Industrial Revolution: Staatsoper Berlin Stages Premiere At The Kraftwerk

Al Gran Sole Carico D'Amore premieres at the Kraftwer.

Al Gran Sole Carico D'Amore premieres at the Kraftwer. Staatsoper Berlin hide caption

itoggle caption Staatsoper Berlin

Opera and industrial spaces seem like strange bedfellows: plush red seats and champagne on the one hand, towering concrete walls and remnants of exposed machinery on the other.

Not so for Staatsoper Intendant Jürgen Flimm, who transplanted an entire operation to the converted heating plant Kraftwerk for the Berlin premiere of Luigi Nono's "Al Gran Sole Carico d'Amore."

Limited by the small space of the Staatsoper's temporary home in the Schiller Theater while its 18th-century headquarters on the Boulevard Unter den Linden undergo renovation, Flimm, who staged the opera's German premiere in 1978, was in search of a space to accommodate a large-scale production by Katie Mitchell designed for the Salzburg Festspielhaus three years ago.

His team landed upon the Kraftwerk, an event space that is home to the techno club Tresor.

The opera crew built everything from an orchestra pit to dressing rooms, not forgetting details such as the chandeliers that hung from the rafters on the ground floor to the original opera curtain hung at the entrance to the 970-seat ad hoc theater, situated at the top of the building where a hydroelectric turbine once churned.

Nono's opera, as seen at the production's second run on March 3, brings together texts by Brecht, Che Guevara, Marx, and other revolutionaries to expose the human injustice that revolts around the world have failed to quell. Historical figures such as Louise Michel, a tireless champion of resistance to Prussian domination during the brief but volatile regime of the Pariser Commune, are emphasized along fictional characters such as the Russian mother from a novel by Maxim Gorky.

The work unfolds as a montage of protests and lamentations underscored by Nono's politically charged score. The brass blares and pleads against an indomitable battery of marching percussion. Atmospheric string textures, microtonal clouds, and live electronic bring momentary respite before Nono, who himself joined the Communist party in Italy, drives home his manifesto with unrestrained force. A quartet of sopranos, consistently hovering in a dauntingly high range, creates the vocal centerpiece, complimented by an alto, three male soloists, and full chorus.

Mitchell's staging adds a backdrop of unspoken theater vignettes that are recorded live and projected onto a large screen above the stage with digital manipulation that lends the images a vintage, almost painterly quality. The characters, all women in isolation, range from the prostitute Deola, a character in poetry by Cesare Pavese, to a mother in Turin during the turbulent factory strikes of the 1950s.

While the video provides an accessible dramatic context for "Al Gran Sole Carico d'Amore," in fact designated as an "azione scenica" (scenic action) rather than a full-blown opera, as well as filling the cavernous space of the Kraftwerk, many images are more distracting than illuminating. The final close-up image of a woman having a seizure on the kitchen floor after the death of her son caused some chuckles from the person in the seat next to me, not exactly the desired effect. The proliferation of fake blood was a further deterrence to the aesthetic, while other moments—such as when Deola, now pregnant, packs her suitcase and leaves behind her single bedroom—were moving in their stark simplicity. The video worked best together with isolated passages of live electronic.

The evening was guided with power and precision by Ingo Metzmacher, a new music specialist who conducted the world premiere of Mitchell's staging in Salzburg. The Staatskapelle was in top form, demonstrating unusual focus and precision. The singers gave an equally strong performance, with soprano TanjaAndrijic standing out for her full-bodied, even tone. Elin Rombo, who executed the brunt of the group's stratospheric vocalizing, sounded slightly fragile at the outset but stayed in an unblemished voice into the final scenes of the opera, which is no easy feat.

The baritone Christopher Purves gave a convincing account as Deola's customer in the second act, one of the work's more decisively operatic passages. Italian diction could have stood some improvement all around, but this hardly seemed a concern, especially as some spoken lines in the first act were translated into German with recordings of the original language projected through the sound system. The chorus dispatched its role admirably under Eberhard Friedrich, with some subtle theatrical touches by Mitchell that effectively integrated its presence into the action.

"Al Gran Sole Carico d'Amore" runs through March 11.

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