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Reviews

06 May 2019

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, directed by Calixto Bieito

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Photos courtesy of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

 

Nearly four decades later, Reimann’s opera has become a modern classic. It now seems to me both easily accessible and deeply moving; thus, I welcomed a chance to attend the second of three performances at this year’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. As is often the case with modern operas, even established ones, about 5% of the seats were empty, while another 5% of the audience slipped out at intermission. Those who remained, however, rewarded the performers enthusiastically—and were themselves rewarded when the 83-year old composer himself took a bow. It is a sign of how times have changed when elderly Florentines leave such a performance enthusing “bella, bellissima!”

This production reassembles the conductor, sets, stage team, and most of the cast of a 2016 run in Paris. Danish baritone Bo Skovhus owns the title role these days. (You can view his interpretation, in slightly fresher voice compared to what I heard in Firenze, on this DVD from Arthaus Musik DVD of a 2014 Staatsoper Hamburg performance.) His approach to the role is clear, forceful, well-enunciated and projects a coherent character. It is, of course, always unfair to compare any singer to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau—especially in this case, since Reimann wrote Lear expressly for him. Yet doing so highlights a critical difference in emphasis. Fischer-Dieskau approaches the part with the Lieder singer’s understatement and subtlety, thereby underscoring the traditional view that Shakespeare’s Lear is an old man, tired and infirm at the start and dead at the end. This interpretation also made the most of the singer’s own advancing age: it was the last operatic part Fischer-Dieskau would record. In 1982, I remember being surprised that his aging voice, never the largest, sounded so small in the theater.

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Skovhus, by contrast, is a large man who radiates good health—not to mention possessing some impressive pecs, which he displays for most of the show. He also prefers to use his resonant voice at forte. Thus, when bad things befall him on stage, he tends to comes across as a well-meaning Hollywood superhero temporarily laid low. One feels little of the human frailty and loneliness so central to Shakespeare’s Lear and particularly emphasized in Reimann’s opera, which purposefully drops “King” from the title to stress that he is an everyman. Watching Skovhus in this role, his musical mastery somehow never quite dislodges my expectation that he will somehow prevail in the final reel.

Two of the three daughters did not appear in the Paris cast. Spanish soprano Ángeles Blancas Gulin brings a powerful and steely tone to the role of Gonderil. The fact she seems so monochromatically brash may lie partially in the way Reimann wrote the role. Two Swedish sopranos, Agneta Eigenholz and Erika Sunnegårdh, add much. Eigenholz possesses a pretty and well-focused voice, though perhaps could do more to project Cordelia’s own painful self-realizations in the penultimate scene—Várady being the unfair comparison here. Sunnegårdh misses some chances to make more of the wild coloratura Reimann uses to express Regan’s hysteria: to judge by tapes, her voice has grown heavier since Paris three years ago.

British counter-tenor Andrew Watts portrays Edgar (aka Tom) with subtle inflection and a fully rounded sound, if occasionally wavering diction. Young Turkish Baritone Levent Bakirci, trained in Philadelphia and working his way up in the German system, cuts a dashing—if oddly young and good-looking—character as Gloucester, and sings with precision and a clear sound, particularly at the top of the voice. This is a singer to watch. German actor Ernst Alisch plays the speaking-singing role of the fool with astonishing vividness, subtlety and power—not least since he is 79 years old. Kor-Jan Dusseljee, Frode Olsen, Derek Welton and Michael Colton round out the cast, all singing in the full-throated manner this production treats as the norm.

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Reimann’s thick and complex score demands much of both conductor and orchestra. Fabio Luisi, the musical director of the Maggio Musicale, conducts—today less than 24 hours after leading a demanding orchestral program of Schubert and Mahler. Luisi’s approach is clear and detailed, and he drew excellent playing out of the orchestra—even if the tone sometimes seems to lack the full measure of delicacy, transparency and voicing, qualities one normally associates with Luisi. Some of this may be due to Firenze’s relatively new opera house, the acoustics of which I am still getting to know, or perhaps the orchestra, which otherwise responded brilliantly.

Calixto Bieito has achieved controversial celebrity in the opera world with a “throw everything at the wall and the s--- will stick” approach to stage direction. Here, uncharacteristically, he restrains himself during the first third of the work: a closed, narrow and essentially unchanging set amplifies the sound and invites the audience to trace intimate links among characters. At some point, however, Bieito begins to throw in assorted post-modern clichés: a slowly deconstructing set that diffuses the sound, Luis Buñuel-style projections of farm animals and eyeballs, disrespect for the “fourth wall,” a bloody half-suicide unmentioned by Shakespeare, some dominatrix play with neckties, and a full-frontal nude male of prodigious endowment. At the end, true to cliché, Lear does not die but sits quivering in mute madness.

Little of this illuminates Shakespeare’s text. If Bieito’s focus on sex and barnyards is meant to underscore humanity’s animalistic side, as one assumes, why do the shenanigans on stage began just at the moment when both Shakespeare’s play and Reimann’s music turn back inexorably toward the uniquely human quality at the center of the play, namely the ability to feel profound regret? Madness, rather than death, at the end similarly makes little sense in context.

This type of directorial self-indulgence tends to come from individuals with little ear for music—and correspondingly little confidence in its ability to carry the drama. For most of the second act, therefore, I gave up on Bieito. I sat back, closed my eyes and wondered at the compositional mastery underlying this marvelous score, which incrementally tightens the musical focus and raises the existential stakes up to the very last second, when Reimann’s music magically dissolves into nothingness.

Andrew Moravcsik

Aribert Reimann: Lear

König Lear - Bo Skovhus, König von Frankreich - Frode Olsen, Herzog von Cornwall - Michael Colvin, Graf von Kent - Kor-Jan Dusseljee, Graf von Gloster - Levent Bakirci, Edgar - Andrew Watts, Edmund - Andreas Conrad, Goneril - Angeles Blancas Gulin, Regan - Erika Sunnegårdh, Narr - Ernst Alisch; Director - Calixto Bieito, Conductor - Fabio Luisi, Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Saturday, 5 May 2019.

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