Monday, 7 March 2016

Wozzeck (Gurlitt) - Stadttheater Bremerhaven - 5 March 2016

Wozzeck (Filippo Bettoschi) and Marie (Inga-Britt Andersson)

Wozzeck – Filippo Bettoschi
Marie – Inga-Britt Andersson
Captain – Leo Yeun-Ku Chu
Drum-major – Henryk Böhm
Andres – Tobias Haaks
Doctor/Jew – Thomas Burger
Margaret – Carolin Löffler
Girls – Luise Eckardt, Laura Pohl
Marie’s child – Andrej Albrecht
Old woman – Rietje Riediger-van Overbeeke
Voices of citizens – Kay Krause, Marc Vinzing

Opera Chorus & Statisterie of Bremerhaven Stadttheater
Bremerhaven Philharmonic Orchestra

Conductor – Marc Niemann
Director – Robert Lehmeier
Designer – Mathias Rümmler

Marie's child (Andrej Albrecht) and Marie; Drum-major (Henryk Bohm) behind

Musical history is littered with also-ran operas, works that became overshadowed by more successful or famous settings of the same stories or librettos, from Paisiello’s Barber of Seville and Leoncavallo’s La bohème to Busoni’s Turandot and Ghedini’s Billy Budd. But few instances are more intriguing than that of the German composer Manfred Gurlitt (1890-1972), who was trumped twice over, being beaten by Berg to his Wozzeck premiere by four months and living long enough to see his setting of Lenz’s Soldaten eclipsed by Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s magnum opus on the same subject 30 years after his own.

Gurlitt has his own intriguing life story, one that is still mired in confusion to this day. His emphasis on socially provocative subject matter put him at odds with the Nazis when they came to power in the 1930s, yet he seems to have found accommodation with the regime until the revelation of a Jewish grandmother forced him into exile in 1937. Unfortunately, he chose a soon-to-be German ally, Japan, in which to settle and it was only after the war that he regained his artistic freedom, playing a leading role as a conductor introducing Far Eastern audiences to many of the classics of western opera for the first time.

To backtrack to the early 1920s, Gurlitt apparently had no knowledge that Alban Berg was also working on a setting of Georg Buchner’s early 19th-century dramatic fragment, Woyzeck (as it was originally published – a misreading incorporated in the early 20th-century reprint used by both composers resulted in the spelling we know today). If Berg’s inspiration was his experience of soldiering in the First World War, Gurlitt had a more political agenda in mind and his setting of largely the same text (18 scenes of Buchner’s original, as opposed to Berg’s selection of 16) takes a more hardened social edge, matched to some extent in the music. Gurlitt is very much of the Neue Sachligkeit (New Objectivity) school of musical thought, alongside figures such as Hindemith, Krenek and Weill, and there’s a lack of sentimentality in his writing that makes Berg’s brand of atonal modernism seem almost Romantic by comparison. Intriguingly, Gurlitt also came up with the idea of using closed musical forms to characterise the different scenes, but his is a more brittle, contrapuntal style that soars to lyrical heights only intermittently and most affectingly in the final orchestral elegy that closes the one-act, 75-minute opera.

Gurlitt’s Wozzeck opened in 1926 in Bremen, where he was music director at the time, just a few months after Berg’s had been premiered in Berlin. Comparisons were inevitable and Berg’s won its place in the international repertoire while Gurlitt’s unjustly sank without trace until revived in Bremen in the 1980s, amid the reawakening of interest in the lost Austro-German music of the interwar years. It now crops up occasionally in the schedules of more enterprising German opera companies, lastly in a double bill I sadly missed of both Wozzeck operas in Darmstadt and now in Bremerhaven, where its run neatly coincides with a production of Berg’s opera in nearby Bremen (see my review at

Proof that rare repertoire can be made to live again without spending big bucks is clear from Bremerhaven’s new production, one that goes by the principle of less is more, or even of every expense spared. The stage is stripped back to its backstage walls; with no scenery, the only addition is a bank of trestle tables and benches on a revolve stage and an array of overhead fluorescent lights. Compared to the over-loaded visual impact of Bremen’s Berg I had seen the previous night, this proved to be a model of clear-sighted narrative and emphasis on the characters as real people. The ever-present chorus emphasised the everyman nature of Wozzeck and his fate – he is just one of many misfits in society, but his bullying by the Captain and Doctor (the latter loses his big scene with Wozzeck in Gurlitt’s version) turns him into a volatile outcast, from a society where anyone with a bit of glamour about them – the Drum-major – can turn the head of a neglected wife, Marie. 

Musically, the orchestra on this first night of the run initially gave the impression that it was still finding its way through the music, but then again a lot of the writing is exposed and often chamber-like in its textures, and once the musicians found their collective feet conductor Marc Niemann was able to exploit the music’s colour, dynamism and swift dramatic pacing to the full. An excellent cast was led by a compelling Wozzeck in Filippo Bettoschi (as with Berg, the role is cast as a baritone), who acted as much with his voice as with his body to portray the sense of degradation and murderous intent that overwhelms the character.

In repertoire at Stadttheater Bremerhaven until 27 April.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Elektra - Landestheater Detmold - 3 March 2016

Elektra – Sabine Hogrefe
Klytamnestra – Gritt Gnauck
Chrysothemis – Susanne Serfling
Orest – Michael Zehe
Aegisth – Markus Gruber
Oreste’s tutor – Insu Hwang
Die Vertraute – Anneke van den Velden-Niggemann
Die Schlepptragerin – Christine Friedek-Dwornik
Young Servant – Bonghan Kim
Old Servant – Kyung-Won Yu
Overseer – Brigitte Bauma
Maids – Sarah Alexandra Hudarew, Rita Gmeiner, Martina Borst, Annette Blazyczek, Katharina Ajyba

Detmold Landestheater Orchestra, Chorus & Statisterie

Conductor – Lutz Rademacher
Director/designer/costumes – Christian von Gotz

In travelling around German theatres regularly, one often finds the most unexpected treats in the most unlikely of places. Detmold, a former ducal town in the Lippe district of north-east Westphalia, has a grand but diminutive 600-seater theatre that one would expect not to extend much beyond being able to stage Mozart. Yet a few seasons ago it put on its own Ring cycle, and this season has mounted a production of Strauss’s Elektra that is the equal of anywhere. Admittedly, the theatre had to use the authorised version for reduced orchestra (but so did Welsh National Opera, the last time it staged it in the UK), but the pit, which extends back under the stage almost in Bayreuth manner, is more capacious than it would seem.

Musically, Detmold assembled a first-class cast, who seemed to be relishing the chance to portray these often larger-than-life characters in such an intimate theatre. It allowed Sabine Hogrefe’s Elektra to articulate every detail of her role, without it becoming the yell that it can in huge houses. She sounds more of a mezzo than a soprano (and bears a passing visual resemblance to Christa Ludwig, another mezzo who stretched upwards on occasion), with a resonant chest register and strongly projected middle; only occasional high notes let her down. But her dramatic assumption of the role was all-encompassing, even if her final, fatal collapse was unconvincingly abrupt. Gritt Gnauck’s Klytamnestra conversely had more the air of a soprano than the usual mezzo, though her shaping of the character’s wily, whining turns of phrase was expertly done and her physical embodiment – a crippled duchess in vivid red – was over-powering. Susanne Serfling, a guest from the ensemble in Darmstadt, where she has proved herself as an estimable Sieglinde and Salome, made Chrysothemis more than the usual wet side-kick to her more forceful sister, and sang the role with admirable control and carefully coloured tone. Michael Zehe was an imposing Orest, though a rapid beat in his voice detracted from his legato line. Markus Gruber was an appropriately oily Aegisth in his short cameo before he has his throat cut, and the rest of the cast suggested a well-tended company at the height of its powers. The orchestral playing – perhaps exhibiting just a little thinness in its string complement in the closing pages – was vibrant, colourful and powerful under the baton of Lutz Rademacher.

Christian von Gotz’s striking production relocates the action from Ancient Greece to a bourgeois country house at around the time the opera was written (c.1909). The upstairs-downstairs/Downton aspect of the social order is emphasised, with the brutal Overseer encouraging the bullying of the Fifth Maid, who sides with Elektra against the others and joins in their butchering at the end. The setting contrasts the idyllic garden with the gruesome violence behind the scenes – and it’s inevitable that the clean linen that the maids are putting out to dry at the start will be blood-splattered by the end. With such intense acting from all concerned, to match the musical qualities, this is truly an Elektra to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Der Diktator/Der Zar läßt sich photographieren - Anhaltische Theater Dessau - 28 February 2016

Photos: Claudia Heys

Der Diktator
The dictator – Ulf Paulsen
Charlotte, his wife – Stefanie Kunschke
The officer – Albrecht Kludszuweit
Maria, his wife – Iordanka Derilova
The dictator’s adjutant – Stephan Seefeld

Der Zar läßt sich photographieren 
A tsar from **** - Ulf Paulsen
Angele – Stefanie Kunschke
The assistant – David Ameln
The boy – Anne Weinkauf
The false Angele – Iordanka Derilova
The false assistant – Alexander Nikolić
The false boy – Kristina Baran
The ringleader – Albrecht Kludszuweit
The tsar’s companion – Andre Eckert
Forensic officers – Stephan Seefeld, Tizian Steffen
Men’s Chorus of the Anhalt Theatre Dessau
Anhaltische Philharmonie Dessau

Conductor – Daniel Carlberg
Director – Doris Sophia Heinrichsen
Set design – Nicole Bergmann
Costumes – Jessica Rohm

Both Ernst Krenek’s Der Diktator and Kurt Weill’s Der Zar läßt sich photographieren are one-act operas that were originally planned to be coupled with other works by the same composers. Both were also premiered with their original companions less than three months apart in 1928 (their composers were also born the same year, 1900) at a time when Zeitopers, short operas on contemporary themes, were at their height. And with plots similarly built around failed assassination attempts on a tyrant, they seem to have been destined to be paired up. At respectively only 25 and 45 minutes in length, though, they make for a short evening, especially as this new production represented the main theatrical event of the annual Kurt Weill Fest in the composer’s birthplace, Dessau. It was perhaps made to feel all the shorter for the admirable directorial links that were made between the two operas. Krenek’s self-penned story concerns a tragic turn of events when an officer’s wife attempts to take her revenge on a dictator for the blinding of her husband by the tyrant’s war-mongering; the dictator’s jealous wife intervenes when things get steamy between the other two and the officer’s wife is accidentally shot. In the more farcical Weill, a group of anarchists takes over a Parisian photographer’s, posing as its staff, in order to assassinate the tsar using a gun hidden in the camera.

For all its brevity, Krenek’s miniature finds room for an overture, interludes and character establishment, as well as a beginning, a middle and an end. Written as he was waiting for what would prove his greatest success, Jonny spielt auf, to reach the stage, it shares something of that work’s musical wit and craft. Weill’s opera, on the other hand, dates from the same period as Mahagonny and Dreigroschenoper, so at the height of his own powers. The music is actually more cutting than either of those two works, with more New Objectivity hard-edgedness, though it features what would be his first commercial hit, Angele’s Tango, played on a gramophone record at the opera’s climax.

Ulf Paulsen and Iordanka Derilova in Der Diktator
Doris Sophia Heinrichsen draws the threads of the two operas together skilfully. A simple set by Nicole Bergmann services tragedy and farce to equally good effect. Musically, the performance was very fine indeed, from the consummate singing of the cast to the vibrant and vital playing of the Anhalt Philharmonic in the pit under Daniel Carlberg’s expert baton. Ulf Paulsen played both the dictator and the tsar, pompously preening himself as the former (Mussolini was supposedly Krenek’s model), embarrassingly revealing himself as all too frail a human as the latter. As the love rivals in the Krenek and real and false photographers in the Weill, Iordanka Derilova and Stefanie Kunschke were a match for each other vocally, and the tenor of Albrecht Kludszuweit was particularly impressive as the blinded officer. It’s a shame that only two performances of this double-bill are scheduled – well worth catching if it returns to the repertoire.