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Scene from Trouble in Tahiti [Photo by Hans Joerg Michel]
03 Sep 2016

Double Bill by Oper am Rhein

Of all the places in Germany, Oper am Rhein at Theater Duisburg staged an intriguing American double bill of rarities. An experience that was well worth the trip to this desolate ghost town, remnant of industrial West Germany.

Double Bill by Oper am Rhein

A review by David Pinedo

Above: Scene from Trouble in Tahiti

Photos by Hans Joerg Michel

 

Now it feels like a ghost town. Still, a strange place for this staging of rarities: Carter’s What’s Next? and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti.

Two completely different operas that complimented each other through their extremes. Oper am Rhein offered two new directors their yearly “Young Directors” platform, giving new talent the possibility to shine. It was a delight to hear them well sung, conducted, and inventively staged by two new young talents Tibor Torell and Philipp Westerbarkei.

Since Germany was playing Italy that evening (they won), the auditorium was empty save for some youthful enthusiasts, an American delegation of American conductors, and a scattering of curious elderly couples. It strangely created an intimate chamber opera like setting that suited the one-Act operas.

What Next_08_FOTO_Hans Joerg Michel.pngScene from What’s Next?

His only opera, Carter’s What’s Next? premiered in 1999 under Daniel Barenboim, when the composer was still alive. In this short, unsettling, metaphysical work, a bunch of people lose their memory after a car crash. They then appear as infants, adults, and elderly on stage. The singers have fallen through a hole in the road. They need to find a way to move on. Starry space video added a timeless dimension to Torell’s staging. With very little, he managed to create a lot of ambience.

In what amounts to atonal acrobatics, the singers had to manoeuver their voices through Carter’s shrill and pointy score. Highly complex, the performers seemed to crash into each other vocally. Singing without being heard and understood. As with most of Carter’s otherworldly creations, at a certain moment you become entranced by his cosmos of twinkling dissonance. With it unnerving overtones, this concise composition had uprooting neurotic effects.

Leading the Duisburger Philharmoniker (DP), Jesse Wong kept strict tempi, sustaining a highly charged suspense up to the intense climax. His focus was impressive and necessary with the challenging, cacophonous sounding, score. Percussion served up many disruptive, energetic surges. Later they added their strange effects from stage with stereophonic effects. Wong, a conductor at the beginning of his career, impressed technically--especially considering Barenboim premiered the piece with his Berliner Staatskapelle. The young audience applauded with boisterous Bravos.

The sad story notwithstanding, Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti sounded like the most joyous music after Carter’s universe. Bernstein wrote the score and libretto--perhaps inspired by his parents’ unhappy marriage. Set in the Fifties the drama has marriage themes similar to Mad Men. Westerbarkei kept Bernstein’s time and place. His staging was timely stylish and complimented Bernstein’s music. Nothing too outrageous, just elegant in its simplicity.

Three kitchens divided by elevating walls on a reduced proscenium make up the set. The middle is the shared family kitchen. In the left kitchen, the wife sees the shrink; the right, the husband has an affair with the secretary. The son plays baseball, at which the father used to be the best. The unhappy marriage is in crisis, as they stick to social conventions. The director establishes an impressive illusion of happiness with vibrantly colourful lighting in the social settings. When the singers are alone, the set remains grim and grey.

Bernstein’s work is not a happy piece, but he still keep his momentum fast-paced. He uses the theatrical aspect of the marriage to include upbeat boisterous music. Full of swinging passages, compared to the discontinuity in the eerie dissonances of Carter, this opera flies by. Conducting the DP, Patrick Francis Chestnut brought out the pulse and rich colours of Bernstein’s score with its jazzy syncopations and rhythmic currents. The early stages of the composer’s mature style from On the Town, West Side Story, could be detected. Ramona Zaharia (Dinah the wife) and Thomas Laske (Sam the husband) convinced with their accentless singing of this America music.

With the interesting risks Oper am Rhein takes with young artists, and both these productions looking and sounding exceedingly sharp, I wouldn’t mind traveling back to Duisburg for another rarity.

David Pinedo

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