Sunday, June 10, 2012


2 JUNE 2012
Threatened Closures of State Theaters in Duisburg and Eisenach 


Musikalische Leitung Dan Ettinger
Inszenierung, Bühne, Kostüme Achim Freyer
Dramaturgie Regine Elzenheimer
Donner Thomas Berau
Alberich Karsten Mewes
Fafner In-Sung Sim
Freia Iris Kupke
Floßhilde Andrea Szántó

RheingEld! RheingEld!
Maybe the Rheinmaidens should be croaking “Rheingeld!” instead of “Rheingold!” in Achim Freyer’s production of Wagner's Ring at Mannheim’s National Theater. Geld (money), or the lack thereof, is on everybody’s mind. Cutbacks in state funding for the arts are making headlines throughout Europe, but nowhere more alarmingly than in Germany. 

But I digress. First, the opera performance that provoked the Idontwannathinkaboutit thought.

Those who saw Freyer’s production in Los Angeles two years ago, may remember that he sets the tone for his Ring with the three Rhine ladies perched on swings high above the stage floor -- somewhat like a grotesque lampoon of an
opening tableau at the Follies Bergère. Given their vantage point, it’s impossible for them to even try preventing Alberich from stealing their gold. 

Freyer’s staging of this scene, though, comes off as anecdotal rather than dramatic: it has no tension. Blame it on the singers? No can do. Karsten Meves as Alberich and the Rhein Maidens (Ina Schlingensiepan, Anne-Theresa Møller, and Andrea Szantó) are about as formidable a quartet as you’ll find on any stage during these seasons of Wagner Centennial celebrations. (Wagner was born in 1813). Blame it on the conducting? Sorry, wrong number: Dan Ettinger spins out magic from that E-flat pedal which begins Wagner’s tetrology, despite a gaffe or more in the brass section of the redoubtable Mannheim Orchestra. 

When a home is not a house...
Gradually, it becomes clear that Freyer is spawning a terrible dream, whose incidents reflect our current daymares: the banking crisis (predatory dwarfs pinching trillions), the disintegrating world economy (the curse of ill-gained fortune begetting fratricide begetting...) and so on. As I wrote in my report on Freyer’s L.A. Opera-Mannheim production of Walküre recently, a requirement for appreciating this Ring is to go with the flow and yield to its suggestiveness.
That leaves the consciousness open to appreciate the singing and orchestral playing, which, by turns, runs the gamut from quite good to outstanding. Most noteworthy in a cast with no cogs: Thomas Jesatko, who performs Wotan as though he were singing Almaviva.  His voice, though not huge, is ample and warms under pressure without overheating. He also has sufficient reserves to deliver a commanding “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge...” after being on stage for most of the preceding 165 minutes.

The Mannheim National Theater has two main stages (opera house and play house) which share a common rear wall as evidenced by the back-to-back loft towers on the roof in the photo above. The stage vista of a production gains dramatic depth when the dividing wall is removed. In Mannheim's production of Parsifal (photo below), the knights in the Grail scenes enter from the rear of the playhouse and proceed onto the stage of the opera house, thereby making the entire playhouse auditorium and stage part of the Grail Hall.

Karsten Mewes (Alberich) reveals a vocally nasty nemesis to Wotan without lapsing into caricature. Uwe Eikötter manages to transform Mime from a standard-issue caricature into a deceptively cute curmudgeon. Thomas Berau and Xavier Moreno produce prime beefy sounds as Donner and Froh. Insung Sim makes a menacing Fafner. Not least, Jürgen Müller fleshes out a crafty Loge, replete with Lombard Street bowler hat and a pair of extra arms for the god’s sleights of hand.

The surprise attention-catcher, though, is Hans-Peter Scheidegger as Fasolt. When I heard him as a promising Wotan in a superlative Ring in Chemnitz in 2004, I believed that he was on the road to major opera houses. His path has led to residency at the Komische Oper Berlin, where I’ve heard him several times in camprimario roles. If he’s been saving his voice for Fasolt in Mannheim, he delivered the goods. The voice has grown darker but maintained its lyric translucence. Rarely have I heard the giant’s crush on Freia so persuasively sung.

And Iris Kupke was indeed crush-worthy. In place of
Olympian vocal proportions she brings girlish appeal to Freia’s distress. Edna Prochnik, though, seemed vocally somewhat distressed with her Rheingold Fricka, just six days after her spot-on Walküre Fricka. Maybe just an off night.

Now, a word about money, which was brought to mind during the opening scene of this performance. As I write on this bank holiday weekend (Corpus Christi) among Europe’s Roman Catholic states, the arts in Germany are financially in extremis

As monstrance: the opera house in Eisenach, the city that was home to Martin Luther while he translated the New Testament, J.S. Bach’s birthplace and the setting for the Song Contest in Tannhäuser. It’s probably going to close soon, unless funds can be raised privately to keep it open. Unlikely. 

The State Theater of Duisburg (above) is home to opera, ballet and plays. The building was originally completed in the neo-classical style with private funds in 1912. It was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in 1950, again through mostly private support.

Similarly, the long marriage between Düsseldorf and Duisburg, which achieved decades of solid success as Deutsche Oper am Rhein, is on the brink of dissolution. Duisburg can no longer afford to pay its share to keep its opera house open, so it will shut down operations in 2014, barring a miracle. Also Unlikely. 

The opera house in Düsseldorf stands on the site of an earlier theater completed in 1875. The current building opened in 1956, when a partnership was formed with the opera company in Duisburg. The merged companies have been known since then as Deutsche Oper am Rhein and share singers, dancers, productions and personnel.
Which leaves Düsseldorf looking for another partner. The most practical solution would merge Deutsche Oper am Rhein with Oper Cologne. But the styles of their respective productions are inimical. So too are their respective inhabitants: Düsseldorfers think the Cologners are gauche, while Cologners think Düsseldorfers are snotty.  A frequently worn t-shirt reads “Besser tot in Köln als gesund in Düsseldorf!” or I’d rather be dead in Cologne than alive in Düsseldorf. I can safely predict that the Campbells will marry the McDonalds en masse before Cologne Opera and Deutsche Oper am Rhein enter matrimony. A more likely scenario would merge Cologne with Theater Bonn, an alliance that has long been discussed. Which would leave Düsseldorf still trolling.

For the next two and a half years Oper Köln will play in a tent behind Cologne Cathedral that usually houses visiting musicals and tourning pop concerts.
Theater Bonn (view from the Kennedy Bridge over the Rhine)
Some Cassandras are predicting that it’s only a matter of time before all state theaters in Germany will close. The thought is too grim to contemplate, but Europe has entered the Dark Ages before. If infelicitous developments in the euro and debt crises continue, it could happen again. 

Production Photos: Hans Jörg Michel
Other Photos and Graphics: Sam H. Shirakawa

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