Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Unwritten Dialogues

Sam Shirakawa paid a visit to the Komische Oper Berlin for anhd interesting interporetation of Dialogues des Carmelites:

9 JULI 2011

©Komische Oper Berlin

One of the most harrowing moments I’ve ever experienced at the theater -- or anywhere for that matter -- happened recently at the Komische Oper Berlin toward the end of the first part of Francis Poulenc’s Gespräche der Karmelitinnen (The Dialogues of the Carmelites). In a gratuitous vignette, one of the characters is killed in full view of the audience. As the assassin slashed his victim’s throat, a spine-wrenching shriek coursed through the house.

As my head whiplashed toward the source of the din at side of the box tier, I saw a young boy bury his face in his chaperone’s breast. He could scarcely have been more than five years old. His screaming grew louder. The woman snapped the boy up and carried him out into the passage. Even after the door to the parterre shut behind them, his wailing could be heard in unnerving decrements.

It was a show-stopper.

The producer of this new production, Calixto Bieito, can pat himself on the butt for an unplanned coup de théâtre. Those responsible for bringing a small child to an opera about a group of Angst-ridden nuns facing public execution during the French Revolution should be summarily guillotined.

So rattling was this moment, that I found it impossible to pay much attention to the rest of the performance.

Bieito’s designers (sets: Rebecca Ringst, costumes: Ingo Krügler) frame the convent of the Carmelites with a series of bunk beds stacked four levels high, separated by narrow aisles. The impact is at once claustrophobic and monumental: the value of waking life expands exponentially as the blade’s inevitable descent mocks eternal rest within the whack of a semi-quaver. The conceit is brilliant, one of Bieito’s simplest and most effective to date.

The singing is uniformly excellent: Marquis de La Force ... Claudio Otelli, Blanche de La Force ... Maureen McKay, Der Chevalier ... Joska Lehtinen, Madame de Croissy ... Christiane Oertel, Madame Lidoine ... Erika Roos, Schwester Constance ... Ingrid Froseth, Mutter Jeanne ... Caren van Oijen, Schwester Mathilde ... Maren Schäfer, Der Beichtvater des Karmel ... Peter Renz, 1. Kommissar ... Thomas Ebenstein, 2. Kommissar ... Hans-Peter Scheidegger. Not a false note among them. When the Komische Oper’s ensemble forges itself into an ensemble, as it did on this occasion, you would be hard put to find anything comparable elsewhere in Germany,

There was, however, one surprise: Irmgaard Vilsmaier as Mutter Marie. She sounded like a mezzo-soprano -- a dead-ringer for the size and timbre of Stephanie Blythe, but her bio lists Isolde as one of the parts she has sung with success at several provincial opera houses. If true, Komische Oper has no excuse for procrastinating on reviving Tristan.

The Orchestra of the Komische Oper responded viscerally to Stefan Blunier’s direction.

To hear the text sung in German took some adjustment, but the impact was all the more immediate. Again, that immediacy is what makes the Komische Oper at its best so exciting.

Back to that little boy’s screaming. It brings to mind an accident I witnessed when I was about four years old, when a car ran over a cat The victim’s owner was a girl about my age at the time. Her screaming still recurs to me every time I hear a child cry, regardless of the cause. More to the point, I occasionally wonder whether the little girl, my contemporary, ever got over the trauma of seeing her cat struck; whether her inconsolable shrieking was enough to begin healing the trauma of seeing her feline companion writhing in its death throes. That little boy at the Komische Oper will eventually learn that real boys don’t cry. And so, the the horror implicit in his screaming will probably remain hidden within his psyche while informing his outlook on life, long after he forgets that hideous moment, which was, after all, only make-believe.

On the other hand, the impromptu shock theater may ultimately benefit the boy, if environmental circumstances collude favorably with how he already has dealt with trauma. If everything that purports to be art is but a rehearsal for reality, the boy's visit to the Komische Oper could turn out to be a turning point in his evolving adjustment to a world in which the line between violence and its depictions is becoming increasingly hazy.

Maybe toddlers should be brought to every performance of the Komische Oper’s Gespräche der Karmelitinnen. Its current production opens a dialogue it never intended.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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