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La Traviata - Christine Schäfer als Violetta Valéry Rolando Villazon als Alfredo Germont Staatsopernchor - (c) Ruth Walz
25 May 2008

A Berlin Sampler

A recent visit to Berlin’s three opera houses yielded decidedly, nay wildly varying outcomes.

G. Verdi: La Traviata, et al.

Above: Christine Schäfer (Violetta Valéry) and Rolando Villazon (Alfredo Germont) with Staatsopernchor (Photo by Ruth Walz)


Granted, it may have been hard for any indoor performance to totally upstage the glorious early summer weather and delicious seasonal white asparagus entrees on offer in any number of attractive and pleasant outdoor eateries. But venture indoors I did. . .

Staatsoper unter den Linden offered a well-traveled production of “La Traviata” that was very long on concept and conversely short on just about everything else. The major exception was the wonderful playing from the orchestra under the baton of Dan Ettinger. Save for an inexplicably scrappy moment or two in Act Three (Flora’s party), the ensemble showed great presence and stylistic acumen, tempered by sensitive and subtle support of the soloists.

Would that stage director Peter Mussbach have had as much success with his vision of the piece as Violetta’s one woman show. Poor Elzbieta Szmytka started out floating toward us from far upstage as a ghostly apparition during the prelude and simply never left the stage the entire evening.

This opening moment indeed promised much. A black raked stage with two ramps escaping into the pit was dotted with interrupted receding white lines brought into great relief (along with our diva’s white strapless gown) with black light. A swirling, disorienting light show dissolved into a highly evocative over-sized video projection of rain on a window pane, an image that framed the entire stage. And then. . .

Nothing much happened. Okay, to be fair a shiny slit drape flew in upstage but then it remained there constantly through opera’s end. The chorus in the opening act sang from off stage until the farewell chorus when they dutifully filed on, and then off. Soloists paraded through, and down into the pit without relating to Violetta who alternately swooned to the floor, stood up again unsteadily, or mostly, stood and sang front.

Was this Violetta’s dying delusion? A video projection of a car going through a tunnel, and later, of many cars in heavy traffic proved to be a red herring, evoking thoughts of Princess Di’s untimely end without any other parallels drawn. It did clarify that the white marks on the stage were highway-like traffic lines on a “dramatic” highway to nowhere. . .

The stage was bare until Act Two when a single chair was placed down center. Then in Act Three (or the second scene of Act Two if you’re a purist) the chorus files on, each holding a chair. They first sit in rows, then rise indignantly after Alfredo throws the money at Violetta (well, in the air like confetti really), and then all, to a person, jump up and stand on the chairs like they have collectively seen a mouse. Where the “chair-mounting music” is in this score, I couldn’t tell you. Or maybe they suddenly realized they were playing in the “traffic,” which had returned to the video projector?

If there were some interesting ideas in the Violetta-Germont duet, there were also major miscalculations. After having begun routinely, it regressed into first a rather touching moment with Germont as a comforting substitute father, but then transgressed into a creepy sort of Daddy sexual encounter during which he put his hand a bit too far up her skirt for our comfort level.

Does it surprise you to learn that there was no bed in the final act, which began with the same ghostly promenade as at the beginning? As the stage lights got brighter, we discovered Alfredo asleep upstage on the floor. Asleep upstage! As he got up and stretched and yawned, it prompted me to wonder if this whole thing might have been meant to have been his dream. At least in the final duet, the characters related to each other, albeit only slightly.

While great vocalism might have injected interest, what we had on offer was merely “good.” The minor roles were certainly sung competently, with “Flora” quite beautifully voiced by Katherina Kammerloher.

Alfredo Daza as “Germont” displayed a beautiful, buzzy baritone, but he bullied his way through too many phrases, and his take-no-prisoners entrance at “Flora’s” was way out of decibel proportion to what the moment requires. While many of his over-sung high notes went sharp, his effective softer parlando phrases proved what a fine singer he could be. A gentler approach, and the deployment of a true “ee” vowel could make him a major asset to the international roster.

Marius Brenciu’s “Alfredo” was afflicted with the same propensity to force top notes off pitch, although he too has a good instrument and handsome appearance which offered much pleasure. Our leading baritone and tenor were both usually singing about a third louder than needed to fill this house, a factor that also somewhat marred Ms. Szmytka’s artfully sung “Violetta.”

For when she jumped up to full-voice exposed high notes, too much passion and pressure forced them to splay and lose focus. As compensation, she was highly effective in her introspective work, and her “Addio del passato” was a glory of her interpretation. I felt the somewhat dry voice was slow to warm up, but once it did, she negotiated the demands of the role with considerable success. Above all she displayed mature artistry and totally focused commitment.

None of the cast was helped by the decision to put the evening’s sole intermission just before the final act. Nor by the total discouragement of traditional opportunities for applause for the set pieces. Ultimately, the director succeeded in keeping the audience at arms-length, in defeating interaction between the principals, and in tiring us with repetitious visual imagery. Not the elements that contribute to a very memorable “Traviata.”

Happily, “Die Zauberfloete” at the Deutsche Oper was a delight on almost all levels. First, while the u.d. Linden crowd seemed to be largely silver-haired subscribers, about half of the packed “Flute” audience seemed to be school age young people who were jazzed to be there. With such a completely different ambiance from the start, this well-known Singspiel (in its 238th performance of the current production) communicated with a freshness and vitality that eludes many premiere evenings.

Andreas Reinhardt’s colorful and inventive designs have been well-maintained, the best feature being a runway around the pit, the least being a sight-line restricting tree on the down right lip of the stage. Small matter that, since the liberal use of colorful over sized billowing silks, puppetry, and Asian-inspired theatrical performance elements swept us along on a visually varied and highly satisfying ride. Especially handsome was a garden tableau evocative of “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

Herr Reinhardt was ably abetted by an uncredited but terrific lighting design. The golden glow of the temple scenes was but one of the many effective effects. I could have done without the eventual end-of-scene blackouts which I felt impeded the overall momentum, but this was very fine work overall. If the caricatured black make-up on the Moors was decidedly un-P.C., the Germans seem to retain rather an innocence about it all.

Guenter Kraemer’s direction (and/or whoever restaged it) used all of the stage well, not the least of which was the use of the runway. This especially afforded “Papageno” the opportunity to wholly engage the audience. And to that end, we had a willing collaborator with the winning performance of Simon Pauly. A superb comic actor who thinks on his feet, he took well-calculated risks in soliciting audience participation, as a “taster” for his glass of wine for example, or as ringer of the magic bells, the latter amusingly filling what can be a lengthy stretch in the “Das Maedchen oder Wiebchen” aria. While he also sang quite well, it was Mr. Pauly’s acting that carried the day. He was well-partnered by a lovely and charismatic “Papagena” in the person of Ditte Andersen.

The excellent “Three Ladies” of Jacquelyn Wagner, Sarah Ferede, and Julia Benzinger were well-matched, and Burkhard Ulrich was easily the very best “Monastatos” I have encountered. While she will not make you forsake Edita or Natalie or Diana, Burcu Uyar was a decent “Queen of the Night,” far more comfortable in the second aria than in the first.

The “Two Armored Men,” Paul Kaufmann and Hyung-Wook Lee offered solid singing. Arutjun Koptchnian was just fine as “Sarastro,” his orotund sound more pleasing to me in the two big arias than in his other scene work. Young Joel Prieto seems destined for a fine career if his well-voiced “Tamino” is any indication. Already performing this role well, I predict that in a few year down the road he will be performing it memorably well. Fionnuala McCarthy’s naive blond approach to “Pamina” worked fine once I got used to it. She has a pure, well-schooled soprano from which I occasionally wanted more warmth. “Ach, ich fuehl’s” seemed a bit uninvolved (and maybe a bit too brisk).

The “Three Boys” (unnamed) from the Dresden Kreuzchor were competent, the diction quite muddy, and the intonation variable. I have only once really enjoyed the casting of boys in these parts, finding female voices much more satisfying. Even the “cute” factor was diminished in this production by their sit-and-sing deployment, keeping them relatively uninvolved in the drama and inviting one of them to look about in boredom.

For sheer fine singing, veteran Lenus Carlson took the evening’s honors as he rolled out one beautiful sonorous phrase after another as the “Speaker.” The excellent orchestra under the sure hand of Matthias Foremny was an unusually sensitive partner to the singers, offering a pliant, delicate Mozart reading of the highest quality.

Would that Wolfgang had been so well served the next night at the Komische Oper. For those who may have been eagerly awaiting “Abu Ghraib - The Musical,” your wait is over.

For those who wanted to see “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” stay far away because Bad Boy Bieito has been at it again. Calixto Bieito seems to me to have become famous for being famous. Famously provocative, that is. While great directors illuminate, clarify, focus, and re-imagine well-known classic pieces, Mr. Bieito seems to be content to wantonly defile them willy-nilly in any way that will fuel attention to his “artistry.” For starters, the published spoken lines of this “Abduction” have either been cut, or just plain re-written, with dramatic situations eliminated or altered to suit the “concept.”

One example is that “Pedrillo” enters and yells after the exiting “Osmin” -- in English -- “I am sick and tired of you busting my balls. How would you like it if someone came after you (with a gun) and blew your tiny dick off?” He then starting playing basketball with “Belmonte” who had entered and they began conversing in German again.

The taint was evident from the start. The revolving stage set is a series of Plexiglas, brothel-like “Love Modules.” As the overture begins, a scantily clad trapeze artist descends from the flies, and after some routine tricks, starts performing some very suggestive acts. “Osmin” enters chasing a buxom “extra” (I heard they were real prostitutes, these extras) and they chase each other, disrobing totally as they go, ending in bed doing the deed.

They finish sex during “Belmonte’s” opening aria, and naked, portly, hairy “Osmin” proceeds to shower. No, really, shower. To go much further into all this depravity would be to dignify it with more importance than it deserves. Suffice it to say, whatever sexual kink you could think of, and several you wouldn’t, are on display.

“Constanze” is kept in a small rolling cage on a dog collar and leash. “Belmonte” is dressed up in drag to get him into the harem. Remember all that dialogue about his being an architect? Gone. Scantily clad “Blondchen” teases “Osmin” during her first aria, allowing him to lie on the floor and look up her skirt, and subsequently to take her from behind as she sings on her hands and knees. A drug addict, “Pedrillo” steals some of her Valium to spike “Osmin’s” vodka. Remember that important bit about the two bottles of wine? Gone. Now during “Vivat Bacchus” the bass shoots at the tenor until he wounds him in the knee.

During “Martern aller arten” our singing soprano is forced to watch “Osmin” snuff one of the extras, cutting her with a knife and slitting her throat after first straddling her and forcing her to perform oral sex. The violent kicking sound she produced as she was dispatched took the ginger out of those pesky melismas in the “incidental” aria, let me tell you.

“Pedrillo” and “Belmonte” shoot absolutely every extra in the process of their various sex acts in the “Love Modules” after “Ich baue ganz,” “Constanze” ultimately shoots and kills “Selim,” and “Pedrillo” takes out “Osmin” but not before the bass has tasted necrophilia with one of the dead extras. In the most despicably cynical moment of all, in the show’s last moment a spotlit, kneeling “Constanze” gets shot dead on the music’s final button by “someone.” So much for forgiveness and hope, huh?

Does it make you feel any better to know that the small house was only one third full on a Friday night in Berlin when it was the only opera in town? Or that a number of patrons defied the decision to play the piece without intermission by creating their own and walking out? Or that the silence at curtain was pierced by a “boo” and then tepid applause? Nope, me neither.

The tragedy is that the orchestra played wonderfully for young Stefan Klingele. The pliable, hard-working cast was peopled with fine, good-looking young singers. Edgaras Montvidas was a great “Belmonte,” singing with power and richness of tone. Christoph Spaeth was a fearless actor as “Pedrillo,” and he provided an accomplished comprimario reading. The tall and lovely “Blonde” of Mojca Erdmann was very well sung and shamelessly performed. Guntbert Warns’ psychotic, loose cannon of a “Bassa Selim” was embodied with great range and (literally) bare-assed commitment. The totally unsympathetic “Osmin” was nonetheless powerfully sung and acted by Jens Larsen.

The greatest achievement of the night might have been Brigitte Christensen’s “Constanze,” had we ever been able to concentrate on her fine singing, and not be distracted by the ugly stage business, and by an unflattering skimpy slip. What a shame for all these artists that they were pawns in a self indulgent ego display. It is curious that some intelligentsia promote the notion that opera needs to be “saved” from boring traditional production practices by provocative re-workings like this, when truth to tell, this Bieito version got even more boringly repetitive, annoying, and predictable after a very short period of time.

The most perverse act of fornication was the one saved for the audience who paid money to see what they thought would be Mozart’s immortal opera. In the future perhaps a little truth in advertising should say “loosely based on ‘Abduction from the Seraglio’” so that Mozart lovers can make an informed decision.

James Sohre

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