Monday, December 19, 2011

Premiere of Orpheus in der Unterwelt: Stölzl meets Offenbach backstage

Orphée aux enfers, Staatsoper Unter den Linden im Schiller Theater, Berlin, December 16 2011

Conductor ..... Julien Salemkour
Director ..... Philipp Stölzl

Eurydice ..... Evelin Novak
Public opinion ..... Cornelius Obonya
Orpheus ..... Stefan Kurt
Pluto ..... Ben Becker
Jupiter ..... Gustav Peter Wöhler
Styx ..... Hans-Michael Rehberg
Juno ..... Irene Rindje

Staatskapelle Berlin
Staatsopernchor (Frank Flade)

This is a creative take on the Offenbach famous operetta that those who saw this piece mounted before might find disturbing. Those who have as a reference the production of Orphée aux enfers presented in Lyon almost 15 years ago --that boosted the career to both Natalie Dessay and Laurent Pelly-- will be most probably baffled by this production. 

Of course we were not that naive to believe that Philipp Stölzl would come up with yet another production of Orphée aux enfers without seriously shaking the piece, and adapting it as to resonate with people today. In short, Stölzl and his team completely reworked the piece, translated it into German, rewrote a big chunk of the text and musically converted it to the Kurt Weill kind of the Berliner style of sound. OK, the ground story is the same one, by Ludovic Halévy, just set up differently, and the music often sounds very  different from what you're used to, even if the score is  the one by Jacques Offenbach. More importantly, the satiric character was perfectly hitting the cord with the crowd and the eventual success for the whole team was absolutely deserved. To make the satirical side of the storyline vibrant, Stölzl employed his talent and made the comedy very fast paced, burlesque, and invited the real theater actors to make the magic work. The only true singer in the cast was Evelin Novak who sang wonderfully in addition to her excellent acting. Orpheus was incarnated by a popular German/Swiss actor, Stefan Kurt, and the crowd was delighted.

So the stage, before the beginning of the show, looked bare-naked, with only a few wooden cases posed on the floor. No pit, no orchestra, no decor except for a set of cords hanging from the ceiling and touching the floor (c.f. photo above.) You could see the folks entering auditorium looking puzzled. Well, this delightfully written libretto would be next-to-impossible to put on stage if you don't have a sense of humor and put a grain of salt in the story. Public Opinion --a man in this production--  appeared at the very beginning, threw a few jokes to make contact with public and then reminded us of the heartbreaking story about Orphée and Eurydice, ending his intro with a natural question "What could have happened to them in real life -- after several years of marriage!?" And then the story begins... If you did not see this operetta before, do have a look at the Pelly production on DVD, and read the synopsis.

Evelin Novak

In this production the actors sing, the singers act and they all do it wonderfully to support the comedy without ruining the fun part. The demanding part sung by Eurydice is wonderfully interpreted by Evelin Novak. The chorus girls are perfectly at ease with a rather complicated stage action that they support abundantly.

Stölzl had his idea of what "Underwelt" means here. It is the second life for actors. One that they live in the theater, and the difficulties to discern it from the real life they live with their families. Eurydice is unhappily married to Orpheus who happens to be a performer too, but not an actor like her. He is a musician who incessantly annoys her with his violin. To show how neglected in their marriage she really feels, she breaks his Stradivarius to pieces and leaves. Later Eurydice will fall in love with Jupiter (an actor) whose jealous wife, Juno, regularly calls in to check if her husband cheats on her with one of the pretty girls in the crew of dancers -- that are in fact crazy about him.

Public Opinion is the connection between the regular and the life in the theater, and at the same time he [Public Opinion] is the one who keeps the two worlds apart by constantly reminding the protagonists of what they are supposed to do -- even if that is not what they want to be doing. This is how Public Opinion presses on Orpheus to take a hilarious flight to "Hell" (Underworld) to look for Eurydice whom he's not in love anymore, but whom he's married to...

Scenically it is lively, with lots of self deprecating humor, and burlesque all the time. The sets pop up from the cases I mentioned above -- like from the pop-up books: the cords attached to them are linked to the wheels on the ceiling and then fixed to the spool on the side-wall of the stage that is then pulled or released by the girls/dancers (actually the chorus members.) And so the cases open up and the cardboardish but witty decors pop up. This way to organize the stage action is clever on several levels, and more importantly it never slows down the comedy that requires many sets changes. It all happens on the fly. 

The first surprise happens at the very beginning when one of the hardly visible frames opens up in the backstage to unveil the orchestra (Kurt Weill like orchestra, with a banjo - of course.) Like from the music box the sound is released [good job from Julien Salemkour] and the whole story begins.

In the end, Eurydice is of course delighted to remain in the back of the backstage (Hell) where a disco-ball is suspended on the ceiling, the actors have lots of fun, and she's there with her beloved Jupiter.

Stefan Kurt, Gustav Peter Wöhler, and Ben Becker

It is difficult not to admire the acting and personality of Gustav Peter Wöhler, who at first suffers from hangover after the night spent in theater with a bunch of pretty dancers, but sobers up quickly after his wife Juno calls in. He fears Juno but overcomes his fears by his love for Eurydice. His role as a King is hilarious, as a God of Thunder he's "incompetent" at best.
His transformation into a fly is funny and touching at the same time.

If you're in Berlin or near the city, do go and see this show. It's festive, it's uplifting, and it's very well done.

I shouldn't finish this post without saying that something occasionally bugged me during the show even if I was fully aware that the production was made for the Berliners, not for me....  Orphée aux enfers in German, really!? ... but that's just me.

Mara Kurotschka and Philipp Stölzl

... and Julien Salemkour

Production photos ©Matthias Baus


Edit: I just saw on YT that there is a full video of the Laurent Pelly production I mentioned above. It's not subtitled, so if you're French speaking... here is your link.

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