The 'New Music Theater' Bug Multiplies At The Staatsoper : NPR FM Berlin Blog The Staatsoper's festival Infektion! continues this month at the Schiller Theater with a revival of Werner Henze's Phaedra.
NPR logo The 'New Music Theater' Bug Multiplies At The Staatsoper

The 'New Music Theater' Bug Multiplies At The Staatsoper

A revival of Phaedra opened at the Schiller Theater as part of the Infektion! "new music theater" festival. Ruth Walz/Staatsoper Unter den Liden hide caption

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Ruth Walz/Staatsoper Unter den Liden

A revival of Phaedra opened at the Schiller Theater as part of the Infektion! "new music theater" festival.

Ruth Walz/Staatsoper Unter den Liden

As the Staatsoper's festival Infektion! continues this month at the Schiller Theater, contemporary opera has enjoyed a shot in the arm as well as an opportunity for contemplation about its very definition.

Last week, an open symposium addressed the definition "new music theater," in a literal translation from the German, and the function it holds in society.

The complex nature of opera today—particularly with regard to musical, dramatic, and visual boundaries— became all the more apparent in subsequent performances of dramas by Hans Werner Henze, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Salvatore Sciarrino.

A revival of Henze's Phaedra, which premiered at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in 2007, revealed both the potential for new modes of presentation and the legacy of a composer whose style has evolved in depth and complexity since his first drama in the mid-twentieth century.

The "concert opera," as it was conceived by Henze and his librettist Christian Lehnert, draws upon Greek myth and Ovid's Metamorphoses to tell of Phaedra's deadly obsession for her stepson, Hippolyt, and his subsequent transformation into god of the forest.

The production by stage director Peter Mussbach and artist Olafur Eliasson, as seen on July 9, relocates the orchestra to a small stage at the center of the theater, creating an unusual intimacy with the audience.

The singers appear both oratorio-style in front of the musicians and on the main stage, which is connected by a catwalk.

Henze deploys a 24-piece orchestra of mostly winds, with intertwining textures that range from free-ranging tonality to sharp, penetrating lines of psychological complexity.

Wind blasts and percussion play a prominent role in the second act, with tango-like patterns emerging when Hippolyt forces himself upon Phaedra. As I was next to a contra-bassoonist, rumbling woodwinds plunged me into the pangs of Phaedra's destructive lust.

The music for Phaedra, while not always easy on the ear, created moments of intriguing beauty which were heightened by Eliasson's designs.

The Berlin-based artist's signature exploration of the natural elements came to great effect in the opening scene, with multiplying concentric circles of light against a dark stage descending the audience into the underworld. Slick, all-black costumes by Bernd Skoozig added a touch of post-modern disenchantment.

Eliasson's most powerful gesture was a reflective surface onstage mirroring the orchestra and the audience. Less convincing was a set design of refracted moving particles, representing the forest at the end of the opera, which threatened to submerge the production in a singular aesthetic that had little to do with any underlying narrative.

The cast gave a mostly convincing delivery within the confines of the semi-staging. Mezzo-soprano Natascha Petrinksy was a powerfully-voiced, relentlessly scheming Phaedra, while Anke Krabbe's luminous soprano created a pristinely amorous Aphrodite. Benjamin Hulett's tenor was sturdy but not so seductive in the role of Hippolyt.

The counter tenor Martin Wölfel gave an equally reliable but emotionally underwhelming performance as Artemis, goddess of the forest. Lauri Vasar brought a smooth baritone to the brief role of the resurrected Minotaur.

The Ensemble Modern, under the direction of Michael Boder, gave an elegant, precise account of Henze's score.

If Phaedra pushed the walls of the Schiller Theater to their absolute limit, a revival of two short monodramas, which originally inaugurated the adjacent Werkstatt for contemporary repertoire last fall, revealed the potential for increasing overlap between contemporary notions of music drama and visual art.

The small space of the Werkstatt was transformed into a performance installation for the first opera, Peter Maxwell Davies' Miss Donnithorne's Maggot, as seen on July 13.

The drama, with a libretto by Randolph Stow, is based upon the 19th-century story of an abandoned bride who locks herself in her house and goes mad.

Stage director Michael von zur Mühlen cased the protagonist in a cardboard house punctured with peepholes for the audience. Clusters of TV screens in all four corners of the room were the main looking glass for the action, which was filmed live from inside the chamber.

After a prelude of psychologically disturbed babble from an unknown woman onscreen, the music drama began. Soprano Hanna Dóra Sturludóttir sang in self-absorbed hysteria while frolicking with a mannequin head, guzzling red wine, cutting herself with a razor in the bathtub, and playing with a handy-cam. When the walls of her abode opened to the audience, she gave birth to a plastic baby painted reddish-brown and dropped it in a paper bag.

The production, while distasteful and full of the traits one comes to associate with gratuitous Regietheater, powerfully conveyed the estranged isolation and insanity of the title character. The setting also immersed the audience in the dehumanizing alienation and destructive media-gazing that may be eroding today's society.

Sturludóttir convincingly embodied the character in all her antics and managed to sing with smooth lyricism. Arno Waschk lead a chamber orchestra, hidden behind a gauzy white curtain on an elevated part of the room, through screeching strings, ghost-like piano runs, eerie chimes and metronomes ticking toward Miss Donnithorne's last hour.

After the cardboard was cleared away, the stage ceded with practically no pause to Salvatore Sciarrino's Infinito Nero, based upon the 15th-century mystic Maria Maddalenade'Pazzi, who made claims to experiences of religious ecstasy. Not that von zur Mühlen's reading is anything to show your Catholic grandmother.

While the TV screens switched to the interior of a church and a teenager who repented about his addiction to erotic programs, two stage workers duct-taped the soprano Sarah Maria Sun to a wooden plank, positioned as if about to be crucified.

The effect was striking as the board was raised vertically toward the ceiling. Hollow woodwind blows in Sciarrino's score conjured giant lungs breathing in and out. Sun's hushed vocal murmurs invoking religious transformation were nearly surreal. At times she broke out into a near-death gaze.

Yet rather than savor her chilling image and the subtle complexity of Sciarrino's music, von zur Mühlen chose to insert two silent actors who cover themselves and the crucified maiden with blue paint, pull out dildos from their flies, appear in nuns' habits, and crawl around in infantile shame. At one moment of pseudo-catharsis, while the music breaks out into percussive heartthrobs, the first actor hacks off his dildo with an ax.

One couldn't help but question the relevance of such adolescent displays, which seemingly hoped to add humor to an otherwise deeply introspective, spiritual journey. While sexual repression in the Catholic Church may be of topical interest, it did not shed any light on Sciarrino's opera. In fact the issue is entirely unrelated.

Perhaps some boundaries are there to be respected, even if sheer provocation may easily catch the attention of otherwise blasé audience members.