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By Glenn Loney, July 25, 2002

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] Munich's New Look for Old Operas
[02] Forging a Handle on Handel
[03] An Arden "Ariodante"
[04] "Giulio Cesare"
[05] Mozart's "Tito" on TV
[06] Domingo Sings Russki in "Pique Dame"
[07] Charming "Cunning Little Vixen"
[08] Raking Over "Rakes's Progress"
[09] Baroque Opera Parody: "Theater nach der Mode"
[10] Condensed "Bohème"
[11] News from the Gärtnerplatz
Classroom Antics & Angst in "Klasse Klasse"

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Munich's Annual Opera Festival
Gives New Look To Music-Theatre Classics

Unlike most North American opera-lovers—who do not have so many productions to choose from—many European connoisseurs live in cities with more than one major opera-house. And in relatively easy reach by super-fast trains of other cities with famous opera-houses.

For instance, if German critics and opera-fans find they are becoming jaded with Traviatas and Bohèmes which visually reproduce the 19th century Paris in which these timeless tales are set, they can always hop on the ICE in Munich and see a quite different vision in, say, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, Dresden, Leipzig, Hannover, Nuremberg, or even Paris!

So it's small wonder that continental directors and designers are always competing to find new ways to visualize the great War Horses of the Opera Canon. But even Wagner's RING set on a space-ship now seems a banal concept.

WHAT'S THIS DEAD TREE DOING IN MY THEATRE?--New Munich RING production is set in a replica of Wagner's Bayreuth Festspielhaus auditorium. Photo: ©Wilfried Hösl/2002.

Actually, when Erich Wonder designed this Futurist vision for the Bavarian State Opera, it was quite shocker. But Munich's new RING—not yet completed—is even more astonishing, for it draws on the Bayreuth Experience, with hints of Historicism.

As conceived by the late director/designer Herbert Wernicke—who died suddenly in February—it takes place on the stage of Wagner's Bayreuth Festspielhaus. With the famous neo-classic pillars and the entire auditorium recreated behind that forestage. Complete with the tiers of seats.

The effect is strikingly handsome and certainly symbolic.

But some of the visual effects are "inside jokes" that only Wagnerites and Bavarians are apt to understand. For instance, Valhalla is a pristine Greek Parthenon, rising on a stick out of the rows of seating.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria actually had the Parthenon copied on a hill outside Regensburg. He called it Valhalla and filled it with busts of German Heroes. Including a large seated statue of himself.

This production—to be completed by director David Alden, with some input from Wernicke's notes—is just one example of the innovative opera stagings which are the rule in Munich's National-Theater.

Looking at old operas in new ways has been a Munich specialty for several decades. But it received new impetus when Staatsintendant Sir Peter Jonas brought his experience of modernizing operas from ENO—the English National Opera—to Munich.

Thus, the annual Munich Festival has become an opera-magnet, drawing experts and laymen alike to savor the musical excellences and the often astonishing visualizations of old works and new.

Wagnerites who would like to see Munich's new RING completed should order tickets now. Two cycles will be offered in May 2003.

Unfortunately, the four operas in each cycle are not played en suite, as at Bayreuth. Rather they are spread out over four weeks. So plan to spend May in Munich this coming year!

Zubin Mehta—General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera—is conducting. Among the stellar cast are John Tomlinson, Francisco Araiza, Peter Seiffert, Waltraud Meier, Gabriele Schnaut, Helmut Pampuch, Kurt Rydl, Marjana Lipovsek, and Matti Salminen.

Forging a New Handle for Handling
Georg Friedrich Händel's Baroque Operas

When actress Uta Hagen's father, Prof. Oskar Hagen, launched the revival of Handelian operas in fully-staged performances in the 1920s, he delighted in the recreation of the fantastic baroque costumes and 18th century court-theatre sliding scenery. He was, after all, a Professor of Art History—and his wife was a soprano…

So, after many decades of neglect, Handel's operas began to win new audiences. But usually in stylized stagings which attempted to create an 18th century baroque ambiance.

Indeed, when the Bavarian State Opera revived Handel's comic Xerxes over thirty years ago, it was set and costumed á la baroque and actually performed in a real 18th century playhouse, the Cuvilliés-Theater in the Munich Residenz Palace.

When the New York City Opera—under Maestro Julius Rudel—decided to try its luck with Handel, it called on designer Ming Cho Lee to give it an abstract modern framework. Ming—who came to be called "The Pipe Man," for his use of scaffolding as basic scenery components—was widely praised for his vision of Handel's Giulio Cesare.

That Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle—NYCO's reigning royalty—won tremendous acclaim in performance only added luster to the project.

But there's always a Beyond beyond the Beyond. So City Opera—in its Glimmerglass-tryout guise—has been exploring new visual paths with Handel.

But NYCO has a way to go before it eclipses the Bavarian State Opera's Handel excursions. This past summer two of its recent Handel stagings were brought back to immense audience satisfaction. Even though they had been thought either outrageous or peculiar when first shown…

WOMEN'S ABUSE-ISSUES--Soldiers torment Handel's heroine in Bavarian Opera's Ariodante. Photo: ©Wilfried Hösl/2002.

An Ardent Ariodante
In a Picture-Box Stage

In line with our current policy of Conservation of Resources, I am recycling the review I wrote of Munich's Ariodante revival. It looks and works the same as it did when first I saw and heard it.

What's more, Ivor Bolton was conducting once again, and the original cast was even better, more secure in their roles than before:

"The Bavarian State Opera has already had immense success with two of Handel's baroque operas: Giulio Cesare and Xerxes. Without the connivance of brilliant stage-designers, however, the visions of their directors wouldn't have worked.

"For Ariodante, designer Ian MacNeil has devised an all-purpose baroque chamber with a raised proscenium-stage in its back wall. None of the architectural detailing is complete, however. It looks either unfinished or disintegrating. The latter better suits the disastrous events which occur within it.

"Overhead is an elaborately painted mythological vaulting. This is very much in keeping with the feeling of a court-theatre or a noble chamber. The vault descends for the second act, and the villain, Polinesso, does some of his dirty-work on top of the rough plaster dome.

"This has the effect of letting the audience look behind the scenes—behind the glittering baroque interiors—at nasty realities. Even on the stage-within-the-stage, elegant pretension is stripped bare.

"In a delicate court-ballet, with towering powdered wigs and exquisite costumes—also by MacNeil—one lady has her wig knocked off to reveal her as a transvestite. She is then shoved about and thrown out of the stage-frame onto the floor below.

"The contrast between elegant appearances and sordid facts is frequently emphasized visually. But, in this opera, "facts" are also not what they seem.

"Although the libretto is based on an Italian work, Ginevra, principessa di Scozia, its dramatic origin is in Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing. Just as Shakespeare's poor heroine, Hero, is wrongly denounced at the altar as a whore by her intended groom, so also is Ginevra falsely accused.

"In both works, the villain has his girl-friend dress in her mistress's clothing and then make love to him. In Ariodante, the villainous Duke Polinesso [Christopher Robson] entices Ginevra's lady-in-waiting, Dalinda, to don her mistress's attire and make love to him. She is hopelessly smitten, so she agrees, not thinking of possible consequences—such as being seen and overheard.

"Polinesso wants to force Ginevra to marry him. He lusts not only for her, but also for her father's Scottish crown. Naturally, she has refused him, so he destroys her honor with his plot.

"Her intended, Ariodante [Ann Murray], is so distraught at Ginevra's supposed sexual lapse that he jumps into the sea.

"Having no further use for the pathetic Dalinda, Polinesso shoves her into the sea as well.

"Both Ariodante and Dalinda survive, emerging from rolling baroque theatre-waves. These are a series of spiraling cylinders, cranked from the side, like those still in use in the 18th century Drottningholm Court Theatre near Stockholm.

"In the meantime, the King of Scotland [Umberto Chiummo] has renounced his own daughter. Her shame seems about to break his heart.

"Polinesso has Ginevra [Joan Rodgers] arrested, and she [both singer and character] is subjected to brutal maltreatment by lance-wielding soldiers. Dressed in rags and tied to a lance set across her shoulders, she is like a crucifixion victim.

"She protests her innocence to no avail. If no champion appears to defend her soiled honor, she will be put to death. Ariodante's outraged brother, Lurcanio [Paul Nilon] has already challenged any knight who will dare to stand for the poor princess.

"This resembles Elsa's need of a champion to defend her in Lohengrin, but that opera is much later than Handel's, of course. Ginevra doesn't get a Lohengrin. Her declared champion is the detested Polinesso.

"Fortunately, Ariodante appears in the nick of time to be her real champion, and Polinesso is fatally defeated. But not before he confesses his villainy, confirmed by the wet and bedraggled Dalinda.

"The nobles wear metal breast-plates with period costumes, and the combatants don full armor, so most of the cast gets a thorough physical work-out.

"Even though Alden and MacNeil have set their Ariodante in a fantasy baroque world—with a mysterious range of mountains inside the court-theatre—the action is roughly realistic, rather than daintily stylized.

"Despite the artificial conventions of the plot and music, as well as of the ambiance, the sharpness of the denunciations and the strong physicality make the drama potent rather than static and formulaic. This is no mean achievement.

"Polinesso is not only a nasty man, but his counter-tenor range is unpleasant to hear. This is not just an aspect of a bad character, though occasional raggedness could be taken as an excess of violent emotion.

"Ivor Bolton—who has made a specialty of conducting period music on authentic instruments—helped the singers through very demanding vocal and physical challenges. His spirited conducting in the pit mirrored the vitality on the stage."

When I saw this production initially, I thought Ann Murray was having some difficulties with the vocal line. But this time, she was magisterial, radiant, triumphant!

David Alden is an American-born director who works a great deal in Britain and Europe. He brings a distinctively witty and modern revisionist sensibility to period operas. His brother Christopher Alden is also making a mark as an innovative director on this side of the Atlantic.

SHARKS IN EGYPT?--Soprano Ann Murray ignores stuffed shark as she impersonates Julius Caesar in Handelian opera of the same name. Photo: ©Wilfried Hösl/2002.

Giulio Cesare in Egitto:
Beyond Time & Space—

This past summer in Munich, Ann Murray was better than I have ever seen or heard her on stage. Her voice seems more secure and mature than ever before. And she plays heroic male characters most effectively!

Seeing the Bavarian State Opera's Giulio Cesare again, I was once more tremendously impressed with the ability of Ann Murray to sing Caesar's difficult arias with such ease and emotion. What's more, she's able to soldier-swagger about in an Eisenhower jacket and a kilt in camouflage-colors.

She/He is, after all, the Conqueror of Egypt. And Caesar has to put down the murderous intrigues of Cleopatra's doltish brother, Tolomeo [hilariously played and sung by Christopher Robson], who believes he should be King of Egypt.

Then there's the fury of the widowed Cornelia [Patricia Bardon] whose husband Pompey has just had his head cut off. Even though Pompey living was Caesar's foe, Julius is furious at this beheading, done without his order or permission. Cornelia insists that Pompey's son, Sexto [Katarina Karnéus], avenge his death.

The sensuous Cleopatra [Susan Gritton] also has an important political agenda. Caesar is near the top of it, with becoming Queen of Egypt at the summit.

Director Richard Jones—ably abetted by set & costume designer Nigel Lowery—has found an even more theatrical and fascinating way to stage Handel in the Munich Giulio Cesare.

Built on a firm foundation of brilliant singing and orchestral playing, it nonetheless requires that all the performers be able to execute the most demanding—even dangerous—physical activity with great aplomb. There is never a moment of quiet, visual or otherwise, in this frenetic production. No aria can be performed without the frantic and often hilarious interventions of an antic group of fez-headed servant/soldiers.

Crocodiles in Egypt, Yes—But Dinosaurs?

The central stage-prop in the first act is a huge Jurassic Park dinosaur. How he survived so long in Ptolemaic Egypt is an unexplained mystery.

He may well be a scenic metaphor for the archaic customs of pre-Christian, pre-Islamic Egypt. Where Pharaohs married their own sisters—as GB Shaw noted in his non-Handelian Caesar and Cleopatra.

This immense dino's silent slow-motion fall into a great pit—leaving just one monumental leg standing—is very impressive.

Dinosaurs represent a very distant time. A time before Time, perhaps…

Sharks are more contemporary—and they are an operative metaphor for the power-struggles at issue in Handel's libretto. In another scene—not sharing the stage with the dino—there were three giant sharks strewn about the stage.

Then there was the Venus Fly-Trap that devoured Caesar. And the guided-missile which descended into the pit with a great explosion.

And the giant insects. The series of stages-within-stages. The sofa-on-wheels for love-scenes. The giant fake-proscenium, framing all of the action, featuring a virtually nude man and woman as its supporters.

The running sight-gag of two squads of soldiers—one Roman, one in fezzes—Acting Out provided hilarious background to some of the libretto's more sententious & serious moments. One of these mimed/danced confrontations appeared to be Cowboys vs Indians. Certainly a long way off from Alexandrian Egypt!

Never a dull moment. And all that glorious Handelian music!

Making Over Mozart:
La Clemenza di Tito
Reworked as Video-Art!

It's bad enough when bad videos are given entire black-box rooms at the Whitney and Dokumenta XI, being presented as cutting-edge artworks. But what are we to think of turning an entire opera stage—and a very big one at that—into a black-box for live videos of opera in performance on that very stage?

This was the deplorable inspiration of Wunderkind Regisseur Martin Duncan for the new Munich Clemenza di Tito. He was aided and abetted in this atrocity by the Wunderkind Artiste Ultz. [One name only.]

This was obviously not a money-saving production. Despite its look of a tacky Videographers Workshop at the Sundance Festival.

Because the giant black-box stage of the National-Theater had to have low-level illumination—so images on the huge video screen hanging up center-stage could be seen—intimate or large-scale scenes set on the long low platform below the screen were dim, unfocused, or upstaged by the monster video-images.

In any case, they went for nothing as Duncan and Ultz tended to confine them to the elongated platform.

One almost-off-stage video-effect had at least some technical know-how interest to it. A small model of the Coliseum was filmed in the wings by one camera and projected large as a background for some of the leering video faces of the cast.

Wow! So that's how they do it on Cable TV!

The Reality TV notion of having live cameramen and technicians on stage in the middle of the production—actually shooting what the audience is seeing on the Big Screen above their equipment—detracted from the visual and emotional power of most major arias, duets, and confrontations.

This had already been explored in a Munich production of Macbeth, with an intrusive TV crew apparently filming the dastardly deeds for the 11 o'clock news. It was a foolish, if trendy, distraction from the real drama on stage. And from the musical expression of that drama.

Can these production-people actually believe this Multi-Media-Mix makes old operas more Contemporary? More Relevant…

The worst thing about this Tito Videography was the cruel way it exposed most of the singers physically and as actors. A buxom soprano doesn't need to have her bulk—even if camouflaged in black—spread all over the screen.

And a singer with no real acting experience—and a goofy look on his face, as well—has all his performance faults magnified many times. Even when he is vocally secure in his arias.

If Emperor Titus' subjects had seen this video in the Coliseum, they'd have given him Thumbs Down and called out the lions…

Only the beautiful and majestic Vessalina Kasarova, as Sesto, was enhanced by the videography. The camera loves her, and the conjunction of a video close-up of her singing passionately with the actual scene below did gain tremendous visual and emotional power.

Maybe this is the reason there is no market for videos of opera productions?

Mozart composed this Nickelodeon-style video. Ivor Bolton conducted.

POST-MODERNIST RUSSKI HAPPY-HOUR--Munich's unusual staging of Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame/Queen of Spades. Photo: ©Wilfried Hösl/2002.

Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame
Performed at Its Peak:

Placido Domingo's Hermann
Trapped in a Post-Modernist
Regimented Russian Nightmare!

This amazing and colorful nightmare fantasy of Pique Dame has already been noted in this column last summer. And again this past winter, when I paired it with a Pique Dame staging from Siberia, a co-production with Opera-Studio Nuremberg.

Quite aside from the astonishing scenic and lighting visions on stage, the ability of an aging Placido Domingo to sing the role of Hermann in Russian strongly and confidently is amazing.

Even more impressive—considering both his fame and his age—he enters into the nightmarish action of this cutting-edge Post-Modernist production with all the energy and enthusiasm of a much younger singer—one with solid training in acting as well as singing. What Stanislavsky called "Building a Character."

One critic did suggest that Tchaikovsky's music didn't have to be overpowered. And that Domingo could learn something from Josephine Barstow's contrastingly powerful use of softness in singing the role of the Countess.

But what a supporting cast as well! Sergei Leiferkus, Vassily Gerello, Kevin Conners, Katarina Dalyman as Lisa, and Elena Zaremba as Polina. Jun Märkl conducted with energy and precision which helped keep the stage-actions on course.

Domingo did have one bad moment, but not a vocal one. As he reached into his coat-pocket for his pistol to threaten the Countess, he couldn't get it out. This could be an unintentional metaphor for his essential sexual impotence, though it's obviously not in the script or the staging.

Because this David Alden-directed production is so dazzling and bizarre, I am recycling some past descriptions for those who may have missed earlier notices:

Among the many modern novelties in this updated Pique Dame is Lisa's tragic death. Lisa doesn't drown herself in the Neva in Munich. The local river is the Isar, in any case! No, no! Not at all…

Alden has Lisa smash a glass show-window. With the shoddy suitcase she'd brought along for her elopement with the faithless Hermann.

In the window is a white wedding-dress, which Lisa might have worn if Hermann were not obsessed with the three cards: Three Seven, and Ace. She cuts her wrists with a shard of the broken window—which is much simpler to stage than a leap into the Neva.

In the event—as every opera-lover should know—instead of the Ace, the Queen of Spades confronts Hermann. All Is Lost! And he has caused the Countess' death, in his fierce determination to learn her secret of winning at cards.

Clocks are an important visual metaphor in Alden's staging. Time is running out for Hermann, obviously. A huge Soviet-style clock-face dominates what seems to be Happy Hour for Russian officers during the Cold War.

Paul Steinberg's colorful Memphis-inspired sets and Constance Hoffman's trendy costumes make this production look like Petersburg in Las Vegas. Showgirls and revue-dancers dazzle. Tchaikovsky would have been amazed.

But then, Petersburg is already in Las Vegas, with Treasures of the Hermitage Museum on display—in tandem with the Guggenheim Museum—at the Venetian!

SAVE OUR WILDERNESS!--Post-Modernist Minimalist Czech forest in Bavarian Opera's Cunning Little Vixen. Photo: ©Wilfried Hösl/2002.

Janaceck's Foxy Forest Fable
The Clever Little Vixen
Also Gets Post-Modernist Make-Over

Oddly enough, next summer the Bregenz Festival—as part of its on-going program of reviving forgotten or neglected operas—will stage a new production of Janacek's Das schlaue Füchslein.

But this delightful opera is anything but neglected or forgotten.

In fact, it has proven immensely popular in opera repertories all over Europe—and in the United Kingdom as well. Britain may be in the European Union, but until it adopts the Euro, it is still an off-shore island with its own distinctive Culture…

Munich's beautiful and popular vision of Leos Janacek's sweet/sad tale of a fox and a hunter takes place on a basically bare stage with an ambulatory semi-abstract forest. Village scenes are overshadowed by several towering collages of tall broad planks and step-ladders which move about the arena.

It is Post-Modernist Minimalism with a visual vengeance. But it works very well, for it concentrates attention on the performers and their interactions.

This is no Maurice Sendak cartoon-world. It is elemental, dark, strange, and haunting. Yet, it is not without charm, even cuteness—especially when all the little foxes are in action.

The ingenious genius designer Jürgen Rose—like Herbert Wernike and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, both alas lost to opera—has not only designed sets, costumes, and lighting. He has also directed with a sure touch for Janacek's evocation of the natural world of animals and insects, as they relate to small-minded villagers and the sad hunter with a great heart.

Stella Doufexis and Juliane Banse are wonderful as Goldback Fox and Vixen Cleverhead. Not only are they able to cavort, dance, and make mock of humans, but they also sing and act their roles with great skill. Considering all the athletics involved in their stage-movements, it's a wonder there's no vocal strain at all.

Michael Volle is admirable as the hunter/forester who cannot quite understand his fascination with the almost human vixen. But Helena Jungwirth, as his angry wife, makes it clear there's no place in her hen-coop for a little wild critter who is the natural enemy of chickens.

Maria von Trapp's hills may be alive with the sound of music, but in Janacek's Czech forest, the woods are all a-twitter with the calls and cries of a score of birds, insects, and animals. Conductor Jun Märkl makes the most of the woodland chorales.

The cast of animals and humans is so large that some of the Munich ensemble have to do double-duty. Kevin Conners is not only the Schoolmaster, but also a dachshund and a gnat!

WHOREHOUSE FROM HELL--Fun & Games in new Munich Rake's Progress. Photo: ©Wilfried Hösl/2002.

Making Over & Raking Over
Stravinsky's Rake's Progress

Auden & Kallmann's Bizarre Vision
Even More Fantastically Revised—
With a Whorehouse from Hell!

W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman's libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress was already over-the-top before the opera ever had a stage-production. So this has given directors and designers a free-hand to visualize the excesses Tom Rakewell brings upon himself. There is no official, received way to produce this fascinating work—although Auden certainly had his own ideas about it.

Inspired by William Hogarth's series of engravings showing the descent of a wealthy young man into decadence and ruin, the Auden/Kallmann libretto is centered, however, on a dangerous deal with the Devil. Stravinsky also used this idea in Story of a Soldier.

But Selling Your Soul for the idle baubles of this world is cautionary theme which goes back to the Ur-Faust and even further back into Christian Mythology. The Rake's librettists also borrowed ideas from Elizabethan drama, including Ben Jonson's The Alchemist.

Over the years, I've seen some dazzling visions of The Rake's Progress. But the most unusual and unsettling—and least visually relevant to the score and story—was Jörg Immendorfer's Salzburg Festival Rake some seasons ago. Although this bizarre artist is well-known in Mittel-Europa, his fame fortunately has not yet spread to the New World. Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kieffer, yes. But Immendorfer, no, no, no!

Immendorfer's favorite image is a monkey. Or lots of monkeys. So the Salzburg Rake featured a horde of extras in monkey-suits, pushing around a fake airplane made out of odd boards. For some reason, Jerry Hadley, as Tom—in tight Levis and a baseball-cap—was supposed to sit in the cockpit. That last item may have been intended as a visual pun?

This all took place in a box of a room whose wallpaper was densely covered with design-repeats of penises and testicles. At one point, this room flew up out of sight, to reveal an identical, but larger, box with the same decor.

Well, you get the idea. The lavish program was a visual Love-Letter to the designer-director-artist. Fortunately, the Festival's former Intendant, Gerard Mortier, did not bring this production back after its premiere season.

Amazingly, the Munich Rake Team have proved far more restrained. After the visual and directorial peculiarities of their appalling new Munich Clemenza di Tito, director Martin Duncan and his designer Ultz have, if anything, mounted their Rake with some restraint. But not much…

All the scenes are set in the same pristine yellow neo-classic chamber—with three upstage doorways. There are also upstage and downstage doors on either side. This closed room does not escape having some meaningless graffiti drawn on its walls at one point.

Aside from some metal step-ladders, furnishings are elegant, white, and minimal.

Most of the color and atmosphere is provided by the costumes. Of course the music certainly contributes to that as well, if not the artfully stylized acting. Costumes also help to reinforce a sense of who the characters are.

The costumes range from very restrained 18th century outfits in black—and later in white—for Ian Bostridge as Tom and William Shimell as Nick Shadow. And the range extends to the most proto-porn bras & panties ever seen on an opera stage.

Tom's adventures in the Erotic leave little to the audience's imagination. A certain perverse elegance is preserved by having the sexy whores and male attendants wear Louis XVI white wigs. And very little else…

The two men and two women who work in this House of Stylish Ill-Fame do a strip-tease for the watching chorus, who are dressed in contemporary casual attire. Then they go to work on a blindfolded Tom.

Baba the Turk—wonderfully camped by Christopher Robson—reveals her naked charms under a blue veil. Her body is entirely blue, and there is more than a foot of pubic hair hanging like a beard from her crotch.

But then, no one has accused Ultz of Good Taste. The jaded Munich audience must need some stimulation? This looks like a Central European fever-dream of sexual perversion.

There are also some giant grasshoppers crawling around at one propitious moment. They provide an interesting visual contrast to the metaphorically crawling Tom. But they look like fugitives from Jürgen Rose's production of Füchslein.

To evoke Rural England—and, possibly, Marie Antoinette's Versailles playing-at-farming—Ultz has a parade of 18th century shepherdesses and their sheep move slowly across the forestage. Anne Truelove [Dorothea Röschmann] herself is costumed as traditional shepherdess.

Later the sheep are piled up in the fireplace. Does this represent the burning of British livestock in the wake of the plague of Hoof & Mouth Disease? Or merely another instance of Tom's uncaring attitude about those around him?

Also invoking the Spirit of Merrie Olde England is a group of Morris Dancers. They do their thing around a stylized elongated poplar. One of them is Anne Trulove's dad.

In addition to the Morris Dancers, there is a dance-chorus of five ladies in leotards. These change in color from green to gold to orange to black. Do these transformations represent the Seasons? From Spring through Winter?

Equal Opportunity is evidenced in this chorus, as one of the ladies is seriously in need of Weightwatchers. Perhaps she represents Bountiful Harvest in Autumn?

For the forced auction of all Tom's Worldly Goods—including Baba herself—the chorus is arrayed on or in front of step-ladders. Packing boxes prove to be full of balloons, a visual metaphor for Tom's vanished riches?

This is an engaging, if at times maddening, production. And it is not only very well sung, but it is also very skillfully performed. Even members of the chorus execute stylized movements and gestures with precision and a sense of purpose.

What seems odd, however, is the artist and character at the center of this entire adventure. The excellences of Ian Bostridge as a singer and interpreter need no testimonies here.

But as an actor, he often seems strangely neutral, un-engaged in the character. The Munich production requires Ian/Tom to be on stage throughout, including the intermissions.

But at times, he is so unaffectless he could be a set-prop. It is true that Tom is a truly stupid, selfish, impetuous young man, but that doesn't mean he should be played almost as an onlooker in his own comedic-tragedy.

The impetuousness doesn't manifest itself in performance, only in the libretto. As for erotic adventures, Ian's Tom seemed strangely asexual.

But Bostridge did sing beautifully, though wanly.

As is his wont with such delightful scores, Ivor Bolton conducted with spirit, in full accord with the colorful antics of the production.

Back To The London Baroque
At Munich's Gärtnerplatz Theatre:

Theater Nach Der Mode:

Not Handel in the Strand—
But Sir John on the Square!

If you are a Big Handel Fan and also love 18th Century Baroque Theatres, you may well want to make a pilgrimage to Munich in the near future.

Not only has the Bavarian State Opera a number of amusing and innovative Handel Operas in repertory, but its sister-house, the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz, has premiered the most amazing and astonishing Handel pastiche imaginable.

This remarkable Opernpasticcio—and the immensely clever & complicated production it has been given—would be an outstanding premiere at the New York City Opera as well. Unfortunately, the New York State Theatre does not have the technical means to mount such a show.

The full 18th century-style title of this Fake-Handelian opera-buffa is: EIN THEATER NACH DER MODE, Oder Sir John Frederick Gardener's Theatre Company on the Square.

The Nach der Mode is the mainspring of the action, for Sir John, as Handel himself, is having to find new ways to attract the London Public. New operas and new productions must follow the fashions of the day.

Sir John is an Old-School classicist, but he has to fill the seats. This means bringing in a temperamental new soprano—with her drag-mother in tow—to replace his waning star.

Unfortunately, this fading soprano is married to Sir John's preening star tenor, Felix Nightingale. So getting rid of her won't be so easy.

Felix is wonderfully sung, played, mugged, and camped by Kobie van Rensburg. He also—working with Peer Boysen of Munich's Theater der Jugend—created the concept and fashioned the hilarious libretto.

That Van Rensburg is an outstanding tenor in the Gärtnerplatz ensemble—as well as a talented comedian—makes this much more than a personal showcase. It is, in fact, a wonderful opportunity for the entire company to demonstrate their varied talents in song, dance, and mime.

The Gärtnerplatz may be Munich's Tier-Two opera-house, but its singers are first-class. The leading singers are also younger and fresher than their counterparts at the State Opera's National-Theater.

Extracts from Handel's operas and oratorios are not the only 18th century musical sources plundered for this pastiche. Old favorites will be instantly recognized, however strange they may seem in a blood-and-thunder 18th century operatic melodrama.

In this context and time, it should be remembered that the young Mozart was still too modern for some. As a seasoned theatre-director, Sir John [Christoph Stephinger] also has the problem of a backstage full of prima-donnas, not all of them singers.

If he does not find the magical key to operatic innovation, his theatre and company—deeply in debt—will have to cease performances.

Among the temperaments he must placate are his former prima-donna, Margret Bradford-Kilkenny, detta La Bombace [Sandra Moon]. And Livia Livingstone, La Flauta [Simone Schneider]; her overbearing mother [Fred Silla-Silhanek], the wan, wispy Duchess of Billingsworth—a passionate fan of Felix [Rotraut Arnaud], and the bon vivant Timothy de Riche, patron of La Bombace [Gunter Sonneson].

The cross-casting device of a man playing a meddling mother recalls another Munich triumph some years ago: Viva, La Mama. Such a comic device is a tonal and visual evergreen!

Others involved in the drama are Parlina Nonsputami, the souffleuse; Neville Quickfinger, lutanist; Geoffrey Bowlegged-Smythe, cellist, and Ritornello Campanino, a bellboy.

One hopes that the distinguished English conductor, Sir John Elliott Gardener, will take the oblique reference to his name as a real compliment. He is, after all, celebrated for his genius with Baroque music and old instruments.

Even for those theatre-goers who complain that opera bores them, this production should keep them both in stitches and on the edges of their seats. The singing is excellent—even in parody—but the comic acting is also superb. These are not clowns mugging, but consummate actor/singers in character.

Add to that the fact that the pastiche is performed on a purpose-built baroque opera-stage and you have the elements of an unforgettable evening in the theatre.

All the two-dimensional diminishing perspective wings and drops of 18th century theatre are in action. Including four sets of scenic-wings in each of four positions on either side of the special stage—built on the Gärtnerplatz's own 20th century stage. When one set of baroque scenery is pushed out into view, another is retracted, as in the historic Drottningholm Court Theatre outside Stockholm!

There are also the rolling rows of waves and the thunder-sheet, standard baroque stage-effects. ["You're stealing my thunder" comes from a theft of the thunder-sheet idea in long ago London, in fact.]

These novel pictorial and mechanical astonishments would be enough to dazzle, but this proscenium stage is actually on a revolve, so we get to see what is going on in the wings as well as on stage.

With a 180° rotation of the turntable, we are backstage in Sir John's crowded office!

To show a cast-party in the theatre-canteen, after a successful premiere, the stage-on-the-stage amazingly rises up on elevators to reveal the canteen immediately beneath it. The company enters through a trap-door in the baroque stage!

This could of course be duplicated in a major American theatre or opera-house. But not in a repertory season, as at the Gärtnerplatz. The New York State Theatre does not have the kind of machinery needed for this.

Only the Metropolitan Opera has the stage-machinery to achieve this effect, but the Met is unlikely to dare to program such a jolly evening of operatic fun.

So a trip to Munich seems a very good idea. Even when Ein Theater nach der Mode is not on view.

For the record, Constantinos Carydis conducted from the pit as though he were right up there with Sir John. Peer Boysen staged his and Van Rensburg's libretto with rare comic skill.

Ulrike Schlemm devised the marvelous 18th century picture-box theatre-machine and some outrageously baroque opera costumes. Georg Boeshenz's lighting was invaluable for the stage-effects.

Uta Hagen's father, Prof. Oskar Hagen—my Art History professor at U of Wisconsin—loved baroque theatre costumes. He surely would have admired this delightful pastiche. After all, he it was who inspired the 20th century Handel Revival in a special theatre in Göttingen in the 1920s.

Also at the Gärtnerplatz:

LOVERS PART AT PARIS' HELL-GATE--Rodolfo and Mimi sing sad goodbyes in Munich La Bohème. Photo: Courtesy of Gärtnerplatz-Theater/2002.

La Bohème Rescued from Sentiment & Ornament
With Starkly Hyper-Realist Production & Performances

Designing a new opera production for more than one stage obviously requires some forethought. That this does not always occur may well have something to do with an Intendant's desire to make the best impression at the premiere.

Once the favorable reviews have been harvested for quotable quotes, shoe-horning a major production into a smaller proscenium and a smaller stage-space may pose no aesthetic problems. Especially if opera-goers did not see the original in its first-flower. They won't know what they missed…

If directors and designers know beforehand that a production is to be moved, after its opening, to another theatre—or taken out on tour—it's always wisest to design for the smaller prosceniums and stages. It is very difficult to cut down—or crowd in—a large-scale staging. And smaller stages usually do not have the wing-space needed for big mountings.

Seeing the Gärtnerplatz La Bohème on its own historic stage proved the point. The vocal performances and characterizations, however, were excellent. Even if they were somewhat confined on the smaller stage.

To explain what I mean, here is an extract from my report on the premiere of this staging in a much more spacious Munich theatre:

"During a renovation of the stage of the Gärtnerplatz-Theater, the company had to perform on alternative stages. Moving to the much larger stage of the Prinzregenten-Theater, it was fortunate to have the expanse needed to give its new production of La Bohème impressive dimension.

"Considering that the four artist-comrades in Puccini's musical tear-jerker are freezing and starving in a tiny Parisian garret, stagings in major opera-houses often make the attic look gargantuan. Vast stages usually encourage designers to create chambers only slightly smaller than Grand Central Station.

"Benedikt Herforth has provided the quartet with a big space, but it's clearly a cold, empty, factory-loft. It's not a cramped garret expanded ten times.

"It's just the sort of space artists then and now—in Paris, London, or Astoria/Queens—would kill for. Upstage is a vast factory-window—great light for painting, but an enemy to heating in winter—with a glass door leading out to a catwalk over the roof. Just right for Mimi to pay a visit.

"At one point, you can even see the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

"The poverty of the artists shows to even greater advantage in this space, for it's obvious how few possessions they have. And how futile to burn a manuscript in the old stove: it can never heat this immense chamber, long since abandoned by some small-scale manufactory.

"The larger theatre also permits a larger orchestra, for which director Helmut Matiasek was also grateful.

"The snow-scene—with the early-morning opening of the Hell-Gate of Paris—is also impressive in dimension and suggestive realism, with the workers and peasants shuffling into the city. This provides a visual contrapuntal background to the lovers' quarrels.

"Few opera-houses can match the splendor—and supers—of the Met's Zeffirelli Bohème café scene. Matiasek and Herforth don't even try. Yet their small-scale evocation of the high times at Café Momus is colorful, comical, even exciting. Musetta's outrageous behavior has a much bigger impact than when it is engulfed in scores of supers."

Downsized for the Gärtnerplatz stage, Herforth's garret certainly seems cramped. But it has lost that contemporary sense of a vast cheap artists' loft, virtually unfurnished. Visually, the production has lost in this reduction, and it also affects the sense of performance and relations of the characters to each other.

Of course, it's still a heart-breaker, and the Gärtnerplatz ensemble makes it live again.

Scott MacAllister and Sandra Moon are the Rudolfo and Mimi. She is fragile, yet radiant in her love and crushed in abandonment.

MacAllister works very hard, but his physique, bearing, and emotive capacity do not make him the ideal image of her lover. He certainly sings the role with care, but there's no visual magic.

As Rudolfo's friends, Florian Prey, Torsten Frisch, and Holger Ohlmann were special in the original cast, but Bernhard Spingler, Thomas Gazheli, and Pawel Czekala also play the roles strongly.

Each has a distinctive personality—which makes itself manifest in voice and body-language. Too often, the costume does the acting, but not with this trio.

Ruth Ingeborg Ohlmann is a delightful, sensuous, vital Musetta. Stefan Lano conducted with close attention to the singer's needs.

Other Gärtnerplatz News:

Dr. Klaus Schultz, Staatsintendant of the theatre, has been chosen as a special advisor to Wolfgang Wagner, the octogenarian Artistic Director of the Bayreuth Festival. In the event of Wagner's sudden death, Dr. Schultz is to take over direction of the internationally famed Wagner Festival.

For the time being, this puts the contentious question of which Wagner Family member should actually succeed Wolfgang Wagner "on ice," as a local critic described this appointment, which was approved by the Bavarian Minister of Culture.

Perhaps as an earnest of his Good Wagner Intentions, Dr. Schultz has just unveiled a new production of Richard Wagner's early opera, Das Liebesverbot, at the Gärtnerplatz. This is never performed in Wagner's historic Bayreuth Festspielhaus, so some strategic changes in programming on the Green Hill may be looming.

This Autumn, Hello, Dolly! is a major feature in the repertory. Also on view will be Magic Flute, Così, Abduction from the Seraglio, Traviata, Night in Venice, Fledermaus, Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel, and a handsome Art Deco staging of Der Vetter aus Dingsda. Merce Cunningham and company will also perform briefly.

Only in January and February will Ein Theater nach der Mode return to the repertory. It will be joined by Kiss Me, Kate, Fiddler on the Roof, and My Fair Lady, as well as some opera war-horses.

CLASS SHOW-OFF--Teenage problems in school and out are explored in dance, mime, and song in Klasse Klasse. Photo: ©Volker Derlath/2002.

Klasse Klasse
At Munich's Innovative Theater der Jugend:

Post-Teens Dance-Mime School-Time
Antics & Frantics in Handsome Elemental Set—
A Show for New York's New Victory Theatre?

One of the most innovative and imaginative European theatres for children and teens is surely Munich's Theater der Jugend. And its vital and colorful productions are devised so that they can also appeal to parents and other adults.

Although their productions are always visually striking and energy-charged, they of course perform in German. This somewhat limits their touring-potential—unless supertitles are used.

But a current revue, Klasse Klasse, is so strong in dance, mime, and song that it transcends language barriers. And, because it is a series of short-takes on very real problems in the classroom today, most of its amusing and/or troubling segments are instantly recognizable.

You do not have to be a Munich high-school student to understand the problem of a girl who believes she's unattractive to boys. Or the agony of a student who hasn't read the assignment—or written the essay. Or the tough but insecure kid who wants to dominate the other boys.

The irritation of the rest of the class with the know-it-all show-off who wants to answer all the teacher's questions sparks an amusing sequence. The teacher who is at a loss to arouse class interest in math; the students smoking in their lockers; one-upmanship in the hallways: it's all here, live onstage.

Almost any teen, teacher, or parent from San Francisco, Chicago, New York, or Dallas will recognize the scenes, the problems, and the people. This could be a good show for Manhattan's New Victory Theatre. And maybe a tour beyond the Hudson?

But Klasse Klasse is not just a series of classroom crises and teenage Angst. These mini-dramas are linked by music, song, and dance. And they are mimed, rather than spoken.

What a pleasant surprise to hear Johnny Mercer's haunting Moon River play a role in this revue!

For that matter, young audiences and adults also hear some songs of ABBA, as well as music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Händel. Then there's also Yo Yo Ma on cello. And how about the cast singing Good Morning and When I kissed the teacher?

Even Lords of the Dance are quoted with some lively Irish Step-Dancing!

The neutral playing-space has a row of white lockers upstage, with four white parsons-tables and eight chairs mid-stage for the youthful dancer/actors. These get used and abused in various conformations, always supporting the individual scenes and adding striking compositional qualities of their own.

So this show could be performed almost anywhere. It's adaptable to any space.

Choreographer Ramses Sigl and Dagmar Schmidt developed Klasse Klasse in rehearsals with the 8-member cast. Each has obviously contributed something from his or her own memories of adolescent life in and out of school.

At Theater der Jugend, this show is designed for audiences 12 years and older. Younger kids might get some ideas from it that elementary teachers wouldn't want to deal with in the classroom.

As is customary at TdJ, the show's program—with cast, credits, and interesting program notes—unfolds to reveal a big poster of the other side. It shows four of the cast dancing on the tables, as the other four sit glumly in their chairs.

This past summer, in addition to Klasse Klasse, student audiences were also treated to My Father Che Guevara and The Transformation, evoking Franz Kafka and Gregor Samsa—who turned into a bedbug.

Also on view was Poe & Charms which linked the rather different horror tales of the American Edgar Allan Poe and the Russian Daniil Charms.

Post Scriptum: Shockheaded Peter—a fantastic British Toy-Theatre vision of an old German cautionary tale to scare naughty boys—was playing a guest-slot in Munich at the Kammerspiele, the city-subsidized theatre. This at the same time Klasse Klasse was packing in teen-age audiences at the Youth Theatre.

Could one suggest some connection? In that Shockheaded Peter was not so long ago a very big success on 42nd Street at the New Victory! Since that highly successful engagement, it has been touring far and wide.

In fact, when it appeared briefly on Broadway—as a show for kids and parents—it looked and sounded so good it could have moved to a commercial theatre and enjoyed a decent run. Especially considering how derivative and unimaginative most recent Broadway musicals have become.

Klasse Klasse is not quite in the same class as Shockheaded Peter in terms of production-values and theatrical-finish. But it would be both interesting and entertaining for New York kids to see how German teens look at emotional, educational, and practical problems in the classroom.

As you might expect, things are more regimented—at least in Munich classrooms—but teens are teens in both Europe and North America. Unlike some desperately disorganized Third World nations in Africa and Asia, where even pre-teens are recruited as soldier-killers. You do not want to see how they could respond to getting a failing grade from a teacher… [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2002. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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