metal staircases inserted into severe glass-steel-marble spaces. Nonetheless, a pleasant circulation. The design of their programme book has a modern elegance – and nice typography!