Friday, 3 June 2016

Holofernes – Theater Bonn – 2 June 2016

Judith (Johanni van Oostrum) with the head of Holofernes
Photos: Thilo Beu

Holofernes – Mark Morouse
Judith – Johanni van Oostrum
Abra, her maid – Ceri Williams
High Priest of Bethulien – Daniel Pannermayr
Achior – Johannes Mertes
Assad – Martin Tzonev

Beethoven Orchestra Bonn
Theater Bonn Chorus

Conductor – Jacques Lacombe
Director – Jürgen R. Weber
Sets – Hank Irwin Kittel
Costumes – Kristopher Kempf
Lighting – Friedel Grass

The chance to experience an opera from the 1920s that hasn’t been seen or heard for nearly 90 years was in theory too good an opportunity to miss. Holofernes by Emil von Reznicek was premiered at the Charlottenburg Opera in Berlin (now the Deutsche Oper) in 1923 and was revived for a further couple of seasons before, like Reznicek’s other dozen or so operas, falling completely from the repertoire. The Viennese-born, Berlin-settled composer (1860-1945) is now known, if at all, for the overture to his 1894 comic opera Donna Diana – that work was only revived on stage in modern times as recently as 2003. Some of that neglect must be down to the retrogressive nature of his musical language, which would have sounded distinctly passé at the time of its writing, if Holofernes is anything to go by. A subject as dramatic, and lurid, as the beheading of Nebuchudnezar’s general Holofernes by the beautiful Judith, written in the wake of Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, would seem a shoe-in for the lush, late-Romantic bordering on Expressionist musical styles that were prevalent at the time. But Reznicek resorts to a kind of third-hand Wagner for his declamatory vocal writing and orchestral textures, with intermittent local colour hinting at the Russian colourists. In short, the music wouldn’t have sounded out of place 30 or more years earlier. Moreover, Reznicek doesn’t seem able to sustain anything for long: the score sounds fragmentary, a sequence of short, unconnected moments, rather than the through-composed music drama it is presumably aiming to be. A lot of the musical ideas are trite and short-winded, the melodies – apart from the quoted Kol nidrei – are unmemorable, and only some occasional flashes of orchestral imagination – for instance when trying to sound ‘modern’ in the Straussian sense – hint at what could have been. The saving grace of the opera is that it is short – about the length of Salome, including an interval, though it was made a little longer here by the inclusion of an overture added, presumably for its last revival, in 1926.

Judith beneath the 'banana'...
Bonn Opera threw everything at it to try and convince us that it is worthy of being staged. Or at least that is the impression left by a completely over-the-top production by director Jürgen R. Meyer, in which excess seems the order of the day. (Fortunately, the company also threw musical quality its way, of which more later.) Any attempt to exaggerate, to camp it up, is taken. Kristopher Kempf’s costumes are straight out of 1960s Star Trek, as the Israelites and Assyrians are dressed to kill like the exotic humanoid aliens encountered by the Enterprise crew. Quite why the Jewish priests had huge boxes on their shoulders (misplaced tefillin?) or why the Assyrian soldiers were dressed up as spiders or horses was not made clear. And what was with the giant inflatable banana looming over the Jewish village (Abra, Judith’s maid, at one point tries to get her mistress to eat a real one, too)? Perhaps related to the phallic graffiti decorating Holofernes’s siege tower that dominates Act II. There is more fruit later, when Judith tries out her machete skills on a water melon before moving on to the sleeping Holofernes himself. Throughout, there is a surfeit of imagery conveying torture – bodies on poles, severed heads used as counterweights to drawbridges, and in Act I some rather unsavoury video imagery of someone severing the head of a plastic doll with a knife and hatchet. The director attempts to inject some humour into proceedings in his direction of character – especially with the tiresomely over-demonstrative Abra – but it only points up how laughable the whole production is, for instance with the poor onstage orchestral trumpeter forced unconvincingly to ‘act’ out a tiff with the slave holding his music (the second time he appears, he gets stabbed for his labours). And is that Chinese calligraphy projected on to one of the suspended, vegetable-like balloons in the closing scene? It all makes Judith’s suicide at the end seem a saving grace rather than a tragic denouement.

Holofernes (Mark Morouse)
The cast, chorus and orchestra did as much as they could with the material. Mark Morouse’s Holofernes saved the character from becoming too much of a pantomime villain (the vocal writing suggests Alberich at times), while Johanni van Oostrum’s Judith was suitably alluring of voice and stage presence. The subsidiary roles were also creditably performed. And conductor Jacques Lacombe deserves credit for keeping the performance moving, not easy given the often perfunctory nature of Reznieck’s writing. I went with an open mind and wish I had enjoyed it more, but it does go to show that, try as we might to persuade ourselves otherwise, some works are forgotten for a reason.

Die tote Stadt – Staatstheater Kassel – 1 June 2016

Marietta (Celine Byrne), Paul (Charles Workman) and Marie (Eva-Marie Sommersberg)
Photos: N. Klinger

Paul – Charles Workman
Marietta – Celine Byrne
Marie – Eva-Marie Sommersberg
Frank – Marian Pop
Brigitta – Marta Herman
Fritz – Hansung Yoo
Juliette – Lin Lin Fan
Lucienne – Maren Engelhardt
Victorin – Paulo Paulillo
Graf Albert – Johannes An

Staatsorchester Kassel
Opera Chorus & Cantamus Choir of Staatstheater Kassel

Conductor – Patrik Ringborg
Director – Markus Dietz
Sets – Mayke Hegger
Costumes – Henrike Bromber
Video – Lillian Stillwell
Lighting – Albert Geisel

Brigitta (Marta Herman) and Frank (Marian Pop) at the start of Act I

Although Korngold’s Die tote Stadt offers more scope for the director’s imagination than many an opera, with its meshing of real and imaginary worlds and its convoluted psychology, it is perhaps unsurprising that as the work becomes more of a repertoire piece the ideas presented on stage are becoming less original. This, if my memory is correct, is the eighth staging I’ve seen in a little over two decades, and while Markus Dietz’s interpretation is coherent and well presented, it is also unmistakeably reflective of previous efforts. Mayke Hegger’s set thrusts the action into the auditorium by encompassing the full perimeter of the orchestra pit, thanks to the theatre’s generously deep dividing line between instrumentalists and audience. This box-like forestage is Paul’s space, with his ‘shrine of memories’ a shelving unit providing the back wall that eventually opens up on a receding vista of his imagination. The false proscenium idea here, dividing real from dreamt worlds, was also used by Jakob Peters-Messer in Magdeburg in the winter, while the updating of Paul’s memorabilia of his dead wife Maria to include video footage was exploited by Anselm Weber in Frankfurt (the Cologne staging of 15 years ago or so went further and made the pertinent connection with Hitchcockian film, not least as Vertigo shares source material and some of the plot).

A scenic device that recalls Willy Decker’s much-travelled production is the use of the Doppelgänger to delineate the two ‘realities’. Here the ‘dead’ Marie is a constant presence in the form of a silent dancer, a seeming ghost of Paul’s dead wife, who is as bereft with her loss as he is with his. Her actions seem to mirror and at times contradict those of Marietta, the ‘real-world’ lookalike with whom Paul becomes obsessed. Also made out to be a double, seemingly, is Frank, since he is dressed just like Paul in white shirt and black trousers – is he perhaps made out to be Paul’s rational side? Paul’s attempt to kill Frank off in their Act II struggle is coupled with his need to kill Marie/Marietta again, as if by only doing the deed himself can he finally come to terms with his loss. Intriguingly, there’s a hint of erotic tanglement between Paul and Brigitte, as they kiss when she leaves him for the convent in Act II, and at the very end, Frank – and now we really do have to believe he is the rational Paul – addresses his invitation to leave Bruges, the ‘dead city’, to her, and is taken aback when Paul replies: Frank happily slips away with Brigitte to a new life, as Paul walks off into the darkness of the rear stage, his bereavement cast into oblivion. Weber in Frankfurt explored the anti-clerical element in contributing to Bruges’s ‘deadliness’, but Dietz explores more obvious religious connotations, making the religious procession in Act III specifically a Good Friday one and thence a cue to showing a bloodied Marie crucified as part of her continuing death process. Extensive use is made of the stage risers to achieve all the comings and goings of chorus and characters, and the visual flow is as seemless as a series of cinematic cross-fades.

Charles Workman brought a Heldentenor’s bright, ringing tone to the exhausting role of Paul. A couple of the high notes slipped from his grasp, but he almost always managed get a settling vibrato going in even some of the most trying of musical phrases, and he physically lived the role from beginning to end, despite the indignity of having to sing, for a fair chunk of the evening, wearing nothing but his underpants. Celine Byrne’s crisp diction was just one of the delights of her performance as Marietta, and it was coupled with plenty of sinuous tone and a stage presence that confidently suggested this was a character who wasn’t going to be messed with. As her Doppelgänger, Eva-Maria Sommersberg put just as much conviction into her silent role. The rest of the cast, drawn from the company’s ensemble, acquitted itself with equal commitment, but special commendation must go to the Fritz of Hansung Yoo, whose suave, beautifully paced Pierrot’s Lied was a highlight of the performance. Choruses, especially the professional-sounding children of Cantamus, were excellent and the Kassel orchestra played its heart out, Patrik Ringborg revealing extensive musical preparation in the way so much inner detail emerged while making the score as a whole soar, glide and ensnare as ever.