Four days of exceptional singing.
Four days of brilliant orchestral playing.
Four days and a full range of emotions.
Four days in Berlin for Elektra, Die Äegyptische Helena, Die Liebe der Danae and Der Rosenkavalier.
The standard of each performance was remarkably high. At times, incomparable.
It began and ended with two remarkable performances – Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra and the Marschallin of Michael Kaune. Ms Herlitzius divides people like a Riesling. But whatever your taste, there’s no denying that her interpretation is both formidable and mesmerising. Not always vocally beautiful or precise, it is searing in its intensity, emotionally raging and matched by a dramatic commitment that is almost overwhelming. What is missing is the breadth of phrasing but it was nonetheless an exceptional performance. And in the ‘other corner’ of this emotional boxing match, Doris Soffel invested Klytemnestra with authority both regal and musical.
Replacing Anja Harteros, Michaela Kaune immediately erased any sense of disappointment with an incredibly memorable Marschallin – beautifully observed, musically intelligent and delicately nuanced. It was perhaps one of the finest interpretations I’ve heard in a while. Every word, each phrase carefully shaped and delivered. The result? She did suddenly look old at her levée; bitter and resentful of youth as she muttered about ‘Resi’ and without a doubt the wife of a Feldmarschall when she finally dismissed Ochs. Yet it was her performance in the final trio that was definitive. Her singing and her acting conveyed a simple fact – that her life was entering a new and final phase. One of loneliness. No more Octavians hiding in her bedchamber. It wasn’t resignation as much as defeat. Heartbreaking.
In Helena, Ricarda Merbeth and Laura Aiken were vocally resplendent, effortlessly riding the crest of Strauss rich and heady orchestration. Indeed in the opening of Act Two, Merberth’s post-coital vocal rapture not only matched that of the music but had me wondering she had abandoned Menelaus – wonderfully sung here by Stefan Vinke – for the boy Paris if the sex was so good? And as ever it was delightful to hear Ronnita Miller. When will we hear her in London, I wonder?
The real discovery of the four days was Daniela Sindram. Her Octavian went from swaggering seventeen year old to love struck teenager over three acts. Combined with real acting talent is a remarkably rich, burnished yet darkly hued mezzo that shows no sign of strain throughout its range. Definitely one to keep an eye out for.
Manuela Uhl and Mark Delavan both delivered conscientious performances. Delevan’s was both musical and dramatically confident but slightly underpowered. Uhl’s Chryosthemis failed to ignite the much needed desperation and her vocal line didn’t soar quite enough as others in the role. As Danae, and I saw her in exactly the same production a few years ago, she gave a beautifully nuanced performance but it took until the final act before she shone vocally.
As Der Rosenkavalier’s Sophie, Siobhan Stagg’s performance captured the young girl’s skittishness. I’ve also no doubt that the harsh edge to her voice will be ironed out as her voice develops further. When that happens, Ms Stagg could become a memorable Sophie.
Each and every other singer over the four nights was of an exceptionally high standard. Exceptional mention for Tobias Kehrer’s broodingly resonant Oreste, Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s patrician Faninal and the brightly voiced Midas of Raymond Very. All three particularly stood out in roles that more commonly suffer. It’s also easy to forget that Der Rosenkavalier is truly an ensemble opera and there were exceptionally strong performances across the board including Stephanie Lauricella as Annina, Fionnuala McCarthy’s Marianne and tenor Matthew Newlin.
It was also refreshing to sit through four intelligent, well-thought out productions.
Elektra, directed by Kirsten Harms, was couched in the inevitable doom and gloom of overwhelming tragedy. Enclosed by three walls, it was reminiscent of the garbage chute in Star Wars, especially as the ensemble spent a lot of time floundering around in the mud. Just once I’d like to see a bit more colour at Klytemnestra’s court. She’s a rich woman at the head of a corrupt and debauched court – you think she’d have some fun with it, wouldn’t you?
The Kismet-meets-Indiana Jones of Die Ägyptische Helena (Marco Arturo Marelli) was a visual delight. And xxx managed the shift from the more comedic opening to the closing pathos with great skill. And as Helena says farewell to Aithra and her cohorts, it felt that perhaps she wasn’t really going to completely give up her flirtatious ways, as Menelaus reaction also seemed to convey.
Strauss was often criticised for his commercial acumen. He fought hard to control the copyright of his music, and perhaps rightly so having witnessed the chaos of Wagner’s own attempts. The sheets-of-music-cum-shower-of-gold in Die Liebe Der Danae was a clear reference to this, as was the piano spinning ominously overhead throughout. Yet at the end, Danae willingly handed over the gold/music to Jupiter in exchange for eternal happiness with the donkey herder. Not sure Strauss would have agreed.
Götz Friedrich’s Der Rosenkavalier was first performed in 1993 and is ample demonstration that if a production works, why change it? It seamlessly brought together the worlds of 18th Century Vienna with the world that would have been more familiar to Strauss himself. I loved the fact that the ‘maskerade’ referred to by the Marschallin at the ended actually begun before the opera started. As mistress and lover dressed for their breakfast in Act One, they clearly donned outfits inspired by the commedia dell’arte. Another nice touch was when the Marschallin scented the silver rose in Da geht er hin – it added a certain frisson in the Second Act when Octavian smells the rose and then looks up at Sophie.
But it was the poignancy of this production that was most enduring – especially the final scene. After a ‘Ja, ja’ of resignation, the Marschallin stood in the background, destined only ever to observe Octavian from a distance. In some productions, there’s a lingering hope that Octavian might return to her. Not in this one. For director Friedrich, the Marschallin’s First Act view of men cruelly rings true.
The bedrock on which these four days rested was the superlative orchestral playing and singing of the Deutsche Oper. The players in the pit executed each opera perfectly on four successive nights – a testament not only to their stamina but also their knowledge and clearly evident love of the music. They were directed by a quartet of conductors with an intimate knowledge of every musical detail which enabled them not only to balance singers and the orchestra, but most importantly giving both time and space to breathe.
I’ve not always been a fan of Donald Runnicles but his Elektra revealed an incredible range of colours and sororities with a vigorous attention to rhythmic detail. Andrew Litton veritably wallowed and revelled in the lush and sensuous sound world of Helena, finding a muscularity to it but never letting it swamp singers or players alike. Sebastian Weigle brought a transparency to the score of Danae – rarely have I heard the opening of the final act played with such luminosity. And while Rosenkavalier got off to an unsteady start, control was quickly asserted, with each and every waltz theme given loving attention.
In all, an incredible four days. Yet it’s hard not to bemoan the quality of musical life beyond London. I know funding is different, but it’s a shame that our own government doesn’t recognise the value – both cultural and economic – of a serious commitment to the arts and arts education.
Similarly it’s hard not to wonder how artistically Berlin gets it so right, and more often than not our own opera houses – both of them – get it so, so wrong.