Monday 22 April 2019

La bohème and Poro, Komische Oper, 19 and 20 April 2019

Komische Oper

Image: Iko Freese/

Mimì – Heather Engebretson
Musetta – Hera Hyesang Park
Rodolfo – Jonathan Tetleman
Marcello – Huw Montague Rendall
Schaunard – Michael Borth
Colline – Samuli Taskinen
Alcindoro – Carsten Sabrowski
Parpignol – Emil Ławecki
Merchant – Mathias Spenke
Customs Sergeant – Jan-Frank Süße
Customs Guard – Tim Dietrich

Barrie Kosky (director)
Rufus Didwiszus (set designs)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Simon Berger (dramaturgy)
Alessandro Carletti (lighting)

Poros – Dominik Köninger
Mahamaya – Ruzan Mantashyan
Sir Alexander – Eric Jurenas
Nimbavati – Idunnu Münch
Gandharta – Philipp Meierhöfer
Timagenes – João Fernandes

Harry Kupfer (director)
Hans Schavernoch (set designs)
Yan Tax (costumes)
Simon Berger (dramaturgy)
Jürgen Hoffmann (lighting)
Thomas Reimer (video)

Children’s Chorus (chorus director: Dagmar Fiebach) and Chorus (chorus director: David Cavelius) of the Komische Oper, Berlin 
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Jordan de Souza and Jörg Halubeck (conductors).

Image: Monika Rittershaus

I do not usually review opera productions together like this, even when they might be thought to have something more obviously in common than stagings of Puccini (La bohème) and Handel (Poro; in German, Poros). On this occasion, however, it occurred to me that it might be interesting, even illuminating, to compare recently opened new productions by the Komische Oper’s present Intendant, Barrie Kosky, and one of his most celebrated predecessors, Harry Kupfer. Whether that should prove to be the case will, as always, be for the reader to decide.

An obvious comparison, or rather contrast, lies in the works and the language in which they were given. La bohème could hardly be more central to the opera repertory; finely crafted, greatly moving work though it may be, one might think it appeared on our stages a little too often. Poro, on the other hand, is one of Handel’s lesser-known works: not entirely without reason, I have to say. Puccini’s opera certainly benefited from being given in Italian, original language productions having been one of Kosky’s most welcome innovations during his tenure. Puccini in German is, for many of us, no more alluring a prospect than Puccini in English. Poro(s), however, was given, at Kupfer’s request, in German translation, harking back to his time as an assistant director at the Halle Handel Festival – which was the basis of his choice of work. It has its moments, perhaps especially in the third act, but whilst the arias are rarely unattractive, many of them could happily be transferred from one ‘character’ – does anyone really care about these people? – to another without loss. I suspect that some, at least, of the interest in this opera lies in Metastasio’s Italian – not knowing the original, I can only speculate – and that its translation not only into German, but into a somewhat prosaic contemporary German, detracts from the poetic worth and meaning. There is no need to be fundamentalist about such matters, but this seemed more an exercise in nostalgia than a real dramatic choice.

Image: Monika Rittershaus

That impression was heightened, I regret to say, by Kupfer’s production. No one would deny his place in operatic history. Moreover, recent stagings, if hardly showing him at his very best, have had much to offer. This, however, really does nothing other than move the action, such as it is, from the India of Alexander the Great’s time to that of the British Raj’s establishment. Orientalist scenic backdrops and costumes show no critical distance. Alexander’s demotion to ‘Sir Alexander’, officer of the English Crown, betokens nothing more than a change of uniform. A Union flag unfurled at the end has a little more ironic edge, given the more than usually absurd device of the lieto fine, but a brief, unmotivated shift to cricket whites earlier on at least verged on the embarrassment. Given the thinness – let us be kind – of musical characterisation here, a strong hand from the director is really needed for a critical, modern audience. What we saw here might, with the possible yet by no means certain exception of the updating, have been seen fifty or sixty years ago. Any play with the potentially fascinating disjuncture between antiquity, and two stages in British imperial history (the 1730s and the 1850s) was, so far as I could discern, entirely absent. Maybe it would have been better off staged in English…

Image: Iko Freese/

Kosky, by contrast, proved more able to draw compelling drama from his work, whilst still working essentially within a framework of what we might call ‘fidelity’ to it. The story is told clearly, bar a somewhat confusing excision of Benoît, the students’ landlord, his part sung instead by Colline (in character as Colline, unless I misunderstood). But the age old dramatic conflict between private and public comes very much to life visually and viscerally, as do questions of what we see, what we remember – and how. Photography, aptly enough for the age, lies at the heart; or, perhaps better, enables us to understand what we think of, rightly or wrongly, as the heart. The first and fourth scenes take place in Rodolfo’s studio – cramped like the garret it should be and so rarely is – and that is how Mimì comes to life: an image, invested with whatever it is he and we see in her. Not that she lacks agency, but we are left in little doubt as to the maleness of this Parisian gaze. The city, moreover, comes to life – or recedes into our memory – through faded, yet atmospheric daguerreotypes. Debussy’s claim to Manuel de Falla, cited in a programme interview with conductor, Jordan de Souza, that no one had represented Paris so well musically as Puccini, seemed very much to the fore here: past, present, even future brought together in dramatic unity that yet permitted for disjuncture, for play, for deception. The fleshpots were there too, memorably in the rotating orgy of the second act and beyond the stage for the third, but their (near-)presence was an integral part of the drama of the city, of these individuals, of their interaction, not in any sense a source of titillation. There was something painterly and indeed photographic in a dramatic sense – unlike the ‘jungle’ backdrop and statue of Poro.

De Souza was an unquestionable asset to the drama too. Rarely if ever have I heard this opera so well conducted. Often, with profit, one hears certain aspects of Puccini highlighted: Puccini the Wagnerian, Puccini the modernist, Puccini the colourist, Puccini the melodist, and so on. Here, however much of an illusion this may be – and, more important, however great the art that conceals art – it seemed that we heard not only those and other facets to the composer’s artistry held in balance and in dramatic contest, but that one heard this Bohème, this particular set of performances and production, in such balance. I can say no fairer than that. By contrast, Jörg Halubeck heightened rather than lessened the sense of the formulaic in Poro. There was rarely anything to which to object, but nor was there anything about which to enthuse. A few more strings, more warmly played, would not have gone amiss; that, it seemed, was to be attributed to Halubeck’s ‘period’ puritanism rather than to any such inclination on the players’ behalf.

If solo singing came across more strongly, with greater personality, in La bohème, that would perhaps be to be expected. There was nonetheless nothing to disappoint in Poro, even if in most cases, I suspected a more invigorating conductor (and director) might have helped. Soprano, Ruzan Mantashyan and mezzo, Idunnu Münch were for me the pick of the bunch, nicely contrasted and yet complementary. If only Handel (or rather Metastasio) had been more inclined to duets and ensembles; or, indeed, to choruses, in which one of Handel’s greatest strengths surely lies. (That is surely not the least reason for the general superiority of his oratorios.) The young cast for La bohème had wonderful chemistry as well as personality, Jonathan Tetelman and Huw Montague Rendall touching in kindred spirit and individuality as Rodolfo and Marcello. One could believe in both, feel with them, in a way never possible in the Handel opera. (And yes, I know that is not really the point.) Heather Engebretson’s Mimì duly lit up the room, personification, as it were, of the candle that insisted on self-extinction, whilst Hera Hyesang Park balanced with great expertise and sympathy the competing demands of Musetta’s personality. In short, the whole was greater than the sum of its considerable parts, whereas in Poro, both ultimately fell short. That said, both performances met with enthusiastic reception from the audience. There is doubtless room for both; there were unquestionably audiences for both too.