Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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The Battered Brides

July 09, 2012

Ina Kringelborn and Vincent Wolfsteiner Photo: Wolfgang Silveri/Komishe Oper Berlin 2011
With so much of the standard opera repertory consisting of works composed over a century ago, the omnipresence of the historical oppression of women is inescapable. However, this material is an important site of artistic interrogation in the world of opera, where inequalities still exist in at least in the number of women at the most senior levels of artistic management and direction. All of this was in high relief during the closing week of the opera season at Berlin’s Komische Oper where two men took on some of the more problematic stories about women in the opera canon during the festival week that closed Sunday. The Komische Oper’s departing intendant, Andreas Homoki offered a revival of his popular 2010 staging of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the night after the final performance of this season’s new production of von Weber’s Der Freischutz from the mind of the poster boy of Regietheater, Calixto Bieito. Both stories involved contests where young women have been offered up as prizes by their fathers to contest winners. Both have a favorite potential victor in mind, but it’s the snags in getting that suitor into the winner’s circle that creates the drama. And yet the differences in approach in these two male directors couldn’t have more different implications in terms of sexual politics.

Homoki’s Meistersinger, which was conducted by the Komische Oper’s outgoing music director Patrick Lange is a study in understatement. There is so little to it, that at times it feels and looks like a very German high school musical. The stage is occupied solely by the cast in quaint picturesque costumes on an empty stage with eight or so free standing square edifices meant to suggest the buildings of Nuremberg. There’s a chapel and various sized boxes all with pointed roofs that tower over the cast. Each “building” has a front wall-sized door that opens for characters to enter and leave but otherwise little happens other than the movement of these buildings to reinforce the societal underpinnings of the piece – sometimes the city is closed like a wall to the outsider, at others, as in the Act II riot, it is a state of disarray and overturned edifices. Homoki’s vision otherwise is more or less what you’d imagine the Disney film version of Meistersinger would look like. Beckmesser all but twirls the edges of his curled mustache to communicate his villainy, and doting Eva flounces across the stage. Homoki deals with Hans Sachs’ odd, closing aria by simply ignoring it more of less, and that action continues unabated toward the pre-determined happy ending. There are a lot of tired ideas here as well, most painfully the whole explosion of color stratagem in the final minutes. After four hours of looking at nothing but white walls and gray costumes, the day-glo onset of the final scene in both costumes and color is not only tired, but too little too late. It was also one of the quickest Meistersingers I’ve heard with Lange giving no one much time to ponder over the beauty of the score. In the end Eva is won by her knight and everyone goes home happy.

From Act III of Neistersinger Photo: Monika Ritterhaus/Komische Oper Berlin 2011
Ignoring the problematic undertones of an opera is a position that a director like Calixto Bieito has no stomach for. That doesn’t mean his productions are always sublime, but they undoubtedly make audiences uncomfortable in asking hard questions. In his recent staging of Der Freischütz the young and beautiful Agathe hopes to be wed to Max after she is won in a shooting contest. Bieito makes no bones about the obvious ideological parallels between marriage and hunting with women being the prey in the former. He casts the role of an animal killed by the hunters in Act I as a naked woman dressed in a fur coat, who, like prey, is brutally killed and stripped of her outer covering before being hoisted away, bloody on a hunter’s shoulders. Brutal to watch to be sure, but Bieito never lets up with the metaphor driving his point home. When Kaspar calls on the devil to cast the magic bullets to ensure Max’s victory in the deal Max has cut to win his bride, it takes place amid a clearly satanic woodland rite with Kaspar murdering a pair of newlyweds and unceremoniously annointing each bullet from between the legs of the brides corpse. This drives Max mad in this version turning him into a naked, mud-covered wild man or animal himself who will haunt Agathe for the rest of the opera. Max was sung by the excellent Vincent Wolfsteiner who stayed on board with the total frontal nudity throughout the entire second Act. Bieito follows through on calling the sexism and violence taken for granted in Der Freischütz all the way to the end by changing the ending where Agathe dies anyway and both the Hermit and Max shot dead by the modern dressed paramilitary hunters despite their songs of forgiveness and reconciliation. Bieito’s characters live by the gun and die by it despite any sentimental notion of this work hanging around in the minds of a contemporary audience. It was undoubtedly brutal to watch, but yet there was something much more honest about this production in terms of the material. Lange was on the podium again and overall the show was much more strongly cast with Bettina Jensen as a ringing, forceful Agathe and Carsten Sabrowski as the voracious and evil Kaspar.

Of course, it’s unfair to draw this sort of comparison in some ways, and I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to call Bieito’s work a feminist production in any sense of the word. The important thing is to remember how limiting the two approaches suggested here are in and of themselves. There is a power to having a variety of different voices interpret even the most familiar repertory. And that variety is still lacking overall when it comes to women directing opera on the world stage.


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