Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Danses Sacrée ou Profane?

Last week Sam Shirakawa went to Berlin to catch performances of Salome and Die Shopfung . . . and a wayward Don Carlo:

29 April
Komische Oper Berlin

30 April
Berliner Dom

The rites of Spring are in full swing in Berlin. One weekend following the long Easter weekend, the sidewalk cafes are full of locals scoping out tourists passing by, the art galleries have opened their latest collections, and it’s business-as-usual at the Reichstag.

The cornucopiate musical scene is alive, if not entirely well. I took in three performances over as many days, but I may as well have quit following event number two. A word about this later.

Getting down to business: When Berlin‘s Komische Oper presented its new production of Salome last month, some of the reviews were less than laudatory. If they didn’t care for Thilo Reinhardt’s adult comic book production, they snubbed the singing and conducting.

Several of the principals and the conductor had changed by the time I managed to attend its fourth performance, but the production was presumably the same. Reinhardt sets his neo-pop art concept on a turntable dominated by the portico of a lopsided Roman-style palace. Soldiers armed with automatic weapons stand guard over what turns out to be an erotic Mardi Gras, whose attractions spin into view while the orchestra blasts the Dance of the Seven Veils. Salome (1905) may be a work that defines pre-World War I decadence, but Reinhardt‘s peep-show carnival, designed by Paul Zoller, ventures beyond, flirting with Gomorrhean obscenity, not to mention the mindlessly sacrilegious: Herodias hammering the out-size erection of a man nailed to a cross (who could that be?). Salome doesn‘t dance, but the sets do.

If the musical side had truly been poor at the premiere -- which I don't believe -- the replacements were surely an improvement. This was one of the best performed Salomes I have yet to experience live.

Annette Seiltgen in the title role is said to have begun her career as a mezzo, but she has blossomed into a soprano of indefinable category. Her sultry lower register opens out into a soaring, if occasionally tart upper voice, while traversing a solid, limpid mid-range. Aided by an insouciant mini-skirt (Katharina Gault) up to her kishkas, she exudes deadly doll right from the start. While she disappears entirely from view during the Dance Segment, her ya-shudda-kissed-me-Jake Finale is censurably steamy Seiltgen is hot.

Although Tomas Tomasson was not so hot the last time I heard him several months ago, he proved himself in formidable voice this time, as an effectively cool Jochanaan. Decked out in sex-ready Che Guevara fatigues, his Baptist appeared to reject Seiltgen‘s advances with look-but-don‘t-touch coyness.

Christoph Späth as Herod, Aurilia Hajek as Herodias and Joska Lehtinen as Narraboth rounded out a hip cast.

But the star of the performance was the orchestra of the Komische Oper under Uwe Sandner. The playing may not have been note-perfect, but the raw energy Sandner drew from the ensemble was effectively chilling. All the more remarkable, given that it was somewhat reduced in size.

©Oliver Wia

The following evening, the place to be was the Berliner Dom at the Lustgarten in Unter den Linden, where Christoph Hagel was presenting the premiere of his take on Haydn’s Schöpfung (The Creation). Hagel has become something of a cult figure in Berlin over the past several years, mounting musical works with mixed- and multi-media production values at unusual venues: most recently a Titus on a catwalk bisecting the entrance hall of the Bode Museum, less recently a Magic Flute in the U-Bahn (read subway station) at Potsdamer Platz.

The format this time around goes like this: Haydn’s oratorio staged on the elevated chancel before an orchestra placed at one side toward the south transept of the massive, ornate Baroque style church. It‘s the perfect setting for Haydn's masterpiece. But Hagel is not about to leave well enough alone.

©Oliver Wia

Enter a brace of break dancers, audience-friendly props like giant balloons, a live snake and Star Wars graphics (Kezia B., Marco Moo, Tina Zimmermann) flying out of a movie screen placed before the altar. And to top it all out, a pair of interludes -- Debussy‘s “Sunken Cathedral” and Arturo Marquez‘ “Danzon Daz” separating the three parts of the Bibical drama.

If this seems a bit too-too, it is, and delightfully so. It's clear that Hagel has given considerable thought to his choices, unlike some current flash pan directors, who have no idea how to develop and integrate their hunches. Hagel’s secret to making it work is to conduct the oratorio as if it were simply a concert, letting all the other components he has selected -- both human and technical -- do their thing. The rotating cast of singers -- I heard Darlene Ann Dobisch (Gabriel), Kai Ingo Rudolph (Uriel), Christian Oldenburg (Raphael/Adam) and Christiane Roncaglio (Eve) interact with the large corps of adult and child terpsichoreans -- including Khaled Chaabi (Lucifer), Bente Weiler (Eve) and Manu Laude (Adam) -- who animate the narrative in a variety of dance styles -- but mostly breaking dancing -- choreographed by Laude and Nadia Espiritu. The singers and dancers move among the audience, bobbing enormous balloons across the nave, as the planets and stars come into being from the near-3D projections, that envelope the intricate decorations on the columns, walls and domes of the interior.

There is so much “action” in so many different areas of the cathedral, that it‘s a wonder that Hagel can keep everybody in sync without (at least noticibly) the help of musical assistants. All the more remarkable because few Baroque style churches are noted for uniform acoustics -- too many domes and crannies into which the sound can disappear.

Which brings me to the single glaring flaw in this and other Hagel inspirations. The aforementioned acoustical vagaries of the Berlin Cathedral necessitated amplification, and it was far from felicitous, especially for the solo voices. I think it was Barbara Cook who once, in an interview, blamed the almighty microphone as the most pernicious of the villains that have caused the downfall of the Broadway musical. Birgit Nilsson likened miking to doping. In my view, they are both right. There is no point in commenting on the merits of the singers in this performance, because they all, thanks to the miracle of amplification, sounded alike. Yeah, they all looked terrific, they sang on pitch, as far as I could tell, and they all started and finished together in the ensemble pieces, but qualitatively they each and all sounded canned, like mutations of Donny and Marie Osmond.

The choir of the Berliner Symphonie also seemed awkwardly disembodied and the Berliner Symphoniker sounded phoned in, although the latter may have been caused by arbitrary pickup from omni-directional microphones. But that said, there is no point in carping about cars, as we find ourselves way past the end of the horse-and-buggy age. Hagel is not merely giving us his take on musica antiqua, he is revealing its future.

I never leave Berlin willingly, so I stuck around for another day, to catch the season’s first Don Carlo at the Staatsoper’s temporary digs, the long-shuttered Schiller Theater in Bismarck Strasse. I should have obeyed my instincts and left town a day earlier. The production is so awful, I won’t dignify it by naming the producer. Besides, I only went because I wanted to hear René Pape. More specifically, I went only because I wanted to hear Pape sing “Ella giammai m’amo” -- which was ruined by the jerk behind me having a mega-coughing fit that lasted through most of the aria. Elsewhere, Pape was not in fine fettle. He had dropped out of the Met’s revival a couple of months ago, reportedly claiming indisposition. If his showing at the Staatsoper is any indication of lingering indisposition, one can only wish him speedy recovery. Otherwise, the performance was hexed by a Posa who apparently tuned his voice ca. A=340 (The standard everybody else used was at least A=440.) Given the variance in pitch, you can just imagine the wings of deadliness taken by the Duet and Prison Scene with Carlo, sung decently, incidentally, by a corpulent tenor whose unmentioned name will remain part of the collateral damage from this performance.

Thinking back to the previous evening, as I stumbled out of the Schiller Theather into the drizzling spring night, I wondered what Papa Haydn would say about Christoph Hagel’s treatment of his oratorio. Suddenly, a bolt of lighting struck Bismarck Strasse, followed by an intimidating clap of thunder. And lo, the Answer came unto me from on high:

Break dancing hath met the The Creator of the Creationist, and He findeth it... fabu!

(Schöpfung runs at the Berliner Dom Tuesday through Sunday at 8.30 p.m. until 3 June. Most performances are sold out.)

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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