Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A PRE-SUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM


OBERON         Premiere New Production
MÜNSTER 
17 June 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa
Musikalische Leitung: Hendrik Vestmann
Regie: Wolfgang Quetes
Bühnenbild: Heinz Balthes
Kostüme: José Manuel Vázquez
Licht: Matthias Hönig
Choreographie: Daniel Goldin
Chorleitung: Karsten Sprenger
Dramaturgie: Jens Ponath / Wilfried Harlandt
Mitwirkende:
Jeff Martin (Oberon - Gesang)
Marek Sarnowski (Oberon - Schauspiel)
Christiane Hagedorn (Titania)
Wolfgang Schwaninger (Hüon von Bordeaux)
Fritz Steinbacher (Scherasmin)
Peter Jahreis (Karl der Große / Harun al Raschid / Almansor)
Maida Hundeling (Rezia)
Eva Trummer (Fatime)
Lucie Ceralova (Puck)
Benjamin Kradolfer Roth (Wieland)
Yuan Yuan Lu (Meermädchen) 
Michael Wild (Karloman / Abdallah)

Tanztheater der Städtischen Bühnen Münster
Opernchor der Stadtischen Bühnen Münster
Sinfonieorchester Münster
Standng room only

Composing Oberon killed Carl Maria von Weber.   Defying ill-health, he undertook a commission to compose a new work for British showman Charles Kemble, because he needed money desperately.  He even made the arduous journey from Dresden to London, learned enough English to cobble a libretto based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a poem by the Bard’s famous German translator Christoph Martin Wieland.   He also added a smattering of The Magic Flute and generous allusions to Abduction from the SeraglioOberon opened in April 1826 at Covent Garden with Weber on the podium.  Two months later, he succumbed to tuberculosis, aggravated by the duress of rehearsals, last-minute rewrites, debt and, plausibly, English cuisine. (Nearly 20 years later, Richard Wagner arranged for his remains to be brought back from London to Dresden.)

While Oberon was a success at its world premiere, Weber left behind less a refined operatic entity and more a huge grab bag of brilliant ideas, from which succeeding composers, notably Felix Mendelssohn and Wagner, have snatched mercilessly for their own purposes.  Gustav Mahler prepared a performing version with interpolations of his own.   Artur Bodanky made extensive cuts and composed recitatives based on themes from the opera for the Met's premiere in 1918, featuring Rosa Ponselle, Giovanni Martinelli and Paul Althouse.
Oberon al fresco
Cutting to the present, Münster Opera has just unveiled a new production of this seldom heard work in a version by Wolfgang Quetes, the departing Intendant (General Manager).   Quetes adds several scenes that include dialogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (primarily between Oberon and Tatania) and a dramatic leitmotiv of sorts, through which the aforementioned Wieland (1733-1813) becomes a character in the storyline, serving mainly to prod the narrative along, while writhing under the strain of the creative process.

The audience enters this theatrical Chinese box by witnessing (on its feet) a lengthy prologue on the spacious veranda of the theater (photos above), in which Wieland, awakened rudely from a drunken stupor, continues writing the poem that would eventually inspire Weber’s opera.  On a pair of balconies above him, the spirits of Shakespeare’s Tatania and Oberon agree to settle their dispute, only after an earthly couple can be found, who will remain true to each other through all travails. The audience then repairs to the auditorium, where replicas of the balconies they have just seen on the veranda flank the stage (photo below).
This complicated deconstruction -- Wieland writing the poem that inspired Weber -- is a heuristic albeit feet-tiring concept that takes advantage of the generous spaces the theater offers.  But Quetes doesn’t stop there.  He places the chorus in the side loges of the first and second balconies (photo above), to draw spectators closer to the action with surround-sound (and to eliminate traffic jams on stage). 

All inventive and provocative ideas, enlivened in particular by a storm scene, danced effectively by six members of the theater’s dance wing to the choreography of Daniel Goldin, and colorfully enhanced by the production team’s evocative decorations (Lighting: Matthias Hönig, sets: Heinz Bathes and Manfred Kaderk, costumes: Jose Manuel Vàsquez).  But it remains unclear, to me at least, whether Quetes views the mise on scène primarily as a pre-summer night's fairy tale,
a dramatic romance, or a burlesque, laced with irony.  He adumbrates all of the above -- but only here and there.  I was left wanting more.
Most memorable about this production, though, is the standard of singing.  Wolfgang Schwaninger (above left) as Hùon von Bordeaux looks a bit like Max Lorenz (above right) and is master of a big, beefy sound that finds its strength in a ringing top.  After a tentative start Eva Trummer blossomed into a radiant Fatima.  Fritz Steinbacher made an affable impression as her squeeze Scherasmin.

The rest of the cast are up to their assignments:  Jeff Martin (Oberon, singer), Marek Sarnowski (Oberon actor), Christiane Hagedorn (Tatania), Lucie Ceralova (Puck), Peter Jahrieis (Charlemagne, Harun, Almansor), Michael Wild (Karolman, Abdallah), and not least, Yuan Yuan Lu as a melodious mermaid and Benjamin Kradolfer Roth, who exudes star power in the speaking part of Christoph Martin Wieland.

Hendrik Vestman drew unflagging excitement from the orchestra and is blessed with some fine instrumental soloists, namely in the horn and woodwind section.  But he had some issues keeping Karsten Sprenger’s chorus in synch with the band.  It’s a problem that an extra rehearsal could fix.

The issue arises, of course, from the acoustic vaguaries of the theater. which. as far as I can tell, are essentially bright and relatively even.  But I wouldn’t doubt the presence of some roaming dead zones, given the steeply raked parquet and variances in resonance, depending on the size of the audience, which, this past Sunday was about 80 percent of capacity.  

Have I forgotten something?
Maida Hundeling
Of course: Maida Hundeling as Rezia.  While she may have disappointed by omitting the optional two octave leap from high B-flat  -- which she is fully capable of pulling off -- on “Ozean, stellst DU ein Schreckbild dar,” in Rezia’s big aria, hers is a voice you dream of discovering:  Unforced and gleaming at the top, warm and expressive in the middle and firm at the bottom.  She is a born heroic soprano who could turn Eva Turner’s head.  Her presence is comely, and she appears to have a sense of wit that Quetes could have exploited more profitably. 

An Oberon of any standard comes around about as frequently as Haley’s comet.  Given a cast of Münster’s calibre, this is your chance to add a rare performance of an operatic rarity to your repertoire.

Production photos: Michael Hoernschmeyer
Max Lorenz Photo: Public Domain
Other photos/Graphics: Sam H. Shirakawa

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