Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fidelio at the Komische Oper in Berlin: Is Benedikt von Peter next 'Stefan Herheim'?

Fidelio, Komische Oper Berlin, May 20 2010

 Conductor  Martin Hoff
 Director  Benedikt von Peter

 Don Fernando  Mirko Janiska
 Don Pizarro   Anton Keremidtchiev
 Florestan   Will Hartmann
 Leonore   Caroline Melzer
 Rocco  Tilmann Rönnebeck
 Marzelline  Karen Rettinghaus
 Jaquino  Thomas Ebenstein

One of the most interesting new productions in Europe this year was Fidelio, presented at the Komische Oper in Berlin (KOB).  Unfortunately, most of the media buzz it received  was about the spat between Carl St.Clair and the KOB artistic management, instead of the sheer brilliance of this show. As for the epilogue of the St.Clair affair,   after not taking responsibility for the orchestrally unsuccessful premiere [instead, he blamed it on the production's director, Benedikt von Peter (sic!)], he [St.Clair] resigned from the position of the KOB music director.

I cannot tell how much of that was real and how much it was a publicity stunt, but what I can say is that on the day when I saw the show the orchestra was excellent [despite the fact that Martin Hoff stepped in on extremely short notice], they received loads of Bravo!'s and even showed up on the stage for the second curtain call. Proof:

I was obviously mostly intrigued by what Benedikt von Peter would do with Fidelio, and after the show I was totally impressed.

Von Peter has a history of staging operas in a highly non-trivial way [Dialogue des Carmélites in Basle,  Teseo at the Komische]. It is deconstructionist in style and very close in form to what you see in the shows directed by Stefan Herheim.  I believe the Regietheater by definition must be at least in part deconstructionist; that is in fact what separates it from the linear, narrative, traditionalists' vision of opera-staging, and from the concept of  opera as "theater-museum".

Like in the Herheim's shows, Benedikt too respect the spirit of the story suggested in libretto but it is wrapped in many onion-like layers, the relationships among characters are often spun in a way to make opera less familiar to aficionados and and therefore to make you rediscover the opera you thought you knew very well.  That is what I call non-trivial staging -- it pushes you to struggle against your own a priori's.

The story-telling in von Benedikt's show is less straightforward than, for example, in Bieito's shows.  In parallel to the basic storyline, von Peter --like Herheim-- unfolds an extra story. You have to be careful not to lose any thread and carefully decipher the details. As a result, you --as a spectator-- are not a mere passive observer but you feel involved in the show. That's what I love the most about these shows, but I can understand that some people may feel the opposite: you have to stay alert for the entire duration of the show or you can lose one of the threads and all the fun part is gone.

I should repeat another important point of these shows: if you're very familiar with a given opera, these  directors push the boundaries and toy with your "I know this opera!"-kind of thinking.

In Fidelio,  you'd expect to see Marzeline falling in love with Fidelio who in fact is disguised Leonora looking for her beloved Florestan, a political prisoner. The libretto of this opera is really badly sewn up and you have to do something to smooth the abruptness of the episodes. A traditional staging of this opera necessarily results in an outdated theme and a shabby show, even if you try and modernize the stage design and costumes.

Von Peter's Fidelio is a fictitious character, who inhabits Marzelina's romantic imagination. Marzelina is a central character, a daydreamer who lives with her father in a theater which is about to be dismantled. It is a story about a girl who's been growing up in a theater, whose romantic dreams of love were fueled by the story of Leonora and Florestan for years, and who is now about to give up these dreams and embrace a big change --  most of the old theater is thrown away and at the same time she grows up as a woman.
There is of course more to it and von Peter rises two parallel questions:
(1) How to deal with changes in your life? How to build a new life without abandoning your old dreams, old ideals, old principles...? How much of you should dwell in the past, without risking of being impeded to advance to the future? What idea and lessons from the past are to be retained?  (2) His personal dilemma: how to reconcile the old fashioned operas [that interacted with public who did not have the same dreams, ideals, struggles as we do today] with our time.

The main element on the stage is a huge dumpster [do I see you eyerolling?! ;)] that relates Marzeline's real life [the theater is indeed being dismantled -- old stuff, costumes, decors are being thrown away], and her imagination [the Napoleonian soldiers and revolutionary people come out from that dumpster, even Florestan will come out from dumpster]. What I liked the most was that after a while you realize that von Peter does not provide the answer but insists on the fact that Florestand and Leonore might be obsolete characters but the romantic idea of freedom, of a better world, and a way of being revolutionary... should never be obsolete.

Revolutionary figures are symbolically killed: Marzelina & Jaquino are alone on the stage...

In other words, the old symbols may be old and tired, but the desire for freedom and for removal of oppression in society is what should be constantly reactualized.

I like the above pic not only because it is a defining moment when the imaginary heroes are dead (the theater is being dismantled and with it the Marzelina's imaginary world), but also because the guy in the background (in leather jacket) is controlling what should be thrown away and what not. You see real and imaginary coexist here?! Isn't the guy in the background oppressor?

I won't go into details but I would wholeheartedly recommend this superb show that will be back on at the Komische in January/February 2011. If you get a chance to be in Berlin at that time, it is not to be missed!

All the monologues of Fidelio/Leonore are miked [to define his/her unrealness], while the singing parts were --of course-- unamplified. The role was sung by up and coming Caroline Melzer who stepped in to replace indisposed Ann Petersen. If she continues singing like she did in this Fidelio, she will soon become a big operatic name.  Excellent!

Caroline Melzer

It was a pleasure to listen to Will Hartmann singing the role of Florestan.  Will is a very good singer,  extremely reliable, and his acting skills are asset to any production he's in. Bravo!

Will Hartmann

Since Marzelina is the central character in this production, it wouldn't be fair if I didn't mention Karen Rettinghaus, or her her father Rocco, Tilmann Rönnebeck.

Karen Rettinghaus and Tilmann Rönnebeck
Finally, what a pleasure to listen again to Anton Keremidtchiev! His singing is Top-10 by any standard which is one of the reasons that make the Komische Oper Berlin such a wonderful place: You always discover some incredibly good singers, who often perform their art much better than any big star around.  As a consequence the show becomes more about the piece than about the stars performing. 

The whole production team

The above pics are mine, while the ones added below are ©Komische Oper (available on their website)

Finally here is the trailer

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