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27 Nov 2015

Šimon Voseček : Biedermann and the Arsonists

‘In these times of heightened security … we are listening, watching …’

Šimon Voseček: Beidermann and the Arsonists, Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells (Baylis Studio Theatre) Tuesday 17th November 2015

A review by Claire Seymour


The words of the Chorus of Firemen and the images of a burning citadel which open Independent Opera’s production of Šimon Voseček’s opera, Biedermann and the Arsonists - receiving its UK premiere at Sadler’s Wells, following the premiere of the 90-minute opera at Neue Oper Wien in 2013 - are disturbingly close to the bone, in the light of recent terrorist atrocities in Paris and the IS attack upon Russian Airbus A321-200.

The opera sets Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s Biedermann und die Brandstifter, which was written for radio in 1953 and adapted for the theatre five years later. David Pountney has provided a new English translation, though as Voseček has noted, ‘[t]he piece is already written as if it were a libretto - it was hardly necessary to do anything to it’; thus, except for the excision of the prologue, epilogue and one character, a ‘Dr of Philosophy’, Pountney has made few significant changes. The play reflects Frisch’s contempt for Europe’s lack of vision or moral cowardice when faced with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, and the continent’s similarly complacent response to the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1948. And, despite the Kremlin’s announcement this week that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart, François Hollande, have spoken by telephone and agreed to coordinate military attacks in Syria, it is hard not to see parallels between the West’s recent unwillingness to acknowledge, confront and challenge the threat from radical Islam.

Gottlieb Beidermann (whose name implies ‘Everyman’) is a bourgeois businessman who has made his fortune peddling fake hair lotion. His town has a problem: arsonists are burning down its houses. Biedermann thinks the perpetrators should be lynched. But, when two homeless strangers - a brutish former jailbird turned wrestler and a slick head waiter - knock on his door, and weasel and wangle their way into his home, taking residence in the attic, Beidermann, inhibited by middle-class guilt, pushes aside his suspicions that his lodgers are the fire-raisers in the vain hope that politeness and courtesy will keep the threat they pose at bay. His pyromaniac tenants subsequently fill his garret with barrels of petrol but he turns a blind eye to their evil intent, failing to recognise that his wilful ignorance implicates him in their destructiveness. The ineffectualness of denial and self-deception as a strategy for self-protection is overtly confirmed when Beidermann literally becomes their accomplice, handing them the very match that they use to turn his own home into an inferno.

The director of this production, which celebrates Independent Opera’s 10th anniversary, is twenty-five year old Max Hoehn - the recipient of Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells 2015 Director Fellowship: the first competition of its kind for opera directors in the UK, offering a young director the chance to stage a chamber-scale piece in London with resources comparable to those of the main UK companies.

Frisch assigns no designated time or place to the action, and Hoehn and his designer Jemima Robinson set the drama in the present. Inside Beidermann’s chic abode, the minimalist décor, unread books and token art, decorative candelabras and domestic maid, confirm his wealth, status and pseudo-culture. Amid such comfort, Biedermann enjoys his cigars and the wine flows copiously. The split-level set frames a modish dining room with a bathroom stage-right (where the characters take refuge as the tension escalates) and an attic stage-left, where the barrels of petrol are stored. The domestic realism is tempered by the surreal glow of lurid greens and pinks, and the blinding flashes of search-lights and red hazard beacons.

Frisch employs a Chorus of Fireman, which functions to some degree in the manner of a Greek chorus, describing and commenting on action which takes place off-stage. Adam Sullivan, Johnny Herford and Bradley Travis sang with precision, forming a well-coordinated ensemble, but also distinguishing the fire-fighters as individuals. Lodged in a pillar-box red, children’s-book fire engine, these ‘officers of order’ were portraits of inanity, the cartoonish stylisation of their movements, together with the juxtaposition of overly grave recitation and hysterical falsetto heightening their idiocy. The angel-wings they sport on their high-vis uniforms might infer that they guard the town with religious zeal, but while their role is to protect the population, the images of blazing buildings and their ‘Keystone Cops’ style clock-working suggested that, though they are preparing for the worst, they are doing little to stop it happening. They repeatedly warn and observe: ‘We are ready!’ But, they do nothing but wait, strewing the set with yellow ‘Do not cross’ fire-tape and danger signs, and tying themselves in knots with a snaking red fire-hose.
There are obvious echoes of Brecht’s alienation techniques in Frisch’s use of the Chorus, but, as Hoehn shows, the Swiss playwright is not as didactic as Brecht.

Frisch’s Chorus is deliberately ironic: while their remarks on the action of the play reinforce our awareness of the citizens’ helpless, we know that it is in fact Biedermann’s actions that are leading to his demise. Frisch’s firemen admit they are, ‘Always well-disposed citizen/Towards the well disposed citizen. Who in the end pays our wages’, and boast, ‘Sometimes we stop, take the weight off our feet, But never in order to sleep. We are untiring’. Hoehn deepens the irony, for his fire-fighters do in fact take a snooze.
The principals all negotiated Voseček’s tricky vocal lines successfully and demonstrated considerable vocal stamina. Moreover, despite the vocal challenges the text was unfailingly clear, rendering the surtitles (which shook during moments of more frenzied physical chaos) redundant.

We are familiar with the padded excess of actors’ fat-suits, but Leigh Melrose, as the tattooed, moustachioed wrestler, Schmitz, sported an outlandish variation on the plumping prosthesis: a muscle-suit whose grotesqueness was enhanced by Melrose’s comic-strip costume and deranged psychotic stare. Melrose was admirably dynamic as the maniacal fire-raiser; his attention to detail - to the nuances of vocal colour, facial gesture, physical timing - was impressive, and he employed a wide expressive range, by turns snarling then crooning, that conveyed the unpredictability, indeed lunacy, of Schmitz. Melrose’s commitment to the role was absolute, whether impersonating the black-veiled, high-heeled widow of one of Biedermann’s sacked employees, or stuffing himself with goose and red cabbage at his host’s dinner party. As Schmitz’s partner-in-incendiarism, Eizenring, Matthew Hargreaves was a wiry figure of restlessness, his charred apron suggest combustible mishaps more furious that those that might occur in the kitchen. Hargreaves’ is a large, grand baritone, and he imbued it with thunder and darkness to convey Eizenring’s menacing mania.

Tenor Mark Le Brocq was superb as Biedermann: he convincing communicated the businessman’s increasing anxiety and unease, and while it was clear that pride and over-confidence were the cause of Biedermann’s downfall, his guilt and insecurities were evident too - ‘tragic’ flaws which inspired pity.

The two female roles were taken by previous recipients of Independent Opera’s Postgraduate Vocal Fellowships. Alinka Kozári was a neat, conventional Babette Biedermann, and demonstrated a good sense of comic effect. As the put-upon maid, Anna, Raphaela Papadakis was both wittily melodramatic - throwing frustrated tantrums, manhandling the crockery and coffee carafe - and genuinely despairing, as she yielded in defeat to Schwitz’s grotesque embrace and fed him ladles of sauerkraut.

I enjoyed this high-octane theatrical event; but reflecting afterwards I had some reservations about both the production and the work. Hoehn’s approach seemed to me to emphasise the undoubted comedy of the piece at the expense of its tragic dimension. The physical theatre was well-choreographed, the caricatures appropriate. Frisch’s play is after a descendant of the medieval morality play with its archetypal representations of vices and challenges: just as Biedermann is ‘Everyman’ (in German ‘bieder’ means respectable and unsophisticated), so Eisenring is ‘The Trickster’, Schmitz is ‘The Sidekick’. But, the laughter which came readily should, perhaps, stick in our throats; Hoehn might have discomforted us still further, inferring our own complicity.

There was a decline from pointed satire into comic chaos, particularly so in the final alcohol-fuelled dinner-party scene. So, when Babette sang an aria of love for her husband, the sincerity of her feelings was undermined by her incongruous stuffing of the splayed goose. ‘Who are you?’ pleads Biedermann in confused anguish: to which the music ‘replies’, Mozart’s Commendatore - as the Voseček’s score slips into the graveyard scene from Don Giovanni and Schmitz calls for Biedermann’s hand, luring him to hell. This had the potential to be a frighteningly powerful theatrical moment: but Babette’s exclamation, ‘Oh! We saw that at Glyndebourne’, while it mocked her bourgeois pretention, also weakened the polemic of the parody.

More might have been made too of the arrival of the policeman who informs Biedermann of the death of the employee he fired, Knechtling. I was reminded at this point of Joe Keller, from Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, who similarly lives a life of denial, refusing to take responsibility for the deaths of US airman whose planes were brought down by faulty mechanical parts supplied by Keller, or for the destruction of his colleague Steve Deever’s life, whose imprisonment results from Keller’s lies. Both men verify to the harmfulness of those whose failure to act condemns both others and themselves.

Voseček incorporates much spoken text alongside his straining vocal lines; indeed to some extent it is only during the spoken dialogue that the relentless theatrical tempo and pitch are alleviated. The score itself, too, is similarly feverish, but it functions more like a Hitchcock sound-track - illustrative of, but separate from the action, rathe than an integral part of a musico-dramatic narrative. That’s not to suggest that Voseček’s score is not inventive and colourful: the abrasive sound-world conjured by violin, three cellos (one tuned down a third from standard pitch), three clarinets/saxophones, three trombones, tuba and percussion is exploited resourcefully by the composer, and the screeches, whines, bangs, dissonances and quartertones are aptly disorientating, seeming almost to ridicule the singers.

This is an overtly theatrical production. But I found the end somewhat anticlimactic. The fuse is lit, a sparkler fizzes, and then we are plunged into a darkness which is punctuated by a final flash and an image of an askew fire-exit arrow. By removing Frisch’s epilogue - in which Biedemann and his wife are seen burnt to a crisp but still in denial - Voseček has also removed the moral frame: we have no heaven and hell. But, that said, even in Frisch’s play there are no answers, just absurdity. We do not know what stops Beidermann from confronting and standing up to the arsonists. We do not know what motivates these grotesque characters.

Fritsch subtitled his play, ‘Ein Lehrstuck ohne Lehre’ - ‘a moral play without a moral’ - ironically contradicting Brecht’s notion of the ‘lehrstuck’ or ‘teaching piece’. At the final reckoning, the only ‘message’ evident is the insistence on man’s need to interrogate his world and his actions. As Edmund Burke said, ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’. This production was a timely reminder of the dangers of bourgeois orthodoxy and timidity in the face of terror.

Claire Seymour

Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells (Baylis Studio Theatre)
Tuesday 17th November 2015

Biedermann - Mark Le Brocq, Babette - Alinka Kozari, Schmitz - Leigh Melrose, Eisenring - Matthew Hargreaves, Anna - Raphaela Papadakis, Firemen - Adam Sullivan, Johnny Herford and Bradley Travis, Policeman - Laurence North; Director - Max Hoehn, Conductor - Timothy Redmond, Designer - Jemima Robinson, Lighting Designer - Giuseppe di Iorio, Video Designer - Daniel Denton, Britten Sinfonia

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