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THE 2005 MUNICH FESTIVAL
By Glenn Loney, September, 2005
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:
The 2005 Munich Festival: *
Time for Changing of the Guard(s) at Bavarian State Operas: *
Wide Range of Opera-Stagings at National-Theater: *
Old Favorites ReVisited: *
David Alden’s Pique Dame: *
David Alden’s Lulu: *
David Pountney’s Faust: *
Martin Duncan’s Entführung: *
Lowery & Hosseinpour’s Orphée et Eurydice: *
August Everding’s Die Zauberflöte: *
Patrice Bart’s La Bayadère: *
Challenging New Productions: *
David Alden’s La forza del destino: *
David Alden’s La Calisto: *
Christoph Loy’s Saul: *
Christoph Loy’s Alcina: *
Peter Mussbach’s Billy Budd: *
Second-Tier Gärtnerplatz-Theater Offers Standards & Major Premiere: *
Mozart Joins the Avant-Garde: Die Entführung aus dem Serail: *
Jugendstil Operetta: Richard Heuberger’s Der Opernball: *
Mayakovski Lives Again in Dieter Schnebel’s Mayakovski’s Death: *
Munich’s Theater der Jugend at the SchauBurg: *
Other Entertainments— *
King Ludwig II Musical Opens in His Historic Capital: *
Passion-Play Theatre at Oberammergau Premieres King David: *
Carl Orff Remembered at Orff Institute: *
The 2005 Munich Festival:
Over the seasons, the Munich Festival—although still the Cultural Child of the Bavarian State Opera—has grown in scope & diversity, with interesting opera and musical productions also on view at the Gärtnerplatz-Theater.
Formerly on vacation in July, the talented acting-ensembles of the State Theatre, the Residenz, and of the City Theatre, the historic Kammerspiele, now also offer first-rate stagings of drama classics and new plays. Even the Theater der Jugend is in operation!
In July, the Residenz—reaching new heights under the Intendancy of Dieter Dorn—was playing such ancient and modern classics as Sophocles’ Ajax & Oedipus, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Molière’s Imaginary Invalid, Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, Goethe’s Clavigo, Schiller’s Love & Intrigue, Grabbe’s Duke Theodore of Gotland, Brecht’s Mother Courage, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night—premiered last summer at the Salzburg Festival!
Can one imagine such a repertory offering at Lincoln Center in an entire season?
[No, nor in any of America’s Regional Theatres, as our federal, state, and city governments—which, in Germany, actively subsidize their theatres as important aspects of social and cultural life—have quite different priorities now. They have to rebuild the dykes in New Orleans and Baghdad.]
But even the productions listed above aren’t the complete July offerings at the Residenz: Also on view were Sarah Kane’s Gier, Botho Strauss’s Die eine und die andere, Werner Fritsch’s Cherubim & The Wheel of Fortune, Vladimir Sorokin’s A Month in Dachau, Vladimir Nabokov’s Walzers Erfindung, Robert Walser’s Der Gehülfe, Georg Ringswandl’s Prominentenball, Philip Glass’s Fall of the House of Usher, and Martin McDonagh’s Der Kissenmann—The Pillowman, to Broadwayites.
One of the Residenz’s most impressive productions of a modern classic—also in the July repertory—is Ödön von Horváth’s Der jungste Tag, or Judgment Day. Your scribe reported on this stunning staging in 2004.
At the Kammerspiele—led by Frank Baumbauer—Gerhart Hauptmann’s Vor Sonnenaufgang, Sophocles’ Antigone, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Schiller’s Don Karlos, and Friedrich Hebbel’s Die Nibelungen, all from its classical repertory, were on view in July.
Newer fare included Radio Noir, Hermes in der Stadt, Die Zehn Gebote, The New Electric Ballroom, Chatroom, and Wilde—Der Mann mit den traurigen Augen.
Whatever became of that Great Initiative, back in the 1960s, to establish Regional Repertory Theatres—on the European Model—all over the United States? Failed Populist Politics, perhaps?
Time for Changing of the Guard(s) at Bavarian State Operas:
Both the Bavarian State Opera and its smaller sister, the Gärtnerplatz, are poised for some managerial changes. After a long and tradition-breaking Intendancy, Sir Peter Jonas’ term at the National-Theater is coming to a close. But finding a really outstanding replacement has not been easy.
There are rather few High-Profile Artistic Directors around these days. Who would want to leave London or Paris for Munich? Vienna, maybe…
As an already historic opera-house—which became an international house over the years after World War II—the National-Theater needs a man, or woman, with great vision, dynamic charm, and wide-ranging managerial skills. He or she does not have to be a brilliant stage-director: the field of vision of some of these is too narrow for them to preside over a major ensemble and repertory.
Jonas, for example, made his mark as the Artistic Director of the resolutely avant-garde English National Opera—which relates to the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, as the New York City Opera does to the Met. He was not required to stage or design operas at all: His task was to engage the best talents he could find for all productions at ENO. Artistic vision certainly helps, but highly-honed management skills are even more important.
Nor is a GMD—or General Music Director—a usually good choice for Intendant. Often, he is more concerned with his orchestra than he is with the ensemble of singers and dancers. Not to mention a lack of interest in the details of opera-production.
Maestro Herbert von Karajan was a brilliant Artistic Director for the Salzburg Festival, but he was virtually one of a kind.
Munich’s one-time GMD, Prof. Wolfgang Sawallisch, also became the Bavarian State Opera’s Intendant, with very mixed artistic results. The orchestra bloomed, but the staged productions were often poorly conceived and designed because visualizing operas on stage was not his forté.
Sawallisch’s choices of stage-directors and designers were frequently ill-advised, but he was the Chief, so who could gainsay him? The critics might suggest, but they could be easily ignored in an opera-house with a major State Subsidy.
Good reviews, though welcome, were not necessary to keep the opera open. Nor could bad reviews close it down. That, however is beginning to change, even in Munich. In some other German cities, theatres programming opera, drama, and dance have been closed, owing to dwindling audiences and financial difficulties.
In Munich, tickets to the State Opera are subsidized: some 85 Euro per ticket. At the Gärtnerplatz, the figure is 150 Euro! Of course, the National-Theater is much larger, hence more seats—and also higher ticket-prices.
Thus, box-office receipts are now very important, even with the State Subsidies. And when there are a lot of empty seats—for a new production that’s perceived as a failure, or an old one everyone is tired of—the subsidy is not matched with audience expenditure. An unsold Gärtnerplatz seat represents both the 150 Euros and the lost face-price which has to be made up from the annual budget.
So it is now necessary to have seat-filling productions. This can discourage experiment, but too many empty seats can also lose an Intendant his position.
Initially, the Bavarian State Opera election rested on Gerd Albrecht, who had been Intendant—with mixed results—in Dresden and in Hamburg. It’s reported there were some major conflicts in Munich, so Albrecht decided to leave the post. But he apparently believes he should be paid for the statutory run of his contract, even if he is not going to serve it out.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Culture engaged the current Intendant of Vienna’s prestigious Burg-Theater—which is not an opera-house. But he is not free to come to Munich until 2007!
It’s rumored that Sir Peter Jonas has offered to stay on—without salary—until this new "designated-driver" can finally pilot the State Opera. But some local critics—tired of Jonas’ often cute modernizing of War Horse operas, especially with British production-teams—would be glad to see him off into a well-earned retirement.
Who will fill the gap until Vienna comes to Munich?
Finding an effective successor for the State Opera’s retiring GMD, Zubin Mehta, was not so difficult. California-born Kent Nagano promises much in this demanding post. [But it’s rumored that he and Albrecht did not agree about the repertory…]
At the Gärtnerplatz, Intendant Klaus Schultz’s contract is coming to an end. Egbert Tholl recently reported—in the Süddeutsche Zeitung—that Bavaria’s Ministry of Culture has long been concerned with finding ways to "bring this theatre out of the shadow" of the State Opera: To develop its own distinctive repertory, in order to make comparisons with the National-Theater’s productions "obsolete."
Augsburg’s current Intendant, Ulrich Peters, has been nominated as a replacement. Although Peters has proposed retaining the Volkstheater traditions of the Gärtnerplatz—strengthening offerings of Musicals and Operettas—some critics do not feel he has distinguished himself in Augsburg in these areas.
The Gärtnerplatz has traditionally been Munich’s Operetta and Musical Theatre, and it had Glory-Years under the Intendancy of the late Arno Assmann. Talented successors such as Kurt Pscherrer and Helmut Matiasek made it into something even more impressive: Munich’s Second-Tier Opera. Something like ENO vs. Covent Garden, or NYCO vs. the Met.
Some questioned whether the Bavarian State needed to subsidize two concurrent productions of Carmen or La Bohème. But tickets to Gärtnerplatz productions were certainly less expensive for middle and working-class citizens—as well as for students. These stagings also offered a valuable showcase for new young talents, and they were, on occasion, even more inventive than those of the same works on the Big Stage of the Big House.
Dr. Klaus Schultz first attracted attention as the Dramaturg at the National-Theater, under the Intendancy of the late August Everding. And audiences were amazed at the handsomely-illustrated and information-packed programs he created. They not only found a permanent place on opera-lovers’ bookshelves—also on mine!—but they became models for other opera-houses and drama-theatres.
When Prof. Everding was effectively banished to the Hamburg Opera by internal intrigues, Schultz became Dramaturg for the Berlin Philharmonic. Returning to Munich to assume control at the Gärtnerplatz, he faced rather different challenges. Operetta seemed to be dying, and its customary audiences, as well. Nor were ticket-sales booming for major operas done in a minor way.
This remains a problem at the Gärtnerplatz. If it is to be an opera-house, how can it be both different and special? If it is to keep operettas on stage, how can they be updated, made appealing to young audiences? Or are these goals impossible of achievement?
Dr. Schultz has certainly tried a variety of innovations—the current Mayakovski’s Death is only the latest—but not all have been successful with critics and audiences. Some have been disappointing; others have been sensational.
Not living in Munich, your reporter cannot vet some of the local critics’ raves and attacks. But having seen Theater Nach der Mode—a marvelous evocation of period opera-production in London in the time of Handel—I can say that Schultz is certainly doing something right some of the time.
But Schultz has some very verbal foes who would like to see him replaced when his contract comes to an end. Some criticize him for being too scholarly, too withdrawn, insufficiently representing his theatre and ensemble forcefully and enthusiastically in the media.
Fortunately, he is also the Bavarian State’s cultural liaison with the Bayreuth Festival, where he fulfills a very important function.
This connection, however, led to an invitation to Katherina Wagner—Heir Apparent to the Intendancy of the Bayreuth Festival—to stage Lortzing’s operetta, Der Waffenschmied, at the Gärtnerplatz. The results were not universally admired, to say the least…
So opera-fans in Munich are waiting to see who will finally be running their two proud opera-houses. What’s puzzling is why no woman stage-director or Arts-Manager has been suggested for either of these prestigious posts.
How about Francesa Zambello? She is no stranger to Munich’s opera-stages, nor those of the Bregenz Festival, or even the United States!
Wide Range of Opera-Stagings at National-Theater:
This past summer’s Munich Festival was a virtual celebration of the stagings of the New York-born director David Alden. But it may have been his Swan-Song, as well. Apparently, no new Munich projects are waiting in the wings. He did rate a special brochure on his most recent productions, all on view in July: Lulu, Pique Dame, La Calisto, and La forza del destino.
Some vociferous local critics, however, have tired of the relentlessly bizarre, intensely colorful, and often irrelevant—to plot & score—stagings which are his trademark. But then they also resent the other Alien-Talents Sir Peter Jonas has imported, largely from London. That’s one reason some would welcome a new Intendant, as well as a new roster of directors and designers…
Fortunately, there are impressive home-grown directorial and design talents ready to hand. Peter Mussbach and Christoph Loy both demonstrated their special abilities this summer: Loy, with Handel’s Saul and Alcina, and Mussbach, with a remarkable Billy Budd.
Old Favorites ReVisited:
Some traditional opera-productions have been visually so handsome, so noble, so graceful, so powerful that it is sad to see them get old and shabby, their original inventive staging watered-down, or totally eroded, over the seasons, with endless changes of casts and conductors. One thinks of some memorable Rosenkavaliers at the Met, in Munich, and in Salzburg…
On the other hand, some trendy new productions—colorful, hilarious, outrageous, cutting-edge the first season—soon become tiresome and annoying to see again and again. The intended shock-effect has worn off, and there’s nothing of visual or emotional substance relating to either the score or the libretto remaining. Such stagings seem finally anchorless, meaningless, even purposeless.
David Alden—whose operatic innovations were being celebrated this past summer—may have over-played his hand in trying to give Old Standards a bizarre New Look. What worked in the initial season may not later on, when new actor/singers—who did not help Alden develop his concept and their interpretations in rehearsals—try to copy the original stage-actions from a director’s prompt-book.
As the operas noted immediately below have been reviewed in previous festival summers, your reporter—like a stage-manager checking out the production-book—will recycle some descriptions where possible.
David Alden’s Pique Dame:
My first experience of this fascinating Constructivist/Art Deco production was with the remarkable Placido Domingo in the role of Hermann. Already in late maturity, he sang and acted like a much younger man. Indeed, he was Hermann, not an aging opera-star making a personal-appearance.
I have now seen this staging several times and its initial shock & awe still work, though with diminishing returns. But Vladimir Kuzmenko, strong though he is as Hermann, is no Domingo. Sergei Leiferkus remains a commanding Tomsky. As the Countess, Josephine Barstow is magisterial, until threatened by Hermann. Adrianne Pieczonka is an understandably distraught Lisa.
Among the many modern novelties in this updated Pique Dame is Lisa's tragic death. Lisa doesn't drown herself in the Neva in Munich. The local river is the Isar, in any case!
Instead, Alden has Lisa smash a glass show-window. With the shoddy suitcase she'd brought along for her elopement with the faithless Hermann.
In the window is a white wedding-dress, which Lisa might have worn if Hermann were not obsessed with the three winning cards: Three, Seven, and Ace. She cuts her wrists with a shard of the broken window—which is much simpler to stage than a leap into the Neva.
In the event—as every opera-lover should know—instead of the Ace, the sinister Queen of Spades confronts Hermann. All Is Lost! And he has caused the Countess' death, in his fierce determination to learn her secret of winning at cards.
Clocks are an important visual metaphor in Alden's staging. Time is running out for Hermann, obviously. A huge Soviet-style clock-face dominates what seems to be Happy Hour for Russian officers during the Cold War.
Paul Steinberg's colorful Memphis-inspired sets and Constance Hoffman's trendy costumes make this production look like Petersburg in Las Vegas. Showgirls and revue-dancers dazzle. Tchaikovsky would have been amazed. Jun Märkl conducted.
David Alden’s Lulu:
Playwright Frank Wedekind—Lulu’s initial creator—actually lived and worked in Munich during a time of cultural ferment, and his characters and situations in Erdegeist and Pandora’a Box—Lulu’s sources—are definitely Mittel European. Composer Alban Berg’s score for Lulu firmly fixes them in a Germanic environment.
But stage-director David Alden has blithely moved the entire tale to Middle-America in the late 1950s. In the first scene, a 50s sedan is parked in front of a semi-circle of subdivision houses. It is a lonely vista worthy of Edward Hopper.
Pert, pretty little Lulu is interfered with by her foster-father. In the car. This sets a pattern, of course. Child-Abuse leads to worse abuses in maturity…
Lulu, as a young vamp, drives men crazy, including Dr. Schön [Tom Fox], his son Alwa [John Dazak], and other foolish admirers. These include the Gräfin Geschwitz [Katerina Karnéus], who functions as her secretary in marketing her wares. Not all of them sexual…
In his eighties, Franz Mazura is a memorable Schigolch!
Margarita De Arellano’s Lulu is something else! She is not only lovely to look at—and easily sings difficult music in difficult positions—but she can also sexually tease like a seasoned professional.
Set-designer Giles Cadle has provided Alden with some astonishing milieus. One of them is an all-white airport departure-lounge, with passengers and flight-attendants thronging an upwardly surging corridor to celebrate Lulu.
Berg’s Virgin Shares turn out to be pretty girls moving across the stage on a baggage-belt. The visual images may be Post-Modernist, but the meaning is clear. The costumes of Brigitte Reiffenstuel have a great deal to do with the visual success of some of these scenes.
Dr. Schön practices golf-putts in what could be a Florida or Palm Springs living-room. This production is Very Now. The wallpaper in one scene looks like hundreds of tiny Andy Warhol prints.
The central Lulu painting/poster—which even appears at the airport, where a table is set up to hawk the posters—shows Lulu prostrate with an axe bloodily buried in her genitals.
This is the way she dies, with Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper burying the axe in her in the same car in the same scene as the opening. All this is both colorful and horrifying, but it is rather too relentlessly Modern to be moodily Bergian.
Michael Boder conducted.
David Pountney’s Faust:
As the new Intendant of the Bregenz Festival, David Pountney is showing his Post-Modernist mettle, but his earlier lake-stage productions of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Beethoven’s Fidelio already displayed his talent for revisionist up-dating.
Both of these were memorable, but his Munich Faust—also conceived some seasons ago—was a farrago of irrelevant images and symbols that cluttered the stage, obstructed the actor/singers, and confused the spectators. They also made it difficult to follow the plot-events outlined in the original libretto.
Pountney’s odd production tries to find a middle ground between Goethe and Gounod, between German and French sensibilities.
The singers and chorus are faithful to the words of the French libretto of Barbier and Carré. As are the puppet-actors to the spoken text, which is briskly uttered and sputtered in German, not French.
The contrast and clash of sung French and spoken German was strikingly effective the first time I saw this staging, but now the puppets seem alien and an annoyance. Originally, they focused attention on the characters’ baser emotions and motivations: now they seem totally out-of-key.
Really, the singers should also speak their lines; otherwise there is a serious emotional gap between what is sung and what is spoken.
All the puppets have individual handlers, dressed as look-alike functionaries or ordinary people. They respond—or react—to the puppets they animate, giving an extra dimension to the drama—usually a comic one, not in tune with the thrust of the fable. The puppet-plays are rather like Intermezzi, not stylistically integral to the plot.
A Brechtian half-curtain is pulled across the forestage frequently to provide slits for puppet appearances or an upper-level for action and the siting of Marguerite's tiny chalet, with smoke spiraling from its mini-chimney. Méphistophélès’ elegant sword-cane is even topped with a Mephisto puppet-head.
When Marguerite's former friends—the village girls—come to mock and scorn her, each has a baby-puppet on her right hand.
Among the visual astonishments are two sets of railroad tracks running across the downstage area. Down front throughout the production is one track which is used intermittently for a large hand-car, operated by pumping a handle. At the close, Faust's body is dumped into it, on top of a heap of black plastic garbage-bags.
Marguerite's bed, on rollers, also runs on this track, complete with large wooden ties, over which the cast has to clamber for its curtain-calls.
Slightly upstage of this track initially is another, on which stands a pre-war second-class railway passenger-coach. Part of another coach is seen attached to it stage-right. These are both played to great effect.
This visual astonishment is not original with the designer, Stefanos Lazaridis, and director Pountney. Luca Ronconi used it in Salzburg for his Mussolini-Modern production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. [All of the Don's varied sexual conquests appeared at the coach's windows to greet him.]
Instead of presenting roistering university students in a medieval tavern, Pountney has a gaggle of young business-men in suits with briefcases extolling the virtues of drinking from the windows and doors of the "Faust" Express.
A row of seats—as in a cinema—rises behind the railway coach, complete with chorus. Then, above this rise three swinging ferris-wheel seats, suspended in space, with cheering, waving women in them. At that point, there are four levels of action and song center-stage.
Later, the ferris-wheel seats are equipped with hair-dryers, so the women can enjoy the view and get their perms set.
Méphistophélès strolls along the tops of the cars, very much the Master of Ceremonies of 20th Century trends and fads. Among his innovations: the Kermesse is no longer a medieval Carnival. And the Faust Waltz becomes something quite new.
It is Shopping-Madness, as choreographed by Vivienne Newport. Exuberant villagers waltz round in a great circle, wheeling shopping-carts piled high with products. This is either an homage—or a direct steal—from Anne Bogart's satiric theatre-piece on rampant American Consumerism.
Figures of inflated male and female plastic-dolls—sex-aids, perhaps?—are mounted on scaffold-towers and rotated around the dancing crowd.
Much later, when Marguerite is made the butt of village scorn for her transgression, these figures are visually echoed by towering giant-puppets, like those still used in Belgian folk and religious processions. Four of these giants wear bishops' miters. But the fifth wears a cardinal's red beretta. With a difference: Red Horns are sprouting out of it!
Is this what Méphistophélès hopes will win Faust's soul for an eternity in Hell? It is already Hell on Earth!
When Valentin answers his country's Call to Arms and when the army returns victorious, satiric modern images are used. Pountney has had the ingenious idea of letting little boys weave their way through the triumphant men, shooting at each other with toy guns. The Victory Chorus will never sound the same again.
The little boys lie dead among the ties of the railroad tracks. This image certainly gives the lie to the glories of war extolled in the chorus. And it mocks Valentin's false courage and virtue: he who repudiates his unfortunate sister, instead of protecting her.
When Siebel seeks to gather flowers for Marguerite, he finds them on grave-plots. As Lazaridis has visualized this, hospital-beds covered with green-grass undertakers' carpeting are wheeled on stage. Each bed is topped with a glowing cross. Corpses on the beds tear the petals from the flowers Siebel is trying to steal. Méphistophélès even has to romance Marthe Schwerdtlein on one of these grave-beds.
Later, the same beds, now stark white, appear in the Walpurgis Night scene. This is an elegant all-white evocation of a 1920s garden-party. Even though the costumes are all white, the textures and sheens of fabrics, as well as the Jazz-Age designs and the extravagant cuts and silhouettes, make this a Fashion-Show in Hades.
Now the railway coach appears upstage right, wrecked and gutted. At one point, a section of trackage runs down center stage for other wheeled apparitions: Faust on Wheels!
But this is by no means the end of the odd set-props and pantos. Pountney has thrown in almost everything but the kitchen-sink. In fact, Marguerite takes refuge from the taunting villagers by hiding in an immense kitchen refrigerator!
After she has died, fortunately redeemed, she rises to Heaven in a wheelchair, on the lap of an aged and infirm Méphistophélès!
This needlessly complicated production does not wear well. But this performance was more than saved by the presence of the young Mexican tenor, Rolando Villazon.
Not only is he a dynamic and affecting Faust vocally, but he is a natural actor, his entire body involved in the action and emotions. [Later, in Salzburg, he dazzled even more, in Italian, in Verdi’s Traviata. And he is excellent in German on the new Domingo Tristan CD!]
Paata Burchuladze’s Méphistophélès proved equal to all the circus-antics Pountney had devised for him. Ainhoa Arteta’s Marguerite seemed sorely taxed by all the hi-jinx, which did not help her vocally.
Conductor Friedrich Haider presided over all this visual mayhem.
Martin Duncan’s Entführung:
It is not easy to sing Mozart’s arias and duets reclining on sofas, but Diana Damrau and Chen Reiss did their best as Konstanze and Blonde.
Martin Duncan has turned Mozart's wonderfully comic 18th century opera into an ultra-modern vision of an old Turkish Tale, told by an extraneous and unnecessary black-Burkah-clad female-narrator.
This divorces the dialogue entirely from the central characters, who are left largely with their songs, which are now ripped from any dramatic context. Most of them now make little or no sense dramaturgically. Konstanze's heroic Martern aller Arten aria is almost meaningless in this Story-Theatre framework. [This is similar in effect to having David Pountney’s puppets speak for Faust & Marguerite, while actor/singers only sing the arias.]
But it was Duncan's and designer Ultz' novel decision to fill the air above the stage with six colorful suspended sofas—on which most of the action or inaction took place—which annoyed, amused, or baffled both critics and audiences.
These Flying Sofas, however, did not just hang there. They flew on wires, up and down, back and forth. Luxuriously and gleamingly upholstered in bright basic colors—Yellow, Green, Blue, Red, Purple, Orange—they provided moving venues for sinuous airborne ballets by harem lovelies. Pedrillo got Osmin drunk on one of them, though the dramatic purpose of this was in no way clarified by such staging.
Tall tables loaded with luscious fruits were in fact worn by deftly moving extras, who could keep them near the moving sofas, davenports, or chesterfields. All of which looked as though they'd just arrived from an IKEA showroom.
As a prelude to the actual action of the opera, a group of young men—who seemed to be soccer-fans—divested themselves of their clothes on the forestage. They then proceeded to emasculate themselves, showing the audience red X’s on their briefs/ At the premiere, they flashed jock-straps stained with blood. Obviously, someone thought this was too much…
The Politically Correct implication of this gratuitous gesture was unclear. Although in some Islamic areas—where slavery has not ceased—eunuchs are still created, they are castrated as young boys. Not as mature men… What kinds of fantasies are racing through the minds of Ultz and Duncan anyway?
Kurt Rydl was stalwart—if not very amusing—as Osmin, with Christoph Strehl and Kevin Conners as Belmonte and Pedrillo. Harry Bicket—an expert in baroque works—conducted with obvious zest.
Lowery & Hosseinpour’s Orphée et Eurydice:
Nigel Lowery—another of Sir Peter Jonas’ Post-Modernist Innovators—not only staged but also designed sets & costumes for Chevalier Gluck’s famed "Reform" of operatic-theatre. He was assisted in stage-movement by choreographer Amir Hosseinpour, who made the famous Elysian Fields ballet a kind of parodic classical divertissment.
Just imagine Orpheus sitting in an empty coffin—or was it a boat bound across the Rivere Styx?—on a field of snow, with a Christmas Tree nearby! Or Eurydice in a raging red Hades—with huge pots full of cooking Sinners and a chorus of Italian Chefs!
Well, you get the idea! This often hilarious spectacle, however, offered little relationship to Gluck’s musical evocation of Hades. So the visual production was effectively at odds with its musical manifestation.
Deborah York was Amour, with Anna Bonitatibus a nobly suffering Orphée, searching for his lost love, Eurydice, affectingly sung by Susan Gritton. Harry Bicket—as noted above: an expert in baroque works—conducted with some care for the visual and emotional divisions in the production
August Everding’s Die Zauberflöte:
In its day—which was quite some time ago—this Zauberflöte production seemed boldly innovative but still relevant to the outlines of the quasi-Masonic fable devised by Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart’s ingenious librettist.
What is more, it didn’t seem to be visually clashing with the qualities of the score and the emotions involved. Unfortunately, more recent productions—notably the new one at the Salzburg Festival—often seem a Long Way Off from this enchanted world of highly Symbolic Fantasy.
The late August Everding, when he was Intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, was always interested in introducing novel ideas in staging and setting. But he was also very attentive to the cues in the music and the explicit actions in the libretto, not wanting to betray the apparent intentions of composer and librettist.
This may well have been because he came to the State Opera—from Munich’s Kammerspiele—as a stage-director of spoken dramas. When he was first asked to stage Traviata—with a young, virtually unknown Teresa Stratas—he told me he went out and bought all the Traviata recordings he could find. He also confided that he’d asked Intendant Rudolf Hartmann, who invited him to direct: "Who cancelled?"
Everding’s Zauberflöte could just as well be called Jürgen Rose’s Zauberflöte. It is Rose’s visual ingenuity and sense of style and color which give this production its special qualities.
The problem is that the sets have long since grown shabby, and the stage-direction has lost its original urgency and meaning.
Nonetheless, the cast gave it their best: Kurt Moll was Sarastro, with Diana Damrau as Queen of the Night: neither as memorable as one might have hoped. Rainer Trost was a Tamino without much sex-appeal, but Juliane Banse proved a lovely and vocally thrilling Pamina. Chen Reiss, as Papagena, paired well with Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s Pagageno. [Imagine that hyphenated-name on a marquée!] Nonetheless, he’s a bravura comic.
Ivor Bolton—a Mozart specialist and also conductor of the Mozarteum Orchestra—infused life and energy through his vital baton. And the handsomely-designed Zauberflöte program of Klaus Schultz remains a treasure for the opera bookshelf!
Patrice Bart’s La Bayadère:
With Marius Petipa's original choreography as a reference-point—and re-inspired by the score of Ludwig Minkus—Patrice Bart has re-envisioned this magical and tragical tale of an Asiatic warrior, torn between the loves of two beautiful women.
Not only is it beautifully and passionately danced—with Roman Lazik as the warrior Solor—but Tomio Mohri has designed lavish Oriental settings of spectacular detail and color.
His costumes are also notably fanciful and elegant. The immense, bulbous, jeweled turban of the Rajah—complementing an equally luxurious robe—gives tremendous presence to what is essentially an acting-role, though a very important one in activating the legend.
That is also true of the fantastic costume and headdress of the Grand Brahman. And of the Golden Idol, a dancing Buddha.
In the fable of the ballet, Solor has fallen in love with Nikija [Lisa-Maree Cullum], a Bayadère or Temple-dancer. They pledge eternal love.
She has rejected the attentions of the Grand Brahman—who intends to get revenge. Tragedy looms when the Rajah plans the wedding of Solor to his long-promised bride, Gamzatti [Natalia Kalinitchenko], the ruler's heiress.
Father and daughter plot the temple-dancer's death, concealing a poisonous snake in a gift-basket of flowers. Nikija's frantic dance of death is a powerful dramatic moment.
In an opium-induced dream, she returns to Solor with many lovely white spirits from the Beyond. This is an especially impressive visual effect, as the tutu-clad ballerinas prance down three levels of zig-zagging ramps.
Not only the principals, but also the men and women of the corps-de-ballet are outstanding in this brilliant production.
Other visual astonishments include the destruction of the Hindu Temple and a Golden Apotheosis, in which Solor is rejoined by the two women who love him, caught up into the glowing heavens.
Challenging New Productions:
One of the Bavarian State Opera’s most controversial new stagings this past season was Doris Dorrie’s Futuristic vision of Rigoletto. It seemed to take place on the Planet of the Apes. Unfortunately, your reporter knows this only from production-photos and reviews. So it’s impossible to describe what one critic found almost "indescribable."
But the two new and unusual productions of David Alden—possibly his last in Munich—and the two equally trendy opera-stagings of Christoph Loy more than made up for this aesthetic loss.
David Alden’s La forza del destino:
This Forza lacks emotive force, and it also lacks visual focus, thanks to the terminally trendy design-devices of Gideon Davey. Colorfully patterned Pop Art walls slide in and out so the audience has no secure idea where the action is set from scene to scene.
Brooding over the set-walls hangs an immense puzzling painting. It must have had a metaphoric visual meaning for Alden and Davey. As all the major characters are dead at the close of the opera, could it be something on the order of Il Trionfo della Morte?
For the record, it is Joachim Patinir’s Voyage to the Underworld (Charon).
But what does this really have to do with the misfortunes of an Inca Prince, stranded in, of all places, Seville?
Oddly enough, he gets into Major Trouble by killing the noble father of the woman he loves, somewhat like that old Sevillian, Don Giovanni, who murdered Doña Anna’s father, the Commendatore. The difference, in Forza, is that it was an accident, but his attentions to Donna Leonora [Violeta Urmana] are as unwelcome to her brother—if not to her—as the Don’s were to Anna’s father.
The reason for this is that he is not a Spanish nobleman, but a half-breed Inca from Peru. Leonora’s brother, the hot-tempered Don Carlo de Vargas [Mark Delevan], vows vengeance for the murder of the Marchese di Calatrava.
But he was already prepared to "demand satisfaction," because he wrongly believes that Don Alvaro [Frank Porretta] has despoiled his beautiful and previously virtuous sister.
Under assumed names, both young men go off to the wars. Alvaro saves Vargas’ life on the battle-field, and they vow eternal friendship, not knowing who the other really is.
Later, Alvaro has retreated to a monastery—where the grieving Leonora has already taken shelter, but in the Woman’s Wing. She, of course, has no idea how close she is to her lost love. He has become a saintly, reclusive monk, much admired for his piety.
This infuriates the jealous comic-relief monk, Fra Melitone [Franz-Josef Kappellmann], whose job it is to serve up unpalatable soup to the insatiable poor. In Alden’s staging, the soup is made with human bones, and Melitone is positively Mother Courage/Brechtian in his dissing of lazy, ungrateful Welfare Beggars.
After the pallid developments of the plot, as acted and sung—and the scenic-confusions which have preceded this scene—it becomes effectively a High Point of the evening.
Leonora takes poison in despair. The two men die. The audience sits on its hand and then goes home.
Were it not for Verdi’s often potent score—despite the idiocies of the plot—this opera would seldom receive a new production. It does not, in fact, seem a good candidate for contemporary staging, even if it were updated and moved to Seattle—instead of Seville—in 2005. And, when the vocal performances are not superb, what’s the point of even dusting off old sets in the warehouse to revive it?
Fabio Luisi conducted this confused and confusing epic. Will this disappointment be David Alden’s Munich Swan-Song?
David Alden’s La Calisto:
Poor Calisto! Jealous Juno turned her into a Bear for having been—unintentionally—seduced by Jove. She thought she was having fun with the supposedly chaste goddess, Diana. Actually, it was Giove/Jove [leading-man handsome Umberto Chiummo] in stylish drag, with a charming upper range that captivated her.
While the abashed Jove cannot undo the spell, he promises Calisto [Sally Matthews] that, after death, she will ascend into the Heavens, there to live forever as Ursa Major, the Great Bear—or the Big Dipper, if you are more mundane in your star-gazing.
But, before this dazzling event can occur—with Calisto in a gown of stars, flanked by a veritable chorus of stunning blonde "stars"—she has to incur the wrath of the real Diana [Monica Bacelli], fantastically stylish with a crescent-moon chapeau on her head. Diana is appalled that Calisto believes they have been intimate. Her entire myth is about Chastity and Hunting.
Composer Francesco Cavalli’s librettist, Giovanni Faustini, further complicated the plot with the exquisitely suffering Endimione/Endymion [Lawrence Zazzo, a remarkable counter-tenor], desperately—but hopelessly, as he thinks—in love with Diana.
Actually, she loves him in secret, but after their super-charged encounter, she cannot have him lounging about, so she transports him to a distant mountain-top and lulls him into an eternal sleep.
It would have been quite rewarding for Alden and his designers to have mounted this new Calisto as a fantastic baroque entertainment—which they certainly could have done with panache. Instead, however, costumier Buki Shiff and set-designer Paul Steinberg have transformed this ancient Greek fable out of its dramma per musica framing into a lavish Las Vegas Show.
The basic stage-environment is a Pop Art riot of swirling red and black bands of gleaming color, reflected in the mirroring floor. On the stage-right side is a vertical neon-sign: L’Empireo. Overhead, there is a white glass-globed Heavens which both reflects what’s going on below and also shifts to suggest changes in non-specific locales. Pat Collins’ lighting maximizes these effects.
But it is Buki Shiff’s elegant—or buffoonish—costumes which give this amazing production its most distinctive Look. While Diana looks like a very smart Bea Lillie, Guinone/Juno [imperious Véronique Gens] is the essence of regal style in a bright red coat and a black hat sprouting sleek feathers. She is accompanied—not by her traditional rams—but by two magnificent peacocks, cold beauties with elaborately fanned feathers.
At one point, Linfea [Guy de Mey] appears in matronly drag to observe the sexy activities. Kobie van Rensberg is a wonderfully horned Pane/Pan. Dominique Visse, as Satirino, is in a padded flesh-suit, complete with a tiny penis. Then there’s that wonderfully winged Centaur, moving with measured grace. Indeed, the stage is frequently filled with marvelously outfitted huntresses of Diana, a bizarre anthropomorphic mythic menagerie, and other elegant or astonishing choral or balletic Statisten.
Under Ivor Bolton’s antic baton—he seems to be having as much fun in the pit as the cast is on stage—both the musical and acting achievements of this production are astonishing. This show is worth a special trip to Munich!
Christoph Loy’s Saul:
Handel’s Saul is surely simpler to perform as an oratorio—and cheaper as well. It is rather too static to lend itself to a bustling stage-production, not that this hasn‘t been tried. But director Christoph Loy and his designer Herbert Murauer have found an ingenious way to keep one foot in the concert-hall and the other in the opera-theatre.
The basic set is a severely classic white concert-hall, with a forestage for the soloists and tiers of chairs for the chorus, plus an organ-loft at the rear of this space.
In Act I, the chorus is all in white 18th century costumes. The principals, however, are in modern-dress, obviously preparing to rehearse the oratorio. But there is some antagonism between the sopranos. So arts-managerial efforts endeavor to soothe tempers.
In Act II, the chorus is now all in black, but in 19th century costumes—which almost suggest a Quaker Meeting.
In Act III, the chorus is still in black, but this time out, they are in modern-dress. In fact, modernity is so much in vogue here that the Witch of Endor [Robert Tear] appears in drag as a Bag-Lady!
This production-concept works very well and focuses attention on Handel’s arias, duets, and choruses, rather than distracting it with bizarre costumes and over-busy stage-actions.
Of course, there’s always Biblical Historicism as a Production-Alternative, but that can be a visual dead-weight on an otherwise soaring musical performance.
Fortunately, under Ivor Bolton’s skilled conducting, cast and chorus make this a memorable musical experience.
Jonathan Lemalu was a "suited" Saul, who verged on the CEO-stance. Brian Asawa’s David was brilliant, with John Mark Ainsley’s oddly older Jonathan as balance. Rebecca Evans and Sarah Fox—as Merab and Michal—were the contentious sopranos. Kevin Conners sang the High Priest, with Steven Humes as the ghost of Samuel.
Christoph Loy’s Alcina:
Staged in the Prinzregenten-Theater, rather than the National, Handel’s Alcina had overtones of Abu Ghraib, with some troops in what looked like US camouflage gear. But these were the Good Guys, supporting the endangered hero, Ruggiero [a very handsome cross-dressed Vesselina Kasarova].
In fact, Sonia Prina—Ruggiero’s beloved Bradamante, disguised as Ricciardo—was an equally handsome gent—even somewhat boyish in his/her army outfit.
Loy’s designer, Herbert Murauer, provided a mixture of 18th & 19th century costumes and modern, rather like the effects in their Saul production. There was even some shedding of costumes, not only to reveal real sexual identities, but also metaphorically.
In Alcina’s fantasies, spirits dressed like Ruggiero appeared. The unfortunate Astolfo ended as a kind of Wildman/dog: another Abu Ghraib image?
By the third act, all 18th century dress had disappeared, even as Alcina’s Magic Kingdom vanished into the air. But not before the audience got to see the troops perform some military-drills…
Murauer’s basic setting was formal and almost claustrophobic, suggesting the restrictive power the sorceress Alcina can invoke over the smitten Ruggiero and others under her control. At the center was an elegant 18th century salon, with a misty Lorraine-like landscape at the back. This chamber was flanked by two very narrow corridors with doors leading into the room and into the opposing outer walls.
In a crucial scene, in the central-box the landscape was replaced by a complicated installation of glassed shelf-compartments, effectually a Wunderkammer, filled with Alcina’s Magic Totems.
A devastating transformation in the third act involved the sudden disappearance of the roof of the space, the vanishing of all decorative panels, and the final collapse of the wall-columns, leaving empty Infinity. This visually suggested not only the freeing of Alcina’s enslaved or enchanted victims, but also an 18th century Enlightenment vision of the end of Human Oppression.
As Alcina, Anja Harteros was spellbinding in her passions: Love & Longing, Rage & Revenge. In fact, all the voices were impressive, with only Oberto less forceful at times. Ivor Bolton’s conducting was very energized, in keeping with the passions of this elegant production.
Peter Mussbach’s Billy Budd:
At the Metropolitan Opera, William Dudley’s great British warship—the overpowering setting for Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd—rises magisterially deck-by-deck out of the stage, until it is towering over its crew, masts thrusting up into the flies.
This is a tremendous coup-de-théâtre, but it actually does not serve the action of the plot well. The most important and most powerful of the confrontational scenes in the libretto of E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier are small-scale, intimate—even if observed by members of the crew.
Designer Erich Wonder has found a wonderful scenic-solution for the Munich mounting of Billy Budd, staged by Peter Mussbach. Instead of filling the stage with decks and cannons, masts, sails, and riggings, he has set all the action into a kind of below-decks space, ringed with ramps, stairs, and platforms.
Thus, major scenes centered on Billy and Captain Vere, or Master-at-Arms Claggart and Billy, are sharply focused, even with groups of sailors on their fringes. And, as the set works on several levels—accessible by the ramps and stairs—the emotional and verbal action is never visually static.
In some productions, the story is decked out in late 18th century naval uniforms. Not so in Munich. Sailors wear pea-coats; officers use cell-phones. The Royal Navy no longer flogs unruly sailors, but this mixture of the bygone with the here-and-now makes the theatrical-experience even more immediate.
Designer Wonder even slyly inserts a definitely Modern Scenic Quote: On the upper set-level, on the stage-right side, there is a row of airline seats, with airplane-windows instead of naval port-holes! How did Lufthansa or British Air get onboard?
The circling ramps make possible some interesting choreographies for the sailor-chorus. And there are even a few ballet-boys in high-heels, suggesting the alternative gratifications of sailors long at sea.
But the powers of this production—while strongly enhanced by the set & costumes—are largely generated by the dynamic acting and vocal performances of the principals: John Daszak as a morally baffled Vere, Nathan Gunn as a handsome but childishly innocent Billy, and Philip Ens as the sadistically malicious Claggart, determined to destroy him.
Of course, the basic powers of the production, its very foundations, reside in the spare libretto—carefully developing Herman Melville’s novella—and the strong score. It is effectively "through-composed," with some dramatically effective atonal emphases.
This is a tragedy, certainly, but it is Captain Vere’s, not Billy’s. Vere knows the lad was provoked to strike Claggart, but his officer is now dead, and hanging from the yard-arm is the inflexible penalty. But Vere is also attracted to Billy’s beauty and radiantly open nature: more than a fatherly feeling?
In this set, Billy cannot be hanged aloft from the mast. Instead, he is terminated against the below-decks base of the mast: rather like Christ on the Cross…
Knowing that hanging is the required punishment for what he has done, the dying Billy blesses Captain Vere. Who is later tormented by the knowledge of the boy’s essential innocence and that he could have—should have—saved him.
Munich’s new GMD, Kent Nagano, conducted with both power and sensitivity. This is a production you could see again and again, finding new nuances in the music, the text, the staging, the interactions, and the interpretations.
Second-Tier Gärtnerplatz-Theater Offers Standards & Major Premiere:
For some American Musical buffs, it may be difficult to imagine a German cast performing an effective West Side Story, but that’s standard at the Gärtnerplatz, Munich’s second opera-theatre. This is also a beautiful, historic theatre—in the former Jewish Quarter—which used to specialize in operettas. And still tries to find ways to make their wonderful scores relate to more modern visions of their often formulaic period librettos.
Under the Intendancy of Dr. Klaus Schultz, the company has also introduced some avant-garde works and production-concepts that have been received with varying results. Schultz has been under critical fire for some of his programming, but there doesn’t seem to be a really High-Profile replacement on the horizon as yet.
The recent Munich premiere of Mayakovski’s Death certainly improved his ratings with local critics.
Mozart Joins the Avant-Garde: Die Entführung aus dem Serail:
Those who question the need—or the desirability—for two different stagings of the same opera in Munich’s two opera-houses could not have seen both theatres’ productions of Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail.
At the National, the opera is performed on colorful Flying-Sofas, which rather limits the characters’ mobility and interactions. It’s cute, without being effective.
The production-team at the Gärtnerplatz has kept stage-furniture in its Entführung to a minimum. Instead, the action takes place in front of and inside a slanted brown three-sided structure, pierced with a few rectangular windows. This could very well be the mud-brick desert fortress of some obscure Ottoman Pasha. And it also revolves, on cue.
Indeed, when Belmonte appears in aviator-gear, clutching a broken propeller, this could be Lawrence of Arabia Territory. Instead of Mozart’s confrontation of 18th century Europe with an almost Medieval Middle East, the action has been forwarded to the 1920s, including costumes and props, but the Arab garments haven’t changed. And Bassa Selim is fond of hawking, proudly bearing his falcon.
The fortress’ walls can be played, and the chorus even appears at their summits when the inside of the structure is in view: quizzical heads staring down at the action. This is quite a novel staging, thanks to director Hans-Ulrich Becker and his designers, Alexander Müller-Elmau [sets] and Uda Loher [costumes].
The performances were admirable, both vocally and physically. Cast: Rainer Bock/Selim, Simone Schneider/Konstanze, Talia Or/Blonde, Thomas Cooley/Belmonte, Florian Simson/Pedrillo, and Pawel Czekala/Osmin. Ekkehard Klemm’s alert conducting helped keep the action moving swiftly.
Jugendstil Operetta: Richard Heuberger’s Der Opernball:
The Opera Ball is based on an 1876 Parisian sex-farce, Les Dominoes Roses, and, although it is long on suggestive couplings, it is very short on sexy details. It was premiered in Vienna in 1898, so its plot and mise-en-scène badly needed the visual & textual updating provided by adapter/director Josef Köpplinger.
But—considering the formulaic nature of the intrigues and the fusty moral-codes involved—he didn’t dare to move it further forward in time than the end of World War I.
Actually, this works well visually, as the attractive home of the Beaubuissons—in the 5. Arrondissement—is a wonder of Jugendstil or early Art Deco design. When the cast variously sets off for the Masquerade Ball at the Paris Opera, the home is magically transformed into the Opera Foyer, with the doors to the Loges leading to "chambres separées," for naughty masked encounters.
Two friends, Théophile and Paul, decide to try their luck at the ball with masked strangers. Théo is more sophisticated than Paul, who firmly believes in his wife’s virtue. Their wives, overhearing, decide to disguise themselves, as do the maid and the cook, Hortense and Yvette.
Thus, there are no less than four masked ladies on the loose in matching pink cloaks. This basic plot works rather better in Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, and even in Carl Neilsen’s Danish Maskerade—shown this summer at the Bregenz Festival. [Verdi’s Masked Ball is out of this class, featuring as it does the assassination of King Gustav III Adolf of Sweden!]
This production was handsome to look at and amusing to watch: the actor/singers are generally very good vocally and inter-acting in character. But Richard Heuberger’s score leaves something to be desired. It has effectually one hit-song, and this recurs, rather than giving way to an even better melody. Andreas Kowalewitz conducted.
Mayakovski Lives Again in Dieter Schnebel’s Mayakovski’s Death:
This Munich premiere pleased most of the critics and was something of a vindication for Intendant Schultz’s programming. Composer/librettist Dieter Schnebel—certainly not now a "household-word" in American concert-halls—nonetheless has made his avant-garde mark in Germany, largely in the 1960s & 1970s.
Focusing on the life—and death—of the Russian Revolutionary Activist & Artist, Vladimir Mayakovski, the composer oddly enough began his proposed three-act opera with the third part. This was produced in Munich as a "Fragment," as there is also a second part, Totentanz. This was produced in Leipzig, together with the third part, by director/designer Achim Freyer in 1998
Schnebel—now 75 years old—has said he "had enough," so there will never be an Act I to this odd opera. Totentanz was not staged in Munich for technical and financial reasons, but the Fragment is in fact a musico-dramatic entity.
It reviews the career of this once young and enthusiastic propagandist for the new Soviet State, who was also a poet and playwright. Mayakovski’s Mysterio Buffo may his best-known work among theatre-folk. But with Stalin’s Socialist Realism decrees—not to overlook his murderous treatment of dissidents—Mayakovski himself became a dissenter and finally committed suicide.
In the libretto—which pairs speaking-actors with singing-characters—this despairing self-extinction may have had more to do with an epic disappointment in love than in Socialism.
Although the score seems proto-Webern, it does support the singers effectively, and they are much more emotionally effective than the actors who double them. The spoken-text has too much poetic rant, and the actors give that full throttle, with no emotional subtleties.
What was truly stunning about the production—as Mayakovski’s love-life was not exactly riveting as spoken & sung—were the scrim-projections, in Constructivist Graphic Style, surveying his career in texts and photos. The use of ingenious animations—fugitives from the powerful posters of early Socialism—also provided valued comic-effects in an otherwise dour experience. Bastian Trieb is credited with these visuals: by themselves, they could be viewed as a Mayakovski Documentary.
The production was generally elemental, but two stage-pictures were especially powerful. One deployed the chorus on two levels of inclined ramps, supported by scaffolding. Their faces were masked by open newspapers, with peepholes cut in them.
At the close, the poet stood aloft on a simple suspended platform of scaffold-pipes, against a brilliant red background that flooded the entire stage with red. This is a staging whose visual effects might commend it to some American audiences. Florentine Klepper staged, and Ekkehard Klemm conducted.
Munich’s Theater der Jugend at the SchauBurg:
The always inventive Theater der Jugend productions for young audiences at the SchauBurg—a handsome theatre on Elizabethplatz—are seldom mindless—if amusing—nonsense. More often, they deal colorfully and vitally with basic childhood themes and problems of growing up.
What’s even more impressive, they keep alive important classics—especially German ones—with innovative, relevant visions that make these works vivid for kids and teens. Medea’s Children was memorable in this regard.
This past summer, three notable 19th century German classics were on view on stage: Gerhart Hauptmann’s Die Weber, Georg Büchner’s Leonce und Lena, and Die Drei Wünsche—The Three Wishes—adapted from Johann Peter Hebel’s tale from 1811. But there was nothing fusty or dusty about these shows.
With the onrush of Globalization—and the out-march of factory & office -jobs to Asia—the story of the 1844 Revolt of the Weavers has renewed significance. Especially for teens looking forward to an increasingly bleak job-market. The traditional German hand-weavers—who for generations had created textiles at their looms—were being displaced by new super-speedy mechanical looms. Bottom Line: They lost, but they made a stand!
Büchner’s Leonce und Lena is a wonderfully satiric, almost Swiftian, antic fantasy that makes Hansel & Gretel seem a dull tale indeed. And the Theater der Jugend gives this crazy fable its visual and metaphoric due.
One of the frequent fantasies of Early Childhood is to be granted Three Wishes. Or, even better, a Magic Gold Ring. Nearly two-hundred years ago, Hebel showed how rapidly the three wishes could be squandered, creating grief rather than joy. At the SchauBurg, the tale is recast with Lisbeth [Lucie Muhr] and Signe [Tamara Hoerschelmann], two miserably abused serving-girls in a tavern.
Lisbeth longs for the three wishes and, on her way through a forest, meets the Queen of the Woods [Klaas Schramm], who freely gives her the wishes. Without any idea of what she should have wished for—or of the possible consequences of her actual wishes— Lisbeth opts for lots of money, the biggest mansion, and the handsomest man.
In the end, Signe is the happier of the two girls, but, along the way, there is a lot of amusing satirical action and the musical accompaniment of Raoul Alvarellos and Enrique Ugarte. All the players are lively farceurs. Johannes Schmidt staged, with designs by Caroline Brösamle.
Also programmed at the SchauBurg in July was the 15th internationales figuren theaterfestival münchen. This was a co-initiative of the theatre, the Bundes Gartenschau, and the City Museum’s remarkable Puppet Collection.
Kompania Doomsday presented Until Doomsday [Die Frist is um!], a puppet-version of the tale of the doomed Flying Dutchman, after both Heinrich Heine and Richard Wagner. Salvatore Gatto’s Pulcinella revisited traditional Commedia dell’Arte characters and plots.
But I was most chagrined that I missed the Stuffed Puppet Theatre’s Schickelgruber alias Adolf Hitler. This puppet-drama—a weird Dance of Death of Freaks—is set in the Führer-Bunker, as the Soviet Armies are over-running Berlin. As this show has already played Vienna and Berlin, it may eventually make its way to Manhattan. PS 122 would be the ideal venue! The show is also in comic English…
Cats is coming back to Munich! Can Stomp be far behind?
King Ludwig II Musical Opens in His Historic Capital:
A few seasons ago, a remarkable new purpose-built musical-theatre was erected on the shores of Lake Forggen, near the town of Füssen—with "Mad" King Ludwig’s fairy-tale castle of Neu Schwanstein looming on its alpine crag across the lake.
Inspired by Richard Wagner’s historic Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, this elegant playhouse was created to house a stunning production of a new musical about King Ludwig II: Longing for Paradise. I described this in detail in Entertainment Design and also referred to it in Show Notes.
But I questioned whether it could operate year-round so far from Munich. Would there be enough Japanese skiers in winter to fill the house at night?
I was myself in Füssen the following December, photographing Ludwig’s towering neo-medieval castle and its much older sister, Hohen Schwangau, in a snowstorm.
After slipping on the ice and sliding all the way down the mountain—all the while trying to protect the Nikon, the Canon, the Leica, and the Olympus!—I decided to get on the train and head back to my warm Munich hotel. So I have no idea of how things were working-out for this Broadway-style musical and its large cast & orchestra.
There may now be a beautiful, but empty, theatre in Füssen, for the show opened at Munich’s Deutsches Theater in August this past summer. The original production was so lavish, with so many remarkable special-effects, I wondered whether it could tour with the same magical impact.
Passion-Play Theatre at Oberammergau Premieres King David:
Way back in 1957, I found myself teaching English Comp & Public-Speaking at the US Army Intelligence School in Oberammergau. Unfortunateely, I’d missed the post-war 1950 revival of its historic Passion Play—performed only every ten years. I’d have to wait until 1960, to witness the then 8-hour religious drama. [In 1970, it was shortened to a mere 5 hours!]
But one could take a tour through the vast empty theatre—seating some 5,000—and look at the Biblical Costumes on hangars and pegs.
It seemed a real waste of a great playhouse to use it only every decade. But I was told that any other use would profane the theatre.
Nonetheless, over the years, I continued to ask—usually in print—why a religious cantata, a sacred symphony, a Mozart Mass, or even an opera on a Biblical Theme—Samson, perhaps?—could not be offered to the hordes of summer tourists and the Oberammergauers themselves?
Recently, operas have indeed been performed in the theatre. But this summer, Oberammergau’s very own theatre-director, Christian Stückl, staged a new Biblical "play with music." A gargantuan cast of 400 performers & musicians was advertised—all locals, as is the custom.
This is his retelling of the story of King David, with music by Markus Zwink and sets & costumes by Stefan Hageneier. Both of them helped local-boy stage-director Stückl make the Passion Play productions of 1990 and 2000 especially vivid and memorable.
In fact, the 1990 edition was so successful that Stückl and his team were invited to the Salzburg Festival to rethink and restage Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s Jedermann before the façade of the great cathedral.
Having no advance information on the production, I wandered into a rehearsal, with Stückl showing his dad how to get on a donkey for a less-than-triumphal entry: quite a contrast to the Passion Play and Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem.
I had an opera staged by David Alden in Munich that evening, so I will have to check this King David out next season, if it is still on the boards, so to speak.
It may not be on view, for an earlier Davidic drama was actually performed on this sacred stage a century ago, in 1905. Ten years is a long time to wait for a Passion Play, but one-hundred seems an impossibly long wait for a show, no matter how divine…
Carl Orff Remembered at Orff Institute:
One of the most memorable Musical Experiences of my life was meeting composer Carl Orff in his rural home in Sankt Georgen, near Bavaria’s Ammersee. The house, then as now, was crammed with musical instruments from around the world: many of them percussions.
Professor Orff was also an honored Mozarteum faculty-member in Salzburg, where his Schulwerk training had been given an historic castle as its HQ.
Surrounded by music-instruments from all over the world, Orff had agreed to talk about his works of Music-Theatre, some of which I’d seen and much admired in innovative productions in Munich’s Gärtnerplatz-Theater.
In addition to Der Mond and Die Klüge, I’d become fascinated with Orff’s Astutuli and Die Bernauerin—which I was ultimately able to persuade Dr. Fritz Kracht to translate into American-English libretti.
Though I could never persuade either Maestro Julius Rudel or Beverly Sills to mount these interesting works at the New York City Opera. Rudel said he didn’t want Orff to be "competition for Orff," as the NYCO Carmina Burana was a very popular work in the repertory.
Later, Orff invited me to witness the Generalprobe—or Dress-Rehearsal—of his last opera, The Comedy of the End of Time, in the Grosses Festspielhaus at the Salzburg Festival. Maestro Herbert von Karajan had selected the challenging work as a major festival premiere.
We kept in touch by mail, and since Prof. Orff’s death, I have made a point of visiting the Orff Zentrum in Munich in summer and sending a holiday greeting to Frau Professor Liselotte Orff, a loving and dedicated Keeper of the Flame.
This summer at the Orff Center, an interesting photo & text exhibition was on view, celebrating the work of Orff’s close colleague in the School-Work, Gunild Keetman. Also available was—and is—a handsome book of Hannelore Gassner’s fascinating photo-documents of Orff at home and at work in the Bavarian countryside—which so influenced his creations.
The Orff Center is a Bavarian State Institute for Research and Documentation, with a handsome lecture/concert chamber and all the aids one needs for searching real and virtual archives. I was able to greet Frau Gassner and the rest of the friendly staff.
And, for the first time, I was able to chat with the genial new Director, Dr. Thomas Rösch, and learn more about the varied programs of the Center. Not to overlook his book about Orff’s composing inspirations and methods in creating his musical tragedies based on Greek Myths: Die Musik in den griecischen Tragödien von Carl Orff.
These works are Antigonae, Oedipus der Tyrann, and Prometheus—which Orff told me was a "Festival Opera," as it was too complicated—too many xylophones, for one thing—to hold a place in a regular opera repertory.
Among those at the mircofiche machines was an American musicologist, no less! If any reader would like more information about the Orff Center’s Archives, Programs, or Publications, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mailing-address: Kaulbachstrasse 16, Munich, Germany. Phone: 0ll-49-89-28-8105-0.
Copyright Glenn Loney, 2006. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: email@example.com.
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