Thursday, 17 May 2012

Herheim’s Serse brings down the house

Komische Oper, 13/05/2012 (production premiere)

Xerxes | Stella Doufexis
Arsamenes | Karolina Gumos
Amastre | Katarina Bradic
Romilda | Brigitte Geller
Atalanta | Julia Giebel
Ariodate | Dimitry Ivashchenko
Elviro | Hagen Matzeit

Stefan Herheim | Director
Konrad Junghänel | Conductor

If a tree is just a tree and no sheep humps it, then are we still in a Stefan Herheim staging? This director’s brand of Wunderregie is typically so dizzying to follow that this Serse seemed unusually free of complication.

Zerbinetta joked the other week about Herheim building an 18th-century theatre on the stage of the Met, and strangely enough something not too dissimilar happened here. Behind the fake proscenium arch everything is on a revolving stage, so at various points we see the ‘stage’ proper, the wings, and the backdoor (Amastre’s courtyard, most of the time). With his metatheatrical spatiality in place, Herheim gives us illusion, in the form of a bawdy and riotous Restoration spectacular, set against a constructed 18th-century theatrical reality done as backstage intrigue (Amastre’s disguising becomes an offstage prima donna fit).* For this director such a play of appearances, coupled to an uncharacteristically tidy and linear narrative, might be considered innocuous, but there’s no shortage of heart and humour to proceedings.

Take the Restoration spectacle, which is as if opera seria never crossed the English Channel, though costumes straight out of Asterix are but a part of what gets processed through the PoMo filter. A theatrical tradition which went bust at the end of the 1690s and never really had much to do with Handelian opera serves a broader point about stagecraft which has had its time: this machine play is so worn-out that it has ceased to function (costumes hamper mobility and the set falls apart twice). The folly of obvious modern parallels is never far from one’s mind here, particularly when things actually go right and the horrendous naffness of it all is reveled in (above right). 

But regardless of whether one is cringing or giggling, this production is a laugh-a-minute hoot from start to finish. I don’t want to describe too much of the humour here for fear of making it sound sophomoric, or even worse, something only the Germans would laugh at, but reasons it’s more entertaining, not to mention more effective, than your typical 18th-century Antickes would be Herheim’s theatrical flair and a symmetry which matches what’s going on da capo-wise in the music but also advances the drama. Take the elaborate lead-in to Xerxes’ second aria, which involves preparing for the conquest of continental Europe Romilda by donning plumage and transitioning to a seedily-lit joint decked out with narcissistic neon lettering:

Actually Herheim lights up that sign at the beginning of the B section, saving his final trick for the da capo, which would be the reversal of the… see, I told you it would sound like German humour. What isn’t so crude is the point about authority derived from sovereignty and that which is immune to it, consent: Xerxes’ vocal fireworks have the power to, um, stimulate the erogenous zones of others (Bieito had a ton of this going on in his Entführung the other night), but for all the strutting his playa act is all show and no deeds. (Incidentally, for dramaturgical reasons Amastris, rather than Romilda, is the sexual object here, which says much). Later in the opera Herheim returns to this with the ‘you’re under my spell’ hands from his Onegin, which Xerxes can make do tricks like commanding the orchestra when to play and plunging the house into darkness, but are comically useless whenever he tries to sway Romilda.

More stuff like this can possibly be extrapolated from the rest of the farcical action (which Herheim calls a ‘baroque Muppet show’). Take the dancing sheep: I wasn’t looking closely enough at the time but think the idea here is probably Arsamene, Romilda and Xerxes (from left to right). But I’m not sure; it’s hardly the last word in intellectual depth, and Herheim often is that, even if his depths mostly occupy the stuffed Oberfläche (to paraphrase Hofmannsthal). The play on Xerxes’ weakness and Romilda’s strength gets another round in ‘Se bramante d’amar, when he puts her indestructibility through several firing lines, the last involving a cannonball which brings the set crashing down. At the end things get meta as the chorus walk on in modern dress to call time on the costume drama, much to the contrived upset of the 18th-century characters. And elsewhere gender-bending and dubious romantic attachments provide commentary on sexuality on the 18th-century stage: Elviro becomes a baritone/countertenor pantomime dame (and there is helium-voiced hilarity when a Hellespont mishap befalls his twig and berries), and the lovers are dressed as identical twins throughout. This last thing made an already convoluted plot even harder to follow, and Zerbinetta’s exegesis next month will, I imagine, offer more insight.

My lack of Serse homework beforehand meant focusing on keeping up with the production at the expense of some very good performances. All four ladies had their intonation and flexibility problems either with top notes or passagework, and sometimes both, but for sheer joie de vivre I’ve not heard a Handel cast like this for some time. My neighbour was complaining in the interval about how silvery mezzo Stella Doufexis didn’t sound androgynous enough for Xerxes, and I guess I noticed that, though I didn’t let it bother me as much; the Konzept is built around a female singer in any case. And though one doesn’t go to the Komische Oper for their orchestra, the playing was really superb and – balm to the ears – balance was weighted more towards modern instruments; only the continuo was period. (I would go to more Handel opera in Vienna if only Harnoncourt and like-minded conductors didn’t have a stranglehold on this repertoire at the TadW.) And who said that only HIP can be lively and exciting and bright of timbre anyway? Conductor Konrad Junghänel had all that going on without galloping breathlessly through the score or denying us tonal fullness or warmth.

*The apron between the Theater im Theater and raised pit is some kind of intersection between the two levels and naturally there’s much fourth wall breaking here, though sometimes I wondered how rigourously Herheim was pursuing this.

I should also mention that ‘Ombra mai fu’ and a couple of other arias are in Italian. And I am, by the way, blogging Berlin back to front with the exception of Tuesday’s Le Cheval de bronze, or rather Das bronzene Pferd, which I possibly won’t write about since my thoughts on this aren’t much different from Mark Berry’s.


  1. "...if only Harnoncourt and like-minded conductors..."
    It is not for the first time that I read such a dismissive aside on Originalklnag and period instruments in your reviews.
    But while you may not be fond of this approach it is a valid (and, in my opinion, convincing) position, and what you call a "stranglehold" is a definite virtue for others (for a lot of others).

  2. I'll do my best. I did note that the video mentioned Farinelli while the original Serse was Caffarelli. I will stop being pedantic and not have a problem with this except to say that I really hope that they didn't pick it up from Ombra mai fu's appearance in that Farinelli movie.

    I favor HIP myself but Harnoncourt has drawbacks.

  3. I’m not totally inflexible about HIP – I like the Concerto Köln and Akamus etc (possibly because they themselves are not inflexible as other ensembles one could mention?). When I wrote ‘Harnoncourt and like-minded’ I meant a very specific pool of the usual suspects and ‘drawbacks’ is putting it very mildly IMO. And you say I’m dismissive but what of HIP’s openness to alternatives? Astonishing to think that before Sunday this was the first non-HIP Handel opera I’d seen in almost ten years (ENO Semele). Mark Berry’s article ‘Romantic Modernism: Bach, Furtwängler, and Adorno’ has many interesting things to say about this topic, I find (

    Zerb: no stress, am interested to see what you make of it, is all! Do agree that Herheim is about devising one’s own answers but even in the most open work conclusions follow according to a predefined field of possible response, however wide that may be. Am reminded here of how Brecht could claim to stimulate free discussion and yet, in the very same sentence, talk of forcing the spectator to cast his vote (the Mahagonny/epic theatre essay). Am currently finding Peter K’s work more successful in this respect – his iconoclasm in Queen of Spades and House of the Dead less about directing the audience towards a specific point of reappraisal than leaving no assumption about the work intact and (heuristically) supporting a plurality of readings.

    1. I like writing about these kind of open-ended stagings (I agree that Konwitschny often fits very much into this category but not inevitably so--Traviata, pretty much no) because it forces you to process what you've seen. But then, what you write might not be too interesting, because you're documenting your own subjective experience. It sounds like this particular Herheim might not be a very good case in point, though. I love Baroque gadgetry so I'm excited.

      I was at the record store today and saw a Karajan Poppea with Sena Jurniac and Gerhard Stolze. If you'd like I can go back and buy it for you. I doubt it's the match of the one with Gwyneth Jones and Vickers, though. :)

    2. Jurinac Poppea sounds very interesting! See that I can get it here, but thanks for the offer.

      Should perhaps mention that I’m not for fetishizing one past over another. Modern instruments have their obvious advantages and re. tempi one recoils at hearing Mozart turned into a ‘freak show’ (the ever-pithy Dr Berry again), but in matters of style I have no interest in hearing (in live performance) what becomes, through nostalgic reproduction, merely a different kind of period performance. In this vein I have my problems with the sainted Sir Colin and a few others, and Thielemann’s recent Beethoven recordings with the Phil have done very little for me. The Vienna Philharmonic, let it not be forgotten, is the world’s ultimate period ensemble – style, of course, not always in lockstep with sound, though there are very few who can elicit the genuinely new from them. But on the rare occasions it happens, the new chapters they open up in interpretation can be extraordinary – I immediately think here of Boulez’s Mahler 3 and finale of his Mahler 6.

  4. Oh, and the memory of the Farinelli movie is something I will never have any hope of repressing thanks to a sadistic music teacher who took us, as a class of trebles in our prime, to a screening and made unhelpful comments like 'strawberry milkshake!' the entire way through.

  5. Well, my reply with regard to Harnoncourt in particular is quite similar to my general comment.
    One may not like his interpretations, but they are always the result of scrupulous research based on the original scores.
    This is an approach that convinces me and that obviously convinces many others, too, including active professional musicians.
    Of course, as with any other musician, the end result of his work may not be convincing in every single case, but it almost always is interesting and worth to be considered.

    1. Harnoncourt’s m.o. is to take some source he’s discovered – funny how that works – and use it as a stick not only to beat others but also, by extension, large sections of the musicological community for not doing their job properly. In my time in Vienna I’ve never seen him darken the door of the Austrian National Library’s Musiksammlung or other archives; Antiquariat truffle-sniffing is more his style. But this isn’t research, or at least all there is to research! And also accounts for the eccentricity of his theories.