Sunday, January 2, 2011

Ah that great Armide again

Armida, Komische Oper Berlin, December 13 2010

Superb Elena Semenova in the revival of Calixto Bieito's production of Armida

Conductor ..... Konrad Junghänel
Director ..... Calixto Bieito

Armida ..... Elena Semenova
Hidraot ..... Tómas Tómasson
Rinaldo ..... Norman Shankle
Artemidoro ..... Christoph Schröter
Ubaldo ..... Günter Papendell
Der dänische Ritter ..... Thomas Ebenstein
Phénice ..... Olivia Vermeulen
Sidonie ..... Julia Giebel
Aronte ..... Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Der Hass ..... Karolina Gumos
Ein Dämon in Gestalt der Melissa ..... Anna Borchers
Der Mann mit der Schlange ..... Carsten Wykrota

Chorus and Orchestra of Komische Oper Berlin

I saw this show when it was premiered in 2009 and it was one of my most powerful operatic experiences. I like this opera a lot, as Gluck managed to pull it away from the claws of baroque formats, and then comes Bieito to propose a modern staging that was one of the most fascinating staging I've seen. I discussed it before so I would not go through it again.

Armide in this production is your corporate bi*ch, a beautiful woman who has everything and everyone she wants. Her world of utter opulence necessarily leads to decadence: she and her friends engage in all kinds of sexual fantasies, with men who are only objects for her... Except for one - Renaud/Rinaldo - who is a young leftist (he and his friends enter auditorium through lateral doors - like WTO protesters) - who she tries to attract through all sorts of tricks... in vain.

What I also liked about this production was that it was a substantial negation of the publicity stunts that were circulating on the Internet at the time the production was premiered. Everyone was talking about the bunch of naked male characters;  "open minded people" complained that it was too much, conservatives were of course outraged, and when you see the show you realize the goal was just the opposite. Nudity is used as an accessory to describe Armide, but not in a positive way - precisely the opposite. Nude male bodies mean nothing to her. She only uses them to satisfy her sexual fantasies -- she's a dominatrix and wants to humiliate them more and more: too much power becomes necessarily pathological,  especially when accompanied with her frustration of not being able to satisfy her only desire - Renaud. With that being said, I should say that many scenes are actually very positively erotically charged.

In the production pics taken during the last year's run (see below),  Maria Bengtsson and Peter Lodahl sang and acted (brilliantly!) as Armide and Renaud.

So, I was a little apprehensive going to the Komische Opera, thinking the old cast was just too good and the revival is unlikely to be as good as the first run... I am glad to say I was wrong. The ensemble is the same (big BRAVO to all of them!), they all know very well the production, so scenically nothing went wrong.

The revelation of this cast is Elena Semenova. One more big, flexible, and beautiful Russian voice to add to your list of amazing sopranos today. The amount of stamina, her courage, and her rock solid voice in every register is rarely seen on an operatic stage [this role is hard mainly because it is too long and in this production it is scenically very demanding too.] Not only did she do everything impeccably -- she was also constantly adding an extra top note or two in all of her arias, including the final punch in her last aria. The crowd, obviously, was wild in the end! [Ah those high notes work on every crowd including that of the Komische Oper :)] Like with most Russian singers her voice is emitted a bit behind w.r.t. what you usually hear from the Western singers. This spoils her pronunciation, which is a grain of salt in this, by all standards, outstanding performance.

Norman Shankle is a fine tenor (whom we saw in Jossi Wieler's production of Cosi fan tutte) who was not really a match to Lodahl's Rinaldo but who did sing his role with elegance.

Below, in the pics I took during the curtain call, you will notice Tómas Tómasson again.  That man sang the night after that memorable performance in which he sang the most incredibly one of the hardest of all roles in the repertoire -- Hans Sachs! OK, in this opera Hidraot basically has only one aria to sing, but still -- that one aria is long and it was 1 night after the Meistersinger! You will also notice Thomas Ebenstein - the night after his fantastic David. Again his role in this opera was short for him, but it was a surprise to see him sing. At the same time it was my double pleasure to listen to these two perform again.

Like in 2009, Konrad Junghänel conducted very well the show -- his knowledge and experience showed.

Elena Semenova as Armida

Tomas Tomasson and Thomas Ebenstein

Norman Shankle in the center

Maestro Junghänel between Semenova and Shankle

Ah yes, a trailer:


  1. I saw it for resmusica and found it musically appalling. They just don't sing the score as it is, because of that silly German translation. Too bad for Bieito's staging, indeed, but you don't hear the original music. This said, I think Ms. Semenova would be second-rate everywhere too, and the tenor was awful!
    (I was there on December 13th too)

  2. I very much liked Semenova and I LOVE the staging - it's a lesson of how an opera should be staged.

    Ne sois pas blessant pour le ténor - ils lisent ça. In the previous run Lodahl was excellent tho.

  3. Yeah, but I still can't help feeling there's a gender bias there.... Reverse the genders in this work and you couldn't have many naked women crawling around even, if they're just treated as pieces of meat (and especially so).... Our society certainly has turned the tables 180 degrees in gender exploitation in the last decade, and especially so in the theatre and art world.