Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Homoki le Grand: The Bartered Bride at the Komische

The Bartered Bride, Komische Oper Berlin, November 1st 2011

Vasek, Janik, Maestro Vedernikov, Marenka, Kecal, and Ludmila

Director ..... Andreas Homoki
Conductor ..... Alexander Vedernikov

Krušina ..... Tom Erik Lie
Ludmila ..... Gertrud Ottenthal
Mařenka ..... Christiane Kohl
Mícha ..... Carsten Sabrowski
Háta ..... Caren van Oijen
Vašek ..... Thomas Ebenstein
Jeník ..... Timothy Richards
Kecal ..... Jens Larsen
Zirkusdirektor ..... Peter Renz
Esmeralda ..... Anastasia Melnik

This is the production by which Andreas Homoki made a big splash in the world of opera, back in 2002. The international critics --mostly ultra-conservative, as usual-- was almost unanimous in trashing the production, going as far as to call the production  "catastrophic" [c.f. Opera News from January 1st, 2003.]  How far off the target was that!?

In retrospect, we now know that this production was groundbreaking in that it brought the regie-theater to the new level, and even today the show looks fresh, witty and shiny. Andreas wanted to make a statement: it was the year when he took over the directorship from Harry Kupfer. Not surprisingly, the irresistible brilliance of this and other shows, made Andreas Homoki and his Komische Oper voted the best opera house in 2003. 

Since this is the last year with Homoki running the Komische, we could see the retrospective of all his shows, in addition to his new production of The Cunning Little Vixen that opened this October [that I unfortunately will not be able to see this year.]

The Bartered Bride is an opera filled with motives from the Czech folklore. It is a comic opera, and to make it resonate with the public today you cannot produce it just to dumbly narrate the content of its libretto. Homoki understood that instantly, wanted to keep the storyline intact, yet to embed it in the regie trends that shook the opera world circa 2000. Unless you're  armed with a bag of anti-regie a priori's, you cannot but admire the result.

The story is narrated as you can read it in libretto -- there is nothing twisted, modified, or interpreted in a far fetched way. The catch is that Andreas immersed the plot in a recognizable social background and the entire opera gets a very different flavor. He situated the story somewhere in East Germany right after the fall of communism. The grayishly dressed ordinary men and women live their provincial lives the way they're used to, and the changes happen to them in a very picturesque way: Kecal and other two crooks come from the West Germany to sell "the Western ways": two crooks come up with all kinds of colorfully packed products, cigarettes, cosmetics... sell all out and make big money.
Women will first surrender by embracing the Western fashion: they will throw their rubber boots away, get rid of their gray uniform-looking dresses and put on the fancy shirts, skirts, belts, shoes, handbags... Men resisted more but they too got tired of drinking their bottled local beer, while the cans of Western beer with all the fancy labels were just too tempting and they too embraced the Western ways.
In that background is the story you find in the plot, and so the storyline goes on two levels both being lively and funny: Marenka (East German) falls in love with Jenik (West German wanderer who came to their town), but her parents trust Kecal to broker a marriage with Vasek, a son of a wealthy West German family that will in the end show up wearing the Bavarian cloths. It is witty, it is funny, the stories fly amazingly and that again is due to Homoki's uncommon ability to direct the crowd scenes. The chorus is practically 40% of the time actively participating the stage action. They move all the time while dressing, undressing, running, applauding the circus, purchasing the stuff on black market... The scene with the new changes making the villagers feel more sexy was a touch of the big master (it is almost completely implicit but funny.)
The only prop on the stage is a wooden fence. Homoki is not someone who builds his shows by relying on loads of decor. His theater flies because of the actors, because of the chorus.
It is uplifting and absolutely NOTHING is gratuitous in his directing, or left to the singers "to act the best they can."

The Komische orchestra is excellent as usual. The ensemble of singers and chorus are obviously very compact, which is the main reason why this complex show stage-wise is performed so effortlessly. Among singers, Christiane Kohl was very in form last night -- her Marenka was powerful and delicious. Jens Larsen is impressive by his presence, his superb acting, and his big-big voice that however loses agility toward the end of the show. Timothy Richards --always reliable tenor in the Komische ensamble-- sang his part very well. I should not forget Thomas Ebenstein, one of my favorite singers of this house, whose part was relatively short but nonetheless remarkable.

Ex-music director of the Bolshoi, Alexander Vedernikov, conducted the show very well last night. During the overture I feared it was going to be too loud, but he managed to tame the volume for the singing parts, and then to higher it again when the musical intermezzo would come. Very lively and accurate.

Unfortunately there is no video trailer to bring you a taste of this very lively show. Here are several production photos [©Komische Oper Berlin]

One more information worth mentioning is that nowadays the subtitles at the Komische Oper in Berlin are available in German, English, French, and Turkish!

and several photos taken by Yours Truly:

Circus members and the chorus b/g
Two selling crooks and the circus-director (Peter Renz)
Tom Erik Lie, Thomas Ebenstein, Timothy Richards, Jens Larsen

Timothy Richards (Jenik), Christiane Kohl (Marenka), and Jens Larsen (Kecal)

Photo with Alexander Vedernikov in the middle

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