Part One of a report from the Richard Strauss-Woche in the Deutsche Oper.
For many Torontonians, the best thing about April is the warmer weather and the ditching of that heavy coat; or the return of the Boys of Summer, i.e. the beloved Blue Jays. I’m a baseball and a warm weather fan too, but for me, the return of opera to Toronto trumps the other two. For years now, the Canadian Opera Company’s spring season starts in April, not to mention the single production of Opera Atelier, invariably some Baroque morsel. It also means indulging in some opera travel without being tied down with marking exams and essays like I was prior to retirement. This year, the destination is Berlin. When I found out about the Richard Strauss-Woche at the Deutsche Oper, it was irresistible.
For the really seasoned opera buffs, it’s always a pleasure to discover something new, especially outside the standard repertoire. Of the Richard Strauss pieces on offer, I’ve seen Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier many times over, not to mention concert performances. The fourth, a comparative rarity, is Die aegyptische Helena, which I saw staged many years ago at the Santa Fe Opera. The only one new to me is Die Liebe der Danae. Given the high standards of the Deutsche Oper in Strauss and the German rep in general, I had very high expectations.
For those unfamiliar with the German opera scene, Deutsche Oper is an “A” house, one of a handful of top houses of the highest quality. Berlin is particularly opera-rich with three well-known houses. Besides the Deutsche Oper, there’s the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in what used to be East Berlin, also an “A” house, with the longest history going back to 1742 as the Court Opera. The third house in Berlin is the Komische Oper. The Deutsche Oper is located in the Charlottenburg area of the city, in the western part of the city. The original building, dated from 1912, was destroyed by RAF bombing in 1943. It subsequently reopened in 1961, in a more modern and rather austere design that by today’s standards may seem a bit dated. I found the building has a well-used feel to it and arguably in need of some sprucing up. But all that is immaterial as the music remains glorious.
Throughout the week of my visit, I rarely saw an empty seat, a testament to the opera-loving German public. This house, which also presents the Stattsballett, attracts a huge number of foreign visitors. To my delight, I ran into several American friends who came specifically for the Strauss-Woche, as well as a group of 27 Canadians from Toronto on the very first night. Not unlike North America, the opera audience demographic in Germany is decidedly aging. That said, I was impressed that on two nights there were several pre-teens sitting in my vicinity, no doubt brought there by their parents who were intent on giving their kids some taste of heilige Kunst, never mind the kids were dozing off during the show, much like some of the adults!
The first opera on my itinerary was Salome, in a 2016 production directed by Claus Guth, who also directed the 2006 Salzburg Le nozze di Figaro, recently staged by the COC. One can count on Guth to be provocative, and he has outdone himself in this Salome. Judging by what’s on stage, one would be hard pressed to recognize it as the Salome based on the Oscar Wilde – and the Bible! Guth’s take is relentlessly radical. The stage is populated by “real” characters and mannequins – yes, mannequins. Almost all the men – living or dummies – wear similar business suits, including Jochanaan, the prisoner about to have his head chopped off. Maybe they get their wardrobe from Herod’s very well stocked supply that looks like the men’s department at the Bay. Sitting there, I was willing to be receptive to his vision, but it wasn’t easy – in the opening minutes, the lighting was so dim, and no attempt was made to use spot lighting – I had trouble telling who was actually singing. Except for Jochanaan, there’s a lot of zombie-like, robotic movements throughout, the meaning of which remains a mystery.
In Guth’s vision, there is not just one Salome but six, all younger versions of different ages and heights, wearing the same costume. Herod, sung by the young tenor Thomas Blondelle, looks more like the son of Herodias when paired with the veteran soprano, Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet. Anyone looking forward to the Dance of the Seven Veils would be disappointed in this production. Salome doesn’t really dance – her place is taken by the six younger girls of different age and height, manipulated by black-clad, hooded men. It’s obvious that Guth is making the point that Salome is a victim of child abuse, in a dysfunctional family. This idea isn’t exactly new – back in the 1998 COC production, Canadian director/filmmaker Atom Egoyan, using the filmic approach, underscored this point very effectively. At the time, it was considered controversial, given that the abusers were the five Jews, minor characters in the opera. But I find Egoyan’s idea milder and in many ways more effective than Guth’s. In the Guth production, Jochanaan’s head stays on. Salome just goes to one of the mannequins and snaps it off! At the end when Herod sings “Kill that woman!” the stage light dims, but she remains standing, very much alive. I can’t pretend that I have bought into Guth’s vision, however much I tried. And it appears a substantial segment of the audience didn’t either, judging by boos that stood out from the applause at the end.
I am happy to report this problematic staging was counterbalanced by the very high musical values. Top vocal honours went to the Jochanaan of Michael Volle. He also deserves special credit for gamely appearing almost naked for several minutes in his underwear. Replacing the original Salome of Catherine Nagelstad was British soprano Allison Oakes, who was totally indefatigable and a bit stentorian, serving up blazing top notes. Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet was a fine Herodias. Thomas Blondelle was a fresh-voiced Herod, a nice change from the many superannuated character tenors one usually encounters in this role. The downside is a lack of chemistry between him and the much older-looking Herodias. Guest conductor Alain Altinoglu led the great Deutsche Oper Orchestra with uncommon eloquence and clarity.
A Strauss masterpiece often paired with Salome is Elektra, the two sharing stylistic and musical affinities. Unlike Guth’s far-out Salome, this Elektra (a production from 2007, directed by Kirsten Harms, who was the Intendant of DO from 2004 to 2011), tells the story in a straight-forward fashion. The set is an abstract and claustrophobic box with striking colours and textures. On three sides are doors that occasionally open. The stage floor is covered with what looks like soil mixed with rubble. That’s it, for the one-hour forty-five minutes of the opera, performed without an intermission. Boring? Not in the least! I was completely riveted by what’s on stage and the sound coming from the pit. Donald Runnicles, the Music Director of Deutsche Oper, led the orchestra in a galvanizing reading of the powerful score.
It’s not often that a performance succeeds on so many levels – musically, dramatically, as well as on a deeper emotional level. German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius does not have the richest or the most beautiful of voices, but it’s not necessary as Elektra. For me, Herlitzius owns this role today, pace Nina Stemme and others currently singing it. Despite being slight of frame and short of stature, Herlitzius makes a big, penetrating sound, in some ways reminiscent of the great Dame Gwyneth Jones in these same Wagner-Strauss heroines. They possess an intensity and total commitment that one doesn’t encounter very often. In the opening monologue, “Allein, ganz allein” Herlitzius established the character in no uncertain terms, a mixture of profound sadness, steely determination and an undercurrent of desperation. Not vocally perfect but striking just the same. The pain and anguish in her voice in the Recognition Scene brought copious tears to my eyes, something that doesn’t happen to me very often.
A perfect foil for her was the Chrysothemis of Manuela Uhl, physically beautiful and possessing a “prettier” voice, full of luster and womanly warmth. It was a bit of a vocal stretch for the lyric soprano of Uhl, but she warmed up and was fine. Doris Soffel, who was a marvelous Adelaide in the Munich Arabella I saw last summer, was a scary, decaying Klytemnestra, and she made a strong musical and dramatic impression. Bass Tobias Kehrer was an outstanding Orest, singing and acting with a combination of brotherly warmth and the intensity and gravitas of someone about to commit murder. And murder he did, right in full view, a very unusual staging! Also impressive was tenor Clemens Bieber in the brief role of Aegisth. Interestingly, the Harms Elektra, like the Guth Salome, does not dance. Here, the serving women, now in white, deputized. It actually works very well.
Seeing the two performances back to back, I couldn’t help but compare the two. In any case, Salome and Elektra are like peas in the same creative pod of Strauss. Comparing and contrasting the different directorial visions of Guth and Harms, it’s clear to me that More is Less/Less is More, at least in this case. The Guth Salome comes across as gimmicky, a touch pretentious, and deliberately convoluted, with meanings that are too cryptic for most audience members to decipher. On the other hand, the Harms Elektra shows a trust in the power of Richard Strauss’s magnificent score. In her willingness to let the music speaks for itself, helped tremendously by the magnificent cast and great conducting/orchestra, the result was immensely satisfying.