A Berlin Sampler

Granted, it may have been hard for any indoor
performance to totally upstage the glorious early summer weather and
delicious seasonal white asparagus entrees on offer in any number of
attractive and pleasant outdoor eateries. But venture indoors I did. . .

Staatsoper unter den Linden offered a well-traveled production of “La
Traviata” that was very long on concept and conversely short on just about
everything else. The major exception was the wonderful playing from the
orchestra under the baton of Dan Ettinger. Save for an inexplicably scrappy
moment or two in Act Three (Flora’s party), the ensemble showed great
presence and stylistic acumen, tempered by sensitive and subtle support of
the soloists.

Would that stage director Peter Mussbach have had as much success with his
vision of the piece as Violetta’s one woman show. Poor Elzbieta Szmytka
started out floating toward us from far upstage as a ghostly apparition
during the prelude and simply never left the stage the entire evening.

This opening moment indeed promised much. A black raked stage with two
ramps escaping into the pit was dotted with interrupted receding white lines
brought into great relief (along with our diva’s white strapless gown) with
black light. A swirling, disorienting light show dissolved into a highly
evocative over-sized video projection of rain on a window pane, an image that
framed the entire stage. And then. . .

Nothing much happened. Okay, to be fair a shiny slit drape flew in upstage
but then it remained there constantly through opera’s end. The chorus in the
opening act sang from off stage until the farewell chorus when they dutifully
filed on, and then off. Soloists paraded through, and down into the pit
without relating to Violetta who alternately swooned to the floor, stood up
again unsteadily, or mostly, stood and sang front.

Was this Violetta’s dying delusion? A video projection of a car going
through a tunnel, and later, of many cars in heavy traffic proved to be a red
herring, evoking thoughts of Princess Di’s untimely end without any other
parallels drawn. It did clarify that the white marks on the stage were
highway-like traffic lines on a “dramatic” highway to nowhere. . .

The stage was bare until Act Two when a single chair was placed down
center. Then in Act Three (or the second scene of Act Two if you’re a purist)
the chorus files on, each holding a chair. They first sit in rows, then rise
indignantly after Alfredo throws the money at Violetta (well, in the air like
confetti really), and then all, to a person, jump up and stand on the chairs
like they have collectively seen a mouse. Where the “chair-mounting music” is
in this score, I couldn’t tell you. Or maybe they suddenly realized they were
playing in the “traffic,” which had returned to the video projector?

If there were some interesting ideas in the Violetta-Germont duet, there
were also major miscalculations. After having begun routinely, it regressed
into first a rather touching moment with Germont as a comforting substitute
father, but then transgressed into a creepy sort of Daddy sexual encounter
during which he put his hand a bit too far up her skirt for our comfort

Does it surprise you to learn that there was no bed in the final act,
which began with the same ghostly promenade as at the beginning? As the stage
lights got brighter, we discovered Alfredo asleep upstage on the floor.
Asleep upstage! As he got up and stretched and yawned, it prompted me to
wonder if this whole thing might have been meant to have been his dream. At
least in the final duet, the characters related to each other, albeit only

While great vocalism might have injected interest, what we had on offer
was merely “good.” The minor roles were certainly sung competently, with
“Flora” quite beautifully voiced by Katherina Kammerloher.

Alfredo Daza as “Germont” displayed a beautiful, buzzy baritone, but he
bullied his way through too many phrases, and his take-no-prisoners entrance
at “Flora’s” was way out of decibel proportion to what the moment requires.
While many of his over-sung high notes went sharp, his effective softer
parlando phrases proved what a fine singer he could be. A gentler approach,
and the deployment of a true “ee” vowel could make him a major asset to the
international roster.

Marius Brenciu’s “Alfredo” was afflicted with the same propensity to force
top notes off pitch, although he too has a good instrument and handsome
appearance which offered much pleasure. Our leading baritone and tenor were
both usually singing about a third louder than needed to fill this house, a
factor that also somewhat marred Ms. Szmytka’s artfully sung “Violetta.”

For when she jumped up to full-voice exposed high notes, too much passion
and pressure forced them to splay and lose focus. As compensation, she was
highly effective in her introspective work, and her “Addio del passato” was a
glory of her interpretation. I felt the somewhat dry voice was slow to warm
up, but once it did, she negotiated the demands of the role with considerable
success. Above all she displayed mature artistry and totally focused

None of the cast was helped by the decision to put the evening’s sole
intermission just before the final act. Nor by the total discouragement of
traditional opportunities for applause for the set pieces. Ultimately, the
director succeeded in keeping the audience at arms-length, in defeating
interaction between the principals, and in tiring us with repetitious visual
imagery. Not the elements that contribute to a very memorable “Traviata.”

Happily, “Die Zauberfloete” at the Deutsche Oper was a delight on almost
all levels. First, while the u.d. Linden crowd seemed to be largely
silver-haired subscribers, about half of the packed “Flute” audience seemed
to be school age young people who were jazzed to be there. With such a
completely different ambiance from the start, this well-known Singspiel (in
its 238th performance of the current production) communicated with a
freshness and vitality that eludes many premiere evenings.

Andreas Reinhardt’s colorful and inventive designs have been
well-maintained, the best feature being a runway around the pit, the least
being a sight-line restricting tree on the down right lip of the stage. Small
matter that, since the liberal use of colorful over sized billowing silks,
puppetry, and Asian-inspired theatrical performance elements swept us along
on a visually varied and highly satisfying ride. Especially handsome was a
garden tableau evocative of “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

Herr Reinhardt was ably abetted by an uncredited but terrific lighting
design. The golden glow of the temple scenes was but one of the many
effective effects. I could have done without the eventual end-of-scene
blackouts which I felt impeded the overall momentum, but this was very fine
work overall. If the caricatured black make-up on the Moors was decidedly
un-P.C., the Germans seem to retain rather an innocence about it all.

Guenter Kraemer’s direction (and/or whoever restaged it) used all of the
stage well, not the least of which was the use of the runway. This especially
afforded “Papageno” the opportunity to wholly engage the audience. And to
that end, we had a willing collaborator with the winning performance of Simon
Pauly. A superb comic actor who thinks on his feet, he took well-calculated
risks in soliciting audience participation, as a “taster” for his glass of
wine for example, or as ringer of the magic bells, the latter amusingly
filling what can be a lengthy stretch in the “Das Maedchen oder Wiebchen”
aria. While he also sang quite well, it was Mr. Pauly’s acting that carried
the day. He was well-partnered by a lovely and charismatic “Papagena” in the
person of Ditte Andersen.

The excellent “Three Ladies” of Jacquelyn Wagner, Sarah Ferede, and Julia
Benzinger were well-matched, and Burkhard Ulrich was easily the very best
“Monastatos” I have encountered. While she will not make you forsake Edita or
Natalie or Diana, Burcu Uyar was a decent “Queen of the Night,” far more
comfortable in the second aria than in the first.

The “Two Armored Men,” Paul Kaufmann and Hyung-Wook Lee offered solid
singing. Arutjun Koptchnian was just fine as “Sarastro,” his orotund sound
more pleasing to me in the two big arias than in his other scene work. Young
Joel Prieto seems destined for a fine career if his well-voiced “Tamino” is
any indication. Already performing this role well, I predict that in a few
year down the road he will be performing it memorably well. Fionnuala
McCarthy’s naive blond approach to “Pamina” worked fine once I got used to
it. She has a pure, well-schooled soprano from which I occasionally wanted
more warmth. “Ach, ich fuehl’s” seemed a bit uninvolved (and maybe a bit too

The “Three Boys” (unnamed) from the Dresden Kreuzchor were competent, the
diction quite muddy, and the intonation variable. I have only once really
enjoyed the casting of boys in these parts, finding female voices much more
satisfying. Even the “cute” factor was diminished in this production by their
sit-and-sing deployment, keeping them relatively uninvolved in the drama and
inviting one of them to look about in boredom.

For sheer fine singing, veteran Lenus Carlson took the evening’s honors as
he rolled out one beautiful sonorous phrase after another as the “Speaker.”
The excellent orchestra under the sure hand of Matthias Foremny was an
unusually sensitive partner to the singers, offering a pliant, delicate
Mozart reading of the highest quality.

Would that Wolfgang had been so well served the next night at the Komische
Oper. For those who may have been eagerly awaiting “Abu Ghraib – The
Musical,” your wait is over.

For those who wanted to see “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” stay far
away because Bad Boy Bieito has been at it again. Calixto Bieito seems to me
to have become famous for being famous. Famously provocative, that is. While
great directors illuminate, clarify, focus, and re-imagine well-known classic
pieces, Mr. Bieito seems to be content to wantonly defile them willy-nilly in
any way that will fuel attention to his “artistry.” For starters, the
published spoken lines of this “Abduction” have either been cut, or just
plain re-written, with dramatic situations eliminated or altered to suit the

One example is that “Pedrillo” enters and yells after the exiting “Osmin”
— in English — “I am sick and tired of you busting my balls. How would you
like it if someone came after you (with a gun) and blew your tiny dick off?”
He then starting playing basketball with “Belmonte” who had entered and they
began conversing in German again.

The taint was evident from the start. The revolving stage set is a series
of Plexiglas, brothel-like “Love Modules.” As the overture begins, a scantily
clad trapeze artist descends from the flies, and after some routine tricks,
starts performing some very suggestive acts. “Osmin” enters chasing a buxom
“extra” (I heard they were real prostitutes, these extras) and they chase
each other, disrobing totally as they go, ending in bed doing the deed.

They finish sex during “Belmonte’s” opening aria, and naked, portly, hairy
“Osmin” proceeds to shower. No, really, shower. To go much further into all
this depravity would be to dignify it with more importance than it deserves.
Suffice it to say, whatever sexual kink you could think of, and several you
wouldn’t, are on display.

“Constanze” is kept in a small rolling cage on a dog collar and leash.
“Belmonte” is dressed up in drag to get him into the harem. Remember all that
dialogue about his being an architect? Gone. Scantily clad “Blondchen” teases
“Osmin” during her first aria, allowing him to lie on the floor and look up
her skirt, and subsequently to take her from behind as she sings on her hands
and knees. A drug addict, “Pedrillo” steals some of her Valium to spike
“Osmin’s” vodka. Remember that important bit about the two bottles of wine?
Gone. Now during “Vivat Bacchus” the bass shoots at the tenor until he wounds
him in the knee.

During “Martern aller arten” our singing soprano is forced to watch
“Osmin” snuff one of the extras, cutting her with a knife and slitting her
throat after first straddling her and forcing her to perform oral sex. The
violent kicking sound she produced as she was dispatched took the ginger out
of those pesky melismas in the “incidental” aria, let me tell you.

“Pedrillo” and “Belmonte” shoot absolutely every extra in the process of
their various sex acts in the “Love Modules” after “Ich baue ganz,”
“Constanze” ultimately shoots and kills “Selim,” and “Pedrillo” takes out
“Osmin” but not before the bass has tasted necrophilia with one of the dead
extras. In the most despicably cynical moment of all, in the show’s last
moment a spotlit, kneeling “Constanze” gets shot dead on the music’s final
button by “someone.” So much for forgiveness and hope, huh?

Does it make you feel any better to know that the small house was only one
third full on a Friday night in Berlin when it was the only opera in town? Or
that a number of patrons defied the decision to play the piece without
intermission by creating their own and walking out? Or that the silence at
curtain was pierced by a “boo” and then tepid applause? Nope, me neither.

The tragedy is that the orchestra played wonderfully for young Stefan
Klingele. The pliable, hard-working cast was peopled with fine, good-looking
young singers. Edgaras Montvidas was a great “Belmonte,” singing with power
and richness of tone. Christoph Spaeth was a fearless actor as “Pedrillo,”
and he provided an accomplished comprimario reading. The tall and lovely
“Blonde” of Mojca Erdmann was very well sung and shamelessly performed.
Guntbert Warns’ psychotic, loose cannon of a “Bassa Selim” was embodied with
great range and (literally) bare-assed commitment. The totally unsympathetic
“Osmin” was nonetheless powerfully sung and acted by Jens Larsen.

The greatest achievement of the night might have been Brigitte
Christensen’s “Constanze,” had we ever been able to concentrate on her fine
singing, and not be distracted by the ugly stage business, and by an
unflattering skimpy slip. What a shame for all these artists that they were
pawns in a self indulgent ego display. It is curious that some intelligentsia
promote the notion that opera needs to be “saved” from boring traditional
production practices by provocative re-workings like this, when truth to
tell, this Bieito version got even more boringly repetitive, annoying, and
predictable after a very short period of time.

The most perverse act of fornication was the one saved for the audience
who paid money to see what they thought would be Mozart’s immortal opera. In
the future perhaps a little truth in advertising should say “loosely based on
‘Abduction from the Seraglio’” so that Mozart lovers can make an informed

James Sohre

image_description=La Traviata – Christine Sch‰fer als Violetta ValÈry Rolando Villazon als Alfredo Germont Staatsopernchor – (c) Ruth Walz
product_title=G. Verdi: La Traviata, et al.
product_by=Above: Christine Sch‰fer (Violetta ValÈry) and Rolando Villazon (Alfredo Germont) with Staatsopernchor (Photo by Ruth Walz)