Cabaret by Kander and Ebb at the Reithalle. Photo: Christian Zach
Volume 2

The Munich Festival 2013

A Very Hot Summer in Munich’s Opera-Houses…

31 July 2013 was the hottest day ever in Munich! At Bayreuth—where some Perfect Wagnerites still wear tuxes—the argument against air-conditioning is that its installation would ruin the acoustics… But surely something can be done to improve upon the feeble gusts of cool air that now and again waft across the spectators in Munich’s Nationaltheater? Otherwise, it was wonderful to be back in Munich, enjoying innovative productions of war horse operas, on the occasion of two-hundredth anniversaries for both Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner.

It was the last festival for Kent Nagano, longtime General Music Director, who will be replaced by Kirill Petrenko, who dazzled Bayreuth audiences this past summer with his conducting of the problematic new Ring of Ex-DDR genius, Frank Castorf.

Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret

Joel Grey never came near the real decadence of Weimar-era Berlin that is so vividly suggested on the simple mirror-walled stage in Munich’s Reithalle. Both the boys and the girls—garishly made-up and nearly naked—look readily available for any kind of kinky fun you might have in mind. They can surely show you how to do things you had no idea decent Germans could even imagine. As the boys gripped and stroked their crotches, the girls shimmied in 1920s style and stuck out their tongues. Liza Minelli! Your Sally Bowles was a sentimental softie, compared to the dissolute and desperate Sally of the shattering Nadine Zeinti. Her final farewell is not just the end of the line, but the end of the world. The Conférencier of Dustin Smailes makes Joel Grey’s look like a pussy-cat in comparison. His Wilkommen is much more of a challenge than an invitation. As Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, those two aging love-birds—so memorably once played on Broadway by Lotte Lenya and Jack Gilford—that wonderful veteran actress, Gisela Ehrensperger, and Franz Wyzner were both superb and touching in their loss.

Of course, New Yorkers in Munich for the Opera Festival know all about the rise of the Nazis. As well as knowing various versions of Cabaret, both on Broadway and on the silver screen. But just imagine what a shock this staging was to German friends who had never before seen Cabaret or, for that matter, had not lived through the Reich that lasted from 1933 to 1945. When the genial Ernst Ludwig [Ferdinand Stahl]—who had been so helpful to the young American writer Cliff Bradshaw [Dominik Hees]—revealed his Swastika armband, there was an audible gasp. Even more horrifying for our friends was the very blond, very Aryan Hitler Jugend singing Tomorrow Belongs To Me. This was a period in German history that was blacked-out in Post-War West Germany.

For the Record: If you can go to Munich during the 2013-2014 Season, here are some of the Gärtnerplatz shows you will be able to see in the Reithalle, Circus Krone, the Carl-Orff-Saal, the Alte-Kongresshalle, the Prinzregententheater, or the Wittelsach Baroque-Court-Theatre, the Cuvilliéstheater: Jesus Christ Superstar, Aida, Der Mann von La Mancha, Semele, Tschitti-Tschitti Bäng-Bäng, Die Zirkusprinzessin, Der Flaschengeist, Jolanta, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Arsen—Ein Rokokothriller, and Berlin 1920—Ein Burleske.

Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Bavarian State Opera

Who would have guessed that Edward Hopper would become so essential in illustrating the agonies of those battling Genovese factions who populate Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra? If you still believe that the autocratic Fiesco—the historic Doge of Genoa—as well as the plebian pirate, Simon Boccanegra, belong somewhere back in the distant past of Northern Italy, then you have not seen the current production of Boccanegra at the Bavarian State Opera. Instead of being before a Palazzo in Genoa, we seem to be in the midst of a Gangsta-Gang somewhere in Depression-Era Brooklyn. Some of these heavies look like Russkis out in Bensonhurst. No, we are nowhere in Italy, then or now. We are smack in the middle of Edward Hopper land.

Fortunately for the extremely complicated plot, the difficulties about the lost child, the furious fathers, and too many lovers are only resolved after several hours of very good singing, notably by Zeljko Lucic [Simon], Krassimira Stoyanova [Amelia], and Ramon Vargas [Adorno]. It should be here noted that the ensemble, chorus, and orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper are generally regarded as the best in Germany, excepting only those of the Bayreuth Festival, but that’s only for five weeks in mid-summer.

Not only has director/designer Dmitri Tcherniakov put a period automobile center-stage—its parking-lights flashing furiously—but he has also dressed Adorno in racing-gear, having him arrive on the scene on his state-of-the-art motor-bike. Actually, Tcherniakov‘s costume designer, Elena Zaytseva, has had an easy job of it, for many in the chorus are wearing basic Depression-Era raincoats. They could even be mistaken for DDR East-Germans, on a Workers’ holiday in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint. Aside from a central scene that takes place in an immense but almost empty room—essentially a wall stretching across the stage, punctuated by a huge white window—we are in Hopper-land, including those famous Night-Owls at the soda counter! But, even in that enormous room, there’s a Hopper canvas on the endless wall! This is a co-production with ENO, the English National Opera, and it certainly has that ENO look.

Bertrand de Billy conducted, without making Verdi seem unduly depressing in this Depression-Era staging.

Simon Boccanegra at the Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo

Simon Boccanegra by Verdi,  directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo courtesy Baverische Staatsoper

Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto

In the complicated plot of Francesco Maria Piave, Rigoletto is supposed to be a hump-backed court jester, but, as visualized in the person of tenor Andrzej Dobber, he could be a middle-level office worker, the guy who will make those xeroxes for you. Instead of anything resembling the conventional outfit of a court jester, he’s wearing Chinos, with rolled-up sleeves on his conventional white shirt. Instead of anything remotely resembling Renaissance, 18th-Century, or modern Mantua—either interiors or exteriors—we have a stage filled with white bleachers, complete with a chorus in white, wearing what seem to be white masks. When the hapless Gilda is abducted from Rigoletto’s walled garden—you have to imagine this, or already have read the libretto—she is passed, hand-over-hand, down the bleachers by the masked men! The immense bleachers stretch right across the already broad stage of Munich’s Nationaltheater, but they do divide, when more intimacy is desired. That doesn’t really work, however, as a stage-filling gauzy white curtain turns the arena into a kind of concert venue for important arias, duets, and that famous Quartet.

At one point, there seemed to be an immense horse looming upstage behind the curtain, which seemed about to part, to reveal it. But then, the stage crew seemed to have decided not to bother with this special scenic effect, so I never discovered what that Thing really was. Or why it was even constructed and put on stage. Nonetheless, as Gilda, Patricia Cioffi was amazing, even with all that manhandling in the bleachers! Joseph Calleja was properly wicked as the lusty Duke, but was this naughty Mantovani really worth dying for? Árpád Schilling staged the work in the bleachers of Mártón Ágh. This Hungarian production team reminded us that Budapest is a long way off from Mantua, after all… The stalwart Marco Armiliato conducted, fortunately not from the bleachers, but the pit!

Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

It’s nice to be making this famous sea voyage on what appears to be an Art Deco Cunard Yacht. Nor have you set out on the Irish Sea without fashion accessories! That pussy-cat bag would make Prada so envious. Tristan is up in that deck-tent, shaving, no less. Has he no feelings? OK, so this is the Tristan vision of Peter Konwitschny [stage-director] and Johannes Leiacker [designer], dating from 1998, not from 1928…

In fact, once the girls and Tristan have landed, we seem to be in Maurice Sendak country: that thick forest is pure Sendak, although the crescent moon overhead seems stolen from Proctor and Gamble. Later, we are in a large room with flowered sofas and throw, pillows, which get thrown. Singing about love, Tristan and Isolde actually step down out of the stage box into almost utter blackness. Later, at Tristan’s castle, where he takes about forty-five minutes to die, there is an odd slide-show on the wall.

Kent Nagano—originally from Fresno, CA—conducted with vigor, ably assisting the valiant Tristan of Peter Seiffert and the devastating Isolde of Petra-Maria Schnitzer. René Pape was a magisterial King Mark. Not to overlook the vocal magic of Ekaterina Gubanova’s desperate Brangäne. Or the staying-power of the stalwart Kurwenal of Markus Eiche.

Richard Wagner’s Siegfried: Much Ado About Forging Nothung, With Dragon-Fafner a Mask of Red-Women?

In staging Richard Wagner’s Ring, less certainly can be more. The fantastic myth of the Niebelungen doesn’t need to be upstaged by tons of scenery and gratuitous special effects. Nor does Wagner’s majestic music need to be emphasized by bizarre decorative details. The new Frank Castorf Bayreuth Ring—as well as the Met’s cumbersome clanking metallic Robert Lepage incarnation—miss the mark by miles. And so does Munich’s new Ring

The third segment—Siegfried, new this year—repeats the relentless cuteness and busy-ness of the previous Rheingold and Die Walküre. Stage director Andreas Kriegenburg—together with his designers, Harald B. Thor, Andrea Schraad, and Stefan Bolliger—is determined that no major musical moment should occur without some kind of visual illustration or antic activity. While it is true that Siegfried cannot leave Mime’s Cave without re-forging his father’s shattered sword, Nothung, there is no reason to make a Cirque-du-Soleil Las-Vegas production out of this task. For some reason, the actual anvil and forge is enclosed in silver metal panels that can fly apart and come back together again. Which they do, with disturbing frequency… The bellows is immense, with a huge handle to power it. There are also back-up tire pumps… The sparks that Siegfried strikes are showers of glitter! But the big moment visually—when Siegfried strikes the anvil with the forged-sword—always occurs when the anvil breaks! That did not happen the night I saw Siegfried.

When Wotan—now transformed into The Wanderer—poses three questions for Mime, this still seems like musical/textual padding for spectators who didn’t get tickets for Rheingold and Walküre and need to be filled in on what has already happened, or what is foretold… How about great forest trees that are suggested by white-clad gymnasts clinging to rope grids! When the stage is spanned with what looks like a giant sack of carrots from Costco, we know the Dragon’s Lair is nearby. Fortunately, Fafner is not a Walt Disney dragon in this directorial vision. Instead, his head seems to be a mask—composed of rows of red hued-women—with fangs hanging down.

Munich’s General Music Director, Kent Nagano, conducted a generally Fangless-Performance, as Stephen Gould’s Siegfried valiantly kept hammering away at his sword shards. After all the visual fuss of the forging, the awakening of Brünnhilde [Catherine Naglestad] was a distinct let-down. Mime was sorely taxed in this staging, pulled this way and that, but he certainly sang well.

Siegfried. Photo: Statisterie der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Siegfried by Wagner, directed by Frank Castorf. Photo: Statisterie der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov

When I saw a large looming form begin to revolve—it looked rather like an immense ship—I had the awful sensation that I had seen this Boris in Munich in a previous season. I was sure I knew what would happen. Maybe I dreamt it? This is a new production, after all. The sides of this form lowered on cables, rather like one of those troop landing craft on Omaha Beach. The Kremlin lay beyond, but interior scenes with Czar Boris were in the box. No Coronation procession. No historic buildings. No romantic third act in Poland with the False Dimitri and the Polish Princess. Why was Boris’s presumed male heir played by what was clearly a young woman?

Nonetheless, Alexander Tsymbalyuk strongly sang and played a power-hungry but anxiety-ridden Boris, opposed by the intrigues of Prince Schuisky [Gerhard Siegel] and others. Kevin Connors played the Holy Fool, but I don’t remember him being shot in the head in previous productions. Still, this Boris was devised by the extremely AvantAvant-Garde director Calixto Bieito.His complicit designers were Rebecca Ringst, Ingo Krügler, and Michael Bauer.GMD Kent Nagano presided over the murder and mayhem.

George Benjamin’s Written on Skin

When you have a chorus of angels singing about cancelling flights at the international airport and erasing the car-park from the marketplace, you know you are in cultural difficulties. Especially if you expected George Benjamin’s new British opera to be about a fatal bout of Medieval Illumination.  Actually, the text is by Martin Crimp, but you just have to know they were in cahoots on this attempt to keep opera alive in our trying times.

The central story focuses on three people: The Protector, his Wife Agnès, and The Boy Illuminator, who was formerly an angel and becomes one again when the Protector murders him. The Protector apparently owns all the land as far as we can see. He also owns all the people who toil on it; the fruits of their labors; all the animals, fish and fowl; all the soil and all that lies under it. Most important of all: The Protector owns the lovely Agnès. She is not only his wife: she is his property, his chattel. He holds the power of life and death over her. As well as over all who dwell in his domains. In the handsome opera program, The Protector is said to be both wealthy and intelligent, but addicted to purity and violence. Well, there you have it!

Proud of his possessions and his familial heritage, The Protector engages The Boy—who proves to be an ingenious illuminator—to record on vellum his history and achievements. He also wants to punish his enemies—even posthumously—in pictures. Over time, The Boy seems to become part of the family, even sitting at table with them. As his pictorial saga progresses, he disarms the initial hostility of Agnès and they become lovers. This cannot end well, especially with the visit of Marie and John, sister and brother-in-law to Agnès. The Protector kills The Boy, then feeds his heart to Agnès, who then jumps out of the window, rather than let him terminate her personally. Not to worry: aside from The Protector and Agnès, they are all angels, and have come down from Heaven to give us this little sung show—with some handsome pictures! What seemed both bizarre and deliberately extraneous was having half the stage occupied by angel achivists who were busily arranging what appeared to be costume racks and props for the show below.

Despite the admirable efforts of Christopher Purves [Protector], Barbara Hannigan [Agnès], and Lestyn Davies [Boy], the Score was not compelling. For this spectator, the simple story and its elemental stage pictures were sufficient. This odd production may well have been the swan song of GMD Kent Nagano at the Bavarian State Opera. Oddly enough, the accompanying orchestra was not that of the Staatsoper, but an ensemble called Klangforum-Wien. This appears to have been a co-production of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, De Nederlandse Opera, Théâtre du Capitole, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden! Katie Mitchell staged, with setting and costumes by Vicki Mortimer.

Jörg Widmann’s Babylon [Summarized, but Not-Seen, Thanks to Austrian-Railways-Delays!]

There were only three scheduled performances of Babylon during the Munich Festival, although it was specially commissioned. It may well be that the producers needed to see if they could fill the seats for those evenings, before committing to more performances. But I didn’t get to see even one of the iterations on offer! Leaving the Bregenz Festival early in the morning of the Munich evening performance, an Austrian Express was delayed outside Lindau: we sat for what seemed hours, shunted aside as previously scheduled trains roared past us.

Fortunately, you can see some tidbits on the Staatsoper-website, as well as oddments elsewhere on the Internet. Even the production photos in the program are stunning: digitial design gone mad! How about a parade of bizarre monkeys? The Lions Gate comes to life? Talk about cuneiform and clay tablets! The central core of the program is a series of celluloid see-throughs. There are fantastic maps! Look! Here’s the fabled Hängende-Garten!Over here is the Ischtar-Tempel. Over there, the Marduk-Tempel, near the Gula-Tempel and the Ninurta-Tempel. Not to Ignore theSchamasch-Tempel, the Ninmach-Tempel, the Adad-Tempel, and the Belit-Nina-Tempel. At the very center, of course, is the mythical Tower of Babel, so inspiring to Renaissance painters. There’s even a small map, showing the distances—over various routes—back home to Jerusalem! Reading the fascinating and totally bizarre libretto in the program, I knew I’d missed a night to remember.

[A previous version of this article appeared on www.nytheatre-wire.com]

Glenn Loney is Professor Emeritus of Theatre at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is Senior Correspondent of nytheatre-wire.com and of nymuseums.com, as well as Founder/Editor of TheArtsArchive.com, for which he writes a monthly column: Arts-Rambles. An extended ArtsArchive-Website will soon be launched, with access to over a million INFOTOGRAPHY™ images from all over the world, plus a Loney Bookshelf, offering online some 26 Loney Titles of books out-of-print, never previously published, and ones newly written, such as Pioneer Dramas of the Golden-West, Overseas & Underpaid, Joe Orton Posts a Letter, Carl Orff Sourcebook, Miss Kate & LBJ, Documents of American-Theatre-History: 1945-85, Who Needs Theatre?

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