Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Peter Konwitschny makes an offer you can't refuse

Wiener Staatsoper, 11/12/2011

Janáček: From the House of the Dead (new production)

Sorin Coliban | Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov
Misha Didyk | Luka Kuzmič
Herbert Lippert | Skuratov
Christopher Maltman | Šiškov
Gergely Németi | Aljeja
Alexandru Moisiuc | Prison Governor

Franz Welser-Möst | Conductor
Peter Konwitschny | Director

Take a critically acclaimed production of this opera like, I don’t know... (I kid). But Chéreau is as good an example as any for being intelligently sympathetic (and I choose a good production deliberately). We see, among other things, suffering, injustice and isolation. Peter Konwitschny sees ‘sparks of God’ who are getting too much of a free pass and a campfire solidarity which is profoundly unrealistic.

Just in case there were any doubts about moral greyness, the prisoners in Konwitschny’s production are mobsters who meet, as mafiosi are wont to do, in a hospitality suite on the 44th floor of a corporate skyscraper. The play-within-a-play is a strip show, its point about voyeurism made plainly enough not to need a peeping tom in an old raincoat who makes eyes through a keyhole stencil, but Konwitschny has that going on as well. Skuratov finishes his tale by stepping out over the pit, picking a fight with a couple (supers) who leave in high dudgeon, and collapsing into their aisle seats. Luka’s story is a bad trip that follows alarming quantities of coke snorted on the prompt box; it’s all in his addled mind, or so we are led to believe when he is left standing alone, the ensemble gathered in the auditorium to look on passively at the self-destructiveness. According to my subtitles he mentions having a drug habit, though at other points I read things like “I’m the king of shaggers”, so liberties may have been taken. Šiškov’s monologue has no side show beyond what lary mafiosi might be expected to get up to in the background. There was some interesting-looking blocking which might have made more of a point had Konwitschny been able to rehearse it, but as it happened Christopher Maltman carried this with some very strong acting. Forced to flap his arms, Gorjančikov is the suffering eagle; at the end he is put inside a matryoshka doll and shot.

What could this all mean? Firstly let me hide behind Wilhelm Sinkovicz, chief critic for Die Presse, who is no fan of Regie but nevertheless wrote: ‘If one were to change the costumes [gotta love Sinko’s costume fetish], the work would take place as the composer planned: brawling, non-stop brutality, a sadistic prison governor – and in between, melancholic stories from the world beyond the prison walls.’ You will only find that review on Google cache as Sinkovicz has replaced it with something less approving (with mischievous speculation from his commenters as to why), but he’s right. One would have to be very literal-minded not to see the libretto being staged, with the exceptions that Siskov doesn’t seem to recognise Luka as Filka, and if Gorjančikov taught Aljeja how to read (you do see him with a book) then I missed it. What Konwitschny adds is a commentary on how he sees the consequences of confinement: the sterile white walls and stage action suggest No Exit and there are elements of Schopenhauer and the Stanford prison experiment too, in that the prisoners are willing captives to their self-interest and baser instincts, and not necessarily for having had their humanity stripped away. Where this isn’t communicated so convincingly in the Personenregie was quite noticeably a matter of Konwitschny ending and his Süssmayr taking over. I doubt that this production will fare well in the Wiener Staatsoper’s revolving door, though that says more about the state of the Repertoirebetrieb in this house than Konwitschny.

Musically things were mixed. Christopher Maltman gave the one standout performance, seeming at home in Janáček’s idiom and projecting clearly with some interesting colourings. Phrasing was good and text brought to life vividly. Herbert Lippert had that going on too, but his voice is too light for the role and he sounded strained in the upper reaches. Misha Didyk was vocally better equipped for Luka, but had similar problems and struggled to make himself heard at times (I should add that the orchestra was very loud). I won’t be forgetting his drug-crazed turn in a hurry though. Sorin Coliban’s deep-voiced Gorjančikov was fine if not particularly memorable; he also wore a hangdog expression throughout that seemed rather inert for a Konwitschny production, but again, extenuating circumstances.

Welser-Möst began worryingly. Maybe he was trying to prepare us for the production, but the pulsing rhythm at the start was so stabbing it was difficult to recognise the harmony. Tempi remained unnecessarily driven for a while and the concertmaster didn’t stand a chance with his solo, which was glaringly out of tune. Ensemble was heavy in the bass and thin at the top (particularly violins). But things improved. About halfway through I started to hear some of the lushness/rawness volatility that Mackerras got from the Phil in his 1991 recording of this work, and some accuracy issues aside Welser-Möst brought pit and singers together for a starkly powerful close.

Looking at the press I see that Rupert Christiansen was there. Not a critic I particularly miss, and all his review does is make me think that we could do worse here than Sinkovicz. I’m not sure what to make of the syntax in his opening sentence, but if he is suggesting that Viennese audiences are nostalgic for Mahler’s conservatism then a remedial de La Grange and Carnegy crash course is probably in order. Apparently ‘incoming administrator’ Dominique Meyer is ‘fresh air’. The strings had ‘perfect intonation’ – yes, really. And a critic from the Telegraph spoofs the ‘leftism’ of the production, so no surprises there, though for the pot to call the kettle ‘stale’ is a bit rich.

Herbert Lippert

Image credit: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn.

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