By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — The Komische Oper and Staatsoper opened the new season back-to-back this month, setting the stage for the typical game of which is the most exciting house. Yet new productions of Offenbach’s La belle Hélène and Puccini’s Tosca both fell flat, albeit for very different reasons.
With La belle Hélène, Komische Oper intendant and stage director Barrie Kosky carries on an operetta tradition that has become a trademark in his campaign to revitalize the house since arriving two seasons ago. The production, performed in German translation but also including regular deviations from the original work in both text and music, required nine weeks of rehearsal.
Kosky’s intricate comic timing and provocative interjections, from roller-skating and bare-buttock dancers (choreography: Otto Pichler) to the orchestra’s quotes of Richard Strauss, the Hebrew folk song “Hava Nagila” and more, make for a sometimes riotous evening in the theater. But as seen at its Oct. 11 premiere, the production offers strangely little Offenbach.
In program notes, Kosky calls La belle Hélène “one of the most important operettas of all” and Offenbach the “incarnation of a world citizen.” Strange then that he felt the need to rewrite this clever setting of a classical myth in which Paris wins the beautiful Helen, unhappily married to the Spartan King Menelaus.
As Kosky rightly points out, the opera is rife with a mix of eroticism and nonsense that verges on the surreal. The mythic theme also lends itself easily to an updated take. But there is no need to dismember Offenbach’s energetic, masterfully constructed and witty score in order to achieve that goal.
In a direct evocation of the composer’s confrontations with anti-Semitism, Kosky adds a historic gramophone in which Calchas, soothsayer to Jupiter, takes refuge with old Wagner recordings in the first act. He is interrupted by the arrival of Paris, an accordion-playing cowboy.
The juxtaposition is intriguing, but the Americanisms overstay their welcome, with repeated lines such as “hit it, Henrik” (a cue to music director Henrik Nánási) for the all-powerful Helen. Kosky has a tireless performer in ensemble member Nicole Chevalier, a technically assured soprano who had the audience eating out of her hand with every slapstick moment, whether bleating to the shepherd Paris or simulating fellatio. She is called upon to sing everything from Gounod to Piaf alongside luscious Offenbach numbers such as “Amours divins” (here, “Erhabener Bund”).
As the Trojan prince, Tansel Akzeybek impressed with a piercing tenor and suave presence, making his last appearance as a priest before he whisks Helen away to the island of Cythera, here portrayed by a ladder that allows the pair to escape onto an upper balcony. Peter Renz was amusing as the slighted Menelaus, crying out “Ne me quitte pas!” (“Don’t leave me”), a quote from the eponymous song by singer-songwriter Jacques Brel.
As Calchas, Stefan Sevenich at times stole the show, whether pirouetting in a padded costume that made him look obese or falling head first on roller skates. The mezzo-soprano Theresa Kronthaler was also a stand-out, leading the cabaret-like number “Ei, là là” with convincing dramatic inflections while parading in a jeweled bustier.
The energy was not so high in the orchestra of the Komische Oper, however, which performed to a slightly lethargic tempo under Nánási. Also during the overture, which in Mozartian fashion foreshadows key arias, the music lacked any sense of tension, with little exploitation of rubato and dynamic nuance. Under the circumstances, it seemed cheap to throw in the opening four-note motive of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at various climatic points in the opera.
If the Komische Oper production takes excessive creative liberties, the Staatsoper’s new Tosca, seen upon its second run on Oct. 6, is a staid, undercooked take on this tragic story of revolutionary artists in 19th-century Rome. The Latvian director Alvis Hermanis does little more than add video projections to double the action above period sets.
When Scarpia stands in his chamber in the Palazzo Farnese in the second act, there is a cartoonish image of a man on a balcony; when the painter Cavaradossi is shot in the final scene, we see Tosca cradling the bloody head of her beloved. The projections at times underscore the cinematic qualities of Puccini’s score, and it was a pleasant surprise not to see any fake blood onstage. But the images also have a terribly clichéd quality.
It is surprising that Hermanis, who has mounted deconstructionist takes on Birtwistle’s Gawain and Verdi’s Il trovatore in recent editions of the Salzburg Festival, does not capitalize on the opera’s rich cross-references between art, love, politics, and religion. His straight-forward, realist approach has a powerful effect in scenes such as Tosca’s seduction and subsequent murder of Scarpia, revealing the police chief’s twisted mix of hatred and lust as he seizes her in nearly bureaucratic fashion, but it is hard to justify mounting a new production of this widely performed opera when it does so little to shed new light on the story.
It didn’t help that the musical side was so wanting, with the tenor Fabio Sartori contributing the only satisfying performance of the evening. The third act aria “E lucevan le stelle” soared above the orchestra with beautiful diction, tasteful use of portamento, and an expressive connection between line and text that made one remember how heart-wrenching Puccini’s score should be.
As Tosca, Anja Kampe struggled with strident high notes but warmed up to a moving performance, bringing sensitive dynamic shading to the falling lines of “Vissi d’arte” and letting out a blood-curdling shriek when she realizes that the guards have killed Cavaradossi, despite Scarpia’s promise of exile. As her enemy, Michael Volle displayed a booming tone and menacing presence but did not convince musically due to his Teutonic diction and lack of legato singing.
Matters were not much better in the pit. Music director Daniel Barenboim, conducting a Puccini opera for the first time, invested phrases with a characteristically elastic rubato and soaring line, but the sound veered too far toward the Wagnerian. The performance often lacked the gentle legato this music requires, and the brass section, at least from my seat in the third row, was positively deafening in the first act.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to publications such as Gramophone, MusicalAmerica.com, Opernwelt, and the New York Times.