Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Rake's Progress in Berlin

The Rake's Progress, Staatsoper Berlin (Shiller-Theater), December 10 2010

Conductor ..... Ingo Metzmacher
Director ..... Krzysztof Warlikowski
Set and Costume Designer ..... Małgorzata Szczęśniak
Light Designer ..... Felice Ross
Video ..... Denis Guéguin
Chorus Master ..... Frank Flade
Choreographer ..... Claude Bardouil

Trulove ..... Andreas Bauer
Anne ..... Anna Prohaska
Tom Rakewell ..... Florian Hoffmann
Nick Shadow ..... Gidon Saks
Mother Goose ..... Birgit Remmert
Baba the Turk ..... Nicolas Ziélinski
Sellem ..... Erin Caves
Keeper of the madhouse ..... James Homann

Staatskapelle Berlin

It's the place where my prediction from the sixties finally came true: "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." I'm bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, "In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous."

    Andy Warhol's Exposures (1979)
This was my first time to se an opera at Schillertheater, a temporary residence of Deutsche Staatsoper (DSO) in Berlin. For some reason this small house keeps the charm and atmosphere of what we used to feel at their famous house at Unter den Linden [currently being renovated.] It is probably the dominance of bright colors in the hallways and in atrium which --with peculiarly positioned and brightly tuned lights-- make you feel at DSO.

The smallness of auditorium instead has a bunch of good sides and only one "bad" side. First, you feel that special intimacy between the performers and viewers, you sense that energy flow that makes theatrical experience so unique [the experience that gets regularly lost/diluted in a large auditorium.] Furthermore the orchestra is very near you and you so distinctly hear every instrument that gives depth to the orchestral performance. There is essentially no pit which further exacerbates proximity/intimacy felt by all of us in auditorium (it is comparable to what you feel at Théâtre des Champs Élysées).

Since this was a high profile cultural event in Germany, all the crème of German cultural circles (including Jossi Wieler, Daniel Richter...) and many European opera houses representative [Hello to a charming lady from La Scala who I've met in Copenhagen for the prima of Herheim's Lulu!] Now, the smallness of the theater plays an extra-role as not so many tickets could remain for public sale and I believe that's the main reason why  Krzysztof Warlikowski was not booed during the curtain call. I know it may sound weird but it felt weird to finish a Warlikowski operatic experience with no boos -- something impossible to imagine happening in Paris (where he staged 4 unforgettable operas).

Another good thing about small theaters is that every singer with pleasant timbre sounds fantastic. Those with big voices are given an opportunity to show the etchy side of their voices, exhibit more subtlety and vocal nuances. One "bad" side of a small auditorium is that conducting becomes very difficult: a conductor must constantly tame the orchestra to keep the singers audible, and yet pull the best out of each instrument to give character to his  particular reading of the score. You can hardly name any conductor coping as wonderfully with tricky conditions for a 20th century opera as Ingo Metzmacher. To me he is one of maybe 3-4 best conductors of his generation. In this show it was fun to see him do what normally William Christie's doing: he would accompany the recitatives on harpsichord, and then would jump on his feet to conduct the superb Staatskapelle -- the orchestra in which every member visibly enjoyed him(her)self performing.

What about the show?  Małgorzata Szcześniak prepared the sets the way she usually does - to let Warlikowski project his own view on the story of Tom Rakewell. For the full visual effect Felice Ross knows how to tune the lights and make the Warlikowski magic work at its best, and Denis Guéguin excels in his video-art which definitely gives decisive recognizable visual to Warlikowski shows. One important aspect of non-trivial use of video is that it obliges actors to fully act -- every facial expression is amplified and projected on big screen, often interfered with prerecorded stuff or film-references.

Like Robert Lepage in his recent production of The Rake's Progress (available on DVD!)-- Warlikowski places the story in America. An essential difference with respect to the brainless show by Lepage is that Warlikowski does not explore America as a gadget for his show, but rather cleverly focuses on what must have been a defining moment in American pop-culture nowadays invariably present in our lives: artistry and persona of Andy Warhol's. In that respect this show is homage to Andy Warhol. Let me clarify a bit: the appearance of Warhol was crucial in the end of 60's (beginning of 70's). Not only did he bring pop-art close to every man while elevating it to a contemporary art-form, but he was a staunch critique of modern society of consumers. Watch this video:

That's how the Warlikowski show begins: with an excerpt from above video of Andy Warhol eating a  hamburger. Andy's ambiguous sexuality was troublesome for a society in the 60's, but his irresistible pop-art made many people accept it and on the way it had made many people face their own ambiguous and/or repressed sexuality. That's what Warlikowski chose to explore in this show.

Sexual ambiguities are everywhere in this show. After the above video, we see Nick Shadow -- wearing a wig very Warhol-cut and eating a hamburger the way Andy Warhol just did on the video. It is his presence that troubles Tom, a provincial country boy who is [and is supposed to be] in love with Anne Trulove. The presence of Nick Shadow (Andy Warhol) is fascinating to him. Nick represents unknown, unexplored, yet so irresistibly  exciting for him. It is also a worm of doubt about his own sexuality that is digging through his brain and troubles him.

Talking about sexual ambiguities, the relation between Anne and her father is not clear eather. She takes care of her father, she helps him dress up..., but the affection-line between two of them is quite blurred. The evening when she suffers from not having news from Tom, she's dressed minimally, grabs her stuff, determined to leave her father and the town to find Tom. But, her father in the background during entire aria "No news from Tom..."  her father is standing on their bed in his underwear and threatens to hang himself if she leaves.

Tom instead discovers life of a big city and faces his own homosexuality (his troubling night with Mother Goose) -- which will eventually prove to be bisexuality (although you can say in the end he's in fact asexual!) This is masterfully structured and directed: there is a male dancer who while sensually dancing half naked performing many figures using his whip suggests many unorthodox options of sexuality (nothing is explicit tho!)

Nick Shadow is only there to make things happen and boost that worm of doubt in Tom's mind. It's Tom who is discovering him-other-self, and eventually falls for Baba the Turk (who in this production is not sung by a woman but by a crossdressed man -- who also sings divinely.)

The trouble of Tom is therefore not only that of a provincial young man facing the life in a big city - torn between the certitudes of his life as a country-boy, and his high-life of a big city where he discover him-other-self. His love for Anne is pure but not plain...  That amounts in deep suffering (there you have your Warlikowski thread!)  that gives momentum to his artistic creativity. He becomes a big name  (producer?) in Hollywood and  creates many characters which symbolize the culture of his time [including Bugs Bunny, Minnie, Star Wars characters, Wonder Woman, Spiderman...] He marries Baba but Anne is still occupying his head. Warlikowski presents that scene like this:

Of course he's not happy. His depression will lead him to a financial hole and the famous scene of auction is here staged like a big Las Vegas kind of show during which Sellem calls for bids to purchase the rights for each and every character Tom's created.

That's followed by unhappy Baba who decides to meet with Anne and tell her that Tom is still in love with her.

That's a fun scene because while Anne and Baba are sitting on a couch, their conversation is filmed and live broadcast -- with all the Hollywood characters carefully watching it on a big screen. That's a quick reference to (criticism of) the invading "reality show" culture in which the fictional characters and real people invert their roles.

The famous scene with Nick Shadow tempting and challenging Tom is here made with particular dramatic intensity: Tom is emotionally naked, while Nick is cross-dressed, uses all his charisma and a rush of adrenalin with a gun in one and a card in another hand -- his dominance over Tom is complete.

Tom survives but is mentally damaged. In the last scene Anne comes with oranges to visit him in psychiatric ward while her father wait for her outside with a baby (!) -- Whose baby is this? Again that ambiguity that brings ever more depth to the story.

All the way throughout the show the chorus is placed on the upper floor. They represent a public who enjoys watching everything, who're totally into the story, and "for their convenience" the crucial moments are being filmed and projected on a large screen. This is to reflect the culture in which the separation between private and public is practically inexistant: private life of a public person is for  public use (consumption - entertainment...)

To make it all extra non-trivial, but relatable to the culture of our time, before the beginning of the show Anne and Tom appeared on the stage to say that the following was a real story of a writer Tom Rakewell who was in the audience that night among us (the light then focused on a middle-aged man seated in the front row.) Isn' t that what you would have expected from Andy Warhol to do if he was alive today!?

Talking about the performers, to me the big winner of the evening was Gidon Saks. His presence on stage was overwhelming -- even when he would walk on high heels under scafolding in the background his presence was remarkable, defining what was happening on the stage. Every word he sang (What a voice!) was perfectly comprehensible. His voice is dark, and he commands it to sound like either teasing, charming, or menacing and evil. Simply great!  A huge discovery of this production is Nicolas Ziélinski (where the heck did they find him?! ) His darkish soprano voice and a perfect physique for the role, simply made him the best Baba the Turk I've ever seen or listened to.
I was very happy to listen to Erin Caves in a live performance. Yes, he's your jawdropping Loge from The Weimar Ring, and he sounds as great in live! Anna Prohaska is a perfectly reliable soprano who enjoys the acting part of her job too. Here, perhaps more than in any of her previous roles I could see her in, she is at her best. Her voice is impressively flexible and at ease in high (and very high) register*.  Florian Hoffmann is a very good Tom too. Like the other main characters he's vocally and scenically perfectly in synch with the role and with everything else happening on the stage. His physique is helping too. Birgit Remmert and Andreas Bauer complete this extremely strong cast.

For those who do not know well the story of The Rake's Progress, here is a link to the Wiki-synopsis.

* Anna Prohaska is a Berliner who in the program is referred to "English-Austrian soprano", with Prohaska being a typical Czech name. Boy do I love global melting pot :)

More photos from the production below (all production photos are signed Ruth Walz)

Below are the photos I took:

Before the show began...

A minute before the start "public is filling the stands"...

This is how the scene looks before the beginning of Part-Two of the show

The only pic I managed to take with Ingo Metzmacher in it ;)

Nicolas Ziélinski and Erin Caves

Florian Hoffmann and (a bit of) Anna Prohaska

Gidon Saks

Warlikowski (Malgo Szcziesniak was not there and I do not recognize the lady on his right)... Correction: we now know who that was - Felice Ross

And finally, here is a trailer to complete what I wrote above ;)


  1. Thank you for the review and to Warlikowski for this wonderful spectacle.

    P.S. Il piacere è tutto mio!

  2. Do you attend all these events by yourself? If so, I am available as a companion. Just fly me to Paris and find a place for me to move in....:)

  3. I have just found your blog. It is really a sweet cake! From now on I will be visiting you regularly. Don't you have the "Followers" options in the blog? I would like to join.
    I invite you to see our blog also about opera, written in portuguese and in english:
    Regards from a portuguese admirer

  4. The "lady on his right" is Felice Ross, the lighting designer.

  5. Thanks for this engagingly written review! It really is a fantastic production.

    Just a few remarks about the local music scene (which can be somewhat bewildering, with three top notch opera houses and at least three top notch symphony orchestras):

    Here in Berlin, we do not have a "Deutsche Staatsoper". We have the "Deutsche Oper" ( and we have the "Staatsoper Unter den Linden" (, which currently resides at the Schiller Theater. Here in Berlin, "DSO" abbreviates "Deutsches Symphonie Orchester" ( As Ingo Metzmacher also happened to be the chief conductor of this marvellous orchestra until the end of the 2009/2010 season, you might have seen his name in conjunction with the abbreviation "DSO". But, as I said before, there is no "Deutsche Staatsoper".

  6. Do you come back next week ?!......