Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sam's Adventures - Part 2

Herewith, Part 2 of Sam Shirakawa's account of his recent travels to German opera houses:

PHAEDRA. 10 September 2007
Staatsoper unter den Linden

Hans Werner Henze has legions of devoted fans. I can take him or leave him.

What to make of his new “concert opera?” It’s called Phaedra, the disagreeable tale of a Greek queen’s all-consuming lust for her fatally disinterested step-son Hypolitus. Henze completed it last year when he was 80. His librettist Christian Lehnert has based the text on Euripides, Seneca and annotations by classical scholars.

Several facets of Peter Mussbach’s staging of the work’s World Premiere may be worth mentioning. First: the chamber orchestra of 22 instrumentalists -- the Ensemble Modern -- conducted by Michael Boder was placed at the rear of the house under center loge of the first balcony. A catwalk à la Al Jolson’s Winter Garden concerts bisected the parquet level and connected the orchestra platform to the stage, enabling the singers to commute. (No one, unfortunately, broke into a chorus of “Mammy.”) This semi-thrust arrangement allowed only spectators seated at the sides of the three balconies to have a reasonable view of the proceedings. The arrangement seemed to harken back to the days of theater-in-the-round, when, in the words of Mel Brooks’ immortal impressario, Max Bialystock, nobody had a good seat.

Second: Danish lighting and set designer Olafur Eliasson placed a network of mirrors on the stage and visually doubled the length of the playing area. The relevance of the expansion to the music or the drama escaped me, but the effect was grimly enchanting.

Third: John Mark Ainsley -- that superb singer -- spent a substantial portion of the second act lying nude and supine on a tablet center stage. During the course of this sequence, in which Artemis brings Hypolitus back to life, Ainsley’s scrotum appeared to constrict somewhat, causing his testicles to bulge. Whether this physiological vaudeville was caused by nerves, the somewhat under-heated hall, or both, we may never know. But the vignette may be instructive: Could placement of the genitalia play a role in producing superior vocal emission? I don’t think Manuel Garcia has anything to say about it in his writ on singing. Perhaps a bottom-less production of, say, Billy Budd might illuminate the matter....

Maria Riccarda Wesseling (Phaedra), Marlis Petersen (Aphrodite), Axel Köhler (Artemis), and Lauri Vasar (Minotauris) are also wonderful singers. I look forward to hearing them all again. In something else.

A source of irritation during my visit to the third and final performance of the work this season was having to sort out how Euripides and Seneca each approached the story. I have never read Racine’s take on the story. The scholarly details are to be found in the program notes, of course, but I guess I was looking for a way to remain attentive.

For me in my unwashed condition, Henze’s Phaedra, its unremitting antiphony and dense text, all require much too much knowledge aforethought. To get with the program, you have to be really up on the classics as well as the precious musical materia which constitute Henze’s erudite board game. For a cogent view of the production from a bona-fide initiate, I suggest Anne Ozorio.

Véronique Gens. 12. September 2007
Berliner Festspiele

Berlin has hosted an annual autumn cultural festival for the better part of a century, but the Berliner Festspiele have been running under that name only since 1951. The Festival’s continued success has made Germany’s ever-trendy capital the final stop for summertide festival falcons. The French lieder singer Véronique Gens was among the distinguished visitors to this year’s Festival. Appearing with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit, Gens offered a sultry glance into Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l'amour et de la mer. Hers is a warm luxurious sound, whose amber glow exudes cheerful nostalgia mixed with lachrymose anticipation. Her tall, pastel presence and delicate sad smile spoke silent volumes to such lines from Maurice Bouchor’s text as:

Mon âme unique m'est ravie
Et la sombre clameur des flots
Couvre le bruit de mes sanglots.

My very soul is torn away
And the dark clamoring of the waves
Covers the noise of my sobs.

I concede, though, that after wading through such endlessly gossamer longueurs de melodies, I wished that Madame Véronique might have saluted her German hosts with something un peu éveillant, like Veronika, der Lenz ist da...

Charles Dutoit apparently likes soccer, for he has taken to using referee gestures to communicate instructions to the orchestra -- rolling his forearms around each other and using his hands as levers. The members of the Philharmonia, arguably the finest of London’s five major orchestras, must have enjoyed his divertissements: they played fabulously for him -- especially in La Valse, the crowd-pleasing finisher of the all-French program, and gave him a rousing ovation.

FAUSTUS, THE LAST NIGHT. 13 September 2007
Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Here’s one for the Comparative Cultures Department: A new opera composed by a Frenchman, sung in English and staged for its world premiere in Berlin. Since its first performance last year, Faustus, the Last Night has also been produced in France and at the Spoleto Festival.

The plot -- if you can call it that -- of Pascal Dusapin’s sixth opera follows a middle road between the path to damnation followed by the hero of Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe and the detour to salvation taken by Goethe’s errant protagonist. The fate of Dusapin’s hero is left undecided.

And that, for me, is where Faustus, the Last Night ultimately collapses. If the fate of a man who sells his soul to the Devil is not to be defined in some dramatic way, why are we witnessing his story? Dusapin sprinkles the text with a wide range of allusions, including Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett. Just so we don’t miss how well-read he certainly is, he’s created a character named Togod. It unscrambles into Godot -- get it? (Hasn’t someone else also used this anagram for a character’s name?) Some European critics adored Dusapin’s exhibits of middle-brow literacy, but I failed to see how any of it served to shed light on the nature of a man who has made a choice that everybody faces at one time or another.

The spoken musings of Shakespeare and the quarrels of Beckett’s scrappy personae -- which who Dusapin’s characters resemble -- accumulate compelling counterpoint that speaks hauntingly to the drama of their lot and the tragedy of mankind’s existence. But Dusapin’s clever harmonies and arcane text tend to become distracting. Given the uncertainties with which he ends his work ends, he dissipates the dramatic and moral fiber on which the Faust story feeds.

The principals, Georg Nigl (Faustus), Urban Malmberg (Mephistopheles), Robert Wörle (Sly), Jaco Huijpen (Togot) and Caroline Stein (Angel), under Michael Boder’s direction, all sang the challenging score in good voice. More about them I can’t say, because I’ve never heard any of them before, and I’m not familiar with the score.

Peter Mussbach’s efficient staging places the characters on a huge clock. At first, it seemed like an apt cliché, but the end-effect was oddly disturbing. For me, both Phaedra and Dusapin’s Faustus show advanced symptoms of the same alarming malady: emotional necrosis. Our whining helplessness before powers that control
our existence is as terrifying as never before, but it’s nothing novel, just harder to recognize: The gods and the devils of our times both wear Prada. Truly harrowing are the man-made deities to which we nolens volens have rendered our identities, our innermost longings, and the remnants of our souls. Where is the Arthurian composer who has the vision and courage to write an opera about the tragi-comic consequences of mankind’s unwitting covenant with that fearfully benign repository of all that is We: Google?

© 2007 Sam Shirakawa

More to come . . . .

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