Tag Archives: theatre reviews

The Ilana Opera and Theater Awards

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’amore and 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 Traviata I 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 Walküre and La Cenerentola.

The Went Back for Seconds Award is reserved for the only opera I went to see twice: Hans Neuenfels’ Manon Lescaut starring 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 Luluand Peter Konwitschny’s staging of Rihm’s Die Eroberung von MexicoNone 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

A Clavigo full of hot air

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.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair
© Salzburger Festspiele / Arno Declair

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

The (fun) little Faust

Mephisto warned us right at the beginning of tonight’s performance that we wouldn’t leave weeping over Marguerite’s fate. I sincerely hope that wasn’t news to the people crazy enought to book tickets to a German translation of a French operetta parody of a French opera of a German play. I was one of those people. And while I knew to expect silliness, I wasn’t sure exactly what Hervé’s Le petit Faust (or, as the Gärtnerplatztheater is calling it, Dr. Faust jun.) would be. As it turns out, it’s a wonderfully topsy-turvy version of the original, in which Maguerite is not so innocent, Faust is not so thoughtful, and no one should be taken seriously. Spinning wheels and pseudo-woeful monologues and showpiece arias all have their place… and so do yodeling, zombies, and can-can dancing.

Marguerite, the can-can dancer. All photos © Christian POGO Zach
Marguerite, the can-can dancer. All photos © Christian POGO Zach

The story: Dr. Faust is a professor at a boarding school. Valentine entrusts his troublesome sister Marguerite to Faust’s care, and Faust is immediately drawn to her. So he’s an easy target when Mephisto comes offering youth, beauty, and riches. The price? His understanding. (Not his soul—“Everyone sells that these days, without even signing a contract.”) He has imagined Marguerite as the pinnacle of innocence and purity, and with his newfound advantages, he sets out to seek her. Meanwhile, she has gone to England to teach the English can-can dancing. Faust finally finds her in a seedy nightclub, and he is horrified that an “innocent” girl could have stumbled into such a place. He flags down a carriage to take her away, and who should be inside but Valentine? Because Faust is trying to run off with his sister, Valentine fights Faust and is killed. (But don’t worry—Valentine’s death doesn’t prevent him from dancing jigs.) As Marguerite and Faust prepare for their marriage, Valentine’s ghost appears to warn Marguerite that Faust’s fortune comes from the devil. She doesn’t care—until Faust reveals that, in order to make himself worthy of her, he has given away the fortune. Suddenly, she cares a great deal and is denouncing him as the murderer of her brother. Faust is finally disillusioned, but Mephisto nevertheless forces Faust and Marguerite together “eternally,” in obedience to the wish Faust had expressed. Continue reading The (fun) little Faust

Seagull steak

My “WTF” tag is getting a lot of use these days.

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.

A chaotic Caligula

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

Cologne in a day

Germany is wonderfully centrally located in Europe. One of my travel strategies this year is visiting the major Germany city closest to the border of the country I’m on my way to. For my current Belgium and Holland trip, that’s Cologne (or Köln, in German). I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s not a pretty city. 90% of it was destroyed by bombs in WWII, so the Altstadt is essentially non-existent. But there are a lot of interesting things in the city, and I could easily have filled several more days with sightseeing. I was unfortunately there on a Monday, so most museums were closed. If I go back, I’d love to visit the National Socialism Documentation Center, the Ludwig Museum, and of course the Chocolate Museum. I’d also like to see the botanical gardens and the Melaten Cemetery.

That said, I don’t have any regrets about how I spent what little time I had in the city. I got in Sunday evening, so I quickly dropped off my luggage and queued for student tickets to a play. This wasn’t just any play; it was the first-ever stage version of the famous 1920s German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (No, I haven’t seen it either.) The theatre company employed a lip-reader to transcribe what dialogue s/he could, then built a script around that. The result was extraordinarily strange. Its monochrome sets recalled its black-and-white origins. It seemed uncertain what balance to strike between talking and silence—the main character (Cesare) often told stories as expressive dances. It was decidedly non-naturalistic, with exaggerated movements and extreme make-up. It was intentionally alienating, with video close-ups of actors’ faces offering alternative reactions to onstage events. A heavy metal band provided sound effects and filled in the transitions. I’m glad I saw it, because I felt like it taught me a lot about German expressionism, a movement I previously knew nothing about. It lacked the emotional punch of the best psychological horror, but it definitely had suspense. The actors executed the strange style well. I don’t feel qualified to review it more than that, because I suspect much of the interest of the production lies in its imitation versus innovation of the original source material. I’ll need to watch the film before I can form an opinion on that score. Continue reading Cologne in a day

Kitsch!: Elisabeth in Munich

I got a fan e-mail (from a blog reader) this morning complimenting my taste. I’m afraid I might get a retraction as soon as I publish this post, because it’s time for me to confess to a guilty pleasure. I don’t only like opera; I also like musical theatre. And not just “legit” musical theatre of the R&H variety (though I adore that). Not even just Sondheim or Schwartz (though I love them, too). But super-repetitive, schmaltzy pop-rock messes. Phantom of the Opera. Les Miserables. Elisabeth.

Elisabeth dances with Death
Elisabeth dances with Death

If you’re across the Atlantic from me, you probably haven’t heard of Elisabeth, but it’s a sensation here. This Viennese musical about the life of Empress “Sissi” has been touring worldwide since 1992 to sold-out crowds and standing ovations. According to Wikipedia, it is the most successful German-language musical of all time. (I wonder whether they’re counting operetta? Maybe even more people have seen it than have seen Die Fledermaus. Now there’s a terrifying thought.) I saw it last year in Vienna and was swept away. Lucky me—it’s now on tour in Munich! So I went back last night. Continue reading Kitsch!: Elisabeth in Munich

Torquato Tasso, paranoid poetess

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.

Norman Hacker (Antonio Montecatino), Sibylle Canonica (Leonore von Este), Nora Buzalka (Leonore Sanvitale), Valery Tscheplanowa (Torquato Tasso). Photo: Matthias Horn
Norman Hacker (Antonio Montecatino), Sibylle Canonica (Leonore von Este), Nora Buzalka (Leonore Sanvitale), Valery Tscheplanowa (Torquato Tasso). Photo: Matthias Horn

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

Live fast, die young

Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy is very much a product of its (turn-of-the-century) times. Its teen protagonists are uninformed and terrified by their first experiences of sexuality, and the adults in their community—the ones who refused to teach them in the first place—blame them for the consequences. It’s a riveting story that, after many initial run-ins with censorship, has achieved lasting success as both a play and a Broadway musical.

But this is Spring Awakening: Live Fast, Die Young. The teenagers in Nuran David Calis’ re-write live here and now, but they are still doomed. Even without a puritanical society condemning them, they are torn apart by the conflict between their dreams, their emotions, social taboos, and their parents’ expectations. Melchior (Paul Langemann) discomfits Moritz (Emil Borgeest) not by showing him diagrams of the reproductive system, but by stripping. Moritz is writing an opera about America, which he desperately wants to visit, but his classmates deride his efforts and his parents disapprove of his artistic, impractical ambitions. Wendla (Florence Dejardin) becomes preganant through rebellion rather than naivete. Ilse (Naime Laube) struts as the most confident and sexually experienced girl, and Moritz is a bit in love with her. But the one time she responds to him, she reaches inside his pants rather than listening to his words.


The play was directed by Anja Sczilinski and acted by the Residenztheater’s youth ensemble. It’s an impressive group of talented young actors. Emil Borgeest gave Moritz the perfect blend of awkwardness and hidden passion. His calm suicide—stripping and walking toward light, out a door—was quietly affecting. Sonja Viegener (Martha) delivered a fabulous monologue mixing her anger with the present and her dreams for the future. Paul Langemann and Florence Dejardin were heartbreakingly confused as Melchior and Wendla. Wendla’s self-performed abortion with a broken bottle was almost impossible to watch (in the best way). The drama didn’t always reach the fever pitch I’d expect from such a melodramatic script—Melchior’s final scene, for instance, was oddly short on despair, given that he needed to be dissuaded from suicide. But on the whole, the cast achieved a balance of naturalness and heightened emotion that fit the piece well.

I made the mistake of going to a schools matinee. The drama was not helped by the audience’s giggles and whistles every time a piece of clothing was removed or characters got intimate. Regardless, I walked away both moved and impressed. If these teens are the future ensemble members of Germany’s theaters, then German theater will be going strong for many years to come.

Exodus: apes and abortion

I just left what might have been the most boring show I have ever seen.

Romeo Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses is supposed to be an exploration of the many complications and significances of the Biblical character Moses. Good thing the website told me that, or I never would have known.

It starts with a bunch of people in vaguely ’30s or ’40s attire examining things: each other, the walls, the floor, and so on. There’s lots of wordless measuring. It goes on for far too long.

Photo: Guido Mencari
Photo: Guido Mencari

A giant and deafening lathe comes in and snatches wigs, spinning them around dangerously—society’s effect on women, presumably. Continue reading Exodus: apes and abortion