Opera in Germany

Juicy Three Oranges, a Dutchman that doesn’t fly and
Boris in the boondocks

On the heels of Hitler, Germans, eager to be known again as the people of
poets and thinkers — Dichter und Denker — flattered themselves with
a joke. Give Germans the choice — it went — between going to Heaven and
going to a lecture about Heaven, they would choose the latter.

Berlin_Oranges.jpgThe joke wouldn’t get many laughs today — at least not in Berlin,
where the longest at the moment are neither for Heaven nor a lecture about
it, but for Madame Tussaud’s wax museum that recently opened on Unter den
Linden in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate.

Nonetheless the ability of Germans to ferret out profundity astonishes.
Take, for example, the production of Prokofiev’s Love for Three
now on stage at the Komische Oper here. It’s an evening of fun
and fluff welcome among stagings that leave one intellectually exhausted from
trying to outguess directors who bring supposedly new insights to well-know
works. But then turn to the KO program book and you’ll learn that Three
is really an essay on the fate of theater in the still-young
Soviet Union.

Prokofiev turned his back on the fruits of revolution in 1918. He wrote
Oranges in Paris, and it was premiered in Chicago in 1921, when
famed soprano Mary Garden ran the opera there. (“She was never around,”
sighed Prokofiev. “She was off working on her own roles.”) It would thus
seem to have little to do with Russia.

In 1917, however, Vsevelod Meyerhold, the great genius of Russian theater,
had done a version of Carlo Gozzi’s commedia dell’arte L’amore
delle tre melarance
that provided Prokofiev with his libretto and led
the composer to make of it an opera that took into account the demands that
people made on the theater — and that the theater in a new society
committed to the arts could reasonably make on them.

Knowing this brought depth, of course, to KO production, which, on the
other hand, was a total success simply as joyous music theater very well
done. Indeed, it’s not surprising that the KO is where Berliners go for an
evening of great entertainment that does not perplex the mind.

This production, seen on October 26, further had a note of poignancy about
it, for it is the brain child of KO general director Andreas Homoki, who is
about to leave the company. Homoki has elevated the KO to the level of
excellence that it knew under its founding director Walter Felsenstein, the
man who laid the foundation of modern music theater in Germany after the war.
It was Homoki who brought to the KO the quality and prestige that caused
Opernwelt, Germany’s top opera magazine, to name the company “opera of
the year” two seasons ago.

Leading roles in Oranges were sung by Finnur Bjornson (Prince),
Carsten Sabrowski (King) and Aurelia Hajek and Renatus Mes·’s (Good and
Bad Magicians, respectively). Stefan Blunier conducted an impressive
orchestra. Meyerhold, by the way, gave up on his hopes for an artists’
paradise in the USSR and killed himself.

Karl Marx did not die along with the demise of Germany’s sometimes violent
New Left in the late years of the past century; he’s just been hiding out
in the wings of Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, secure in the knowledge that his
day would come again. And with Capitalism teetering on the brink, it may
indeed now have come.

Proving furthermore that the arts are ahead of politics, Marx’s
resuscitation was anticipated by the production of Wagner’s Flying
that debuted in June at this largest of Berlin’s three opera
houses. This is the work of Tatjana G¸rbaca, yet another director rooted in
the theatrical theories of Bert Brecht and his major disciple in the world of
music theater Ruth Berghaus. G¸rbaca saw what was coming and that left her
no time for wind and waves — or for ships or even a suggestion thereof. She
had weightier matters in mind.

Reuter_Hollander_Berlin.pngJohan Reuter as Fliegender Holl‰nder [Photo by Matthias Horn]
Act One plays in a rowdy room that combines bourse, bar and bordello.
Father Daland, a shipping tycoon and father of globalization is a capitalist
Everyman, ready in his commitment to the market to sell off his daughter
Senta to a tough-looking vagrant in bowler and beaver coat.

Things don’t look at all like Norway, and G¸rbaca explains in the DO
program book that this is Paris, a city that Wagner, on the heels of years of
near-starvation there, wanted to see go up in flames because of its
capitalist excesses. (In Wagner it’s always Gˆtterd‰mmerung time

As the act ends Daland rushes off to tell Senta to get her make-up
straight, while the unhappy Dutchman collapses in a chair. A chorus member
hangs a “Just Married” sign — in English — on him. (Marx lived in
England.) Even experienced Luddites would have a hard time figuring what is
going on in Act Two, for there’s not a hint that spinning wheels have given
way to power looms.

Guerbaca.pngTatjana G¸rbaca
One sees rather in a high-tech beauty emporium, where women — under
Capitalism always a chief (and cheap) commodity — are getting gussied up at
long tables with mirrors. Senta, of course, will have none of this. She’s
lost in her dreams about the dark Wanderer savable only through her

Boy friend Erik, whom Senta did after all promise to marry, is more
important to G¸rbaca than to other directors, for whom he is only an
unwelcome stumbling block to be brushed aside after some attractive lines for
a budding — or aged — Heldentenor. But Erik is a hunter, a
sweat-of-the-brow guy, a well-integrated member of an economic order not
involved in the exploitation of others — unless, of course, you happen to
be a wild boar. Erik is the real loser here, and — with G¸rbaca —
we’re all firmly on his side.

The finest moment in this act is when four giggling girls (the giggle is
not in the score) push a baby buggy between Senta and the Dutchman in the
middle of their big duet. (This is the kind of thing, Brecht would tell us,
that makes people think.)

A literally bright moment in the final act — the DO Dutchman is
played, as Wagner wished, without intermission — comes when Senta’s
bridal veil is burned in the baby carriage. One might as well have fun with
the buggy — and the veil, for Senta will have no need for either. After
slitting Erik’s throat (“Remember Erik?” Anna Russell might ask), she
cuts her own jugular, and the rest of the women do likewise. (Pity perhaps,
on the other hand the libretto had earlier speculated — oh suggestive line!
— that all these virile he-men seemed not to need women.)

G¸rbaca is an obviously bright woman, and one wishes that Alan Greenspan
had read the brilliant essays in the DO program book before applauding
Dubya’s economic policies. One wishes that what she had in mind with this
production worked.

Alas, it doesn’t. It doesn’t work at all, and word about that has
gotten around Berlin, for you could have hunted deer in the first balcony on
October 25, when the house was half empty. That was a shame, for musically it
was a superb evening.

Johan Reuter is austere and awesome Dutchman, and Manuela Uhl, although
obvious hired at the end of the opera, an attractive and impressive Senta.
Hefty Torsten Kerl — Erik — might well be the next great Heldentenor, and
Reinhard Hagen earns high marks as Daland.

Daniel Klagner conducted an ensemble that ranks high in a city that
suffers from an excess of great orchestras.

Magdeburg, a city of half a million an easy two-hour train ride from Berlin,
all but disappeared from Western sight during its 40 years as an East-German
industrial center. Today Magdeburg is eager to attract attention, and a major
draw of the city is its ultra-modern 700-seat theater that opened in 1995.

In the States one would expect this to be the venue of a regional company
performing three or four operas a year. For the current season Oper Magdeburg
has slated five new productions — along with a dozen works already in the

Of special interest is the company’s staging of Mussorgsky’s original
1869 version of Boris Godounov that premiered on October 24. As the
composer intended it, Boris is a straightforward, heavily dramatic
work without the glitter and glamour added by Rimsky-Korsakov in the version
more popular today.

Magdeburg brought the opera up to date with a modern-dress staging that
opened with a 120-voice voice choir lining the sides of the auditorium while
Nikitisch, a government official with a strong resemblance to an about-to-be
American ex-president manipulated the election of a new czar.

Nikolaus Meer, with a white mane that makes him a Horostovsky look-alike,
sang a strong and sympathetic Boris, bringing both beauty and pathos to the
opening coronation and the later mad scene. The many supporting roles were
well executed in a production marked by careful preparation and close
attention to details by Vera Nemirova, a director whose work is respected and
Vienna and is about to stage a new Ring in Frankfurt.

Magdeburg music director Francesco Corti conducted an astonishingly
impressive orchestra that performs a full season of symphonic concerts as
well. A bust in the foyer recalls that early in his career Wagner was
Magdeburg’s music director.

Opera Magdeburg is clearly making its mark.

Virtuoso vocalists

In mid-October two of today’s finest singers — Americans both —
appeared as soloists with Berlin’s top orchestras in the city’s famous
and acoustically perfect Philharmonie: Deborah Polaski and Kelley O’Connor.
With the Berliner Staatskapelle and its music director Daniel Barenboim
Polaski, for almost two decades the leading incarnation of Wagner’s most
dramatic female figures, sang Arnold Schoenberg’s Six Orchestral
, Op. 8.

OConnor_01.pngKelley O’Connor
Completed in 1805, before his embrace of atonality, these are the first
songs, in which Schoenberg turned from piano to orchestral accompaniment.
They further embrace an expressive range that reaches from the late
Romanticism of Wagner and Strauss of the opening Natur to the more
advanced idiom of the three Petrarch texts that conclude the cycle.

Polaski, who between 1988 and 1998, sang more Br¸nnhilde’s at the
Bayreuth Festival than any other singer since World War Two, is a commanding
presence in the concert hall. She delivered the rarely heard songs with full
appreciation of their shifting style, benefiting of course from her long
collaboration with Barenboim.

It is impossible to put aside sentiment in hearing Peter Lieberson’s
five Neruda Songs, for they stand today as the composer’s superb
creative act of homage to his late wife Lorraine Hunt. The soprano premiered
the songs, a declaration of love that reaches beyond the intimately personal
to a universal celebration of this most problematic of human entanglements.

Polaski_01.pngDeborah Polaski
Lieberson discovered the 100 sonnets by Pablo Neruda shortly after meeting
Hunt in 1997. She premiered them in 2005 — and died of cancer the following
year. Although it might seem an act of trespassing for another vocalist to
sing the songs, with her gentle and modest humanity Kelley O’Connor, now
the leading interpreter of them, magnifies the act of homage that they
originally were.

She sang them last summer at the Aspen Festival with Lieberson in the
audience and has repeated them since with the Chicago Symphony under Bernard
Haitink, who — due to illness — was replaced on the podium of the Berlin
Philharmonic by David Zinman, who had conducted the Aspen performance.

Although one hardly thinks of any singer as closely associated with
Spanish music, O’Connor launched her career by creating the role of
Federico Garcia Lorca in Osvaldo Golojov’s Ainadamar at Tanglewood
in 2003 and then repeating this role around the world in the composer’s
later expansion of the work.

O’Connor has a thrillingly rich lower register that is especially well
suited to the haunting spirit of both Neruda’s verse and Lieberson’s
setting of it, for an anticipation of death is present in both.

Berlin takes Onegin out of the birches

Stravinsky called Eugene Onegin the “most
Russian” of Tchaikovsky’s operas, and scholar Vissarion Belinsky
viewed the 1879 work as “an encyclopedia of Russian life.” Achim
Freyer, director of the Onegin currently on stage at
Berlin’s Staatsoper, does not share these opinions. In an essay in the
company’s program book he insists that “today St. Petersburg is
everywhere” and that this story could now be set in Dubai , out in the
country or in Berlin with equal validity. Not everyone agrees, and the
current Onegin that — new in September — was the
Staatsoper’s major contribution to the 2008 Berlin fall festival, has
given rise to a controversy that recalls the 1913 Paris premiere of
Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”.

On October 22, however, when the production was on stage for the seventh
time this season, no one left the packed hall until uniform applause had
declared Freyer’s concept a success. And it was a fine final touch that
Daniel Barenboim, the evening’s conductor and music director of the
Staatsoper, brought the entire Staatskapelle, his pit band, to the stage to
share this approval.

Over-the-top opera productions are the norm in Germany, the land of
Regieoper that puts the director totally in charge. Nonetheless
Freyer had a hard act to follow in the Onegin new at
Munich’s Bavarian State Opera last season. With thoughts of
“Brokeback Mountain” obviously in mind Polish director Krzystof
Warlikowski, a former assistant of Peter Brook, moved Tchaikovsky’s
Russians to the American West. And, viewing the work primarily as the
composer’s confrontation with his own homosexuality, Warlikowski
focused attention on the close relationship between Onegin and his friend
Lensky. (“Close?” Close indeed, for at one point Warlikowski had
them in bed together.)

Freyer, about to launch the first “Ring des Nibelungrn” native
to Los Angeles, goes in quite another direction. (Long in the wings, Luc
Bondy had once been engaged to direct the Los Angeles Opera project.) For
Freyer Onegin is rather a summation of the sentiments,
sensations and — above all — the melancholy that were the heritage of the
19th century both in Russia and beyond. The director writes of that world as
one of “loneliness, longing and boredom, of renunciation and
rationality…but always with the hope of love fulfilled as its driving
force.” Freyer, now 74 and once a Berlin student of Bert Brecht at his
epoch-making (East) Berlin Ensemble, brings the hand of his teacher to rest
on Onegin and his age.

Tchaikovsky called Onegin not an opera, but a series of
“lyric scenes,” and Freyer treats it as a scenic oratorio. The
entire cast is almost always present on a sharply raked empty stage; each
stands alone, and they all face the audience. There is no direct exchange
between them. Their loneliness and isolation cries out. Occasional wooden
chairs — sometimes suspended in the air — are the only props. Costumes
suggesting current dress are soiled white, and grease-painted faces are white
with exaggerated facial features. Taking a cue perhaps from the slow-motion
choreography of Robert Wilson, characters stay almost entirely in one place,
restricting motion to arm and hand gestures.

The art of mime is heavily involved, and as Lensky Rolando Villazon is a
Marcel Marceau look-alike. Huge eyes recall the once overly popular paintings
by Margaret Keane.

Americans, inexperienced in such experimentation, would have a difficult
time with this “Onegin.” Brecht, however, would have loved it,
for it is a masterpiece of his theater of alienation, in which Freyer has
opened a critical distance between stage and audience to fight what Brecht
called the “culinary” theater of illusion that draws the
spectator into the drama on stage. This is theater for the thinking man out
to change the world.

Central to this approach is the primacy of the text, which makes clear
that — despite the title — it’s Tatiana who is the central figure of
“Onegin.” And in Anna Samuli, who in four seasons with the
Staatsoper has made Violetta and Donna Anna signature roles, Freyer has a
near-ideal Tatiana, youthful, but with a voice that despite its power made
what Onegin calls her “chaste love” credible. Samuli was
Barenboim’s Tatiana when he conducted Onegin with the
Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in2007.

Things were complicated at the October 22 performance, when Villazon,
slated to sing Lensky, was ill. He appeared before the performance, explained
the situation in impeccable German and announced that Serghei Khomov would
sing the role from the side of the stage, while he participated as actor
only. (The illusion of a singing Villazon would have benefited from
lip-singing on the tenor’s part.)

Onegin_Berlin.pngA scene from Eugene Onegin [Photo by Monika Rittershaus]

Roman Trekel, the Staatsoper’s leading bass when RenÈ’ Pape is
not in town, is an elegant and appropriately aristocratic Onegin who does not
overplay his hand either in refusing Tatiana’s offer of love or in his
outcry “Oh, my miserable fate!” that ends the drama.

It is, of course, Barenboim who made the production work. He understands
Freyer’s intentions and supports the director fully in making this an
evening of overwhelming music drama. Given the intensity of the staging it
would be senseless to interrupt its impact with actual dancing of either the
famous first-act Waltz or the spirited Polonaise that opens Act Three.
Indeed, on the heels of the duel that leaves a red-bathed Lenski still
standing at the rear of the stage Barenboim plunges from the duel into the
Polonaise with a fury that brings the drama to a head. Lensky’s then
collapses, the source of a lake of black blood then covers the entire stage.
(To achieve the effect the off-white fabric that had covered the entire stage
is slowly withdrawn. It’s hard to describe, but the effect is

The first reaction is, that although interesting, one would not want to
see this Onegin again. But one gets up the next morning
thinking of nothing else and wishing it were on stage again that night.

Freyer is his own designer.

Onegin was sung in Russian with German surtitles.

As a footnote, a shot of cultural sociology: I have lived in Berlin for
long periods since 1954 and thus knew the city — and the Staatsoper before
the Wall went up in 1961. And during the almost four decades that the Wall
stood, I spent extended periods in East Berlin as an exchange scholar. What
amazes me today — as the city prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of
the fall of the Wall — is how divided Berlin remains and how obvious this is
at musical events in the former East.

In the past two years I have been here at Easter, when Simon Rattle and
his “sacred cow” Philharmonic are off in Salzburg, performing for
an international audience at the spring festival founded there by Herbert von
Karajan. Thus Easter finds the Philharmonic’s Berlin hall free, and
Barenboim and his Staatskapelle seize the opportunity to show their stuff
with the Berliner Festage, a spring festival founded by the East decades ago
to counter the appeal of West Berlin’s September Festwochen.

The Festage draw their own international audience. (It was during this
spring festival that two years ago I heard the Mahler cycle for which
Barenboim and Pierre Boulez shared the Staatskapelle podium. I mention this
here because the cycle comes to Carnegie Hall in the spring.)

But I digress.

The Easter festival brings an international audience to Berlin;
“Onegin,” as I saw it at the Staatsoper on an inauspicious
Wednesday in October fills the historic house largely with subscription
holders, and I was amazed at the ease with which I can still distinguish
“Ossis” from “Wessis” — to use the categories now
long common here — in this audience. One sees it in their clothes; one sees
it in the women’s frizzy permanents, but above all one sees it in their
behavior. Opera remains for them something special — as they were taught that
it was by the former Communist government that kept top-priced tickets at the
Staatsoper at 15 marks East — totaling around $1.00 at the then rate of
exchange — for forty years.

This is their night out, and subscriptions continue to make the Staatsoper
and its orchestra somewhat affordable. A season ticket for the eight concerts
by the Staatskapelle are available at Euros 118 with the unusually strong
dollar bringing up to Euro .74. And — happy day! — the Staatsoper is flooded
by youth, where the East-West divide is far less evident.

All this makes a run-of-the mill evening at the Staatsoper something to be
studied. Drop down to the buffet; enjoy a glass or Rottka”ppchen
champagne — one of the few Eastern products to survive reunification — and
study this show-within-a-show! Finally: three years “in exile”
are coming up for the Staatsoper. Its house — it’s still essentially
the structure built by Friedrich the Great that opened in 1742 — has been
destroyed and rebuilt numerous times during Germany’s turbulent history
and is now slated for badly needed total reconstruction.

What is to be done with the house is locally the subject of heated debate
with one party calling for the construction of a hyper-modern auditorium
within its historic walls. What visitors to Berlin need to know is that,
beginning in the fall of 2009 and continuing for the next three years, the
Staatsoper will be at home in the Schiller Theater, a modern venue once the
pride of West Berlin and largely unused since Berlin has again been one

Wes Blomster

image_description=Boris Godunow at Magdeburg
product_title=Opera in Germany
product_by=Love for Three Oranges, Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunow, Neruda Songs
product_id=Above: A Scene from Boris Godunow at Magdeburg