Three From Autumn In Germany

Reviews by Polly Hope

COSI FAN TUTTE. Staatsoper Berlin. Autumn 2005.

What grandeur to see the orchestra pit fill up with musicians in white tie and tails. I had forgotten the formality of Germany and love it. The white tie boosts one's expectations of what is to come. The curtain rises and oh dear, we are at the check in desks at an airport. And yes, it is a long time ago, 1960s judging by the uniforms. And here come Guglielmo, Ferrando and Don Alfonso all suited and with umbrellas and briefcases, nifty they look, and they sing well all the while climbing on top of piles of suitcases.

Then we get to Naples and arrive at a magnificently ugly villa of the period, which rolls on from the wings. This bungalow is encased in those awful aluminium low relief tiles so beloved by suburbanites. The walls gleam in the Mediterranean sunlight. Suddenly the front of the villa folds down to reveal a complete 1960 interior including bathroom and kitchen. Christian Sedelmayer, the designer, has caught those bygone days to perfection. It was perhaps the ugliest design time in history. We see the entire interior of the villa, the tiling, the cubic lamps, the monstrous upholstery, hideous bathroom fittings and an impossible kitchen. It is hard to listen to the music with so much to look at.

The two girls, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are lying around on sofas telephoning. A car parked in the carport is a millecento and has a Napoli number. Nice touch. The girl's dresses are equally ugly. Did we really wear such monstrous outfits as kids? But Fiordiligi, Anna Samuil, and Dorabella, Katharina Kammerlöher, are a delight, even though Dorabella sounds more like Brünnhilda in volume than this Mozart heroine; and of course one cannot hear a word. We are spoilt in London where today great attention is given to understanding the text. It doesn't always work, but a crusade I fight is that one should be able to follow the story of an opera from what is sung on stage and not have to resort to a synopsis in the programme, which anyhow these days cost enough to have supper on.

But I digress. A vast canvas glides in across the backdrop. On it is painted an almost life-size jumbo jet, name of Cosi. I am gob smacked at how much money these opera houses have to throw around... The boys arrive. The story unfolds and after one couple having it off in the kitchen on the other on the lawn the boys leave for the wars. It all goes so slowly. I have never heard this opera played at such a foot dragging pace. Dan Ettinger, the conductor, savours each and every note and gives much prominence to the harpsichord, which he plays. He makes this instrument sound like a grand piano. I like the sound.

Eventually, and it really feels eventually, we reach the interval; large glasses of water much required, almost two hours of relentless visual jokes...I want the hear the music… When we start up again we appear to be at a Flower Power happening Indian style. A horde of hippies fills the stage waving their arms about singing the while. Then ten foot high plastic blooms are carried on and planted. What a mess, we can barely pick the six protagonists out of the multicoloured crowd. And it gets worse as a huge moon rises over the villa and a plethora of stars zap about in the sky. Okay, it is all a pretty perfect at showing what the 1960s looked like but poor old Mozart is completely drowned in the detail. And why pick such an ugly period?

The Guglielmo of Hanno-Muller Brachmann is excellent; as a hippy with long hair and an amazing low cut jersey and flower embroidered torn jeans he is wondrously attractive, and really sexy when he strips down to his y-fronts. Ferrando, Pavol Breslik only gets as far as taking his T-shirt off, though he is a pretty boy as well. For a change Don Alfonso, Kay Stiefermann, is played as a friend of the same age as the boys rather than a benign uncle; the idea works well.

However, stunning as this production is in many ways, ultimately it doesn't completely work. Too much visual research, lovingly put together as it is, distracts so much from the action. These six wonderful characters mostly appear as cut-out paper dolls. When the girls remove their wigs halfway through the second half all sense of period suddenly ceases and instead of looking weird and being rather exotic creatures from another age they become totally ordinary. Such a gesture reduces the production to pantomime.

Despina, Adriane Queiroz, tries hard, but Despina is the one character who doesn't age well, in 2005 jokey cures just seem silly.

This is such an incredible work, the agony of infidelity, the anguish of the last scene should be almost unbearable, but it isn't. The audience is tired after four hours sitting through a work, which should be light and delicious even if the underlying story is heartbreaking. Still if you are in Berlin and like opera it certainly isn't a bad way to spend an evening, after all, as well we know, Mozart is just about everyone's cup of tea.

CARMEN. Staasoper Berlin. Autumn 2005

The following night I returned to the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden, a perfect walk from where I stay. We walk across the bridge spanning the river. Here a Russian woman is playing heart-braking music on an accordion. As we leave her to her mournful tunes the sad melodies follow us as we pass between the great museums. Real musicians enhance street life so much, though they need chasing out of town if they bring electronic gear which just blasts noise into the night, its screeching being heard streets away.

But I am supposed to be writing bout A Night at the Opera. Yes, another night another tune but the same conductor, Dan Ettinger. Um.

Well, they've had a real go at Carmen, director's production, and in spades. The curtain rises on the execution of Don Jose with Micaela holding his dead body in her arms. The couple are trying to stop themselves sliding off an almost vertical rectangle that is going round and round. Come to think of it, it is exactly like the rectangle that Wotan swarmed about on a couple of weeks ago at Covent Garden. Sick making flying rectangles are this year's flavour. This idea of Martin Kusej, the director, of linking beginning and end works well enough. Like any major opera house the singing is fine, if not outstanding, though the Micaela of Arpine Rahdjian is strident when surely she should be gentle. And why is she an old lady with grey hair and boy, have they given her a hideous dress! Little wonder Jose went for a brighter bird. Don Jose, Andrew Richards, looks old and tired but sings well enough. These two, Micaela and Jose, look as though they've been stuck in Carmen for the last half-century.

Then Carmen emerges through a hole in this concrete bunker. Tight fitting black plastic dress, ankle straps on her shoes and wearing a mac. Marina Domashenko does a fine job of seducing Jose. Mind you the competition was nil. Again Dan Ettinger paces the tempi at somewhere between andante and allegretto. It does take a long time to get through the text and there isn't much to look at on stage, just concrete beams and the tipping rectangle.

In the cigarette factory the girls are all in their underwear. And such underwear, satin bras, stockings held up with suspenders and Bridget Jones bloomers. All good for a giggle, and when they fight it is like a sixth form pillow fight in an up-market girl's school.

Carmen never gets out of her black plastic, though knowing how opera houses like to spend it is probably a real leather dress disguised as plastic. They have to be seen to use up their grants.

The tavern scene takes place under a water tower. Why? Though it does give everyone a chance to throw water around as the tower is standing in a tank of water.

The gypsy camp seems to be inside a ruined church. The gypsies, guess? Yes, they are wearing their underwear again. Carmen gets dressed as the Virgin Mary at one point and Micaela haunts the side aisles. Meanwhile the music drags along and everyone acts Emotion.

In the last great scene we have the entire chorus running as fast as they can go back and forth across the stage singing the while. Totally daft and meaningless. Are they running to the bullfight and then home because they forgot their tickets? There must be best part of a hundred souls on stage. They run off and come back wearing white overalls to be spectators when Don Jose murders Carmen.

Yes, Martin Kusej has thrown a lot of ideas into this production. It is good to try and change and update such a popular work. Such a production should give the audience a real jolt and wake them up. But it doesn't. We the audience tolerate what is going on, after all Carmen is such a fabulous opera it is almost impossible to ruin it, especially if you have efficient singers at you disposal. For all the singers their French is atrocious. Much of the spoken dialogue could have been cut. A Carmen that runs to nigh on 4 hours needs lopping a lot. The audience round me was pretty restless. Perhaps the best bit was the superb lighting of Rheinhard Traub, he pointed up the characters and the place and the time in a way everyone else involved seemed to have forgotten about. Lots of smoke but no mirrors. The lighting alone would have made for a much better production.

Carmen is one of opera's greats, but this production didn't come alight, no passion, no fire, and no love. And for me not even a whiff of sex. If Carmen isn't a story of raw lust then there is no point in it. Still an evening in a major opera house cannot fail, at least for me, to be a great occasion. That huge performance and the cost of it is mind-boggling. Go, and go again to see and hear everything you can. Breathe the excitement in the foyer, be dazzled by the chandeliers. Opera always overwhelms even when not perfect. Perfect is rare so enjoy and enjoy the whole panoply of musical theatre.


Deutsche Oper Am Rhein. Duisburg. Autumn 2005

They'd been playing Berlioz's Trojans all day in the Duisburg opera house and now, in the style of ancient Greece, were going to end the day with a farce. Albeit on a classical theme. Much alas we couldn't get to Duisburg in time to catch even the last act of the Trojans. Helena was to be a late night entertainment. No one was allowed in through the normal doors into the auditorium, instead we were led around to one of the side entrances onto the actual stage. There we found ourselves sitting in the actual set of the Trojans! A rack of chairs had been piled up like bleachers and a canvas cloud cushion sat on each one. What a delight to sit in the Trojans' best parlour! We all felt rather grand in such a setting. Herbert Murauer had converted the stage into a bombed out 1930's Greek bank. A fine conceit. The audience had been reduced to about 250 people. Terrific, chamber opera at last!

Then followed two hours of delicious French froth. The French coming out of the singer's mouths was of course quite awful but who cares? Everyone knows bits of the story and that in the end the lady runs off with pretty Paris. Marta Marquez's Helena was an experience for any jaded old banker as she trilled and warbled, a veritable singing canary. She was enshrouded in one of the most magnificent dresses I've ever seen on stage. Bright pink chiffon and completely covered with pink feathers, all this ending in a train yards long flowing out behind her. It sounds horrendous but I can assure you it was to die for. A huge Pre Raphaelite curly wig with tiara completed this outrageous costume. Birgit Wentsch, the costume designer, had excelled herself in this production.

The singers were all wonderful, girls playing boys quite often, though it was difficult to quite make who was who. Quite obviously everyone enjoyed themselves hugely. The Bacchus of Gwendolyn Killebrew, resplendent in white tie and tails, and the Orestes of Anke Krabbe were exceptional. Bacchus actually climbed down and joined the orchestra halfway through. She took over the piano and sang a wonderful Josephine Baker torch song. She brought the house down with this number. And quite deservedly.

Madness happened throughout the entire performance, and at one point the entire cast appears in ski outfits, though I was not quite sure why. Ultimately Paris arrives in an aeroplane wearing the traditional pilot's gear of goggles, leather cap and knee breeches. Helena in a perfect Chanel suit and divine little hat flew off with him in his plane.

Christof Loy, the director filled the production with wit. It must have been a relief after the Trojans. Christian Reiger the music director looked about fourteen but he did a wonderful job keeping the pace fast and the touch light. Offenbach's pretty tunes billowed around the small space and made us all feel we were at a party. A froth of delight but on a firm footing. The piece played without an interval and two hours passed very fast, though some of the singers must have been on their knees with exhaustion having played the Trojans earlier on in the day.

Perhaps, like all farces, the direction got muddled, too many people doing too many jokes. But then the stage Helena was played on was only a corner of the Trojans' set, just big enough to contain a dusty pink sofa, and two lights, one either side of it, though the performers did spread out into the audience when the action got too involved.

Of course Grand Opera cannot often be played as just a heap of fun, but it is very pleasurable occasionally to cock a snoot at Wagner and the like.

Catch any of these three operas during this season. They are all worth it.

Polly Hope. Berlin. December 2006