Wednesday 21 February 2024

Le nozze di Figaro, Deutsche Oper, 20 February 2024

Count Almaviva – Thomas Lehman
Countess Almaviva – Maria Motolygina
Susanna – Lilit Daviyan
Figaro – Artur Garbas
Cherubino – Meechot Marrero
Marcellina – Michaela Kaune
Don Basilio – Burkhard Ulrich
Don Curzio – Chance Jonas-O’Toole
Bartolo – Padraic Rowan
Antonio – Patrick Guetti
Barbarina – Ketevan Chuntishvili
Two Bridesmaids – Yuuki Tamai, Asaha Wada

Director – Götz Friedrich
Set designs – Herbert Wernicke
Costumes – Herbert Wernicke, Ogün Wernicke
Revival director – Gerlinde Pelkowski

Chorus (chorus director: Thomas Richter) of the Deutsche Oper
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Giulio Cilona (conductor)

DIE HOCHZEIT DES FIGARO von Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,
Deutsche Oper Berlin,copyright: Bettina Stöß
Count Almaviva (Thomas Lehman), Susanna (Lilit Dayivan), Don Basilio (Burkhard Ulrich)

Next stop on my tour of Berlin’s ‘vintage’ opera productions: Götz Friedrich’s Deutsche Oper Marriage of Figaro, a joy to encounter in itself and a nice sequel to Ruth Berghaus’s Barber of Seville across town at the Staatsoper. Friedrich’s productions are gradually making their way to the great opera house in the sky. When I first came to Berlin, a number of his Wagner stagings, for instance, were still in the repertoire; now there are none. This, from 1978, with designs by Herbert Wernicke – like Berghaus’s designer, Achim Freyer, going on to become a notable director in his own right – is certainly worth catching whilst it is still around. 

For once, I admit it was a relief to see an eighteenth-century society of orders portrayed as it ‘should be’. It is not the case that the drama cannot be reimagined in different settings, nor even that the complexity and hierarchy of such a society need in every case be reproduced (though one loses something if it is not). Yet too often, one gains the impression that a director has simply not bothered; or worse, has not even realised what is at stake. Such is the pathway to vulgar farce. Here, instead, almost everything seemed to fall into place. Not that that necessarily ‘happens’ without a good deal of thought and work, but the impression is important; the world created on stage worked, helped by being in accordance with that created by its librettist and composer, but also enabled to work by them. Even at this remove, there seemed to me no doubt that Friedrich had been involved at every level of this production, had made decisions founded upon musical and historical as well as stage understanding, and that characters and their relationships had been properly considered.

Costumes and their changes were never arbitrary or simply on account of a ‘look’, or even a concept. They had historical meaning and often looked handsome – Cheubino’s uniform, for instance – without being a fetishistic recreation, in which similarly the ‘look’ rather than the drama was the thing. Cherubino’s hiding from the Count actually worked for once; the number of times directors simply mess that up is, alas, all too numerous for comfort. I liked the touch of having the Count assert his manorial authority in front of the house’s customary picture of his ancestors. Likewise the audience room in which the last two scenes of that third act were set. Such attention to detail would chime with many people’s experience of visiting such houses and their estates and would therefore help bring to life the historical record, as well more straightforwardly as making sense of what was said, sung, and done. 

Perhaps more important, the choreography made sense, listening to the music rather than simply disregarding it in the usual ‘modern silly dance’ routines unmusical directors or their associates foist upon opera. (By all means offer something in counterpoint to it, however that may be understood, but at least do the score and its historical context the decency of listening to them first rather than simply skim-reading a libretto.) Scene changes were more frequent than will often be the case now: not only between but sometimes within acts. Current directors would do it differently, no doubt, but different is sometimes just different, not necessarily better or worse. 

Cherubino (Meechot Marrero), Countess Almaviva (Maria Motolygina), Count Almaviva

To questions concerning the opera are to what extent knowledge of the play and indeed of its sequel are expected. At one level, none: many of us saw and loved it before proceeding to Beaumarchais in either incarnation. Did Da Ponte and/or Mozart, though, expect any such knowledge, in the first instance by not having to show something that might have caused trouble with the censor; or, milder still, does one gain further insight from having done so? Here, rightly, the question was left open. No one was compelled to have extra knowledge, but we had both a sense of difference from the corresponding play that suggested purpose rather than mere accident, and one could certainly read aspects of the characters to suggest their lives had developed from the first instalment (even from Rossini after the fact; Paisiello too, I think). Thus when confrontations between Figaro and the Count were less studies in contemporary masculinity than will often, quite reasonably the case, one was led to think of their history together—and, as Friedrich noted in a fascinating programme interview, the fact that the Count is not an idiot, indeed most likely he is a man of the Enlightenment himself, entrusted as he will shortly be to represent his country as the ambassador in London. This, one might say, is him regretting the passing of certain aspects of something he knows to be wrong and attempting to recover them through guile, not through neofeudal reaction pushed to the level of absurdist tyranny. That, after all, is the story being told in the opera, though often one would not know it. The director may or may not have good reason for taking a slightly different line, just as (s)he might for failing to recognise what once had passed between the Count and Rosina, as once we knew here, but it is good to know, and to have suggested to us, that such matters have at least been considered.

And so, if I have been more thrilled by portrayals of Figaro and the Count, I came to appreciate a subtle more placing of them and the rest of the household within a greater social whole. Thomas Lehman and Artur Garbas did not seem to be presenting a modern portrayal and falling short; they were doing something different, as was Friedrich. Lilit Daviyan’s Susanna was not so different from what one might expect, though that is not to say she took anything for granted. Maria Motolygina’s Countess truly came into her own in ‘Dove sono’, a finely yet not fussily coloured account, in which musical means conveyed dramatic ends. Meechot Marrero’s Cherubino was not only dramatically alert but perhaps uncommonly beautifully sung. Michaela Kaune’s Marcellina offered a surprising star drunken turn in her fourth-act aria, for once retained. It was a pity still to be missing Don Basilio’s, but Burkhard Ulrich made a fine impression elsewhere: for once, a reading (Friedrich’s too, of course) that presented him as music master rather than a bizarrely camp caricature as has been recently fashionable. Everyone made a mark as required without overshadowing the rest of the company, down to Chance Jonas-O’Toole’s Don Curzio, whom one actually noticed in the sextet as well as before it, simply (or so it seemed) by virtue of Friedrich having given matters due consideration, as well as excellent singing. 

I cannot be so enthusiastic about Giulio Cilona’s conducting, though on the whole it seemed preferable to what I had heard last month in The Magic Flute. The Overture, hard-driven and with little audible at times other than rasping brass, brought us close in the wrong way to Rossini, as did too much of the first act. If there was little depth to what followed and a few too many disjunctions between pit and stage, especially during ensembles, at least it showed greater flexibility. And it certainly improved, the third and fourth acts more all-purpose ‘light’ rather than motoric. That Friedrich’s production survived and shone is all the more testament to its virtues—and to the cast that brought them back to life.

Monday 19 February 2024

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 16 February 2024

Count Almaviva – Siyabonga Maqungo
Doctor Bartolo – Renato Girolami
Rosina – Marina Viotti
Don Basilio – Grigory Shkarupa
Berta – Adriane Queiroz
Figaro – Samuel Hasselhorn
Fiorillo – Dionysios Averginos
Ambrosio, Notary – Florian Eckhardt
Officer – Wolfgang Biebuyck

Director – Ruth Berghaus
Designs – Achim Freyer
Revival director – Katharina Lang

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Dani Juris)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Ido Arad (conductor)

Images (from 2010): Monika Rittershaus

I see that, in London, Jonathan Miller’s 1987 ENO production of The Barber of Seville is receiving another outing. It seems positively modern, though, at least when it comes to years and performances on the clock, when compared with Ruth Berghaus’s 1968 staging for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, first seen a little less than midway between the declaration of the German Democratic Republic and the fall of the Berlin Wall and now past 350 outings. In one of these near-miracles impossible fully to explain, though, Berghaus’s production seems more of our time – I cannot quite bring myself to describe anything, anti-historically, as ‘timeless’ – than many a staging receiving its premiere. It is probably the oldest I have ever seen in the theatre, yet it does not seem like it. Doubtless it has changed over the years; the director who dared to make changes at the Berliner Ensemble, would hardly have wished it otherwise. Some gestures struck me as highly unlikely to have been hers. Still more than usually, then, to speak of ‘Berghaus’s production’ will be a short-hand for a collaborative, changing effort. By the same token, it is difficult to believe that, at its heart, this is not something true, through fidelity and infidelity alike, to her conception. Above all, it provided the foundation on which a delightful evening of Rossini’s comedy unfolded. 

At that heart, I think, is a crucial insight not only into the artificiality of theatre – though that is certainly present – but into the very particular artifice involved in that arch-formalist Rossini. In a passage extracted in the programme, Berghaus exclaims (my translation): ‘Reality! Theatre is not reality and does not mirror reality. Theatre asserts a lfe that is taken from reality. But it is not reality. One must accept theatre as an addition to reality. It is a stage that does not mean the world. … The theatre is an institution that makes it possible to come to terms with reality.’ That is what we see here, not only in outcome but in construction too. Returning, via Brecht yet only in part, to the commedia dell’arte, beautifully evoked by the young Achim Freyer – then in his mid-thirties, this year celebrating his ninetieth birthday – the production simply builds its sets before our eyes and ears. Curtains, a few props, and an eye for design are all that is needed for a ‘Seville’ that is neither a naturalistic presentation nor a provocative anti-Seville to arise as the necessary backdrop for singers to act, to make comedy.

Very well they did so too. Samuel Hasselhorn, as Figaro, emerged as first among equals, unfailingly musical, clean and meaningful in coloratura, and with the timing of a seasoned actor. Marina Viotti’s Rosina similarly excelled, with Sitabonga Maqungo a likeable if,  occasionally, a less theatrically tight Almaviva. Grigory Shkarupa constructed a splendidly real-yet-not-real Don Basilio. A sparkling performance from Adriane Queiroz left one wishing Berta had more to sing. What Renato Girolami sometimes lacked in vocal presence, he made up for in theatrical commitment as Doctor Bartolo. The Staatskapelle Berlin, keenly directed throughout by Ido Arad, did not put a foot wrong, evoking, somewhat to my surprise, a sound not so distant from that of Neville Marriner’s vintage Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Bright, precise, and likewise with pinpoint timing, here was another crucial dimension never to be reduced to anything else, yet likewise never approaching abstraction. The aesthetics, then, were as ‘right’ as the execution. 

‘The picture,’ Berghaus explained, ‘really only has to enable the singer to act. I am very dependent on good singers, and sometimes I am of the opinion that singers are greater comedians than actors.’ They sing and take their bows, then, neither to depict ‘reality’ nor simply to present a ‘plot’. The relationship is complex, yet it does not feel as though it is. There does not feel as though there is anything to be ‘interpreted’ at all, though that is surely to conceal much work. That, in any case, can be considered afterwards, or before. A world of enjoyment is created, yet one which permits something deeper to speak, to sing, to be felt. By never forgetting that it is theatre, its success continues.

Friday 16 February 2024

Batiashvili/BPO/Petrenko - Brahms, Szymanowski, and Strauss, 15 February 2024


Brahms: Tragic Overture in D minor, op.81
Symanowski: Violin Concerto no.1, op.35
Strauss: Symphonia Domestica, op.53

Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Image: Lena Laine

For me, the highlight of this concert from the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko was the performance of Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, for which they were joined by the equally outstanding violinist Lisa Batiashvili. Almost any few bars – the sound and the direction it took – would have been enough to justify attendance; it was not, though, necessary to choose. Its opening, a fairyland in which orchestral children of Mendelssohn and Debussy took flight to the emergent strains of a silken violin line spun with longing and languor presaged what was to come, such interactions, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral the stuff on which dreams were made on—at quite a temperature. Whatever its twists and turns, there was no doubting the musical line and one’s compulsion to follow it. Metamorphoses magical, martial, and more proved gorgeously beyond good and evil in their phantasmagoria, form created before our ears. It seemed both old and new, all the while played as to the manner born, balances both perfectly projected yet constantly shifting. Fantasy became reality, or perhaps vice versa. 

Brahms’s Tragic Overture preceded it. Here I was somewhat more uncertain. It was tremendously played, of course, though perhaps driven a little hard at the beginning. (Such matters are mostly a matter of taste, yet even fate need not be quite so remorseless.) There was certainly contrast to come, not least in a charming, surprising echo of Schubert in onward tread before Brahms’s Beethovenian inheritance reasserted itself. What I never quite grasped was how the tragic pageant hung together. 

In the second half came Strauss’s Symphonia domestica. Of all Strauss’s tone poems, even Aus Italien, it is the one I know least well. Indeed, I am not sure I can claim to know it in an emphatic sense at all; I do not think I had been to a live performance before this. I was therefore hoping for some sort of ‘eureka’ moment, or at least a shift in my response to a work that has somewhat baffled me on previous hearings. Alas, it was not to be on this occasion—and that is not necessarily any reflection on the performance.  There were times, especially earlier on, when I thought it was. It is not often that Strauss is bested for great washes of orchestral sound, yet after Szymanowski he was; precision and clarity in the opening were therefore all the more valuable by way of contrast. The composer’s antiromanticism was here strongly to the fore, as it was when the music, more strongly than I can recall, presaged the operatic Strauss of a decade or more hence: Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne, even Intermezzo—which, in terms of subject matter, makes sense. Darker passages proved as ambiguous as the music at its more playful; the Mendelssohn quotation might almost have been filtered by Reger, save that it would surely have been the other way around. The sheer strangeness of Strauss’s tonal journey registered, though ultimately I am not sure I followed it, nor the work’s form (as opposed to mere structure) more generally. The ‘finale’ at times sounded intriguingly close to the enigmatic exuberance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, written at more or less the same time, yet an element of failing, as it were, to conclude here seemed less part of the narrative than, well, an inability to conclude. I am doubtless missing something and have little doubt Mahler would have relished the Berliners’ virtuoso handling of Strauss’s counterpoint. (He conducted the  Viennese premiere in 1904.) Sometimes, though, one must wait until a piece comes knocking on the door—which, judging by the reaction accorded this performance, it already had for most of my fellow concert-goers.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Madama Butterfly, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 14 February 2024

Cio-Cio-San – Sonya Yoncheva
Suzuki – Natalia Skrycka
Kate Pinkerton – Rebecka Wallroth
Pinkerton – Stefan Pop
Sharpless – Carles Pachon
Goro – Gonzalo Quinchahual
Prince Yamadori – Taehan Kim
Uncle Bonze – Grigory Shkarupa
Commissioner – Dionysios Avgerinos
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother – Verena Allertz
Aunt – Michèle Cusson
Uncle – Insoo Hwoang
Child – Carl Beyme

Director – Eike Gramss
Revival director – Marcin Łakomicki
Designs – Peter Sykora
Lighting – Irene Selka

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Gerhard Polifka)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Domingo Hindoyan (conductor)

Images (from the 1991 premiere): Gianmarco Bresadola

Happy St Valentine’s Day! Ash Wednesday and an opera about sex tourism. Whatever we might think about the latter two, many will agree that the coincidence is well deserved by the pseudo-feast of heart-shaped balloons and ‘special menus’ at three times the price, a third of the culinary quality. In retrospect, or rather more or less as soon as I had arrived, I could not help but think it was perhaps not the wisest of evenings to have chosen to see a Puccini opera; some fellow audience members seemed more concerned to chat, consult their telephones, and more rather than to devote attention to what might reasonably be considered the main attraction in an opera house. More broadly, though, an opera house’s life and health extend beyond the glamour and excitement of premieres. For that reason and for their own sake, I try to sample older stagings I have not seen too and have made that a particular effort to explore these, both in opera and spoken theatre, for this spell in Berlin. 

Here, then is Staatsoper’s Madama Butterfly, in Eike Gramss’s production, first seen at the end of April 1991, when it was conducted by Fabio Luisi, with Miriam Gauci in the title role. Fashions change, of course, often rapidly so—and that certainly applies to opera staging. To see something hailing from less than two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall is to step back some time indeed (not helped by the realisation we reached the point some years hence that the post-Wall era had lasted longer than ever the Wall stood). German reunification and full sovereignty were little more than a month old. One of that process’s sternest and most hapless foes, Margaret Thatcher, had recently been replaced as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The first Iraq War had still more recently concluded. And closer to home in newly reunified Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, fresh and doubtless a little sore from his atrocious treatment at Paris’s new opera house in the Place de la Bastille had yet to be appointed music director at the Statsoper Unter den Linden; that would come at the end of the year. 

I wondered initially, then, whether the safety curtain picturing a US sailor and other images, an eagle included, of Yankee imperialism had been initially intended to have more precise reference thirty-three years ago. Perhaps they had, although the theme is, as they say, ongoing, the opera itself bearing witness to that. I think that image may also, or primarily, have borne witness to a more existential conception, which I suspect will have come across more strongly earlier on, before the staging settled into a comfortable, perhaps necessary, repertoire life. There is a sense that Cio-Cio-San is perhaps delusional – obviously, on a very important level, she is – and certainly looking for escape. She does none of the things that would have helped her, in a difficult, disgraced position, owing to her father’s hara-kiri, to lead a better life; indeed, obstinately she rules them out. And this, I think, we can still see here; her movements suggest a refusal to confront her existing society, and an obstinate turn towards a fantasy of someone who will come to rescue her. (Wagnerian precedents in particular came to my mind.) 

In a notably unsympathetic portrayal of Pinkerton, there was perhaps just a chink of light suggesting that he too might have bought into ‘white saviour’ mode, as opposed to acting with pure cynicism. In many ways, that simply rephrases questions, but is probably worth bearing in mind. Otherwise, the action proceeds more or less as one would expect—and still perhaps might see from a smaller company, albeit probably with greater racial awareness. On the latter score, I think – and I know it is easy for me, as a white man to say this – one can be somewhat forgiving. There is nothing especially outrageous here, and doubtless all concerned would take a different approach from the outset today. Moreover, one can always read things more than one way: the dangerously orientalising portrayal of Japanese women fanning in concert can now be taken, if not intended, as a critique of such portrayals or at least a warning. We are free to have our own thoughts and should surely pursue them. 

Sonya Yoncheva gave a commanding performance as Cio-Cio-San. It offered a wealth of dynamic and other contrast, expertly shaded. There is, as ever, the problem as to how convincing, in a highly realist setting, someone can be as a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl. It is not clear to me what we do about that, other than abandon realism (which is clearly a question for another day), and that is not her fault. Natalia Skrycka’s Suzuki offered deep compassion and a high degree of on-stage chemistry. Stefan Pop can certainly has the vocal reserves for Pinkerton, yet I could not help but find his portrayal a little generalised: of thirty-odd years ago in a way that was not entirely beneficial. Maybe that was brought about by the venerable production, but I missed something more variegated. Carles Pachon’s Sharpless, though, had me wishing he had more to sing—and act. This was a creditably – and credibly – detailed performance, asking questions as much as answering them. 

The rest of the cast, chorus included, impressed, as did the Staatskapelle Berlin: the first time, I think, I have heard this orchestra in Puccini. If I am not sure Domingo Hindoyan always had the pacing quite right – the evening did sometimes seem to drag – then this is also in part a matter of taste and is related in complex ways to what one sees, and does not, on stage too. His approach was more Italianate than post-Wagnerian; something at least a little more symphonic might have helped bind the action together more strongly. By the same token, though, there was little doubt the score was unfolding as he envisaged it, and he certainly knew how to whip up a head of steam at climactic moments. It may well be time, so far as some of us are concerned, to replace this production, but audience reaction was enthusiastic in the extreme.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Rusalka, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 4 February 2024

Rusalka – Christiane Karg
Prince – Pavel Černoch
Foreign Princess – Anna Samuil
Vodník – Mika Kares
Ježibaba – Anna Kissjudit
Gamekeeper – Adam Kutny
Kitchen Boy – Clara Nadeshdin
Nymphs – Regina Koncz, Rebecka Wallroth, Ekaterina Chayka-Rubinstein
Huntsman – Taehan Kim

Director – Kornél Mundruczó
Designs – Monika Pormale
Lighting – Felice Ross
Video – Rūdolfs Baltiņš
Choreography - Candaş Baş
Dramaturgy – Kata Wéber, Christoph Lang

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Gerhard Polifka)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Robin Ticciati (conductor)

Images:  Gianmarco Bresadola
Rusalka (Christiane Karg)

Director Kornél Mundruczó comes like a breath of fresh air to unsettle our conceptions of Dvořák’s penultimate and, by some way, greatest opera and thus to do precisely what the material demands; or rather, it comes as something bitterly stale, menacing, even poisonous to accomplish what fresh air on its own might not be able. It is certainly refreshing, though it should not be, to have a production that takes class seriously as a form of social distinction, a social barrier, though ultimately it will go beyond that, re-engaging with the opera in all its strange tragedy and tragic strangeness. By grounding itself in the here and now, but also a here and now our society largely wishes to ignore, it challenges, but it challenges further and with brilliant theatricality by the course subsequently taken. 

Rusalka – not strictly her ‘name’, but it is all we have, and ‘the rusalka’ or even ‘the sprite’ would seem unduly pedantic – lives in a shared, ground-floor Berlin apartment, a WG or Wohngemeinschaft, her flatmates the other three nymphs and Vodník (if you prefer, the Watergoblin). She does not fit in with, or has grown distant from, her female flatmates at least; they are so much more laid back, fun-loving, quite happy in their less-than-ideal home of disrepair. Theirs is a working class, it seems, the bourgeoisie simply cannot stomach, however much it might claim to act in its name. But nor, any more, can Rusalka, at least since she has seen signs of the life – above all, the Prince – upstairs. In his modern penthouse with balcony and views across the city including, yet far from restricted to the Fernsehturm and the Rotes Rathaus, he and his appallingly grotesque group of friends, the Foreign Princess (his ex-) included, have ‘made it’. They know each other inside and out, as it were; they probably even vote Green. 

Rusalka, Prince (Pavel Černoch), Gamekeeper (Adam Kutny),
Kitchen Boy (Clara Nadeshdin), and Ensemble

One can see why she would like to escape to that other world, embodied in an attractive, trendily dressed mysterious (to her, though not to us) stranger. For one thing, other than the drugs that may or may not be Ježibaba’s stock-in-trade (what is that fascinatingly beyond-good-and-evil or just-plain-evil neighbour doing?) she is hardly spoilt for choice in alternative paths. Needless to say, an actually existing working-class young woman is the most shocking sight of all to the Prince’s friends and they work immediately to exclude her, the Foreign Princess going all out to rekindle those embers until the culpably weak yet more sympathetic Prince succumbs. No wonder the two sides cannot communicate, at least not until it is too late. For it is important to recognise that Rusalka fits in on neither side of this social divide. She only discovers – and this is entirely faithful to the work – where she might have done far too late. There is, again as in the work, a sort of tragic communion in that the Prince realises too late; he can only do what is right (for him, as much as ethically) by surrendering his life, which, movingly he does. 

In a programme interview, Mundruczó says he kept thinking of Kafka when working on the opera: doubtless a surprising reference for some of us, the Prague connection, albeit intergenerational, notwithstanding. But that may be to fall for outdated ‘national’ histories of music. Why not, after all? It certainly comes into his own in the third act here, where the action transfers less to a house than a cellar of horrors. Having returned to Ježibaba, been scorned and perhaps even poisoned, Rusalka leaves behind the world of social realism in which we imagined we should remain until the end and morphs into an impossible creature, part human, part goodness knows what, although it is perhaps not coincidental that its black suggests the colour of refuse and its disposal. One can and perhaps should read that in social and environmental ways; after all, what could be more of a social issue, what could hit the working class harder, than the destruction of the planet? But the aesthetic is actually quite different; one can read it for ‘meaning’ in that way, but the vision seems to lie beyond that: something spellbinding, from which one wishes to avert one’s eyes in horror at the agony Rusalka is experiencing, yet cannot. It is more filmic than theatrically Gothic, I think, but that choice seems a deliberate decision, again, judging from the interview, to attempt to reach younger audiences with different frames of reference. Whatever one might think of that – I am not sure I am the target audience here – for me it works. It truly unsettles and actually leads us to reconsider clashes between ‘natural’ and ‘human’, or ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ worlds very much as the work does—yet which can become lost if the setting is too folk-like. A sort of deformed, already-dead tree-in-plastic has grown, suffocating and perhaps literally trashing all that approach it.

Rusalka, Prince, Third Nymph (Ekaterina Chayka-Rubinstein)

Fairy tales, told properly, are dark, even sick, not through a sort of tired, bourgeois exhibitionism – that might be better left upstairs in the deceased Prince’s apartment – but because they tell of dreams, fantasies, delights, and horrors. They are not of the sanitised, commercial world of Disney, but come from a place of sex, violence, and more. The mirror they hold up is truthful because it is distorted, not despite that distortion. This production recognises such twisted truths and turns them into a drama at least implicit in Dvořák’s –and Jaroslav Kvapil’s – work and world. It may predate Freud and Kafka, but it is not without connections and even presentiments. I have nothing at all against a production presenting a single-minded view of a work, incorporating more current concerns, and so on. The work, whatever it may be, will survive. But a particular point of interest here is that the director does not impose a framework, even a related conceptual framework, on the work, but rather presents such a related framework as a way in to experience or re-experience the very strangeness of the work ‘itself’. 

For Dvořák progresses in this score too; even in so late a work as this, written after (!) Pelléas et Mélisande, he does not rest on his laurels. If those laurels are too folk-like for some early on – their loss, but there is no accounting for taste – then they surely will not be by the third act. For me, conductor Robin Ticciati and the superlative Staatskapelle Berlin came truly into their own in this act, opening up a range of post-Wagnerian language and emotion, not just or even principally emotion, extending beyond what I have heard from Ticciati previously (save, perhaps, at Glyndebourne for the dramaturgically unfortunate Ethel Smyth opera, The Wreckers). Not that there was anything wrong with what he did earlier. I initially found it a bit hard-driven, but came to realise that this was probably as much a reading developed in tandem with the production as a conception ‘in itself’ of the score. Lack of what might be thought of as sentimentality – not necessarily so, but that is arguably another matter – was the point. It was not cold, but nor was it a kitsch (or readable as such) tale of forest life. 

Rusalka, Ježibaba (Anna Kissjudit)

The same might be said of performances from an excellent cast, only more so, for there was some singing of ravishing warmth—but not only of that. Making her role debut, Christiane Karg not only traced the journey(s) proposed by composer, librettist, conductor, director, and more; she was instrumental in creating them. Occasionally during the first act, I wondered whether she might be a little under-powered, and perhaps there were a few first-night nerves there, but this was more, I think, a matter of wise marshalling of resources and dramatic trajectory. In many ways, I liked the way the Song to the Moon did not become a stand-alone aria and indeed related strongly to the music surrounding it, but I can well imagine some not having done so. Whatever one’s position on that – mostly a matter of personal preference – this Rusalka grew in stature through shocking experience, a tragic heroine to remember for the denouement. 

There was tremendous acting on her part too. Pavel Černoch’s Prince was similarly, if differently, involving. Despite it all, and partly on account of twin vocal intelligence and beauty, one could not help but like him, and again shared his ultimate tragedy at the close. Mika Kares’s Vodník also grew as his character – and the truth that character told – increasingly gained our sympathy. Anna Samuil offered glamour and refulgence – just the thing – for the Foreign Princess. Anna Kissjudit’s already horrible Ježibaba became all the more splendidly, horrifyingly so on her return, just as the production demanded, without sacrifice to more ‘traditional’ vocal values. Smaller roles and choral parts were all well taken, all contributing to a greater musicodramatic whole. 

As for the audience member who not only booed the end of the first act, but through his failure to stop – I am trying to be polite – seemed determine to prevent the second from beginning, what part of that whole troubled him so much? And why?

Sunday 4 February 2024

The Golden Cockerel, Komische Oper, 3 February 2024


King Dodon – Alexander Roslavets
Prince Guidon – Pavel Valuzhin
Prince Aphron – Hubert Zapiór
General Polkan – Alexander Vassiliev
Amelfa – Margarita Nekrasova
Golden Cockerel – Julia Muzychenko, Daniel Daniela Ojeda Yrureta
Queen of Shemakha – Kseniia Proshina
Astrologer – James Kryshak
First Boyar – Taiki Miyashita
Second Boyar – Jan-Frank Süße
Dancers – Michael Fernandez, Lorenzo Soragni, Silvano Marraffa, Kai Chun Chung

Director – Barrie Kosky
Assistant director – Denni Sayers
Set design – Rufus Didwiszus
Costumes – Victoria Behr
Choreography – Otto Pichler
Dramaturgy – Olaf A. Schmitt, Meike Lieser
Lighting – Franck Evin  

Orchestra and Chorus of the Komische Oper (chorus director: David Cavelius)
James Gaffigan (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Two productions, very different, of Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, The Golden Cockerel, within two years: James Conway for English Touring Opera, which I saw in Hackney, and now Barrie Kosky’s new production for Berlin’s Komische Oper in its temporary home in Charlottenburg. Both are experienced, though neither was planned, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ETO’s first night less than a fortnight after, the Komische Oper’s second night falling as we approach the two-year anniversary (although intended for 2020 and thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic). Rimsky’s satire on tsarist power and Russian imperialism in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war could hardly be more topical, then, and it would be difficult, indeed perverse, to banish thoughts of today’s King Dodon from our minds completely. In neither production, though, were such ideas first and foremost—and that is arguably a good thing. Spelling out so clearly rarely is, though there will always be exceptions. ‘Rimsky in Hackney’ gave a good introduction to the piece and played fruitfully with ideas of orientalism. Though necessarily given in a reduced orchestration, that proved surprisingly – for a composer and score for whom orchestral colour are so crucial – little of a problem. A dated English translation, replete with ‘amusing’ rhyming couplets, offered more of a barrier. This Cockerel, given in Russian, in full, and in excellent style by James Gaffigan, the Orchestra of the Komische Oper, and a fine cast of singers, took a different turn in Kosky’s production, which initially had me feel a little dissatisfied. However, the more I considered it, the more it grew on me. 

What is missing? Russia, orientalism, and the ‘fantastic’ colour associated with them, though certainly not fantasy itself; and most of the politics too. There is nothing wrong with including the former trio; there is every reason to do so. We can live without them, though, for they will never disappear from what we hear—and all of them benefit from or rather, in today’s climate, demand something in the way of deconstruction. The politics are perhaps more of a problem—or were for me. Surely a satire on war and power stands in a curious position if little attention is granted either? Yes and no, though to start with my answer, doubtless as someone strongly inclined toward political theatre, would definitely have been ‘yes’. Instead, taking his leave from the Astrologer’s claim – a deft way of dealing with the censor, who nonetheless refused to approve the opera – that this was only a fairy tale whose characters he had brought to life, Kosky treats this all as Dodon’s dream. 

A cop out, you might say: one of the most tired devices in children’s, let alone adults’, writing. And yes, most of us will have felt cheated at, say, the end of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, though things become more complex when we read it in the light of The Midnight Folk, which is not a dream. Here the spur is to consider the work more psychoanalytically. If this is a fairy tale, the dream permits a more erotic but also a more absurdist turn. Rufus Didwiszus’s designs disdains a palatial world of gilt for a landscape that might be a setting for Waiting for Godot; Dodon’s clowning and dishevelment owe something to that world too. Victoria Behr’s costumes are crucial here too: Dodon remains the same, but all around him change, delineating stages of the dream-drama as much as character, arguably more so. It would hardly be a Kosky production without someone in fishnets; here the King’s men are horses on top and cabaret artists below. Some might complain we have seen it all before, and perhaps we have, but within this framework it makes sense.

Kosky also makes excellent sense of the second act – as did Gaffigan – which I see I found ‘over-extended’ in Hackney. It arguably sits less well with a political interpretation and, without something else, might seem oddly unwarranted. Such a thought never occurred to me on this occasion; indeed, my thoughts on occasion turned to Kundry’s revelations to Parsifal in the second act of that opera, an example certainly well known to Rimsky. The Queen of Shemakha becomes Dodon’s wish-fulfilment, and thus – in a twist of the final revelation when the Astrologer owns that only he and the Queen were ‘real’ – an impossible male fantasy, a siren who cannot exist. I wonder whether there might be room for both, and doubtless there can, but perhaps then I might be complaining of a lack of focus. This opens up possibilities rather than closing them, and for that, as well as Kosky’s clear attention to the fact that this is a musical drama, with an orchestral score and vocal parts that demand dramatic attention, we should certainly be grateful. Likewise for the sense of mystery that attends certain shifts, not least in presentation of the ‘people’, be they shadowy or downright oddball. A framework is provided, but there is no attempt to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. Dreams may or may not ‘mean’ something; that remains in large part up to us. They will nevertheless certainly signify, if never quite representing, wishes and fears—which may be amenable to stronger political interpretation for tsars then and now. Note the Queen’s skilled troupe of dancing boys, but also the stark image of the King's sons hanging from a tree, all for a ruler whose principal skill seems to be tilting at windmills.

Gaffigan’s command of colour, rhythm, structure, and harmony are superb, revealing this as a truly incisive score with multiple interpretative – dramatic, as well as ‘purely’ musical – challenges of its own. The orchestra was on terrific form throughout: important, I think, to underline, given the tendency to think of this company’s values being more on the ‘theatrical’ side. In truth, any opera company that does not bear witness to the multifaceted nature of the genre will not get very far: no one goes to see an opera without music, and if some reactionaries may claim to prefer to close their eyes, their manufactured outrage gives the lie to that. Motifs imprinted themselves in the memory, as did rhythms, timbres, and their combination. Sometimes – often – this drew us in, but it could distance us too: not exactly Verfremdung, but certainly an advantageous framing to the framing of our fairy tale. 

Equally important to that and so much else was the excellent cast. On stage almost the whole time for a two-hour-plus performance without an interval, Alexander Roslavets gave a towering performance as King Dodon. It is not an easy thing to bring a plodding, in many ways unimpressive character to musical life, but that Roslavets certainly did, granting him sympathy as well as absurdity, through equal concentration on words, music, and gesture. Kseniia Proshina’s Queen of Shemakha offered old-style stardom, partly ‘straight’, partly in inverted commas, and pristine command of all the vocal challenges Rimsky threw at her. James Kryshak’s Astrologer trod a fine line between sympathetic and almost frighteningly unsympathetic, and emerged all the stronger for it. Margarita Nekrasova’s deep, unerringly ‘Russian’ mezzo, as near a contralto as made no odds, was just the thing for the housekeeper-turned-regent Amelfa. Julia Muzychenko brought the Cockerel itself to vivid vocal life, in a fine partnership with Daniel Daniela Ojeda Yrureta’s onstage performance, which offered plentiful malice and ambiguity. As ever, there was a fine sense of company, these singers and their colleagues all contributing to the greater whole. What did it mean? What, indeed?


Saturday 3 February 2024

BPO/Gatti - Schoenberg, Strauss, and Wagner, 2 February 2024


Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht, op.4 (1943 version for string orchestra)
Strauss: Tod und Verklärung, op.24
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and ‘Liebestod’

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

Images: Stephan Rabold

Repertoire, orchestra, and conductor: a marriage made in heaven—or, if we are to be Nietzschean about it, in the ‘voluptuousness of hell’ with which he diagnosed Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In this cleverly devised programme, Daniele Gatti and the Berlin Philharmonic took us through three works of explicit transfiguration, that transfiguration, transcendence, or whatever we want to call it in each case following something darker, more malign, more voluptuous and yes, both heavenly and hellish—or, as Nietzsche would have it, beyond good and evil. 

The Berliners followed their outstanding Schoenberg programme of the previous week, under Kirill Petrenko, with a Verklärte Nacht of equal distinction. I often have my doubts about the version for string orchestra – what does it actually add to the original string sextet writing? – but not here, not for a second. What it was to hear massed Berlin strings, superbly led by Vineta Sareika-Völkner, in this music: the tremolo of seven double-basses, or the unanimity of violas in pizzicato, and unisons to put the fear of God into Bruckner.  The dark allure of its opening, taken a little slower than usual and all the better for it in Gatti’s particular conception, attested to a veritable symphonic poem. Flexibility was such that one did not notice it, all part of a greater, coherent whole, heard – like all the music on this programme – as if in a single, infinitely variegated breath. Violence was unsettlingly sweet; transfiguration, when it came, never without shades of something darker. For all its tonal insistence, relatively speaking, there were spellbinding passages that took us to liminal places of near-suspension. And, for once, we heard a true outpouring of love, abundant, fulfilling, even overflowing, once the figurative tide had turned. It seemed to prefigure, perhaps even to ‘correct’, as Wagner attempted with Schopenhauer, its fons et origo in Tristan. There was rhetorical eloquence too, but never did it come into conflict with form and structure. Post-Wagnerian narrative, be it musical or extra-musical, seared its way into our consciousness, albeit with all the chamber-music motivic rigour of a composer devoted with equal ferocity to the legacy of Brahms.


Another dark opening announced Tod und Verklärung: one noticed and felt, in its heartbeat hesitations both similarity and difference vis-à-vis Verklärte Nacht. It was immediately clear that this was a more tonally stable world; there was no question here of losing aural sight of those tonal moorings, even as the soul departed for wherever it was going (or not). The excellence of the Berlin strings was now added to by woodwind and eventually others, the orchestra once more at the very top of its game. I should be listing the entire orchestra were I to name every instance, but special mention should go to the solo flute, oboe, English horn, and of course to Sareika-Völkner as leader. Clarity and purpose in musical narrative were second to none in Gatti’s reading, that there was simply no need to ask the old question about the importance (or not) of the programme. The work’s complex form – the more so the more one truly listens, just as in Beethoven – was brought to life unerringly, moving and thrilling in equal measure in a performance that had one feel one was hearing this music for the first time. The radiance of the conclusion proved every inch worth of comparison to that of Schoenberg’s piece.

As it did to that of the Tristan excerpts. Again, I often have my doubts about the wisdom of pairing the first-act Prelude to the so-called ‘Liebestod’; again, such was the conviction of this performance that such doubts never arose, and not only because Liszt’s description is better jettisoned for Wagner’s own: ‘Isoldes Verklärung’. The intensity of the Prelude had to be heard to be believed, vibrato but a single example of its expressive richness at a dramatic temperature at least equal to that of Karl Böhm, albeit in less of a hurry. Not only did the music unfolded as if in a single breath; it offered testament to Schopenhauer’s one, all-pervasive Will, of which it stands as the closest and dearest representation. The Prelude’s inability or unwillingness to close was so apparent that it seemed, for once, a natural move to expunge its pantonal presentiments through Isolde’s transfiguration. That second part flowed as if against the most inviting of tides, until enveloped by them. ‘Sind es Wellen sanfter Lüfte?’ Why choose? This was a miraculous lightness of being – and non-being – unbearable, doubtless, were it forever, yet for the moment exquisite and necessary beyond words. I have yet to hear Gatti conduct Wagner’s drama in the theatre, but on this evidence it would be a Tristan to rival those of Barenboim and Kleiber—and his own Bayreuth Parsifal.

Friday 2 February 2024

Written on Skin, Deutsche Oper, 1 February 2024

Images: WRITTEN ON SKIN, Regie: Katie Mitchell,
Deutsche Oper Berlin, Premiere: 27. Januar 2024, copyright: Bernd Uhlig

Protector – Mark Stone
Agnès – Georgia Jarman
First Angel, The Boy – Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Second Angel, Marie – Anna Werle
Third Angel, John – Chance Jonas-O’Toole
Angel archivists – Leander Gaul, Yasmina Giebeler, Milli Keil, Maximilian Reisinger

Director – Katie Mitchell
Revival director – Dan Ayling
Designs – Vicki Mortimer
Lighting – Jon Clark
Dramaturgy – Sebastian Hanusa  

Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Marc Albrecht (conductor)


More than a decade has passed since I first saw George Benjamin’s second opera, Written on Skin, at Covent Garden. The premiere, both of the work and Katie Mitchell’s well-travelled production, took place at Aix in 2012. Now it reaches, for the first time, Berlin in a further revival of Mitchell’s staging for the Deutsche Oper. It is my fourth hearing, since I attended both the Royal Opera’s 2017 revival and, the year before, a concertperformance at the Barbican with Aix’s original Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Greater acquaintance leaves my admiration undimmed; if anything, it glows all the brighter. For whilst the casts of my previous encounters had much, though not everything, in common, and Benjamin conducted them all, here we have something new in all but the staging, ably revived by Dan Ayling. 

I shall not attempt a broad overview, whether musical or dramatic, of the work, as I did in 2013. (My review can be read here, for those interested.) Rather, I shall point to some aspects of work, production, and performance that struck me on this occasion. First, I cannot now understand my lukewarmness concerning Mitchell’s staging. Maybe I have grown more accustomed not only to her work but to contemporary theatre more generally. If anything, the danger for me is perhaps the opposite, that I now associate the work with this particular production. There have, astonishingly for a new work, especially a new work that is not, shall we say, of the US ‘easy listening variety’, been numerous productions already; for now, though, this is the only one I have seen. Vicki Mortimer’s split-level set enables us to see the world of angels and that of men (specifically, the Protector, Agnès, her sister and brother-in-law, and The Boy) and, crucially, their transformative interaction, as, for, instance one of the angels is apprised of the situation – narratives already building upon one another – and assumes, as it were, the role of the Boy who will chronicle his patron’s life in words and images. That includes the liberating sexual relationship that arises between him and the brutalised Agnès, the Protector’s ‘property’, truly coming to life in an authentically musicodramatic marriage of words, music, and staging. Indeed, the eroticism here of Benjamin’s score struck me more strongly than ever before, perhaps a hallmark of conductor Marc Albrecht’s approach to the work.


So does what might seem a commonplace of drama, yet here seems particular, unique, partly because one is led to feel, not only observe, it in its very particular character: inexorability of fate. As tightly organised a score as The Turn of the Screw, yet less obviously so, holds us captive, almost like Agnès herself. It beguiles, perhaps even breaths a little of the Occitan air, mediæval and now, but never via an attempt to reproduce or even to represent. Illumination, in whatever sense we care, is both more complex and more immediate than that.  There is certainly commentary; it is inscribed, as it were, upon the very skin of the work. Yet however much the angels might classify, file away, their real work is in transformation: of persons and perhaps ultimately of souls.

Senses of time passing, of claustrophobia, of fate closing in – though never merely mirroring – the work – and indeed of an uncontrollable, dangerous joy that must be controlled, yet in that act of controlling requires new life are conveyed scenically in new layers of an activity that conspires both to be particular and quotidian. It is almost a religious ritual, bringing further to life a quasi-Passion of passion to join works such as Così fan tutte and Tristan und Isolde, as well as the more obviously (and musically) related Pelléas et Mélisande. In work and performance, this intriguing, almost mythical combination of straightforward action and elusive allusion that may or may not be symbolism suggests a temporal palimpsest. (Not for nothing, perhaps, is one of Benjamin’s major orchestral works an exploration of that idea.)

By the same token, though, there is no doubting the rawness and immediacy of acts, of things also being very much what they seem. In Agnès’s words not only of liberation, but also of the Boy’s instruction: ‘Love’s not a picture; love is an act.’ This and so many other moments confirmed and furthered my admiration for Martin Crimp’s libretto. Unlike so many attempts at writing for opera, Crimp’s work for Benjamin here and elsewhere permits plenty of space for music. Indeed, if one did not know, one might struggle to guess which came first; it would be fascinating to read any correspondence they may have had about this.


Performance is itself a necessary act. We are not here speaking merely of something written or drawn on the page. Albrecht and the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper gave a commanding performance, with all the freshness of discovery yet also an understanding and conviction that might have been born of repertoire status. (It is, arguably, a repertoire opera now, yet not yet in this house, for this was only its second performance.) Georgia Jarman made the role of Agnès very much her own, fully inhabiting a character come to life through the alchemy of music as well as words and staging. One felt her predicament strongly, shared her struggle and ultimate revenge, without the drama being reduced merely to them. Mark Stone’s Protector was cruel and, in his own way, righteous, torn himself between two loves, the question of his feelings for The Boy opened up rather than ‘dealt with’. Pride and vulnerability were both present. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s performance as The Boy might almost have stolen the show in its uncannily angelic combination of the worldly and otherworldly; that is, it might have done, had the cast not worked so closely together. Anna Werle and Chance Jonas-O’Toole, doubling as Angels and, respectively, Marie and John offered equally fine performances in smaller roles. For in richness of layering and sureness of fatal direction, this was a performance as well as a work created and recreated through its writing on skin.