There's more where these came from. Peonies at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Which way is up? Climbing the Monument.
Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Staatoper unter den Linden, Berlin (seen on May 8) piqued my curiosity for the venerable production by Ruth Berghaus, in commedia dell' arte-inflected décor by the visionary Achim Freyer. Unveiled on November 21, 1968, the show has held the stage virtually without interruption ever since. And after 49 revivals in 51 seasons, it was still glittering like new-struck silver, fresh from the mint.
Rosina has a secret. Jennifer Rivera in the 2010 of the Berghaus Barber." Photo: © Monika Rittershaus
The curtain fell too soon, alas, as until well into the 20th century it always did, depriving Count Almaviva of the bravura aria "Cessa di più resistere," which adds seven minutes of romantic sprezzatura to the comic dénouement. In 1968, when the Berghaus Barbiere was new, no one on the scene could sing it and no one dared to try. In the wake of Juan Diego Flórez, it's in the wheelhouse of any self-respecting bel canto tenor, and I have no doubt that between the lyricism and the fireworks Maxim Mironov would have kept us hanging on every note. Berghaus didn't live to see the Count's rehabilitation, but I doubt that it would trouble her shade if a tactful director stepped in to restore her cuts. (Bartlett Sher, an eloquent spokesman for the Count's aria, which receives its due in his staging for the Met, attended the very performance I did. Was he thinking what I was thinking?)
But let's not dwell on a reservation. Along with Mironov, Marianne Crebassa's Rosina, and Björn Bürger's Figaro, the entire ensemble kept dispensing sheer bliss. Under Julien Salemkour's direction, the orchestra put extra wind in their sails every inch of the way. What a joy it was to see theatrics that did the same. If a night at the opera ever made me happier, I'd be hard pressed to tell you what it was.
Certainly not La Forza del Destino at Oper Frankfurt (May 26). New last season, Tobias Kratzer's production repurposed Verdi's gloomy epic as a takedown of White Supremacist America, from the Antebellum era through the Obama Administration by way of the Civil War, Jim Crow, and Vietnam. Painful stuff under the best of circumstances, whatever those might be—and for a white American abroad, exponentially so.
Wasting no time, Kratzer overlays the tempestuous overture with racist film clips of yesteryear (no sources were listed; think Birth of a Nation, Mr. Bojangles). At once methodical and eclectic to a fault, Kratzer strings Verdi's six scenes along the timeline of American injustice but stages each as its own free-standing exercise in theatrical style.
Big screen, little people: Scene 1 of Kratzer's "Forza" reduces the singers to insignificance. © Monika Rittershaus.
Who, though, is Leonora's hapless lover? Not Verdi's Don Alvaro, mixed-race last scion of Inca royalty, but instead, as nearly as I could tell, a runaway slave from some alternate Tara. From this conceit all else follows, and I'll say this for it: by contemporary standards, it's not much of a stretch.
The program book featured readings from Ta-Nehisi Coates and suchlike authors, as well as an in-depth interview with the director, whose first-rate intelligence is not in question. Plainly, he has lots on his mind, though how much of it pertains to the job at hand was another question. Onstage, meta to the max, the opening scene is served up two ways, as live action more or less in synch with a silent movie. The gigantic avatars onscreen are matched by race to the characters as Kratzer imagines them, whereas the identically dressed singers were chosen uniquely for their voices. The first cast, still partially in place on this occasion, fielded an African American soprano, Michelle Bradley, opposite a Caucasian tenor (reallyCaucasian, from Armenia), Hovhaness Ayvazyan. In future seasons, the constellation is virtually guaranteed to change.
Living dolls. Scene 2 of Kratzer's "Forza," noteworthy for oversize mock-papier-mâché heads of acoustically permeable painted wire mesh. © Monika Rittershaus
What template Kratzer had chosen for the monumental turning point of the tale, who knows. I can tell you that the scene was shattering to witness, partly for its own sake, partly because it blew Verdi's opera to smithereens. At this juncture, dressed in men's clothing, Leonora finds refuge at a Franciscan monastery where she has resolved to repent, alone, for the rest of her days. She confides in Padre Guardiano, who vows to keep her secret and convenes the brotherhood to call down damnation on any who pries into her mystery.
Burn, baby, burn. The male attire that's not. Scene 3 of Kratzer's KKK "Forza." See it and weep. © Monika Rittershaus
A heartbeat before the blackout, Leonora fled in horror, and I was tempted to do the same. Verdi made no secret of his hatred of ecclesiastical power (see Don Carlos, Aida). In Forza, he satirizes the lowly Friar Melitone, who is nosy, officious, lacking in charity, and given to petty jealousies. Yet the ray of peace that descends on Leonora in Padre Guardiano's severe, unsentimental, yet healing presence leaves no room for anticlerical critique. True enough, this is the last we see of her until the final act of the opera, two long scenes hence. At that time, we discover that love and conscience still plague her. Yet while it lasted, which is to say when we were there to see and hear it, the serenity was real. A director deaf to the music that tells us so needs to find some other way line of work.
By the sheer majesty of his singing in the part of Padre Guardiano, the German bass Andreas Bauer Kanabas salvaged just enough of the essence of the moment to expose the surrounding wreckage for what it was. As the camp follower Preziosilla, blessedly unencumbered by directorial concepts, Juditha Nagoyá pulled off a brilliant turn. Left by the production to twist in the wind, Bradley caught the ear now and again with a soft, floated high note, Ayvazyan with some vigorous attacks. As Leonora's vengeful brother Don Carlo di Vargas, Evez Abdulla struck neither false notes nor thrilling ones. Plunging into the overture with all hands on high alert, the conductor Gaetano Soliman made a strong first impression. From then on, it was Kratzer's ballgame, and woe betide the team.