Handel, Serse. Komische Oper Berlin, 6/15/2012. German translation by Eberhard Schmidt adapted by Stefan Herheim. New production directed by Stefan Herheim, sets by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Vollm, lights by Franck Even. Conducted by Konrad Junghaenel with Stella Doufexis (Serse/Xerxes), Karolina Gumos (Arsamenes), Brigitte Geller (Romilda), Julia Giebel (Atalanta), Dimitry Ivanshchenko (Ariodates), Hagen Matzeit (Elviro).
See more photos at the end of this post.
Maybe Stefan Herheim is the opposite of Robert Lepage. Lepage limits himself to literal representation; Herheim dissolves the work as we know it into a sea of symbolism, references and shifting time frames and perspectives. While this dreaminess comes naturally to Parsifal and Rusalka, Herheim obviously recognizes that Handelian opera rests on the firmer ground of dramatic formula. The fantasies of our collective unconscious are replaced by the more readily explained magic of stage illusion.
This is yet another metatheatrical, theater-in-a-theater production, a device that has been done to death over the past few years. The setting is an eighteenth-century theater populated by a troupe of opera singers very like those of Handel’s premiere. As in David McVicar’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the miniature theater onstage rotates to reveal itself in profile and the backstage action in the rear. Some of the opera’s action takes place onstage and some off. The stage features the expected period-appropriate flat scenery of trees and columns, stormy painted waves, drops, and a beautiful perspective view of a London street. The libretto never puts us in London, of course, but here the boundaries between life and art are porous.
Herheim wisely does not attempt to establish two separate sets of characters, and the drama flits on and offstage freely. Serse is a divo, Romilda the diva, Atalanta her jealous rival attempting to usurp her position, and so on. (Romilda and Atalanta appear as doubles and for a shorter period Arsamene and Serse, which is quite confusing. The point is that in the plot’s love triangles they want to take each others’ places.) That the singers’ onstage personae are the same as their offstage ones is the entire point: the hoary mechanics and outsized passions of the plot find their analogue in the machinery and colorful personalities of the world of the theater. The opera is determined by the social environment that produced it. (This is what Herheim meant by describing the opera as a Muppet show--everyone has their particular role to fulfill onstage and off.)
It’s a great point. What annoys me about these lampshade-hanging stagings (most egregiously Mary Zimmerman’s Met Sonnambula ) is their pointed winking that indicates the drama is so ridiculous it can only be portrayed as something self-consciously fake, that the revelation of the illusion is an apology for its implausibility. Herheim instead shows why we love opera: it’s our life, only with fancy costumes and music. Dressing up is awesome (also sometimes tacky, ridiculous, and immobilizing, but don't we love the shiny crap anyway), but the emotional situations are real, and our own.
Handel never tries to create a “Persian” (the opera’s nominal setting) tone, and for all his exploitation of ornate eighteenth-century gesture and image (also switching between German and Italian--Italian taking place only "onstage" in the loftiest of the music) Herheim is also decidedly twenty-first-century. Just as the characters never leave their eighteenth-century selves, the singers never leave their present-day ones either, as Herheim somewhat heavy-handedly reveals at the production’s conclusion by revealing the chorus in contemporary dress.
There are some spectacular aria stagings that are both inventive and revealing of eighteenth-century culture: I particularly liked the succession of weaponry brought by Atalanta to Serse as he proclaims his hatred of Romilda (a knife, a gun, a poisonous snake, a teeny tiny cannon that hilariously breaks the backdrop, and finally a crossbow that even more hilariously downs a small plaster cherub from the rafters). In one of the big "I want it" arias, Serse’s name gets spelled out in lights and then reversed into, yes, the German is Xerxes so figure out what that is backwards for yourself. Only at one point does the production hint at a darker side, when Atalanta’s adoring fans begin to get a bit too close for comfort. It’s not quite historical—the more spectacular visuals are far more Versailles than London—but I think the homework has been done. Amastre may be the least convincing cross-dresser ever, but even if Herheim doesn’t actually have any castrati the gender bending of this era is never far from his mind (Elviro’s flower-seller getup is apparently a My Fair Lady tribute). The fourth wall is broken and the orchestra gets to join in on the action. Sometimes the singers address the audience with a disarmingly self-conscious directness. Winton Dean would entreat us to remember that Serse is a sophisticated comedy and not a low farce, but I laughed at Serse humping his favorite tree and Dean can stuff it, opera has far too much good taste going around as it is. (If you whine that present-day opera is as a rule not classy enough, I suggest you take up collecting stamps.)
But switching between offstage and on requires some compromises. The drama feels episodic from one big set piece aria to the next, the stakes are never high and the dramatic arc is, well, lacking. The main plot line is shifted into the background, so how valuable is that which displaces it? Herheim has something to say about baroque opera, but he doesn’t have much particular to Serse, and this staging with small alterations could be applied to basically any moderately comic eighteenth-century opera. I know that’s kind of the point but I have to wonder if it’s one that lasts for three and a quarter hours of performance. (Herheim not dense enough? I cannot believe I am typing this. Really, this was very uncharacteristic work.)
If Herheim is always asking us to take another step back and question our perspectives and motivations, that’s what I’m going to do with his production. I like his message, but the performance of eighteenth-century formulas in quotation marks has become a cliché in itself. As Herheim insists, these conventions might work again and again, but I’m not sure if their modern unmasking via self-conscious imitation maintains the same novelty value when repeated ad infinitum. If you have any familiarity with the playbook of, say, the early work of Peter Sellars, Nicholas Hytner’s Serse, David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare (and Adriana, I suppose, whose setting is baroque) and even the dread Enchanted Island, you’ve seen a lot of this before. The rhythmic shaking on the coloratura, the chorus of sea creatures, the cutout ships, the self-conscious gesture, none of this is new. For all Herheim’s spirit and joy—for execution I would rank this production at the very highest level, it's only that Herheim sets very high standards with regard to Konzept— and always exceptional musicality, I have to say I would prefer Herheim to go nuts and expected something a little more fresh. Can we stop the theater in theater thing now, please?
As usual with Herheim, the cast is dynamic and fully present at every moment. Stella Doufexis’s Serse is hilarious, toothily and awkwardly grinning at every opportunity and, for all the bluster not in command of anything impressive. Her clarinet-toned mezzo sounded a little windy in “Ombra mai fu” (way to open with the opera’s greatest hit), but warmed up to sound clear and precise on each note, though she was drowned out a few times during “Crude furie.” Karolina Gumos as Arsamenes commanded a warmer, rounder sound, probably my favorite of the cast, and her “Si, la voglio” (sorry, not sure what the German incipit was) showed excellent coloratura. Brigitte Geller was sweet and lyric as Romilda though a little brittle at the top of her range. Julia Giebel was the first Atalanta I didn’t find insufferably annoying, which is something, and sounded good too. Katarina Bradic as Amastre couldn’t really boom at the bottom of her range, but she has a lovely mahogany tone and musicality. Hagen Matzeit as Elviro was announced as ill, which is why I suppose we were deprived of his Bacchus aria, a pity, otherwise Sprechstimme was fine for this comic role. Dimitry Ivashchenko was an exemplary Ariodates.
The orchestra was modern but the continuo period and conductor Konrad Junghaenel had clearly coaxed some period practice into the modern players. The playing was crisp and precise but light and didn’t use too much vibrato. Ensemble was excellent both within the orchestra and through the playful interchange between orchestra and players, and the continuo included a theorbo and a baroque harp. Eberhard Schmidt’s German translation had been given an “Einrichtung” by Herheim and was so clear and straightforward that even I could understand almost all of it, though sometimes it put a few too many syllables in where the Italian had required far fewer.
It’s a totally fun evening out, but maybe not quite what you expect from Herheim, perhaps bearing a hint of baroque dilettantism (it is, in fact, his
first second? baroque opera). But if more baroque productions, and more of
these metathetrical things, had this kind of loving spirit, I’d be happy. (I
might be even happier if there weren’t so many metatheatrical things, though?)
Photos copyright Komische Oper.