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Komische Oper Berlin
21 Apr 2008

Berlin’s “other” opera often stellar

It is, you might say, the little opera that can. True, if it’s size of the budget, the price of tickets and the number of seats that concerns you, the Komische Oper is clearly the third of Berlin’s opera houses.

Above: Komische Oper Berlin


But there’s much that makes the company, housed in an 1890’s variety venue in downtown Behrensstrasse, unique — and exciting. And for those who know the KO it’s not at all surprising that in 2007 Opernwelt, Germany’s leading opera journal, singled out the KO as the country’s “Opera House of the Year.”

To appreciate the KO fully, one needs to know a bit about the history of the company that dates back to a production of Fledermaus launched on December 23, 1947. Of the four victors in the war against Nazi Germany, it was the Russians who took culture most seriously; and they made a great effort to make their half of occupied Berlin a showcase for culture. Perhaps their shrewdest move was appointing Walter Felsenstein the founding director of the KO.

As an Austrian Felsenstein was viewed officially as a man from a country that had been a victim of Hitler (forget those photos of exuberant crowds welcoming the Führer to Vienna in 1938!). And not even a pro-forma communist he lived in a better district of West Berlin and even after the Wall was built in 1961 he drove his Mercedes to work. Pre-Wall West Berliners — especially students — flocked to the KO, which balanced Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble just minutes away as a site of artistic adventure and experimentation. Nonetheless, although Felsenstein remainder in charge of the KO until his death in 1975, the brilliance of the company diminished. After the Wall was built in the West it was considered politically incorrect to pay 30 marks merely to enter the East, where the government was increasingly hard-pressed to come up with the hard currency that Felsenstein needed to make things shine at the KO. And following the founder’s death Götz Friedrich, his major assistant and seeming heir apparent, managed to move to West Berlin, where he eventually ran the Deutsche Oper for two decades.

The new chief of the KO was Harry Kupfer, who — although he had had no direct association with Felsenstein — ran the company with some distinction even after the two Germanys were united. Kupfer’s successor is Andreas Homoki. A still youthful man, Berlin — and Kupfer — trained, Homoki distinguished himself as a director throughout Europe before being named to the KO position in 2004. Limited only by the ever-increasing budget problems that plague Germany’s capital, Homoki has taken obvious advantage of the freedom that now goes with his position to honor the Felsenstein heritage that once distinguished the KO. It was Felsenstein, after all, who — although he did not coin the word — introduced the concept of Regieoper to the opera world, making the director all powerful in the staging of opera. It is Regieoper, known in the USA largely through co-productions with European companies, that — to cite only two popular examples — encouraged American director James Robinson to stage La Bohème during World War One and to set Mozart’s Abduction on the Orient Express.

Three productions from the KO’s current repertory, staged in the handsomely refurbished Behrensstrasse house during Easter week, offered a telling cross-section of the work currently being done there. Two of the stagings — true taxi rides to the dark side — underscore the desire of today’s directors to make opera politically relevant within the current world situation. Both Handel’s Theseus and Gluck’s Iphigenie auf Tauris — everything at the KO is sung in German — were staged as outspoken anti-war declarations made with an obvious eye towards Iraq. The approach worked well in Theseus, less so in the Gluck, with stagings during the past year in San Francisco, Seattle and New York becoming something of an American “hit.”

Composed in 1713 and one of Handel’s early London successes, Theseus tells of Medea’s involvement in complex romantic attachments following the gruesome murder of her children and husband. Athens is at war, where Theseus leads the troops that defend the city. With Allesandro de Marchi in charge of an energetic ensemble that included early instruments, the staging by Benedikt von Peter kept the audience on March 14 breathless through almost four hours of da capo arias. A TV crew was present to take advantage of violence in progress, and at one point an exhausted Theseus sat on stage holding a sign that said — in English — “NO MORE WAR.”

Much of the five-act work, performed with a single intermission, played — literally — on a muddy battle field — something that left one wondering about the KO’s laundry bill. The large cast was uniformly excellent and — true to Felsenstein — consisted of young and attractive artists superbly coached as singing actors. Elisabeth Starzinger was compelling in the title role, while Stella Doufexis was a Medea passionate in her desire to reduce the world to ashes. David Lee and Hagen Matzeit underscored the easy availability of gifted counter tenors in today’s opera world. It was a powerful production.

Abu Ghraid, Guantanamo? It’s clear from where Barry Kosky took his cues in staging Iphigenie, which went the limit with waterboarding and soldiers in American uniforms urinating on prisoners. Kosky was clearly out to shock and awe. The curtain rose on Agamemnon’s daughter gleefully slitting the throats of captives while the chorus caught the blood in plastic trays and continued with blood and violence everywhere. It might well be that it’s the truth that sets us free, but Kosky’s political overlay was more than this graceful score by the great revolutionary of opera could comfortably bear. The performers played against a large stone plate, which stage designer Klaus Grünberg had suspended, along with changing lighting effectively designed by Franck Evin. Yet the bleak darkness of Kosky’s concept was essentially alien to Gluck’s music.

Kosky introduced a chorus of elderly, war-weary citizens — including the ghosts of Iphigenie’s parents, who roamed the stage only in underwear. Discomforting at first, one soon saw that these silent players were the Erinyes (Eumenides) of antiquity bringing retribution upon modern man for past wrongs. But the weight of the message was in painful contrast to Gluck’s wonderfully animated music. One looked away as ever more blood flowed.

Again, however, the cast was impressive. Slovenly in dress, Geraldine McGreevy, left one eager to hear her as Strauss’ Marschallin, a role in which she has won critical kudos at the KO. Kevin Greenlaw and Peter Lodahl were of Hollywood handsomeness as Orestes and Pylades, both with voices that would be the sensation of opera anywhere. One tired, however, of immense Jens Larsen’s blustering Thoas, feeling again that Gluck demands moments of gentleness and repose.

Kosky, however, was simply too literal in his fascination with the violence of this story. For an American these two productions, though admirable in their intention, raise the question of politicized classics. Art, always in service of the good, true and beautiful, should awaken and arouse. In music such as this, however, a commitment to its beauty must remain primary. One further wonders whether such productions do not end up speaking only to the already converted. How, otherwise, was it possible for Germany’s Nazis to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the drop of a swastika?

Most problematic of the week’s productions was Hans Neuenfels’ staging of Mozart’s Magic Flute, seen on March 18. Born in 1941, Neuenfels is Germany’s senior — and most controversial — master of Regieoper. Here to he went beyond the liberties that a director can allow himself. It was Neuenfels who upset Karita Mattila by sending her on stage in a Salzburg Così fan tutte in 2000 walking two men, in leather and chains, as if they were dogs. The Finnish soprano called it the worst experience she ever had. The premiere in 2003 of his new production of Mozart's Idomeneo at Berlin’s Deutsche Opera Berlin was postponed because of fears that a scene, in which Idomeneo staggers on stage carrying the decapitated heads of Neptune, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad might present a security risk.

While the current Flute involves no such threats, it was nonetheless a staging too far at odds with traditional Mozart. While Peter Sellars’ stagings of Figaro, Così and Giovanni, seen on PBS in 1991 upset elders, the director did not interfere with Mozart’s music. Here Neuenfels added to the opera an on-stage producer, who — to cite only one example — explained to her assistants that Tamino was paranoid out to hunt the serpent for fear of being hunted himself. Continuing interventions in the story were equally disturbing. In lieu of a flute, the Three Ladies — proper British governesses — presented Tamino with a yard-long colored glass penis that might have come from the studios of Dale Chihuly. The Queen of the Night dismembers herself during her first aria and is carried from the stage on a stretcher, leaving one leg behind. An ailingSarastro — did Neuenfels have Amfortas in mind? — appears in a wheelchairand dies on stage during the triumphal final chorus.

Such nonsense stretched the performance to well over three hours, whichmight explain conductor Kimbo Ishii-Eto’s relentless rushing of Mozart’smusic. What is amazing is that the KO cast is able to sing superbly in themidst of such mayhem. And it is safe to predict a fantastic future for JamesCreswell, the Sarastro of this Flute. Daniel Barenboim regularlyinvites the young American bass, a Yale graduate, to sing major roles at theState Opera.

Looking back on a week at Berlin’s Komische Oper one is surprised at the“take” that these productions are, even when one might have preferred amore traditional approach to the works on stage there. And from that point ofview they are successful. To appreciate them one need only walk down toBrecht’s old theater and recall his commitment to didactic stagings — incontrast to what he called “the culinary theater” that seeks only toentertain.

Wes Blomster

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