Happy Thanksgiving everybody! Our friend, Sam Shirakawa was in Berlin last week to catch a performance of Gluck's Armida:
Full frontal nudity, fornication, cunnalingus, fellatio, orgies, gang bangs. Gluck's opera Armida has it all. At least Calixto Bieito's production of Armida has it all. It'a now playing in rep at the Komische Oper Berlin, held over from last season. Oh, yeah, it has some singing too.
And therein lies the problem. With more than a dozen naked men and a nude woman running about Rebecca Ringst's heavily back-lighted unit set, their dongs and boobs flapping arrhythmically to the music, it's tough to know where attention should be focused. Or maybe that's the point. Should I just go with the flow? But where is the flow taking me?
Certainly not to the creaky plot. For some reason that escapes me, numerous artists and composers over a dozen centuries have been inspired by the story of the Saracen sorceress Armida, who is determined to kill Rinaldo, the leader of the invading Crusaders during the First Crusade (1096-1099), only to hex him into falling in love with her. In the end, Gluck's Armida (he used the libretto Philippe Quinault wrote for Lully's stab at the story) can neither keep Rinaldo nor kill him. She must content her self with a valedictory imprecation topped with a high D.
Photo: David Baltzer
At the performance I heard Elena Semanova nailed that D squarely and proceeded to sit on it. She is another up-and-comer who has voice, visceral musicality and an imposing aura that enables her to hold her own in the midst of all the simulated sexual antics taking place around her.
The American tenor Norman Shankle, one of the few male cast members to keep his clothes on, presented a sweet-voiced foil as Rinaldo. I look forward to hearing him do more in this reperatory.
Olivia Vermeulen and Julia Giebel offered tantalizing (vocal) calling cards as Armida's confidantes Phenice and Sidonie respectively.
Carsten Sabrowski delivered a powerful Hidraot; Christof Schröter and Günter Papendell both showed promise fulfilled as Rinaldo's buddies Artemidoro and Ubaldo, who rescue him from Armida's clutches.
Konrad Junghänel presided over a spright and transparent reading, despite occasional raggedness from some string players.
Ingo Krügler added sleek elegance to his costumes for those distaff members of the cast, who were clothed.
German translation of the Komische Oper's version is credited to Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze. In case you don't know: Berlin's Komische Oper does everything in German.
An afterword now about the nudity in this production. When the Komische Oper unveiled this production last season, both print and web media were atwitter. Nudity at the Komische Oper, of course, is nothing new. A recent production of Abduction from the Seraglio, for example, used nudity for a dramatically effective purpose. I'm not sure what Bieito's point is in displaying mostly undressed men with mostly dressed women. Once the initial surprise fizzles, so does any further impact the spectacle might have: it is neither enchanting nor erotic and, in its show of Damascan cockatalia, inaccurate: This bevy of boy-bods is clearly un-Muslim. Another issue: Damascus during the crusades may have been heathen, but I don't think its denizens were reputedly hedonistic.
While Bieito's production may be on the chuck side of beefy, its hyperactivity rarely has a dull moment.
©Sam H. Shirakawa