I love Goethe. Goethe is the reason I learned German. That doesn’t mean his texts are sacred. (No texts are sacred.) But it does mean that I bought tickets to Clavigo at the Salzburg Festival because I was excited to see a very rarely performed Goethe play. I saw a press release that the main roles had been gender-swapped and got even more excited. I saw the dreaded byline ‘nach Goethe’ (‘nach’ implies ‘inspired by,’ in contrast to the more straight forward ‘von’ or ‘by’) but still held out hope. My hope was sadly misplaced.
Goethe’s play is a tale of competing ambition and love. Clavigo is an up-and-coming Spanish writer. In his younger and poorer days, he fell in love with and became engaged to the charming but sickly Marie. However, when his star started to rise, his friends convinced him that Marie would hold his career back. At best, she’d be a distraction; at worst, she’d prevent an advantageous marriage. So he broke the engagement. Marie’s brother Beaumarchais (yes, the French playwright—this is loosely based on real events) has come to Spain to confront Clavigo. He exorts a (potentially career-killing) written confession of wrongdoing from Clavigo but promises not to have it published until Clavigo can ask Marie for pardon and renew their engagement. Clavigo successfully does this, but his friends (and his own feelings) convince him that this was a mistake and begin criminal proceedings against Beaumarchais. Marie, upon hearing of this, dies. Clavigo (who has not heard the news) stumbles upon her funeral procession and is distraught. Beaumarchais fatally stabs Clavigo, and Clavigo accepts his death as atonement for his crime. Continue reading A Clavigo full of hot air→
A dull Don Carlo in Munich, though one worth seeing for the singing (especially goddess Anja). Note to directors: black on black is a bad color scheme. Note to translators: please actually translate the libretto rather than leaving us to guess every other line. Note to artistic directors: Asher Fisch is a much better conductor for Strauss than for Verdi.
A silly Barber of Seville for Childrento kick off my Salzburg Festival experience. The young singers were not only musically solid, but also fabulous actors (especially the Figaro). Even the conductor (Duncan Ward) was wonderfully dramatic. I prefer my Rossini in Italian and complete, but this abridged version in German was interactive and fun.
The Conquest of Mexicoin a VIP-filled crowd at the Salzburg Festival (including the composer Wolfgang Rihm). It had nothing to do with Mexico. It was modern and bizarre and high-tech but also primitive and abstract. Artuad, Octavio Paz, Hegel—philosophy and literature and tones and grunting and screaming. Sound coming from all sides. Brilliantly staged so that it was somehow accessible despite the chaos. A totally unique operatic experience.
Just when you think German opera stagings couldn’t possibly get more confusing, there comes a production that seems to be premised on the action having nothing to do with the text or music. The audience reaction to the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Pelleas et Melisande was so overwhelmingly negative that they cancelled the planned video broadcast. You can read my review for Opera Online here.
On Tuesday, I went to Stuttgart to watch Calixto Bieito’s staging of Rameau’s opera Platée. Bieito is infamous in the opera world for brutal, graphic stagings full of sex and violence. (Also for the Ballo with the opening tableau of everyone seated on toilets. But I digress.) This production was heavy on the sex but light on the violence. It also had a social point to make, though I thought it was too little, too late. We’d been laughing at dirty jokes the whole opera—we weren’t really emotionally prepared to properly react to the sudden, serious portrayal of transphobia.
If you know me well, you probably know that I am not a fan of dirty humor. Often, the other people in the opera house laughed as I remained unamused by the endless gags about sexual organs and fluids. Quite a few moments seemed utterly tasteless and pointless, as when Dionysus was presented with a giant jello penis, which she caressed and ate onstage. That said, I found other things genuinely funny. The beginning of the overture happened without the conductor (Hans Christoph Bünger)—he was onstage after a night spent with Thespis! (The music woke him up, and he hurriedly edged past the first row of the audience to enter the pit.) Also, Mercury’s and Citheron’s relationship, which involved a lot of teasing, donning of silly wigs, and shutting each other up with kisses, was utterly adorable.
The best part of Bieto’s approach to this opera—the part I think other directors could learn from—was his irreverance. It’s not that he didn’t love Rameau’s score (you’d have to, to choose to stage such an obscure work), but he didn’t treat it as something to be preserved and transmitted intact at all costs. Actors mumbled and sobbed and laughed and stomped over the music. Citheron mockingly repeated some of Mercury’s more over-exaggerated lines. La Folie silenced the whole orchestra and led into her aria with an electric guitar solo. (When the orchestra re-joined her, she flipped the conductor off.) The ballets featured charmingly simple but appropriate choreography, done by the chorus rather than a corps de ballet. Everyone on the stage was clearly having tons and tons of fun with this show. And that really came through to the audience—commitment, energy, and excitement were never lacking. Continue reading Sex jokes and transphobia at the Stuttgart Opera→
“What Russian opera needs is male strippers and dancing cowboys,” said no one ever. Still, it almost works. Read my review of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging of Eugene Onegin for the Bayerische Staatsoper here on Bachtrack. At least my Regietheater streak is still going strong!
I had this strange idea that because the Seagull tonight wasn’t actually a Volkstheater production (it was by the Otto Falckenberg Schule, in the Volkstheater’s black box space), it might be a little more normal than most things I see there. Hah! This is Germany. Normal and theater don’t go together. But usually I can puzzle out what is going on. Here, I had absolutely no clue what director Stephanie van Batum was thinking.
It actually started fairly normally. I mean, sure, we were in the modern era. A fashion runway served as the stage. The women all wore crop tops and impossibly short skirts. Trigorin made notes of anything that inspired him on his smartphone. Kostja had to remove the plastic packaging from his ‘seagull’ meat before dropping it on Nina’s doorstep. But we were seeing Chekhov’s play. I didn’t love the overdrawn, caricature-like portrayals of most of the characters—particularly in such a small space—but that choice did work to emphasize the play’s darkly comedic aspects, and it made the two more naturalistically acted characters (Nina and Kostja) stand out in contrast. (Nina became more over-the-top as she was seduced by the lure of fame and of Trigorin.) The young ensemble was, without exception, extraordinarily talented.
And then the final scene happened. People had… transformed. Doktor Dorn was Andy Warhol. Arkadina: Marilyn Monroe. Sorin: Hugh Hefner. Trigorin: James Dean. Mascha: Amy Winehouse. They stood along the runway and delivered their lines infuriatingly slowly, with lots of long pauses. Nina and Kostja—still themselves—stood at the end of the runway and vibrated to thrumming bass. (Were they on a train? Or in a station? I didn’t quite understand the noise and shaking.) They dripped sweat. They talked unnaturally quickly. Nina was confused—was she a seagull or an actress?—but she managed to find her footing and step onto the runway. She suddenly stopped vibrating and regained her normal voice. Kostja simply fell over, presumably dead. The others took no notice.
This is not a review but a plea for help. Does anyone have any idea what could have been happening here? I understand that the choice of celebrity for each Chekhov character reflected that person’s attributes, but why the transformation? Why the shaking? Why the utterly undramatic death that didn’t even seem like a suicide? I’m lost.
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→
At the moment, I happen to be revising a paper about Torquato Tasso. In it, I compare his play Aminta with Isabella Andreini’s La Mirtilla. I examine how Andreini drew on her experience as a commedia dell’arte actor and a woman in Renaissance Italy when she wrote her play. It never really dawned on me that Tasso could also be a woman and an actor (because it’s a matter of historical fact that he wasn’t). But in Philipp Preuss’s version of Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, he (she?) is.
Let’s start with the “actor” bit. It would actually be more accurate to say that the line between writer and actor has been blurred, as has the line between the play Tasso is living and the poem he is writing. Tasso begins by offering us his work, admitting that it is unfinished but saying that he must present it as-is. This work is supposed to be Jerusalem Delivered, but here it seems like it’s Torquato Tasso proper. (The play, though nominally finished, ends oddly and suddenly, so that line certainly fits.) He speaks other characters’ lines as they lip-synch for a while, until they slowly take over. But he is insecure. A few lines in, he starts over from his opening monologue. And then a few lines into that run, he starts over again. He tries to start over a third time, but the other characters overrule him because they have a party to throw.
You see, they’re in a theater—our theater, the Residenztheater—with a balcony and fire exit signs above the doors and red velvet and all the other trappings. It’s almost as though someone put a mirror on the stage (doubly so when project a live feed of the audience). The two Leonores—a Princess and a Countess—are hosting an awards ceremony for Tasso, where they shower him with confetti and crown him with a laurel wreath and smile awkwardly at the TV cameras. (One of these three things is in the Goethe text.) Continue reading Torquato Tasso, paranoid poetess→
Il trovatore is one of my favorite operas. I also love the original play by Guitierrez, to which it’s pretty true. But both are completely ridiculous. The Bayerische Staatsoper’s production doesn’t hide from that absurdity—it’s crazy, too. Leonora is blind. Top hats abound. Uncomfortable nudity keeps popping up. But it works, especially when sung by such an amazing cast. (Anja Harteros is a goddess!) See my full review 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.