Komische Oper, Berlin
12 December 2007
Kor-Jan Dusseljee – Lukullus
Markus John – Commentator
Jens Larsen – Judge of the Dead
Hans-Peter Scheidegger – The King
Erika Roos – The Queen
Gabriela Maria Schmeide – The Fishwife
Christiane Oertel – The Courtesan
Christoph Späth – The Teacher
Peter Renz – The Baker
Karen Rettinghaus, Miriam Meyer, Karolina Andersson – Women’s Voices
Anna Kokhanov – First Child
Sophia Duwensee – Second Child
Choir, Children’s Choir, and Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin
Eberhard Kloke (conductor)
Katja Czellnik (producer)
Hartmut Meyer (designer)
Nicole Timm und Sebastian Figal (costumes)
Franck Evin (lighting)
The Komische Oper has been named Opera House of the Year by German critics. It certainly proved worthy of that title by mounting Paul Dessau’s Die Verurteilung des Lukullus, ‘The Condemnation of Lucullus’. The text is by Brecht, closely following his radio play, Das Verhör des Lukullus, ‘The Trial of Lucullus’, also the title of the opera in its first version. At the time of its premiere at the Staatsoper, the opera became embroiled in a dispute over its alleged formalism, for failing to conform to the dictates of socialist realism, yet would soon be acknowledged in East Germany as a canonical work, receiving four new productions in East Berlin alone. It also gained considerable recognition in the West, although has rather fallen out of favour since reunification. To hear Brecht (and indeed Dessau) in Berlin, and in what was East Berlin, is of course an opportunity in itself.
At this remove, it is perhaps difficult to understand why the work proved so initially controversial, although it seems that Dessau made some concessions in the second, definitive version. Musically, it will scare off no one acquainted with Kurt Weill, hints of Stravinsky and perhaps Hindemith notwithstanding. The omission of upper strings gives a Weill-like edge to the orchestral band, replete with prepared piano and trautonium (an early synthesiser). And its political message, its abhorrence of dictatorship – this was composed and received very much in the shadow of the Nuremberg trials – could hardly be stronger. The dictator Lucullus, having died, must reckon for his deeds if he is to enter the after-life. Various witness-interrogators establish beyond reasonable doubt that his sole humanitarian achievement, introducing the cherry tree to Rome, is hardly enough to erase the loss of 80,000 lives. He must instead be consigned to eternal nothingness, as the plebeian jury gains its redress.
Falschfilm’s video clips of dictators past and present accompanied the political leader’s obsequies, making its point very clearly and yet without hysteria. Beyond that, Katja Czellnik’s production and Hartmut Meyer’s designs did not always make things easy for the innocent viewer. There was always a great deal going on, often to good effect, although the profusion of what was sometimes rather bizarre imagery, not least in terms of Nicole Timm und Sebastian Figal’s garish costumes, could grow a little wearing. Less would undoubtedly have been more, at least at times. Fortunately, the cast’s diction was generally excellent, so that I could understand most of what was being said or sung, even without titles. This was doubly important given that the text was by Brecht no less.
For if I had some misgivings concerning the production, the performances themselves could not fail to win one over. Kor-Jan Dusseljee put his considerable tenor voice to good use as the anti-hero. Like the rest of the cast, he could act too. Markus John, in the spoken role of the Commentator, ensured that we had little doubt understanding what was going on, or at least what should have been going on. The world of more conventional operatic beauty made a welcome cameo with Erika Roos’s Queen, and Jens Larsen impressed with his powerful deep voice as the Judge. Perhaps the most moving portrayal was that of Gabriela Maria Schmeide’s wronged Fishwife, struggling to come to terms with the loss of her son. She seemed to me to strike just the right balance between musical and dramatic demands, a tricky business in Brechtian works.
The orchestra sounded excellent throughout. Rhythmic power and precision were married to an impressive ear for Dessau’s palette in Eberhard Kloke’s fine interpretation. Moreover, the choral singing, from children and adults, was uniformly excellent. Once again, diction was not a problem, but this was never at the expense of warmth of tone, at least where required. The jury’s final consignment of Lukullus to nothingness presented a due sense of catharsis, even though Dessau’s ultimate resolution sounded a bit too much like a socialist realist cop-out: a little more Verfremdung would not have gone amiss.