Tag Archives: WTF

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


Two days, three very different operas

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 Children to 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 Mexico in 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.

Pelleas and Melisande in pieces

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.

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

A Strauss opera in a dress?

Yesterday in Stuttgart, I saw Der Rosenkavalier for the first time. It was very confusing. Musically, it was my favorite Richard Strauss opera so far, but Herheim’s very psychological production was probably not the best choice for the previously uninitiated. I’m not even going to try to make this a proper review—that would imply that I had some clue what was going on. I didn’t. Even the (in retrospect) most obvious part of the conceit—that the entire opera was happening inside the Marschallin’s dress—wasn’t clear to me until some kind Twitter opera-goers answered my plea for help. Intermezzo has the best description and analysis of the production I could find, so read that post if you want an understandable account of what I saw. (And go there regardless for more photos!) What follows will be extremely speculative.

I speculatively offer you... a mirror-rose. Photo: A.T. Schaeffer
I speculatively offer you… a silver rose. Photo: A.T. Schaeffer

As the dress setting (which we were really hit over the head with; I’m kind of embarrassed not have grasped that sooner, on my own) implies, this whole production is a sensual fantasy of the Marschallin’s. You get the sense that it’s a regretful fantasy—Sophie (whose costumes match hers) is her younger self, whom she wishes an Octavian had rescued from a marriage of convenience, just as he ultimately rescues Sophie. And “rescue” is the right word: to emphasize the drama of salvation, Octavian fights off a herd of lustful satyrs who attack the Marschallin in the overture. The satyrs will be back, though, as the attendants of Baron Ochs (and sometimes also the Marschallin). I’m still fuzzy about exactly what function they’re fulfilling; traditionally, satyrs onstage underscored (and allowed for) the nobility of the other characters because they were the separately embodied base aspects of human nature. Here, they (with in-your-face rubber genitals always hanging out) seem to merely contribute to a world that is full of debauchery and cupidity wherever you look.

The setting for Ochs's and Mariandel's Act III rendezvous
The setting for Ochs’s and Mariandel’s Act III rendezvous. Photo: A.T. Schaeffer

Other animals appear, too, as predictable instantiations of various characters’ personalities. There’s even an ostrich (Strauss) to represent the composer. Ochs nearly strangles him, trying to prevent the end of the opera in which youth and innocence triumph (and the satyrs retreat). But, of course, the opera must end. The Marschallin (who is also Europe) descends from the skies, wielding the opera’s famed silver rose as a magic wand with which she sets all to rights. At one point, Pan (who is on the also-horned-like-an-ox Baron Ochs’s side) steals the rose, replaces it with a version he has made from the shards of the Marschallin’s smashed mirror, and hands it to Ochs. It seems like debauchery might triumph. But Ochs has been discouraged by his recent humiliation. He smashes the rose and shoots off the stage in a shower of sparks. Octavian and Sophie help the crying Pan gather up the pieces of the rose, and Octavian tosses them into the skies to form the stars. He and Sophie sing their final duet in a beautiful, starry dreamscape, while the Marschallin and Faninal comment from the side boxes of the opera house (where they sit wearing modern opera-going outfits) that youth is thus. Pan upstages the ending by eating a remaining shard of broken glass and dying bloodily. Presumably, this is Herheim’s rather tasteless comment on the opera’s outcome. Continue reading A Strauss opera in a dress?