Monday, September 30, 2013

Beethovenfest Bonn: Written on Skin

Oper Bonn
Premiere on September 29th, 2013

Miriam Clark - Agnès
Evez Abdulla - Protector
Terry Wey - Angel 1/The Boy
Susanne Blattert - Angel 2/Marie
Tamás Tarjányi - Angel 3/John

Hendrik Vestmann - conductor
Alexandra Szemerédy, Magdolna Parditka - direction and stage
Thomas Roscher - lighting
Beethoven Orchester Bonn

Since its world premiere in July 2012, George Benjamin's Written on Skin has taken the opera world by storm, thanks, not least, to Katie Mitchell's landmark staging -- visually arresting, exquisitely crafted and breathtakingly acted -- which has toured from Aix-en-Provence to Toulouse, Amsterdam, London, Vienna, Munich and Florence and will reach Paris in November.

So any new director who dares to take on this piece -- the original production has already been captured on CD and will be released on DVD next year -- is going to have their work cut out for them.

Unfortunately, Alexandra Szemerédy and  Magdolna Parditka who are staging the work's second-ever production in a cooperation between Bonn Opera and the city's Beethovenfest singularly fail to live up to this daunting task at just about every level.

It is clear from the beginning that everyone is out of their depth -- from the audibly under-rehearsed Beethoven Orchester Bonn and the clueless conducting of Hendrik Vestmann  to the director-duo themselves who have managed to come up with a "reading" so cringingly banal and simplistic that it had me squirming in my seat with embarrassment for the composer who had flown in earlier that day and was sitting in the row in front of me.

Only the singers offered any sort of respite. But valiant as even their efforts were, they, too, were no match for the cast whose voices Benjamin had in mind when he wrote the opera.

Miriam Clark's soprano may be slightly richer and creamier than Barbara Hannigan's, and she can also reach her final top C with ease.
However, in Szemerédy's and Parditka's reading, Agnès is no living, breathing woman, intelligent but illiterate and longing for love and fulfilment, but reduced to little more than a cipher.
It needs more than writhing seductively around on the floor to convincingly portray a woman's sexual and intellectual emancipation.

Terry Wey has a clear, angelic voice, but is also not in the same league as either Bejun Metha or Iestyn Davies who shared the role of the Boy in the original production.
Similarly, Evez Abdulla had a few convincing moments, but remains a distinctly small-time gangster of a Protector compared to the dangerous, smoldering Christopher Purves, "calm, powerful, addicted to purity and violence."

After seeing Written on Skin first on the webcast from Aix and then in three live performances at Vienna's Festwochen, (where Audun Iversen replaced Purves in the role of Protector) I was excited about the prospect of a different take on the work.
(A third production is slated next year in Detmold).

But that excitement quickly gave way to trepidation when I saw the photos of the Bonn production posted on the theatre's website, with a punkish stage aesthetic that harks back to what counted as "avant-garde" in the West back in the 80s and 90s and seemingly still appears to do so today in eastern Europe.

In the original production, Mitchell and her stage designer Vicki Mortimer came up with visuals as stark, austere and beautiful as Benjamin's miraculous score itself.

Szemerédy and  Parditka have simply trashed it, situating the action in some sort of post-nuclear holocaust world, where the Angels are alien-like creatures and the Protector and Agnès a pimp and his whore, whom he keeps on a  chain.

And the characters are all dressed in silly, unflattering wigs and costumes that make it impossible for the audience to like, identify with or care about them at all.

There are simulated sex scenes with S&M whips, chains and masks (ooh, edgy!).
There's a "critique" of capitalism and consumerism in the form of television screens that flash up stock prices while the Protector's suited employees push supermarket trolleys laden with groceries straight into the rubbish heap, watched by the starving, rag-wearing homeless crowds (ooh, biting!).

The undercurrents of sexual tension between the three protagonists that bubble just below the surface in Benjamin's score were powerful and palpable in Mitchells' staging, thanks to the astonishing acting of the roles' creators.

In Bonn, Terry Wey's Boy is so sexless in his red page-boy wig and ludicrous costumes that it's difficult to imagine anyone falling for him, let alone Miriam Clark's Agnès or Evez Abdulla's Protector.

Indeed, as Clark gets all voluptuous in the squalid room that counts as the Protector's "perfect" house, Wey sits primly reading a book (my guess would be something by Enid Blyton), way out of her reach.

The illuminated book itself, so central to Benjamin's story, plays only a cursory role in Szemerédy's and Parditka's staging.

When the Protector asks the Boy for an example of his artwork early on, the Boy merely produces loaves of bread from his rucksack which he then doles out to the starving poor.
And he certainly paints no illuminated pages as the story proceeds, with the only allusions the piles of second-hand books scattered at the front of the stage.

Indeed, while the original production's was rich and compelling in its multiple layers of meaning, here the use of symbolism was crass and heavy-handed.
A runway runs along the very top of the set and at different points during the action, we see various figures move along it, including the Boy riding a unicorn and a woman in childbirth in a hospital bed surrounded by medical personnel in operating theatre garb.

At the end, Agnès doesn't escape her murderer-husband by jumping out of the window, but he chains her to a ladder in the pose of a crucifix, while the spirit of Boy who ascends the ladder into Everlasting Light.

I really had high hopes for this new staging and I wish I could be more charitable.
But it's an unremittingly ugly, depressingly ill-prepared mess of a production that has none of the subtlety, the deep, probing intelligence or stagecraft of the original.

The only good thing to come out of it is that I'm looking forward all the more to revisiting Katie Mitchell's staging when it comes to the Opéra Comique in Paris in November.

Sorry, Oper Bonn. But this is a definite fail.

[All photos courtesy and copyright of Oper Bonn]

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Boycotting Castorf's Ring: The Follow-Up

Remember my 'Weird Wagnerian' who coughed up €25,000 not to go to see Frank Castorf's new Ring in Bayreuth this summer?

Or more accurately, a certain Erich Fischer who took out five adverts in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on August 10, 14, 15, 17 and 19 this year to proclaim to the world that "out of reverence and love for Richard Wagner, we will not be taking our seats in Ring II in Bayreuth"? 

You know, that droll little story that filled the Sommerloch for a while. (If your memory needs refreshing, you can read my original blog posting here. )

Well, just when I'd given up hearing from him, despite multiple enquiries, an e-mail plopped into my in-tray.
More than 5 weeks after I first contacted him. But hey, who's counting?

To be honest, even now he didn't respond to my questions personally and directly, but chose to answer them instead via a mock "self interview" that he'd similarly paid to have published in the FAZ on August 29.

In it, he claimed that while the media had initially "shown an interest, it led nowhere, for one reason or another."

(I'm sorry, Mr Fischer, but that's more than just a little disingenuous of you.
You had my contact details and I'd already pestered you several times. And your secretary promised me you'd contact me when you were ready.
So I can't help feeling you were avoiding a direct interview, either face to face or via telephone.)

Anyway, as I'd already surmised in my original article, it was indeed the very same Erich Fischer, a 75-year-old Munich-based former entrepreneur and founder of the philanthropic  Internationale Stiftung zur Förderung von Kultur und Zivilization.

According to a pamphlet downloadable from its website, the main achievements of this organisation is putting on afternoon concerts for senior citizens and financing music lessons for school children and prisoners in an attempt to re-socialise them. 
All laudable aims in themselves even if the organisation's name is rather pompous and self-aggrandising.

Fischer also confirmed that he'd spent €25,000 on his highly unusual advertising campaign, a sum most of us could put to infinitely better and more constructive use.

(Interestingly, he never reveals what he actually did with the tickets.)

Throughout the "interview", Fischer never broaches the crucial question as to how he hopes to judge a production that he has never actually seen. 
Nevertheless, his fear, he assures us, is that "Richard Wagner's oeuvre is in mortal danger, particularly in Bayreuth." 

What is more, he wants to save opera in Germany from the curse of Regietheater.
Now this is a hazily defined term, usually spat out venomously by the cultural Taliban of the opera world whose artistic notions are challenged and their hackles raised if the female leads don't wear a pretty frock and the male singers aren't hamming it up in tights and a ruff.
You know the ones: the self-appointed guardians of Wagner's Holy Grail who harp on endlessly about the composer's "true intentions" and insist that his stage directions be followed to the letter.
(They're usually the ones, too, who complain that 'modern' directors can't read music when I'd bet my bottom dollar that they can't either.)

Fischer is one such High Priest in this strange cult called Wagnerism.

"The issue is the authenticity of the work of art that is being reproduced," he tells us.

The directorial excesses of Regietheater "make a mockery of the artwork and the audience," Fischer complains. And they are almost only seen in Germany.
"If you go to the opera in France or Italy, you  can -- in contrast to here -- recognize which work is being performed."
He then goes on to say -- seemingly completely without irony -- that "even in the US, at the MET in New York, things are a lot more conventional."

And he confounds such hair-raising ignorance further by saying later: "Look at the Comédie Française in Paris or the Royal Shakespeare Company in London -- the stagings are antiquated there, too." 

This man has patently never been to any of these places and I'm not sure the theatres in Paris or London would take kindly to seeing their productions described as "museum-like" (or in his word museal).

Neither is the boycott of Castorf's Ring Fischer's first such campaign. He took out similar ads after seeing "with horror" Stefan Herheim's Parsifal in August 2008, which he said "adulterated and bastardized Wagner's Bühnenweihfestspiel beyond all recognition."

Fischer's biggest clou, however, comes in his proposed remedy to the plague of Regietheater productions in Bayreuth.

"Instead of surrendering Wagner's works, particularly in Bayreuth, to the mercy of ever new, ever more dubious 'interpretators'... the ideal solution" would be to re-stage Wieland Wagner's "timelessly relevant stagings from the 1950s and 1960s," Fischer says. 
"Their symbolism is completely coherent and even 'more correct' than what Richard Wagner did himself," Fischer says. 
In addition, it would save the festival many millions of euros each year, money that could be spent training new Wagner singers, he argues.

He makes no bones about it. Opera, for him, is clearly not a living, breathing art form, but a museum.
(And this man has set up a foundation the aim of which is to "promote culture and civilisation? The irony is clearly lost on him.)

To this end, Fischer is launching an initiative entitled "Save Richard Wagner's Bayreuth" and asks for the support of "everyone who has say in politics, in culture, in the media and in industry, as well as all Wagnerians." 

What Fischer fails to realise is that there is just such a festival already in existence, the Richard Wagner Festival in Wels, Austria.
And it nearly went bust this year due to lack of support.

Now I challenge anyone to say Wagnerians aren't a pretty mad bunch.