Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

All We Like Sheep

July 17, 2012

Brigitte Geller, Dmitry Ivashchenko, Karolina Gumos Photo: Forster/Komische Opera Berlin 2012
The 20th-century revival of interest in Baroque operas has, more or less, resulted in two types of contemporary productions of works from the period. On the one hand there are those that attempt to present something of a reverent reconstruction of imagined 18th-century productions. This is exactly the kind of thing I saw a little over a week ago in Paris with Ivan Alexandre's production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, which got a detailed work up relying heavily on stage craft from the composer’s own era. On the other hand, whether it is set in an earlier period or a contemporary one, there are those stagings that give an ironic wink to the past commenting on the musical and dramatic tropes of Baroque operas themselves. This is often done for laughs—whether or not they make sense in terms of the libretto—in an effort to break up the rather lengthy running times many of these operas have. A good recent example would be Francisco Negrin's recent Rinaldo for Lyric Opera of Chicago. There are those that break the mould like Peter Sellars who has been known for giving Baroque operas contemporary updates fully realizing dramatic parallels between their stories and contemporary themes, a task he did quite well in Chicago the season before with Handel's Hercules. But leave it to Stefan Herheim to go his own way.

Herheim has become perhaps the best regarded of opera stage directors in recent years for a string of wildly imaginative, unexpected and insightful stagings including a 2008 Parsifal for the Bayreuth Festival and Berg’s Lulu for Dresden in 2010 to name just two. He doesn’t just place the events of stories in more recent time periods, but actually investigates deeper meanings in the score for shows that can have unexpected contrasting elements that can puzzle more than shock in a particular context. His staging of Handel’s Xerxes for the Komische Oper Berlin, which I saw last week, was no less mysterious, albeit in a very funny way. It’s a production that seems to comment as much on the way contemporary audiences view Baroque operas as it is about the event of the opera itself.

The action takes place on a rotating 18th-century stage within the larger frame work of the Komische stage that reveals the wing and backstage areas. This opera-within-the-opera idea isn’t new, but Herheim’s off-kilter working of it is. Instead of giving the show an additional implied storyline with the cast playing both opera singers and the characters of Handel’s opera, the cast remain as the latter throughout. Even when leaving the stage to enter the wings, Xerxes, sung here by a lovely Stella Doufexis, is still Xerxes. He is not puzzled by his surroundings, but instead appears to be acutely aware of them as part of the world. The “onstage” performances tend toward the broadly comic and include more unexpected elements such as performers dressed as sheep who wander on stage, a chorus dressed as creatures from the deep blue sea, and some other clever visual gags that recur throughout the show. Yet, while the spirit is light-hearted, Herheim never appears to be taking shots at the convention of Baroque operas. Nor does he seem to be interested in reconstruction as tribute given the use of unexpected elements like neon lights.

So what’s going on here? My bet is that the show is a running commentary on producing Baroque operas themselves for contemporary audiences. The characters are all trapped in a world not of their own creation – aware of their existence as something besides what they are onstage, but not actors or other real-life figures either. This is reinforced in the end when the chorus enters for the final minutes of music dressed for the first time in contemporary street clothes. The seven characters in the cast seem honestly shocked and surprised to see them, a reaction that suggests for the first time in the long, strange goings-on in this show that they view something as foreign and out of place. For the first time they are removed from the audience as the chorus sings about the importance of joy and celebrating love.

It’s a surprising and rather moving moment in the opera and one that suggests the heart of performing  Baroque opera isn’t about lampooning it or recreating some modern ersatz version of it. Herheim, in his rather round-about way, is taking the work on its own terms, though granted not in a way that’s obvious or simply about relating it to contemporary themes and issues.

Musically the show was solid and on par with the quality one comes to expect at the Komische Oper. Konrad Junghänel conducted the contemporary instrument orchestra with fervor if not always the greatest detail. There were standouts in the cast including Julia Giebel as Atalanta and Katarina Bradic as Amastris who give some of the bet comical turns in the whole show. But if Regie theater is about directors and their ideas, then this was certainly it where the most intriguing and thought provoking work of the night rested squarely in the hands of Herheim.


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