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]

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