viernes, diciembre 18, 2009

Strange stagings at Berlin´s Deutsche Oper

In recent weeks I wrote twice about Berlin´s operatic life. This is the concluding article, and it will deal with the Deutsche Oper. The DO was for decades the West Berlin bastion, whilst the Staatsoper Unter den Linden and the Komische were on the Eastern side. As, apart from the famous Felsenstein productions at the Komische, few of the Staatsoper´s work was commented in the West, the DO was the thing until the demise of the Wall. Now, however, in the integrated Berlin the great prestige of Barenboim has meant that the Staatsoper competes for budgetary conditions with the DO, both trying to get the most out of their provider, the Berlin Senate.

They share three characteristics: great operative efficiency (they can put on four difficult operas in four consecutive days); they boast splendid orchestras and important rosters of soloists; and they adhere to the current disastrous wave of opera production . To resume: attack on tradition; arbitrariness; disrespect for the libretti; "concept" beating common sense; and ugliness for its own sake. I wonder: if a producer wants to present a "traditional" staging (by which I mean a reasonable visual picture based on the indications of composer and librettist), would he be roundly condemned and impeded to reach the stage?

Two very big and arduous operas confirm the first characteristic specified above: in purely practical terms the DO is capable of putting on in two successive days Wagner´s "Tannhäuser" and Richard Strauss´ "Die Frau ohne Schatten" ("The shadowless woman") with well-oiled precision. In Germany opera houses are led by an "Intendant" (Director General), and he or she is often a producer; such is the case at the DO: Kirsten Harms, born in Hamburg in 1956, produced both operas, both with Bernd Dambovsky as stage and costume designer. The other big post is the Generalmusikdirektor, the Britisher Donald Runnicles, and he was at the helm in "Tannhäuser".

"Tannhäuser and the singer contest at Wartburg" has two versions: the original Dresden one (1845) and the1861 Paris revision, expanding greatly the Venusberg music (including a ballet) and adding a lot of chromaticism. At the DO they chose the Dresden, which is perfectly legitimate and easier. The opera veers between the sensual world of Venus and the chaste, chivalrous Wartburg court, a marvelous medieval fortress still extant (it dominates Eisenach) which I visited a few days later and where I was moved standing in the very hall of the contest. "Sängerkrieg" is "singer contest" in German, and Harms apparently clung to "Krieg" ("war") as her inspiration, for these "Minnesänger" ("singers of love", the German equivalent of troubadours and trouvères) are warriors through and through, and their armors are either on them or over them with overwhelming presence. No sign of the Wartburg anywhere. The Venusberg was blessedly devoid of pornography (admittedly the Dresden version is less orgiastic than the Paris) but quite anodine.

In this interpretation Venus and Elisabeth are considered as two sides of the same woman, so Petra Maria Schnitzer sang both. She is a handsome artist and she sings well, in a traditional Wagnerian way, although without any special intensity. Her true-life husband, Peter Seiffert, now in his late fifties, is still a stalwart tenor with the stamina and command the huge heavy part requires, with only small fissures over the long night. Rainhard Hagen showed an attractive deep bass voice as Landgraf Hermann. Markus Brück was a correct Wolfram, without the plangency of, e.g., the splendid Wolfram the DO had 40 years ago, Barry McDaniel. The Choirs under William Spaulding were splendid, resonant, full and true. The Orchestra under Runnicles provided great pleasure; the conductor is a true Wagnerian and got a noble, bronzed tone out of the very proficient players.

"Die Frau ohne Schatten" is one of the mightiest challenges of the repertoire, the longest and most complex of Strauss´ operas on a very ambitious but flawed libretto by Von Hoffmannsthal. The basic idea is the shadow as the symbol of maternity, and the moral conflict of the Empress, daughter of Keikobad, Lord of the Spirits: she is transparent and if she doesn´t acquire a shadow she will remain childless and the Emperor will be petrified.

The fantastic difficulties of the orchestration and the Wagnerian demands on the singers make it an arduous but admirable opera. I greatly enjoyed the Roberto Oswald stage designs at the Colón with three different producers in 1965, 1970 and 1979, with such conductors as Leitner and Janowski and boasting casts with Nilsson, Bjoner, McIntyre, Hoffman, Thomas and Marton. I can´t say that the combined efforts of Harms and Damovsky convinced me to that degree, for there were confusing moments lacking good narrative instincts, Oriental ambience and sheer beauty, but there were striking images, such as the entrance to Keikobad´s world or the huge falcon .

The outstanding performance was Doris Soffel´s as the Amme, always intense and musical. I liked Johan Reuter´s Barak, sung with good timbre and line. Eva Johansson is a seasoned Wagnerian of ample voice, but her interpretation was much too harsh. Manuela Uhl coped with the high notes of the Empress, though she lacked the radiance the part needs. Stephen Bronk was insufficient in the exposed role of the Emperor. The heroes of the evening were the Orchestra and conductor Ulf Schirmer, always in command of the enormously rich score.

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