I’ve probably miscounted somewhere, but it looks like I saw 38 plays and 44 operas in Europe this past season. As you might guess, I have some favorites. So without further ado, let’s begin with operas:
The Unexpected but Awesome Colors Award for surprisingly successful production aesthetics is split between David Bösch’s dark L’elisir d’amoreand Peter Konwitschny’s (initially) cheerful cruise-ship Tristan und Isolde.
The Totally Regie Award goes to Antú Romero Nunes’ bold and striking William Tell, where everyone was a terrible person and the overture was not where I expected it. A close runner-up is the gritty TraviataI saw in Stockholm, where Kasper Holten managed to make strippers and homelessness part of this usually sparkly tragedy. (Note: many more productions were totally Regie; these are just the ones that were most successful at it.)
The Are They Even Human? Award for absurdly good singing is a three-way tie between Evelyn Herlitzius (Brünnhilde), Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), and Javier Camarena (Don Ramiro) in Die Walküreand La Cenerentola.
The Went Back for Seconds Award is reserved for the only opera I went to see twice: Hans Neuenfels’ Manon Lescautstarring Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais. It was even better the second time, even if I never quite grasped the logic behind the Oompa Loompas. Oh, and did I mention that I got to meet Jonas Kaufmann?
The I Guess Modern Opera is Actually Pretty Good Award has three winners: Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Berg’s Lulu, and Peter Konwitschny’s staging of Rihm’s Die Eroberung von Mexico. None of these shows was particularly fun to watch (mostly because of the dark subject matter), but they were all breathtakingly well-directed and well-acted. Great conducting brought out the lyricism in atonal scores and prevented the music from just sounding like noise. Continue reading The Ilana Opera and Theater Awards→
Tristan und Isolde was the first Wagner opera I ever saw, at Seattle Opera about four years ago. It was glorious and dark and tense. The production the Bayerische Staatsoper has (which dates back to 1998, and which I hope they keep for many more years) is the exact opposite. Bright colors! A cruise ship! Childish scribbles! It’s absolutely not what you’d expect, and it works beautifully. This cast was also fabulous. I cried. You can read my more complete and coherent review on Bachtrack.
What did I see last night at the Volkstheater? It was Camus’ Caligula—that much was clear. But it was part play, part drag show, part music video. The piece retained its impeccable existialist credentials, dealing intelligently with questions of radical freedom gone wrong, equality leading to tyranny, and wholesale destruction as the only escape from meaninglessness. Projections flashed across the background rapid-fire, tying those themes to everything from Communism in China to factory farming to the military-industrial complex. It was confusing, chaotic, impossible to keep track of the different layers of meaning. Somehow, miraculously, director Lilja Rupprecht’s choices created an aesthetically and emotionally unified whole (though I would be hard-pressed to articulate precisely what the unifying principles were). And every minute of it was exciting.
The opening scene screams ‘conservative’: the chorus of Roman senators appear in suits, complaining about ‘nichts.’ Nothing, that is. Nothing getting done. Nothing to be done about the emperor’s madness. Nothing turned up in their search for him. Rupprecht is intentionally setting up an expectation to be undermined. As the senators talk, a giant projection of Caligula’s head appears on a scrim in the background. When they leave, the scrim opens, and Caligula appears—stark-naked and covered in mud. As he disappears and re-appears through the set’s three doors, he articulates his ideas to his advisor Helicon. He has not gone mad over his sister Drusilla’s death, he insists. But he wants the impossible to become possible. He wants freedom. He wants (quite literally) the moon. Caesonia, who loves him, agrees to help him, though he warns her that it will mean both inflicting and suffering pain.
When his senators find him, he dictates a new law: all patricians will be required to disinherit their children and leave their property to the state. Then they will be killed. He overrules his senators’ protests and insists that one of them strip. When we see them again, it is three years later. They are wearing skimpy aprons. All have suffered family members’ deaths or humiliations at Caligula’s hands. They plot against him, but each also feels a secret tie to Caligula. In a chaotic dance number full of loud music and projections, Caligula questions each of them and Helicon announces that all shall die—it’s only a matter of time. Just as suddenly as it began, the dance number ends, and Caesonia asks the terrified senators for their artistic criticisms. In another bizarre episode, Caligula has himself declared a god. Wearing a tutu and white mask, he responds to all of Caesonia’s hype with a condescending ‘Ja.’ Accused of outraging the gods, he responds that he is glorifying them by instantiating them on earth, making the unreal real. Continue reading A chaotic Caligula→
The last Christof Loy staging I saw nearly made me leave in disgust and prompted the most angry review I’ve ever written. (At the editor’s request, I toned it down before posting.) So I didn’t have high hopes for his Roberto Devereux… but it was brilliant. Donizetti’s beautiful but dramatic music and the tight plot were infused with delicious irony by Loy’s clever staging choices. The only problem (other than some orchestral slips) was the central soprano: Edita Gruberova is a queen of bel canto opera, but she’s nearly 70, and it’s starting to show in her voice. Still, a fabulous show. Read my review on Bachtrack here.
The question is from an entirely different show (A Little Night Music), but it has a relevant answer: In Munich, they’re going strong. The Cuivillestheater is playing not one but two adaptations of Laclos’ classic novel Dangerous Liaisons. I was gutted not to be able to get tickets to the musical (which had a very short run), but perhaps everything worked out for the best. I can’t imagine it would have been better than last night’s play.
I want to give credit where it’s due, but I’m not even sure where to begin. Should I commend Christopher Hampton for turning a long and complicated novel into a suspenseful and witty script? Maja Ravn for the production’s utterly brilliant set—a towering pile of mattresses that provided infinite entrance and exit possibilities and effectively represented a wide range of locations? Or director Katrine Wiedemann for a strong, consistent style and a perfect sense of pacing?
I had two opera nights in a row this weekend! On Saturday, I saw the next installment in the Staatsoper’s Ring cycle. I wasn’t terribly excited about the first opera in the series, but Die Walküre was fabulous. My review is here.
Then for something completely different came Rossini’s La Cenerentola. (That’s “Cinderella” in English.) It was silly and kind of dumb, but very charming. I couldn’t stop smiling by the end. And I am now convinced that the tenor Javier Camarena is not human. His high notes are simply impossible! My full review is here.
I rushed home from Vienna this past weekend to catch Guillaume Tell at the Bayerische Staatsoper. It combines two of my favorite things: Schiller plays and bel canto opera! This was definitely a Regietheater take on the text and score, but it worked very well. My full review is here.
You know how theater is never quite right? When I see stagings of plays (or movie adaptations of novels), even if I enjoy them immensely, I always think of a role I would have cast differently or a moment when alternative blocking might have been more effective. This is especially true if the play is one I already know and love.
Except this time. Kleist’s Prince Friedrich of Homburg has puzzled and intrigued me ever since I first read it, and I was devastated to barely miss it last year in Vienna. Thank goodness it’s still running at the Burgtheater, and thank goodness I got tickets. This production is visually beautiful, intellectually stimulating, end emotionally moving. I can’t imagine a better realization of Kleist’s play.
Director David Bösch is one of my new favorite people. Both his Peer Gynt at the Residenztheater and his L’elisir d’amore for the Bayerische Staatsoper (my review here) are gorgeous and touching. More, please.
A five-act epic play in rhyming verse that spans continents and features trolls, madmen, and the devil? What more could a German director want? At the Residenztheater, David Bösch has tackled the challenges of Ibsen’s poem with unusual restraint, directing a show that is beautiful, thought-provoking, and surprisingly faithful to the script (condensed though it is). Much credit is surely due to the translator Angelika Gundlach, who excels at both pithy prose and clever rhymed verse.
That’s not to say that this is a historical period piece. On the contrary, Peer inhabits the modern world, living in a trailer with his mother and fantasizing about shaking hands with contemporary celebrities. And what a character he is! I almost suspect Shenja Lacher of witchcraft—he must have been alive and known to Ibsen in 1876, because this part was written for him. He’s irresponsible, irrepressible, funny, and impossibly charismatic. Peer must embody the contradiction of having enough personality to drive a global epic and so little essence that his soul is (almost) not worth preserving. Mr. Lacher manages: everything he does is small, but he does it with such grandiosity that you can’t look away. Even during the “Buckride” monologue, when I had trouble understanding the words (my ear was still getting used to the German rhymed verse), I was captivated by Mr. Lacher’s gestures, pauses, and inflections. Continue reading Reason is dead; long live Peer Gynt!→