European Opera Trek: Refreshment In Shock And Awe

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Arturo Chaco-Cruz, center, is the Duke of Mantua in Robert Carsen's production of 'Rigoletto' in Brussels.  (Photo by Bernd Uhlig)
Arturo Chacón-Cruz, center, is the Duke of Mantua in Robert Carsen’s circus-themed ‘Rigoletto’ in Brussels.
(La Monnaie photos by Bernd Uhlig)
By Susan Brodie

A recent European trip provided a chance to refresh my eyes and ears after a season of pretty but often vacuous opera productions in New York. All five productions were visually striking and musically solid; the best of them left me pondering the work’s larger themes long after the final curtain.

BRUSSELS:

La Monnaie is one of the most theatrically vibrant opera houses in Europe, but Robert Carsen’s new circus-themed Rigoletto (seen May 22) struck me as unexpectedly tame, despite superficially shocking elements. With 18 new and old productions on 21 stages world-wide in 2013-14, the Canadian director may be the most prolific opera director working today.

The pranks by Rigoletto (Dimitri Platanias) bring cruel revenge.
The pranks by Rigoletto (Dimitri Platanias) bring cruel revenge.

In this co-production with the Aix Festival and Strasbourg’s Opera National du Rhin, Carsen chose to stress the libertine atmosphere of Hugo’s original Le Roi s’amuse, transforming the Mantua court into a circus that is more sex club than Barnum and Bailey (sets by Radu Boruzescu; costumes by Miruna Boruzescu). Circus is a more mainstream entertainment form in Europe than in the U.S., but it still bears the whiff of outsider disrespectability, apt for a jester with a mysterious past. In fact, everyone in this Rigoletto lies or conceals his identity.

As the Duke of Mantua (Arturo Chacón-Cruz) swigs Johnny Walker Red (chosen for the color scheme or product placement?) in his loge, pole dancers gyrate and strip to the command of a lion tamer, then retire to the bleachers to perform lap dances for the drunken courtiers while acrobatics entertain in the ring. Rigoletto (Dimitri Platanias) performs lewd acts with a blow-up doll before heading home to his daughter, changing out of his black clown costume while Sparafucile (Konstantin Gorny) offers his services.

A climactic moment at the end of La Monnaie's 'Rigoletto.'
A climactic moment at the end of La Monnaie’s ‘Rigoletto.’

At home in their tiny caravan (inexplicably parked inside the circus tent), the wide-eyed Gilda (sweet-voiced Simona Šaturová) solicitously greets her father as she plots her tryst with her povero studente. She sings “Caro nome” seated on a trapeze floating above her hut, surrounded by stars (Carsen and Peter van Praet’s lighting design was excellent). The one interesting twist is Gilda’s obvious happiness as she emerges from the Duke’s chambers in Act II; her sensual delight turns to shame only when she recognizes her father’s devastation at her dishonor. Her ultimate self-sacrifice is another gesture of defiance against the way her father has confined her, and the only assertion of female will in a sordid tale of objectification of women.

At the closing bars, a naked woman, a ribbon dancer suspended in a scarlet streamer, gyrates wildly as she hurtles toward the ground, just another disposable female. The images were striking (including a parting view of the naked Duke as he rushes off to despoil Gilda), but didn’t really add up to much.

Though I’ve heard musically more compelling performances at La Monnaie, under Carlo Rizzi the level was more than respectable, as  good as many an evening at the Met. The evening lacked incandescent star power and the kind of revelatory experience I’ve come to expect from this company, but the sold-out house loved it.

Rigoletto from La Monnaie is available free for streaming — through June 17 only — here.

STUTTGART:

Oper Stuttgart offered two revivals: Actus Tragicus, the late Herbert Wernicke’s staging of six Bach cantatas, and Willy Decker’s Tosca (seen May 23 and 24, respectively). Instead of the radical régie experience of a Stuttgart visit last spring to discover Calixto Bieito’s work, I saw two thoughtful but less unusual performances performed with persuasive commitment.

A scene from 'Actus Tragicus,' a setting of six Bach cantatas. (A.T. Schaefer)
A scene from ‘Actus Tragicus,’ comprising six Bach cantatas, in Stuttgart. (A.T. Schaefer)

Actus Tragicus is titled after the sixth of the cantatas, BWV 106. The curtain rises in silence on an apartment house, viewed in cross section and filled with people – choristers, mimes, and soloists – going about daily life: ironing clothes, measuring a room, hanging a painting, having dinner, lying sick in bed, working out, packing a carton, writing a letter – repeating their actions in an obsessive loop.

A masked woman in black wanders through the teeming house, and at the beginning of each cantata two men slowly carry a coffin through the building. At first you expect an evening of suspense – whom will Death claim? – but it soon becomes clear this is a meditation about carrying on, until death claims us in the midst of life. The arias provide moments of soul searching in the middle of dailiness.

The music begins after ten minutes of mute action, and the first five cantatas comprise some of Bach’s richest writing: French overtures, full choruses with orchestra, the most taxing of arias accompanied by equally difficult obbligatos. Under conductor Michael Hofstetter, an ensemble of modern instruments from the Stuttgart opera orchestra, abetted by a robust, stylish continuo team, played nimbly, though the distinctively expressive colors of period instruments were missed in the solos.

Vignettes from daily life in an apartment building fill 'Actus Tragicus.'
Vignettes from daily life in an apartment building fill ‘Actus Tragicus.’

After five elaborate cantatas exploring mankind’s doubt-filled and transitory existence, the final cantata, in a curiously archaic style, anticipates and celebrates death as release and joyful reunion with Christ. The centerpiece of BWV 106 pairs a solo soprano begging for death’s release with a chorale: “It is the ancient law that man must die.” The solo ends in a faltering, falling phrase over a repeated bass note, like a failing heartbeat. After a final joyful chorus celebrating the passage to eternal life, sung as the company gradually exits, the soprano solo and choral admonition are repeated from offstage, ending with those pulsing bass notes trailing off, and a blackout. It could end no other way, and it was devastating.

At 1,400 seats, Oper Stuttgart’s main auditorium is a bit larger than La Monnaie, but the experience feels more intimate, This is partly the result of careful audience development. Before each performance there is an introduction in the foyer: standing room crowds come to hear background, plot, and musical examples and analyses from the evening’s work – attendees were even asked to sing through one of the Bach chorales before Actus Tragicus.

Following many performances are Q&A sessions with the audience; after a revival performance of Willy Decker’s visually distilled but traditional production of Tosca, English-speaking cast members were on hand to answer questions. In the bilingual session, it became clear that musicians love working in a small house like Stuttgart, where musical and theatrical standards are high, and the audience is engaged in the company’s work and supportive of the artists. No wonder even with more U.S. opera companies offering young artist programs, many American artists prefer to build a career in Europe.

Tosca at Oper Stuttgart continues through July 8. Tickets here.  Actus Tragicus has ended.

FRANKFURT:

The Commendatore dies at the hand of Don Giovanni. (Monika Rittershaus)
Don Giovanni regards the dying Commendatore. (Monika Rittershaus)

I continued on to Oper Frankfurt for the new Christof Loy production of Don Giovanni (seen May 25). Loy, who works primarily in German-speaking countries, specializes in probing the troubling psychological underpinnings of a libretto. In his hands, Don Giovanni, already a dark work, becomes another rumination on death.

After a lifetime of seduction, this aging, world-weary Don (Christian Gerhaher) is obsessed by death and his own approaching demise. The opening curtain finds the gray-haired anti-hero standing, stunned, over a man he has just run through with his rapier; minutes later his casual murder of the Commendatore (Robert Lloyd) seems reflexive rather than vengeful. This is a dour, solitary Don, whose exuberant gatherings involve sword fights in a crumbling hall rather than champagne toasts and masked balls.

Giovanni (Gerhaher) grapples with Zerlina (Doronzio).
Giovanni (Christian Gerhaher) grapples with Zerlina (Grazia Doronzio).

Giovanni ages visibly through the 24 hours of the drama, exchanging his sword for a cane by the last scene. Only the touchingly young Zerlina (former Met Lindemann young artist Grazia Doronzio) elicits any enthusiasm from this jaded player. Throughout the drama, Loy visually plays up the ambiguous relationships among the noble characters by dressing them alternately in black or white, depending on the given plot twist (in handsome period-style costumes by Ursula Renzenbrink).

In the end, everyone is shaken and confused, including the audience. Musically, matters were less confounding. Honey-voiced Christian Gerhaher was an intense, disaffected Don. Rising American soprano and house favorite Brenda Rae made a noteworthy role debut as Donna Anna. Martin Mitterrutzner’s effortless tenor made him a wonderful Don Ottavio. Sebastian Weigle led a crisp, well-paced performance, with stylish recitative accompaniment on fortepiano. Worthy of mention was the cello obbligato for Zerlina’s first aria, as gentle and sweet as a viola d’amore.

Don Giovanni at Oper Frankfurt runs through June 27. Tickets here (sold out, but returns may be available).

MUNICH:

My final stop was the Bayerische Staatsoper, a bigger house with a more international reputation, though the experience felt more impersonal. Andreas Kriegenburg’s much-anticipated new production of Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten was a profoundly disturbing yet deeply satisfying presentation of this powerful anti-war work (seen May 31).

Harald B. Thor's imposing set for the Munich production of Zimmerman’s "Die Soldaten.' (Wilfried Hösl)
Harald B. Thor’s imposing set for the Munich production of ‘Die Soldaten.’ (Wilfried Hoesl)

Premiered in Cologne in 1965, it was originally considered virtually unplayable because, in addition to a large cast and enormous orchestra, Zimmerman called for 12 stages surrounding the audience. Kriegenburg and set designer Harald B. Thor came up with a cruciform structure divided into seven cage-like compartments, mounted upstage, which moved forward and back. This facilitated both seamless scene changes and simultaneous action. Stylized costumes by Andrea Schraad suggested Georg Büchner’s original 18th-century French setting as well as Nazi Germany, with quirky touches like a jazz combo dressed like the Beatles. Stefan Bollinger’s deft lighting design added narrative dimension to the space. The production looked both harsh and handsome.

Die Soldaten’s sordid story can be read as a companion piece to Wozzeck, with the focus on the merchant’s daughter Marie as the hapless victim of the brutalizing effects of military culture. Much like Berg, Zimmerman structures the four acts as a series of Baroque forms (toccata, ricercar, ciacona, etc.). Intimate domestic scenes set to twelve-tone music of crystalline clarity alternate with the chaotic cacophony of the soldiers’ canteen.

Desportes (Daniel Brenna) courts the commoner Marie (Barbara Hannigan.
Desportes (Brenna) courts the pursues commoner Marie (Hannigan).

At the end, electronic sonorities compound the orchestral din to invoke the ultimate cataclysm not only of war but of nuclear destruction, considered a real possibility when Zimmerman was working on the opera. It at first appeared that Kriegenburg would sacrifice dramatic pacing for gratuitous shock value, as the climactic fourth-act rape was foreshadowed by soldiers brutalizing naked women in mime against the clangorous opening music. But he quickly pulled back the brutality, though choreographer Zenta Haerter‘s mannered, repetitive movement style, reminiscent of Robert Wilson but more kinetic and suggestive, took some getting used to.

The outstanding principals humanized the stylized approach, especially the lithe and luminous-voiced Barbara Hannigan (Marie), the sympathetic baritone Michael Nagy (Stolzius), and Daniel Brenna (Desportes), recently announced as the Siegfried in Washington National Opera’s upcoming Ring Cycle. A challenging evening, but what a dramatic and vocal tour de force! As strong as the cast was, the real stars were conductor Kirill Petrenko and the Staatsoper orchestra. Petrenko sculpted passages of crystalline transparency in the more intimate scenes, while unleashing the cataclysmic fury of the full orchestra when needed. This was a shattering event worth the trip.

The final (sold out) performance of Die Soldaten at Bayrische Staatsoper was June 6. The production will return for three performances Oct. 31, Nov. 2, and Nov. 4.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at@Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!